Critique: How to Use Paragraph Breaks to Guide the Reader’s Experience


Paragraph breaks are something akin to a writer’s turn signals. They silently—sometimes almost subliminally—tell readers what’s about to happen and how they should react.

As you may remember (or not) from school, a paragraph break in technical writing is meant to indicate a new thought. (I have clear memories of being required to find and underline the “topic sentence” that was the organizing thought of each new paragraph; it was a boring exercise, but looking back, I realize how well it’s served me.)

In fiction, we use the paragraph break a little differently (<—topic sentence!!!). Not only do our paragraph breaks signal a new thought, they can also be used to orient readers within the overall action: Who is acting? Who is speaking?

In ye olden days, what constituted a cohesive paragraph, even in fiction, was considerably more permissive. If you read the classics, you know it’s not uncommon to encounter paragraphs that last pages. These days, readers prefer to see more white space on the page. They want to read quickly, an ability aided by an author’s skillful use of “turn signals.”

Use paragraph breaks almost like punctuation, so you can guide your readers’ experience of your story’s action and pacing.

Learning From Each Other: New WIP Excerpt Analysis

Today’s post is the second in an ongoing series in which I am analyzing the excerpts you all have so kindly sent in. My approach to these critiques is a little different from those you normally see on writing blogs. Instead of editing each piece, I’m focusing on one particular lesson that can be drawn from each excerpt, so we can deep-dive into the logic and process of various useful techniques.

Today, my thanks to Erik Börjesson for sharing the following excerpt from his fantasy Rose of the Winds:

It moved.

“Hey!” The squirrel leaped from the branch in a streak of red. She ran after it, weaving through a clung of sap trees and jumped over a thorn bush; the world passed her in streaks of colours and shapes. Where she was going was of no concern, what mattered was the squirrel and little more. The squirrel’s coat of brown and red blended in with the canopy of the trees as if it was wearing camoflauge. She held the camera with white fingers, its leather strap chafing her neck, a drop of sweat streaked down her forehead. A low branch came up ahead. Clara lunged to her knees, sliding over the forest floor, showering browned leaves and clods of dirt in her wake, her head barely missing the branch. She stopped, panting, her heart beating in her throat. Clara looked for the squirrel, turning around in circles. She finally spotted it clinging to the grey trunk of an ashtree. Quick as lightning, Clara bent down on one knee and focused in on the squirrel. Snap. “Gotcha.” She smiled a wicked smile and wiped the sweat from her forehead. The squirrel retreated to the safety of the canopy, relieved that the chase was over. Clara stood up and brushed the cakes of mud off her blue jeans; though, some of it still clung to them. She turned to leave, but then stopped. Where was the trail? It felt like something cold and nasty had turned her guts inside out. She looked around for something familiar. She spotted the low branch and went back and under it; she soldiered on. Next was a thorn bush. Clara walked and walked but found no bush. Was the tree with the low branch really the same one she had passed?

Even in this in medias res excerpt, Erik does a great job with forward momentum, thanks mostly to the character’s goal. She wants something, and that is the entire point of the scene. As the scene goes on (there’s a subsequent section I haven’t shared due to length constraints), it’s also clear he has a great grasp on scene structure. We start out with Clara’s goal to take a picture of the squirrel, encounter conflict as the squirrel runs away, and reach a “yes, but…” outcome when she succeeds in her goal, only to then have to react to the realization that she is lost. So good job, Erik!

However, today, I would like to use this opportunity to explore the how, when, and why of paragraph breaks. For starters, here is how I would edit the excerpt to add a significant number of paragraph breaks. You’ll immediately notice how much more white space this provides, which makes the piece less formidable, easier to read, and clearer in its presentation of action.

It moved.

“Hey!”

The squirrel leaped from the branch in a streak of red.

She ran after it, weaving through a clung of sap trees and jumped over a thorn bush; the world passed her in streaks of colours and shapes. Where she was going was of no concern, what mattered was the squirrel and little more.

The squirrel’s coat of brown and red blended in with the canopy of the trees as if it was wearing camouflage.

She held the camera with white fingers, its leather strap chafing her neck. A drop of sweat streaked down her forehead.

A low branch came up ahead.

Clara lunged to her knees, sliding over the forest floor, showering browned leaves and clods of dirt in her wake, her head barely missing the branch. She stopped, panting, her heart beating in her throat. She looked for the squirrel, turning around in circles.

She finally spotted it clinging to the grey trunk of an ash tree. Quick as lightning, she bent down on one knee and focused in on the squirrel.

Snap.

“Gotcha.” She smiled a wicked smile and wiped the sweat from her forehead.

The squirrel retreated to the safety of the canopy, relieved that the chase was over.

Clara stood up and brushed the cakes of mud off her blue jeans, though some of it still clung to them. She turned to leave, but then stopped.

Where was the trail? It felt like something cold and nasty had turned her guts inside out. She looked around for something familiar. She spotted the low branch and went back and under it; she soldiered on. Next was a thorn bush. Clara walked and walked but found no bush. Was the tree with the low branch really the same one she had passed?

