Gusto: 6 Notes on Prose Style

Have you ever read something so impetuous that by comparison your own sentences seemed to drag, to limp along? I’m not talking about good grammar or correct usage: I’m talking about gusto.

The 19th century British essayist Hazlitt wrote that “gusto in art is power or passion defining any object.” And then he pretty much immediately offered a second definition: “[Gusto is] giving [the] truth of character from the truth of feeling.” In other words your writing has gusto if it makes readers feel strongly about things by expressing them passionately.

So much for a general definition. But how do you do it? How do you write with gusto?

I’ve been wondering that for months. It’s a curiosity born of desperate hunger, because to write well is the thing I want most in this world, and I think the best writing sweeps you up, shatters your complacency, and carries you along: it has gusto.

I know only two ways to change how I write. The first is to weed out ugliness, to ban myself from tics. The second is to discover patterns worth imitating in the prose of writers I admire and to try them for myself. (The bestiary and grimoire are attempts to do that.) In what follows, I’m going to share six patterns, or techniques, or tricks (call them what you want) that I’ve gleaned from studying writers who write with gusto, and from taking note of the rare occasions when my own prose achieves it.

On looking over this list, I see that most of the items on it are ways of achieving sentence-level concision and paragraph-level vividness. It so happens that these are my watchwords for good writing in general. So perhaps gusto is just good writing? Nonetheless, thinking about good writing under the aspect of gusto produced the following new (to me) principles.

1. Build every sentence around a succinct base clause.

I got this formulation straight out a marvelous book by Virginia Tufte called Syntax As Style. As I began to study gusto, I noticed that writers who clearly possessed it abided by the rule religiously. Tufte wrote:

Prepositional glut occurs if no attempt is made to set up short independent base clauses. The worst offenders in this overloading of patterns are the long noun phrase and nested prepositional phrases, often collaborating in clumsiness and verbal deadweight.

Creating a succinct base clause—a short sentence around which a long one is built—is a technique every writer needs to know.

To show what she means, I’ll take a negative example from the same book. This is a sentence Tufte quotes to show the horror that comes of neglecting her advice:

Neglect of this rich mine of information is due in part to the difficulty one faces in attempting to establish a suitable model in this area for modern quantification techniques that have contributed immeasurably to the formulation of historical generalizations in such areas as economic history and voting patterns.

Yeesh. Can we fix it? Yes, by compacting the disastrous middle into a succinct base clause (and by cutting some of the fat and trading the passive voice for the active).

We neglect this rich mine of information because it’s hard to quantify, unlike economic history and voting patterns, about which quantification permits historical generalizations.

Here “because it’s hard to quantify” replaces all of “due in part to the difficulty one faces in attempting to establish a suitable model in this area for modern quantification techniques.”

What is a concise base clause? First, it’s a clause—the smallest unit of a sentence that expresses a whole proposition. Subject-verb, or subject-verb-object. Second, it’s concise. There is minimal space between the subject and the verb and the object.

For the purposes of gusto, the best thing about a concise base clause is how you can add to it. You can write very long but perfectly comprehensible sentences through independent clauses that freely modify the base:

She ran, ducking under clothes lines, swinging crazily around corners, hurdling fire hydrants, zig-zagging across the highway, hopscotching through the outdoor displays of fruit in front of the Asian market, clipping unwary pedestrians who didn’t get out of her way fast enough, slipping between the clouds of smokers, burning up tarmac like humanity’s answer to the cheetah.

OK, that’s just a silly example, but despite being just as long as the bad example above, it’s perfectly clear. A concise base—like “she ran”—makes possible the real potential of cascading clauses: gusto.

2. Drop relative pronouns.

By relative pronouns mostly I mean “that,” which,” and “who/whom.” Sometimes they’re necessary to express your meaning; often they’re just dispensable roadblocks, screwing up your gusto, making you sound as if you’re thinking about grammar rather than the matter at hand.

Here is a list of sentences I got from the first page when I googled “relative pronoun.” After each quotation I’ve tried to show how it could become snappier by dropping the pronoun.

This is the book that everyone is talking about.

Instead: “This is the book everyone is talking about.” A small but definite improvement.

She wrote to the person whom she had met last month.

Instead: “She wrote to the person she met last month.” Definitely better!

We didn’t bring the receipt, which was a big mistake.

This one’s fun. There are several ways you could drop the pronoun. Here are two of them: “We didn’t bring the receipt. Big mistake.” Or “We didn’t bring the receipt, a big mistake.” Either way, a limping sentence now leaps.

One more, but this time to show the risk of applying the principle too indiscriminately:

Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. – Erma Bombeck

Now you might think, “Sorry, Erma, this has more gusto: ‘Never go to a doctor with dead office plants.'” But you’d be wrong. In your pursuit of gusto you would have fallen into the piranha infested waters of ambiguity. You would have made it sound like you shouldn’t visit a doctor while carrying dead office plants. So keep a sharp eye.

This gusto-producing technique also produces an effect of informality. They aren’t the same thing, informality and gusto. If informality is a problem, given a piece’s likely venue or whatever, perhaps there are better ways to get that gusto.

There’s nothing, grammatically speaking, wrong with relative pronouns. They can even be rhetorically useful for certain purposes. But they slow you down and often sound prissy; so if gusto is the effect you’re after, try dropping ’em.

I should also note that this whole relative pronoun extermination effort is but one skirmish in the war on bloat that constitutes an entire front of the campaign for… metaphor went off the rails there, instructively. I’m trying to say that gusto is often equal to concision, and extirpating relative pronouns is just another kind of concision.

3. For sonority, use parallelism instead of big words.

The fact is, many of us, when we feel the need for a little organ music in the midst of an essay, crank up the syllable-count. I don’t have a ready example of this gauche form of overreach, but I can create one for you. Here’s a mucked-up paragraph from a review I wrote a few years ago. It’s the sort of thing I might have written before I found better ways to seem profound!

Reinhold Niebuhr had not yet written a truly redoubtable tome. Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic was intriguing but inchoate; his political manifestoes suffered from his Protean commitments; his Gifford lectures were fustian bombast subtended by no erudition; and his collections of speeches, sermons, and essays signified fecundity and trenchancy, but not permanence.

And here’s what I actually wrote, with the parallelism highlighted.

Reinhold Niebuhr had not yet written a genuinely great book. Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic was quaint and intriguing, yet indecisive and unformed; his political manifestos were undermined by the changeability of his actual political positions; his Gifford lectures were two monstrous volumes of pseudo-scholarship; and his collections of speeches, sermons, and essays were signs of a fertile pen, collectively prepossessing, yet individually ephemeral.

