A Right and Good Way to Think About One’s Writing

The magnificently named Augustus John Cuthbert Hare opened the preface of his 1887 guidebook Paris with the following statement:

A better book than this might easily have been published, but no one else has tried to write anything of the kind, and I have done my best.

I don’t know if I have ever read a better summary of how to think about one’s writing efforts than Hale’s three sentiments: the humility that comes from recognizing there will always be writers with more talent, the confidence that one has found a unique story to tell or a unique way to tell a story, and the calming truth of having given one’s best effort.

Echoing Hale’s third point, Richard Ford said something in a 2011 interview that has stuck with me:

I’ve muddled through a lot of things, but I have not muddled through my writing life. I work absolutely flat out, giving it my all. If the books aren’t good enough, it’s because I’m not good enough.

I don’t hear in either writer’s statement a resigned “well, I did my best” but rather a simple, confident declaration of “this is my best.” And as with all simply expressed ideas, it’s easy to look past the profound message offered within.

In addition to respecting the bond we hope to form with readers, this attitude might help squelch the self-doubt crazy-making that seems to be the writer’s special art form. Work to the very limit of our capabilities—and then be at peace with the results.

The Art of Invective: Ovid’s “Ibis”

Nikita Khrushchev: “We will bury you!”

Dirty Harry Callahan: “Go ahead. Make my day.”

Mike Tyson: “I’m gonna gut you like a fish.”

Oh, boo hoo. You want to threaten somebody? Do it properly:

While Thracians fight with bows, Iazyges with spears,
while the Ganges runs warm, and Danube cold:
while mountains produce oaks, and plains soft grass,
while the Tuscan Tiber flows with its clear waters,
I’ll wage war on you: death will not end my anger, rather
among the shades it will set a cruel weapon in my hands.

Then, too, when I shall be dissolved in empty air,
my bloodless ghost will still revile all your ways,
then, too, my remembering shadow will pursue
remedy for your deeds, and my bony form your face.

. . .

Wherever I may be, I’ll strive to break from Styx’s shores,
and, in vengeance, stretch an icy hand to where you are.
You’ll see me watching, in the shades of silent nights,
appearing as a vision, I’ll drive away your sleep.

Whatever you do, I’ll flit before your lips and eyes,
and moan so there can be no peace in your house.
Cruel whips, and twining snakes, will hiss, and funeral
torches, forever smoke before your guilty face.

. . .

Let the flames that snatch at all men, flee from you:
let the honest earth reject your hated corpse. May
the cruel vulture tear your entrails, beak and claw,
and the greedy dogs rip out your treacherous heart,
and let there be (though you may be proud to be so
loved) a quarrel for your body, among the wolves.

. . .

Let one of the Furies rake your flanks with her whip,
till the measure of your sins has been confessed:
another give your scored body to her hellish snakes:
the third one scorch your smoking cheeks with fire.

Promising to pursue from beyond the grave, denying the sacred repose of burial, calling forth the Furies to rake and score and scorch an opponent—that is how you threaten somebody.

These spirited lines are from “Ibis,” an obscure and often inscrutable monument to malediction by Ovid, the Roman poet much better known for his Arts of Love (with its cheeky/shocking advice on seduction) and Metamorphoses (from which we get much of our knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology).

One of Ovid’s last works and written while he was in exile from his beloved Rome, “Ibis” is a puzzling piece because no one has yet figured out who the target of Ovid’s vengeful hatred was or what this person did to boil up his ire. In the closing lines, Ovid threatens to call his enemy out by name soon, but apparently that never happened.

Whoever it was clearly did something egregious to get on Ovid’s bad side. After threatening revenge from beyond the grave, he goes on to claim to have known the prophesized fate and childhood history of his target, including the sweet detail of how the Fates made this enemy cry as a child and then promised that he would cry forever—and always have good reason to.

Following that comes a mind-numbing, eye-glazing litany (running for 345 lines) of curses, whereby Ovid promises that his enemy will be struck by the same torments that befell dozens and dozens (and dozens!) of historical and mythological characters. Here are just a few:

May someone sever your genitals, as Saturn,
when he was born, severed those of Uranus.

