Truth, Justice, and Public Good: Simone Weil on Political Manipulation, the Dangers of “For” and “Against,” and How to Save Thinking from Opinion


“True attention is a state so difficult for any human creature, so violent, that any emotional disturbance can derail it. Therefore, one must always endeavour strenuously to protect one’s inner faculty of judgment against the turmoil of personal hopes and fears.”


Truth, Justice, and Public Good: Simone Weil on Political Manipulation, the Dangers of “For” and “Against,” and How to Save Thinking from Opinion

At the age of nineteen, Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) placed first in France’s competitive exam for certification in “General Philosophy and Logic”; Simone de Beauvoir placed second. In her short life, Weil went on to become one of the most penetrating and far-seeing minds of her era. Albert Camus lauded her as “the only great spirit of our times.” The Polish poet and Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz considered her France’s “rare gift to the contemporary world.” She was an idealist who lived out her ideals. Born into a family of Jewish intellectuals, the 24-year-old Weil took a year off teaching to labor incognito in a car factory — despite a rare neuropathy that gave her frequent debilitating headaches — in order to better understand the struggles of the working poor. At twenty-seven, she enlisted as a soldier in the anarchist brigade during the Spanish Civil War. At only thirty-four, she died of starvation in an English sanatorium, where she was being treated for tuberculosis, having refused to receive more food than what her compatriots were rationed in Nazi-occupied France. Along the way, she wrote with uncommon insight and rhetorical rigor about such elemental questions as the essence of attention, the meaning of rights, how to make use of our suffering, and what it means to be a complete human being.

That Weil should languish so underappreciated and obscure today is a tragic function of the dual forces of collective amnesia and the systemic erasure of women’s ideas from the historical record. And yet her ideas, which influenced such luminaries as Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Michel Foucault, Flannery O’Connor, and Cornel West, resonate with intense relevance today.

Simone Weil

In the final months of her life, as she watched the Nazis devastate humanity and fragment even the rational and the righteous into factions of increasingly divisive opinions, Weil composed a short, searing treatise titled On the Abolition of All Political Parties (public library). It was never published in her lifetime. Nearly a century later, it speaks with astonishing and terrifying precision to the underlying forces ripping our world asunder.

Weil begins by posing the foundational question of whether the apparent evils of political divisiveness can be compensated for by the alleged good of adopting the views of any given party. She writes:

First, we must ascertain what is the criterion of goodness.

It can only be truth and justice; and, then, the public interest.

Democracy, majority rule, are not good in themselves. They are merely means towards goodness, and their effectiveness is uncertain. For instance, if, instead of Hitler, it had been the Weimar Republic that decided, through a most rigorous democratic and legal process, to put the Jews in concentration camps, and cruelly torture them to death, such measures would not have been one atom more legitimate than the present Nazi policies (and such a possibility is by no means far-fetched). Only what is just can be legitimate. In no circumstances can crime and mendacity ever be legitimate.

With these three elemental criteria of truth, justice, and public interest in mind, Weil frames the core characteristics of all political parties:

  1. A political party is a machine to generate collective passions.
  2. A political party is an organisation designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members.
  3. The first objective and also the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit.

Nearly a decade before Hannah Arendt composed her masterwork on the origins of totalitarianism, Weil draws the inevitable, devastating conclusion:

Because of these three characteristics, every party is totalitarian — potentially, and by aspiration. If one party is not actually totalitarian, it is simply because those parties that surround it are no less so. These three characteristics are factual truths — evident to anyone who has ever had anything to do with the every-day activities of political parties.

As to the third: it is a particular instance of the phenomenon which always occurs whenever thinking individuals are dominated by a collective structure — a reversal of the relation between ends and means.

Everywhere, without exception, all the things that are generally considered ends are in fact, by nature, by essence, and in a most obvious way, mere means. One could cite countless examples of this from every area of life: money, power, the state, national pride, economic production, universities, etc., etc.

Goodness alone is an end.

More than a century after Emerson admonished that “masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence,” Weil adds:

Collective thinking… is an animal form of thinking. Its dim perception of goodness merely enables it to mistake this or that means for an absolute good.

The same applies to political parties. In principle, a party is an instrument to serve a certain conception of the public interest. This is true even for parties which represent the interests of one particular social group, for there is always a certain conception of the public interest according to which the public interest and these particular interests should coincide. Yet this conception is extremely vague. This is true without exception and quite uniformly.

Illustration of the Trojan horse from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer for young readers

She examines how the second and third defining features of political parties — the determination to influence people’s minds and the ultimate goal of infinite growth — conspire to effect the total manipulation of truth and the corruption of justice:

Once the growth of the party becomes a criterion of goodness, it follows inevitably that the party will exert a collective pressure upon people’s minds. This pressure is very real; it is openly displayed; it is professed and proclaimed. It should horrify us, but we are already too much accustomed to it.

Political parties are organisations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice. Collective pressure is exerted upon a wide public by the means of propaganda. The avowed purpose of propaganda is not to impart light, but to persuade… All political parties make propaganda.

She frames the grim effect on the individual:

A man who has not taken the decision to remain exclusively faithful to the inner light establishes mendacity at the very centre of his soul. For this, his punishment is inner darkness.

With an eye to the three types of lies by which this manipulation occurs — “lying to the party, lying to the public, lying to oneself” — Weil examines the nature and paradoxes of truth:

Truth is all the thoughts that surge in the mind of a thinking creature whose unique, total, exclusive desire is for the truth.

