The ideal sanctuary for books


In explaining how the act of reading can be likened to a drug-taking experience, the masterful essayist, stylist and author, E. B. White, noted how this “sort of ecstasy” could only be derived from literature “under ideal conditions”.

What exactly are these conditions? Are they similar to those unique requirements writers need to help them through the process of writing? Or are they universal – accessible to anyone and everyone of us?

Perhaps a clue lies in the conditions present in those most important centres of creativity and learning: the public library. These monuments to human thought and communication, which have that fascinating ability to function both as institution and metaphor. Of course, no library is alike, yet we ascribe them all a set of conforming features: studiousness, solitude and quiet, above all else.

From the earliest scholastic archives of writing at Ugarit of Ancient Egypt, libraries have been models for the world and models of the world; they’ve offered stimulation and contemplation, opportunities for togetherness as well as a kind of civic solitude. They’ve acted as gathering points for lively minds and as sites of seclusion and solace. Most importantly of all, they have provided countless doses of White’s “ecstasy” to readers and writers, because of the conditions inherently present within the walls of every library, and the corridors of books within them.

In praise of libraries

These qualities of libraries are at the heart of the belief that all humans have a certain responsibility for maintaining and taking care of these cultural hubs. Indeed, Neil Gaiman asserted that “we have an obligation to support libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”

Part of the reason for this is clear. In our digital, Post-Fordist world, it is becoming harder and harder to free ourselves from distraction. To find solace and places of quiet. To think hard about something for thirty minutes instead of thirty seconds.

Of course, the fundamental need to slow down – to find the time and space to think – is nothing new. For centuries, wiser souls have reminded us that we will never be happy unless we live quiet lives.  “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

British philosopher, Bertrand Russel, meanwhile, opined that “a happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.”

It is the opportunity libraries offer us to sit quietly by ourselves that makes them such fitting sanctuaries for books. As we lift a book from a shelf carrying the words of so many others, these buildings remind us, in their calm, quiet serenity, of the conditions in which the words are best read. For it is within these conditions that some of the greatest rewards from reading are reaped: these being a deeper consciousness of oneself, increased creativity, increased freedom; increased joy.


Creatives in profile: Interview with Russ Litten


In the latest of our ‘Creatives In Profile’ interview series,  we’re thrilled to introduce acclaimed writer, Russ Litten.

Litten is the author of “Scream If You Want To Go Faster”, “Swear Down” and “Kingdom”. His short stories have appeared in various international magazines and he has written for the screen and radio.


Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle


I am a 47 year-old man from a working class background who lives and works in Kingston-Upon-Hull and entertains himself with fairly simple pleasures; walking the dog, going to football, sitting in the pub talking bollocks.  In between all of this I sit down and write. For the last five years I’ve been a writer in residence at a prison, but the funding got pulled in May when the current set of psychopaths got into government. So my lifestyle currently involves balancing the need to make money with the need to make time to write.


Is creativity and writing your first love, or do you have another passion?


I’ve always written and that’s the thing closest to me, but for years I was in a band. I played bass and wrote lyrics. I think this period was the closest I’ve come to achieving transcendence through the act of creation, but of course it’s a shared experience, and sooner or later you’ve got to push your own boat out. So music is my significant other passion. I still play bass guitar to amuse myself. I’d give anything to be able to sing though. That must be amazing, to be able to entrance a room with your voice, rather than clear it in seconds.


Who inspires you?


As far as the writing goes, everyone and everything on the face of the planet and beyond, human beings especially. If you’re talking about heroes or influences on life in general these change from year to year, but the hard-core influences remain: Muhammad Ali, Quentin Crisp, Nelson Mandela, Jesus Christ, Chief Sitting Bull, Charles Bukowski, Kevin Rowland, Billy Whitehurst, Lillian Bilocca and Eddie Smith. Anyone who had a go, basically.


Your 2010 novel, Scream If You Want To Go Faster, is rooted so firmly in the location and geography of your home city of Kingston upon Hull. What role does region and notions of ‘home’ play in your writing?


