Get A Good Pen.

October 3, 2012

From the Wall Street Journal, where it was published by Mark Helprin on September 28, 2012:

Should you be insane enough to want to make a living in this cultural climate by writing fiction that is neither politicized, confessional, nihilistic, sexualized, sensationalist, nor crafted with the vocabulary and syntax of Dick and Jane, here are some suggestions.

Never write in a café, especially in Europe. Ever since Hemingway, this has been the literary equivalent of what in mountain climbing is called the “tech weenie” (that is, someone who cannot get a foot off the ground but is weighed down with $10,000’s worth of equipment). Literary skill, much less greatness, cannot be had with a pose, and exhibitionism extorts the price of failure. Also, have pity on the weary Parisians who have wanted only a citron pressé but have been unable to find a café where every single seat is not occupied by an American publicly carrying on a torrid affair with his moleskin.

This brings up Levenger, which sells “tools for writers.” The fewer tools the better, and they need not be costly or complicated. Whether you use a pencil, a pen, an old typewriter or something electrical is largely irrelevant to the result, although there is magic in writing by hand. It’s not just that it has been that way for 5,000 years or more, and has engraved upon our expectations of literature the effects associated with the pen—the pauses; considerations; sometimes the racing; the scratching out; the transportation of words and phrases with arrows, lines and circles; the closeness of the eyes to the page; the very touching of the page—but that the pen, not being a machine (it does not meet the scientific definition of a machine), is a surrender to a different power than those of mere speed and efficiency.

In short, a pen (somehow) helps you think and feel. And although once you find a pen you like you’ll probably stick with it the way an addict sticks with heroin, it can be anything from a Mont Blanc to a Bic. The same for paper. There are beautiful, smooth, heavy papers, but great works have been written on ration cards, legal pads and the kind of cheap paper they sell in developing countries—grayish white, almost furry, with flecks of brown and black that probably came from lizards and bats that jumped into the paper makers’ vats.

Your most important tools will be your honesty, labor, courage, practice, luck and utter concentration. Inspiration can be magnificent. Handel wrote his “Messiah” cooped up in his room for two weeks. No one saw him, and his meals were allegedly slipped under the door. (Either it was a very strange door or he survived on fruit leather and matzah.) Then again, Voltaire—”On Sunday I was seized by inspiration”—wrote “Phèdre” in six days flat, a play that made his audiences weep not from emotion but because they had to sit through it.

More valuable than speed or being struck by what you think is lightning (and others usually do not) is concentration. When asked how he managed to come up with the calculus, surely one of the greatest achievements possible for the mortal mind, Newton replied, “I thought of nothing else.” Your drafts should be many. Some people (unspecified of course) even go, at times, to 12. This is but one of the differences between modern books that are flipped out like burgers and older ones that are roasted like beef. With the exceptions of those passages where it appears that God has commandeered the pen for the sake of perfection, the initial drafts should look like the Rosetta Stone and be so slashed and worked over with lines, directions and corrections that no one but the author can read them.

This gives rise to the fear that if you are run over by a bus before the work is set in type either it will go to the grave with you or require an army of scholars to decode it. Though they may be paid to unravel Donald Trump’s memoirs, they are less likely to be there for you.

Still, don’t hurry. Live dangerously. People love to look at the rough and scarred original manuscripts in the display cases of the New York Public Library or in facsimile editions. It’s not just because it brings them to the kind of authenticity one cannot help but treasure but because they know that if there is, indeed, magic, it is here to be seen, in worn pages that glow with concentration, genius and love.


Nantucket Whaler’s Tale, Resurrected

February 11, 2011

Herman Melville, shortly after publishing Moby-Dick to middling reviews, travelled to the island of Nantucket to visit a man he’d never met before, a retired town watchman named George Pollard, Jr. The young writer and the old watchman struck up a warm friendship trading stories about a mutual professional interest: whaling.

Melville had worked whaling boats prior to the publication of his novel and, as whaler and writer both, had plenty of stories to trade. But Pollard had him beat: in 1820 he was given the helm of the Essex, a star-crossed Nantucket whaler, which suffered the fantastic fate of actually being attacked and sunk by an enormous sperm whale. The former Captain Pollard and his crew thereafter took to the sea in small life boats and skiffs made to chase whales, drifting and starving till rescue. Rescue, when it came, had been so delayed that Pollard, starving and mad, had already eaten his cousin.