3 Rules of Paragraph Breaks

When and how you break for a new paragraph is as much a stylistic choice as anything else. Pacing will be a major consideration as well. Faster, choppier pacing does much better with shorter paragraphs—sometimes paragraphs of even just a single word. Slower, more leisurely—or more academic—pacing will usually do better with longer paragraphs, although you shouldn’t hesitate to break up dense sections of text when possible to make them more readable.

Truly, there are many rules of writing good paragraphs (some of which I talked about in this post: 8 Paragraph Mistakes You Don’t Know You’re Making). But today I want to talk about three of the most important.

1. New Speaker = New Paragraph

Perhaps one of fiction’s most important rules for paragraphs is that of a “new line for every speaker.”

In a dialogue exchange between two or more characters, the different speakers should be separated by paragraph breaks.

Don’t do this:

“I’m not going with you,” Horace said. Judith glared. “Oh, yes, you are!”

Do this:

“I’m not going with you,” Horace said.

Judith glared. “Oh, yes, you are!”

This instantaneously signals to readers the speaker is shifting. As a result, readers are able to keep up with the back and forth of the dialogue almost instinctively, especially if the author also skillfully includes dialog tags (he said) and action beats (she glared) to clarify who is saying what.

You will also want to insert a paragraph break into the midst of a single speaker’s dialogue if you are interspersing the dialogue with a second character’s non-verbal reactions. This brings me to an oft-overlooked and but equally important second rule…

2. New Actor = New Paragraph

Maybe you wondered why I ended up adding so many paragraph breaks to Erik’s scene when it has so little dialogue—and no conversational exchanges whatsoever.

The reason is that actors within narrative are treated the same as speakers. Usually, when characters exchange actions, the rules are the same as when they exchange dialogue. In Erik’s example, Clara acts, then the squirrel acts. We have two actors in this scene, which means each should get a new paragraph. The paragraph breaks give readers immediate signals about who is the doing the acting.

The exceptions to this rule all of which hark back to those grade-school adages about topic sentences. Sometimes, in some paragraphs, the emphasis will need to remain on a primary actor, rather than bouncing between the actions/reactions of multiple actors. For example, you may need to briefly indicate a response from a second character, but you’ll maintain a cohesive paragraph because the emphasis remains on a singular character or on a cooperative action or movement.

For example:

The servant unlocked the padlock with a great squeaking. The portcullis stuck when he tried to raise it, and the knights had help him lift it off the ground. They ducked under, and the manservant guided them across the courtyard, through the dusty shambles of the main foyer, and up two flights of stairs.

3. New Parts of Narrative = New Paragraph

Even in a scene which features or emphasizes one primary actor, paragraph breaks are often useful for guiding readers through the different types of action that character might be performing. These might include:

  • Physical action: He revved the car.
  • Physical reaction: His heart hammered.
  • Dialogue: “You crazy driver!” she yelled.
  • Indirect internal narrative: If these crazy people didn’t get out of the way, he was just going to run them over.
  • Direct internal narrative: If these crazy people don’t get out of the way, I’m just going to run them over.
  • Observation/description: Street lights blinked past.

Keep in mind these differentiated parts of the narrative will not always require their own paragraph break. An intimate sense of your pacing will help you decide when a break is best and when it isn’t. One good rule of thumb, however, is that if you spend more than two sentences on any one narrative type, it’s probably best to think about breaking for a new paragraph.

We might assemble the above examples like this:

He revved the car.

“You crazy driver!” she yelled.

His heart hammered. If these crazy people didn’t get out of the way, he was just going to run them over.

Street lights blinked past.

When set up like this, the man, the woman, and the street lights each ground themselves on new lines within their own topic sentences. The man’s indirect thought about running people over is introduced and grouped with his own related physical reaction.

An understanding of motivation-reaction units (MRUs) will help you ground your instincts for ordering the various parts of narrative. A proper MRU starts with the motivation or cause, then lines up the resulting effect as another string of causes and effects: feeling > thought > action > speech. Once you can differentiate between the roles of various sentences, you will have a better feel for when to break between them.

***

Paragraph breaks are important both as a tool for pacing your narrative and for subtly guiding readers through the nuances of your expanding story. Used skillfully, they create an inviting presentation of text that pulls readers in, keeps them grounded, and urges their eyes and imaginations forward through the prose.

My thanks to Erik for sharing his excerpt, and my best wishes for his story’s success. Stay tuned for more analysis posts in the future!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you prefer to err on the side of more or fewer paragraph breaks in your writing? Why do think this is? Tell me in the comments!


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The post Critique: How to Use Paragraph Breaks to Guide the Reader’s Experience appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.



