Walter Benjamin’s tips for writing

by on August 23, 2008 at 5:25 am in Books | Permalink

An occasional MR reader sent me these:

Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with
himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will
not prejudice the next.    

Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it
while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way
will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire
to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion. 

In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation,
to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand,
accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as
significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the
latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a
diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds. 

Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain
papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these
utensils is indispensable.    

V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.   

Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with
magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea,
the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech
conquers thought, but writing commands it.   

Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour
requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a
meeting) or at the end of the work.   

VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.   

IX. Nulla dies sine linea — but there may well be weeks.   

X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.   

XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.   

Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair
copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The
idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.   

XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.

1 chrisare August 23, 2008 at 5:51 am

No word on double negatives?

2 Bandwagon Smasher August 23, 2008 at 10:54 am

Double negatives are OK only if they are not unintended.

3 Anonymous August 23, 2008 at 11:53 am

I was motivated by point VII to write this comment.

4 Richard S. August 23, 2008 at 1:22 pm

This has to be Tyler being ironic. These tips, and the way they’re written, are aweful.

5 mk August 23, 2008 at 2:32 pm

A few sentences are bad but overall I think these tips are fascinating.

Whether they’re efficacious I can’t say since I’ve never written a book.

6 anon August 23, 2008 at 6:22 pm

what terrible writing, particularly point IV.

did the author really need to use that many words rather than, say “choose your writing materials carefully”? i can’t understand how IV would have any application to using a laptop anyway, which i’m positive nearly all writers use nowadays.

seriously, who wrote this? shame.

7 Steve Sailer August 24, 2008 at 3:03 am

Is Walter Benjamin truly an ideal role model for writers? Maybe he’s a better role model than Wittgenstein, but that’s about it. Benjamin’s favorite Bible story is the one in which Jacob wrestles with the angel, precisely because nobody has any idea what it means. Benjamin strove to sound ineffably profound, as if he too were wrestling with a higher order of meaning, and mostly ended up being obscure.

8 figspeachesplumscherries August 26, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Terrible writing. But #s 10 & 11 have merit.

9 Charles September 3, 2008 at 1:18 am

I must assume that many of the above comments were made in ignorance of the person and work of Walter Benjamin.

10 Booklet Printing | PrintPlace September 4, 2008 at 5:13 pm

The Roman numerals were a turnoff from the beginning, but intrigued me enough to read on. I looked up the word “insipid† for number III, but then read the rest of number III and decided to forget what I looked up so as not to confuse myself further. Sorry, it’s hard not to imitate great writing!  Commenter DJH picked the perfect word to describe this writing: “strained.†

11 Charlie C. September 7, 2008 at 2:47 pm

I thought these pieces of advice were very thought-provoking. “Let no thought pass incognito” in particular strikes me as excellent advice, and I was surprised to see someone make fun of it. If you don’t like the style–well–read it in the original German and report back to us then.

12 Kevin November 20, 2008 at 4:19 pm

The salient problem tripping up the majority of the preceding respondents is a plangent unfamiliarity with sustained cogitation.

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14 zordkhan January 28, 2009 at 4:05 am

I think this style is fine. It’s elevated but by no means incomprehensible. Compared to Nathaniel Hawthorne it’s crystal clear.

15 anna May 13, 2009 at 1:58 am

all the things will not know until you do it

16 nancy May 13, 2009 at 2:00 am

It’s an interesting story.

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