Mendacity, error (the two words are synonymous), are the thoughts of those who do not desire truth, or those who desire truth plus something else. For instance, they desire truth, but they also desire conformity with such or such received ideas.

Yet how can we desire truth if we have no prior knowledge of it? This is the mystery of all mysteries. Words that express a perfection which no mind can conceive of — God, truth, justice — silently evoked with desire, but without any preconception, have the power to lift up the soul and flood it with light.

It is when we desire truth with an empty soul and without attempting to guess its content that we receive the light. Therein resides the entire mechanism of attention.

Perhaps due to her beautifully phrased belief that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” Weil suggests that protecting our attention from manipulation is our greatest and most generous contribution to public life and public good — something which human nature, so hopelessly governed by hope and fear, makes immensely challenging to achieve and therefore all the more triumphant when achieved:

True attention is a state so difficult for any human creature, so violent, that any emotional disturbance can derail it. Therefore, one must always endeavour strenuously to protect one’s inner faculty of judgment against the turmoil of personal hopes and fears.

Art by JooHee Yoon from The Tiger Who Would Be King by James Thurber

She considers the particular and supreme peril of what philosopher Martha Nussbaum would term, nearly a century later, our political emotions — the unthinking, affect-driven impulse toward belief and action, which politicians so deftly manipulate by playing on our hopes and fears. Weil terms this “collective passion” and writes:

When a country is in the grip of a collective passion, it becomes unanimous in crime. If it becomes prey to two, or four, or five, or ten collective passions, it is divided among several criminal gangs. Divergent passions do not neutralise one another… they clash with infernal noise, and amid such din the fragile voices of justice and truth are drowned.

[…]

Collective passion is the only source of energy at the disposal of parties with which to make propaganda and to exert pressure upon the soul of every member.

One recognises that the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets. One recognises it, and yet nobody suggests getting rid of the organisations that generate such evils.

Intoxicating drugs are prohibited. Some people are nevertheless addicted to them. But there would be many more addicts if the state were to organise the sale of opium and cocaine in all tobacconists, accompanied by advertising posters to encourage consumption.

The most toxic effect of collective passion, Weil argues, is that it narrows the locus of attention to particular points of heightened affect — isolated ideas we feel, or are made to feel, strongly for or against — to the exclusion of all attendant ideas that come bundled in that particular party ideology. People are impelled to join a party or a cause because it speaks to a few things they feel strongly about, but they rarely examine closely all the other ideas the party espouses — including many with which, upon reflection and examination, they might wholly disagree. (We have seen this, for instance, with the tidal shift in support by women who initially voted for Donald Trump, having been drawn to some of his economic campaign promises, either unwitting of or turning a willfully blind eye to his reckless misogyny until its undeniable evils came to eclipse any alleged economic goods promised them.)

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

Weil admonishes that while this manipulative fragmentation of thought to the detriment of truth, justice, and public interest originates in our politics, it has permeated nearly every domain of human life:

People have progressively developed the habit of thinking, in all domains, only in terms of being “in favour of” or “against” any opinion, and afterwards they seek arguments to support one of these two options… There are broad-minded people willing to acknowledge the value of opinions with which they disagree. They have completely lost the concept of true and false.

Others, having taken a position in favour of a certain opinion, refuse to examine any dissenting view. This is a transposition of the totalitarian spirit.

When Einstein visited France, all the people who more or less belonged to the intellectual circles, including other scientists, divided themselves into two camps: for Einstein or against him. Any new scientific idea finds in the scientific world supporters and enemies — both sides inflamed to a deplorable degree with the partisan spirit. The intellectual world is permanently full of trends and factions, in various stages of crystallisation.

In art and literature, this phenomenon is even more prevalent. Cubism and Surrealism were each a sort of party. Some people were Gidian and some Maurrassian. To achieve celebrity, it is useful to be surrounded by a gang of admirers, all possessed by the partisan spirit.

However feasible Weil’s central insistence on the abolition of all political parties may be in reality, her deeper point — the importance of refusing to adopt divisive black-and-white opinions among and within us — may be the single most significant, most countercultural act of courage and resistance each of us can perform today. She concludes:

Nearly everywhere — often even when dealing with purely technical problems — instead of thinking, one merely takes sides: for or against. Such a choice replaces the activity of the mind. This is an intellectual leprosy; it originated in the political world and then spread through the land, contaminating all forms of thinking. This leprosy is killing us.

Complement On the Abolition of All Political Parties with Hannah Arendt on lying in politics, Bertrand Russell on our only effective self-defense against propaganda, Walt Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, and Rebecca Solnit on the culture-shifting power of calling things by their true names, then revisit Weil on the purest, most fertile form of thought and the key to discipline.


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Meeting Virginia Woolf


“She just walked across, very shyly, and stood there looking absolutely beautiful. She was much more beautiful than any of the photographs show.”


Meeting Virginia Woolf

It is a rare gift to meet, much less befriend, one of your heroes — a gift that fell upon the American poet, novelist, and diarist extraordinaire May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) in her mid-twenties, just as she was starting out as a writer, when she met Virginia Woolf (January 15, 1882–March 28, 1941).

On a visit to England shortly after her literary debut, the young Sarton decided to leave a copy of her first poetry collection at Woolf’s doorstep, along with some flowers. To her surprise, the kindly maid opened the door and invited her in. Unprepared for the fortuitous opportunity to meet her idol, Sarton mumbled a polite declination, handed the maid the book, and walked away.

Knowing how desperately Sarton wanted to meet Woolf, the prominent writer Elizabeth Bowen took it upon herself to stage a more planned introduction. She decided to invite both Woolf and the young poet to dinner at her country house in Ireland — an epicenter of the era’s creative community, where she hosted such titans of literature as Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch.

