From the category archives:

Thinking

Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

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W.H. Auden, in the essay “Reading” from the collection The Dyer’s Hand:

What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:

  1. Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
  2. Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
  3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
  4. Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
  5. Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
  6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.

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J. Robert Lennon on what writers really do:

Recently, I timed myself during a typical four-hour “writing” session, in order to determine how many minutes I spend writing. The answer: 33. That’s how long it took to type four pages of narrative and dialogue for my novel-in-progress, much of which will eventually end up discarded.

Read the article for his detailed timeline.

via @CherylStrayed via @BigScotty

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From the Imagine That! blog at Psychology Today:

“Neophyte means beginner. Neophyte is the opposite of expert. The serial neophyte is one who relishes the prospect of feeling a kid again, embracing the uncertainty of ignorance and discovering new things constantly. The serial neophyte, first cousin to the polymath, purposefully moves from one discipline and one venture to another, transferring thinking skills and problem-solving strategies as he or she goes.”

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“For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of the mind is needed — freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away. Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name. For writing is re-naming.”

– Adrienne Rich, from “When We Dead Awaken”, 1971

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In the “How to Read This Book” section of The Ode Less Travelled, Stephen Fry states three rules as ‘terms and conditions’ that readers must pledge to follow before proceeding:

  1. Take your time
  2. Don’t be afraid
  3. Always have a notebook with you

Not a bad way to go about your day in general…

Bonus treat: Stephen Fry, in character with his comedic partner Hugh Laurie, expounds on language, beauty and ideas:

“…wheel within a wheel, like the circles that we find in the windmills of our mind…”

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Wait for it: the galaxy doesn’t show up until about twenty-three seconds into the clip.

Galactic Center of Milky Way Rises over Texas Star Party from William Castleman on Vimeo.

(For best viewing, watch the HD version on Vimeo, or download even higher-quality versions directly from William’s video page.)

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I’ve been following Tom Steinberg’s great work at establishing better communications channels and feedback loops between citizens and the UK government for a while now.  You can find out more about these projects at the mySociety website.

In his latest newsletter, he featured a project that applies the HotOrNot meme (which is often judgmental, demeaning, humiliating and masochistic when rating people) to places in the UK:

“ScenicOrNot helps you to explore every corner of England, Scotland and Wales, all the while comparing your aesthetic judgements with fellow players.”

The site presents a photo, and prompts viewers to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, from not scenic to scenic.

One-dimensional assessments of anything are always dicey, but I can see many merits in this particular project:

  • It’s interesting to learn how others perceive a place. Is there anything close to general agreement about what it means to be scenic?  I rated a field of ripening barely a 7, 2.5 points above the average.
  • Many of the photos used are not of touristy locations, so it may be the first time that a particular cattle-gate has been rated or thought about in these terms.
  • Aggregating such opinions could have all sorts of uses, from finding attractive places you didn’t know about, to directing beautification efforts at blighted areas.

According to the same newsletter, mySociety is working on:

“A Really Great Secret Project that uses that scenicness data we’ve been gathering and which we think you’re going to Quite Like”

I can’t wait to see it.

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Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko:

“When I was
a younger man,
art was
a lonely thing.

No galleries,
no collectors,
no critics.

No money.

Yet it was a golden age,
for we all had
nothing to lose,
and a vision to gain.

Today,
it is not quite the same.

It is a time
of tons
of verbiage,
activity,
consumption.

Which condition is better
for the world at large,
I will not venture
to discuss.

But I do know
that many of those
who are driven
to this life

are desperately searching
for those pockets of silence
where we can root and grow.

We must all hope we find them.”

Transcribed from Simon Schama’s The Power of Art. The line breaks are my own.

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Ken Robinson, in his TED Talk Do schools kill creativity?:

“I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we’ve strip-mined the earth, for a particular commodity, and for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we are educating our children.”

via Zoë Westhof

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In yesterday’s post, following the advice of Brian, I was looking at the bright side of life.

We are also a species that doesn’t know how to solve problems like this:

Chimneys in DPRK

Chimneys in DPRK

The Boston Globe’s website has a collection of poignant yet beautiful photos of the effects of poverty and tyranny in North Korea.

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At least every month or two, it’s worth taking a step back to think about something like this:

International Space Station, March, 2009

International Space Station, March, 2009

Humans made this.

People have lived there continuously for more than eight years.

You are a member of a species that figured out how to build a shelter that hovers 350 kilometers (190 nautical miles) above its planet of origin.

Now, what was it that you said you couldn’t do?

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From Mark Ford’s review of William Logan’s new book “Our Savage Art”:

Certainly his own critical persona owes much to this model; in his introduction to this book he figures himself as a version of Diogenes, the austere ancient Greek philosopher who lived in a tub and despised all people and possessions. “A critic who does his job,” Logan observes, “must be a good hater if he’s to be a good lover, because if he likes everything he reads he likes nothing well enough.”

Yes — but if he ‘hates’ nearly everything he reads or encounters, which seems like the case with Logan (I have not read him) and was certainly the case with Diogenes, does his opinion tell us anything about the work reviewed? Or just about the distance of the reviewer from human experience?

Or, is the belittling expression of disgust more excusable if it is articulate and sometimes witty, rather than merely frothing?

Or, does it simply arouse the same lesser passions as gossip and social intrigue?

Or, is passion passion, regardless of its sub-type nuance?

I have always felt a nostalgic longing for the sort of passionate art audiences that rioted at the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”…

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A great reminder hidden in Maureen Dowd’s cranky interview with Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams:

ME: Do you ever think “I don’t care that my friend is having a hamburger?”

BIZ: If I said I was eating a hamburger, Evan would be surprised because I’m a vegan.

Something that seems mundane out of context, i.e. “I am eating a hamburger” gains significance and meaning through pre-existing social context, i.e. “I’m a vegan.”

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Mocking Myself for Planting Trees

At seventy I still plant trees,
but don’t take me for an idiot.
Though death has always been inevitable,
I don’t know the date!

– Qing dynasty poet Yuan Mei (1716-1798)

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