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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Against Tweetstorms

Twitter enforces parataxis. I don’t mean that in the sense that you absolutely can’t make an argument on Twitter, only that everything about the platform militates against it, and very few people have the commitment or the resourcefulness to push back. So a typical tweetstorm, even when it’s trying to make a case for something, even when it needs to be an argument and its author wants it to be an argument, isn’t an argument: it’s a series of disconnected assertions, effectively no more than And … And … And…. I think this is enforced not primarily by the 140-character limit itself, but more by the tweeter’s awareness that each tweet will be read individually, and retweeted individually, losing any context. So the tweeter tries to make each tweet as self-contained as possible, forgoing syntactic relations and complications.

Moreover, even a lengthy tweetstorm, by tweetstorm standards, isn’t long enough to develop an argument properly. (You’d need to use seven or eight tweets just for my previous paragraph, depending on your strategy for connecting the tweets. This whole post? Maybe 50 tweets. Who does 50-tweet storms?)

So what does this atomization of thought remind me of? Biblical proof-texting, that’s what. The founders of Twitter are to our discursive culture what Robert Estienne — the guy who divided the Bible up into verses — is to biblical interpretation. Is it possible, when faced with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians divided into verses, to keep clearly in mind the larger dialectical structure of his exposition? Sure. But it’s very hard, as generations of Christians who think that they can settle an argument by quoting a verse, a verse that might not even be a complete sentence, have demonstrated to us all. Becoming habituated to tweet-sized chunks of thought is damaging to one’s grasp of theology and social issues alike.

All this is why I think people who have interesting and even slightly complicated things to say should get off Twitter and get onto a blog, or Medium, or something — any venue that allows extended prose sequences and therefore full-blown syntaxis. Of course, in other contexts, Twitter — with its enforcement of linguistic and argumentative simplicity, its encouragement of unsequenced and disconnected thoughts — might be just the thing you need. If you want to be President of the United States, for example.

Alan Jacobs

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If you’re more interested in what you’re saying than the person listening to you is, you’re the definition of a boring person.

— From one of David Foster Wallace’s creative writing classes as reported by Mac Barnett

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I recently finished Teaching a Stone to Talk, my introduction to Annie Dillard. It was a fascinating excursion. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has now moved higher up on my “To Read” list. If you’re unfamiliar with Dillard, here’s a good description from Sam Anderson’s review of The Abundance:

It’s unclear what to call Annie Dillard, where to shelve her. Over more than 40 years, she has been, sometimes all at once, a poet, essayist, novelist, humorist, naturalist, critic, theologian, collagist and full-throated singer of mystic incantations. Instead of being any particular kind of writer, she is, flagrantly, a consciousness — an abstract, all-encompassing energy field that inhabits a given piece of writing the way sunlight clings to a rock: delicately but with absolute force, always leaving a shadow behind. This is an essential part of what it means to be human, this shifting between the transcendent self and the contingent world, the ecstasy and the dental bill. We all do some version of it, all the time. But Dillard does it more insistently.

Dillard began publishing books in 1974. ‘‘Tickets for a Prayer Wheel,’’ a small collection of poems, was followed immediately by ‘‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,’’ a long nonfictional account of her experience embedding, Thoreau-style, for a year of close observation of the titular waterway in Virginia. ‘‘Pilgrim’’ won the Pulitzer Prize and unleashed upon the world Dillard’s radical style: prose right on the border of poetry, dense with dazzling effects — strong metaphors, heavy rhythms, bold verbs, sudden parables, outlandish facts harvested from the darkest corners of the library. From the start, this has been Dillard’s mission: to crowbar surprise, sentence by sentence, into all the tiny gaps of our ordinary experience.

Above all, Dillard refuses to fall into traditional expository rhythms, to calm down, to be normal, to proceed with caution. She feels driven, always, to summon revelations out of nothing — to ‘‘call for fireworks, with only a ballpoint pen.’’

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Unlike the visual or literary arts, music seems to be impossible to describe in words — we’re forced to choose between the senselessly subjective and the incomprehensibly technical. Rutgers philosopher Peter Kivy cataloged four common types of music criticism:

  • Biographical: a description of the composer rather than his music. “We are allowed to gaze upon a deeply agitated life, that seeks, with strong endeavour, to support itself at the high level of the day.”
  • Autobiographical: a description of the critic’s impressions rather than the music. “I closed my eyes, and whilst listening to the divine gavotte … I seemed to be surrounded on all sides by enfolding arms, adorable, intertwining feet, floating hair, shining eyes, and intoxicating smiles.”
  • Emotive: a subjective description of emotions in composers or listeners. “The first episode is a regular trio in the major mode, beginning in consolation and twice bursting into triumph.”
  • Technical: the coldly clinical: “The joint between the second movement and the third can hang on the progression D-B♭-B♮, which is parallel to F-D♭-D♮ between the first and second.”

There just doesn’t seem to be an adequate way to convey the experience of hearing a piece of music without actually playing it for someone. “Description of music is in a way unique,” Kivy writes. “When it is understandable to the nonmusician, it is cried down as nonsense by the contemporary musician. And when the musician or musical scholar turn their hands to it these days, likely as not the non-musician finds it as mysterious as the Cabala, and about as interesting as a treatise on sewage disposal.”

Futility Closet

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Read good writing, and don’t live in the present. Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches. Check out the bestseller list for April 1935 or August 1978 if you don’t believe me. Originality is partly a matter of having your own influences: read evolutionary biology textbooks or the Old Testament, find your metaphors where no one’s looking, don’t belong. Or belong to the other world that is not quite this one, the world from which you send back your messages.

Rebecca Solnit

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The best style attracts least attention to itself, and none but the critical observer is apt to appreciate its excellence, most men giving credit solely to the matter, and having no idea how much the manner has contributed to attract and impress them.

— John Broadus, quoted by Doug Wilson in Writers to Read: Nine Names That Belong on Your Bookshelf 

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Scott Alexander on the distinction between “pulling goals” and “pushing goals”:

A pulling goal is when you want to achieve something, so you come up with a plan and a structure. For example, you want to cure cancer, so you become a biologist and set up a lab and do cancer research. …

A pushing goal is when you have a plan and a structure, and you’re trying to figure out what to do with it. For example, you’re studying biology in college, your professor says you need to do a research project to graduate, and so you start looking for research to do. You already know the plan – you’re going to get books, maybe use a lab, do biology-ish things, and end up with a finished report which is twenty pages double-spaced. All you need to figure out is what you’re going to select as the nominal point of the activity.

If I have to write a report on a topic I don’t care about, then even if I’m really trying to do a good job, it’s not going to be as good as something I actually want to write about. Sometimes I try to solve this by making lists of things I want to pull, then using them when the appropriate pushing situation comes up. For example, when I knew I would be assigned research projects and writing assignments on a regular basis, whenever I thought of something I wanted to research or write, I wrote it down, then consulted the list when I needed it. I have a similar list of interesting things to work into stories.

 

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