Apparently an optimist, Pollard accepted command of another ship, the Two Brothers, shortly after. He returned to the whaling waters off the coast of Nantucket with plans to explore the newly opened Japan Ground, but promptly sank again. Pollard then settled on Nantucket island and took the watchman job, living a landed life and enjoying the company of fellow islanders, many of them retired captains also.

Now, marine archeologists have discovered the remains of the Two Brothers and, among them, a trove of whaling treasure: harpoon tips, blubber hooks, whaling lances, and three intact anchors. “Very little material has been recovered from whale ships that foundered because they generally went down far from shore and in the deepest oceans,” Ben Simons, chief curator of the Nantucket Historical Association, recently told The New York Times. “We have a lot of logbooks and journals that record disasters at sea, but to be taken to the actual scene of the sunken vessel — that’s really what is so amazing about this.”

The Violent Red Herring

June 17, 2010

The University of Chicago Press recently released, again, a new edition of John R. Lott, Jr.’s thoughtful book, More Guns, Less Crime. In it, author Lott examines the efficacy of American gun control laws. Specifically, does controlling guns have anything at all to do with controlling crime?

For the third edition running, the answer is an emphatic, and obvious, no. Since the original edition’s first appearance in 1998, none of its critics have been able to refute its logic, or its conclusion: that areas with more guns generally have less crime. Now, drawing on an additional 10 years of data (including deep analyses of Chicago’s and Washington, D.C.’s attempts at gun banning), More Guns, Less Crime is even more sure of that original conclusion.

Guns have always been a red herring when it comes to discussions of violent crime. They’re the professional tools of gangs and criminals and Presidential assassins, but guns can’t fire themselves; they need criminals for that. Without criminals, guns are about as harmful as kitchen knives and sports cars. Some potential for injury, sure… but very little, assuming chef and driver are neither careless nor murderous.

Arguing about guns in the context of discussing crime is what lawyers call “an attractive nuisance”: a dangerous thing which, because of some interesting quality, you can’t help but get involved with. For instance, an unattended go-cart in a grade school parking lot. Kids know it’s dangerous and it’s not theirs, but they just can’t help themselves from trying the key. In that case, the go-cart owner might be liable for injuries: he should’ve known it was likely to entice children and cause them injury.

There ought to be similar laws about gun debates. They’re an attractive nuisance: likely to lure pundits, and very likely to cause injury to any kind of constructive conversation.

Debates over gun control retard productivity because they’re wide of the mark. Guns don’t cause crime, criminals do; the only real way to decrease crime is to decrease those social conditions which breed criminals. Criminals commit crimes because of an inequality of opportunity, poor access to education or professional alternatives, general frustration, and… seriously… a lack of positive role models. No criminal has ever committed a crime simply because guns exist.

The counter-argument goes this way: “That may be true, but still he commits his crime with a gun. So while we work on fixing the underlying social causes, we can at least keep guns out of his hands, and he won’t be able to commit those crimes with a gun anymore.”

The counter-argument is as flawed and false as it is alluring in its simplicity: criminals don’t follow laws; otherwise, they wouldn’t be criminals. The fact that it’s illegal to buy a gun, or to buy a certain type of gun, won’t prevent criminals from buying that gun, or that type of gun, any more than Prohibition kept them from buying liquor.

Texas boasts a much higher incidence of gun-ownership than Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. combined, and also enjoys much more relaxed gun laws than those cities. In fact, Chicago and D.C. have tried their hardest to ban handguns outright. Yet, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. suffer from a murder rate much higher than the national average, and much higher than the Lone Star State’s. Tighter gun laws and fewer guns haven’t made any difference in those cities. In fact, things have gotten worse.

Why? Because guns don’t cause crime. Criminality is bred via certain social conditions and, until we fix those conditions, regulating guns won’t make a bit of difference. We’ve seen this often enough by now that we ought to be convinced of its truth. Unfortunately, we run up against the attractive nuisance: guns are a much easier target than social injustices and, when it comes to discussions of crime, they’re also a very big, dangerous red herring.

