Doug Bruns

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Writers on Reading

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writers, Writing on February 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

It strikes me as cheap and lazy to happen across a page of quotes, a quote being the fastest exit on the highway such that you don’t have to drive any longer. Despite my distrust of the quote, I enjoy reading them. And, yes, I plug them in with abandon, being if nothing else, too often cheap and lazy. Montaigne said somewhere that he includes a quote in his work because someone said previously better what he stuggles to say now. Or something like that, I should look up it.

So, given reading as a subject, a worthy subject we often consider here at “…the house…“, I have transcribed below quotes on the subject from those who know it best, writers. I hope you enjoy.

Truman Capote:

I have a passion for newspapers…read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions of several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at the newstands. I average about five books a week…the normal length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies.

John Barth:

The great guides were the books I discovered in the Johns Hopkins Library, where my student job was to file books away. One was more or less encouraged to take a cart of books and go back into the stacks and not come out for seven or eight hours. So I read what I was filing. My great teachers (the best thing that can happen to a writer) were Schederazade, Homer, Virgil, and Boccaccio; also the great Sanskrit taletellers. I was impressed forever with the width as well as the depth of literature–just what a kid from the sticks, from the swamp, in my case, needed.

John Dos Passos:

[Hemingway] and I used to read the Bible to each other. He began it. We read separate little scenes. From Kings, Chronicles. We didn’t make anything out of it–the reading–but Ernest at that time talked a lot about style. He was crazy about Stephen Crane’s The Blue HotelIt affected him very much. I was very much taken with him. He took me around to Gertrude Stein’s. I wasn’t quite at home there. A Buddha sitting up there, surveying us. Ernest was much less noisy then than he was in later life. He felt such people were instructive.

Gabriel García Márquez:

One night [at college] a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went bck to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed, I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect….” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.

Susan Sontag:

Well, literature does educate us about life. I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I’m thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.

Katherine Anne Porter:

All the old houses that I knew when I was a child were full of books, bought generation after generation by members of the family. Everyone was literate as a matter of course. Nobody told you to read this or not to read that. It was there to read, and we read. I grew up in a sort of mélange. I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets when I was thirteen years old, and I’m perfectly certain that they made the most profound impression upon me of anything I every read….We had a very good library of–well, you might say secular philosophers. I was incredibly influenced by Montaigne when I was very young. And one day when I was about fourteen, my father led me up to a great big line of books and said, “Why don’t you read this? It’ll knock some of the nonsense out of you!” It happened to be the entire set of Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary with notes by Smollett. And I plowed through it; it took me about five years.

E.B. White:

I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read….It is a matter of some embarrassment to me that I have never read Joyce and a dozen other writers who have changed the face of literature. But there you are. I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.

Don DeLillo:

When I was eighteen, I got a summer job as a play-ground attendant–a parkie. And I was told to wear a white T-shirt and brown pants and brown shoes and a whistle around my neck–which they provided, the whistle. But I never acquired the rest of the outfit. I wrote blue jeans and checkered shirts and kept the whistle in my picket and just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen. And this is where I read Faulker, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. And got paid for it. And then James Joyce, and it was through Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a life and a history. And I’d look at a sentence in Ulysses or in Moby Dick or in Hemingway–maybe I hadn’t gotten to Ulysses at that point, it was Portrait of the Artistbut certainly Hemingway and the water that was clear and swiftly moving and the way the troops went marching down the road and raised dust that powdered the leaves of the trees. All this in a playground in the Bronx.

Thanks for reading.

d

Thursday is Theme Day: Hemingway

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on January 24, 2013 at 6:00 am
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Yousuf Karsh’s famous portrait of Papa Hemingway

The (new) plan is to program Thursdays around a person, a thinker, writer, philosopher, a creative genius, a traveler–a person whose life was (or perhaps is) about the stuff that matters*–share some quotes,  lift a few words from a speech or lecture, perhaps recommend a few books by or about. In other words, on Thursdays, we’ll turn the podium over to an individual “the house” members might be interested in. That way you’ll get a break from my incessant navel gazing and auto-biographical-slash-memoir ramblings. (I hate the ungrammatical “/”.) Okay? I’ll try to bring you something fresh, and avoid the tired cut-and-paste lame Wikipedia entry.