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After Silence: Amanda Palmer Reads Neil Gaiman’s Stunning Poem Celebrating Rachel Carson’s Legacy of Culture-Shifting Courage


“Nothing is ever over / life breathes life in its turn / Sometimes the people listen / Sometimes the people learn”


“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her piercing and prescient 1914 anthem against silence. Half a century later, these words would come to embolden one of the most revolutionary voices humanity has produced — a scientist who changed culture by writing like a poet. “Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent,” marine biologist and poet laureate of science Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her beloved, quoting the line as she was readying to speak inconvenient truth to power — at great personal cost — in catalyzing the modern environmental movement with her 1962 book Silent Spring.

Rachel Carson (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

This stunning notion that a long-dead poet can inspire a scientist to transform an entire society inspired the inception of The Universe in Verse — the annual celebration of science through poetry, which I host each spring at Brooklyn’s wondrous nonprofit cultural institute Pioneer Works and which in turn inspired my book Figuring, where Carson is a central figure and the interleaving of art, science, love, and cultural change a central theme.

How Rachel Carson signed her letters to her loved ones. (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Crowning the 2018 edition of The Universe in Verse, dedicated to Carson and her far-reaching legacy, was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion to celebrate this visionary of uncommon courage and persistence — the rare gift of one genius honoring another, delivered by a third: Reading the poem was Amanda Palmer, herself an artist of radical courage and an ardent champion of poetry. Please enjoy:

AFTER SILENCE
for Rachel Carson

Seasons on seasons. The spring is signaled by birdsong
coyotes screech and yammer in the moonlight
and the first flowers open. I saw two owls today
in the daylight, on silent wings.
They landed as one and watched me sleepily.
Oh who? they called. Or how, or how who?
Then they leaned into the trunk
into the sun that shone through the tight-curled buds,
and vanished into dappled shadows
never waiting for an answer.

Like the sapling that buckles the sidewalk
and grows until it has reached its height
all of us begin in darkness. Some of us reach maturity. A few
become old: we went over time’s waterfall and lived,
Time barely cares. We are a pool of knowledge and advice
the wisdom of the tribe, but we have stumbled,
fallen face-first into our new uncomfortable roles.
Remembering, as if it happened to someone else,
the race to breed,
or to succeed, the aching need that drove our thoughts
and shaped each deed,
those days are through.
We do not need to grow, we’re done,
we grew.

Who speaks? And why?

She was killed by her breasts, by tumours in them:
A clump of cells that would not listen to orders to disband
no chemical suggestions that they were big enough
that, sometimes, it’s a fine thing just to die, were heeded.
And the trees are leafless and black against the sky
and the bats in fatal whiteface sleep and rot
and the jellyfish drift and pulse through the warming waters
and everything changes. And some things are truly lost.

Wild in the weeds, the breeze scatters the seeds,
and it lifts the wings of the pine processionary moth,
and bears the green glint of the emerald borer,
Now the elms go the way of the chestnut trees.
Becoming memories and dusty furniture.
The ash trees go the way of the elms.
And somebody has to say that we
never need to grow forever. That
we, like the trees, can reach our full growth,
and mature, in wisdom and in time,
that we can be enough of us. That there
can be room for other breeds and kinds and lives.
Who’ll whisper it:
that tumours kill their hosts,
and then themselves?
We’re done. We grew. Enough.

All the gods on the hilltops
and all the gods on the waves
the gods that became seals
the voices on the winds
the quiet places, where if we are silent
we can listen, we can learn.
Who speaks? And why?

Someone could ask the questions, too.
Like who?
Who knew? What’s true?
And how? Or who?
How could it work?
What happens then?
Are consequences consequent?

The answers come from the world itself
The songs are silent,
and the spring is long in coming.

There’s a voice that rumbles beneath us
and after the end the voice still reaches us
Like a bird that cries in hunger
or a song that pleads for a different future.
Because all of us dream of a different future.
And somebody needs to listen.
To pause. To hold.
To inhale, and find the moment
before the exhale, when everything is in balance
and nothing moves. In balance: here’s life, here’s death,
and this is eternity holding its breath.

After the world has ended
After the silent spring
Into the waiting silence
another song begins.

Nothing is ever over
life breathes life in its turn
Sometimes the people listen
Sometimes the people learn

Who speaks? And why?

Complement with “The Mushroom Hunters” — Gaiman’s magnificent feminist science poem composed for the inaugural Universe in Verse, which received the Rhysling Award for poetry — then revisit other highlights from the first two years of the show: astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking, science historian James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and musician Rosanne Cash’s reading Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie.

For another tribute to Carson from the show, put on some good headphones and watch Amanda Palmer’s stunning cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” — that iconic and bittersweet anthem of the environmental movement, inspired by the legacy of Silent Spring. For more about Carson and how her unusual private life fomented her epoch-making cultural contribution, she occupies the final and most significant portion of Figuring.


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Journey to Mount Tamalpais: Lebanese-American Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Time, Self, Impermanence, and Transcendence


“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.”


Journey to Mount Tamalpais: Lebanese-American Poet, Painter, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on Time, Self, Impermanence, and Transcendence

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote as she drew on her intimate enchantment with the Highlands in her masterpiece The Living Mountain. Having grown up at the foot of Mount Vitosha and spent swaths of my childhood in the Rila mountains of Bulgaria, I too have known the mind-sculpting power of mountains and felt the embers of that knowingness reignited by Journey to Mount Tamalpais (public library).