Or like Cychreus, who snatched Eurylochus’ crown,
let your body be food for ravenous serpents.

Or die suspended like the captive Acheus who hung
a wretched witness to the gold-bearing waters.

Or like the Atarnean may you be brought, basely,
to your lord as a prize, sewn inside a bull’s-hide.

May your sister burn with fire as Byblis and Canace
did, and not prove true except in their sinning.

Or like Prometheus may you hang in Tartarus
from a high rock, or, as books tell, die Socrates’ death

May you be worthy of truncation, like that son of Astacus,
Melanippus, a maimed corpse, your head eaten by your fellow men

And may that artisan, the bee, bury his venomous
sting in your eye, as he did to the Achaean poet.

Somehow, that bee sting in the eye curdled my sensibilities more than all the other threats of mayhem and murder. Ovid spins out his curses until the very end of the poem, when he proclaims that (after more than 600 lines), he is just getting warmed up:

Meanwhile lest you complain that I’ve forgotten you,
these words are sent to you in a hasty work.
It’s brief indeed, I confess: but, by their favour, may the gods
grant more than I ask, and multiply the power of my prayers.
You’ll read more in time, containing your true name,
in that metre in which bitter wars should be waged.

“Ibis” is a difficult poem because it contains so many references and allusions to other texts and tales and characters. Ovid was, after all, an all-world expert in mythology, perhaps the original classicist. However, it is still an enjoyable work, if only for the artful intensity of the invective.

The poem is not available in the typical Ovid collection, but a wonderfully readable version (as readable as “Ibis” is ever likely to get, that is) is available at Poetry in Translation, thanks to the British poet and translator Anthony Kline. Kline also researched all of Ovid’s references and provides helpful research links for most of them. All the passages reproduced here are his work, and I am immensely grateful to him for his generosity in allowing others to use his translations for noncommercial purposes and for giving us Latin-illiterates access to this strange and magnificent work of art.


p.s. To his “credit,” Mike Tyson did deliver some pretty epic threats over the years, although perhaps not quite with the same lyrical charm as Ovid. I chose one of his milder maledictions to use here.

The People of Our Past

Tucked in among the weighty proclamations issued by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 is the delightful gem of Canon 16, which in part prohibits clerics from attending “the performances of mimics and buffoons” or wearing “curiously sewed together gloves.”

If they could be transported to the 21st century, the Council attendees would surely be appalled to see that the performances of mimics and buffoons are nearly the sum total of our contemporary culture, but what a relief it would be to note that the great danger of curiously sewed together gloves has passed.

After having a nice chuckle about Canon 16, though, anyone with a mind for digging into history has to ask a couple of questions. First, how had this society developed in such a way that these matters were important enough to command attention from one of the most significant conferences in European history? Second, how has our society grown so far apart from theirs that these once-important matters now seem trivial?

And this was a problem?

Moving back in time most of a millennium, as the first major gathering of church leaders after the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, the Council of Nicaea in 325 had its own catalog of important matters to resolve, starting with the so-called Arian heresy and its assertion that Christ was not divine. Two or three hundred bishops attended, as did Constantine himself.

And yet, in what might well have been the most important international meeting in the world up to that point, and a meeting that shaped the long-term trajectories of countries and cultures all over the world (imagine how different the world would be if institutionalized Christianity had not survived this fledgling stage), the emperor and this assembly of prelates were compelled to address the problem of priests who had transformed themselves into eunuchs.

In fact, it’s the very first of the 20 canons issued at Nicaea. Canon 1 makes allowances for men who had the operation for medical reasons or who were victims of barbarian savagery, but it states that priests who had emasculated themselves should leave the priesthood, and that in the future, no man who had done so would be allowed into the priesthood.

Buffoonery and curious gloves are one thing, but voluntarily unburdening oneself of body parts is on an entirely different plane of un-understandability.

Again, the two questions. First, what would a society have been like in which instances of men self-administering such a transformation must have been common enough that an international meeting of bishops, presided over by the Roman emperor, was compelled to address the problem? Second, how did we grow so far away from this society that such a phenomenon is almost impossible to imagine?

It’s tempting to dismiss these odd and old ideas as just that, the inexplicable behavior of benighted people left far back in the dust behind our ever-advancing selves. But to dismiss these ideas as irrelevant is both an error and the waste of a wonderful opportunity.

