Thoughts On Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 5]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 5

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 23rd November 2014

susan sontag photo for series

Weakness of American poetry — it’s anti-intellectual. Great poetry has ideas.
(6/14/76)

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Not only must I summon the courage to be a bad writer — I must dare to be truly unhappy. Desperate. And not save myself, short-circuit the despair.
By refusing to be as unhappy as I truly am, I deprive myself of subjects. I’ve nothing to write about. Every topic burns.
(6/19/76)

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The function of writing is to explode one’s subject — transform it into something else. (Writing is a series of transformations.)
Writing means converting one’s liabilities (limitations) into advantages. For example, I don’t love what I’m writing. Okay, then — that’s also a way to write, a way that can produce interesting results.
(11/5/76)

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‘All art aspires to the condition of music’ — this utterly nihilistic statement rests at the foundation of every moving camera style in the history of the medium. But it is a cliché, a 19th century cliché, less an aesthetic than a projection of an exhausted state of mind, less a world view than a world weariness, less a statement of vital forms than an expression of sterile decadence. There is quite another pov [point of view] about what ‘all art aspires to’ — that was Goethe’s, who put the primary art, the most aristocratic one, + the one art that cannot be made by the plebes but only gaped at with awe, + that art is architecture. Really great directors have this sense of architecture in their work — always expressive of immense line of energy, unstable + vital conduits of force.
(undated, 1977)

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

Sontag was quoted by Editor-in-Chief Brendan Lemon of Out magazine as saying “I grew up in a time when the modus operandi was the ‘open secret’. I’m used to that, and quite OK with it.” – Susan Sontag

gold fountain pen for sontag series

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Editor’s Corner: 101.2

Scribe smallElements of Style: A Guide to Wowing on the Literary Runway

Let us now praise little books.

Well, one particular little book.

I don’t know when I got my first copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. The fluid fiction of memory tells me it was in my distant tweeny past, around the time I decided to be a writer. That original volume, spine-cracked and finger-stained, has been swallowed by the years, replaced and swallowed again. And, no matter how many pages I’ve written myself or edited for others, time after time, I still take EofS’s current, dog-eared incarnation from the shelf and go back to basics.

For, like all art, writing begins as a craft and any craft takes time and work to learn well. Before we graduate to the swish-and-swirl aspects of literary style, to voice and hue, meter and pitch, we need to know our ABCs. Professor William Strunk Jr. was a master at teaching them, first to his charges at Cornell, and then – thanks to a savvy editor at Macmillan and former student E.B.White – to the rest of us.

With economic prose and extensive examples, Strunk lays out simple rules of usage, composition, and, yes, style. These are the elements we should all know inside and out; the foundation upon which we can build our literary/editorial bona fides. Granted, no rules or grammar books – even the best – are a substitute for original storytelling and compelling voice (we’ll get to that in future weeks), and inspiration, I’m afraid, is in the hands of the gods. Elements of Style will not make you a great writer. But it can make you a competent writer, a clean writer, someone who knows how to structure a sentence, to have subjects and objects harmonize, tenses agree, and pronouns cooperate with their antecedents. Someone who can recognize the difference between passive and active voice and knows that using ten-dollar words when fifty-cent ones will do just makes you sound pretentious as hell and pisses people off.

In short, studying EofS is homework for our craft. Do it well, and become a precise writer who can juggle words, sentences, whole paragraphs certain that, when they land on the page, they say exactly what you mean. Show the world that you take pride in your work, and, when you split your next infinitive, do it as conscious choice, not simply because you don’t know better.

So, go to your bookshelf – or favorite bookstore – take down that copy of The Elements of Style and dig in. (It is now available in e-book; you can even get a free version from Amazon’s Kindle Classics, sans E.B.’s lovely addendum.) There are far worse classrooms, I assure you.

50th

Next week, going beyond the elements for a closer look at style.

Good writing…

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I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   Shawn MacKENZIE - MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Thoughts On Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 4]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 4

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 16th November 2014

susan sontag photo for series

The solution to a problem — a story that you are unable to finish — is the problem. It isn’t as if the problem is one thing and the solution something else. The problem, properly understood = the solution. Instead of trying to hide or efface what limits the story, capitalize on that very limitation. State it, rail against it.
(7/31/73)

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Talking like touching
Writing like punching somebody
(8/14/73)

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To be a great writer:
know everything about adjectives and punctuation (rhythm)
have moral intelligence — which creates true authority in a writer
(2/6/74)

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‘Idea’ as method of instant transport away from direct experience, carrying a tiny suitcase.
‘Idea’ as a means of miniaturizing experience, rendering it portable. Someone who regularly has ideas is — by definition — homeless.
Intellectual is a refugee from experience. In Diaspora.
What’s wrong with direct experience? Why would one ever want to flee it, by transforming it — into a brick?
(7/25/74)

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

Her often provocative essays and speeches drew criticism. The New York Review of Books called her “one of the most influential critics of her generation.”

gold fountain pen for sontag series

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Editor’s Corner: 101.1

Editor’s Corner: 101.1
Written by Shawn MacKenzie
Post Tuesday 11th November 2014

Scribe smallFrom the Outside Looking In: Read.