Written shortly after I was born, this uncommonly beautiful book-length essay by the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan (b. February 24, 1925), illustrated with 34 of her black-and-white sketches of the mountain, explores the themes that would animate Adnan through her nineties: time, self, impermanence, the nature of the universe, the spiritual dimensions of art, our belonging to and with the rest of the vast interwoven miracle we call nature.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 1985. (Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon)

Born in Beirut and trained in Paris — where she would return to spend much of her later life with her partner of more than forty years, the Syrian-born artist and publisher Simone Fattal — Adnan lived and taught in Northern California for more than a quarter century. There, she fell in love with Mount Tamalpais — the first vertebrae of the mountainous backbone of the Americas that stretches all the way to Tierra del Fuego. In its towering presence, she found herself “left with the sort of wonder that the sense of eternity always carries with it,” with a “feeling of latent prophesy.” The mountain became her abiding muse, which she celebrated and serenaded in a flood of paintings and poetic reverberations. Under Adnan’s gaze — generous, penetrating, benedictory — the mountain becomes both metaphor and not-metaphor, both object of reverent curiosity and sovereign subject unbeholden to human interpretation. Hers is a way of looking that embodies Ursula K. Le Guin’s distinction between objectifying and subjectifying the universe. Adnan writes:

Like a chorus, the warm breeze had come all the way from Athens and Baghdad, to the Bay, by the Pacific Route, its longest journey. It is the energy of these winds that I used, when I came to these shores, obsessed, followed by my home-made furies, errynies, and such potent creatures. And I fell in love with the immense blue eyes of the Pacific: I saw is red algae, its blood-colored cliffs, its pulsating breath. The ocean led me to the mountain.

Once I was asked in front of a television camera: “Who is the most important person you ever met?” and I remember answering: “A mountain.” I thus discovered that Tamalpais was at the very center of my being.

Half a century after philosopher Martin Buber considered the tree as a lesson in the difficult art of seeing essence rather than objectifying, Adnan considers the mountain’s essence:

This living with a mountain and with people moving with all their senses open, like many radars, is a journey… melancholy at times: you perceive noise and dirt, poverty, and the loneliness of those who are blind to so may things… but miraculous most of the way. Somehow what I perceived most is Tamalpais I am “making” the mountain as people make a painting.

[…]

It is an animal risen from the sea. A sea-creature landed, earth-bound, earth-oriented, maddened by its solidity.

The world around has the darkness of battle-ships, leafless trees are spearbearers, armor bearers, swords and pikes, the mountain looks at us with tears coming down its slopes.

O impermanence! What a lovely word and a sad feeling. What a fight with termination, with lives that fall into death like cliffs.

O Sundays which are like vessels in a storm, with nothing before and nothing after!

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

Out of the actuality of the mountain, Adnan draws an inner reality, rising too like a summit of self-transcendence:

I am at the window and Tamalpais looks back at me. I am in pain and it is not. But we are equals tonight.

[…]

I am amazed, but, more so, I am fulfilled. I am transported outside my ordinary self and into the world as it could be when no one watches.

But more than anything, Adnan finds in the mountain a vital counterpoint to the hubrises of the self. A supreme equalizer of being, it stands as an antipode to our habitual anthropocentrism and self-involvement, humbling us — in the proper sense of humility, with its Latin root in humus, “of the earth” — into recognizing that we are each just one creature among many, a tiny constellation of stardust whose ephemeral existence is no more significant than any other. Adnan writes:

The Pacific often sings a soft funeral march. It was most appropriate that they found a man hanging by a tree near the top of Tamalpais. It was not horrible. It was just one of the many events that happen up there following the death of birds or the growth of plants.

Again and again, she returns to this transcendent dance of the ephemeral and the eternal, played out in the life of the mountain as in the life of art:

A bird ran into the glass door of my deck and died. I rushed with paper and a pencil to make a drawing and realized I couldn’t draw death. The record player was playing a Koranic prayer recorded in Tunisia. The lamenting voice of the Prophet became a funeral song for the silenced animal. I came in and saw my Ray Bradbury book opened on these lines:

Robins will wear their feathery fire
whistling their whims on a low fence-wire
and not one will know of the war, not one
will care at last when it is done…

Through the long night of the species we go on, somehow blindly, and we give a name to our need for a breakthrough: we call it the Angel, or call it Art, or call it the Mountain.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

The singular power of the mountain both beckons us into absolute presence and catapults us into an awareness of time far beyond our ephemerality — a state of being predicated on a wholehearted embrace of our mortality. A century and a half after Kierkegaard asserted that a human being is “a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal,” Adnan writes:

When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive.

[…]

Between the sun and the moon, the restless desire to live and the restless desire to die, the mountain holds the balance.