You tell me: which attempt to sound profound has more gusto?

While parallelism—balancing rhythmically and syntactically similar clauses against one another—is an valuable technique, abusing it can result in the opposite of gusto. It can result in a swaying, lulling rhythm. From Aristotle onward, the golden rule of rhetoric has been repetition and variety. So use parallelism sparingly.

4. Summarize bluntly.

Nothing pops the ballooning dullness of a complicated paragraph like a sudden, reductive sentence. It also gives the impression that one is cutting through the bullshit. Here’s an example from Laurie Penny, a British journalist whose writing is often full of gusto. She’s talking about Game of Thrones:

Most fans of the show have idly wondered which warring noble house they’d want to be born into. Are you brave and upstanding like the Starks, an entitled aristocrat like the Lannisters, or a mad pirate bastard like the Greyjoys? Personally, I like to think that I’d be at home in Dorne, where knife-fighting and aggressive bisexuality are forms of greeting, but the truth is that I’d have been dead for at least two seasons by now and so would you. And not excitingly dead, either. Not beheaded-by-the-king dead, or burned-as-a-blood-sacrifice-to-the-god-of-fire-by-your-own-father dead. Statistically speaking, we’d be peasants. We probably wouldn’t even get names. We’d just be eating mud and waiting for the war to be over. You know it’s true.

The punch of the short sentences, in contrast to the long ones! Penny loves this technique. She really puts it through its paces, if you read her columns with any regularity, milking it for all its possible effects: cynicism, wryness, authenticity, anger.

In a way, I’m just emphasizing a part of the old chestnut that good writers vary the length of their sentences. But I’ve noticed that the writers to whom I would attribute gusto rely on this specific variation quite a bit: the sharp juxtaposition of long and extremely short. Try it.

5. Use emotion-provoking comparisons.

When a writer is doing their thing with gusto, sparks fly, and those sparks are comparisons. John Scalzi—whose writing is always full of gusto—can barely get through a paragraph without coughing up a mind-worm. Here, for example, is the first line of one of his most popular blog posts:

I’ve been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word “privilege,” to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon.

My principle here isn’t just “use similes and metaphors.” (Do, though. They rock.) It’s “use emotion-provoking similes and metaphors.”

That narrows it down a bit, because not many comparisons provoke heartfelt sorrow, for example, all on their own. “Like a candle in the wind” needs a funeral and music to wring a single salty tear from even the most emotionally labile among us. But “they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon” is funny, all by itself. Another emotion metaphors are good for insta-producing is disgust. The acid pen drips metaphors. Turning to the same fertile source of invidious comparison, here are some of the choicest ways in which John Scalzi chose to describe Ted Cruz during the Republican primaries this year: an “ambulatory cloacal splotch,” a “gross and despicable avulsion that yet managed to sprout opposable thumbs.” Ouch.

These things can really liven up a piece of prose. They’re a bit like backflips though. I had a friend in highschool who learned how to do a backflip off a wall. Unfortunately, he decided to show off his new skill prematurely. When he landed flat on his back, his chances with the ladies collapsed like a housing bubble. If you don’t watch out, your audacious comparison could go over just as well.

6. Repeat ideas with rising intensity.

Milton has great gusto. He repeats his blow twice, grapples with and exhausts his subject. His imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes, and to the words describing them.

That’s Hazlitt, again, from the end of his essay on gusto. I, personally, don’t experience Milton as being very full of gusto—a failure I attribute to the flaccidity of my mental muscles, which have to stay pretty tense to comprehend the long, suspended sentences of Paradise Lost. But I think Hazlitt’s point is a good one, observable in contemporary writing as well as in Milton. Often, those who write with gusto will hit a key point several times, trying out several phrases to sum it up, like a brainstorming session at Stirling Cooper.

You know who writes with gusto? Dan O’Sullivan. Here is a riveting example from his piece in Jacobin on the terrifying denouement of 2016:

Trump didn’t think he was going to win — not him, not his cracked, wincing campaign manager, not the sozzled Nazi werewolf chairing his presidential bid, not the jackal pack advising him, not the rival camp, not the media. Trump, that demented circus peanut, knew that he had lost every debate, that he had failed to appeal to the mystical moderate voters who determine elections, that he had trailed in most every poll.

This entire paragraph is the repetition of a single idea. It follows a simple pattern. The whole idea is in the first words, “Trump didn’t think he was going to win,” and the first string of entertaining clauses is an expansion of the subject — Trump — into those others who didn’t think he was going to win, while the the second sentence is an expansion of the predicate — “didn’t think he was going to win” — into the many ways he didn’t think it. We might say about this writer, with Hazlitt, that “his imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes, and to the words describing them.” Even though strong emotion clearly undergirds O’Sullivan’s piece, he can’t resist the opportunity to write with gusto by mining every bit of ore from the shaft of each paragraph.

That’s all I got folks. Use it wisely.

A writer’s equivalent to the sketchbook

A few weeks ago, wandering London’s Hampstead Heath for the first time, I watched Rachel record her impressions — not just the appearance of objects, like a camera, but her impressions, her looking itself — in a sketchbook, and I wished, not for the first time, that I, too, could lay claim to a sketchbook. Rachel is a potter, but that gives her the generic artist’s right to make little drawings everywhere she goes. I do not have that right. I’ve tried to carry a sketchbook, but it makes me feel like I’m cheating on my marriage to literature. What’s needed is a writer’s equivalent. All artists, not just the visual ones, should be able to feast on the world anywhere and carry boredom’s kryptonite in their pockets.

Writing represents just like drawing. But due to the extraordinary power of writing’s medium, it can represent sensory and intellectual and emotional experience. You’d think this would make writing even more portable and ubiquitous than drawing, a perfect pasttime at the park and in the gallery, on lunch breaks and after dinner. But they don’t teach writers to carry notebooks like they teach artists to carry sketchbooks. In all the classes on writing I took in college, no one ever assigned me that basic exercise of drawing class: “Here’s a blank book. Fill it everywhere you go.”

Sure, there’s the “writer’s notebook,” as classically described, for instance, by Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” She records fragments of conversation and the sartorial ensembles of people she sees. There are also many examples of notebooks like Henry James’s magnificent volumes of notes for his novels. In their own way, James’s notebooks are as astonishing and final a statement of creativity as Bach’s two- and three-part inventions. But neither of these books contains a single instance of the writerly equivalent of a sketch, a rough but complete record of an impression, suitable for study in its own right and not merely an accrual of material for later, larger, more premeditated work.