They are in us; we are of them

The auto-eunuchs of 325 and the curiously gloved buffoon watchers of 1215 may belong to lost and distant cultures, but they are not members of another species or visitors from another planet. They are us, or at least earlier incarnations of us.

There are no step-function discontinuities in human history. The world didn’t jump from 325 to 1215 to 2014. It lunged and lurched, one year, one day, one connected human moment after another. The path might have been tortuous, regressive, and downright insane at times, but it has been continuous.

Not only has the path from then to now been continuous, but the way we define ourselves is largely in reaction to the generations that came before us. We may have rejected many of their beliefs and behaviors, but we reject in opposition to them and in so doing are defined in large measure by them. We are not painting on a blank canvas. As Barry Unsworth put it, the past “belongs to us because it made us what we are.”

The better we can understand them (although we never will completely understand them, of course), the better we can understand ourselves and the behaviors we exhibit that will have future generations looking back at us with derision and disgust.

Exploring the past through the lens of historical fiction

The wonderful opportunity these old and odd ideas present is the glorious pleasure of discovery, that addictive feeling of uncovering the who, what, when, and how—and every once in a while getting a glimpse of the why.

What was it like trying to build a supranational religious organization at a time when even rudimentary education was far from universal, and many clerical candidates surely did find the tavern and town square more appealing than sacred texts and liturgical practice?

And regarding eunuchs who aspired to the priesthood, how widespread was the barbarian savagery mentioned in the canon from Nicaea? Were some of these men freed slaves who hoped for nothing more than to devote the rest of their lives to God? Or were eunuch priests in goddess cults converting to Christianity in large enough numbers to cause concern for the new church? The number of questions this canon alone raises could occupy (or distract!) a curious mind for days.

The opportunity to bring old truths and questions and curiosities to life through the alchemy of storytelling is surely one of the reasons historical fiction is endlessly compelling for so many writers and readers.


The quoted passages from the Canons of the Fourth Lateran Council are from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.asp

Visiting Historical Religious Sites: Two Gentle Pleas

I hesitate to post this article because anyone who is interested enough in history to visit a website devoted to historical fiction probably doesn’t need to hear this message. You are sensitive to the debt of gratitude we have to those who came before us and are therefore inclined in general to be sensitive to the world around you.

However, just in case this message does reach eyes and ears less in tune with the past and the past’s role in the present, I wish to share a couple of thoughts. (My particular lines of historical inquiry currently focus on Christian churches in Europe, but these sentiments obviously apply to the sacred buildings of any faith anywhere in the world.)

First, when you exit any aged church, turn right around and look at the condition of the stonework on the outside of the building. If it is in dire need of cleaning or repair from the ravages of time and weather and air pollution—and just about every old church I have ever seen is—please walk back inside and find the collection box marked for building maintenance or preservation. I honestly have no idea how important these visitor contributions are in the overall maintenance budgets of a church, but I do know it is important to contribute to the preservation of our shared heritage. I look at it this way: The admission fee for being enchanted by the past is shouldering some of the responsibility for the future.

Second, please remember that these old churches are in fact functioning churches, each with a complicated web of public and private meaning. Most churches do a good job of signposting service times and in some cases cordoning off areas reserved for worship during those times. However, my particular concern here is not with formal, public services, but with the individual people who seek solace in churches at any hour of the day. In recent visits to churches from Normandy down to Languedoc, I noticed people in several churches who were clearly in states of personal anxiety, heartbreakingly so in a couple of instances. It was dispiriting to watch tourists crowd right up near them, chatting and snapping photos of whatever architectural details caught their attention, as though the anguished soul in their midst was one more piece of statuary.

This can be a difficult request, I realize, because the interiors of churches are shared spaces. However, a few seconds of thought and planning can ensure a visit that is both rewarding and respectful. Upon entering, a quick look up and down the pews will indicate where you might want to plan your path. And when walking around the inside perimeter, pay particular attention in any small chapels off the side aisles and around the apse beyond the altar. These chapels sometimes have seating or kneeling arrangements specifically for prayer, and some have signs asking that visitors refrain from talking or taking photos. It’s really just a matter of being aware of one’s surroundings and making small detours if needed to give people some peace and some space.

