A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Category: Quotes

Writing as a Strange, Magic Device

Anthropologists know that the written word . . . is not merely an echo of a speaking voice. It is another kind of voice altogether, a conjurer’s trick of the first order. It must certainly have appeared that way to those who invented it, and that is why we should not be surprised that the Egyptian god  Thoth, who is alleged to have brought writing to the King Thamus, was also the god of magic. People like ourselves may see nothing wondrous in writing, but our anthropologists know how strange and magical it appears to a purely oral people–a conversation with no one and yet with everyone. What could be stranger than the silence one encounters when addressing a question to a text? What could be more metaphysically puzzling than addressing an unseen audience, as every writer of books must do? And correcting oneself because one knows that an unknown reader will disapprove or misunderstand?

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Two ideas on justice and judges

These are two ideas that strike me as pertinent and connected.

It has long been frustrating to me that the only criterion by which Americans — almost without exception — evaluate judges is: Did he or she make decisions that produce results I’d like to see? Virtually no one asks whether the judge has rightly interpreted existing law, which is of course what the judge is formally required to do. Americans — again, almost without exception — want judges to be politicians and advocates. The idea that a judge should strive to interpret existing law regardless of whether it does or doesn’t promote politically desirable ends never crosses anyone’s mind, and if by some strange chance it did, the person whose mind was so crossed would reject the proposal indignantly. Americans in this respect resemble toddlers and their own President: they evaluate everything in terms of whether it helps or hinders them in getting what they want.

This devaluation of interpretation amounts to a dismissal of the task of understanding: everything that matters is already understood, so the person who would strive to understand is not only useless, but an impediment to the realization of my political vision. To the partisan, the absence of partisanship is always a sin, and perhaps the gravest of sins.

Alan Jacobs

To be sure, most people . . . tend to be intensely interested in justice when it is for themselves. It is the notion of justice for all that is missing from much of our public discourse.

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion

Why is Viola Davis considered a supporting actress?

I think it’s an insult that Viola Davis may be up for an Oscar for “Best Supporting Actress” [in Fences]. Denzel Washington should be nominated for “Best Supporting Actor.” But Davis carried the film with her multi-layered character. Her portrayal of “Rose” made her the star—by far. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a more robust depiction of the valor of Black women and “violence” against Black womanhood. I found myself both rooting for “Rose” and mournfully wishing so many sisters didn’t have to live lives exactly like hers—and worse.

Thabiti Anyabwile. Davis did get that nomination for supporting actress. So what is the difference between supporting and lead role? I just finished reading the play, Fences, because when I heard August Wilson had won a Pulitzer for it I wanted to read it before I saw the film, and I thought Rose’s situation was not only central to the action but thematically even more gripping than Troy’s–that fence, as Anyabwile points out, represents Rose’s attempt to keep her family in, her hopes that Troy will not drive Cory outside it (she is the one who has asked Troy to build it). Saying Rose is not a lead character is like calling Mark Antony a supporting character in Julius Caesar; but Marlon Brando was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1953. So, huh.

Barton Swaim’s insightful analysis of Trump’s new political rhetoric

There’s something intrinsically false about the rhetoric of healing and unity, no matter who it comes from. A friend of mine, a professor of English with left-of-center tendencies in politics, likes to say that “the rhetoric of consensus is always coercive.” Any time you talk about what “we” believe as Americans — what “this country” was founded on, who “we are” as a nation — you’re forcing a certain kind of unity that many of your listeners, maybe most of them, are excluded from. The rhetoric of consensus may be appropriate on occasions of high ceremony — an inauguration, a State of the Union address — but otherwise it sounds false and cheap to everybody but the winners.

Barton Swaim. I’ve been reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well with my students and he castigates politicians for using overly-flourished language that hides meaning. It’s the same criticism George Orwell exposed in “Politics and the English Language,” the classic (and just) description of political discourse. But it’s been interesting to read these charges this year, because Donald Trump’s approach has disposed of the usual dressed-up political language. He’s not using faux-sophistication to blur his meaning, nor is he using the approach Barack Obama preferred, the language of unity and eloquence (which, as Swaim points out above, possesses its own implications).