The writer’s notebook, as kept by James and Didion, is for accumulating raw material, but the sketchbook is for practice. The writer’s equivalent of the sketchbook should also be for practice. Perhaps that makes it unnecessary, since the performance of writing is an infinitely revisable one, while the painter, for instance, or potter, faces crucial moments, makes irrevocable gestures, and has a reason to practice the physical movements of art.

But I reject that disembodied view of literature. Perhaps not the glyphs, but certainly the words I use, do arise from gesture, mood, short-term memory, what I see, smell, how warm it is, whether I am watched or alone — from my body. If I haven’t written for a while, it’s hard to start. If I’m constrained to write for many reasons for many hours, my prose suffers. I can’t revise a piece properly immediately after I’ve written it. Writer’s bodies affect how they write, so surely their bodies can be trained to help them write better.

What would a real equivalent of the sketchbook be like, then? One could fill a notebook with evocations in words of sensory impressions, a direct correlate of the sketchbook, merely substituting words for lines. But that seems inadequate, as if an artist limited themselves to making rubbings of the textures of things, bark and leaves, gravestones and brick walls. An artist with merely tactile interests would be like a writer with merely visual ones, would be failing to employ the full range of their medium.

But writing about thoughts or emotions — those additional
aspects of the world available to the writer — is innately digressive. From the moment, I mean. Once the writer’s mind gets to work on a thought or an emotion, they — or I at any rate — tend to wander. To wander into the realm of dialectic, if thinking, or into the realm of therapy, if feeling. One of the most important functions of the sketchbook, on the other hand, and something I would like to capture in this hypothetical writer’s equivalent, is training the artist to attend to the moment.

It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations. (John Berger)

The writer’s equivalent of a sketchbook would therefore require an entirely new frame of mind. It would require a simultaneous use of and disengagement from the machinery of language, which seem of themselves to take the writer away from the moment.

(Perhaps that’s wrong. In the tradition I was born to, influenced by and stemming from the Bible, naming is creative, life-giving. “In the beginning was the Word.” The author sets things into independent motion with a word. Perhaps my difficulty in using the medium of language to accomplish the simple acts of recording that come so easily to lines and colors is the result of a psychically deep conviction that writing is more creation than representation. But then, in Buddhism for instance, to understand and name a thing is a way of dispelling it. If there’s anything to Buddhist mindfulness, perhaps this very act, right now, of noticing a potentially deep-seated illusion about language — that by using it I’m breathing the breath of life into it and therefore inevitably bifurcating the moment, the impression — is enough to overcome it.)

The closest I have come to this ideal equivalent of the sketchbook is when I go to art museums alone. When I do that, I like to pick a painting and sit in front of it for an hour or two, writing down what I see and think. I try to overcome the philistinism of a defective art education, not through a spurious connoisseurship, but by actually inhabiting an artist’s way of looking for a while.

Ironically, the closest I come to an artist’s sketchbook is in looking at art. I’d like to forego that crutch.

The Torture of Reading Yourself

Once upon a time, I genuinely enjoyed rereading myself. Homeschooled, unexposed to any serious literature fresher than the nineteenth century, I harbored a prose-crush on Nathaniel Hawthorne. The same labored syntax could be found in my sentences, the same archaic diction, the same reliance on periodicity, apostrophe, and the indefinite pronoun. By contrast to my anachronistic affectations, everything I read in newspapers and magazines seemed inferior, simplistic, discordant. For the brief years of my naivety, I really thought I might be something special as a writer.

Then I discovered the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Spent the next decade cleaning the cobwebs off my verbs and dusting my lines for commas. Learned not to sound like a breathless nymph from the era of corsets and hysteria who had picked up her diction from the Authorized Version. And I really read.

After you’ve really read, you don’t think you’re special anymore. With Thomas Browne and Joan Didion and William Gass and Samuel Johnson and Samuel Delany and Elizabeth Browning and George Eliot and Henry James and Penelope Fitzgerald all living in your head, looking over your shoulder, sniffing at your choices — well, you know the truth.

Still, I never thought I’d get this deep into self-loathing. Lately it’s physically painful to read something a month old. I saw my last Open Letters essay featured in A&L Daily and instead of delight I felt a shudder of horror — I had almost accidentally clicked the link and put myself face to face with the gibbering abortions of my own brain. It’s bad. You don’t even realize.

Sometimes it’s worse than others. After a few pints or a single stiff drink, I can just about make it through something I’ve written in the last year without choking on my own bile. But in the full clarity of the morning, after my coffee, in peak mental form, I would rather drag steel wool across the jelly of my own eyes than face those limping phrases.

Aha! — Subjectivity, you say. But nope, that’s not it. I’ve tested this. The ends of Orwell’s essays and the beginnings of Austen’s novels are just as ego-meltingly wonderful in any state of mind. It’s only the palatability of my own sentences that varies with my appetite, temperature, hydration, and the dilation of my pupils.

Supposedly this sort of wretchedness is a good sign. Disliking your own words means you haven’t reached the acme of your powers of expression. We can hope. But isn’t it also possible that ability and taste are out of joint? The strength of my disgust and admiration for the prose of others used to give me confidence that I possessed some kind of ear or ghostly sense, rare of its kind, for proportion and euphony, line and color. I can hear meter easily and my teachers always praised my scansion and I can appreciate le mot juste. But the repeated disappointments of my own writing make me increasingly nervous that fineness of perception does not endow skill as a matter of course.

But there’s no giving up. Mere failure can’t stop a man besotted with Calliope. You just keep studying the masonry of syntax, the husbandry of diction, the dance steps of style; you just keep learning how to trawl for metaphors and plant those parallels fathoms-deep, unobtrusive, and resonant. And you read. And you suffer in the name of unachievable perfection.

Me, having just been forced to read myself.
Me, having just been forced to read myself.

On Philosophy: What Is It?

Since I am not teaching this year, I had assumed the large-scale questions about philosophy’s nature and significance, the ones that obsessed me as the lecturer in an undergraduate intro class, would subside (for me) for a while. Instead, my organism misses the act of lecturing. And, yes, the act of worrying about philosophy. I’m still thinking about it. To exorcise this distraction, I want to set out very simply, without a whole lot of technical detail or defense of minutiae, what I believe about the nature, method, and importance of philosophy. I’ll do so in three blog posts.