From the daily rhythms and simple seasonality of the mountain, Adnan wrests insights of great subtlety, poignancy, and prescience:

It had snowed. Tamalpais was white as it rarely is. White is the color of the terror int his century: the great white mushroom, the white and radiating clouds, the White on White painting by Malevich, and that whiteness, most fearful, in the eyes of men.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

Recounting a hike up a steep trail with a few other members of the Perception Workshop — a collective of artists gathering “in peaceful parties with the seriousness of children at play” — Adnan reflects on what brought them together and took them to Tamalpais, seeking to discover the mountain and themselves:

We had with us no rite of passage. We had gone through no initiation, as we went into childhood and into adolescence with no warning. This is why we come to the mountain. We have no other elevation.

We slept under trees but in fact within the mountain’s vast sadness and we awoke very new.

The night freed us from our obsession with reason. It told us that we were a bundle of electric wires plugged into everything that came along. It was enough to be alive and around. The same was true of everything else.

Artists, she observes, have a deeper and more immediate grasp of this underlying interconnectedness of life. (Half a century earlier, Virginia Woolf had furnished the finest articulation of this awareness in her exquisite account of the epiphany in which she finally understood what it really means to be an artist: “Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”) Adnan writes:

Painters have a knowledge which goes beyond words. They are where musicians are. When someone blows the saxophone the sky is made of copper. When you make a watercolor you know how it feels to be the sea lying early in the day in the proximity of light.

Painters have always experienced the oneness of things. They are aware that there is interference and intervention between the world and ourselves.

[…]

I write what I see, paint what I am.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

In a testament to the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s insistence that painting trains the mind’s eye to see more clearly and live with a deeper sense of presence, Adnan seeks to understand the intense and abiding draw of the mountain as a subject matter for her painting:

I know by experience, by now, that no subject matter, after a while, remains just a subject matter, but becomes a matter of life and death, our sanity resolved by visual means. Sanity is our power of perception kept focused. And it is an open-ended endeavor.

[…]

A visual expression belongs to an order of understanding which bypasses word-language. We have in us autonomous languages for autonomous perceptions. We should not waste time in trying ordinary understanding. We should not worry, either. There is no rest in any kind of perception. The fluidity of the mind is of the same family as the fluidity of being. Sometimes they coincide sharply. We call that a revelation. When it involves a privileged “object,” like a particular mountain, we call it an illumination.

Etel Adnan and Mount Tamalpais. (Photograph courtesy of the artist.)

She ends by considering the mountain’s supreme gift to her and her fellow artists — a gift of awareness, risen from the deepest stratum of being:

In this unending universe Tamalpais is a miraculous thing, the miracle of matter itself: something we can single out, the pyramid of our own identity. We are, because it is stable and it is ever changing. Our identity is the series of the mountain’s becomings, our peace is its stubborn existence.

Complement the slim, sublimely beautiful Journey to Mount Tamalpais with Nan Shepherd on the mountain as a lens on our relationship with nature and Simone Weil on the mountain as a metaphor for the purest and most fertile form of thought, then revisit Adnan — writing three decades after she left the mountain, though it never left her — on memory, the self, and the universe.


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You Can’t Have It All


“…but there is this.”


You Can’t Have It All

“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote in contemplating the most difficult and rewarding existential art: befriending our own finitude. I have been sitting with Rilke, awash in the tidal waves of sorrow and love, in the wake of losing my beloved friend Emily Levine (October 23, 1944–February 3, 2019) — philosopher, comedian, universe-builder, beautiful soul — who made me fall in love with poetry long ago and without whom there would be no Universe in Verse and no Figuring. (Emily rightfully occupies the first line of the book’s acknowledgements.)

Emily Levine, January 2019. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Ever since her terminal diagnosis in 2016, and up until just three weeks before her death, I have been taking Emily for what we came to call our “poetry retreats” — brief periodic respites by the ocean, where we would spend unhurried time in the company of a few other beloved women, reading poetry, cooking, conversing, and just being — with our joys, with our sorrows, with one another. Emily — the most erudite and intellectually voracious person I have ever known — introduced us to classics, many of which she knew by heart: Whitman, Eliot, Yeats, Plath, Rilke. But there was one contemporary poem she especially loved and read for us often: “You Can’t Have It All” by Barbara Ras, from her exquisite and exquisitely titled 1998 poetry collection Bite Every Sorrow (public library).

Now that Emily has returned her stardust to the universe she so cherished, and all the words seem too small to fill the void, poetry stands as the only mode of remembrance that can give shape and space to the amorphous largeness of feeling that is grief. In this sweetly lo-fi recording from one of our gatherings, punctuated by the sound of the ocean and the rustle of page-turning, Emily reads the poem that she, in the deepest sense, lived out and modeled for the rest of us with her largehearted life.