Regardless of one’s spiritual persuasion, visiting a historically and architecturally significant church can be a wondrous, ennobling experience. If each of us approaches it with a bit of care and foresight, everyone can have the most fulfilling experience possible.

OK, end of sermon. Thank you.

Catching the Reader with Multiple Hooks: Learning from Barry Unsworth

The opening sentences and paragraphs of a novel have soooo much work to do: establishing the narrative voice and giving it some purpose, igniting a glimmer of interest in at least one character, painting in enough of the setting to help the reader get oriented, and proposing a contract with the reader regarding the laws of the universe he or she is about to enter.

But more than anything else, of course, the opening lines need to give readers some reason, any reason, to keep reading. Even if it’s just the tiniest sliver of bait, the quick flash of a lure, the first sentence has to draw them in and deliver them to the second sentence, and the second to third, and so on until they’re caught, captivated, and committed.

The greats have demonstrated a variety of tactics to capture readers in the first few lines and paragraphs and pages, from a narrative voice that refuses to be ignored to a thought-provoking insight about human behavior that promises some satisfying hours ahead to a quick ramp-up of tension.

With all the available tactics at hand, the two basic strategies seem to be go deep or go wide—to set a limited number of hooks and work them in securely while slowly expanding the scope of the story, or to set a large array of hooks in quick succession. (I was tempted to modify the metaphor to make it fishing with a line and hook versus fishing with a net, but the net implies a lack of precision and that’s not what I have in mind.)

Going Deep: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice, with its celebrated first sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” captures readers with a wry narrative voice and a satirical observation about human behavior that says a lot about the characters we are about to meet. The paragraphs that follow in the first chapter illuminate this opening line, start to sketch out the characters (including the contrasting natures of several of the daughters and perhaps some hint of the social implications thereof), and outline the lovingly combative nature of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s relationship. But they do so while staying within the narrow scope of the challenge of getting one’s daughters married off at a time when marriage was the most appealing career option for many women (“the only provision for well-educated women of small fortune,” as the book later puts it).

In Jane Austen’s capable hands, this go-deep strategy pays off handsomely, or at least it has for the several hundred zillion readers charmed by this book.

The risk of this deep-but-narrow strategy, obviously, is that if the one or two hooks don’t catch the reader, the book is back on the shelf and the reader has moved on. If Mrs. Bennet’s quest to connect with the eligible new bachelor in the neighborhood had been presented by a sterile narrator or without Mr. Bennet’s lighthearted accommodation of his wife’s rather grating personality, I suspect I’m not the only reader who would not have lasted through the first chapter. For me, anyway, Austen’s narrative voice is a lot more interesting than the admittedly serious marrying campaign that serves as the story’s dramatic engine. (Of course, it must be emphasized that I am not a worried parent in Regency-era England.)

Going Wide: The Ruby in Her Navel

In marked contrast to the pair of hooks Austen used in the first 800 or so words (the first chapter, that is) of Pride and Prejudice, in the first 500 words of The Ruby in Her Navel, Barry Unsworth sets no fewer than eight hooks.

I first read this book several years ago, but I keep a vivid memory of reading the opening chapter. I was walking along a calm street in Key West, early in the morning, and as I read I felt both my pace and my pulse quicken. (OK, I did have a large coffee in one hand and the book in the other.)

After a few blocks, I had to stop and figure out why I was so caught up in this story.* I sat myself down on the low retaining wall in front of the Monroe County Court House, pulled pen and notebook out of my shoulder bag, and got to work.

One: A rapid-fire reading of layered tensions, from sexual intrigue to murder plots

The opening paragraph tosses us right into a cauldron of sexual, social, and political tensions as the narrator races through a catalog of possible explanations for the ruby that glowed in the navel of Nesrin the dancer, whose fame spanned the courts of Europe. A lover might’ve stolen it for her from King Roger of Sicily; it might’ve been payoff from Roger’s chief enemy to assist in a plot to kill him; it might’ve been compensation for sharing that enemy’s bed. As time went on, people began to say the ruby was a gift from the Caliph of Bagdad, an enticement from the Great Khan of the Mongols, or wages from the Devil himself.