Clarifying the Question

First, what is philosophy? It’s a question answered so many times in such contradictory ways that venturing one’s own answer might seem both impertinent and pointless. But I think some of the apparent intractability comes from ambiguity. Is the question asking, what has philosophy been for its classic exponents? Is it asking, what does it mean to love wisdom (as the etymology of the word “philosophy” might lead you to expect)? Is it asking, what is the dominant view of the academic discipline of philosophy according to its own practitioners? Is it asking, what unites the genre of writing classified as philosophical? Is it asking, what does it mean to live the contemplative life?

(My point about the ambiguity of the question is a very philosophical one, by the way. One of Aristotle’s favorite observations about virtually any word or concept was, “it is said in many ways.” He would follow this observation with a virtuosic set of distinctions, often the most stimulating passages in his books.)

I mean the question “what is philosophy?” this way: assuming that philosophy is a form of inquiry, what sets it apart from others? This version of the question sets aside (perfectly reasonable) questions about what a philosophical lifestyle would look like, what academic departments of philosophy are for, and what self-styled philosophers have claimed for themselves. Those aren’t unimportant questions; they’re just not the one I’m interested in right now. By assuming that philosophy is a form of inquiry, I am assuming that it is a way of seeking to answer questions. That is not to disqualify other uses of the word, just to specify the use I am interested in exploring.

Take the commonly acknowledged core disciplines of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. What’s the difference between metaphysics and theology or cosmology? What’s the difference between epistemology and psychology? What’s the difference between ethics and legal thinking or ideological thinking? Not their objects, I think, which, often as not, are shared. “Does God exist?” is a question about which metaphysics, theology, and cosmology have had things to say, for example.

So, in my sense of the question, what is philosophy?

My Answer

Here’s my answer: I think philosophy is uniquely married to the way of thinking known as dialectic. I use this word, dialectic, in its ancient sense, as inquiry by dialogue, not in the interesting but more complicated senses that one can find in Hegel or Marx or other modern philosophers.

“What is philosophy?” “Philosophy is inquiry by dialogue.”

To reason by dialectic is to form an answer to a question, then to modify or defend it in response to alternative answers and strong objections. It’s inquiry by dialogue because it maps out the territory of answers to a question, disposing of facile ones and sharpening plausible ones and, often as not, inspiring new ones. It’s inquiry by dialogue because it’s basically an extrapolation of what happens when two or more reasonable and well-intentioned people try to answer a difficult question together. Even when you perform dialectic alone, it’s a dialogue. To do it by yourself, you have to imagine the alternatives and objections of someone else.

(This, by the way, is why Socrates is commonly treated as the fountainhead of philosophy. There were philosophers before him, and there are philosophers in traditions quite separate from him. But he is like an avatar of dialectic: what we are most certain about, in his case, is not the content of his beliefs, but the dialectical method by which he sought to answer questions.)

Philosophy’s closeness to dialectic explains why it’s the mother of so many other sciences. In the 17th century, for example, a whole slew of natural sciences peeled off of “natural philosophy.” Often their founders or first innovators thought of themselves as philosophers. This is because almost all sciences that have a method are a specification of dialectic.

For example, taxonomic inquiries are a pure form of dialectic in which objections take the form of pointing out instances of a thing which escape current definitions, and modifying or replacing those definitions with better ones. Even sciences of proof-making, as in many branches of mathematics and pure logic, are basically dialectical. When you make a proof, you construct an argument that shows how premises which have no plausible alternatives lead without contradiction to a certain conclusion. (Think back to the proofs you constructed in geometry class.) The plausibility of alternatives and the possibility of contradictions are the tests by which dialectic proceeds in all its forms.

Why define philosophy that way?

So why do I claim that dialectic distinguishes philosophy in particular, if I think virtually all forms of reasoning are specifications of it? Precisely because philosophy is the form of inquiry that employs dialectic without specification. The standards of evidence that specify other forms of inquiry set them apart as particular forms of inquiry. To inquire whether you have a broken arm, a doctor will manipulate the limb, ask for a subjective report of your feelings, and perhaps order an x-ray. These result of these tests are considered adequate to answer the question. Philosophy differs, I think, in that it has no such specifications, and therefore it really is, at root, about two or more well-intentioned and reasonable people trying to hash out the answers to a question together, by whatever means possible.

Some Consequences of My Answer

As a consequence, nothing’s ever settled in philosophy. Many people consider this a decisive objection to practicing it. I don’t: instead, I consider a sign of the inescapable role of philosophy in the ontogeny and phylogeny of human thinking. It’s a direct consequence of philosophy’s refusal to specify and standardize the kind of objections and alternatives that count in philosophical dialectic. To “settle” most inquiries requires that two or more people posit what kind of dialectical tests will count as decisive for both of them. In short, almost by definition (I think), special sciences are going to produce a lot more consensus than philosophy. That’s sort of the point of them.

Let’s carefully distinguish between “philosophy never settles things” and “philosophers never settle things.” The latter claim is false. Many philosophers think they have settled things, and have a reasonable claim to it. The answers they espouse have fared well in the dialectical tests they have administered, in the debates they’ve participated in. The possibility of such temporary and contingent decisiveness is probably why philosophy isn’t actually demoralizing, but exciting and even fulfilling. But the grinding engine of philosophy as a whole tends to undermine the claims to settlement of even the most successful philosophers in their own day.

Philosophy’s refusal to specify dialectic makes it generative. A lot of the more special sciences, where the limits of dialectical conventions have enabled enormous progress in inquiry (the way putting your thumb over the end of the garden hose makes the water shoot out farther) grow out of the dialectical free-for-all of philosophy.

Why Philosophy in My Sense is Useful

I think, if I’m right about what philosophy is, that I can plausibly argue it’s a useful form of inquiry for anyone to learn about and attempt to practice. (I’m not arguing everybody should be a pro philosopher in their spare time, or even that philosophy classes should necessarily form the core of an undergraduate curriculum. I’m just saying pretty much anybody can benefit from it.):

(1) Philosophy will make you better at conversing intelligibly in everyday life. After all, it’s just an intensification, a formalization of two reasonable, well-intentioned people trying to answer a question together. And most of us find ourselves in that situation multiple times a day. Why not learn to do it better?

Aristotle wrote, in a book about dialectic called The Topics:

The possession of a plan of inquiry will enable us more easily to argue about the subject proposed. For purposes of casual encounters, it is useful because when we have counted up the opinions held by most people, we shall meet them on the ground not of other people’s convictions but of their own, while we shift the ground of any argument that they appear to us to state unsoundly.