Virginia Woolf | May Sarton

In The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library) — the wonderful 1989 collection of wisdom from Paris Review interviews, which also gave us great writers on how to handle criticism and James Baldwin’s advice on writing — Sarton recounts the moment Woolf entered, a strange and stunning vision:

She walked in, in a “robe de style,” a lovely, rather eighteenth-century-looking, long dress with a wide collar, and she came into the room like a dazzled deer and walked right across — this was a beautiful house on Rogent’s Park — to the long windows and stood there looking out. My memory is that she was not even introduced at that point, that she just walked across, very shyly, and stood there looking absolutely beautiful. She was much more beautiful than any of the photographs show. And then she discovered that I was the person who had left the poems.

Sarton remembers how brilliantly canny and gracious Woolf later was in her response, aware that the young writer’s fragile confidence might perch too precariously on her approval or disapproval:

She answered my gift of that book with a lovely note, which is now in the Berg collection, just saying: “Thank you so much, and the flowers came just as someone had given me a vase, and were perfect, and I shall look forward to reading the poems.” In other words, never put yourself in a position of having to judge. So he never said a word about the poems. But she was delighted to find out that I was the person who had left them.

Illustration by Nina Cosford from Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography by Zena Alkayat

At Bowen’s dinner, Sarton found herself in conversation with Woolf while “the gentlemen were having their brandy and cigars in the other room.” She recounts:

We talked about hairdressers. It was like something in The Waves! We all talked like characters in a Virginia Woolf novel. She had a great sense of humor. Very malicious. She liked to tease people, in a charming way, but she was a great tease.

But she put me at ease and I saw her quite often after that. Every time I was in England I would have tea with her, which was a two-hour talk. She would absolutely ply me with questions. That was the novelist. I always felt the novelist at work. Where did I buy my clothes? Whom was I seeing? Whom was I in love with? Everything. So it was enrapturing to a young woman to be that interesting to Virginia Woolf. But I think it was her way of living, in a sense. Vicariously. Through people.

Contemplating the strange allure of this strange genius who so enchanted from afar but so struggled with intimacy, Sarton corrects the media-manipulated image of Woolf’s mental illness:

She was never warm. That’s true. There was no warmth. It was partly physical, I think. She was a physically unwarm person. I can’t imagine kissing her, for instance, I mean on the cheek. But she was delightful, and zany, full of humor and laughter. Never did you feel a person on the brink of madness. That has distorted the image, because she was so in control.

Complement with Sarton’s stunning ode to solitude and Elizabeth Bishop’s memoir of Marianne Moore — the most loving remembrance of a role model and mentor ever composed — then revisit Woolf herself on what it takes to be an artist, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, why the most creative mind is the androgynous mind, and what makes love last.


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Here Comes the SUN! by Stacy McAnulty (plus a giveaway)


SUN! ONE IN A BILLION released last week. I meant to have Stacy on the blog then to talk about her newest book. But the website went down, I had conferences and school visits, and my plans were sunburned to a crisp.

But the SUN rises again another day!

Stacy, I did not realize you had an “Our Universe” series, but it makes total sense since your book EARTH! MY FIRST 4.54 BILLION YEARS was such a hit.

Did you pitch EARTH as a series, or is it something the publisher requested?

EARTH was not pitched as a series. She’s a pretty independent planet and went on submission solo. When we sold the book to Henry Holt, it was a two-book deal but the only requirement for book 2 was that it needed to be funny nonfiction. Once EARTH was a finished book, we knew we had something special, and the publisher wanted to do more. And I wanted to do more! Currently, “Our Universe” consists of EARTH, SUN, MOON (2019), and OCEAN (2020).

That’s out of this world! But no Pluto?

What’s your take on Pluto, by the way? Planet or not?

I just wish scientists would make up their collective mind! I heard Neil deGrasse Tyson speak last year, and he convinced me that Pluto is absolutely not a planet. But I recently read about a new study that wants to change the planet definition again (currently, the IAU—International Astronomical Union—sets the rules) and that would allow Pluto back into the group. For now, I will say Pluto is a dwarf planet and a loyal dog to Mickey.

You know this blog often focuses on how children’s book creators get ideas for stories.

So, what’s the genesis of EARTH? 

And why is SUN the next in the series?

EARTH emerged from the wreckage of a failed project. I’d written a story about a pet rock, who lived with kids from cave times up to modern day. My critique group hated it. But I realized I wasn’t trying to tell a story about a rock. I was trying to tell a story about time and how humans are here for just a blink (in geological terms). So I refocused on telling Earth’s story because she’s been around for a bit.

When I talked to my publisher about doing more books, I pitched Sun, Moon, and Mars—all are extremely interesting. They selected Sun. (I’m glad they picked. I would have had a hard time making that choice.)

If you could be any planet, star or other object in the universe, who would YOU be?

I’d say Mars. I don’t want to be the center of attention—like Sun. Moon is a bit too familiar. Mars is the right balance of mysterious and recognizable. Plus, I think it’ll be the first planet Earthlings visit.

Well, thank you for visiting this blog, Stacy. 

Henry Holt is giving away copy of SUN to a random commenter.

Leave one comment below and a random winner will be selected soon.

GOOD LUCK!



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Reading group: which Agatha Christie should we read this month?


There are 66 detective novels to choose between, many of them among the most popular crime fiction ever written. Cast your vote now!

