In Six Memos for the Next Millennium Italo Calvino left a series of lectures in which he listed the literary values that keep creativity alive. Sadly he died before giving the last lecture, but the values are:
- Lightness — which counters ‘the weight, the inertia… of the world’
- Quickness — a vivacity of energy that ‘gives you an idea of the infinite’, the way in which you control time within your writing.
- Exactitude — a way of getting ideas from chaos; of achieving clarity and precision.
- Visibility — seeing the imagination as a place for the potential and hypothetical. Paying attention to the world and to what is in the writer’s head, especially when these things might be otherwise marginalised.
- Multiplicity — because writing represents the multiple ways in which everything connects it should be ‘overambitious’. It should aim high, collide ideas, and push at their boundaries.
- Consistency — this was the lecture Calvino died before this delivering, but we can surmise that a regular writing practice may have been part of it.
When you approach your writing in the spirit of imagination, you allow your unconscious to take you sideways, to take you deeply into flow. You forget yourself and the writing happens.
When you incorporate Calvino’s memos, the writing will fly to a new level. And, almost two decades into the century that Calvino was looking towards, writers need his advice more than ever.
Lightness counters ‘the weight, the inertia… of the world’
Calvino talks about the heaviness of the world we live in, so heavy we can be turned to stone. Using the story of Perseus defeating the gorgon, Medusa, he works with the metaphor of how the terrible face of the world needs to be both hidden and carried with us. We don’t deny reality as writers, but we come at it from a different perspectives. And, like Perseus after he defeats the sea monster, we start to see the transformative and the fragile in what we had taken only to be horror.
For Calvino, lightness is not empty frivolity, but something at the heart of thing. The notion is that reality itself dissolves down to the tiniest, invisible particles. The secret of lightness is the opposite of ‘what many believe to be the life force of the times: loud and aggressive, roaring and rumbling’ which he considers belongs to the realm of death, not life.
Lightness counters the horrors and weights of the world. In a culture that oppresses women, folk tales of ‘witches’ include the power of flight, for example.
Lightness belongs with motion and information. Lightness involves precision. In writing it involves one or all three of the these elements:
i. lightening the language as in Emily Dickinson’s
A sepal — petal — and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn –
A flask of Dew — a Bee or two –
A Breeze — a caper in the trees –
And I’m a Rose
ii. writing ‘a psychological process that involves subtle, barely perceptible elements’
iii. using a visual image of lightness as a symbol or metaphor (as when Quixote lances the sail of a windmill and is lifted up by it)
Quickness is a vivacity of energy that ‘gives you an idea of the infinite’, the way in which you control time within your writing.
Story is an operation on duration. An enchantment that affects the flow of time, contracting it or expanding it.
Folk stories, Calvino says, omit unnecessary details, but use repetition for structure and rhythm. They are powerful because of their ‘economy, rhythm and basic logic.’
They don’t explain themselves, but are concise and make every detail count. Time is always relative — a huge journey can take moments yet the hero or heroine can return to find ages have past. Narrative time is not like real time — it has a rhythm that masters time.
Literature can slow the flow of time with repetition and digression and these are not opposed to quickness. Writing isn’t a race, but is enhanced by using ‘quickness of style and thought … nimbleness, mobility, and ease … leaping from one topic to another…’
Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is composed almost entirely of digressions. Time proliferates internally as a symbol of avoidance of death.
Yet Calvino prefers the straight line — the fast linking of ‘points far apart in space and time.’
I am convinced that writing prose should be no different from writing poetry, both seek a mode of expression that is necessary, singular, dense, concise, and memorable.
He refers to how Jorge Luis Borges broke his writing block by pretending to write summaries or reviews of imaginary books from other times and cultures. The summaries resulted in remarkably precise and concrete language, but also extraordinarily concise. Calvino had an ambition to put together an anthology of stories in one sentence.
I am a saturnine man who wants to be mercurial, and everything I write shows traces of both impulses.
He goes on to say that writers need to mirror two mythical gods: Vulcan (related to the solitary Saturn) and Mercury:
Vulcan’s concentration and craftsmanship are necessary in order to write about Mercury’s adventures and transformations. Mercury’s mobility and swiftness are needed to imbue Vulcan’s endless labors with meaning. … A writer’s labor involves keeping track of different times: Mercury’s time and Vulcan’s time, a message of spontaneity obtained by means of patient, meticulous adjustments.
Exactitude is a way of getting ideas from chaos; of achieving clarity and precision.
