‘Self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others’

Last night I finished reading Joan Didion’s classic essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). I especially liked the first stories about the stranger side of American society, which she wrote for The Saturday Evening Post. She sings praises for John Wayne, who many considered old-fashioned then, and explains America’s fascination for airplane tycoon Howard Hughes. But the essay that really made a lasting impression, the one that still comes back to me a week later, is On Self-Respect:

“The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.”

It serves as a constant reminder that ‘character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.’ You can read the essay on the site of the magazine it originally appeared in: Vogue.

(Photo of Didion taken by the great Jill Krementz, copy/pasted from the Writers at Work collection.)

One bespoke library please

A Saudi businesswoman wanted her London boardroom lined with books about the West’s engagement with Islam and the Arab world. The thousand-or-so books—a reader’s selection rather than a true collector’s library—cost £80,000.

A London bookseller reinvents itself as a purveyor of private libraries.

It takes all the fun of book collecting away. But it’s a brilliant idea by the bookseller.

Maybe other booksellers could come up with more accessible bespoke libraries?

A scenario:

‘I expect a child. Give me all the books I should read to him in his first ten years.’

‘That would be 400 euros please. We’ll deliver the books next week.’

(Via @thijsniks)

Close The Door, Then Start Writing

I’ve just finished reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), a book about writing by Stephen King. Blogs like Brain Pickings often quote it. 

Stephen King On Writing book coverI only know Stephen King from the movie adaptations of The Shining, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption. But after reading On Writing, I feel like I’ve known King for ages.

He writes about his wandering youth, drug addiction and a near-death experience – caused by a guy who had a hard time driving a Dodge van.  King does this to show why he writes. ‘For the buzz’ and ‘as a spit in the eye of despair’.

These are the things I’ll remember after reading On Writing:

  • Shut the door. King stresses that you shouldn’t ask people to read along. It’s about your imagination and you shouldn’t worry about explaining the story at an early stage.
  • Write two drafts. Don’t edit while writing the first one. You’re trying to uncover a fossil; a story of which the first idea has popped up in your mind and that you should now try to grasp in its entirety. Just worry about the story.
  • Keep the first draft in a drawer for six weeks.  
  • In the second draft, look for meaning and ideas. Rewrite the story in such a way that your theme comes out more clearly for the future reader. 
  • Formula: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.
  • Alcohol and drugs won’t stimulate your creativity.
  • ‘Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.’

And:

  • ‘God, if only I were in the right writing environment, with the right understanding people, I just KNOW I could be penning my masterpiece’.

Without making any false promises – ‘a good writer will never become a great writer’ – King encourages you to start uncovering fossils.

Of course this is a terrible summary of a wise and warm book. Please just see it as a lengthy recommendation to read On Writing. 

If I’ll, one day, will want to write a work of fiction, I’ll definitely read this book again. 

But first, I’ll read at least one of Kings novels. When you’ve come to like a person so much in just a couple of evenings, you want to know what he has created. 

Stephen King – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)

The Pain In E.B. White’s Here is New York

I finally got around to reading E.B. White’s famous essay about New York. He wrote it in 1949 for Holiday. This was a travel magazine for a generation that had just embraced both a post-war boom and the rise of commercial airlines. White wasn’t a traveler, so the magazine asked him to leave Maine for a couple of days to cover Manhattan, the city where he once used to live.

When the essay became a book, the hotel where White resided at the time of writing already disappeared. ‘Despite the mention’, White wrote in the book’s foreword. But he didn’t mind:

“To bring New York down to date, a man would have to be published with the speed of light [..]. I feel that it is the reader’s, not the author’s, duty to bring New York down to date; and I trust it will prove less a duty than a pleasure.”

Ok Mr. White, I’m trained at doing this. Like everyone who has ever lived in New York, I have gotten used to the – sometimes painful – changes to the city.

An example comes to mind. An example that White might also have described in his essay. Because we’re both talking about an ex-speak easy around East 53rd street.

