A thought by Carl Sagan

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Happy #bookloversday everybody!

Carl Sagan (1934-1996) was a US-American astronomer, astrophysicist and author. One of his many awards and donors was the Pulitzer Prize for his book Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence and Emmys for his television work. If such an accomplished scientist and scholar of human intelligence calls something magic, it’s about as serious a compliment as you can get!

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A thought by Gillian Slovo

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I heard Gillian Slovo, the South African-born author, last Saturday at the International Literature Festival Dublin 2017. She was talking, along with fellow writer Danielle McLaughlin, to author and psychotherapist Susie Orbach, on the topic of Why We Write. Orbach was fantastic in gently teasing out subtexts and hidden corners of thoughts – it felt more like being privy to an intimate conversation than listening to a panel discussion where, in the worst cases, the same old clichés are being rehearsed.

The questions of why we write, and how we write, fascinate me. The more I learn about this – also from writing myself – the more interesting it becomes. Susie Orbach said that she writes to explore what she is thinking. She is not alone in that – many people may write a journal for this reason, if nothing else.

I am particularly interested in literary non-fiction, and one of its main formats, the personal essay, centres on a process of verbalisation and exploration. A good essay should walk you through the thoughts of an author as they happen. This is not a special effect superimposed on the finished text in the way a murder mystery is structured. The case in essay writing is commonly that the author has a question, rather than already an answer, and elaborates and records her train of thought. Of course, there may be some re-writing once the reflection has been worked out for the first time, in order to shine up the language or bridge some jumps in the logic. But the essential format of seeking and finding will be kept, and it is actually this journey of discovery that is enjoyable to the readers. Also fiction writers are advised to let the reader discover facts about the story or characters as they go along, and not to overload them with all the details upfront. That is fit for a newspaper article, not a story.

Many writers explore personal topics this way, too, about their own present or past. This is sometimes dismissed as “writing being just a form of therapy”. This is irritating for two reasons. For one, there is nothing wrong with therapy; indeed there is nothing wrong with having mental health issues, but that is another discussion. Secondly, there is nothing wrong with writing being therapeutic. The real question is whether it is good writing, in non-fiction as in fiction. If it is good, it will be worth reading, no matter the motivation or circumstances of the author.

Gillian Slovo and Danielle McLaughlin are first and foremost fiction writers, although Slovo has also published a memoir of her childhood in South Africa as the daughter of two major figures in the anti-apartheid movement. Both authors spoke to Susie Orbach about the curious sensation of finding themselves, various parts of themselves, in the characters of their stories. These are usually not superficial likenesses of age, sex, or background. It usually concerns deeper emotions such as fears or desires. Through a character (or plot), an author can also explore darker sides of her soul, from the petty to the monstrous. As a reader, we do the same – this is one of the fundamental attractions of storytelling.

There is another way of understanding what Slovo said about missing oneself, and that is about the voice of the author. Every writer has a voice, which grows usually more defined with experience – you can also call it their style. Some writers are wordy, others sparse. Some are colourful, others minimalist, tongue-in-cheek, warm, mocking, cynical, forthright or reserved. For the reader, it gives an additional pleasure to reading. But for a writer who has found her voice, the pleasure comes from being entirely oneself, of recognising oneself and realising oneself in the process of creation, of choosing exactly this word over that, to sculpt this thought, or that. It is a feeling that imagine is similar in other artistic activities, and it is altogether addictive.

A thought by Truman Capote

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Truman Capote (1924-1984) knew a few things about literature, and about gossip. He did not study literature after secondary school, but he was writing every day since he was eleven years old, eventually publishing short stories, novels, plays and screenplays. He broke ground for a new genre, too – the real-life crime story. His book In Cold Blood (1965), about the murder of a family of four in Kansas, is usually called a nonfiction novel, which Capote researched for six years, travelling to the small farming community where the murders had taken place and later to the prison where the murderers were held before their execution.

In Cold Blood was not the first or last time that Capote used real life as material. He mined his own life for experiences and included himself and people he knew as sometimes little disguised characters in his writings. This led eventually to his falling out with the New York social scene that Capote had been eager to belong to in the 1960s.

