Archive for March 9th, 2011

Writers on Writing

The following is an essay written in 2008 during my Masters in Creative Writing at The University of Technology, Sydney. It marks the opening of a new category, On Writing, which I hope expand in future.

Writers on Writing

Is what writers write about writing merely a reflection of their own approaches and sensibilities? To what degree is a particular style or sensibility dependent upon an author’s circumstance? Can other writers still benefit from what they have to say?

If one conducts a search on the web with the keywords, “writers on writing”, it is immediately apparent that there is a vast and diverse range of information available, ranging from simple practical, methodological advice to more elaborately theoretical, philosophical, and even ideological approaches to composition. Currently top of the list is a database from the New York Times with articles by such figures as Annie Proulx, Saul Bellow, E. L. Doctorow, David Mamet, Barbara Kingsolver, and John Updike, to name a few. Most of the articles are of an anecdotal nature, within which context the authors indicate their preferences, elements of their routines, the ways in which they seek inspiration. Some are more meditative and intellectualising, whilst others are directly prescriptive.

One such article, Elmore Leonard’s famous Ten Rules of Writing, now available in a bloated, illustrated edition, has in itself generated a lot of discussion, most immediately evident on internet forums and bulletin boards.[1] His simple advice on things such as the attribution of lines of dialogue, use of exclamation marks and adverbs, the avoidance of prologues and not commencing a novel with a description of the weather, is generally accepted as sound. Yet, it has the force of a stern caveat capable of leaving less confident writers sufficiently shaken to begin jettisoning their own nascent style and attempting to emulate his. Whether or not this is a positive thing remains to be seen. As many contributors to the internet discussions surrounding Leonard’s ten rules have said, any such rules are by no means hard and fast. One might even go on to say that rules are made to be broken, though it has also been said that it is best to learn them first. Perhaps the real question is, whose rules? Whose advice?

The available online resources pale in comparison to what might be found on the shelves of any good academic library. Here the subject is covered much more comprehensively, through the various vehicles of criticism, theory, and the simple “How-to” texts containing suggested techniques both for writing and how best to negotiate the industry. Historically writers have written both on theory and practice – take for instance Henry James, E. M. Forster and Vladimir Nabokov – though increasingly theory has become the realm not of writers, but of “experts”: critics and academics.[2] Whilst no clear demarcation exists between theoretical and practical approaches, any broad survey of the literature suggests that the bulk of writers on writing tend to focus more upon process and technique than theory and criticism, perhaps through a sort of natural selection.[3]

This is by no means always the case, and it is the purpose of this essay to consider two texts, both by notable authors, Italo Calvino’s chapter on “Lightness” from his posthumously published volume of lectures entitled Six Memos for the Next Millenium, and Milan Kundera’s “Dialogue on the Art of the Novel,” from his 1988 book The Art of the Novel.[4] What makes these two texts most interesting is that they come from authors who might also be described as intellectual heavyweights. In these texts they attempt to explain the theoretical, practical and philosophical principles that underlie their method and technique, and the means by which one determines what is necessary in selecting the tone and the process by which characters reveal themselves.

There is also a convenient link between the two pieces, the idea of “lightness”. Early on in his chapter entitled “Lightness,” Calvino makes mention of Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the first section of which is titled “Lightness and Weight.” He writes:

It is hard for a novelist to give examples of his idea of lightness from everyday life, without making them the unattainable object of an endless quête. This is what Milan Kundera has done with great clarity and immediacy. His novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is in reality a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living… For Kundera the weight of living consists chiefly in constriction, in the dense net of public and private constrictions that enfolds us more and more closely. His novel shows us how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight.”[5]

In his opening sentence, Calvino makes plain his desire to examine the opposition between light and weight, and to “uphold the values of lightness.”[6] In seeking to arrive at an overall definition of his method, he suggests that it “has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight… sometimes from people , sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”[7] Kundera too confirms this as one of his underlying principles when, in his “Dialogue on the Art of Composition,” he speaks of the “will to divest”, a process of ridding the novel of “technique”; such as the clutter of unnecessary transitions.[8]

Calvino takes a while to express his definition of lightness, which initially seems diaphanous, as airy and ungraspable as one might expect lightness to be. This is largely because he fails to outline exactly what he means when he speaks of “weight”. Unless we are to assume that he is in complete agreement with his aforementioned summary of Kundera’s definition of the weight of living as a form of constriction, we are left to determine what he means more through the shape of absence, like those ancient Chinese dictionaries that defined things by what they are not, or the people-shaped holes left in the Pompeian ash. In attempting to determine the opposite of what he defines as lightness, one can infer that by “weight” he means the whole gamut of human burdens; misfortune, worry, heartbreak, oppression, catastrophe, and even demons.

