art

Steve Jobs, genius

From Stephen Fry’s “Steve Jobs” (The New Adventures of Stephen Fry: 6 October 2011):

Henry Ford didn’t invent the motor car, Rockefeller didn’t discover how to crack crude oil into petrol, Disney didn’t invent animation, the Macdonald brothers didn’t invent the hamburger, Martin Luther King didn’t invent oratory, neither Jane Austen, Tolstoy nor Flaubert invented the novel and D. W. Griffith, the Warner Brothers, Irving Thalberg and Steven Spielberg didn’t invent film-making. Steve Jobs didn’t invent computers and he didn’t invent packet switching or the mouse. But he saw that there were no limits to the power that creative combinations of technology and design could accomplish.

I once heard George Melly, on a programme about Louis Armstrong, do that dangerous thing and give his own definition of a genius. “A genius,” he said, “is someone who enters a field and works in it and when they leave it, it is different. By that token, Satchmo was a genius.” I don’t think any reasonable person could deny that Steve Jobs, by that same token, was a genius too.

Umberto Eco on books

From Umberto Eco’s “Vegetal and mineral memory: The future of books” (Al-Ahram Weekly: 20—26 November 2003):

Libraries, over the centuries, have been the most important way of keeping our collective wisdom. They were and still are a sort of universal brain where we can retrieve what we have forgotten and what we still do not know. If you will allow me to use such a metaphor, a library is the best possible imitation, by human beings, of a divine mind, where the whole universe is viewed and understood at the same time. A person able to store in his or her mind the information provided by a great library would emulate in some way the mind of God. In other words, we have invented libraries because we know that we do not have divine powers, but we try to do our best to imitate them. …

First of all, we know that books are not ways of making somebody else think in our place; on the contrary, they are machines that provoke further thoughts. Only after the invention of writing was it possible to write such a masterpiece of spontaneous memory as Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Secondly, if once upon a time people needed to train their memories in order to remember things, after the invention of writing they had also to train their memories in order to remember books. Books challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotise it. …

YET IT IS EXACTLY AT THIS POINT that our unravelling activity must start because by hypertextual structure we usually mean two very different phenomena. First, there is the textual hypertext. In a traditional book one must read from left to right (or right to left, or up to down, according to different cultures) in a linear way. One can obviously skip through the pages, one—once arrived at page 300—can go back to check or re- read something at page 10—but this implies physical labour. In contrast to this, a hypertextual text is a multidimensional network or a maze in which every point or node can be potentially connected with any other node. Second, there is the systemic hypertext. The WWW is the Great Mother of All Hypertexts, a world-wide library where you can, or you will in short time, pick up all the books you wish. The Web is the general system of all existing hypertexts. …

Simply, books have proved to be the most suitable instrument for transmitting information. There are two sorts of book: those to be read and those to be consulted. As far as books-to-be-read are concerned, the normal way of reading them is the one that I would call the ‘detective story way’. You start from page one, where the author tells you that a crime has been committed, you follow every path of the detection process until the end, and finally you discover that the guilty one was the butler. End of the book and end of your reading experience. …

Then they are books to be consulted, like handbooks and encyclopaedias. Encyclopaedias are conceived in order to be consulted and never read from the first to the last page. …

Hypertexts will certainly render encyclopaedias and handbooks obsolete. Yesterday, it was possible to have a whole encyclopaedia on a CD-ROM; today, it is possible to have it on line with the advantage that this permits cross references and the non-linear retrieval of information. …

Books belong to those kinds of instruments that, once invented, have not been further improved because they are already alright, such as the hammer, the knife, spoon or scissors. …

TWO NEW INVENTIONS, however, are on the verge of being industrially exploited. One is printing on demand: after scanning the catalogues of many libraries or publishing houses a reader can select the book he needs, and the operator will push a button, and the machine will print and bind a single copy using the font the reader likes. … Simply put: every book will be tailored according to the desires of the buyer, as happened with old manuscripts.

