Admirable Lives

Wish I could claim these beautiful words as my own, but they belong to EM Forster

The people I admire most are those who are sensitive and want to create something, or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power… They found religions, great or small, they produce literature or art… or they may be what is called ‘ordinary people’, who are creative in their private lives, bring up their children decently, for instance, or help their neighbours.

All Kindness is Productive

An excellent thought for a Friday.

All enmity, jealousy, opposition, and secrecy are wholly, and in all circumstances, destructive in their nature – not productive; and all kindness, fellowship, and communicativeness are invariably productive in their operation – not destructive.
John Ruskin

Happy (to be an) Amatuer

Terrific post about writing from Molly Flatt, and it applies to any creative field. In a nutshell: do what you love, do it for the right reasons and don’t sweat the rest. Wisdom I’ll be taking to Creative Writing Ibiza with me in just a few hours!

Focus on the work itself, create goals you can control, and make sure the journey is as satisfying as the end game. Become a happy amateur, and you might just have a chance of becoming a happy professional after all.

Be Yourself


-Thelonious Monk (via Lists of Note)

“The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tasks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Choose Your Success Carefully

If people are highly successful in the professions they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion – the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes. Money making becomes so important that they must work by night as well as by day. Health goes.
— Virginia Woolf

Further reading

Secrets of Success
Life is What Happens When You’re Making Other Plans

Happy Birthday Henry David Thoreau

Today would be the great Henry David Thoreau’s 195th birthday. Luckily, he is immortal. Sitting at my desk in a basement, I read this and want to laugh and cry at once:

I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. … I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.

The Book

Recommended Reading – Non-Fiction

This list could easily run to 25 titles, or 50, or more. I love factual writing. Done right, it calls for curiosity, insight, empathy, humility and the willingness to face (as Orwell puts it) unpleasant facts.

George OrwellDown and Out in Paris and London
Orwell took everything seriously, except himself, which makes this account of his experience as a Parisian kitchen drudge and London tramp insightful and grimly funny.

Susan Faludi
The Terror Dream
A brilliant, audacious polemic that argues America’s post-9/11 self-perception is shaped more by the enemy within than the threat from without.

Germaine Greer
The Female Eunuch
Even if you don’t agree with a word she says Greer is worth reading for the way she says it. Genius writing and bracing politics.

Barbara Ehrenreich
Nickle & Dimed
The essential text on the myth of the American Dream that, worryingly, gets more relevant every year.

Aiden HartleyThe Zanzibar Chest
Intense, disturbing and profoundly insightful first-person account of life as a war correspondent in Africa.

Martha GellhornTravels With Myself & Another
Possibly my favourite travel book of all time. Gellhorn, like Orwell, has no truck with self-pity (“moaning is unseemly,” she notes) which makes these tales of horror journeys perversely enjoyable.

Hunter S ThompsonFear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail
You don’t need to know or care about American politics to be enthralled by Thompson’s account of the 1972 Presidential race. Essential reading in an election year.

Charles BowdenMurder City
Almost hallucinogenic account of a year in Ciudad Juarez, northern Mexico, where the “War on Drugs” is a catalyst/excuse/smokescreen for a culture of brutality that, Bowden argues convincingly, is the natural end-product of unfettered 21st century globalised capitalism.

Phillip CaputoA Rumour of War
Classic first-person account of the Vietnam War.

David Simon & Ed BurnsThe Corner
Before The Wire Simon and Burns were on the corner, sharing the lives the victims of yet another American war of attrition as they crafted this masterpiece. One of the single best sustained acts of reportage I’ve ever read.

Writers On Writing – Frances Hwang

Sometimes words appear when you need them most. Kelcey of PhD in Creative Writing posted the latest in her excellent series of writer interviews today and interviewee author Frances Hwang has some pithy words for the panickers and procrastinators, of whom I am one.

You can only progress as a writer if you write, and the more you write the more you understand and trust the process of writing. I’d urge you to get into the habit of finishing work. The temptation to abandon a piece can be great (and no doubt there are times when you do need to let something go), but you learn more and feel a real sense of accomplishment when you complete something. If you get stuck and are overwhelmed by the ambitious plans you have for your work, I suggest taking a less grandiose approach. Try to write the story in a way that comes naturally and that is most accessible to you. Otherwise, there’s a real danger of never writing the story at all.

Excerpts On Writing – Hemingway’s Boat Response

Oscar Wilde said he always travelled with his diary because he liked having something sensational to read on the train. My diary is, alas, neither exactly a diary (unless Ryman spiralbounds count these days) nor sensational, but it does go everywhere with me and here are a few scribbled thoughts from my Galway-to-London journey last weekend, dashed off after reading Paul Hendrickson’s latest non-fiction epic Hemingway’s Boat.

12 March
Reading about writing is a dangerous preoccupation, dipping into the fantasy of another’s creative life. Feeling the need of a sense of mission, wanting a clear picture. A clean, well-lighted dream to pursue. A puzzle box so [the] only thing left to do is put together the pieces. Risky.

Read [Hemingway’s Boat] in one great 28 hour gulp (less nine hours sleep and several hours quiet conversation). Jumbled feelings: awe, fascination, curiosity, envy (despite everything) of shining hours on the sea and drinking rum, eating avocados right out of the shell. Fantasy powerful as a Siren call – tie yourself to the mast, my friend – would it be worth it? The high times, the urge to tear up. I’d like to have known more about the bi-polarism, medical stuff. The actual, genetic, biological fact of it, woven into the DNA, making everything dark that little bit less resistible.

The writing is a sustained, beautiful sleight-of-hand peppered with parenthetical rabbits popping out of hats. The delicate, ruthless details (asking the fading old man to disinter his dead wife’s wedding dress), the moments of private meditation. Slipping off to cast for trout the author flexes his own masculinity, as if to say: “I’m not just a gatherer, a teller of tales, I make my own stories too. I’ve tied a few on.”

The constant, tantalising, steady-voiced mingling of verifiable fact (letters, dates, police reports) with compassionate speculation. The sudden veer and shift (“don’t look here, look here“). The intensity of detail: lists of fishing supplies, fish species, concurrent events. Over and over the evocation of water: blue, purple, turquoise, brown, something to do with seaweed, iron content, depth, the sand. Washes through and over the narrative till you can almost feel it, get the cast-off ripple light caught in your eyes.

A book not so much about about a boat as about creation – the things we make deliberately and unwillingly.