I was living in London when I started writing that first book. At the time, Hull had come bottom of some bullshit marketing gimmick “worst places to live” table. When I moved back up, Hackney took the bottom slot. So I’m obviously the kiss of death to any place I’ve previously lived. Except for Prague, hopefully. But generally, when considering notions of home and belonging, I refer to that Captain Beefheart song, “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”.


Your subsequent novel, Swear Down, has been described as “a postmodern triumph” – when you are writing, do you consciously attempt to create something that is ‘post modern’? Where does your focus, as a writer, lie when writing?


I certainly don’t set out to write post-modern stuff because I don’t particularly like post-modernism that much. I find it a bit tiresome and unhelpful. I like sincerity and stuff that’s from the heart. The focus for me when writing is purely to get the story down in as simple and as evocative a manner as possible. If that involves adopting a specific voice then I like that voice to be as authentic. I like Kerouac’s definition of literature as “a tale that’s told for companionship”.


Are there any specific themes you’re interested in exploring as a writer?


I would very much like to write a love story. In fact, that’s what I’m doing next. A proper full-on exploration of love, in all its glorious fucked up wonder. Other than that, I like to start a story from an initial spark of intrigue and wander about within it until I find the thing that’s bothering me. It’s generally an abstract human emotion, like desire or jealousy or loyalty or grief, and out of that emerges the theme.


Why do you write?


Because if I don’t I get unwell. I realised this a long time ago. I write to get it all out of my head and put down somewhere safe where it can’t bother me anymore.


In his work, The Psychology of Writing, Ronald T Kellogg explored the role of the daily writing routine in producing inspiration and enhancing creativity. Sometimes these are pretty specific. Virginia Woolf, for instance, spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-a-half foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to work both up close and from afar. Do you have a specific daily writing routine? If so, what is it?


I do have a preferred writing routine, which is to get up, go for a run around the park, come back and start typing at around seven am. This is a summertime routine though. In winter, I usually avoid the running part. Generally, the earlier I start the better writing day I have. I like to write to music as well, instrumental stuff mainly, ambient or classical. I don’t like music with human voices when I’m writing unless it’s a language I can’t understand. I used to have this routine where I had to listen to Ralph Vaughan William’s “The Lark Ascending” in its entirety before I could type a sentence. But you have to be careful with routines; they can become crutches, which are a bit unhealthy.


In terms of writing fiction, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?


That you’re probably going to change everything, so it absolutely doesn’t matter. Just enjoy yourself. It’s the best bit, the first draft. It’s like spewing up and then immediately feeling better.


Looking around at current trends in literature, what are your thoughts and feelings on the publishing industry as a whole? And how would you advise aspiring writers to break out onto the ‘scene’?


I think it’s fair to say that the cramped financial restrictions on mainstream publishing means that it’s become a lot more safe and cautious, less experimental or willing to take risks. As a result, the books they push tend to be a bit dull and samey. Everyone seems to be frantically copying each other in the hope of emulating commercial success, hence the plethora of books about birds and grief, or girls in a variety of locations. Most of the interesting stuff comes from the small presses and the underground. As for aspiring writers, I’m not sure I’m well qualified to offer any hints or tips outside of the obvious stuff – write from the heart, don’t try and chase the obvious trends and find the thing you really want to say. Sooner or later some else will notice.


Within this scene, is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?


Not really, no. I try and ignore trends or any attempt to ride the zeitgeist. I suppose self-publishing will become more and more popular as a way of avoiding the traditional gate-keepers and I think that can only be a good thing.


How is the digital age impacting writers?


As soon as you can reproduce anything digitally it is worthless. You now have a generation that don’t realise you should actually pay for music. An artist now has to identify the people who are into what they do and hope that they feel enough passion and loyalty to part with some money in exchange for a physical thing. In a more practical sense, the digital platforms enable a writer to get a story or book or whatever straight to an audience pretty quickly.


In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?


