Monday, June 8, 2009

How We Write?

How should one write? George Pendle recently explored this question in his entertaining Cabinet Magazine article "To Sit, to Stand, to Write" (reprinted in Rumpus Reprint). For Gustave Flaubert, the answer was simple "One cannot think and write except when seated." To Friedrich Nietzchse, sitting to write was not only a bad choice but a sin against God. To Nietzche, "finely attuned to the slightest signs of cultural decadence, Flaubert’s admission was nothing less than an attack on the nature of creativity itself. “There I have caught you, nihilist!” he snapped triumphantly. 'The sedentary life (das sitzfleisch—literally “sitting meat”) is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.'"

As the years have gone by, neither party has really emerged the victor in this debate of sorts. Pendle notes some writers have spent their careers writing standing up (Virginia Woolf, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Wolfe, Fernando Pessoa, and Ernest Hemingway, who observed that “writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing"), while others wrote lying down (Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, and Truman Capote). We could also add list Philip Roth and Woody Allen to opposite ends of the ledger (how appropriate considering their long simmering beef). While Roth prefers writing standing up due to back problems, Allen pounds his annual screenplay from the comforts of bed.

"My spot on the bed is my spot in the world," he explains. It's where he watches baseball games, and reads, and where he writes, usually in the morning, because if he starts at night, he sometimes gets so excited he can't go to sleep. It's where the act of imagination is actually "pleasurable and I might go cast the people and see my characters come to life. And I put the music in and I see the characters playing their scenes to the beautiful music behind them. You know, I get a kick out of that. And if nobody else does, that's too bad."

Another curmudgeon, and noted squash cheater, former secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, also writes standing up as a result of an achy back. In an often reported anecdote from the Rumsfeld years at the defense department, Pendle recounts how when presented with "a list of approved torture techniques being used at Guantanamo Bay, [Rumsfeld] infamously scribbled a query on it: “I stand for 8-10 hours. Why is standing [of prisoners] limited to four hours?”

(Hat Tip: We Love You So)

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