Two: The narrator abruptly tells us all these possible explanations are wrong

After spinning all these threads and more, the narrator introduces himself (“I, Thurstan”) at the end of the paragraph and claims that all these stories are false—and that only he knows the whole truth. We’re only one paragraph in, and we already have enough tension to fuel an entire saga, in the company of a narrator who knows the dazzling Nesrin’s secrets and seems to live deep in this world he describes but somehow stands alone and apart.

Three: Thurstan shares a thought-provoking observation about life, tinted with ominous color

I’m hooked and on board by this point, but Unsworth is just getting started. Starting the second paragraph, he lets us catch our breath with the observation that “Any human life lies in the future as well as in the past, of however short duration that future may prove to be; the two are hinged together like a door that swings, and that swinging is the present moment.” With this single sentence, we feel all those loose-woven threads from the previous paragraph snapping taut as that web of sexual intrigues and geopolitics is gathered into the tight, immediate moment of now. Plus, with his characteristically quiet power, Unsworth slips in that ominous note about however short duration that future may prove to be. Sounds like somebody is in for a bit of dying here, and sooner rather than later.

This was my first Unsworth, and for whatever reason, that image of the present moment being a door that swings to open the future as it slams shut the past really grabbed me. It announced, without calling attention to itself, that I was in the company of not just a writer who could say things well, but a writer who had something to say.

At a more mechanical level, the passage also sets up a nifty solution to a minor but not always trivial challenge that every novel has at its beginning, which is finding a smooth way to establish time and place. Continuing with the door simile, Thurstan says that to tell a story one must choose a moment when that door is swinging wide, and the moment he has chosen is a day late in April of 1149 when his boss Yusuf had asked him to remain after one of the regular meetings of officials in the royal palace at Palermo.

In a two-sentence paragraph, Unsworth has focused our attention on a specific moment after that broad sweep of possibilities laid out in the first paragraph, got us thinking about the finite span of our own lives, identified the setting, introduced a second major character, and set out several other important details we need to move forward.

Four: Thurstan explains the best way to keep secrets in a dangerous environment

Thurstan says that Yusuf made his request “quite openly, rather carelessly, as if it was an afterthought,” then reasons “What better way of disarming suspicion than to speak in the hearing of all?” After giving a few details about their employment in the royal bureaucracy, he shares one of the most important lessons Yusuf has taught him over the years, that “secrecy is best served by an appearance of openness.”

Thurstan hasn’t encountered any actual dangers or risks yet, no knock on his door in the dead of night or threats in some unsigned message, but clearly he is navigating treacherous waters. Without saying our just-met hero is in danger, Unsworth makes us feel it.

And not only are we about to tumble into a snake pit of palace intrigue, but the writer and his narrator have also alerted us that all will not be as it seems in the coming story.

Five: Thurstan relates a recent failure on his part to secure a gift for King Roger

Thurstan says this particular meeting stuck in his memory because it was “enlivened by a quarrel,” but he doesn’t elaborate yet. Instead, he relates how just prior to the meeting he had failed in his attempt to bribe a jester to leave his post in Naples and come to Palermo so that Thurstan could present him as a gift to the king, although he didn’t say anything about this at the meeting. (His job title is the Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows, a fluffy label in delicious contrast to the gritty reality of his work—the jester refused to come because he was afraid his current boss, the Count of Naples, would track him down and strangle him in retribution.)

More tension, then; he failed in his quest to please the king, and he is keeping that failure a secret from the other palace officials.

Six: Thurstan portrays himself as a man alone, a palace insider but one distrusted by all as an outsider

After mentioning that he didn’t say anything about his failure during the meeting, he explains that “I was distrusted as a man who belonged nowhere.” His boss Yusuf is Arab, and King Roger is Norman French, but Thurstan is from northern England.

The classic me-against-the-world angle nearly always hooks me. In fact, starting the book with “I was distrusted . . .” would’ve been enough on its own.

Seven: Thurstan starts to tell us about his father but then abruptly stops himself

As he goes on to relate some history of how his northern family had made its way to Italy in the hope that his father might find opportunity in the Norman-ruled kingdom of Sicily and that his mother had later died in childbirth, Thurstan ends with “My father . . . But more of my father later.”