I really don’t know. I think the temptation of the last few years has to be sensationalist or extreme or brutal. I’m a bit bored of all that to be honest. Twitter is a good example of this, where people often feel the need to be endlessly sarcastic or cutting or witty. To me, it feels like one big public audition for people who want to be the next Charlie Brooker. It’s back to that post-modern thing, the endless self-conscious wink of the eye.  The best way to stand out is to be truly yourself.  Which is a task in itself.


Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?


Not really, no. I write initially to amuse or engage myself and if anyone else recognises something of worth in there, then that’s ace. Writing to a specific audience would only end in disaster for all concerned.


How would you define creativity?


It’s a spiritual thing, and it involves breathing from within. Opening your head up like a radio receiver. It doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny. It used to amaze me when I was in a band, having four or five of you in a room hitting bits of metal and wood and then all of a sudden there’s something there that did not exist five minutes previously. Swop guitars and drums for a typewriter and the effect is much the same.


What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?


Someone who writes things down, regardless of whether it gets read by anyone else or not.  A recorder, an observer, one who scratches marks in the mud for posterity and kicks.


For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?


I would identify that “other” as the subconscious. If you write often then your subconscious mind tends to bubble to the surface and you become less elf-conscious. I think that’s a vital part of finding your own writing voice; letting go of conscious hang-ups and telling the truth as you perceive it.


Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?


I’m writing a love story and a non-fiction book about prison. I’ve also got a collection of monologues in the pipeline and a longer animation project for kids that I’m tackling next year.


Could you write us a story in 6 words?


Probably not, no. Oh, hang on …


Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?


  1. Turn off the internet
  2. A long walk throws up many answers.
  3. Most TV isn’t worth watching
  4. Listen to The Beatles
  5. Don’t measure your success against others
  6. Pull down the blinds
  7. Try and finish everything you start
  8. Don’t worry
  9. Read stuff you don’t think you’d like
  10. Try and tell the truth unless the lie is more sincere



10 of the best-designed book covers of 2015

Of course, we’re all told not to judge books by their covers. But sometimes it can be fun to break the rules. Here are our picks for the 10 best book cover designs of 2015.

1. Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Satin Island

McCarthy’s novel has been described as “intriguing and infuriating” – a little bit like the book’s dizzying, manic cover design.

2. Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

Book of Numbers

Some reviewers have noted that Cohen’s novel “doesn’t really get going until around page 238”. This is a shame, because the cover design certainly grabs the attention from the get-go.

3. Not on Fire, But Burning by Greg Hrbek

Not on Fire, but burning

If there is a more apt cover design for a book about a slow motion apocalypse as America implodes, we haven’t seen it.

4. Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser

Paulina & Fran

Hair plays a bigger role in this book than you might think.

5. Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto

Confession of the Lioness

More novel covers should feature lionesses and other big cats. Just a gut feeling we have.

6. The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

The Seven Good Years

Just where is that dove of peace being catapulted off to?

7. Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn

Dark Sparkler

Dark? Check. Sparkly? Sort of check. What about that woman with no eyes though – what’s up with that?

8. Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce 

Hall of Small Mammals

This fascinating short story collection opens with a story about a man bringing a waist-high, supposedly extinct Bread Island Dwarf Mammoth home to his mother. Need we say more?

9. Speak by Louisa Hall


More than anything, this book is about consciousness. It’s spellbinding. A little like this fascinating cover.

10. Witches of America by Alex Mar

Witches of America

Are you a witch? Or are you just doing the research? Either way, you’ll probably be using a dead crow in some way or other.

And a bonus 11th book cover…

The Jeremy Corbyn Colouring Book by James Nunn

Jeremy Corbyn colouring book

Come on. What with the rise in sales of left wing literature that have accompanied Corbyn’s meteoric rise to become leader of the UK Labour Party, and what with the huge trend toward adult colouring books, we couldn’t NOT include this fabulous little book.

What are we missing?

Of course, there are countless other excellent book covers we’ve sadly not been able to include in this short list. So, what are we missing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Creatives in profile: Interview with Eric Akoto


Erik Akoto

In the latest of our ‘Creatives In Profile’ interview series, it is an honour to introduce Eric Akoto, Publisher and Editor in Chief of Litro Magazine.