It’s dark. It’s cold. As I write this the rain is lashing down outside my window and beyond that – ugh! The world. Brexit, Trump, Putin. Danger, fear and uncertainty. I want warmth, I want comfort and I want to feel that somehow, somewhere, order might be restored. I want, in other words, to read a novel by Agatha Christie.

I’m hoping that the queen of cosy crime will be an excellent subject for the reading group this month, as well as a useful tonic. She’s certainly popular and productive enough. Christie put out no fewer than 66 detective novels and 14 short-story collections between the publication of her first novel (The Mysterious Affair At Styles) in 1920 and her death in 1976. More than 2bn copies of those books have been sold so far. Which means that only Shakespeare with his Complete Works, and God with his Bible, have shifted more units. Meanwhile, Agatha Christie TV and film adaptations continually enrapture audiences around the world and The Mouse Trap is still playing in the West End after 66 years, making it the longest-running play in history (and I still don’t know how it ends, so don’t tell me).

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?


Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week:

Halloween approaches and tiojo has been doing some appropriate reading:

I’ve just put down Andrew Michael Hurley’s second novel based in the countryside of the Bowland Fells and the Fylde, Devil’s Day. It follows on well from his first, The Loney. The countryside, which I know well enough, inspires him. But he sees things in it not many of us would. What to us are rolling moors, green valleys, sparkling streams, picturesque farmsteads, signify something else to Mr Hurley. He sees another world. Spiritual, demonic, folkloric, who knows. An unsettling mixture of real and imagined geography gives us the horror version of Le Grande Meaulnes. His novels are psychogeography in action. The moors will look different next time I walk across them.

A slim collection of short stories (comprising the title story, The Mortal Immortal, and The Evil Eye). All three stories are in some way supernatural or uncanny and the writing, though obviously touched by the gothic and thus sometimes a little overblown, is often very good – she knew what she was doing. All three stories, like Frankenstein, explore what it means to be human and how we might live. For me, by the far the most effective was The Mortal Immortal (I probably don’t need to explain the subject matter), bringing home its great existential crisis very powerfully.

That rare thing, a genuinely unputdownable/laugh out loud book. Difficult to tell who was the less appealing, Princess Margaret herself or the people who (as Brown notes) happily accepted invites to events at which she would be present, knowing how awful it (and she) would be. They attended seemingly only so they could then skip off home to describe how awful the event was. Increased my respect for George Harrison, though (who, on being told he couldn’t eat before she left a “do” simply went up to her and asked her to leave).

It’s about the captain of the Beagle and Darwin. Echoes of Patrick O’Brian’s naval novels but it’s the detail and description that really bring it to life, so vivid and well-described I almost feel like I’m watching a film, or that I’ve visited all these places I’ve never seen. The characters are fascinatingly nuanced and human. And their debates over theology versus their scientific discoveries are really bringing home to me the significance and impact of evolutionary theory at the time. Nice and long, too – I don’t want it to end any time soon!

A forensic and very readable analysis of The Iliad and the different strands that informed its creation. Utterly fascinating and totally recommended for armchair Homer fans and general readers alike.

About 10 days ago the Guardian carried an interview with a Spanish writer who recommended A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. Never heard of it! So down the town I went and found a copy in a charity shop. It was a fabulous discovery, and I am currently following it by re-reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. What the two have in common is their view of childhood as a wild and potentially violent state of being. I guess most readers are familiar with Golding. Concerning the older novel by Hughes (1929), I will say nothing, I simply urge people to read it, preferably without knowing anything about it beforehand.

While I usually loathe Poirot because of his smugness, it was not as bad as in other Poirot novels so I could live with it as a quirk.

Which made the book quite enjoyable. Oh, I knew the murderer after the second murder, but I did not know why yet and how the two murders were connected.A classic whodunnit, with the classic “all suspects into the same room” finale where Mr Poirot explains his thoughts.

I’m about halfway through rereading and my God is it the tonic I need at the moment. I remember being relatively unimpressed with it the first time around (at least compared to the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy and Black Spring, which I read first), and although there are parts that go on a bit, the rest of it just feels like it’s screaming directly into my soul.

How does it feel to burn a book? “Excruciating,” according to New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean.

Patrick Parrinder marks the 100th anniversary of HG Wells’s decision to write the history of the world.

So much to admire in this sixth former’s quest to overturn a backpack ban by finding increasingly strange ways to carry his books to school.

Enjoy disagreeing with Lithub’s list of the 10 books that defined the 1990s.

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5 Lessons From a Lost Novel


lessons from a lost novelMistakes are unavoidable. To fear them is to fear life itself. To try to eliminate them is to waste life in a futile struggle against reality itself.

I daresay no one has more opportunities to learn these truths than does a writer.

As writers, our lives are a never-ending litany of mistakes. Certainly mine has been full of mistakes—everything from the opening sentences I wrote for this post, thought better of, and replaced—to literally hundreds of thousands of deleted words I’ve carefully saved from all my rough drafts—to entire story ideas (representing hundreds of hours of dedicated, hopeful work) that have proven themselves unsalvageable and earned a dusty place in a back corner of a closet shelf.

I won’t say I don’t regret these mistakes. I do. I regret the wasted time and effort. I regret the bereavement of loving and nurturing something that never came to fruition. I regret my own lack of foresight, wisdom, and understanding in failing to see pitfalls before I walked into them.

If I’m being really honest I’ll have admit that, given the chance, I’d probably take back every single one of those mistakes.

Fortunately, however, that is one mistake that the very design of life will prevent any one of us from every making.

