Homogenized by Highways

Sandro said highways primed us for a separation from place, from actual life. The autostrada replaced life with road signs and place names. A white background and black lettering. MILANO. A reduction, Sandro said, to nothing but names. 
“No different than here,” I said. “You might as well deplore all highways.” 
He concealed it was true, but said America was supposed to be a place ruined and homogenized by highways, that that was its unique character, crass and vulgar sameness.

- from The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner

Success According to Giddle

Giddle treated them with patient indifference. They ordered hamburgers and coffee, always the same thing, and she attended them last, gave them lousy service. That was yet another thing I misread, Giddle’s indifference to them. I attributed it to her general feeling in regard to the art world - that part of it where people made art, sold the art, got in return money, fame, recognition. Success was highly overrated, according to Giddle. “Anyone can be a success,” she said “It’s so much more interesting to not want that."

- from The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner

The Answers Lie in Silence

Each Tuesday morning, he would close his study door and sit down to write the "Notes and Comment" page for The New Yorker. The task was familiar to him -he was required to file a few hundred words of editorial or personal commentary on some topic in or out of the news that week- but the sounds of his typewriter from his room came in hesitant bursts, with long silences in between. 

- Roger Angell on his stepfather, E. B. White, from the forward to the fourth edition of The Elements of Style.

Bibliomemoir: The Seam Between Reading and Living

Bibliomemoir is a word I never used, never wrote until this sentence. It was defined beautifully by Joyce Carol Oates as “a subspecies of literature combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography.” Put another way, it is defining or giving meaning to a life through reading, and then writing about that reading. There is probably a seam between the reading and the living, but as an editor I could never find it.

- The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers, Terry McDonell

Artist as Sieve

An artist is "a kind of synthesis, a sounding board, a mirror, a sieve ... an instrument .... and is not as much the master of his craft and his trade as is a man trained in abstract thought, in criticism, in philosophy, a man who can deal with philosophical and abstract ideas."

The Collected Essays and Occasional Writing of Katherine Anne Porter

The Worldly-Wise Untraveled

Dante never left Italy and Shakespeare never left England. We call to mind a few house-bound women -geniuses too- Jane Austen, Emily Brönte, Emily Dickinson. 

- The Collected Essays and Occasional Writing of Katherine Anne Porter

The Alchemy of Length

None of this matters if the piece is good—and that’s determined by voice and narrative, not length. Going long is always more ambitious and usually more fun. This was true before lengthy pieces became “creative nonfiction” or “narrative journalism,” and it is true now that we’ve finally debunked the simple-minded Web assumption that no one will screen-read anything longer than a news capsule. No writer I ever edited wanted to go short, anyway. Neither do I, but I also know that the best pieces seem to find their own length. That’s the alchemy.

- Terry McDonell, The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers

The Private Thrill

Depending on how well you wrote and how often you changed jobs or assignments, other writers came in and out of your life. Some of them were already famous and others would be soon, but celebrity didn’t matter because you knew something together—the private thrill that comes from writing a clear and unique sentence. The craft of it. James Salter liked to “rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them.” Writing is exactly that, and there is no work like it because it is so complicated to know when you are done. Riffing about writing journalism, Renata Adler wrote, in her novel Speedboat, about giving “a piece of sugar to a raccoon, which in its odd fastidiousness would wash that sugar in a brook till there was nothing left.

- Terry McDonell, The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers

Out of the Landscape

I like to hear and smell the countryside, the land my characters inhabit ... I don’t want these characters to step off the page, I want them to step out of the landscape.

- Peter Matthiessen in Terry McDonell's, The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers

Ed Abbey's Most Marvelous Find

… I now find the most marvelous things in the everyday, the ordinary, the common, the simple and tangible. For example: one cloud floating over one mountain.

- In a letter from Ed to Karen Evans, as found in Terry McDonell's The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers

The Herculean, Ephemeral Work

Nothing is more ephemeral than words. Moving them from the mind of a writer to the mind of a reader is one of the most elusive and difficult undertakings ever to challenge the human intelligence. This is what being an editor is all about.

- Norman Cousins in Terry McDonell's The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers

The Writer: Enabling Extraordinary Consciousness

TG: You know, the characters you write about are really not extraordinary people, right? ... They're interesting, ordinary people. But, and I'm not saying this just to flatter you, I think you're an extraordinary writer, and therefore when you're writing about these kind of interesting, ordinary people, they are somehow able to think in extraordinary ways. Do you know what I mean? I think your characters are able to think more clearly and eloquently than their real-life counterparts could, because you're putting the words in their mouths.

MG: Well, I think that’s the difference between thinking eloquently and speaking eloquently, and that’s what a writer does. That is the gift that we have. I’m not convinced that many people aren't thinking extraordinary thoughts; they simply don’t have the facility to write them or even speak them. It’s something that growing up working-class as I did …. you really understand that occasionally people who were enormously inarticulate and spoke seventy years of cliches will say a few extraordinary sentences, and you realise that in that inner life there might have been a lot of quite remarkable things that were never able to be said. Everybody dreams, for example; nobody has boring dreams. If anybody told you their dreams, they’re full of details which are highly imaginative.

TG: So you kind of feel that what you could do is translate those thoughts into words.

MG: Yeah, I think that’s the great lesson of Joyce’s Ulysses. I mean, you know, Leopold Bloom was an ordinary schmuck in Dublin; he wasn’t doing very well. And the entire riches of English literature and English language are put at his disposal through Joyce, and you get this extraordinary consciousness. And I think that is the task of a writer, to give articulation to what is buried and yet quite rich in, I believe, most people.

- from an interview with Mary Gordon by Terry Gross, Fresh Air


Eternity of the Instant

He ordered a cup of coffee, slowly spooned sugar into it, tasted it (a pleasure that had been forbidden him in the clinic), and thought, while he stroked the cat's black fur, that this contact was illusory, that he and the cat were separated as though by a pane of glass, because man lives in time, in successiveness, while the magical animal lives in the present, in the eternity of the instant. 

- Borges, "The South" from Collection Fictions

The Moments That Possess Me

These are the moments that possess the writer, not the lover, and which live on perpetually. Once can return to them time and time again in memory, or use them as a fund upon which to build the part of one's life which is writing. 

- Lawrence Durrell, Justine

The Solace of Art

I spoke of the uselessness of art but added nothing truthful about its consolations. The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this - that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality by reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side. Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold - the meaning of the pattern. For us artists there waits the joyous compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life; in this way, not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfil it in its true potential - the imagination. 

- Justine, Lawrence Durrell 

Durrell Threads the Needle

  • Not to be known always wounds. 
  • We went from room to room, fracturing the silences.
  • His heart withered in him and he has been left with the five senses, like pieces of a broken wineglass. 
  • Not to care about gain, that is what Alexandria recognises as madness. 
  • ... rocked upon the oceanic splendors of a language she would never know. 
  • I want to return to my farmhouse in Normandy heart-whole. 
  • At last she goes softly, reluctantly, circumspectly int the lighted world with a little sigh. 
  • ... etiolated flowers of afternoons spent in anguish, tossing upon ugly beds, bandaged by dreams. 
  • ... the open petal of the mouth that fell on mine like an unslaked summer. 

- fragments from Justine, Lawrence Durrell

The Inextricable

... for those who feel deeply and who are at all conscious of the inextricable tangle of human thought there is only one response to be made - ironic tenderness and silence. 

- Justine, Lawrence Durrell 

Love Close at Hand

Absence sharpens love and nearness strengthens it - with books as with the rest of us. And I’ve got a number of books close at hand …

- Gina Berriault, The Tea Ceremony