But that is not to describe Trump’s language as more revealing or specific. When he says, “The thing I’m doing, I’m cutting taxes big league,” he’s not hiding behind sophistication or eloquence. Yet neither is he using concrete or specific language. Does “big league” mean anything in particular? To say John Lewis is “all talk” and “no action” certainly lacks sophisticated eloquence and common respect, but isn’t it also meaningless invective? That is, what would the “action” be that would gain respect in this context? Isn’t Lewis’s action in creating a federal health care system exactly what Trump is trying to undo?

Trump’s approach is no more honest than the classically lambasted political discourse, but it is completely different, and I find that Zinsser and Orwell’s indictment of political language, if applied to Trump, are off target. It’s one reason I’m enjoying Barton Swaim’s commentary so much this political season. He is no Trump fan, but he’s tracking Trump’s rhetoric and attempting to articulate what is going on and why, in its own way, it is working.

One reason, he points out (in the article referenced above and in others), is Trump’s approach is markedly different than what we’ve grown used to.

We’ve allowed politics to take up emotional space in our lives

I think we’re actually in a time of intense political isolation across the board. I’ve been speaking across the country for the year leading up to the election, and I would be doing these events, and without fail, the last questioner or second-to-last questioner would cry. I’ve been doing political events for a long time, and I’ve never seen that kind of raw emotion. And out of that, I came to the conclusion that politics was causing a deep spiritual harm in our country. We’ve allowed politics to take up emotional space in our lives that it’s not meant to take up.

Michael Wear, in an interview with The Atlantic

Artists need to live modestly

It takes time. This means that you need to find that time. Don’t be too social. Live below your means and keep the means modest (people with trust funds and other cushions: I’m not talking to you, though money makes many, many things easy, and often, vocation and passion harder). You probably have to do something else for a living at the outset or all along, but don’t develop expensive habits or consuming hobbies. I knew a waitress once who thought fate was keeping her from her painting but taste was: if she’d given up always being the person who turned going out for a burrito into ordering the expensive wine at the bistro she would’ve had one more free day a week for art.

– from Rebecca Solnit’s tips on how to be a writer. Many of them are good, but this one is the one I haven’t heard elsewhere. And she’s right.

The act of writing as a shaper of complicated thinking

One of the wonderful things about writing, for me, is the ways in which the world becomes more complicated once it starts coming together on a screen, on paper. Actually most times I write by hand first, and then type after, for a variety of reasons. One of which is there is something very tactile about the experience, the act of holding something in hand, and moving across a page, the actual movement in which I’m more intimately bound rather than just typing away. That does something to me creatively in terms of ideas coming, in terms of even the architecture of a project. But also it gets me away from perfectionism or the self-loathing that too often hovers over and hinders and even smothers my work. The screen brings the constant illusion of perfection. I have notes on concert programs, napkins, restaurant menus, scraps of paper, newspapers . . . I always date them and I love looking through them. Partially it’s to protect myself, so if I stumble on a piece of writing where it’s echoed I know I haven’t taken it, or if I have I would have to give acknowledgment.

With the act of writing, the world can sometimes become so complicated that many times I’m not sure what I believe about something. Time and time again, my beliefs will change as I begin writing. For instance, when the election happened, I quickly said, “Oh these are the reasons for Trump’s win,” and as I began writing—just writing to a writer friend or friends who asked me to explain to them what happened—as I began writing, I began to recognize that it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. And people are more complicated than I thought. Suddenly, the pen outpaces the emotions or the mood. I feel that so often that my immediate response to something is a mood, whereas once I begin writing my response becomes more than mood. It becomes, in a thought, more engaged emotions. So writing becomes a way to remind myself that human beings are irreducibly complex and that they’re deserving of much more than the reductionisms that are often given to them.

Garnette Cadogan