Today we will begin the series with Mr. Hemingway (1899-1961).

To weigh in just a moment here (so difficult keeping my mouth shut!): I am, like so many others, more a fan of the man’s life than I am ofimgres his work. Of course Hemingway left us great writing. I am particularly fond, as I’ve mentioned before, of A Movable Feast. And of course the stories. The great short stories–marvelous stuff, indeed. But it is the life that has the grip on my imagination. (He was life outsized,  the Lady Gaga of his era.) He was no Montaigne; he did not talk about how to live outright, he showed us–at least his painful, dangerous, depressed-manic, genius version of life. So here are a few of Ernest Hemingway’s thoughts.

Oh hell…when I get excited it is difficult to stay with the program. Let’s first set this up with a quote from Joan Didion. We did just talk about her last week. When asked who most influenced her, Ms. Didion said:

I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time….I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.

Now on to Papa and his work habits:

imgres-4When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but fulling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Once, when asked about his style (of writing), Papa replied:

That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write. I might say that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardness in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made. Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness. Then they are not so perceptible. When they show so very awkwardly people think these awkwardnesses are the style and many copy them. This is regrettable.

When talking about what writers he read, Hemingway launched into a who’s-who of influences:imgres-3

Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Vergil, Tintoretto, Hieronymus, Bosch, Brueghel, Patinir, Goya, Giotto, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, San Juan de la Cruz, Góngora–it would take a day to remember everyone. Then it would sound as though I were claiming an erudition I did not possess instead of trying to remember all the people who have been an influence on my life and work. This isn’t an old dull question. It is a very good but a solemn question and requires an examination of conscience. I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.

Hemingway & Gellhorn--the movie.

Hemingway & Gellhorn–the movie.

I’ve read a lot of Hemingway, but it is likely true that I have read more about him than by him. The great biography by Hemingway associate, Carlos Baker, is definitive. (Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, called it “the King James Version” of Hemingway’s life. Not everyone thought so highly of the book. Truman Capote said, “The Baker book was bad all the way through. It was dull, it was uninteresting, it was badly put together.” ) There are many others–at last count over 500!–more or less of value.  For me, however, one of the most interesting books about Hemingway is Denis Brian’s, The True Gen. It’s a collection of memories and reminiscences from friends, lovers, enemies, and wives. It’s heavy on gossip, but rounded out the man in a way I found compelling and brimming with insight.

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*If there was a tag line to “…the house…” it would be, We think about the stuff that matters. But wait!– whether you know it or not, we have a tag line, A Journal of Life Pursued. Can one have too many tag lines? Too many interests?

Ray Bradbury, Nietzsche, a New Year, and How to Live. Whew!

In Books, Creativity, Curiosity, Happiness, Life, Literature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writers, Writing on December 31, 2012 at 7:22 am

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Did you read the Sunday Time’s magazine last Sunday? It is the annual “The Lives They Lived” issue. As you might imagine, for a guy who’s spent a lot of time working on the project How Best To Live, this issue is always and annually most welcome. I don’t think one has to lead a life of pronounced accomplishment to live the best life, but for a lot of people, people far more motivated than I am, accomplishment is often the gauge of their existence.

There is one life in particular I want to share with you. Ray Bradbury (b. 1920). Here is the piece in full:

Shortly before his 90th birthday, when asked which moment of his life he’d return to were time travel possible, Ray Bradbury told his interviewer: “Every. Single. Moment. Every single moment of my life has been incredible. I’ve loved it, I’ve savored it, it’s been beautiful–because I’ve remained a boy” Bradbury was a rare and necessary antidote to the tortured-genius myth–that toxic cultural narrative that requires great creators to suffer lest their work have no depth, no gravitas, no legacy.