The second invention is the e-book where by inserting a micro- cassette in the book’s spine or by connecting it to the internet one can have a book printed out in front of us. Even in this case, however, we shall still have a book, though as different from our current ones as ours are different from old manuscripts on parchment, and as the first Shakespeare folio of 1623 is different from the last Penguin edition. Yet, up to now e-books have not proved to be commercially successful as their inventors hoped. … E-books will probably prove to be useful for consulting information, as happens with dictionaries or special documents. …

Indeed, there are a lot of new technological devices that have not made previous ones obsolete. Cars run faster than bicycles, but they have not rendered bicycles obsolete, and no new technological improvements can make a bicycle better than it was before. The idea that a new technology abolishes a previous one is frequently too simplistic. Though after the invention of photography painters did not feel obliged to serve any longer as craftsmen reproducing reality, this did not mean that Daguerre’s invention only encouraged abstract painting. There is a whole tradition in modern painting that could not have existed without photographic models: think, for instance, of hyper-realism. Here, reality is seen by the painter’s eye through the photographic eye. This means that in the history of culture it has never been the case that something has simply killed something else. Rather, a new invention has always profoundly changed an older one. …

The computer creates new modes of production and diffusion of printed documents. …

Today there are new hypertextual poetics according to which even a book-to-read, even a poem, can be transformed to hypertext. At this point we are shifting to question two, since the problem is no longer, or not only, a physical one, but rather one that concerns the very nature of creative activity, of the reading process, and in order to unravel this skein of questions we have first of all to decide what we mean by a hypertextual link. …

In order to understand how texts of this genre can work we should decide whether the textual universe we are discussing is limited and finite, limited but virtually infinite, infinite but limited, or unlimited and infinite.

First of all, we should make a distinction between systems and texts. A system, for instance a linguistic system, is the whole of the possibilities displayed by a given natural language. A finite set of grammatical rules allows the speaker to produce an infinite number of sentences, and every linguistic item can be interpreted in terms of other linguistic or other semiotic items—a word by a definition, an event by an example, an animal or a flower by an image, and so on and so forth. …

Grammars, dictionaries and encyclopaedias are systems: by using them you can produce all the texts you like. But a text itself is not a linguistic or an encyclopaedic system. A given text reduces the infinite or indefinite possibilities of a system to make up a closed universe. If I utter the sentence, ‘This morning I had for breakfast…’, for example, the dictionary allows me to list many possible items, provided they are all organic. But if I definitely produce my text and utter, ‘This morning I had for breakfast bread and butter’, then I have excluded cheese, caviar, pastrami and apples. A text castrates the infinite possibilities of a system. …

Take a fairy tale, like Little Red Riding Hood. The text starts from a given set of characters and situations—a little girl, a mother, a grandmother, a wolf, a wood—and through a series of finite steps arrives at a solution. Certainly, you can read the fairy tale as an allegory and attribute different moral meanings to the events and to the actions of the characters, but you cannot transform Little Red Riding Hood into Cinderella. … This seems trivial, but the radical mistake of many deconstructionists was to believe that you can do anything you want with a text. This is blatantly false. …

Now suppose that a finite and limited text is organised hypertextually by many links connecting given words with other words. In a dictionary or an encyclopaedia the word wolf is potentially connected to every other word that makes up part of its possible definition or description (wolf is connected to animal, to mammal to ferocious, to legs, to fur, to eyes, to woods, to the names of the countries in which wolves exist, etc.). In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf can be connected only with the textual sections in which it shows up or in which it is explicitly evoked. The series of possible links is finite and limited. How can hypertextual strategies be used to ‘open’ up a finite and limited text?

The first possibility is to make the text physically unlimited, in the sense that a story can be enriched by the successive contributions of different authors and in a double sense, let us say either two-dimensionally or three-dimensionally. By this I mean that given, for instance, Little Red Riding Hood, the first author proposes a starting situation (the girl enters the wood) and different contributors can then develop the story one after the other, for example, by having the girl meet not the wolf but Ali Baba, by having both enter an enchanted castle, having a confrontation with a magic crocodile, and so on, so that the story can continue for years. But the text can also be infinite in the sense that at every narrative disjunction, for instance, when the girl enters the wood, many authors can make many different choices. For one author, the girl may meet Pinocchio, for another she may be transformed into a swan, or enter the Pyramids and discover the treasury of the son of Tutankhamen. …

AT THIS POINT one can raise a question about the survival of the very notion of authorship and of the work of art, as an organic whole. And I want simply to inform my audience that this has already happened in the past without disturbing either authorship or organic wholes. The first example is that of the Italian Commedia dell’arte, in which upon a canovaccio, that is, a summary of the basic story, every performance, depending on the mood and fantasy of the actors, was different from every other so that we cannot identify any single work by a single author called Arlecchino servo di due padroni and can only record an uninterrupted series of performances, most of them definitely lost and all certainly different one from another.