Author and professor Colum McCann advises aspiring writers: “Plot takes a backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens.” This is why we enjoy reading or watching stories based on real-life, even well-known historical events. We know the ship will sink, but we watch Titanic nevertheless. We know of people’s triumphs and failures, but we are keen to understand how they came to that point, the decisions they made and challenges they overcame to get there. The literary treatment, like Capote’s writings, adds another element that we may not find in straight documentaries or news journalism: the rhythm and imagery of storytelling, the depth of character and scenic backdrops. Capote himself acknowledged this, too: “To me, the greatest pleasure about writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” But still, he just could not resist the temptation of the gossip.

A thought by A.A. Milne

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Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) is mostly remembered today because of a children’s book. He created Winnie-the-Pooh, the loveable bumbling teddy bear and his friends, putting his little son Christopher Robin as a character into the stories. But Milne wrote many more things – plays, poems, novels and newspaper columns. Many of the latter appeared in the British satirical and humour magazine Punch, which ran from 1841 to 2002 and where Milne worked as a contributing author and assistant editor. He wrote witty essays on a number of topics, from literature to golf, thermometers, walking sticks and food. They allow an intimate look into everyday British life in the early 20th century although admittedly mostly of the educated middle- and upper-classes.

The above quote is taken from a piece called Lunch, which discusses the merits of that meal over others:  “An invitation to dinner is formal, to tea unnecessary, to breakfast impossible, but there is a casualness, very friendly and pleasant, about invitations to lunch which make them complete in themselves, and in no way dependent on any lunch which may or may not follow.”

I enjoy reading his essays, and others like them, exactly because they draw little spotlights on everyday phenomena. Politics, morals and other big issues of life deserve a large chunk of our attention. But looking at the little things in a different light is like being a traveller in one’s own backyard; it is refreshing and opens your mind, especially when written in such a charming way.

A thought by Victor Hugo

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Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was a French novelist, dramatist and poet, and is considered one of the greatest French writers. Outside of France, his best-known novels are Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, although many may know them through their adaptations into numerous films, plays and musicals. Hugo was much engaged in the political and social life, elected first into the Académie Française, the council that is the official authority on the French language, and later into the National Assembly, where he campaigned for social justice, the alleviation of poverty as well as the universal right to vote and to free education. The epic Les Misérables addresses exactly these social causes, through the fictional story of ex-convict Jean Valjean, but also through essays on various historical or philosophical topics scattered through the text. They make up over a quarter of the already enormous book – one of the longest novels ever written. The above quote for example comes from Chapter 1 of Book 7 of Volume 4 of Les Misérables, where he calls for the illumination of minds through education and science. Education will not, as he points out, make us live happily ever after, but it gives everybody a chance to make their own choices and shape their own lives. Being left in the dark means not to be able to understand what is happening around us, in the natural as in the social world. It breeds fear and superstition: “It is unintelligible in the dark. It gnashes and whispers, completing the gloom with misery,” as Hugo vividly describes it. He does not believe in determinism, that we are destined to stay in the same situation as we were born in, and thus either fortunate or unfortunate. The real human division, he writes, is between the illuminated and the ones in the dark – and this can be changed. Minds can be illuminated, through education, through reading.

And think about it: Books are like flames also in that they do not diminish when they are shared. When did you last share a book with someone?

 

A thought by Seamus Heaney

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Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was an Irish poet, playwright, translator and lecturer. He won the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature and many other awards besides, honouring his prolific work “of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Born and raised in Northern Ireland, the topic of the struggle for civil rights and the sectarian violence in the region often shone through his poems. But he sought to reflect the private and apolitical side of it, describing the lives and voices of the people who lived and died in those troubled times.

His poetry was also evocative of his natural surroundings, of the bogs and seasides and not least the local food and foodways. He wrote of picking blackberries, peeling potatoes and eating oysters, “my palate hung with starlight”. The above quote is taken from his poem “Oysters”. It is a mark of his eye for the lyrical details of everyday life that he not only celebrates the food, “philandering sigh of the ocean”, but also the gift of friendship.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

 

A thought by Laura Ward Branca

sunday-quote_170212Laura Ward Branca is an African-Armenian American cookbook author and civil rights activist. She is on the board of the Moosewood vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, NY, named by Bon Appetit magazine as ” one of the thirteen most influential restaurants of the 20th Century”, and she works with the Dorothy Cotton Institute, an institute offering popular education and training to inspire and support people who want to foster and protect human rights and to advance civic participation for social transformation. Founder Dorothy Cotton worked with Dr. Martin Luther King.