Bradbury left high school with plans of going to college, but no money. So he set out to educate himself by going to the library three days a week, a regimen he continued for 10 years, never romanticizing poverty or the so-called writer’s life. Instead, he celebrated the joy of writing itself. In 1951, living in Los Angels with his wife and two infant daughters, he got a bag of dimes and rented a typewriter in the U.C.L.A. basement for 10 cents an hour. He wrote “Fahrenheit 451” for $9.80.

His secret? “You remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past–you just explode.”

Two and half years ago I posted a note about the biography I’d read of Nietzsche by Julian Young. In that post I quoted the opening paragraph. I’m posting it again–the paragraph–because I think it the perfect end piece to the Bradbury life we’re considering.

Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s fee, shout “Da capo!–Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning!–to “the whole play and performance.” In perfect health one would “crave nothing more fervently” than the “eternal return” of one’s life throughout infinite time–not the expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful.

So the process continues, this business of how best to live. Why should a new year be any different?

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What is going on here? A couple of posts since shuttering …the house… Are we back together, the first breakup never lasting? I don’t know quite honestly. I have missed sharing my thoughts and observations, that is true. And something is nagging me. I don’t know what, exactly, but it brought me back here.

I’m not going to analyze it. Going forward (with life, the big picture, that is) I wish to make fewer plans, establish fewer goals, make fewer commitments. In summary, I just want to live as best I am able in this moment. I’ll never be the boy Bradbury claimed to be. Nor can I say with Nietzsche that I would do it all again without editing. But those are lessons and I value them–lessons I wish to better incorporate.

I do hope our paths cross again, you, dear reader, and me. I so enjoy your company.

Happy New Year.

“Inspiration is for amateurs…”

In Creativity, Writers, Writing on April 2, 2012 at 6:20 am

“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s the artist Chuck Close. I remembered this as I sat down to my computer, lifted my fingers over the keyboard and stared at the screen. After a bit I went over to Facebook, then scanned my RSS reader, came back to the blank screen, stood up, walked around some, looked out the window a while, sat back down and typed the Close quote.

I’m a creature of habit. I get up with the sun, drink my coffee, have breakfast, walk my dog, workout, read, have lunch, then I sit down for an afternoon of writing. I am usually at my desk by one o’clock and leave around four or five. Sometimes I get something of value, sometimes not. Regardless, I work. Mr. Close is a creative genius–and he works. I’m far from a creative genius so I must work that much the harder. After time, I’ve found, the work adds up and pays off. Put in the time and you will be rewarded. Wait for inspiration and you…wait. One hundred-fifty years before Chuck Close, Émile Zola said, “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”

I am fascinated by lives slouching toward the creative. I want to know who did the work and how it was done. I turn to biography, autobiography and memoir when in this mood.

I’ve pulled a few books off my shelves, books that represent some of the creative lives I most admire. I thought you might enjoy some of the titles. For fun, I’ve included the first sentence to each. Here goes, in no specific order.

One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty. “In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.”

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov. “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

Genius, The Life and Science of Richard Feyman, by James Gleick. “Nothing is certain.”

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein. “I was born in San Francisco, California.” (Not an autobiography, nor a biography. That’s Gertrude Stein for you. Yet a wonderful look at the creative life.)

James Joyce, by Richard Ellmann, “Stephen Dedalus said the family was a net which he would fly past, but James Joyce chose rather to entangle himself and his works in it. (This is the definitive biography–and perhaps the best example–next to Boswell, of course–of the art of the genre.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk. “The figure of Ludwig Wittgenstein exerts a very special fascination that is not wholly explained by the enormous influence he has had on the development of philosophy this century.”

A Movable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway. “When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely.” (A memoir by which to measure all memoir. This is my favorite Hemingway.)

Diane Arbus, by Patricia Bosworth. “As a teenager Diane Arbus used to stand on the window ledge of her parents’ apartment at the San Remo, eleven stores above Central Park West.” (This biography depicts the most unsettling and frenetic portrait of creative genius I can recall reading.)