This line struck me as quite in keeping with the all-is-not-as-it-seems spin we have going on, that maybe Thurstan isn’t entirely alone as I have built him up in my mind. Is his father still alive, and if so, what role is he going to play?

I suppose there is a risk that this interrupted line about his father could come across as a gimmick, as the author announcing that he had some important information but then refusing to provide it. However, it didn’t strike me that way at all. Rereading it now, I get the same feeling I had originally. Thurstan has taken me into his confidence and has a lot to tell me, but just as someone would in regular conversation, he first needs to get back to another topic he raised but hasn’t yet resolved. (And he goes on to do this, describing the quarrel that had “enlivened” the meeting, then using that as a springboard to outline the larger cultural conflicts at play in a besieged Italian kingdom led by a French monarch ruling an unsettled mélange of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish subjects.)

Eight: So what of this Nesrin, and how does Thurstan have sole possession of the whole truth about her?

We’re about 500 words in at this point (right before he goes on to describe the quarrel at the meeting), but Nesrin the dancer remains as mysterious as we when we left her in the first paragraph. Is she alive, does she play any role in the story to come, is Thurstan—and not all those kings and potentates—her lover? Tell me more about the connection between this culturally isolated, low-level palace functionary and a woman whose appeal was apparently strong enough to rock the lives of courts and kings.

The Rewards and Risks of Going Wide

All these hooks have been laid out for the reader, and we’re still less than two full pages into the story. The political intrigues both grand and quotidian, cultural clashes, dangers just out of sight, the mystery of Nesrin and just how good or how bad she was, the stranger in a strange land plight of a sympathetic narrator—there’s a hook here to catch any reader.

By comparison, at roughly the same point, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are still squabbling about whether or not he is adequately sensitive to her nervous condition. Equally valid strategies and equally effective in sure hands, but what profoundly different ways to begin a novel.

With Unsworth at the controls, the going-wide strategy works extremely well, but it’s easy to imagine it failing miserably. If the multiple hooks are not seamlessly integrated, if each doesn’t sprout naturally from the one it follows, the result would feel choppy, disjointed, and possibly even desperate (“I’m not sure how to capture the reader, so I’m going to try every trick I’ve ever seen.”) And even if they are connected parts of a whole, multiple hooks could overload the reader with too much information too quickly.

Of course, the number of opening hooks also has to be related to the scope and complexity of the story to come. A hook that doesn’t eventually pay off or that pays off in a way unrelated to the story is careless at best and manipulative at worst.

But when it works, the effect is magnificent.


*One might argue that the opening actually pushed me out of the story rather than pulled me in, if I was so conscious of it and so focused on the technique. However, I believe the right explanation for this is that writers don’t read like normal people. It’s a curse in a way, but particularly for beginners with only two or three decades of practice and much still to learn, whenever a story is at its most captivating we have to force ourselves to stop and analyze how the writer achieved that effect. We lose the pleasure of staying fully within the fictional dream, to borrow John Gardner’s term, but we gain the appreciation of learning how the masters of our chosen medium create their art.

Barry Unsworth, 1930–2012

Word comes today that Barry Unsworth died earlier this week at the age of 81. He leaves behind a catalog of work that inspires and humbles anyone who writes historical fiction and anyone who aspires to write humane fiction in general.

I had the great pleasure of hearing Mr. Unsworth speak and read from his work during the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar. I cannot claim any personal connection beyond spending several hours in rapt attention, but his work and his thoughts about the enterprise of historical fiction have been my daily companions ever since. And having heard him read, I have the gift of his voice narrating to me every time I pick up one of his novels.

This remembrance by Arlo Haskell offers links to an interview he conducted with Mr. Unsworth and several audio recordings from the 2009 Seminar.

To Haskell’s graceful words I can add only a sincere thank you.

[Posted 7 June 2012]

Please Be Kind to Idiots, for I Am an Idiot

I suffer the twin curses of the autodidact: patchy, unorganized knowledge and the great gnawing fear that everyone else is comfortably in possession of some Big Idea whose very existence has thus far eluded me.

