Entries from October 2010

Five Fingers of Death

5 Fingers of Death

Five Fingers of Death (1972). This poster hung in Jacob Barber’s bedroom.

Categories: Movies    Tags: · ·

Updike: Words that enter in silence and intimacy

“I think ‘taste’ is a social concept and not an artistic one. I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.”

— John Updike, Hugging the Shore

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Chuck Close: Inspiration is for amateurs

“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

Chuck Close (via)

Categories: Creativity    Tags: · ·

Happy St. Crispin’s Day

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Thrilling, though I’ve seen it a thousand times. (Unabridged text here.) Today is St. Crispin’s Day, October 25, the day that “shall ne’er go by, / From this day to the ending of the world, / But we in it shall be remember’d.”

Categories: Movies    Tags: · · · ·

Off to NYC


Heading down to New York today for lunch with my U.S. and U.K. editors. Which seems like a good enough excuse to post one of Joseph Holmes’ wonderful images of New York and recommend you stop by his photo blog, Joe’s NYC, a portfolio of amazing street photography. (A few of my favorites are here, here and here. The image above lives here.)

Categories: Photography    Tags:

What are books good for?

So what are books good for? My best answer is that books produce knowledge by encasing it. Books take ideas and set them down, transforming them through the limitations of space into thinking usable by others.… [T]he two cultures of the contemporary world are the culture of data and the culture of narrative. Narrative is rarely collective. It isn’t infinitely expandable. Narrative has a shape and a temporality, and it ends, just as our lives do. Books tell stories. Scholarly books tell scholarly stories.

— William Germano

Read the whole essay here. I’m not sure there’s really anything new in it, but it is an interesting consideration of what the word “book” means in the digital era and a good case for the continuing relevance of the codex — you know, the kind of book made out of paper, ink and glue. (via ALD)

Categories: Books    Tags:

The contract with the reader

“A novel can educate to some extent, but first a novel has to entertain. That’s the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I’ll give you a reason to turn every page. I have a commitment to accessibility. I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want the people I grew up with — who may not often read anything but the Sears catalog — to read my books.”

Barbara Kingsolver

Categories: Books · Writing    Tags: ·

Clem Snide covers Journey

Link (via)

Categories: Music    Tags: · ·

Hemingway: No rule on how to write

There’s no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it’s like drilling rock and blasting it out with charges.

Ernest Hemingway

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

The true size of Africa

True Size of Africa

Africa is larger than the U.S., China, India, Japan, and all of Europe combined. Via (click to view full size).

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: · ·

How Writers Write: Margaret Atwood

Categories: Writing    Tags: · · ·

Philip Roth interviewed on “Fresh Air”

TERRY GROSS: So if [writing] is so hard, why do it?

PHILIP ROTH: Well, that’s a question I ask myself too. I’ve been doing it since 1955. So that’s 55 years. It’s hard to give up something you’ve been doing for 55 years, which has been at the center of your life, where you spend six, eight, sometimes ten hours a day. And I always have worked every day, and I’m kind of a maniac, you know. How could a maniac give up what he does? Tell me.

GROSS: Is that seven days a week, like Saturday and Sunday?

ROTH: Yeah, I usually do, yeah.

GROSS: That is obsessive.

ROTH: Maniacal.

GROSS: Maniacal?

ROTH: Give it its right name. It’s maniacal.

Via nprfreshair

Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·

Orwell: Why I Write

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

George Orwell, “Why I Write

Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·

Roth: “The ordeal is part of the commitment”

“I have a slogan I use when I get anxious writing, which happens quite a bit: ‘the ordeal is part of the commitment.’ It’s one of my mantras. It makes a lot of things doable.”

Philip Roth

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Arlo Guthrie: Songs are like fish

Songs are like fish. You just gotta have your line in the water. And it’s a bad idea to fish downstream from Bob Dylan.

Arlo Guthrie

Categories: Creativity    Tags: ·


I do not review many novels on this blog. I do not like to criticize authors. I know all too well how difficult it is to write a novel. I know the author’s anxiety — as David Remnick has described it,

the sense of dread, a self-lacerating concession that the book is not so much finished as abandoned and that positively everyone will see all the holes that are surely there, all the illogic, the shortcuts, the tape, the glue.

To point these things out — the tape, the glue, the flaws — feels a little cruel to me. And unnecessary, since we have no shortage of self-appointed book critics armed with blogs and Twitter feeds and what-all. So generally, when it comes to reviewing one another’s work, I think we writers ought to do as our mothers told us: “if you can’t say something nice…” At the same time, I do see flaws in most every book I read, if only small ones. I can’t help it; I’ve been doing this awhile myself. So what can I say? Nothing, usually. That is why I don’t mention most of the books I read.

There is another problem, too. You are as apt to make a fool of yourself raving about a book as trashing it. In my experience, the euphoria of finishing a novel that feels special usually sours pretty quickly. I tend to ruminate about things, and if you think about any novel long enough, if you flyspeck it and worry it and turn it over and over, then yes, inevitably you will find flaws. You can talk yourself out of loving anything. It’s not just books, either. Very often the things I fall in love with — the band that sounded so cool when I first heard it on the radio, the movie I raved about as I walked out of the theater, the woman who looked so beautiful at first glance (yeah, yeah, back when I was single) — all these things tend to lose their magic as I think about them. And think about them and think about them… So I have learned not to trust my first instincts when I love a book. Wait a couple of days, I tell myself. Let it cool.

The net result of all this overthinking is that, when I do truly love a book, I hesitate to say so.