Another example would be a jazz jam session. … What I want to say is that we are already accustomed to the idea of the absence of authorship in popular collective art in which every participant adds something, with experiences of jazz-like unending stories. …

A hypertext can give the illusion of opening up even a closed text: a detective story can be structured in such a way that its readers can select their own solution, deciding at the end if the guilty one should be the butler, the bishop, the detective, the narrator, the author or the reader. They can thus build up their own personal story. Such an idea is not a new one. Before the invention of computers, poets and narrators dreamt of a totally open text that readers could infinitely re-compose in different ways. Such was the idea of Le Livre, as extolled by Mallarmé. Raymond Queneau also invented a combinatorial algorithm by virtue of which it was possible to compose, from a finite set of lines, millions of poems. In the early sixties, Max Saporta wrote and published a novel whose pages could be displaced to compose different stories, and Nanni Balestrini gave a computer a disconnected list of verses that the machine combined in different ways to compose different poems. …

All these physically moveable texts give an impression of absolute freedom on the part of the reader, but this is only an impression, an illusion of freedom. The machinery that allows one to produce an infinite text with a finite number of elements has existed for millennia, and this is the alphabet. Using an alphabet with a limited number of letters one can produce billions of texts, and this is exactly what has been done from Homer to the present days. In contrast, a stimulus-text that provides us not with letters, or words, but with pre-established sequences of words, or of pages, does not set us free to invent anything we want. …

At the last borderline of free textuality there can be a text that starts as a closed one, let us say, Little Red Riding Hood or The Arabian Nights, and that I, the reader, can modify according to my inclinations, thus elaborating a second text, which is no longer the same as the original one, whose author is myself, even though the affirmation of my authorship is a weapon against the concept of definite authorship. …

A BOOK OFFERS US A TEXT which, while being open to multiple interpretations, tells us something that cannot be modified. … Alas, with an already written book, whose fate is determined by repressive, authorial decision, we cannot do this. We are obliged to accept fate and to realise that we are unable to change destiny. A hypertextual and interactive novel allows us to practice freedom and creativity, and I hope that such inventive activity will be implemented in the schools of the future. But the already and definitely written novel War and Peace does not confront us with the unlimited possibilities of our imagination, but with the severe laws governing life and death. …

Reading the impenetrable too fast

From Lee Siegel, quoted in Juliet Lapidos’s “Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on ‘great books’ that aren’t all that great” (Slate: 11 August 2011):

It was like Herbert Marcuse’s advice to a despairing graduate student who said he had spent days on a sentence in Hegel and still couldn’t understand it: “You’re reading too fast,” Marcuse told him.

Saul Bass changed how audiences view movie credits

From Christian Annyas’s “Saul Bass Title Sequences“:

“PROJECTIONISTS – PULL CURTAIN BEFORE TITLES”.

This is the text of a note that was stuck on the cans when the reels of film for “The Man With the Golden Arm” arrived at US movie theatres in 1955.

Until then the credits were referred to as ‘popcorn time.’ Audiences resented them and projectionists only pulled back the curtains to reveal the screen once they’d finished.
Saul Bass’ powerful title sequence for “The Man With the Golden Arm” changed the way directors and designers would treat the opening titles.

“For the average audience, the credits tell them there’s only three minutes left to eat popcorn. I take this ‘dead’ period and try to do more than simply get rid of names that filmgoers aren’t interested in. I aim to set up the audience for what’s coming; make them expectant.” — SAUL BASS

Clay Shirky on the changes to publishing & media

From Parul Sehgal’s “Here Comes Clay Shirky” (Publisher’s Weekly: 21 June 2010):

PW: In April of this year, Wired‘s Kevin Kelly turned a Shirky quote—“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”—into “the Shirky Principle,” in deference to the simple, yet powerful observation. … Kelly explained, “The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions, like a company, or an industry, can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.”

CS: It is possible to think that the Internet will be a net positive for society while admitting that there are significant downsides—after all, it’s not a revolution if nobody loses.

No one will ever wonder, is there anything amusing for me on the Internet? That is a solved problem. What we should really care about are [the Internet’s] cultural uses.