Twain on Cigars

April 25, 2010

In lieu of original writing, please enjoy Mark Twain’s essay Concerning Tobacco, re-printed below. The author’s legendary cigar habit (estimated at one hundred per month) is rumored to have been come by when he was nine years old and a local tobacconist agreed to pay him in cigars for running daily errands.  

As concerns tobacco, there are many superstitions. And the chiefest is this–that there is a STANDARD governing the matter, whereas there is nothing of the kind. Each man’s own preference is the only standard for him, the only one which he can accept, the only one which can command him. A congress of all the tobacco-lovers in the world could not elect a standard which would be binding upon you or me, or would even much influence us.

The next superstition is that a man has a standard of his own. He hasn’t. He thinks he has, but he hasn’t. He thinks he can tell what he regards as a good cigar from what he regards as a bad one–but he can’t. He goes by the brand, yet imagines he goes by the flavor. One may palm off the worst counterfeit upon him; if it bears his brand he will smoke it contentedly and never suspect.

Children of twenty-five, who have seven years experience, try to tell me what is a good cigar and what isn’t. Me, who never learned to smoke, but always smoked; me, who came into the world asking for a light.

No one can tell me what is a good cigar–for me. I am the only judge. People who claim to know say that I smoke the worst cigars in the world. They bring their own cigars when they come to my house. They betray an unmanly terror when I offer them a cigar; they tell lies and hurry away to meet engagements which they have not made when they are threatened with the hospitalities of my box.

Now then, observe what superstition, assisted by a man’s reputation, can do. I was to have twelve personal friends to supper one night. One of them was as notorious for costly and elegant cigars as I was for cheap and devilish ones. I called at his house and when no one was looking borrowed a double handful of his very choicest; cigars which cost him forty cents apiece and bore red-and-gold labels in sign of their nobility. I removed the labels and put the cigars into a box with my favorite brand on it–a brand which those people all knew, and which cowed them as men are cowed by an epidemic. They took these cigars when offered at the end of the supper, and lit them and sternly struggled with them–in dreary silence, for hilarity died when the fell brand came into view and started around–but their fortitude held for a short time only; then they made excuses and filed out, treading on one another’s heels with indecent eagerness; and in the morning when I went out to observe results the cigars lay all between the front door and the gate. All except one–that one lay in the plate of the man from whom I had cabbaged the lot. One or two whiffs was all he could stand. He told me afterward that some day I would get shot for giving people that kind of cigars to smoke.

Am I certain of my own standard? Perfectly; yes, absolutely –unless somebody fools me by putting my brand on some other kind of cigar; for no doubt I am like the rest, and know my cigar by the brand instead of by the flavor. However, my standard is a pretty wide one and covers a good deal of territory. To me, almost any cigar is good that nobody else will smoke, and to me almost all cigars are bad that other people consider good. Nearly any cigar will do me, except a Havana. People think they hurt my feelings when then come to my house with their life preservers on–I mean, with their own cigars in their pockets.

It is an error; I take care of myself in a similar way. When I go into danger–that is, into rich people’s houses, where, in the nature of things, they will have high-tariff cigars, red-and-gilt girded and nested in a rosewood box along with a damp sponge, cigars which develop a dismal black ash and burn down the side and smell, and will grow hot to the fingers, and will go on growing hotter and hotter, and go on smelling more and more infamously and unendurably the deeper the fire tunnels down inside below the thimbleful of honest tobacco that is in the front end, the furnisher of it praising it all the time and telling you how much the deadly thing cost–yes, when I go into that sort of peril I carry my own defense along; I carry my own brand–twenty-seven cents a barrel–and I live to see my family again. I may seem to light his red-gartered cigar, but that is only for courtesy’s sake; I smuggle it into my pocket for the poor, of whom I know many, and light one of my own; and while he praises it I join in, but when he says it cost forty-five cents I say nothing, for I know better.

However, to say true, my tastes are so catholic that I have never seen any cigars that I really could not smoke, except those that cost a dollar apiece. I have examined those and know that they are made of dog-hair, and not good dog-hair at that.