With a journalistic background, Eric has featured in various magazines, and contributed to various books. He also curates and comperes at festivals such as The Latitude Festival and the Hay Festival. His passions lie in progressive politics, freedom of expression, quality & independence in arts and journalism, social enterprise, secularism, good technology, and above all the power of fiction to connect and bring a level of empathy to different peoples.


Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos


There’s a long story and a short story. The short story of my background is that I was born in London and raised in South London, Battersea; I had a strict African upbringing. After leaving University, it was hoped I’d become a doctor or a Lawyer; but I had a creative spirit. Not knowing how to channel that creativity, I accidently landed a job as a male model – the job required a great deal of travelling. This was about 2000. Before the dawn of email and fast internet connectivity for sending large image files – so I would always be travelling, with an A-Z & my portfolio in hand. Spending hours on end on public transport – my sense of direction is terrible so I was always late – but I lasted for a good number of years and got to work with some amazing creative designers, photographers & magazine editors, which ironically lit a spark in me to get into magazine publishing. My first attempt at a creative publication was an e-zine called LA-NYLON (Los Angeles, New York & London) – I was about 25 and fortunate to have been offered the opportunity – through the modeling- to travel to some amazing cities. I wanted to create a platform where I was able to share what I was experiencing in these cities with friends.

Reading was always a passion and the time I spent travelling to and from interviews was always spent reading a book, magazine whatever I could get my hands on.

The long story starts in 2006, when I met a guy at the London Bookfair who was handing out a pamphlet – an A4 sheet folded in half – with short stories. I took one and on my ride home on the tube started reading it and thought to myself “this is a great idea I want my friends to see this”. I had a spider web of talented friends all doing different creative stuff, and so I began reaching out to them – for artwork, cartoons, stories, design – along with this guy in the space of a month or two we’d put together about a 20 page DL sized pamphlet. I took it to a local printer and printed a few thousand copies – and began distributing them myself.  It was a fun hobby and every couple of weeks I got these amazing creative friends together to help design, bounce ideas off each other and produce this pamphlet, which I then shared with them – and the rest of my community.  Before long a year or two passed and the guy from the bookfair went on to finish his PHD – and I’d fallen in love with publishing. I started taking the pamphlet to book shops – Foyles was one of the first book chains to support the magazine and after a few meetings with them they decided to sponsor the pamphlet – I managed to then convince Time to insert the pamphlet into one of its issues – to do this I had to increase the print run to 60,000 to meet it’s print run and at the same time decided to hold more stories and add more pages to the pamphlet turning it into a magazine and I haven’t looked back since.

My ethos has been shaped by the help given to me by the creative friends who supported me – it is being able to give a platform to emerging talent and Litro Magazine over the past 10 years has allowed me to do this.


Who inspires you?


 I guess anyone who is “fair” to people and know that despite a “general” direction there is always another way.  Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Malcom X, Tony Benn, Ta-Nehisi, and my daughter.


The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?


The future of literature and writing, to me has to be one of growth and diversity (diversity not in the populous term that’s now coined as a catch all for inclusion of Black and ethnic minority in the publishing industry (being a minority, Black and Male in a very white industry I find the term a little condescending) – but the diversity in the industry to embrace all talented writers through to editors, publishers; whether they be Black, Female, Transgender, Gay whatever and not to be diverse because it’s trendy. A great writer will be enjoyed and appreciated by all and not just the few.

In order to not loose the many talented emerging writers by the wayside – from the top-down of the literary industry – it must reflect today’s society.

For a long time the dialogue around the future of publishing has been one of death –  its true many publications have either transitioned to the web or given a greater focus on the web; but what the web has done for publishing is to kill off the kind of print that provides distractions of the ’10-minute-read-before-you-bin’ variety. In turn, this has cleared the way for titles that are fascinating, made with passion, collectables.

Print does a great deal that the web can’t and vice versa – there will always be the need for a tangible, haptic experiences. Ultimately, nothing can replace the smell of a printed material. Even if the web / new technologies being developed cause a shift in the regularity of the reading experience.