YOU CAN’T HAVE IT ALL

But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back.
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look
of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite
every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August,
you can have it August and abundantly so. You can have love,
though often it will be mysterious, like the white foam
that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot over the red kidneys
until you realize foam’s twin is blood.
You can have the skin at the center between a man’s legs,
so solid, so doll-like. You can have the life of the mind,
glowing occasionally in priestly vestments, never admitting pettiness,
never stooping to bribe the sullen guard who’ll tell you
all roads narrow at the border.
You can speak a foreign language, sometimes,
and it can mean something. You can visit the marker on the grave
where your father wept openly. You can’t bring back the dead,
but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands
as if they meant to spend a lifetime together. And you can be grateful
for makeup, the way it kisses your face, half spice, half amnesia, grateful
for Mozart, his many notes racing one another towards joy, for towels
sucking up the drops on your clean skin, and for deeper thirsts,
for passion fruit, for saliva. You can have the dream,
the dream of Egypt, the horses of Egypt and you riding in the hot sand.
You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed,
at least for a while, you can have clouds and letters, the leaping
of distances, and Indian food with yellow sauce like sunrise.
You can’t count on grace to pick you out of a crowd
but here is your friend to teach you how to high jump,
how to throw yourself over the bar, backwards,
until you learn about love, about sweet surrender,
and here are periwinkles, buses that kneel, farms in the mind
as real as Africa. And when adulthood fails you,
you can still summon the memory of the black swan on the pond
of your childhood, the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas
your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept.
There is the voice you can still summon at will, like your mother’s,
it will always whisper, you can’t have it all,
but there is this.

Complement with Emily’s splendid reading of “On the Fifth Day” by Jane Hirshfield, who often graced our poetry retreats with her Buddhist benediction of a presence, then revisit Mary Oliver — one of Emily’s favorite poets, whom she outlived by seventeen days — on the measure of a life well lived and how to live with maximal aliveness.


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Global Exclusive: Arnie the Doughnut Interviews Potato (Plus a Giveaway!)


 

One of my favorite picture books of all time is ARNIE THE DOUGHNUT, cooked up by the inimitable Laurie Keller. (Why hasn’t it become a major motion picture? I sniff the heavenly aroma of sugary fried dough and box office smash potential!)

So while you wait for the selection of Storystorm prizes, I invited Arnie to the blog to interview Laurie’s latest character, Potato, about his quest for the perfect pair of pants. Take it away, boys!

 

Hey Potato! Thanks for meeting me at the bakery. Did you have any trouble finding it?

No trouble at all! I just took a Tuber Uber.

 

I see you have your new Potato Pants on! I was hoping you’d wear them.

Oh, yeah––I never leave home without ‘em! Pretty snazzy, aren’t they? Yep, when it comes to designing flattering pants for potatoes, Tuberto is your go-to tater!

 

I heard you almost didn’t get your Potato Pants––something to do with an eggplant. What was the problem?

He was waiting for me in Lance Vance’s Fancy Pants Store on the ONE day they were selling Potato Pants and I didn’t want to go in there because I was afraid he’d push me like he did the day before and ruin my brand new Potato Pants!

So, he’s a pretty pushy eggplant, huh?

Well, I thought so but it all turned out to be a silly misunderstanding. I’m a big enough spud to admit that. We’re actually friends now!

 

That’s cool! So, you really wanted this stripey pair with the stripey suspenders. Why do you like stripes so much?

I can’t explain it, Arnie. They just make me happy!

I feel the same way about my frosting and sprinkles!

I see you’re doing the Robot––I mean the PO-bot! Can you teach me how to do it?

 

No.

 

But I can teach you how to do the DOUGH-bot!

 

 

 

Oh, no! I laughed so hard I ripped my Potato Pants!

 

I’ll call for help! Oh, YOO-HOO, MAKEUP!

 

No, I’ll just scooch right over to the Tater Trouser Tailor. Thanks for everything, Arnie!

Thanks, Potato!

What is it now, Arnie?

Oops, sorry, Makeup––problem solved. But as long as you’re here…do you mind arranging my sprinkles into stripes? Diagonally? By color? Pretty please with frosting on top? Thanks!

 

I LOVE ‘EM!

But I wonder if vertical stripes might be better on me?

 

Oh, YOO-HOO, MAKEUP!

 

Well, we all know that Arnie is a diva doughnut (just like Mariah Creamy).

Thanks for stepping in to interview Potato, Arnie!

Since I am such a ginormous Laurie Keller fan, I am so mashed today to offer a copy of POTATO PANTS! 

Just leave a comment below to enter! A random winner will be selected after the Storystorm prizes!

Good luck!

 



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Reading group: which book about love should we read this month?


From Homer to Hemingway and beyond, these stories are eternally compelling. Please help choose which should win our hearts this February

This month on the reading group we’re asking for nominations of books about love. Since Valentine’s Day is on the way, and since last month’s choice of a funny book, Good Omens, was such a tonic we want to continue the positivity. A little human warmth can never go amiss, after all.

It’s also undeniable that love is a big topic in literature. In its own way, the epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is a love story, as is the Iliad and a healthy percentage of all literature since.

Continue reading…



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The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on Art, the Courage to Defy Convention, and the Measure of a Visionary


“The new man makes room for himself, and if he be of the first order he largely makes the taste by which he is appreciated, and the rules of art by which he is to be judged.”