In Here Comes Everybody I told the story of the Abbot of Sponheim who in 1492 wrote a book saying that if this printing press thing is allowed to expand, what will the scribes do for a living? But it was more important that Europe be literate than for scribes to have a job.

In a world where a book had to be a physical object, charging money was a way to cause more copies to come into circulation. In the digital world, charging money for something is a way to produce fewer copies. There is no way to preserve the status quo and not abandon that value.

Some of it’s the brilliant Upton Sinclair observation: “It’s hard to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on him not understanding it.” From the laying on of hands of [Italian printer] Aldus Manutius on down, publishing has always been this way. This is a medium where a change to glue-based paperback binding constituted a revolution.

PW: When do you think a similar realization will come to book publishing?

CS: I think someone will make the imprint that bypasses the traditional distribution networks. Right now the big bottleneck is the head buyer at Barnes & Noble. That’s the seawall holding back the flood in publishing. Someone’s going to say, “I can do a business book or a vampire book or a romance novel, whatever, that might sell 60% of the units it would sell if I had full distribution and a multimillion dollar marketing campaign—but I can do it for 1% percent of the cost.” It has already happened a couple of times with specialty books. The moment of tip happens when enough things get joined up to create their own feedback loop, and the feedback loop in publishing changes when someone at Barnes & Noble says: “We can’t afford not to stock this particular book or series from an independent publisher.” It could be on Lulu, or iUniverse, whatever. And, I feel pretty confident saying it’s going to happen in the next five years.

Hanoi’s last blacksmith

From Seth Mydans’s “A Lone Blacksmith, Where Hammers Rang” (The New York Times: 25 November 2010):

HANOI, Vietnam — He is the last blacksmith on Blacksmith Street, dark with soot, his arms dappled with burns, sweating and hammering at his little roadside forge as a new world courses past him.

The son and grandson of blacksmiths, Nguyen Phuong Hung grew up when the street still rang with the sounds of the smithies, producing farm equipment, horseshoes and hand tools, before modern commerce and industrial production made them obsolete. “I still remember, when it was raining lightly, the streets were empty and that was all you could hear was the sounds of the hammers,” said Mr. Hung, 49.

The men who worked there left for lighter, better-paying work, and because the word was out that no modern woman would marry a blacksmith, Mr. Hung said. There may be other blacksmiths working in Vietnam, he said, but not here in the capital.

“Once I am gone the street will have no meaning anymore,” he said. “Blacksmith Street will be only a name.” That has been the fate of almost all the 36 narrow streets in Hanoi’s tree-shaded Ancient Quarter, each of them named for the guilds that once controlled them — Fan Street, China Bowl Street, Sweet Potato Street, Conical Hat Street.

There is nothing like this little corner of the urban past anywhere else in Vietnam. Only four of the streets have retained something of their original businesses, said Nguyen Vinh Phuc, a leading historian of Hanoi. There are still jewelry shops on Silver Street, sweets and pastries on Sugar Street, votive papers and toys on Votive Paper Street and pots and pans on Tin Street.

Traders have done business on this spot since the ninth century, Mr. Phuc said. The 36 guilds established themselves at the start of the 19th century.

Blacksmith Street got its name at the beginning of the 19th century, Mr. Phuc said, when French colonial administrators sent out a call for metal workers to help build the Long Bien bridge over the Red River. It was designed by the French architect Gustave Eiffel and became a target of American bombing raids during the Vietnam War.

Mr. Hung’s family has been here from the start, and like his father and grandfather he was called to help out around the forge when he was just a boy, as young as 6. But he rebelled and left for jobs as a driver and factory worker until, when he was 35, his father called him back. “My father told me this is the family trade and I’m the only one left to do it,” Mr. Hung said. “He said, ‘Just watch me work and you’ll learn what to do.’”

Mr. Hung discovered that he loved the work, and that it was his destiny to be a blacksmith. He remembered his father’s words: “When the iron glows red, you earn your money. That is your life.”

Mr. Hung has set up a little tea table on the sidewalk, refilling a thermos from a huge iron kettle that swings gently above the hot coals. A giant bamboo pipe leans against the table, and passersby are welcome to stop for a lungful of strong tobacco.