What do you think a Literary Magazine should be for? Why are they important?


The sad truth is that literature or literary magazines does not reach a wide enough audience; yet alone have any chance of competing against other entertainment options – Binge TV watching, movies, journalism and non-fiction. More people will camp outside an Apple store for the launch of a new iPhone than they would for the lunch of a new literary magazine or a book. If the competition was a boxing match, there would be an inquest as to why the referee allowed the match to start in the first place.

It’s important for a literary magazine – on surviving its daily pounding from other entertainment options, it’s struggles with lack of funding – to produce a publication that does not just cater to writers but for the general reader – a platform for writers to write, emerging voices to be heard, but importantly a place for it’s contributors to develop a place to be heard for their particular beliefs or aims that they feel will better society and move culture in a positive direction.

Contributors to literary magazine’s should not expect to be published because they have done the rounds and feel it’s their turn to be published; but instead should be contributing because they feel their voice / story has something to say. And it’s in the publishing of these contributors that makes a literary magazine important.

Litro Magazine, for instance, has a clear identity. We have always championed and provided a platform for emerging writers, whether through print, online, festival stages, our newly launched literary agency – Litro Represents – and through other opportunities.

But alongside this, we also publish contributors with arguments about the current cultural dialogue, and political landscape – through the monthly themes of Litro Magazine – we do this so we can encourage an attitude to writing that goes beyond just getting one’s name in print.


Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the publishing industry; with numerous magazines switching from print to online, and others starting out and continuing as purely digital platforms. How do you balance the two outlets of print and digital with Litro? What are the different challenges you face with each of these?


I’m an early adaptor and a big tech geek, but I also enjoy the tangible feel of the printed form. There’s nothing better than meeting a person for the first time having a passing conversation – and for that person to then send you a book he/she has read and feels you will enjoy!

The internet has certainly provided a massive opportunity for writers – and consumers; but I don’t see a fight between print and the internet (for one thing print would surely loose before the bell rang). Instead, I see a nice challenge – how one can get the two to compliment each other. For instance, three years ago we started our collective story telling on twitter the #litrostory; and the experiment has been a great way to reach a new audience and followers on social media and draw them to the magazine.


The magazine and online platform both look to combine various different aspects of literature – and indeed, culture in general, through a medium of different forms; from stories to reviews and comment or feature pieces. Why do you think it is important to combine these mediums?


I started Litro to share stories with friends who not only have differing practices but also differing interests – and I’d like to think of Litro Magazine’s readers as the same.


Literature, and ultimately all art, is about communication and expression. How does Litro fit within our cultural conversation? And how do we ensure the conversation carries on?


I’m sure many in the publishing industry see Litro Magazine as incomprehensible – considering the fact we don’t just cover literature, yet we still call ourselves a literary magazine. The great thing about Litro being a small magazine compared to our larger, older contemporaries – who have greater access to funding and trusts set up – is that we are able to address topics and questions more openly.

The classical musician Bach was dismissed by his peers, who thought his music was incomprehensible. Employed by a church to play the organ, he was rebuked as having  “many curious variations in the chorale, and for having mingled many strange tones in it, and for the fact that the congregation has been confused by it”.

With Litro we provide a platform for the unheard, the experimental – and at times unpopular.

For literature and all art, we need to ensure the conversation continues to flow – so all of us – especially those in a position to help support the arts – must not be afraid to experiment and take chances.


David Foster Wallace once opined that it was “getting harder and harder to sit quietly by yourself and think hard about something for thirty minutes instead of thirty seconds”. Do you believe that the ‘instant gratification’ culture of iPods, televisions in car back seats and constant information on our smartphones is having an impact on us as readers? How can the publishing industry counter this? How do we engage our readers effectively?


Our reading habits as a whole has been impacted by the rise of the use of smartphones and other hand held devices. Developments in technology moves so fast that I guess an ‘iPod’ now belongs in a museum.

Whether the change in our collective thirst for instant gratification needs countering – on the one hand yes, but the book as a product and the way it is consumed – has had to change to keep with the times, in the same way music consumption changed from a product packaged on a TDK cassette tape, on vinyl, or a CD, to a file on a smartphone or iPod.