I am feeling that sort of hesitancy now, because what I want to say, honestly, is that the book I just finished — Next by James Hynes — is one of the best novels I have ever read. Over the next few days, I’m sure I will begin to hedge. I will wish I was more temperate in what I wrote here. But right now, with the last few paragraphs still ringing in my ears? I can’t think of a novel I have enjoyed as much or been as deeply moved by. Certainly it’s been a long, long time since I had an electric reading experience like the last twenty or thirty pages of this book.

Continue reading →

Categories: Book Reviews    Tags: ·

Olivia Fox: “fail successfully”

Olivia Fox on the impostor syndrome, innovation, and “failing successfully.” Shorter version here. Via.

Categories: Creativity    Tags: ·

The Friends of Eddie Coyle … Live

Playwright Bill Doncaster emailed the following press release the other day. I’ve already gushed about Eddie Coyle enough on this blog, both the novel and the film, so you will not be surprised to hear that this sounds incredibly cool to me. I’ll be at the Burren to see it. You should be, too.

George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle… LIVE

Staged reading, Saturday, Nov. 13, 3 p.m. The Burren, Davis Square, Free

SOMERVILLE – Widely regarded as the greatest Boston crime novel ever written, a staged reading of a new theatrical adaptation of George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle will be performed at The Burren, Somerville, on Nov. 13 at 3 p.m.

Adapted for the stage by Bill Doncaster, directed by Maria Silvaggi, The Friends of Eddie Coyle chronicles the lowest rungs of the criminal underworld, as Eddie Coyle attempts to stay alive and out of jail in the company of gun runners, bank robbers, hit men and cops in and around 1970 Boston. Critically acclaimed since its release in 1972, Elmore Leonard called The Friends of Eddie Coyle “The best crime novel ever written — makes The Maltese Falcon read like Nancy Drew.”

This staged reading is free, donations for the cast will be graciously accepted, rsvp required: afriendofeddie@gmail.com.

The cast includes Paulo Branco as Eddie Coyle, Rick Park as Dillon, Tom Berry as Dave Foley, Peter Darrigo as Jimmy Scalisi, Jason Lambert as Jackie Brown, Jen Alison Lewis as Wanda, and featuring Jim Barton, Derrick Martin, Courtney Miranda, and Jeremy Lee.

The Cure for Procrastination

Before you sweat the logistics of focus: first, care. Care intensely.… Obsessing over the slipperiness of focus, bemoaning the volume of those devil “distractions,” and constantly reassessing which shiny new “system” might make your life suddenly seem more sensible — these are all terrifically useful warning flares that you may be suffering from a deeper, more fundamental problem…. Know in your heart that what you’re making or doing matters… First, care. Then, as you’ll happily and unavoidably discover, all that “focus” business has a peculiar way of taking care of itself.

Merlin Mann

Drawing Circles

The other day I blogged about the story of Giotto’s O: A messenger from the Pope arrived in Giotto’s studio in Florence one morning. He asked for a drawing to prove the artist’s skill to the Pope, who was seeking a painter for some frescoes in St. Peter’s. As Vasari tells the story, Giotto “immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it.” Of course, Giotto got the job.

I had never heard the story until I ran across it online recently. It stuck in my mind, a romantic parable of what artistic mastery means. To paint an angel, first you must learn to paint a perfect circle — something like that.

Curious, I wandered around the web looking for more information about Giotto and his circle, and, in the hopscotch way of the web, I found an interesting blog post that linked Giotto’s O to a different sort of circle, the ensō, the asymmetric circle of Japanese Zen calligraphy.

In Zen Buddhist painting, ensō symbolizes a moment when the mind is free to simply let the body/spirit create. The brushed ink of the circle is usually done on silk or rice paper in one movement (but the great Bankei used two strokes sometimes) and there is no possibility of modification: it shows the expressive movement of the spirit at that time. [Wikipedia]

The imperfection of the circle — the asymmetry, the visible brush trails, the blobs of ink — is the point. In its very “flaws,” ensō embodies a traditional Japanese aesthetic, fukinsei (不均整), asymmetry or irregularity. Garr Reynolds (one of my favorite bloggers) explains,

The idea of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic. The enso … is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence.

So these two famous circles, Giotto’s O and the ensō, embody very different aesthetic ideals.

Giotto’s circle is precise mechanical perfection, “a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see.” Even his technique is machinelike: he pins his elbow to his side, turning his arm into a virtual compass.

Vasari adds another detail, as well. In the versions of the story that I initially read, Giotto loads his brush with red paint and paints the circle with a single sweep of his arm. But in Vasari’s telling, Giotto scratches out his circle with a pen (a quill, presumably) rather than a brush. He wants to eliminate even the wavering edge of a brush stroke, the little quivers of the bent bristles.

In writing, that sort of perfectionism is fatal. The very idea of creating “perfect” sentences or stories is paralyzing. No one can write perfectly. I have learned this lesson the hard way. I am a perfectionist by nature. It is no wonder the Giotto story appealed to me. But there are no Giottos in writing. You have to embrace imperfection, you have to accept the little oddities and surprises that emerge in the moment of creation, in the immersive “flow” state that characterizes the best writing sessions. I don’t know the first thing about Zen, but to me the go-with-it philosophy of the ensō feels much truer to the actual experience of writing well. It is not a feeling of abandon; like ensō painting, good writing is never careless or out of control. At the same time, every writer has to accept the little wobbles of his brush, the little traces of his bristles, the funny pear-shape of his ensō. Not because these flaws are unavoidable (though they are) but because they are beautiful.

To a writer like me — who tends to self-edit too much, who sometimes imagines he can write perfectly — the story of Giotto’s O teaches the wrong lesson. I will think of the ensō instead.

Categories: Art · Creativity · Writing    Tags: · · · ·