Wednesday 8 September 2010

Walter Benjamin: 13 theses on writing

One of my favourite accounts of writing is Walter Benjamin's "The Writer's Technique in Thirteen Theses", from his 1928 book One-Way Street; published in Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926 (Harvard UP 1996), 458-59. Here are his thirteen theses in full:

I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.

II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this régime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

III. In your working conditions, avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an étude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.

IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.

V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.

VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.

VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

IX. Nulla dies sine linea [“no day without a line”: Pliny] — but there may well be weeks.

X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.

XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.

XII. Stages of composition: idea — style — writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration; style fetters the idea; writing pays off style.

XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.


Emerson Fast said...

I appreciate you Ben :)

Even if your book is the most codswallop piece of garbage, fit for milquetoast milksops, I will purchase it and read it through and through and bless you.

joel mason said...

I love this. I have to read more of him.

I tend to work outside most of the time, and at different locations. I suppose taking Bejamin's XI advice in my context would mean finally going into my study to write my conclusions.

Jake said...


I stumbled upon these comments on writing in Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon, and thought you might appreciate them. Obviously, they are about fiction writing, but I think they probably have something to say to the theologian as well.

'I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion you experienced. [...] but the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always, was beyond me and I was working very hard to try to get it.' (p. 2)

'This too to remember. If a man writes clearly enough any one can see if he fakes. If he mystifies to avoid a straight statement, [...] the writer takes a longer time to be known as a fake and other writers who are afflicted by the same necessity will praise him in their own defense. True mysticism should not be confused with incompetence in writing which seeks to mystify where there is no mystery but is really only the necessity to fake to cover lack of knowledge or the inability to state clearly. [...] Remember this too: all bad writers are in love with the epic.' (p. 47)

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks, Jake, for these beautiful passages from Hemingway. That last line about "the epic" is priceless.

It reminds me of something I once heard from a chap who edits a poetry journal (and so has to read a lot of bad submissions): "All bad poetry has one thing in common: it's always sincere."

Unknown said...

Ben, I very much enjoyed your talk of the paper you gave on scholarship as discipleship. I was wondering how to access a hard copy of it? Ta, Jamie.

Anonymous said...

Some real gems in here - thanks for sharing them.

Another book that I have found extraordinarily helpful is Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Outstanding sections on editing, the discipline of writing and grammatical considerations. Although King focuses on fiction, most of the insights are universally applicable to any writing.

"When you write, you're telling a story.
When you edit, you're taking out everything that isn't the story."

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