The ancient Egyptian symbol for precision is the feather that is used to weight souls against. The Maat. as well as being the feather, was also the standard measurement of a brick and the fundamental note of the flute.
Calvino defines exactitude as:
- well designed work
- clear, memorable images
- precisely chosen words, with nuance and imagination
Formless, haphazard, confused, generic and insubstantial language and imagery are to be resisted. Calvino is in search of ‘novel and seductive combinations of logic and imagination, of mysticism and math…’ . He holds together the vastness of the cosmos and our inability to conceive of infinity so that cosmological speculation becomes a literary genre.
When we write we use forms and symmetries, combinatorics and sequences to contain the endlessness of infinity, but then we are as likely to get sucked into the opposite problem — the infinitesimal details.
To make our writing work we often need to envision it as a shape or a symbol in order to contain the narrative. Is it a straight line or a circle? Is it a crystal (an inorganic structure which shares some of the features of growth with organic life) or a flame? Is it a house or a city? — a
multifaceted structure in which each brief text sits close to others in a sequence that doesn’t suggest causality of hierarchy but rather a network within which one can follow multiple paths…
Calvino’s search for exactitude in writing is beautifully summed up in a late book, Mr Palomer, in which he turns his diary of minutely observed descriptions into a book, opening with several pages on the waves of a sea.
It is only after you have come to know the surface of things that you can venture to seek what is underneath.
He wants words to
connect the visible track to the invisible thing.
Visibility — seeing the imagination as a place for the potential and hypothetical; paying attention to the world and to what is in the writer’s head, especially when these things might be otherwise marginalised.
Imagination can begin with words and lead to a visual image (as when we are reading) or can begin with images that lead to words, a ‘mental cinema’. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius Loyola sets imaginary scenes that the devotee then imagines her/himself into as the protagonist.
Where do the images of our imagination ‘rain’ from? For Dante they are divinely inspired. Others look to the unconscious, collective unconscious, the world soul or epiphanies. Many writers feel there is a process that is outside self, as well as deeply within. Starobinski notes that Jung’s collective unconscious places imagination as a participant in the truth of the world.
For Calvino, writing begins with an image that appears charged with meaning and he then ‘tries to join the spontaneous generation of images to the intentionality of logical thought.’
a route to knowledge that lies beyond the individual, beyond the subjective.
Image association is as crucial to the writer as it is to the scientist. The imagination is a place for the potential and hypothetical.
When we live in an age that saturates us with imagery, personal myth no longer comes only from memory and experience and there is such a bombardment of images that it gets more difficult to separate the trash and to
bring visions into focus with our eyes closed, to cause colors and shapes to spring forth from an array of black characters on a page.
Yer this remains the task of the writer.
Multiplicity — because writing represents the multiple ways in which everything connects it should be ‘overambitious’; it should aim high, collide ideas, push at their boundaries.
Calvino sees the contemporary novel as
…encyclopedia, as method of knowledge, and above all as network of connections among events, among people, among the things of the world.
The world is a system of systems or a jumbled ball of yarn full of disparate elements that converge. Networks radiate from every object. Knowledge is always caught between two poles: the mathematical exactitude and the realm of soul, humanity or irrational chaos.
The connectedness and multiplicity of everything is at the heart of what writers wrestle with. For Proust, for example, the world keeps expanding until it becomes ungraspable.
But huge, ambitious projects with overblown goals are what writers should pursue.
Only if writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares to imagine will literature continue to serve a purpose.
The best-loved modern books … arise from the confluence and collision of a multiplicity of interpretative methods, modes of thought, and styles of expression.
The example par excellence is Jorge Luis Borges because
every text … contains a model of the universe or an attribute of the universe: the infinite, the innumerable, time that is eternal or simultaneous of cyclical…
e.g. ‘The Garden of the Forking Paths’ in a dozen pages contains a story about time, which in turn contains several theories about time, including multiple time that constantly diverges, presented as a spy story with logic and metaphysics and the description of a never-ending Chinese novel. It is a model of the network of possibilities.
Calvino ends by noting that the multiplicity of possibilities within the novel reflects the person of the writer for two reasons. Firstly we are always a combination of experiences, information, memories and contradictions:
Every life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a pattern of book styles, in which everything can be constantly remixed and rearranged in every possible fashion.
And secondly, an ambitious, multiplicity novel allows us:
to escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only in order to enter other similar selves but to give voice to that which cannot speak — the bird perched on the gutter, the tree in spring…
Call to become your story
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