I was recently approached about undertaking a weekly sojourn through all things editing, and I thought, sure, why not! Of course, on second thought, I realized that much of what I do as an editor is informed by my work as a writer – even when I edit others. As such, it is internalized and occasionally idiosyncratic, certainly not the sort of thing I normally ramble on about. So, bear with me; this should be an interesting journey for all of us.  — Shawn MacKENZIE

As an activity and a passion, editing, like writing, runs the gamut from macro to micro, from broad strokes on plot and character to the minutia of comma v. semi-colon.

Personally, I think it’s best to start big – so big that you’re not even dealing with your own work. To that end, my advice for today: Read.

Read everything and anything. The classics, the paper, your favorite guilty genre pleasure. Read Chekhov for dialogue, Christie for plot, dictionaries for joy, and Shakespeare because he’s Shakespeare! Whatever strikes your fancy. Become a sponge, absorbing what works and wringing out what doesn’t. Internalize the basics of tense agreement, point of view, and active v. passive voice. I assure you, it is a hell of a lot more fun this way than sitting through a grammar class (which may teach you the rules, but not necessarily how to use them, let alone break them).

When you’re read-out, treat yourself to a clear, inspired mind: go to a museum or cafe or wildlife park. Look at art and animals and people, how they shimmer and move and connect. For it is all connected, be it words on a page or life in the world. That is the heart of our storytelling. It is not only good for the spirit, but will help you return to your words with invigorated eyes.

And then, at the end of the day, if you’re not too weary, thumb through Strunk and White’s Elements of Style for good measure.
But more on that next Tuesday.

Every Tuesday Starting Tuesday November 11th 2013 “the secret keeper” Will Be Posting Sequential Archived Posts of the “Editor’s Corner” by Shawn MacKENZIE of MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest on ‘the secret keeper’

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I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond.   Shawn MacKENZIE - MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Thoughts On Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 3]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 3

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 9th November 2014

susan sontag photo for series

French, unlike English: a language that tends to break when you bend it.
(6/21/72)

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A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?
(7/5/72)

In ‘life,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my work. In ‘work,’ I don’t want to be reduced to my life.
My work is too austere
My life is a brutal anecdote
(3/15/73)

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The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart
[…]
The story must strike a nerve — in me. My heart should start pounding when I hear the first line in my head. I start trembling at the risk.
(6/27/73)

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I’m now writing out of rage — and I feel a kind of Nietzschean elation. It’s tonic. I roar with laughter. I want to denounce everybody, tell everybody off. I go to my typewriter as I might go to my machine gun. But I’m safe. I don’t have to face the consequences of ‘real’ aggressivity. I’m sending out colis piégés ['booby-trapped packages'] to the world.
(7/31/73)

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

Sontag was active in writing and speaking about, or traveling to, areas of conflict. She wrote extensively about photography, culture and media, AIDS and illness, human rights, and communism and leftist ideology.

gold fountain pen for sontag series

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Thoughts On Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 2]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 2

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 2nd November 2014

susan sontag photo for series

Greatest subject: self-seeking to transcend itself (Middlemarch, War and Peace)
Looking for self-transcendence (or metamorphosis) — the cloud of unknowing that allows perfect expressiveness (a secular myth for this)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)

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Kafka the last story-teller in ‘serious’ literature. Nobody has known where to go from there (except imitate him)
(undated loose sheets, 1965)

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John Dewey — ‘The ultimate function of literature is to appreciate the world, sometimes indignantly, sometimes sorrowfully, but best of all to praise when it is luckily possible.’
(1/25/65)

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I think I am ready to learn how to write. Think with words, not with ideas.
(3/5/70)

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‘Writing is only a substitute for living.’ — Florence Nightingale
(12/18/70)

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

Sontag became an international cultural and intellectual celebrity. Her best known works include On Photography, Against Interpretation, The Way We Live Now, Illness as Metaphor, Regarding the Pain of Others, The Volcano Lover and In America.

gold fountain pen for sontag series

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Thoughts On Writing – Susan Sontag [Series Pt 1]

a writer's word new 14th june 2014Thoughts on Writing

A Multiple Part Series – Part # 1

“Think With Words—Not Ideas”

by Susan Sontag

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 26th October 2014

susan sontag photo for series

I have a wider range as a human being than as a writer. (With some writers, it’s the opposite.) Only a fraction of me is available to be turned into art.
(8/8/64)

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Words have their own firmness. The word on the page may not reveal (may conceal) the flabbiness of the mind that conceived it. All thoughts are upgrades — get more clarity, definition, authority, by being in print — that is, detached from the person who thinks them.
A potential fraud — at least potential — in all writing.
(8/20/64)

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Writing is a little door. Some fantasies, like big pieces of furniture, won’t come through.
(8/30/64)

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If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.
(11/1/64)

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Science fiction —
Popular mythology for contemporary negative imagination about the impersonal
(11/1/64)

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A Short Note for the end of each part of this 8 part series.

Susan Sontag [January 16, 1933 – December 28, 2004] was an American writer and filmmaker, professor, literary icon, and political activist. Beginning with the publication of her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’”

gold fountain pen for sontag series

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