(2) Philosophy will school you in intellectual humility. It does this in two ways: first by demonstrating, over and over again, that there’s more to be said after even the wisest or cleverest have had their say. Second, by highlighting the role of posture or attitude in the pursuit of truth. In more specified forms of dialectic—when you’re hunting for tardigrades, let’s say—the decidability wrought by conventional standards of evidence can induce the idea that inquiry is a mechanically applicable method. What philosophy’s open dialectic shows, over and over again, is that the best thinkers are the most self-critical ones, the ones who are best at imagining what a reasonable opponent would say. Literally no other study teaches the importance of learning to think against oneself in the way that philosophy does. And a refusal to think against oneself retards the progress of many special sciences and many powerful people: they could use some experience of dialectic.

In The Dawn of Day, Nietzsche writes:

Make it a rule never to withhold or conceal from yourself anything that may be thought against your own thoughts. Vow it! This is the essential requirement of honest thinking. You must undertake such a campaign against yourself every day. A victory and a conquered position are no longer your concern, but that of truth and your defeat also is no longer your concern.

(3) Philosophy makes it easier to take up more specific forms of inquiry. Because of its unspecified dialectic, philosophical discussions always pass through stages of disambiguation and definition, and end up working out careful, detailed distinctions. In short, practicing good philosophy makes you more precise, better at thinking about how your assertions sound to others, and avid for clarity and simplicity of expression. (This might surprise you if you’ve read the awful writing of a lot of academic philosophers: but more on that some other time.)

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume writes:

[I]n every art or profession, even those which most concern life or action […] a spirit of accuracy, however acquired, carries all of them nearer their perfection, and renders them more subservient to the interests of society. And though a philosopher may live remote from business, the genius of philosophy, if carefully cultivated by several, must gradually diffuse itself throughout the whole society, and bestow a similar correctness on every art and calling. The politician will acquire greater foresight and subtility, in the subdividing and balancing of power; the lawyer more method and finer principles in his reasonings; and the general more regularity in his discipline, and more caution in his plans and operations. The stability of modern governments above the ancient, and the accuracy of modern philosophy, have improved, and probably will still improve, by similar gradations.

Everything I’ve just said about philosophy is highly contentious and scandalously simple. Being a graduate student in philosophy is like an indoctrination against the kind of bold generalizations I’ve just committed. Nonetheless, it’s more or less what I think, as I would explain it to someone who is not themselves knee deep in the morass of a graduate program in philosophy.

Next up, when I get to it, I’m going to explain how I think you—anyone, really—can do philosophy. (This is something I think a lot of undergraduate introductions to philosophy neglect in favor of presenting the history of philosophy.)

Dead Language

Ever since I wrote my first story, I have been concerned with something that every writer of short stories or novels has to deal with. This is el language muerto (dead language), which is always present in a novel. Unlike poetry, in which from the first word to the last you are placed in a world of extraordinary sensibility and delicacy or dynamism, a novel or short story is a text in which it is impossible to be intense and creative all the time and to sustain vitality and dynamism in the language … I was bothered by this situation and asked myself why it is not possible in a novel, as in a poem, to use only intense, rich, creative language?

These lines are from Mario Vargas Llosa’s A Writer’s Reality, the prose version of some lectures he delivered at Syracuse University.

Dead language has been the splinter under my fingernail for years. I’ve been concerned with the phenomenon at nearly every stage of my evolution as a writer. In college I rebelliously rejected the canonization of Strunk & White, because they were brandished by milquetoast English professors whose own prose read with all the vitality of roadkill. And it wasn’t long before I turned my scorn on myself: over and over in the last ten years I’ve developed a certain kind of smoothness in my prose which I wake up the next day and discover to be blandness, prose like mashed potatoes made with a blender: where are the chunks?

What is dead language? First what it’s not.

It’s not cliché, though cliché can be a form of dead language. Frankly there are stretches even in a writer like John Updike, who took pride in the strenuous rejection of cliché, or in Martin Amis, who wrote a book called The War Against Cliche, which are like a corpse dressed in its best clothes, made-up with red spots on its cheeks, hung about with diamonds, but still dead. Cliché-free, but dead.

Dead language is also not cold or unemotional language. The often affectless precision of Colm Tóibín—in The Master, for instance, which I just read—is utterly vivified language, language trembling with life. Don’t confuse life with excitability.

So, again, what is dead language? I think it might be best to come at the problem—and I know I’m being evasive—by describing living language. Vargas Llosa will give me a hand again:

[Living] language is any language that has the capacity to take the reader from real reality and move him to a fictitious reality, to a separate reality … The characteristics of [living] language cannot be specified because any kind of language can perform these functions if the writer has the ability to use it well.

Where I put [living] he had “literary,” but I swapped out the word to make my point. I think Vargas Llosa would agree with me that literary language is the opposite of dead language. What it does, he says, is to transport us to a different reality. Living/literary language is like a threshold in C.S. Lewis’s books, a portal to Narnia, a doorway you step through and find everything irresistibly changed, charged with meaning.

But, as Vargas Llosa also wisely said, there are no specifications for this kind of language, no universally applicable rules for it.

You can try to avoid dead language by following rules. For example I could learn to write like Chuck Palahniuk in a lot of his short stories and essays, attempting to vivify my language through sensually rich description of horrifying or disgusting things. Tell me you wouldn’t read an essay I wrote if it began like this:

I sifted warm faeces through my fingers, trying not to inhale, until I found what I was looking for: the hard, white body of a parasite, like a plastic bead dropped in brownie batter. So I did have worms.

An extreme example. (But yes, that’s not far off Mr. Palahniuk.) (My apologies if you decided to read what’s at the other end of that link.) The language certainly isn’t dead. But the life it has derives as much from the plain shock value of the content as from the language. The same can be said for writing that gets its life-juice from profanity, slang, or any other easy gimmick: dropping in brand names at every opportunity, relying on humorous analogies.

The problem I have with these methods of vivifying language is that they don’t last. They work a few times. But when a gimmick is repeated too often it turns into its own vintage of dead language.

Even when you fall in love with the voice of a writer, if they turn out to be a hack who employs that voice with universal efficiency, their manner becomes mannerism for you; you recognize yet another instance of dead language.

So writing well, writing living language, is a high-wire act where each new step requires as much concentration as the last. There’s not a place on the wire where you’ve finally got it figured out and now you can relax, now you can just enjoy yourself. Screw up and you’re dead, or anyhow your language is.

So what is dead language? It’s any language whose usage or familiarity make it ineffective at wrenching a reader away from their present circumstances and into the world you, the writer, are trying to create.