Mr. Hung hammers with the confidence of a master, bare-handed as he works because he says gloves would dull his touch. Wearing a pair of plastic sandals, he ignores the sparks that sting his feet and pepper his shirt with holes. Flames and smoke gush from the hot metal as he tempers it in a bucket of oil. By the end of the day, his arms and face are black with soot.

Matthew Arnold’s 4 words that describe Homer

From Edwin Frank & Andrew McCord’s interview of Robert Fagles in “The Art of Translation No. 2” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

I think it’s through that effort, trying to turn Homer into poetry, that we just may come a little closer to Matthew Arnold’s unforgettable touchstones—Homer is simple, direct, swift, and above all, noble.

Robert Fagles on the dramatic sense of Homer

From Edwin Frank & Andrew McCord’s interview of Robert Fagles in “The Art of Translation No. 2” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

As I read Homer, he’s a remarkable combination of the timeless, immortal phrase, and of the timely, too, and he’s meant to be heard, not read. “Homer makes us Hearers”—in Pope’s fine formulation—“and Virgil leaves us Readers.” The Iliad is more than half dialogue, direct discourse; the Odyssey more than two-thirds. Both are very dramatic poems, in other words, filled with many voices. It’s as if Homer were a ventriloquist, projecting his voice into the voices of dozens of people living within his poems. That’s one of the most important things to capture—if you can—the dramatic sense that he conveys. Whole books (Books Nine and Twenty-four of the Iliad, Nineteen and Twenty-three of the Odyssey, the reunion of the king and queen) could be lifted out of the text and placed directly on a stage. They’re plays waiting to be performed.

Shelby Foote on what comes first: character or plot

From Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, & William Kennedy’s interview of Shelby Foote in “The Art of Fiction No. 158” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

INTERVIEWER Which comes first, character or plot?

FOOTE Character comes first. I separate the mass of novels into good and bad. A good book could be described as one about a man who, in a situation, does such and such. A bad book is about a situation in which a man does such and such. In other words, plot ought to grow out of character. You don’t have to make up a plot. You have to have a person and place him in a situation and a plot starts happening.

Shelby Foote’s advice to young writers

From Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, & William Kennedy’s interview of Shelby Foote in “The Art of Fiction No. 158” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

INTERVIEWER What kind of advice would you give young writers?

FOOTE To read, and above all to reread. When you read, you get the great pleasure of discovering what happened. When you reread, you get the great pleasure of knowing where the author’s going and seeing how he goes about getting there—and that’s learning creative writing.

Shelby Foote on the poor writing by academic historians

From Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, & William Kennedy’s interview of Shelby Foote in “The Art of Fiction No. 158” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

Now it sounds as if I’m making an all-out attack against academic historians. I am making some attack on them for their lack of concern about learning how to write. It is as if they thought it an onerous waste of time, which they might better spend doing research rather than learning how to write. The result sometimes is a prose that’s so dismal that the footnotes are not an interruption but just a welcome relief.

Shelby Foote on how Faulkner one-upped Clark Gable

From Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, & William Kennedy’s interview of Shelby Foote in “The Art of Fiction No. 158” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

You’ve heard that thing about Faulkner and Clark Gable haven’t you? Howard Hawks was taking Faulkner out on a quail shoot and came by to pick him up a little before dawn to get to where they were going by first light. Clark Gable was in the car, and Faulkner in the backseat. As they rode along, Gable and Hawks got to talking. Gable said, You know, you’re a well-read man, Howard. I’ve always been meaning to do some reading. I never have really done it. What do you think I ought to read? And Hawks said, Why don’t you ask Bill back there. He’s a writer, and he’ll be able to tell you. Gable said, Do you write, Mr. Faulkner? Faulkner said, Yes, Mr. Gable. What do you do?

Richard Ford on how to deal with mythical narratives

From Bonnie Lyons’s interview of Richard Ford in “The Art of Fiction No. 147” (The Paris Review: Fall 1996, No. 140):

…when you start manipulating mythical narratives, whether you blunder into them or you do it by calculation, you’d better—to be in control of your book—reckon with their true potency and wide reference. They haven’t persisted all these years because they represent trivial human matters.

Don DeLillo on how film has changed our society completely

From Adam Begley’s interview of Don DeLillo in “The Art of Fiction No. 135” (The Paris Review: Fall 1993, No. 128):

Film allows us to examine ourselves in ways earlier societies could not—examine ourselves, imitate ourselves, extend ourselves, reshape our reality. It permeates our lives, this double vision, and also detaches us, turns some of us into actors doing walk-throughs. In my work, film and television are often linked with disaster. Because this is one of the energies that charges the culture. TV has a sort of panting lust for bad news and calamity as long as it is visual. We’ve reached the point where things exist so they can be filmed and played and replayed.

