Deserts of the Soul

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“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth–rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”  — Virginia Woolf, “On Being Ill

I’m in awe of the length and virtuosity of this sentence. The imagery — “what wastes and deserts of the soul…what ancient and obdurate oaks” — is stunning. And the dentist as deity analogy? So witty. Virginia Woolf is a masterly sentence crafter. It takes some serious writing chops to wield a 181-word sentence(!) with grace and lucidity.

This is why we read good books: for the pleasure of encountering, not just engaging stories and clever ideas, but skillful and beautiful writing.

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room,” Austin Kleon writes. If we want to become better thinkers, better writers, better human beings, we should surround ourselves with the best of what’s out there.

We must stretch ourselves upward in order to grow.

[ Photo credit: Keoni Cabral ]

An Offering to the Betrayed World

We wrestle with words, stringing beads of experience onto the thread of story. We look at tree branches casting dappled sunlight across a yard and craft beautiful sentences on the nature of wonder. We find eternal moments in bedtime stories and turn skinned knees into words of prayer. It is lovely, edifying work, we think, to notice and remember these things.

But…when we see the news, hear of tragedies, deaths, disease, famine, war, we are haunted by the inconsequence of our words, our simple lives. We wonder if what we’re doing–catching stories, finding beauty among the mundane–is too small and selfish to be worthwhile. We question our passion for words and sentences. What good is a poem or a story, a photograph or a blog, when there are people dying in the world?

Why do writers write?

Perhaps there is no better reason than this:
 
 

1.
They take them out in the morning
to the stone courtyard
and put them against the wall

five men
two of them very young
the others middle-aged
nothing more
can be said about them

2.
when the platoon
level their guns
everything suddenly appears
in the garish light
of obviousness

the yellow wall
the cold blue
the black wire on the wall
instead of a horizon

that is the moment
when the five senses rebel
they would gladly escape
like rats from a sinking ship

before the bullet reaches its destination
the eye will perceive the flight of the projectile
the ear record the steely rustle

the nostrils will be filled with biting smoke
a petal of blood will brush the palate
the touch will shrink and then slacken
now they lie on the ground
covered up to their eyes with shadow
the platoon walks away
their buttonstraps
and steel helmets
are more alive
than those lying beside the wall

3.
I did not learn this today
I knew it before yesterday

so why have I been writing
unimportant poems on flowers
what did the five talk of
the night before the execution
of prophetic dreams
of an escapade in a brothel
of automobile parts
of a sea voyage
of how when he had spades
he ought not to have opened
of how vodka is best
after wine you get a headache
of girls
of fruits
of life
thus one can use in poetry
names of Greek shepherds
one can attempt to catch the colour of morning sky
write of love
and also
once again
in dead earnest
offer to the betrayed world
a rose

— “Five Men” by Zbigniew Herbert, translated by Czeslaw Milosz

Learning from the Masters

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“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.”  — Hart Crane

Babies are hard-wired for language acquisition, but they aren’t born speaking complete sentences. Similarly, even the most talented and passionate of storytellers doesn’t start out by writing a masterpiece. We learn first by observing, then by imitating.

If you want to be a writer, you must first be a reader. And if you want to be a good writer, you must read good books.

But where should you start? Time is short and the list of great books lengthy indeed.

Having grown tired of the number of “should reads” on my “someday” reading list and embarrassed to admit, as a self-professed bookworm and would-be English major, that I’d not read some of the most towering works of Western literature, I decided to tackle the problem head-on with the dogged determination of a list-loving schoolmarm.

For the past 11 months, I’ve been working my way through what has turned into a five-year, one-person classical book club. The experience has challenged my abilities as both a reader and a writer and, in the process, rekindled my belief in the beauty and power of words to transcend time and place.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share with you what I’ve been learning on this journey—why good books matter, how to read difficult books as an adult, and what dead authors can teach us about writing in the 21st Century. I’ll also be spotlighting some pieces of beautiful writing I’ve admired along the way — and which might inspire your own writing efforts as well.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” historian Will Durant wrote (paraphrasing Aristotle). “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Just as writers improve through the practice of writing, we also grow through reading and absorbing the great writing of others. I hope you’ll join me back here as we begin learning from the masters.

* * *

What books are on your should-read list? Do you have a favorite classic author? Is there a book you’ve avoided reading or struggled to make it through no matter how many people rave about it? (I’m wary of Moby Dick. It’s one of the top five most abandoned classics. I’m nervous to start it!)

[ Photo credit: Roberto Taddeo ]