If Ideas Had Shapes

A quoteblog ranging from philosophers in bathrobes to galaxy-rises

Tag: writing

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

This is my style at its most pure, and, I must say, at its most joyous. Paradoxical though it surely sounds, I feel at my freest, my most exuberant, and my most creative when operating under a set of heavy self-imposed constraints. I suspect that the welcoming of constraints is, at bottom, the deepest secret of creativity—and that, of course, is why poetry, built on a foundation of constraints, is so central to this book. Translation, too, is a dense fabric of constraints—and thus, needless to say, the merging of translation with poetry gives rise to such a rich mesh of interlocking constraints that the mind goes a bit berserk in a mixture of frustration and delight.

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Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

…It is not just by some happy accident, for instance, that the poems inside chapters are never, ever broken across page boundaries.

The amount of influence exerted on my text by concerns of purely visual esthetics is incalculable—and by “my text”, I don’t merely mean how I wound up phrasing my ideas, I mean the ideas themselves. Content has been determined by considerations of elegant form so often that I couldn’t begin to imagine it.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

And this is not rare or exceptional; such spontaneous intrusions absolutely pervade this book, on every structural level. An idea will wind up getting drawn in that I could never have anticipated, even just moments before it arose—and yet from the moment it has arrived, it suddenly seems inevitable, it seems to have been fated to be included. Things come from out of left field and are drawn in and integrated and then become central. One’s current mundane life’s most accidental strands get woven deeply into the fabric of the artistic structure one is creating, and the whole is thereby imbued with a profound sense of time and place—even if, in some sense, the message is meant to be timeless and to transcend one’s own small life.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

I believe the convergence to a global tone is something that has to come from deep within, from long and arduous grappling with things one is only beginning to understand. This should be private, not public. These days, people crow of the virtues of constantly-evolving Web pages—drafts of ideas that are tossed up and then changed day by day in front of the eyes of “visitors”. To me, that has zero appeal. I want to hide my ideas until they are fully polished and unified. I don’t throw my drafts away—I keep them for myself; but the beauty of the process of publication is that those drafts are secret, that one’s creative tracks are covered. There is a kind of illusion thereby conveyed that this whole book just sprang up spontaneously.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The amount of rewriting that I do of every single sentence is hard, even for me, to believe.

Douglas Hofstadter – Le ton beau de Marot (1997)

If one is lucky, one has the luxury of becoming totally immersed in an artistic project, letting almost all other things go by the wayside—family, friends, students, colleagues, food, bills, correspondence, neatness, books, music, movies, shopping, and sleep, to give a few examples. The house becomes a pigsty, the kids a bit starved for affection, weight goes down, friends wonder where you are… Fortunately, this monomaniacal state will be transitory, but it seems absolutely necessary, at least in my own case, for the emergence of that overarching frame of mind that allows the project to take on a true unity of purpose and style.

Christopher Hitchens – Mortality (2012)

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” This had its duly woeful effect.

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein (1818)

Still, I had a dearer pleasure than this, which was the formation of castles in the air – the indulging in waking dreams – the following up trains of thought, which had for their subject the formation of a succession of imaginary incidents. My dreams were at once more fantastic and agreeable than my writings. In the latter I was a close imitator – rather doing as others had done than putting down the suggestions of my own mind. What I wrote was intended at least for one other eye – my childhood’s companion and friend; but my dreams were all my own; I accounted for them to nobody; they were my refuge when annoyed – my dearest pleasure when free.

(author’s introduction)

William Strunk, Jr. – The Elements of Style (4th ed., 2000)

It’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.

E. B. White – The Elements of Style (4th ed., 2000)

To use the language well, do not begin by hacking it to bits; accept the whole body of it, cherish its classic form, its variety, and its richness.

E. B. White – The Elements of Style (4th ed., 2000)

Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!”