Philip Larkin on why you write

From Robert Phillips’s interview of Philip Larkin in “The Art of Poetry No. 30” (The Paris Review: Summer 1982, No. 84):

The short answer is that you write because you have to. If you rationalize it, it seems as if you’ve seen this sight, felt this feeling, had this vision, and have got to find a combination of words that will preserve it by setting it off in other people. The duty is to the original experience. It doesn’t feel like self-expression, though it may look like it.

Philip Larkin on modernism

From Robert Phillips’s interview of Philip Larkin in “The Art of Poetry No. 30” (The Paris Review: Summer 1982, No. 84):

It seems to me undeniable that up to this century literature used language in the way we all use it, painting represented what anyone with normal vision sees, and music was an affair of nice noises rather than nasty ones. The innovation of “modernism” in the arts consisted of doing the opposite. I don’t know why, I’m not a historian. You have to distinguish between things that seemed odd when they were new but are now quite familiar, such as Ibsen and Wagner, and things that seemed crazy when they were new and seem crazy now, like Finnegans Wake and Picasso.

Philip Larkin on achieving happiness

From Robert Phillips’s interview of Philip Larkin in “The Art of Poetry No. 30” (The Paris Review: Summer 1982, No. 84):

INTERVIEWER Do you feel happiness is unlikely in this world?

LARKIN Well, I think if you’re in good health, and have enough money, and nothing is bothering you in the foreseeable future, that’s as much as you can hope for. But “happiness,” in the sense of a continuous emotional orgasm, no. If only because you know that you are going to die, and the people you love are going to die.

Philip Larkin on how Charlie Parker ruined jazz

From Robert Phillips’s interview of Philip Larkin in “The Art of Poetry No. 30” (The Paris Review: Summer 1982, No. 84):

Charlie Parker wrecked jazz by—or so they tell me—using the chromatic rather than the diatonic scale. The diatonic scale is what you use if you want to write a national anthem, or a love song, or a lullaby. The chromatic scale is what you use to give the effect of drinking a quinine martini and having an enema simultaneously. If I sound heated on this, it’s because I love jazz, the jazz of Armstrong and Bechet and Ellington and Bessie Smith and Beiderbecke. To have it all destroyed by a paranoiac drug addict made me furious.

Tom Stoppard on the advantages of being famous

From Shusha Guppy’s interview of Tom Stoppard in “The Art of Theater No. 7” (The Paris Review: Winter 1988, No. 109):

INTERVIEWER Now that you are [famous], do you still feel excited by it, or do you think it isn’t that important?

STOPPARD Oh, I like it. The advantages are psychological, social, and material. The first because I don’t have to worry about who I am—I am the man who has written these plays. The social advantages appeal to half of me because there are two of me: the recluse and the fan. And the fan in me is still thrilled to meet people I admire. As for the material side, I like having some money. The best way to gauge wealth is to consider the amount of money that you can spend thoughtlessly—a casual purchase which simply doesn’t register. The really rich can do it in Cartier’s; I’m quite happy if I can do it in a good bookshop or a good restaurant.

Ray Bradbury on what you know & how to write

From Sam Weller’s interview of Ray Bradbury in “The Art of Fiction No. 203” (The Paris Review: Spring 2010, No. 192):

I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are. 

INTERVIEWER After you’ve made your list of nouns, where do you go from there? 

BRADBURY I begin to write little pensées about the nouns. It’s prose poetry. It’s evocative. It tries to be metaphorical. Saint-John Perse published several huge volumes of this type of poetry on beautiful paper with lovely type. His books of poetry had titles like Rains, Snows, Winds, Seamarks. I could never afford to buy his books because they must have cost twenty or thirty dollars—and this was about fifty years ago. But he influenced me because I read him in the bookstore and I started to write short, descriptive paragraphs, two hundred words each, and in them I began to examine my nouns. Then I’d bring some characters on to talk about that noun and that place, and all of a sudden I had a story going. I used to do the same thing with photographs that I’d rip out of glossy magazines. I’d take the photographs and I’d write little prose poems about them.