Given that I was spelunking my way through Plato’s Timaeus at the time, I was certainly feeling the second curse, and specifically the feeling of intellectual isolation it produces, when I ran across Peter Kalkavage’s explanation of the Greek word idiotês: “An idiotês lacks a specialized know-how that connects him with other human beings and thus remains idios (on his own or private).”1

This notion of apart-ness or alone-ness is preserved in such English words as idiom and idiosyncratic, but what a different sense of the word idiot this is, at least relative to any sense I have ever encountered it as sender or receiver.

Several thoughts spring to mind, regarding both the contemporary English-language sense of idiot and the original Greek sense embodied in idiotês:

First, recognizing that feeling of isolation felt by every idiot/idiotês, I might in the future, possibly, maybe, in selected cases, leaven my assessment with a trace of compassion when I am tempted to apply the label to someone.

Second, in the original Greek sense, we are all idiots about a great many subjects and fields of endeavor—more so than not, by a considerable margin.

Third, again using the original sense that leans more toward ignorance than stupidity, idiocy becomes, at least to some degree, a solvable problem.

One can hope, yes?


1. Peter Kalkavage, Plato’s Timaeus (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2001), 133.

Memory Palaces: Storing an Entire Library in Your Head

Sometimes you get lucky.

One of the themes of The Geometry of Vengeance is the nature and purpose of truth. Can the truth or a truth ever be found, and why should it be pursued? Is truth an end or a means, an ideal or a weapon?

This theme is animated by characters from the thin stratum of 13th-century society who would have been not only literate but well read, meaning they have or once had access to books and manuscripts. That aspect was easy enough to conjure up, but matters get complicated when characters are on the move, hunting or being hunted, as it were. It’s one thing to have bookish thoughts or arguments while seated in a monastery’s scriptorium or a nobleman’s vast library of some two hundred volumes, but it’s quite another when you’re scrambling across the French countryside. How could these characters think and converse in book-smart ways when they don’t have the books in hand and without it sounding like I’m feeding them lines from just off stage?

Practicing the art of artificial memory

I found the solution in the classical art of memorization. Considered from a world in which the only particle of information you really need to memorize is where you put your Internet-enabled smartphone, the memory skills of early orators and scholars drop one’s jaw. From the recitation of epic poems to the speeches of Roman orators to Ovid and Boethius referencing a staggering number of texts while writing from exile (Ovid’s “Ibis”) and prison (Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy), their ability to store and retrieve information makes one a little less proud about memorizing a shopping list or the new brother-in-law’s name.

Frances A. Yates’s 1966 masterpiece The Art of Memory traces the development of memory-training techniques to the Greek poet Simonides (c. 556–468 BCE). (Simonides was also reputed to be, coincidentally, the first to demand payment for his poems. Hail, Simonides!) By the age of Cicero several centuries later, the concept of active, trained “artificial memory,” was a well-established element in the study of rhetoric. Various techniques were passed on and refined throughout the Middle Ages and reached their highest development in the 16th century. By then, the disruptive technology of the printing press was spelling out the inky doom of one of the most astounding accomplishments of the collective human mind.

Today, what was once a vital skill for the literate classes is carried on mostly as a competitive sport.

Getting things to stick

The guidelines for using the classical methods were rather complicated, but put simply, most relied on the use of mental models of real or imaginary structures to organize and store information and a sort of visual “inner writing” to imprint each new piece in a specific location within the structure. For example, you can use your own home as the structure, storing information as you walk through it (in your mind or in reality), cataloging information about literature in one room, science in another, and so on. Within the literature room, you might designate one window to store information about Victorian literature, and each pane of the window could hold information about a specific author. To memorize something related to Oliver Twist, you “write it” on the Dickens pane. Later, when you need to recall the information, you walk through your mental house to the literature room, face the Victorian window, and read back from the Dickens pane.

To imprint the information, you need something visually “stickier” than a blank sheet of glass, however, and this is where the really entertaining part of artificial memory comes in. You want to affix the information to an image that you will easily remember so that when you need to recall the information, you can rely on the image to find and retrieve it.