The Great Naturalist John Burroughs on Art, the Courage to Defy Convention, and the Measure of a Visionary

Art is both foreground and background to all social change, the fulcrum by which we raise our personal and political standards, the wheel that propels every revolution — in thought, in feeling, in the constellation of customs, beliefs, principles, power structures, and sensibilities we call culture. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art,” Ursula K. Le Guin asserted in her superb National Book Award acceptance speech. It is hardly surprising, then, that at times of particular cultural tumult and social upheaval, the most visionary artists — the seers who imagine and insist upon alternative ways of viewing and navigating the cultural landscape — are met with tremendous tides of criticism and condemnation from the status quo. Albert Camus knew this when he observed in the thick of the Cold War that “to create today is to create dangerously.” And yet, again and again, artists embrace the danger and go on making art — this is the way the world changes, perhaps the only way it does.

The centrality of art in culture and the unstoppable momentum of true creative visionaries are what the great naturalist and nature writer John Burroughs (April 3, 1837–March 29, 1921) — Walt Whitman’s foremost biographer and spirited champion — explores in one of the myriad lyrical, sublimely insightful passages from his 1896 more-than-biography, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook).

John Burroughs

Art, Burroughs argues, is not an isolated region of culture but is culture; not an island, but the water that washes all shores. (Half a century later, the visionary marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for excellence in nature writing, would assert the same of science — “The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience.” Soon, her lyrical science writing would catalyze the environmental movement.)

Burroughs writes:

I shall deny at the outset that there are any bounds of art, or that art is in any sense an “enclosure,” — a province fenced off and set apart from the rest, — any more than religion is an enclosure, though so many people would like to make it so. Art is commensurate with the human spirit. I should even deny that there are any principles of art in the sense that there are principles of mechanics or of mathematics. Art has but one principle, one aim, — to produce an impression, a powerful impression, no matter by what means, or if it be by reversing all the canons of taste and criticism.

“It is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong,” the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman would assert in the following century. As in science, so in art — Burroughs argues that any celebrated aesthetic or creative convention is bound to be challenged, and it is in its sublimation and transcendence that the next true art is to be found. A great artist does not cater to taste but creates taste, and must therefore be endowed with what Goethe called “the courage to despair,” for this act of creation is invariably met with violent opposition. Wordsworth knew this when he asserted that “to create taste is to call forth and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true difficulty.”

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

In an era long before every woman ceased to be a “man,” Burroughs writes of the truly visionary “man”:

Name any principle, so called, and some day a genius shall be born who will produce his effects in defiance of it, or by appearing to reverse it. Such a man as [William] Turner seemed, at first sight, to set at defiance all correct notions of art. The same with Wagner in music, the same with Whitman in poetry. The new man is impossible till he appears, and, when he appears, in proportion to his originality and power does it take the world a longer or shorter time to adjust its critical standards to him. But it is sure to do so at last. There is nothing final in art: its principles follow and do not lead the creator; they are deductions from his work, not its inspiration. We demand of the new man, of the overthrower of our idols, but one thing, — has he authentic inspiration and power? If he has not, his pretensions are soon exploded. If he has, we cannot put him down, any more than we can put down a law of nature, and we very soon find some principle of art that fits his case. Is there no room for the new man? But the new man makes room for himself, and if he be of the first order he largely makes the taste by which he is appreciated, and the rules of art by which he is to be judged.

Whitman: A Study is a splendid read in its entirety. Complement it with Iris Murdoch on why revolutionary art is essential for democracy, James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe’s fantastic forgotten conversation about beauty, morality, and the political power of art, and Egon Schiele on why visionaries tend to come from the minority, then revisit Whitman — whose art was at first decried and derided by his contemporaries, before rendering him America’s greatest poet — on confidence through criticism and the “meaning” of art.


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The More Loving One: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads W.H. Auden’s Sublime Ode to Our Unrequited Love for the Universe


“If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.”


The More Loving One: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads W.H. Auden’s Sublime Ode to Our Unrequited Love for the Universe

I wrote Figuring (public library) to explore the interplay between chance and choice, the human search for meaning in an unfeeling universe governed by equal parts precision and randomness, the bittersweet beauty of asymmetrical and half-requited loves, and our restless impulse to uncover the deepest truths of nature, even at the price of our convenient existential delusions of self-importance. (More about the book here.) These are vast, thickly interwoven themes, difficult to distill in a single sentiment, so I chose two dramatically different yet complementary epigraphs to open the book — one drawn from the trailblazing 18th-century philosopher and woman of letters Germaine de Staël’s treatise on the happiness of individuals and societies, and the other from one of our civilization’s most lucid and luminous poets laureate of the human spirit: W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973).

The Auden stanza comes from his stunning poem “The More Loving One,” originally published in his 1960 book Homage to Clio (public library) — a collection of shorter poems about history, a concept Auden defines in his own epigraph for the book:

Between those happenings that prefigure it
And those that happen in its anamnesis
Occurs the Event, but that no human wit
Can recognize until all happening ceases.