The cover of the first edition
The cover of the first edition

When I lived in New York in 2007, my roommate – a then 42-year old actress-turned-piano-teacher – often took me to bars she had frequented for decades. One of them was Bill Gay’s Nineties, a former speak easy where on Friday nights an Irish ‘piano man’ entertained the crowd. I met someone there I had dreamed of meeting for most of my teenage movie-watching years. Someone who had known The Old Italian New York. Then 83-year old Aldo Leone, greeter of the bar. We became friends for two nights (as I had to move back to Amsterdam soon after my first brawl at Bill’s Gay Nineties).

Every time I returned to New York, I visited Mr. Leone’s bar.

Until, in September 2012, only a faded sign proved that the building on 54rd street once hosted Bill’s Gay Nineties. The joint had disappeared. The bar’s website blamed the landlord. So did The New York Times. There’s no mercy in New York. A bar like that would be a monument in Amsterdam. But in New York, decades of history disappeared because a landlord wanted it that way.

New York comes with pain. With being uncomfortable. White writes how New York offers its visitors and inhabitants two gifts: loneliness and privacy. Then he says:

“The city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin – the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.”

And this pain comes with advantage too.

“I believe it has a positive effect on the creative capacities of New Yorkers – for creation is in part merely the business of forgoing the great and small distractions.”

I’ve never had as many lonely evenings as I had during my stint in New York. But it was also during those months that I started blogging seriously. I interviewed for example, all Dutch correspondents in New York about their trade. By doing this, I laid the foundation for the career I’m so enjoying today.

White ends his book with impending doom. A fleet of bombers (a somewhat new phenomenon at the time) could wipe New York of the earth. But a couple of sentences later, he links it to a hopeful alternative: the construction of the United Nations building.

“The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled.”

I’m going back to New York in February. Ready to embrace the delightful suffering White so elegantly described four years before my father was born.

E.B. White – Here is New York (1949)

My public scrapbook now has 10,000 followers

Just posted this on my Writers at Work Tumblr (more info about that hobby here):

Dear literature friends,

I normally just post photos of literary giants at work, but I’d like to take a moment today to thank you.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 16.34.50

 

As of today, 10,000 people follow this photo collection. Wow. I couldn’t have imagined that when I started this website in 2011 as basically, well.., a public scrapbook. Let alone that someone like Salman Rushdie would call the collection ‘fascinating’.

Moreover, I want to thank you for sending me photos I hadn’t found yet. Together we’re building an archive that will hopefully inspire us every day to get to work ourselves.

Yours sincerely, 

Ernst-Jan Pfauth (@ejpfauth)
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Alienated Majesty

“The reason to read Blake and Dickinson and Freud and Dickens is not to become more cultivated or more articulate… The best reason to read them is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself. You may find your own suppressed and rejected thoughts flowing back to you with an “alienated majesty”

Excerpt from Mark Edmundson’s Why Read?

Find the ‘higher’ you

For me, that process of taking a first draft and working with it over a period of months is EVERYTHING. That’s where a person finds out what he really means and (you could argue) who he really IS. So I suppose one danger is that we might get the idea that, you know, “to blurt, is to be.” The idea that whatever comes out is good and is us. Whereas someone who has really worked with text realizes – well, that neither one is “really” you, but that the considered version might represent a “higher” you – brighter, less willing to coast or condescend, funnier, and (mysteriously) also, I think, kinder.

George Saunders – author of Tenth of December – pleas for thoughtful and slow writing.

The new flâneur

Our doubled lives enable flânerie—how often do we search our physical surroundings for things to post on Instagram? How long do we wander the depths of the Internet to find the perfect GIF? How many hours do you spend clicking the random button on Wikipedia? Where is real life? [..] The flâneur’s raison d’etre—to participate fully through observation—has always remained the same.

The new flâneur strolls the streets of the web, writes Bijan Stephen for The Paris Review Daily.

David Sedaris advices young writers how to deal with their heroes

I think it’s important to read with a generous spirit. If you’re going to pick up a book and say, “I’ll never be that good,” well, it’s not about you. Just celebrate the fact that anyone’s that good. When I read something great, I know I’ll never be that good. But the fact that anyone can be that good is beautiful to me.

David Sedaris advices young writers how to deal with their heroes