I can’t take back my mistaken words, ideas, and stories. And in being robbed of the chance to exercise my own foolish desire to do so, I am instead given the priceless gift of being able to learn from those retained mistakes.

Learning From Our Mistakes

Learning from mistakes is unavoidably natural. Even when we’re not consciously aware of the lessons we’ve absorbed from false starts, we have absorbed them. Whatever the mistakes we make in the future, they won’t be the same ones we’ve made in the past, whether or not we avoid them purposefully.

However, sometimes we will be able to consciously review mistakes at a later date. When this happens, we are essentially getting the chance to go back in time, revisit the cause and effect of earlier mistakes, and intentionally learn from them.

Again, I daresay no one has more opportunities to do this than does a writer—since our mistakes are recorded forever in black and white.

A few months ago when writing this post on the advanced principles of show versus tell, I was feeling too lazy to write up brand new examples of “showing,” so I mined an old failed story. In so doing, I was drawn back to re-read the whole thing.

This book, titled The Deepest Breath, was a story of vengeance and forgiveness set in post-World War I Kenya. Since the start of my career as a published author, it is the only novel I have finished and then abandoned—a decision I used as the basis for this post talking about three valid reasons for giving up on a story.

Re-reading this book after having grown and changed significantly as both a writer and a person was an eye-opening experience. The reason I gave up on the book back then was that I could sense its problems, but couldn’t quantify them in a way that would allow me to fix them. Now, five years after abandoning it, I can see both what was wrong and what was right about the book.

The mistakes I made then were made because I had not yet learned what I needed to know in order to avoid them. They were honest, earnest mistakes, born of the struggle to understand. Ultimately, they were mistakes that, however painful in their seeming fruitlessness at the time, were the very mistakes that taught me what I needed to now see clearly.

Some of these mistakes were unique to the story itself. But some are, I feel, universal mistakes that many struggling novelists make—and instinctively recoil from without yet knowing what exactly the problem is or how to fix it.

Today, I would like to look at five of the mistakes I made that ultimately contributed to The Deepest Breath becoming one of my “lost” novels, how I could have avoided those mistakes had I known then what I know now, and how you can learn from my mistakes.

5 Lessons You Can Learn From My Mistakes

Looking back, I’d almost argue that The Deepest Breath was the one novel, out of my novels, that I worked hardest on. I outlined and researched the heck out of it. It went through many iterations. In fact, to all intents and purposes, I wrote it as three separate and distinct novels along the way.

Originally, I intended it as a dual-timeline story with the three main characters’ “present-day” story in 1925 Kenya juxtaposed against their dark backstory during World War I. I initially decided to write the entirety of the war section first, with the intent of then interweaving it throughout the “main” story (an approach I would now adamantly reject, due to its inherent problems with organic flow between timelines).

After realizing that wasn’t working (based mostly on the epiphany that the backstory had some major causal issues), I decided to scrap the idea of dramatizing the backstory and instead just focus on the main story—about the fallout in the relationships among two men who had met in World War I and the woman they realized they both loved. I wrote one iteration (in the present tense), realized it was a mess, and rewrote it extensively in another draft (in past tense).

Along the way, the book improved dramatically. But despite all my years of work, I eventually realized it was still broken—and I had no idea how to fix it.

Now, looking back, I can see that it actually ended up being a pretty good story. There’s a ton I like about it. In some ways, I think it’s the best character piece I’ve ever written. The setting in Kenya is one of my best realized settings ever. The plot is quietly foreboding, the pacing moving slowly and yet with the power of a train hurtling toward an inevitable collision.

And yet… it didn’t work because at the time I wrote it, I didn’t understand enough about the fundamental principles of story to be able to ask myself the five following questions.

1. Who Is the Protagonist?

The Problem: The one unavoidably massive issue with this book was its pervasive lack of focus. Ultimately, it’s a story of a complicated love triangle. Each of the three main characters were equally important, and I chose to equally balance the story amongst their three POVs.

Nothing inherently wrong with that. But at the time I wrote it, I didn’t yet fully understand how story structure guides and creates a story’s focus. This showed up in several areas of this story, but most obviously in the fact that I clearly didn’t understand who this book’s protagonist was. And if I, as the author, didn’t know, then how were readers supposed to know?

But… couldn’t all three main characters be the protagonist?

That’s actually a question I’m asked frequently by writers in regard to their own stories.

What I understand now (and didn’t back then) was that the answer is an unequivocal no.

The Fix: A story’s structural unity is bound up in the relationship of important plot points to the protagonist. However prominent other characters may be, the protagonist is the one who ultimately defines the story.

How?

By providing a strong, consistent throughline. The structural beats tell us what a story is about. If the First Plot Point is about one character, the Midpoint about another character, and the Third Plot Point about still another—then this is a story that doesn’t know what it’s about.

So, in a story in which multiple characters are prominently important to the story, how do you decide which is the protagonist?

The best way of identifying your story’s “throughline” character or protagonist is by examining the Climactic Moment. Which character is the agent of action in the Climactic Moment? Which character definitively ends and/or comments upon the plot’s primary conflict? This character is the character who defines the story. This is the protagonist. This is the story’s linchpin. That must be reflected at every major structural point throughout the story. Otherwise, your story will fall into the same category as mine—a beautiful mess.

2. What Is the Essence of This Story?

The Problem: Too often, when a story’s structure is left undefined by a strong central character, the result is a correspondingly wobbly theme.

In my case, The Deepest Breath was actually a deeply thematic novel. What interested me most about it was its theme: of undeserved forgiveness. The title itself was a quote from the story’s climactic line when one character finally acted out that forgiveness on behalf of another.