But will book reading actually suffer – and its consumption need more engaging?

I doubt it. My daughter – who at just 11 has more handheld devices than I have, with Kindles, iPhones…you name it! –  But recently she not only re-introduced me to one of Kipling’s poems – but also to a poem by Jacqueline Woodson, New York from her collection Brown Girl Dreaming – a book I ordered on Amazon.

The new era of books may actually see more authors, more reading, and more books being bought and sold.


Could you name your top five writers – and explain why they impress you?


I am impressed and engaged by so many writers it’s far too difficult to limit to just five.


How would you define creativity?


For me, creativity is passion, and wanting to unleash something you feel you need to share, beyond your immediate surroundings and not having the fear of ridicule stop you from doing so. Ultimately, creativity is the need to create something new, which is very hard to do.


In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?


I stopped watching the Television a while ago – which has been a great help, I like to run in my local park – I’m fortunate to live not too far from Hyde Park, which has a lot of green open space.


Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?


Read, Read, Read, Read and Read some more – even it’s just a menu at a restaurant, a random magazine you pick up whilst travelling – you never know where your inspiration might come from. It’s also good to have a complete knowledge and understanding of whatever it is you end up writing.

The loneliness of the long distance writer


Studying the daily routines of many famous writers, one is immediately struck by how many rely on physical exercise to support their mental cogitations. Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, favoured long swims at his local municipal pool, accompanied by “doing sit ups and push ups all the time”, while author Tim Leach has prescribed rock climbing as a writing aid, noting how “both writing and rock climbing share a kind of rarefied loneliness”. Countless other writers, meanwhile, have found solace in the hypnotic action of racking up mile after mile in solitary, focused long-distance running.

Louisa May Alcott, for instance, thought she “must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run”. Famous misanthropic satirist, Jonathan Swift, meanwhile, would “run half a mile up and down a hill every two hours” during his 20s, according to Samuel Johnson. Then of course we have the novelist Haruki Murakami, who started running to get healthy and lose weight, but who found in running something essentially important to the mindset of the writer, noting how he felt his “real existence as a serious writer began on the day that I first went jogging.”

So what precisely is it, about running, which seems to lend itself so aptly to the art of writing?

Joyce Carol Oates ascribes the twin activities of running and writing “to keep the writer reasonably sane and with the hope, however illusory and temporary, of control”, and notes that she would ease any bouts of writing block with afternoon runs.

Freedom, consciousness and wildness

For Oates and other writers, running is thus a process that proves especially useful for the type of intensive, cloistered work they do. But perhaps it goes beyond that. After all, there seems a natural similarity between the two actions; they complement each other, seeming to be the natural extension of the other. The steady accumulation of miles mirrors the accumulation of words on the page, and both aspire toward a clear finishing line: either the end of the run, or else the end of the novel. Equally, while both are challenging, they can also invoke a sense of joy and elation – heavy physical exercise releases endorphins, while the rush and exhilaration of finding a writing rhythm and flow similarly brings forth feelings of ecstasy (no wonder Vladimir Nabokov described writing as “a drug”).

Both Leach’s “lonely” rock climbing and long distance running, therefore, offer a combination of freedom, consciousness and wildness – an ability for writers to escape their surroundings with a sense of purpose that is necessary for cultivating deep thought, or working out constraints and challenges within their writing.

Running is important to writing, then, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us grow – to better understand the world. Our minds are free to linger on thoughts they otherwise would not; in a kind of simulated – but nonetheless stimulating solitude that helps us better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.

Perhaps nowhere in literature is this crucial aspect of running captured better than in Adam Sillitoe’s short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Famously, this work began as two alliterative lines of verse, written by Sillitoe upon being struck by the serene calmness of a young man bedecked in a running vest and shorts trotting past his cottage.

