Category: Books

Noteworthy Sentences: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

“Here among the quieter lanes he breathed the fumes of blossoms and rot, smouldering charcoal, frying food, and heard the distant roar of jets and the drumming of helicopter gunships, and even the thousand-pound bombs exploding thirty kilometers away, not so much a sound as an intestinal fact – it was there, he felt it, it thudded in his soul.”

Tree of Smoke (p.196), Denis Johnson

Noteworthy Sentences: Fup by Jim Dodge

“It took him a while to get a firm grasp on the obvious: Tiny was devestated by his mother’s death, and since only time and maybe a little tenderness would cure that, he decided to just be who he was and go on about his life, and if the boy wanted to join in, that was fine and welcome, and if he didn’t … well, Jake was used to fishing by himself.”

Fup, p.35

Our Real Power as Writers

“If you accept (even partially) this idea that our real power as writers is located in the split-second decisions we make, and in the way these accumulate in a story over many passes through it, then you’ll see that the beauty of a piece of writing doesn’t depend on what we have decided about it in advance, but in the accumulating quality of those split-second decisions (i.e., how in touch we are with our good instincts) and our willingness to go through it again and again.”

George Saunders, On Worry

One Symptom of Good Writing

“One of the symptoms of good writing—and also one of the causes of good writing—is that it takes the reader and the writer and puts them on the same footing. For example, a bad story is usually one where the writer is talking down to the reader. Leading him around by the nose, manipulating. The reader feels that, and just like if you were in a relationship with somebody who was constantly talking down to you, you would resist. It really is just the old-fashioned stuff of being clear, residing in your text long enough to know if you’re defying logic in some way or if you’re finding the optimal path through the material.

Sometimes there’s a tendency to overdo this idea of empathy, as if you have to make every story a demonstration of selfless compassion or something. But I think the empathy, so called, is mostly in your relation to the reader. You’re trying to imagine that person as being every bit as smart and worldly and talented and curious as you are. If you do that, the level of your discourse will come up, and that person will feel honored by your attention.”

George Saunders, The WD Interview

How to Think About Writing When You’re Too Busy to Write

” … I found it useful, when I was in those pre-publication, low-available-time phase, to think: 1) productivity is not necessarily in a linear relationship with time spent. (The stress of a busy life will sometimes take you right to some kind of truth and urgency in your work that might be accomplished in, even, ten quick minutes of writing.) So, shortage of time doesn’t necessarily mean impossibility of progress. 2) Even if you’re not actively writing because you are too busy, you are still a writer, because of the way you regard the world – with curiosity and interest and some sort of love. No need, then, to declare that one is or is not a writer. You just are, because of how you think.”

George Saunders, On moments of doubt, again …

Forgetting is a Filter

“… forgetting is a filter. When something you read resonates with you sufficiently for you to recall it without effort, that means something; it means it connects with your ideas and experiences in some relevant way. Replace that natural process with a more conscious, willpower-based system for retaining information, and you risk losing the benefits of that filter. (I know there are a few professional and educational contexts where you really do have to memorise a whole body of words – but it isn’t the norm.) “Your natural salience filter is a great determinant of what’s most alive to you,” as Sasha Chapin puts it, in an edition of his excellent newsletter. “If you begin to rely on any other filter, you will increasingly record what seems like it should be interesting according to some pre-existing criteria rather than what organically sticks to your mind.”

Oliver Burkeman, The Imperfectionist (How to forget what you read)

Thousands of Incremental Adjustments

“An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”

How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

George Saunders, What Writers Really Do When They Write

Action is Hope

“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”

Ray Bradbury

The Moral Force of a Sentence

“Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there. On one level this truth is the swing of the sentence, the beat and poise, but down deeper it’s the integrity of the writer as he matches with the language. I’ve always seen myself in sentences. I begin to recognize myself, word by word, as I work through a sentence. The language of my books has shaped me as a man. There’s a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer’s will to live.”

Don DeLillo, Mao II

2022 Reading

Stop Reading The News, Rolf Dobelli

Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism, Emelia Horgan

Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg

Psychopolitics, Byung-Chul Han

The Refusal of Work, David Frayne

Intuitive Awareness, Ajahn Sumedho

The End of Burnout, Jonathan Malesic

Indistractable, Nir Eyal

The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy

Here’s to another year of good reading!