I have a thoroughly satisfactory time in Europe, for all over the Continent one finds cigars which not even the most hardened newsboys in New York would smoke. I brought cigars with me, the last time; I will not do that any more. In Italy, as in France, the Government is the only cigar-peddler. Italy has three or four domestic brands: the Minghetti, the Trabuco, the Virginia, and a very coarse one which is a modification of the Virginia. The Minghettis are large and comely, and cost three dollars and sixty cents a hundred; I can smoke a hundred in seven days and enjoy every one of them. The Trabucos suit me, too; I don’t remember the price. But one has to learn to like the Virginia, nobody is born friendly to it. It looks like a rat- tail file, but smokes better, some think. It has a straw through it; you pull this out, and it leaves a flue, otherwise there would be no draught, not even as much as there is to a nail. Some prefer a nail at first.

However, I like all the French, Swiss, German, and Italian domestic cigars, and have never cared to inquire what they are made of; and nobody would know, anyhow, perhaps. There is even a brand of European smoking-tobacco that I like. It is a brand used by the Italian peasants. It is loose and dry and black, and looks like tea-grounds. When the fire is applied it expands, and climbs up and towers above the pipe, and presently tumbles off inside of one’s vest. The tobacco itself is cheap, but it raises the insurance. It is as I remarked in the beginning–the taste for tobacco is a matter of superstition. There are no standards–no real standards. Each man’s preference is the only standard for him, the only one which he can accept, the only one which can command him.

Number Three

January 30, 2010

Old wives say death comes in threes. Those old wives who are also students of high-brow American letters will be well-vindicated by the trio which chose this week to shuffle off the mortal coil: Zinn, Salinger, Auchincloss.

Howard Zinn wrote A People’s History of the United States, a leftist polemic repudiating the idea that our founding fathers were anything but wealthy, white Protestants who hated paying taxes. That is, Republicans. He went on to teach at universities across the country and involved himself vocally in the civil rights struggles of his day. Professor Zinn died on Wednesday, January 27. He was 87 years old.

J.D. Salinger was an accomplished author of short stories, once (fleetingly) compared favorably to John Cheever in that genre. His most notable work, though, is The Catcher in the Rye, a coming-of-age story about precarious innocence and discontent. Its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, became a widely-identified with symbol of youthful rebellion while his creater, Mr. Salinger, became a reclusive eccentric, holed up in the foothills of Cornish, New Hampshire and suing to keep his words out of print. Mr. Salinger also died on Wednesday. He was 91.

More subtle horns announced the passing of Louis Auchincloss, the descendant of wealthy Scots who made a career of profiling, in fiction and memoir, New York’s Patrician class. Mr. Auchincloss wrote nearly 50 books, averaging one per year, each year of his career, a rate of production all the more impressive considering his simultaneous duties as a partner with Hawkins, Delafield & Wood, a prominent Wall Street law firm. Mr. Auchincloss was also the president of the American Academy of Arts & Letters. As an older author, he allowed his books to be edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, his cousin.

Louis Auchincloss, author and attorney.

“I’m rather inclined to be edgy when I’m not writing,” explained the author, of his reasons for turning out books in such droves. He was certainly as edgy as a man can be, while still starting sentences with the phrase “I’m rather inclined.”

Mr. Auchincloss wrote books about country clubs, boardrooms, summer homes, and dinner parties. Though ridiculed as “America’s foremost author of manners,” Gore Vidal defended Mr. Auchincloss: “Nobody else took those kinds of people, because nobody else understood them, except in the dumbest way.”

Mr. Auchincloss came to writing, and to the law, in the usual way of his generation: preparatory school at Groton, undergraduate work at Yale University, and legal studies at the University of Virginia. He served in the Navy during the second World War and then wrote The Indifferent Children under the name Andrew Lee. It was so well-recieved that he used his real name ever after.

In 1951 Mr. Auchincloss quit the practice of law to devote all his time to writing. Realizing that it wasn’t making any difference, he went back to work in 1954. He was later commissioned to write a short biography of President Theodore Roosevelt for Times Books. He delivered it personally, ahead of schedule, and handed over one he’d written of Calvin Coolidge also. Unfortunately, they told him, Coolidge had been assigned to somebody else.

Mr. Auchincloss died this past Tuesday, January 26. He was 92 years old.