So you’d think the theme would have been the one thing I got right.

Not so much.

At the time of writing that book, I was neck deep in learning how to grapple with the principles of structure. I hadn’t yet even begun to understand how to consciously actuate theme by purposefully creating cohesion between plot and theme at every important structural moment.

The result was a well-intentioned story that, although it may have had some great thematic moments and ideas, didn’t actually execute its theme on every page. Actually, it was kinda hard to tell what the story was really about. Was it about forgiveness? Was it about PTSD and fear? Was it about trust in relationships? Was it about striving against the confines of social class? Was it about love? Was it about friendship? Was it about justice versus mercy?

If I’d possessed a better understanding of how to create a cohesive thematic Truth against which to measure every aspect of my characters’ struggles, I could very well have written a story that unified all these ideas by pointing them toward the same end goal. Instead, I ended up with a story full of half-baked notions that seemed to be pointing in a dozen directions at once.

The Fix: Were I writing this story again today, I would start by forming my thematic idea about forgiveness into a definitive Lie/Truth for all three of my main characters. With so many prominent characters, I would have had the opportunity to explore multiple facets of my topic, but in a way that tied all their journeys into the tapestry of a larger picture.

This, in turn, would have given me a guideline against which to choose which subplots supported this thematic idea—and its ultimate realization in the Climactic Moment—and which distracted from the unified premise I was trying to create.

3. Is the Backstory Pertinent?

The Problem: Something I’ve noticed as I’ve grown up as a novelist is that when a writer doesn’t fully understand her story (or story in general), backstory has a way of trying to take over.

In the days before I understood how the structure of plot, character, and theme worked, I often spent an unwonted amount of time amassing huge backstories designed to help me try to understand what the main story—and the characters’ motivations within it—was really about.

Nothing inherently wrong with huge backstories. Indeed, they’re the deep wells from which complex novels draw their subtext. But backstory, like the main story, must always be focused and pertinent.

As I said before, I originally intended The Deepest Breath to present dual timelines that alternated between the characters’ past and present. Looking back, I realize this idea was mostly a crutch designed to try to help me flesh out character motivations I didn’t yet fully understand. The reason I eventually rejected this approach and axed the novel-length backstory section I’d already written, was that the backstory was a crazy mess of boring trench scenes and unrealistic spy thriller stuff that had very little to do with the main story.

The Fix: Backstory is always important. Even when it is not shared outright with readers, it will always influence the author’s understanding of the characters and their story. Therefore, it must be pertinent. It can’t be a fun, rambling romp through ancillary adventures. It must be the staging ground for the character’s journey through the main story.

From a structural vantage point, the backstory’s single most important job is that of setting up the character’s motivation for investing in the Lie/Truth that will be explored in the main part of the story.

did understand this when I wrote Deepest. In fact, the whole point of the backstory was to create the Ghosts that would drive my characters in the main part of their story ten years later. Unfortunately, I got distracted and created a whole rambling mess of a backstory that detracted from the main story’s focus far more than it contributed. Had I this book to do over again, I would vastly simplify the backstory, focusing it less on all the stuff I’d researched about World War I, and more on the needs of the main story’s plot and theme.

4. Are You Clinging to “Ugly Darlings”?

The Problem: We write stories because at some point we fell in love with some beautiful kernel of inspiration. It’s only natural we wouldn’t want to relinquish that special kernel. And yet… sometimes as a story evolves, it evolves past its early inspirations.

Deepest got its start as a dream—the only story I’ve ever written based on a dream. I woke up one morning with a vivid memory of a man dressed in early 20th-century clothes, escaping with his injured wife on a passenger liner.

I loved that scene. I still love it. It’s incredibly evocative to me on both a sensory and an emotional level.

But I tried way too hard to keep that scene, exactly as I’d dreamed it, in the story.

The Fix: Perhaps the hardest part of being a writer is realizing that just because an idea is wonderful doesn’t mean it deserves to be written. The mark of all great stories is their cohesion and focus. Any element—no matter how organically beautiful–that detracts from the larger picture is an element that must be eliminated.

This principle gets harder and harder to enforce the more time and effort we spend on an idea. Axing an imagined idea is one thing; axing an idea you’ve spent perhaps years writing and rewriting and tweaking and fixing is a thousand times more difficult—not least because familiarity and propinquity cause us to lose perspective.

When I wrote this book, I had a hard time cutting elements that, at the time, felt like the whole point. Today, from a more distant perspective, I could dispassionately identify, chop, and rearrange for the story’s greater benefit.

5. Do You Truly Understand the Story You’re Trying to Tell?

The Problem: Stories are strange beasts. Sometimes the story we think we’re telling isn’t the story at all. Other times, we may understand what we’re trying to do, but get hung up on habitual techniques and approaches that don’t serve the art as well as they might.

Five years later, I recognize The Deepest Breath is an entirely different type of story from anything else I’ve ever written. It’s more character-focused, less plot-driven. It’s darker. It’s quieter. It’s more realistic, more literary.

I knew all of that, on some level, when I wrote it. And yet—I still tried to shoehorn it into my own familiar tropes of the heroic action-adventure genre. The story’s Climax, in particular, suffers from my mistaken attempt to take a hitherto subdued character story and funnel it into a shoot-’em-up finale.

The Fix: It often takes time and experience to recognize, but an author’s two greatest commandments are:

1. Know Your Story.

2. Trust Your Story.

Looking back, I didn’t trust my story—or myself—enough to let it be what it wanted to be. I feared its quietness, feeling it was too slow or too boring. However, in re-reading it, I was surprised to realize how strong and compelling the tension is throughout the book. Had I just trusted that in the beginning, I might have written a much better Third Act.