I think each serious writer’s quest to avoid dead language will look unique. Vargas Llosa tries to avoid it by minimizing the expository and descriptive content of his novels, and putting that stuff in the dialogue tags. He also tries to avoid it by re-purposing in his novels documents not usually intended for narrative consumption: police reports, newspaper articles, academic essays. Like many literary writers from Dos Passos on, Vargas Llosa likes to slip such things into his narrative and enjoy the vivification of language that comes from displacing one sort of a document into a strange context, from displacing a non-narrative document into a narrative context. But if I did the exact same thing, I’d end up with a form of mannerism.

Or take DFW’s footnotes. I like them. Some of my friends hate them, and the reason they hate them in DFW I often hate them in his imitators: what originated as a method for vivification has turned into mannerism.

This reminds me of what Gabriel Josipovici identifies in his marvelous book What Ever Happened Modernism? as one of the mechanisms of modernist experimentation, a feeling that you simply can’t do x, y, or z any longer. You simply can’t do plot anymore—that’s a conviction about dead language which overcame certain perpetrators of the French nouveau roman, and while I personally don’t list plot among the language-killers (or at any rate among the things that deaden language for me), I can entirely appreciate the sentiment which would dispense with it. To a serious writer—which I think we must define as someone who cannot abide what they perceive as dead language—almost anything can be sacrificed in pursuit of a living or literary language.

Notes on Book Reviewing

I’ve been a regular contributor and editor for the long-form book review journal Open Letters Monthly for two years now. But I don’t claim any special authority on the subject of book reviews. If my time on that staff has taught me anything, it’s how many levels there are on the parnassus of criticism. I’m maybe on level two, which, hey, is above level one, but if I squint I can see reviewers on levels twelve and thirteen, so…

The fact remains that I have now written many more long-ish book reviews than the average person (34 at OLM, by my count), received and watched others receive the always sharp and wise advice of my fellow editors, and edited dozens of others’ reviews.

Lately, a number of friends have urged me to write down any advice I might have about writing book reviews professionally. Bearing in mind that I’m not a professional—I’ve never earned a red cent for a book review [editorial note: happily this is no longer true], and am not, as a consequence, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, though I rather expect to be someday—nonetheless I’m happy to offer what I have. What follows are my own provisional conclusions about book reviewing.

Learn to love summarizing.

There is only one non-negotiable element in a book review and that’s summary. Some of the most influential book reviews — the reviews that determine whether a bookseller will even carry a book or a library purchase it, often published in places like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist — are tiny, paragraph-long things which do the majority of their work through good summary. Long-form essay-reviews of the type published by Open Letters Monthly also need good summary: in fact, in their case, precisely because of their length, there is absolutely no excuse to leave a reader unsure what a book is about.

Unfortunately, to the beginning book reviewer summaries can carry the odor of schoolwork. They reminded me disagreeably of book reports at first, something I gladly left behind in grade school. But I learned to love them by embracing them as an opportunity for artistry. A sprightly and tight summary is a real feat both of prose and of thinking. You have to condense a few hundred pages into a few sentences, and you have to do it in an interesting way. Opposite dangers of boring but precise over-qualification and interesting but too-quick misrepresentation dog your steps.

I think that, other than the opening and closing of a book review, the summary section should probably receive the greatest care and the most revision. It’s worth getting right. And if you do it well, that’s the difference between a book review no one will read, and one in which they understand your subject and are willing to entertain your own precious thoughts that follow the summary.

Assorted keys to a good summary: (1) it should come as early as it can without ruining the lede (on which, see below); (2) it should definitely include sentences, if possible, about the experience and qualifications of the author, about the genre of the book, and about the book’s main thesis (if non-narrative) or situation (if narrative); (3) if possible it shouldn’t telegraph an evaluation.

Three is particularly important to me, though I know good book reviewers who do otherwise. I think—and this is a view plenty of you won’t share—that even a denunciation is better when the denounced thing is given a full and sympathetic hearing. Summary is where that hearing occurs. Hatchet job or puff job, in any review the point of a summary is a clear, concise statement of what kind of book is under discussion and what that book has to say. Feel free to eviscerate it only after you’ve clearly stated its contents; otherwise you’re fighting dirty.

Don’t just summarize.

Despite its importance, summarizing does not exhaust the functions of a book review. Too often, a new reviewer for Open Letters Monthly will send us a lovely long essay-review which amounts to nothing but summary. Academics are especially prone to this, trained as they are to produce scholarly works five parts summary to one part original idea.

What else is there to do in a book review besides summarize the book? Well, for starters: you could contextualize or explain the book’s content or form, relating it to other books; you could extrapolate from one of its themes, anecdotes, or theses to your own experiences and ideas; you could compare it to a similar book; and you could render a judgment on the quality of its prose, organization, validity, or truth.

The cool thing about book reviewing is that it doesn’t really matter what level of expertise you bring to a book, you can still write a good review. An expert can emphasize contextualization and explanation, a neophyte can emphasize extrapolation, and anybody can make a judgment.

That last comment deserves its own gloss, because I don’t mean the old-fashioned magisterial thumbs up-or-down of the newspaper book critic. More and more I find that kind of judgment and its presumption of impossible expertise repellant. Therefore, I suggest that you…

Avoid lazy evaluative abstractions.

Yes a book review has a normative function, and the people who write them are called critics for a reason. But it’s uninteresting to crustily brute about that this book is brilliant, that one abysmal, this one magisterial, that one better unwritten. These abstractions—of which the most inventive book reviewer runs out pretty quickly—are lazy. They are, in the lingo of philosophers, “thin” ascriptions of normativity, like saying somebody “did a bad thing” rather than that they “stole” or “murdered” or “insulted” etc. If you tell me someone “did a bad thing”, I’ll ask you, “what, exactly?” Same with book reviews.

Instead of thin, lazy evaluative abstractions, you should describe the particular kind of badness or goodness that you have discerned in a book. If you do it with enough precision, you can give weight to your flat abstractions or, better yet, dispense with them altogether.

This is why I said anybody can offer a useful judgment on a book. If James Wood said flatly, “this is a bad book,” it would mean no more to me, and be no more helpful, than if Joe Schmoe said, “this is a bad book.” Both of them would do better to describe the features of the book that seemed good or bad to them in detail, showing me with quotations and accurate summary, giving me reasons rather than bland conclusions.