So how does Calvino define lightness? He commences with the myth of Perseus and Medusa. Medusa, whose gaze turned people to stone, is hunted by Perseus, who arrives at her lair supported on the winds and clouds. Perseus, aware of the risk of meeting her gaze, cleverly watches her reflection in his bronze shield as he approaches to strike. Calvino states that he is “immediately tempted to see this myth as an allegory on the poet’s relationship to the world, a lesson in the method to follow when writing.”[9] He clarifies this by stating later that “Perseus’ strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.”[10] Perseus treats his burden lightly.

So what does this mean for the writer? If this is a lesson in method, then what is its practical application? How does one take this metaphor of viewing the world indirectly and employ it? Perhaps more importantly, why is he recommending viewing the world in this manner? Calvino himself seems to be grasping for a clearer definition and turns to the modern Italian poet Eugenio Montale, with particular reference to his Piccolo Testamente. According to Calvino, rather than foregrounding catastrophe in his poetry when dealing with weighty subjects, Montale instead professes “faith in the persistence of what is most fated to perish, in the moral values invested in the most tenuous traces.”[11] He writes of the delicate things that are threatened by the weight of events, by approaching catastrophe or apocalypse, rather than the catastrophe or apocalypse itself. The writing thus attains a lightness, a fragility, making its point more effectively without the bludgeon of weightiness one might associate with darker imagery.

Calvino locates the roots of his idea of lightness in an ancient philosophical and scientific view of the world. For the Roman poets, Lucretius and Ovid, lightness was central to their way of looking at the world, derived from the philosophy of Epicurus and Pythagoras.[12] Both of these philosophers accepted the theory of Atomism, first espoused by the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus (c.460 BC), that all things were composed of thousands of individual atoms whose nature remained unchanged, but whose combinations could produce infinite complexity, (with numerous variations on the same theme). Calvino argues that this facilitated a perception of mutability, of metamorphosis, of the lightness of the component parts of all things.[13]

Many other examples of lightness in the authors cited by Calvino seem to have their roots in a philosophical or scientific understanding of the world. The fourteenth-century Tuscan poet Cavalcanti claimed that he was an Epicurean, though his beliefs are more akin to Averroism, whilst Dante “gives solidity even to the most abstract intellectual speculation.” Boccaccio was a noted Italian humanist who studied classical literature and philosophy and championed obscure forms of ancient poetry. In the dream of Queen Mab in a speech by Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, her coach is drawn by “little atomies”; a dream, Calvino notes, which combines Lucretian atomism, Renaissance neoplatonism and Celtic folklore.[14] Calvino also notes Cyrano de Bergerac’s fascination with getting to the moon. Calvino further links atomism with the signs or letters used in writing. Just as words are constructed of particles, so is the world they describe.[15]

One is left wondering whether or not lightness can only be achieved through philosophy or a basic understanding of Atomism and its later theoretical elaborations such as Newtonian physics. Is the capacity for lightness dependent upon a certain intellectual tradition or sensibility? As if to counter this, Calvino writes that “lightness is also something arising from the writing itself, from the poet’s own linguistic power, quite independent of whatever philosophic doctrine the poet claims to be following.”[16]

If the lightness does come from the “writing itself, from the poet’s own linguistic power,” one must also raise the question as to whether this power exists verbally or semantically? In words or meaning? To what degree, for instance, does lightness depend upon the words themselves? Can it survive translation? Is such lightness contained within the lyricism of the language itself, assisted by alliteration and other devices and contrivances, or does what is being signified have a universality, not governed by the signifier? Is this lightness equally accessible in English as it is in Latin or, in the case of Cavalcanti, the Tuscan vernacular?

It seems most likely that Calvino identifies lightness within that which is being signified rather than the words themselves. Perhaps the realm of lightness, wind, clouds, sky, wings, feathers, birds, leaves, flowers, scent, and other such airy things, invoked in any language, is universal, irrespective of the actual words employed. Seeking to achieve lightness, ought not, however, result in frivolity, which Calvino cautions against. He recommends a “lightness of thoughtfulness,” which can “make frivolity seem dull and heavy.”[17] He ssociates lightness with “precision and determination,” as opposed to “vagueness and the haphazard.” He quotes Paul Valery who wrote that “One should be light like a bird and not like a feather.”[18] In other words, light and strong, light and skillful, not merely weightless. We appreciate the lightness of the language, because we know that it has weight to it.[19]

We must bear in mind that original purpose of the lecture series that forms Calvino’s Six Memos was speculate on what might be the direction of literature in the next millennium, now upon us. It would be naïve to assume that what Calvino wrote was designed to be merely prescriptive, but it is worth taking note of his more prescriptive musings.