Again, this principle returns to the idea of cohesion. The point of any piece of art is the creation of an effect. We wish to have an effect on our readers, to leave them with a specific feeling or thought. To do this, we must consciously craft that effect at every stage of the story—bringing plot, character, theme, tone, setting, and pacing together into a unified whole, with each piece trusting the other to support it.

***

I know what you’re thinking. Now that I think I’m all old and wise and have figured out all of my book’s problems, I should go back and rewrite it, right?

Maybe.

Honestly, I’m just happy to have returned to what has been a somewhat painful memory and discover that, after all, I had not betrayed or been betrayed by this dear friend from whom I had parted on less than genial terms.

The Deepest Breath is not, by far, the worst thing I’ve ever written. But perhaps for that very reason, I do think of it as my greatest mistake. I doubt I will never return to fix it; there are just too many new stories to write. Happily, however, every one of those new stories will benefit from the many, many mistakes I made when writing that particular novel.

So maybe it wasn’t a mistake after all.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you have any “lost stories”? What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from them? Tell me in the comments!


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Poem of the week: Strike it up, Tabor by Thomas Weelkes


As summer makes its exit, it’s still possible to enjoy the lusty energy of this madrigal maypole dance

Strike it up, Tabor

Strike it up, Tabor,
And pipe us a favour!
Thou shalt be well-paid for thy labour.
I mean to spend my shoe-sole
To dance about the may-pole!
I will be blithe and brisk,
Leap and skip,
Hop and trip,
Turn about
In the rout,
Until the weary joints can scarce frisk!

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Just how helpful is reading for depression?


As winter blues loom, many turn to books for distraction or consolation. But these familiar balms are not always enough

Winter: that gruesome time of year when the sun only pops round to see you off to work and leaves before you can cancel your dinner plans. It has always been a ghastly time for me. When the clocks go back on that insignificant October day and the night crawls in much earlier, the woeful and dampening winter spirit takes hold. Winter blues really aren’t so blue: grey is a much more apt colour for the mood.

In 2016, I was diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (Sad), a form of depression that the NHS estimates to affect approximately one in 15 people in the UK between September and April. During that dampened period, I sought solace in books.

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Door: A Tender Illustrated Allegory of Self-Discovery and the Capacity for Joy


A magical minimalist invitation to curiosity, belonging, and mirth.


Door: A Tender Illustrated Allegory of Self-Discovery and the Capacity for Joy

“Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his classic treatise on transcendent states, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens.” The screen is sometimes a door that swings open into dreams, into psychedelic experiences, into imagined and imaginary versions of ourselves capable of more joy, more courage, more curiosity and open-mindedness than our ordinary selves.

That is what Korean illustrator JiHyeon Lee explores with great subtlety and tenderness in Door (public library) — a minimalist, wordless journey into to a wonderland as wondrous and wild as Alice’s, but one where the improbable becomes not a source of confusion and fright but of pure mirth.

We see a young boy surrounded by the dour grayness of ordinary life, swarmed by unhappy people bustling about their busy, unpresent lives. With key in hand, he follows a bright-red winged being through a mysterious door and into a world populated by strange creatures speaking a strange language — a world that feels like a page out of Codex Seraphininianus, Luigi Serafini’s elaborate encyclopedia of imaginary things written in a code language.

Startled at first and perhaps a bit frightened, the boy shyly accepts the open-handed invitation of a girl-creature and follows her into her world. Gradually, he surrenders to the joyousness that permeates this fanciful foreign land — a festive picnic turns into an enormous playground, which turns into a wedding ceremony.

All along, the boy is instantly embraced and included in the festivities, enveloped in belonging that comes to him warm and unbidden.

When the time comes for him to leave, even the parting is mirthful rather than mournful — we understand that he is to return to his dour, grey, ordinary world, but we also understand that he will return transformed for having known such pure joy and having learned that he possesses the key to it himself.

What emerges is a subtle reminder that even the most beautiful experiences end, but this is reason for celebration rather than lamentation, for we have been made richer, larger, and more alive for having had them at all.

Complement Door with Lee’s debut, the equally delightful Pool, then revisit the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland.

Illustrations courtesy of Chronicle Books; photographs by Maria Popova


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How a Jellyfish and a Sea Slug Illuminate the Mystery of the Self


A humbling evolutionary antidote to the hubris of exceptionalism, with a side of etymology.


How a Jellyfish and a Sea Slug Illuminate the Mystery of the Self

“There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal,” Walt Whitman wrote in contemplating identity and the paradox of the self. Whitman lived in an era before the birth of neuroscience, before psychology as we know it became a robust field of scientific study — before, that is, we began examining more closely whatever it is that we mean by the “self,” only to find that it doesn’t hold up to systematic scrutiny. A century after Whitman, another great poet and great seer of the human experience articulated the terror and the beauty of this elemental fact: “The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth,” Robert Penn Warren wrote in admonishing against the trouble with “finding yourself,” “a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.”

Around the same time, a poet laureate of the life process — the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) — explored the confounding nature of the self with uncommon insight and originality in the title essay of his altogether magnificent 1979 collection The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (public library).

Lewis Thomas (Photograph: NYU archives)

Thomas writes:

We’ve never been so self-conscious about our selves as we seem to be these days. The popular magazines are filled with advice on things to do with a self: how to find it, identify it, nurture it, protect it, even, for special occasions, weekends, how to lose it transiently. There are instructive books, best sellers on self-realization, self-help, self-development. Groups of self-respecting people pay large fees for three-day sessions together, learning self-awareness. Self-enlightenment can be taught in college electives.