History, in other words, is not the objective chronicle of events but the subjective recognition of happenings sighted in the rearview mirror of being. (This is a question I explore throughout Figuring, in the prelude to which I wrote that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.) Auden saw history — this selective set of remembrances constructed by human intention and choice — as both counterpart and antipode to nature, in which events unfold free of intent, governed by chance and the impartial physical laws of the universe. Curiously, “The More Loving One” appears among Auden’s poems about history, but it deals with nature and the disorienting necessity of learning to love a universe insentient to our hopes and fears, unconcerned with our individual fates — perhaps the least requited love there is, as well as the largest. It is an elegy, in the classic dual sense of lamentation and celebration, for our ambivalent relationship with this elemental truth and an homage to the supreme triumph of the human heart — the willingness to love that which does not and cannot love us back.

In this recording from the Academy of American Poets’ sixteenth annual Poetry & the Creative Mind, astrophysicist and author Janna Levin reads Auden’s sublime poem, with a lovely prefatory reflection on the bittersweet seductions and consolations of our unrequited love for the universe.

THE MORE LOVING ONE
by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

Complement with Levin’s beautiful readings of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Adrienne Rich’s tribute to the world’s first professional female astronomer, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s ode to time, then revisit Auden on writing, true and false enchantment, and the political power of art. For a different side to the poetics of asymmetrical yet profoundly beautiful love, savor Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, excerpted from Figuring.


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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.

Jesus, that was a dark and disturbing slice of French noir,” says Tom Mooney, who has been reading The Executioner Weeps by Frederic Dard:

Daniel, a French artist, is on a break near Barcelona. Driving down a road one night, a young woman throws herself in front of his car in an apparent act of suicide. When he goes to the body, however, he realises she is still alive. Fearful of the consequences, he takes the girl back to his hotel. She awakes with severe amnesia, remembering nothing of her previous life. Daniel then becomes obsessed with her, instilling himself as her boyfriend and the central character in her new life. But, as he delves deeper into her forgotten past, he discovers the real, shocking reason she threw herself in front of his car.

Grisly, grim and weaving from noir into horror, this is a very effective and highly creepy novel.

I have no connection to the River Thames but her description of the many stages of the river and the folk who live along its banks is captivating. The mystery of how a 4-year-old girl ended up in the river and was rescued and where she came from are central and I can’t wait to find out.

This morning, I finished the third in the series – Flash for Freedom – and am now about to start Flashman at the Charge. I think Royal Flash is by far the weakest of the series (though still brilliant) and Flashman and the Redskins the best. I urge you all to have a go at reading them if you haven’t already. As well as being extremely funny, they work as a highly entertaining history lesson – even down to the way people spoke in the mid-to-late nineteenth century

Crime fiction set in 1950 in Atlanta when African Americans have just joined the police force. The crime part is great but what is really interesting is how society is shifting and changing. The three main characters are well drawn and all making compromises between the law, their ethics and their families.

A vast, strangely ambiguous tale of people who find themselves in a dreamlike frontier town in China. Of all of her books, this one felt most like a collection of folk tales, run through with mysticism, and strange natural phenomena- for all its modernity it felt like discovering an ancient text.

A memoir about his father, Herman Roth, and his death from a brain tumour. Roth has a straightforward way of telling the story of father and son, eschewing prose fireworks, as so far has all of his books I’ve read. It is poignant, and at times wryly funny. A commenter on Goodreads said that Roth showed how to be a good son. That despite Roth junior, or perhaps because of, being so keen to leave home and Roth senior, and establish his independence, he is able to loop back, and be there for his father later in life.

I quite like being the last possible reader of a paperback – I bought the orange-banded Penguins that Margery Allingham wrote during wartime (it was a sudden interest) and, like the blitz-zones of London, Coventry, etc, they cracked at the spines, shedding pages, or clumps of them, as the reading progressed. The desiccated glue, that powders your fingers as you brush it’s scales aside, has a faintly seaweedy smell, I noticed. They’re still on a shelf, albeit lain flat (they wouldn’t hold together stood upright – ah, it comes to us all).

Me, I buy second-hand cloth-bound hardcovers if I can and almost always throw the dust jackets away at once. What I like to read most is an old hardback that’s long lost it’s jacket, and has, at some point in its long life, been left skew-whiff on a pile near a window for a summer or two – so that the sun-bleaching of the cloth on the front cover is a rhomboid ghost-margin to its darker interior. Preferably in Trafalgar Blue, as it was called. It adds a spiritual dimension. Well, I find it does.

The collected ‘maxims’ of WG Sebald.

An asylum-seeker has won Australia’s “richest literary prize”, but has been “barred” from entering the country.

“My private model for intersubjectivity, or communication by speech, or conversation, is amoebas having sex.” Ursula K Le Guin on the magic of human conversation.

And here’s Le Guin’s daily writing routine.

Has alliteration been lost to us?

What is Marlon James reading?

Continue reading…



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