Describing a scene in the Decameron in which Boccaccio represents the poet Cavalcanti fleeing, with a sprightly leap, the taunts of a group of youths, Calvino writes:

“Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden leap of the poet philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times – noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring – belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.”[20]

It is a fine image, but it seems to highlight more than ever the degree to which Calvino’s idea of lightness is really just an expression of a particular sensibility. It is a tone and mood that reflects aspects of his own style, and perhaps that of Milan Kundera’s style as well, which, when employed to best effect, is extremely engaging. Yet it is by no means the only method of approaching weighty subjects, as the work of Emile Zola or Alexander Solzhenitsyn will testify.

In his review of Calvino’s Six Memos, Robert Coover wrote:

“It’s an old truth that writers, theorizing on the state of their form, tend to talk mainly about or to themselves.”[21]

This certainly seems to be the case with Calvino, though this by no means invalidates or makes redundant the ideas and themes he expresses. Consider his rhetorical question, “is it legitimate to turn to scientific discourse to find an image of the world that suits my view?” His is a theory to which the evidence has been selected and fitted, and a writer might equally ask if it is legitimate turning to Calvino’s view in the hope of finding an image that best suits them.

Bearing in mind the idea of “sensibility”, we can return to the question of whether a writer’s observations about writing can have a universal application, or whether or not they merely constitute an expression of their own idiosyncratic view of the world and their work.

As was noted above, Italo Calvino celebrated Milan Kundera’s ability to achieve lightness as a means of expressing the weight of living. He attributes it to the “liveliness and mobility” of Kundera’s intelligence, qualities, he suggests, “which belong to a world quite different from the one we live in.”[22] Where then, do these qualities come from? Is Calvino suggesting they are a consequence of Kundera’s Czechoslovakian experience, or that they have their origins in the realm of lightness he describes?

Paul Theroux, reviewing Kundera’s novel, Life is Elsewhere, wrote:

“Kundera’s humor is impossible elsewhere. One can’t imagine his particular situations growing out of anything but a combined anger and fascination with the cut-price Stalinists who have the whip- hand in Prague.”[23]

David Lodge argues that the magical realist elements in Kundera’s work, which might be said to constitute his lightest touches, are the result of “having lived through great historical convulsions and wrenching personal upheavals”, which “cannot be adequately represented in a discourse of undisturbed realism.”[24]

Is Kundera’s lightness something unique, something only possible after enduring a particular level of constrictive oppression? Is his irony and satire something pressed into being by constriction, like a diamond from coal? Can one create this balance of light and weight outside such a context, wherein one has seen both the idiocy, the “kitsch”, the vanity and brutality of oppression, an oppression beyond the weightiness of everyday concerns?

Kundera himself sees it differently, so far as he is willing to admit. In his “Dialogue on the Art of the Novel,” he does not single himself out as someone who occupies unique circumstances, who thus has access to a unique sense of “lightness”, rather he locates his aesthetic in an attempt to render the existential problems of the self.[25] In this light it is perhaps inevitable that Kundera should not attribute his aesthetic to his circumstances, for he argues that history itself ought to be understood primarily as an existential situation.[26] Kundera’s great literary heroes, Witold Gombrowicz and Franz Kafka, did not share his circumstances, and what he claims to admire in them primarily is their attempts to come to grips with existential problems.

So far as Kundera is concerned, historical circumstances are purely incidental and are worth foregrounding when they are relevant to the existential concerns of the characters.[27] With Kafka’s The Trial, for instance, the Joseph K. has no physical or psychological history, we know nothing of his past or his predilections, and the only time we have access to his thoughts is when Kafka reveals his means of grappling with the present. Joseph K.’s dilemma is a essentially an existential one.

Perhaps this existential focus is the key to Kundera’s “lightness”. By focussing on the characters’ existential dilemmas, he avoids the weight of their history and psychology. Perhaps, as readers, we experience the lightness owing to our being more at home with the personal than the political. We can grasp the ironies and complexities of human problems with much greater immediacy than we can those of historical or political circumstances, though, as Kundera himself points out, often history itself is an existential problem and is duly brought to the foreground.

