Filtered for the miracle of writing

22.10, Wednesday 12 Oct 2022

(A note for new readers: these irregular Filtered for… posts are different from my regular posts in that each is a grab-bag of links and thoughts on a loose theme. There are more here.)

1.

Hilary Mantel, astounding author of Wolf Hall and more, and a huge loss (RIP), experienced an evil miracle when she was young.

She was seven or eight, and she was playing in the garden behind her house. She looked up. There was something there, in the coarse grass beyond the gate. …

In her memoir, she says that she cannot write about this-technically, her prose isn’t up to it.

Her prose isn’t up to it!!

From Mantel’s memoirs:

I can’t see anything, not exactly see: except the faintest movement, a ripple, a disturbance of the air.

And:

There is nothing to see. There is nothing to smell. There is nothing to hear. But its motion, its insolent shift, makes my stomach heave. I can sense–at the periphery, the limit of all my senses–the dimensions of the creature. It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches.

She said: My first thought is that I have seen the devil – a non-rational intrusion into a rational universe.

I’m very drawn to the idea of individual micro miracles (good and evil) and do my best to watch out for them. I put miracles in the same bracket as a glitch in the universe, or ‘pataphysics, and luck too – phenomena are not required to be explainable to be real, but you do need to be ready to spot them.

2.

Gosh.

  1. An advent: ancient archangels architect abstract astronomy and arid asteroids.

  2. All asteroids are amorphous and absent; And all asleep across aquatic anarchy. And astral angels advanced across area.

  3. And Almighty asked,” Appear.” And all appeared aglow.

  4. And Almighty approved. Aura and absence: an antagonistic arithmetic.

  5. An afternoon and aurora, an aeon.

(It continues.)

Something magical and fresh about seeing those familiar words transformed.

A note accompanies the translation:

this was made with the help of a computer program that tries to express the meaning of any word by an adjective and a noun pair. Phrases like “abstract astronomy” for “space” and “aquatic archipelagos” for “islands” were generated by the program.

It’s from 2017. Is this the kind of thing GPT-3 could do?

3.

John McPhee, essayist, master of prose, explained that his last step is to go through his draft #4, word by word, and lift up everything. His turn of phrase is often unexpected and always precisely apt.

To do that McPhee, king of words, uses a dictionary.

Not any dictionary:

A book where you can enter “sport” and end up with “a diversion of the field” - this is in fact the opposite of what I’d known a dictionary to be. This is a book that transmutes plain words into language that’s finer and more vivid and sometimes more rare. No wonder McPhee wrote with it by his side.

Webster’s 1913 is special:

… go look up “flash” in Webster’s (the edition I’m using is the 1913). The first thing you’ll notice is that the example sentences don’t sound like they came out of a DMV training manual (“the lights started flashing”) – they come from Milton and Shakespeare and Tennyson (“A thought flashed through me, which I clothed in act”).

That piece concludes with instructions on how to download and install Webster’s 1913 on your Mac, iPhone, or Android device. (I’ve done it.)

4.

Writing!

The brain is an intricate, sparkling, densely interconnected maze-an easy place for ideas to hide in vague generalities. But writing forces you to commit to specifics as surely as surfers must commit to waves. …

By externalizing your thoughts, writing puts you into conversation with yourself.

Eliot quotes me in that essay and I want to expand.

Writing, as a process, is almost impossibly inventive. I know it, and know it, and am reminded so often, and yet – how on earth do new angles spontaneously emerge, from merely grinding through the words?

If I were to ask around about what writing is and why it’s important - in a bigger sense - I guess that I would hear:

  • It’s a communication technology – speaking at a distance! To many people!
  • It’s accretive – libraries matter – writing is a civilisational hard drive.

Yet also, as Eliot says:

Writing is a technology for making new ideas, and what an accelerant!

How long have we had writing? Since the Sumerians, a comparatively recent invention.

GPT-3 is an idea machine, as previously discussed. Writing is a kind of GPT-3000BC.

I literally don’t understand how I can be 1,000 words into a piece that I’ve been tinkering with for a month, trying to explain an idea which is already in my head, and I’ve been thinking about it and around it for weeks, then I surprise myself as I do the work of writing and it totally turns around and then opens up a new avenue. I mean: how.

You don’t need to write for anyone else. You don’t need to share, or even keep it. You just need the act of it. Writing is a particle collider for reality and the imagination. And new discoveries are the result.

(That’s why I write here, of course. It’s how I think.)

So what does writing mean, in a historical sense? Would we have come as far as and fast without it? Is that measurable.

In terms of impact I feel like this aspect of writing, the personal aspect, is undervalued. And I wonder, taking this perspective, if we could build tools to do it even better and even faster.

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If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.

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