Off to the Side, by Jim Harrison. “Norma Olivia Walgren met Winfield Sprague Harrion in 1933 at the River Gardens, a dance hall just north of Big Rapids, Michigan, on the banks of the Muskeon River.” (Harrison, my favorite living American writer.)

Self-Consciousness, memoirs by John Updike. “Had not my twenty-five-year-old daughter undertipped the airline porter in Boston, our luggage might have shown up on the carrousel in Allentown that April afternoon in 1980, and I would not have spent an evening walking the sidewalks of Shillington, Pennsylavnia, searching for the meaning of my existence as once I had scanned those same sidewalks for pennies.” (That’s such a lovely first sentence, maybe a perfect sentence.)

Bruce Chatwin, a biography by Nicholas Shakespeare. “On February 1984, an Englishman with a rucksack and walking-boots strides into a bungalow in the Irene district of Pretoria.” (Chatwin casts a huge influence over me. I’ll write about him at a later date.)

Friedrich Nietzsche, a Philosophical Biography by Julian Young. “Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s feet, shout ‘Da capo!’–Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning!’–to ‘the whole play and performance’.”

I’m not sure this constitutes “work” as Mr. Close meant it. But it must suffice for now.

The Philosophy of Groundhog Day

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on February 29, 2012 at 6:54 am

Do you read The Stone, the weekly New York Times column on philosophy? It’s not so much about philosophy, as it is a column written by contemporary philosophers, using the tools of philosophy. Here’s how the Times’s header puts it: The Stone features the writing of contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless. The column by-passes much of the modern tedium that has smothered the discipline. You won’t find a discussion on analytic philosophy or logical positivism, fortunately. Rather, as in today’s column, you might find a discussion on the philosophy behind Groundhog Day, the movie.

The film was invoked in today’s piece because the author was exploring the relationship between love and the future. The idea being that for love to flourish there must exist trust in the potential of the future. “The intensity we associate with romantic love requires a future that can allow its elaboration,” writes Todd May, of Clemson, in today’s column, Love and Death.

The column begins with an idea I’ve been revisiting recently.  Early in the piece, while on the topic of the movie, Professor May writes, “It seems that the Nietzschean test of eternal return, insofar as it is played out in Punxsutawney, yields not an overman but a man of decency.” It’s this “test of eternal return,” that I keep kicking up and want to talk about. (I briefly touched on this subject in a previous post, Da Capo.)

Here’s the back-story: It is the summer of 1881 and Friedrich Nietzsche is reaching the maturity of his thinking. He has an epiphany. He calls it The Test of Eternal Return. He said this about that moment:

…the basic conception, the idea of the eternal return, the highest formula of affirmation that can possibly be attained,…was jotted down on a piece of paper….I was that day walking through the woods….I stopped beside a mighty pyramidal block of stone which reared itself up…It was there that this thought came to me.

As an aside, note that the thought came to him while he was walking. Walking, in my study of the history of ideas, triggers more profundity than any other activity. Want to be a genius? Go for a stroll. (I develop this thought in an essay, Metaphor : On Walking, published at The Nervous Breakdown.)

The idea of eternal return is central to Milan Kundera‘s The Incredible Lightness of Being, by the way. Here’s the concept as spelled out by Nietzsche biographer Julian Young:

“…were one to come to believe that whatever one did next would be repeated throughout all eternity the result would be to attach incredible importance–‘weight’, ‘gravity’–to each and every action one performed. If one responded this way to eternal return the effect would be to eliminate all cowardice, compromise, and evasion. One would begin to live with incredible intensity.”

The goal of existence, as Nietzsche saw it, is to “become what one is.” (Freud, who admired Nietzsche, hi-jacked this notion.) The tool to becoming what one is, is the test of eternal return. With a nod to Bill Murray, the challenge of life is to be found in the test of repetition. Does this action or thought or activity or behavior hold up to the challenge of living it repetitively through all eternity? No? Yes? I think of the test as a filter through which only authenticity can pass.

Class dismissed.