Essentially, Kundera tells us, he is not as interested in history as he is in existence. He sees the principal function of the novel as being to examine the nature of existence, as opposed to reality.

“…existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility. But again, to exist means: being in the world. Thus both the character and his world must be understood as possibilities. In Kafka, all that is clear: the Kafkan world does not resemble any known reality, it is an extreme and unrealised possibility of the human world.”[28]

This statement is fundamental to Kundera’s approach to his work. With its authorial intrusions and structural contrivances, one might say the same of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as Kundera does of Kafka’s work, that it is about human possibility. Whilst Kafka’s work might constitute a significant twist of the kaleidoscope, in the case of Kundera the twist is much more slight. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we are continually reminded that it is in effect a work of fiction, yet the characters stand out as starkly real because of the skill with which Kundera presents their existential situations. They are a clever and precise musing on the possible, both personal and historical.

The ultimate purpose of Kundera’s existential focus lies in an attempt to define the self. It is here that he locates his aesthetic. In his “Dialogue on the Art of the Novel,” Kundera’s first and recurrent assertion is that “all novels, of every age, deal with the enigma of the self. As soon as you create an imaginary being, a character, you are automatically confronted by the question: What is the self? How can the self be grasped?”[29]

More often than not attempts to come to grips with the nature of the self have been rooted in the psychological; stream of consciousness, interior monologue and so on. Kundera, however, takes pain to locate his work outside the realm of the psychological novel, whilst asserting that he does not wish to deprive his characters of an inner life. Rather than displaying the thoughts and internal processes of his characters, he instead uses frequent authorial intrusions into the text. As he explains in the case of Jaromil from Life is Elsewhere, it is the workings of his own mind that he displays to the reader, as opposed to the mind of Jaromil.[30]

In order to reveal the inner life of his characters, Kundera outlines an existential code for each; a sort of DNA comprised of a number of keywords.[31] As each character has a different code, so what is required for them to reveal themselves will differ. In some instances it might be necessary to explain aspects of their background or appearance, while in other cases characters merely reveal themselves through action, which, being a response to their existential problems, reveals their inner life. Thus, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the upbringing of Teresa, whose fundamental existential problem is being an extension of her mother, is described in detail, whilst we learn next to nothing of Tomas’ past. It is a uniform logic of selective uniformity; a formula requiring the application of different formulas. On the whole, however, Kundera prefers to have his characters reveal themselves through action, even if, or perhaps especially if, the consequences are paradoxical. He quotes Dante’s statement that “In any act, the primary intention of him who acts is to reveal his own image.”[32] Action thus becomes a self-portrait of the actor, often resulting in paradox where the intentions of a character’s actions fail to be realised in the outcomes, or result in entirely unexpected outcomes.[33] The existential problem of the individual remains, for Kundera, of much greater interest than the question of their psychological motives.

There are identifiable similarities between Kundera’s focus on the existential and Calvino’s idea, expressed through the example of Montale, of only foregrounding the fragile things, the things which are threatened.[34] Rather than lengthy descriptions of the history and nature of oppression in Czechoslovakia, Kundera only mentions the context when it directly and with immediacy impacts upon the existential dilemma of his characters. It is a means of achieving lightness through economy, or perhaps a means of achieving economy through lightness. Either way, his novels are ultimately more readable as a consequence of this lightness and economy.

We might return at this point to a reiteration of the definition of lightness as an absence of weight. Both Calvino and Kundera indicate their tendency towards reduction, towards stripping back, or simple omission of what might be conventional but unnecessary. While achieving their goal through slightly different methods, they both indicate a preference for avoiding the expression of misfortune through the heaviness of history, vocabulary, internal dialogues of despair. It seems that they are counselling against employing the weight of circumstances as a bludgeon, that rather one achieves a more poignant result with a lighter touch. Is this because our sentiments are better engaged through beauty, or through delicacy, as opposed to the more openly manipulative register of sorrows? Perhaps we might draw one last comparison and liken it to Ghandi’s advocating non-violent protest, which was, arguably, more admirable and effective than the violent upheavals that so commonly characterise resistance to oppression.

