More letters

On crafting and words

Famously, according to Walter Benjamin:

“Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.” Walter Benjamin, One Way Street.

A very quotable passage. This quote has captured my imagination in the past, but it does feel hard to live up to. Perhaps these three levels are something to reflect upon or aim at rather than to actually achieve. I’m not sure I ever get past (or wish to get past) level one in Benjamin’s stages, the musical stage of writing. That first level in itself feels more like an ambition than a reality. Maybe I’m take that particular step too literally - I like to think that there is some music in what I’m doing. I know that Benjamin is using this as a metaphor, still it speaks to making writing musical as much as it does to using the scoring or composing comparison. I like the quote, but I’m a bit reluctant to try to even entertain the idea of living up to it.

Steadily, over the last two weeks, my focus has been drawn back towards writing. This is reflected in this issue of the newsletter, which is a bit less about technology and media than normal and is more about writing - it includes some resources I’ve been using to think about what I’m trying to do and how I might do it. In particular, I've been reflecting on practice and purpose. I'm not sure that I really understand either, although some of the items below try to do so. As I’ve tried to get some writing down, I found the following really useful in reinforcing what I'm doing with the writing and why. This issue of the newsletter has ended up being about writing and thinking about writing.

I’m not sure that I have any particular thoughts on writing of my own that I can add to the pot. One thing I have realised though is that I've come to appreciate the value of the delete key. Pressed for time, deleting can feel like a backwards step. I suspect most of us plan writing and measure progress through word counts. And so, because time and word counts are linked together, deleting is like retrospectively losing writing time. When time is so limited, it can be hard to let it go. Yet everything seems to improve when some content is deleted - it uncovers and unclutters it somehow. I’ve been trying to think of deleting words as being a bit like blowing off the loose chippings to see what is underneath. The difficulty is knowing where to stop. There are lots of writing tips about, I wonder if there are any tips about deleting. How and when to delete seems to be a bit of a craft in itself.

On writing…

The In Writing podcast hosted by Hattie Crisell carries detailed interviews with a wide range of authors about their practice and background. The interviewees reflect on their writing spaces and how they go about writing, but they also talk about how they got into writing, how certain projects happened and also how they feel about certain publications and the experience of the after-life of their projects and the reactions their work has received. The authors covered are really wide ranging in terms of the type of work that they do. Listening across episodes there are some similarities, but what is striking is how different the approaches to writing are. There are 27 episodes so far, so if you are looking for somewhere to start the interview with Sathnam Sanghera or the interview with Grace Dent provide a good introduction. Both of those interviews explore how writing is embedded in the writer’s biography, they are also both very open about the writing process and how they felt about certain types of writing. Both also provide insights into the responses they have received. I didn’t imagine, for instance, that being a restaurant critic might provide such stresses.

Another podcast on writing, the Writer's Routine podcast presented by Dan Simpson, focuses a little more centrally on the question of ‘how’. As its title suggests, it is occupied with the question of routine. These are discussions of craft and how practices develop and evolve to give that craft space to develop.

Why write?

Joan Didion's ‘Why I Write’ has been republished in Literary Hub. It contains some detailed explorations if writing, style and motivation, such as:

‘All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.

Which was a writer.

By which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear…What is going on in these pictures in my mind?’

Didion explores the way the writer puts themselves into the writing. In the above passage, Didion’s idea that she writes so as to ‘find out what I’m thinking’ really resonated.

A couple of other pieces on writing…

Here’s an old piece by Les Back on ‘Dancing and Wrestling with Scholarship’. (A version of this is also in his book The Art of Listening)

Here is Stuart Elden on why he focuses his writing on books.

And here is a video of Lyndsey Stonebridge talking about writing and her recent book Writing and Righting.

Finally, here is some information about a free Zoom masterclass on writing as a critic that takes place next week.

Luxemburg's ideas…

And for a break from the writing, here are two things about a particular writer. Two podcasts released this week that have focused on the life and ideas of Rosa Luxemburg. A lecture from David Runciman as part of the second series of the history of ideas podcast. There is also a discussion with Peter Hudis about the collection of Luxemburg's letters.