Even if I disagree with a book reviewer, I respect their judgment if it takes the form of detailed evaluative description rather than a pronouncement I am supposed to accept on their bare authority. I can disagree with a detailed evaluative description in a particular way—perhaps you dislike the casual style of D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, for example. I would disagree with you, but find your judgment interesting because it’s pinned to an identifiable feature of an actual book, whereas if you announce in stentorian tones, “D.H. Lawrence is a bad writer,” I not only disagree with you, but I’m going to despise the laziness of your evaluation.

Don’t be a tool.

Two traps that bedevil the critic: to accept a role merely as a cog in the economy of book selling, and to reject the role of a cog in the economy of book selling.

It can feel great to find your review excerpted on the praise-page of a book or on a publisher’s website. It might make you feel part of The Conversation. Don’t fool yourself. It’s empty — like getting excited a famous person responded to your tweet — proof only that you gave a thirsty publicist the sort of copy they needed to move books.

Look, I love me some publicists. They send me free books all the time! But we have different jobs and when my words and their desires converge, it should be a contingent by-product of my honest, accurate account of a book, not the result of a tacit conspiracy of mutual aggrandizement.

But it’s possible to be another kind of tool. To avoid even the implied judgment of precise, accurate description, and to leave your reader unsure whether you respected or despised a book. That, in my opinion, is also egregious. You’re a finite being whose limited perspective is always attended by feeling response to the things you concentrate upon. You thought the book was worth reading or not. Convey that information.

Get right to the point.

Now some more nuts-and-bolts suggestions. My first applies not just to book reviews but to literally any piece of writing, unless you have a very good reason to ignore it.

State your main idea early.

This implies two things: first, that you have a main idea, and second that you’re clear enough about it to state it succinctly.

I don’t think your main idea should be a simple thumbs up or down on the book (see the section on lazy evaluative abstractions above), but rather an evaluation-tinged observation about a feature of the book. For example, here are abstracted, one-sentence summaries of the main idea of several recent reviews I wrote:

(1) Existentialism is best told through the biographies of its main proponents, and Sarah Bakewell’s latest successfully does this.

(2) John Berger’s background as artist, novelist, and marxist make him a critic who appreciates and describes features of art works that others ignore.

(3) Friedrich Nietzsche’s lectures on education resonate with similar contemporary critiques, but should give us pause for that very reason.

That’s the sort of thing I (obviously) think a book review should be about: an observation not directly about the worth of the book, which nevertheless has consequences for the worth of the book.

Don’t neglect the lede

The lede is the hook, the opening paragraph or two (or three or four) from which you circle in to a summary of the book and a statement of your main idea. Its function is to be interesting. The stronger its connection to what follows the better, of course; but its main function, I repeat, is to be interesting. You can begin with summary, and if you’re an unusually interesting summarizer that can even be a good lede. You can begin, like a philosophical paper in an academic journal, with a bare statement of your thesis. And, again, if you have a surprising or unusually gripping thesis, that can work just fine.

But normally neither summary nor main point are going to be very hook-like. This is a book review you’re writing. A genre that proliferates like rabbits, a lowly mass-produced genre, and you’re likely competing with dozens of other reviews of the same book. Why should anyone take the time to read you?

Because you’re interesting. So be interesting, in sentence number one.

What’s interesting? Stories are interesting—I think a narrative opening is always the most gripping, and I’m not alone in that. Controversial or counter-intuitive assertions are interesting. Descriptions of inherently interesting things are interesting. But the common denominator in interesting ledes is—emotion.

I think if you want to be interesting you need to make a reader feel something. That can be curiosity, horror, delight, nostalgia, sorrow, amusement, whatever. But the more intense the feeling you inspire, the more interesting you are.

Conclude by returning to the point.

I’m not sure about this point. How to end book reviews still bedevils me as a technical problem. But the one fail-safe method that always seems to draw appreciative comments from other editors, and which I find myself admiring when I read other people’s book reviews, is an ending that alludes to the beginning.

But there are other ways to end. This is something I plan to study, and I’ll report back when I do. For now though, I can tell you this: circling back to the beginning is one safe way to go.

Have a structure.

You want neither to repeat yourself unduly, nor to write a collection of fragments masquerading as an essay. This piece of advice applies only to long-form reviews I think. A short, 500-word or fewer review kind of has a necessary form, just based on the inclusion of all a book review’s elements. But beyond that you have to make organizational decisions, and the thing will be more effective and memorable for readers if those decisions are logical.

 

Hide your structure.

Final piece of advice, related to the last one: rarely, but frequently enough to mention, we get writers who have so clearly organized their review that it feels like a paper. I mean it feels like an academic essay, where the goal is always very explicit organization.

I think one of the major differences between academic and literary writing is that literary writing attempts to disguise the bones of its organization. Mostly this involves two things: (1) literary writing dispenses with too-obvious sign-posting. None of this, “first I am going to… then I am going to… and finally I am going to.” (2) Literary writing takes care to make the transitions between paragraphs horizontal rather than vertical.

What do I mean by that last point? I mean that in literary writing, the first sentence of one paragraph follows from the last sentence of the previous paragraph, while in academic writing, it often follows a pre-stated schematic order. Academics think nothing of abruptly moving from one topic to another between paragraphs, so long as they have explicitly signaled that they will follow this progression. That’s fine, it fits their goals. But book reviewers are, for the most part, doing something more belletristic, and I think a certain organicism of prose follows that function. (The most magnificently organic paragraph writer, in my opinion, is William Gass, in his essays. Study A Temple of Texts.)

If you need examples of this difference, let me suggest looking back at this post. Between sections I am transitioning in a way that resembles what I am describing as academic paragraphing, and within sections I am transitioning in a way that resembles literary paragraphing.

(I’m over-generalizing about both academic and literary prose, obviously. But I think there’s something to my observation anyway.)

Go ye forth and review some books

That’s pretty much it. I hope that any pro (or good amateur) book reviewers will contribute their disagreements and additions in the comments, and I’ll take a stab at any questions.

Also, should you feel inspired by this post to write a book review, hit me up in my capacity as an editor of Open Letters Monthly—I’ll gladly talk to you about getting you a book (book reviewers get free books—did you know that?!) and working with you to publish your piece with us. [Editorial note: I’m not editing anymore. Turns out I like writing more, much more. But the Open Letters Monthly folks are still ready and eager to publish your longform book reviews. Hit them up.]

Stop writing so badly, start a Tic List

I don’t care who you are: you’ve picked up bad writing habits. Perhaps you rely too much on certain words or short expressions. Perhaps you fail to attend to the transition betweens sentences or paragraphs. Perhaps you boringly adhere to a monotonous sentence length. Perhaps you use the passive too often. The first step toward practicing your writing more deliberately will be to bring these tics in your own style to consciousness and purposefully to avoid or compensate for them as you write. And the best way to do this is to start what I call a tic list.