To conclude we must begin by acknowledging the difficulty of determining, in any quantitative or qualitative manner, whether a particular style or sensibility derives from a particular set of circumstances. In the case of Milan Kundera, it could certainly said that some of the paradoxes of his novels might not exist without his experience of life in Czechoslovakia, though his settings do, quite often, bear an uncanny resemblance to what authors such as Kafka imagined – existence under a brutally logical bureaucracy. Whilst there might be logical and cognitive connections between the style and circumstance, to suggest that lightness as a response to heaviness is a facility only properly available to those who have experienced true heaviness would be to deny the flexibility of imagination. Perhaps it is true that Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera derive their capacity for lightness from their experience of heaviness, but that need not make such conditions an exclusive pre-requisite. Heaviness, whilst perhaps better or more quickly understood if experienced directly, can also be imagined.

So far as the corpus of work by writers on writing goes, these are not overly prescriptive texts, though they do at times hold strong opinions. Even were it the case that these authors were expressing a unique sensibility, this would not, by any means, make these texts redundant. What they offer is an alternative point of view, and a number of powerful triggers for consideration of what, why and how to treat certain subjects. As is the case with more directly prescriptive texts, one must be cautious, particularly in the case of new writers, to avoid feeling oppressed by the weight of the opinions put forth. No espousal of style or method, despite the authority of the source, is the final word on the matter.


Calvino, Italo, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1988

Coover, Robert, “The Promised Land of Literature”, The New York Times, March 20, 1988.

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel, Edward Arnold, London, 1949.

Hawthorn, Jeremy, Studying the Novel, 3rd ed. Hodder Arnold, London, 1997

Hodgkins, Jack, A Passion for Narrative: a guide for Writing Fiction, McLelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1993.

James, Henry, The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, ed. Richard Blackmur, C. Scribners, New York, 1962.

_____, Notes on Novelists, J. M. Dent, London, 1914.

Kundera, Milan, The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher, Faber and Faber, London, 2005.

_____, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, trans. Michael Henry Heim, Faber and Faber, London, 1984.

Leonard, Elmore, “Ten Rules of Writing,” The New York Times, July 16, 2001.

_____, Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, Harper Collins, New York, 2007.

Lodge, David, The Art of Fiction, Penguin, London, 1992.

Nabokov, Vladimir, Lectures on Literature, Harvest Book, New York, 1982.

Pack, Robert & Parini, Jay (eds), Writers on Writing, Hanover, University Press of New England, 1991.

Theroux, Paul, “Small Novel, Large Stories,” The New York Times, July 28, 1974.

[1] Elmore Leonard, “Ten Rules of Writing,” The New York Times, July 16, 2001; Leonard, Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, Harper Collins, New York, 2007.

[2] E. M. Forster. Aspects of the Novel, Edward Arnold, London, 1949; Henry James, The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, ed. Richard Blackmur, C. Scribners, New York, 1962; James, Notes on Novelists, Notes on Novelists, J. M. Dent, London, 1914. Robert Pack & Jay Parini (eds), Writers on Writing, Hanover, University Press of New England, 1991, p. vii.

[3] “The language of criticism has become so technical, even jargon-ridden, that writers of poetry and fiction often can’t or, more usually, won’t stoop to conquer.” Pack & Parini, Writers on Writing, p. vii.

[4] Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1988. Before dying suddenly of a stroke in 1985, Calvino had completed five of the six lectures that comprise his Six Memos. These bear the titles of “Lightness,” “Quickness,” “Exactitude,” “Visibility” and “Multiplicity.” Ironically, the final lecture was to be on “Consistency.” Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, trans. Linda Asher, Faber and Faber, London, 2005.

[5] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 7.

[6] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 3.

[7] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 3. Perhaps an even more succinct way of putting it can be found in the famous quote of Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

[8] Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel, pp. 72-3.

[9] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 4.

[10] Calvino, Six Memos, pp. 4, 5

[11] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 6.

[12] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 10.

[13] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 8.

[14] Calvino, Six Memos, pp 16-18.

[15] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 26.

[16] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 10.

[17] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 10.

[18] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 16.

[19] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 15.

[20] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 12.

[21] Robert Coover, “The Promised Land of Literature”, The New York Times, March 20, 1988.

[22] Calvino, Six Memos, p. 7.

[23] Paul Theroux, “Small Novel, Large Stories,” The New York Times, July 28, 1974.

[24] David Lodge, The Art of Fiction, Penguin, London, 1992, p. 114.

[25] See below, pp. 7-8. Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 23.

[26] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 38.

[27] “The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence.” Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 44.

[28] Kundera, Art of the Novel, pp. 42-3.

[29] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 23.

[30] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 30.

[31] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 29.

[32] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 23.

[33] Kundera, Art of the Novel, p. 24.

[34] See above, p. 3.


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