You’d think, to read about it, that we’d only just now discovered selves. Having long suspected that there was something alive in there, running the place, separate from everything else, absolutely individual and independent, we’ve celebrated by giving it a real name. My self.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses

In a testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s conviction that “we can’t restructure our society without restructuring the English language,” Thomas traces the etymology of self, folded into which is just about the entire history of the human world:

The original root was se or seu, simply the pronoun of the third person, and most of the descendant words, except “self” itself, were constructed to allude to other, somehow connected people; “sibs” and “gossips,” relatives and close acquaintances, came from seu. Se was also used to indicate something outside or apart, hence words like “separate,” “secret,” and “segregate.” From an extended root swedh it moved into Greek as ethnos, meaning people of one’s own sort, and ethos, meaning the customs of such people. “Ethics” means the behavior of people like one’s self, one’s own ethnics.

Embedded in this evolutionary history of our language is something wholly uncorroborated by the evolutionary history of our biology — the misplaced hubris of exceptionalism. Thomas writes:

We tend to think of our selves as the only wholly unique creations in nature, but it is not so. Uniqueness is so commonplace a property of living things that there is really nothing at all unique about it. A phenomenon can’t be unique and universal at the same time. Even individual, free-swimming bacteria can be viewed as unique entities, distinguishable from each other even when they are the progeny of a single clone.

Illustration from The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs

Thomas points out that creatures large and small exhibit properties that, in their human manifestation, we call individuality — they are, in other words, distinct selves. Single-cell microorganisms swimming in the same water, when examined closely enough, can be distinguished from one another by the way they twirl around their flagellae. Beans carry glycoproteins that serve as self-labels. Coral polyps are endowed with a biological self-consciousness that allows them to recognize other polyps of the same genetic line to fuse with, rejecting polyps of different lines. Fish and mice can tell individuals of their species by their smell. (Decades after Thomas composed this essay, we know that trees also differentiate between and communicate with individual others.) He considers the biological function of the self:

The markers of self, and the sensing mechanisms responsible for detecting such markers, are conventionally regarded as mechanisms for maintaining individuality for its own sake, enabling one kind of creature to defend and protect itself against all the rest. Selfness, seen thus, is for self-preservation.

In real life, though, it doesn’t seem to work this way. The self-marking of invertebrate animals in the sea, who must have perfected the business long before evolution got around to us, was set up in order to permit creatures of one kind to locate others, not for predation but to set up symbiotic households. The anemones who live on the shells of crabs are precisely finicky; so are the crabs. Only a single species of anemone will find its way to only a single species of crab. They sense each other exquisitely, and live together as though made for each other.

Thomas locates the most compelling and sobering illustration of this in two obscure species inhabiting the Bay of Naples, melded into one — a common nudibranch sea slug and the medusa of a tiny jellyfish, permanently affixed to the shell-less snail’s mouth as a vestigial parasite. When marine biologists first discovered the improbable pair and set out to investigate how it formed, they found something astonishing and wholly counter to our basic assumptions about the orientation of a self to an other. Thomas writes:

The attached parasite, although apparently so specialized as to have given up living for itself, can still produce offspring, for they are found in abundance at certain seasons of the year. They drift through the upper waters, grow up nicely and astonishingly, and finally become full-grown, handsome, normal jellyfish. Meanwhile, the snail produces snail larvae, and these too begin to grow normally, but not for long. While still extremely small, they become entrapped in the tentacles of the medusa and then engulfed within the umbrella-shaped body. At first glance, you’d believe the medusae are now the predators, paying back for earlier humiliations, and the snails the prey. But no. Soon the snails, undigested and insatiable, begin to eat, browsing away first at the radial canals, then the borders of the rim, finally the tentacles, until the jellyfish becomes reduced in substance by being eaten while the snail grows correspondingly in size. At the end, the arrangement is back to the first scene, with the full-grown nudibranch basking, and nothing left of the jellyfish except the round, successfully edited parasite, safely affixed to the skin near the mouth.

More than a century after the great naturalist John Muir insisted that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Thomas finds in this real-world Aesop fable drawn from the evolutionary record an embodiment of the exquisite interdependence of nature — an elemental awareness of which we so easily and habitually lose sight, and yet an awareness which, when fully apprehended, dissolves the very notion of a discrete self:

It is a confusing tale to sort out, and even more confusing to think about. Both creatures are designed for this encounter, marked as selves so that they can find each other in the waters of the Bay of Naples. The collaboration, if you want to call it that, is entirely specific; it is only this species of medusa and only this kind of nudibranch that can come together and live this way. And, more surprising, they cannot live in any other way; they depend for their survival on each other. They are not really selves, they are specific others.

The thought of these creatures gives me an odd feeling. They do not remind me of anything, really. I’ve never heard of such a cycle before. They are bizarre, that’s it, unique. And at the same time, like a vaguely remembered dream, they remind me of the whole earth at once. I cannot get my mind to stay still and think it through.

The essays in The Medusa and the Snail, which include Thomas’s beautiful meditation on altruism and the scientific poetics of friendship, remain among the finest, most insightful writing I have ever savored. Complement this particular portion with the young Borges on the nonexistence of the self, Ian McEwan on how the cult of selfhood imperils society, philosopher Jacob Needleman on how we become who we are, and neuroscientist Sam Harris on the paradox of free will, then revisit Thomas on our human potential and our cosmic responsibility.


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