A tic list is a concisely stated set of personal guidelines that you put somewhere prominently close to your writing space, look at frequently, and refer to whenever you edit your own prose.

Here is an excerpt from the beginning of my tic list (it’s quite long at this point, and growing, as it should be):

  1. Avoid Em-dash asides.
  2. Avoid the expressions “for example,” “let us say,” “for instance,” and “not… but rather.”
  3. Avoid lazy evaluative abstractions: good, great, bad, awful. Instead describe the features of a thing which prompt these evaluations in such a way that they become clear without needing to be stated.
  4. Avoid nested prepositions more than two levels deep.

These four items from my tic list show examples of what are — in my experience — the most prominent types of tic: obstructive digressions, over-used words and phrases, lazy generalities, and syntactic tangles. Most of my many other tics are variations on these basic failings.

How do I use the tic list? Simple: as I write I try to bear it in mind, and when I’ve finished writing something I go through it correcting each instance of the tic I find.

Yes, this takes a lot of work. That’s why it’s so effective. Finding and correcting my tics pains me so much that they very quickly disappear from my writing.

You will notice something about the list: not everything on it is unequivocally bad. The words “for example,” for example, can fit unobtrusively into the flow of good prose. But when I added them to my tic list they had become a weed in my style.

(In my style. I can’t stress this enough. A tic list should correspond to the particular weaknesses of your own style. That’s why I’m not just sharing my whole list with you — an objective, absolute tic list would be an illegitimate shortcut, likely unhelpful for you.)

Another feature of my tic list is that I weight later items more heavily than early items. You will notice an em-dash aside in this post, in the fifth paragraph. It didn’t slip past my attention. I considered it and chose to keep it. When I first added em-dash asides to my tic list, however, I refused to grant myself a single exception until they ceased to be a pattern that I naturally resorted to. That’s the point of the tic list: it’s a form of de-programming.

How to figure out your tics

When I tell people about the tic list, often the first question they have is “but how do I figure out what my tics are?” I think there are two ways.

(1) Alienate yourself from your own prose.
Writers will be familiar with this sequence: in the first flush of composition, they love what they’ve written; as they begin to edit, they begin to hate it; when they come back to it weeks or months later, they are pleasantly surprised, but chagrined at the obvious small but glaring problems.

In the first place, you should pretty much ignore these feelings as a way of evaluating your writing. They’re irrelevant. Most writers, amazingly good or abysmally bad, experience the same sequence. Instead you should evaluate your writing by measuring it in concrete ways against your models. More on that in later posts.

But in the second place, this sequence reveals the ideal time to study your own writing for tics: after you’ve become emotionally distanced from it. So I recommend that you begin your tic list this way: get five or six longish things you’ve written a month or more ago, read them slowly and circle anything that annoys you. Then go back to each thing you circled and study it until you can see what’s wrong with it. Likely you’ll begin to detect patterns in the annoying parts of what you’ve written. Once you’ve found a concise way to describe this pattern, you have an item for you tic list.

Other ways to alienate yourself from your own writing:

  1. Read it aloud.
  2. Ask someone else to read it aloud to you.
  3. Format it differently and look at it in a different way: for example, print it out, or port it to an e-reader, or change the font, or read it with white text on black background.
  4. read it out of sequence: last sentence first, then second-to-last sentence, etc.

But the best alienation technique is and always will be time. Study your own old writing, no matter how painful it is.

(1) Consult other people.
You can’t see everything that’s bad about your own writing. Sometimes a tic goes so deep that you actually think of it as an excellence of your writing. Actually, often you think of your tics as excellences. It will take the disapproval of other people for you to notice them.

But other people are often really bad at explaining what the tic is that annoys them. So you should pay attention to what they dislike, but not to why they say they dislike it.

Here’s one way to do that: get a few readers you trust to read something you’ve written, and ask them to honestly circle the parts that annoy them (just like you did when reading your own older writing). You’ll be surprised how often a variety of different readers will find the same things annoying. Tell them to circle anything that confused them, that distracted them, or that seemed ugly.

Perhaps even better than the reader-test is undergoing the blood-curdling but beneficial experience of real editing by competent editors. Reviewers whose work is accepted by the online magazine I help to edit — Open Letters Monthly — receive in depth and ruthless editorial revision-requests before we publish them. Many people — and I myself, since editors are not exempt — describe this process as transformative. Numerous items on my tic list have come from the observations of my fellow editors. I can’t recommend writing for publication enough for this reason, even if you don’t have the deep desire for publication that I do.

The tic list is the most consistently beneficial aspect of my deliberative practice as a writer. Some of the things I’ll describe in later posts are more exciting or inspiring and will perhaps more drastically change the effect of your writing, but nothing will provide improvement as steady and satisfying. Among other things, the tic list provides a definite way of measuring the improvement of your prose: you can look at a piece from last month and compare it to a piece from last year, and you’ll see how many of the tics that annoy you in the earlier piece have disappeared from the more recent one.

The Intellectual Uses of Ambulation

I walk outside for about two hours a day, like most city dwellers. I walk to work; I walk to the grocery store; I walk to the library. (These points, with occasional lines out to visit a friend, form the triangular parameters of my life.) Before I moved to Boston, I didn’t walk so much; and in the first few years that I lived here, my impatience with walking gradually built until it became physically painful for me to follow my daily trailheads. The walk to Boston College — of which two variants were feasible — caused me untold mental anguish. Each too-often seen sidewalk stain and sagging gutter scraped my spirit like steel wool. I took to reading on the hoof and other dangerous practices.

Then, as I was oozing along my now repulsive sidewalk one day, I was thinking about Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (execrable novel, incidentally), which includes a minor character who innerly monologues a good bit about the mental disciplines of Buddhism. For some reason, I was suddenly taken with the idea of mental discipline, which I defined to myself as the conscious exercise of mental energy in a definite direction. A certain amount of mental discipline is the inevitable ancillary to mental work, to reading, writing, serious conversation, and so forth. But what if I put some of the otherwise aimless stretches of my mental life to work for the sake of the discipline, not as a means to something else? What if, for example, I spent time each day consciously attempting to enumerate new ideas for myself about a set topic, or purposefully rehearsing in as great detail as I was capable the most recent book I’d read, or memorizing things just for the sake of the activity? Might that redeem the awful periods, like walking to work?

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