But don’t paint just any old image on your Dickens pane, because some types of images are much better than others. Yates quotes from the Ad Herennium, a Roman textbook written in the first century BCE and widely used well into the Middle Ages, which explains that we are likely to forget things that are “petty, ordinary, and banal.” However, things that are “exceptionally base, dishonorable, unusual, great, unbelievable, or ridiculous” are much more likely to stick. In other words, the more bizarre, disgusting, or obscene the imagery, the better.

Of course, keeping all this information in memory requires enormous amounts of practice. To keep the information secure, you must walk through your mental house over and over and over again, reaffixing each bit of information in its designated place.

Living in a memory palace

Many of the mental structures that ancient and medieval memorizers used were palaces or theaters, both real and imaged. Others were more abstract but still rigorously organized. One of the most celebrated in antiquity, that of Metrodorus of Scepsis, divided the 12 signs of the zodiac into 360 individual places.

If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating art, Yates’s scholarly work describes the major systems that developed over the course of two millennia and puts them in the context of the European intellectual tradition, right up to the beginnings of the scientific revolution. I explored only a few portions of the book, but if the whole is as satisfying as those parts, it would be a rewarding journey for anyone interested in this subject.

Best Footnote Ever

After 30 years as a professional writer in various contexts, always endeavoring to make life easier for readers, I admit to a devilish little laugh courtesy of the British science writer Jim Baggott. On page 37 of A Beginner’s Guide to Reality, he provides a long list of things that have been used as money by various cultures over the centuries. The list ends with ” . . . vodka, wampum, yarns and zappozats.5

Curious to know just what a zappozat is, I scanned down to the footnote, which reads as follows:

5. Look it up, like I had to.

This might be the influence of my bratty inner eight-year-old, but I found this to be exceedingly funny. (Baggott does credit the source he used for the list, Glyn Davies’ A History of Money, but defining “zappozat” is an exercise left to the reader.)


p.s. In case you’re curious, a zappozat is a type of


There Might Be a Reason That Writing Feels Like Exercising

An hour and forty-five minutes after my computer nagged at me to get up and do some exercise, I am struck by the parallels between writing and exercising. I’m thinking specifically here of the first-draft phase of writing. For me, anyway, research is fascinating, outlining varies from pleasant to exhilarating, and revising is often where the deep joy of writing lies. But the initial drafting, when one is really just hoisting the clay up onto the workbench, can be, well, work.

These parallels come to mind as I sit a few minutes longer, continuing to avoid exercise:

  • Some days, the first step seems insurmountable, and the body and the mind will find every excuse to do anything else. (You should see how well organized my refrigerator is.)
  • Fortunately, both can be sneaked up on, wherein you engage in a related activity (warming up, fiddling with the equipment, researching, revising a bit of yesterday’s writing), and before you know it, you’ve tricked yourself into doing the real work.
  • Even more fortunately, once the work is in motion, both activities present the opportunity to “get in the zone” or to achieve flow, to use Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term. This is that almost-magical state in which work becomes not-work and changes from something you do to something you are. In this state, even high-intensity cardio and first drafts become pleasurable.
  • Done well, both writing and exercising are good for you. Done poorly, they can be a waste of time. Or worse.
  • Both activities have to be kept at regularly just to maintain your current level of fitness—and must be hounded after with great diligence to see real improvement.
  • In both activities, there is the endless temptation to focus on strengths, which is usually enjoyable, rather than addressing weaknesses, which generally is not.
  • They have a similar effort-payoff curve: New exercises and new sorts of writing are difficult at first, then become easier as your body and mind develop the specific capabilities required by the task, and then they can become too easy when you’re so specifically proficient that a task no longer presents a significant challenge. The exercise doesn’t do as much for you as it used to, and the writing doesn’t help you grow as a writer or as a person.
  • With both exercising and writing, no matter how much you do and how well you do it, you are going to die anyway. But only by recognizing and making peace with this fact do we become free to live and to write with real meaning.1

And living with meaning does require, at a minimum, that one continues to live.

I have to go now. I need want to exercise.


1. I must credit Bruce Holland Rogers for opening my eyes to this. See the chapter “Death and the Day Job” in his highly recommended Word Work for a thoughtful discussion of this issue. He makes a compelling argument that we can’t write seriously without first facing our own mortality.