Sillitoe’s short story focuses on Smith – a working class teenager with bleak prospects in life and few interests beyond petty crime – who turns to long-distance running as a method of both an emotional and physical escape, and as a means of mental reflection. As he runs and thinks alone, Smith – perhaps inevitably – turns to writing; and it is he who narrates his own story, in a perfect summation of the symbiotic relationship between writing and individual cogitation on notions of ‘the self’ during bouts of solitary exercise.

Expanding consciousness and self-education

This idea is expanded upon by Oates, who in 1972 began keeping a journal to accompany a new-found “compulsive” need to run. She writes: “[Running] is not a respite for the intensity of writing but is a function of writing […] running seems to allow me an expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I’m writing as a film or a dream.”

Don DeLillo echoes such sentiment, as he recalls the transporting effects of running after his morning writing sessions in an interview with The Paris Review: “Running helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle – it’s a nice kind of interlude.”

The solitary exercise of long-distance running seems, in many ways, to be part of self-education – and indeed of self-revelation; just as writing is. This is pointed out by Murakami in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, as he attributes “most of what I know about writing fiction I learned from running every day”. On the one hand, running is about constantly striving for new challenges and fresh goals – competing ever longer distances in the quest for better conditioning of our bodies – and on the other hand it helps us better express how this makes us feel through our words; supporting us in writing as we seek to better condition our minds and souls.

This isn’t simple conjecture based on hearsay from other creatives, either. Indeed, there are an increasing number of scientific studies that show a connection between aerobic exercise – which increases the flow of blood to the brain – and enhanced mental capacity. For example, a study by Oppezzo and Shwartz demonstrated that walking boosts “creative ideation” both in real time and shortly after (though this effect can also be induced by other activities, such as knitting).

Perhaps, then, the perfect daily routine for writing should include both long periods of solitary exercise, followed by periods of writing interspersed with periods set aside for knitting. Or perhaps the clue to the perfect daily routine for writing actually lies in those crucial words “daily routine”. For composition and writing is so rarely sustained by one momentary act of inspiration; but rather by daily perseverance and steady progress.

When creativity flows, it really flows; just like an invigorating run where you finally “hit your stride” – and it is no coincidence that this same phrase is used by writers and runners alike to describe the moment when work becomes joy.

But of course, simply running regularly will not be enough on its own to invoke the muse of creativity. It is not necessarily an instant cure for writer’s block. Yet it is through the same effort, determination and repetition of the act necessary to perfect the running process and push ourselves toward our long-distance goals that we must bring the same commitment to writing; turning up day in, day out, regardless of weather, or whether we feel “inspired” enough; and sitting down at our desks and putting word after word and sentence after sentence, just as we place one foot in front of the other out on the road.

In a 2004 interview with Runner’s World, Murakami sums this up pretty succinctly:

“The most important qualities to be a writer are probably imaginative ability, intelligence, and focus. But in order to maintain these qualities in a high and constant level, you must never neglect to keep up your physical strength. Without a solid base of physical strength, you can’t accomplish anything very intricate or demanding. That’s my belief. If I did not keep running, I think my writing would be very different from what it is now.”

Why we write

At one point or another, it seems as though nearly every significant writer in history has tried to address the question of why writers write. Some suggest the impulse to put pen to paper is down to a desire to better understand one’s own self; for others, it is the desire to understand the world, other human beings, reality. For some, writing is redemption. It is a means of freedom. Others, meanwhile, simply write for the fun of it.

Of course, there is – and never could be – a single answer to this question. Yet it nonetheless mesmerises us – partly, perhaps, as a piece of psychological voyeurism, as well as because it seems so hopeful and enticing a prospect that, by garnering a slight glimpse of the innermost drivers of great writers, maybe – just maybe – we might be able to replicate their workings and their motivation in our own work.

In this article, we attempt to highlight certain writers and their views on writing motivation.

George Orwell: Four universal motives of writing and creative work


George Orwell: Photograph: Public Domain

Orwell’s 1946 essay Why I Write begins by detailing his less than idyllic childhood – absentee father, school mockery and bullying, and a profound sense of loneliness – and proposes that such early micro-traumas are essential for any writer’s drive. He then lays out what he believes to be the four main motives for writing (full version here):

“(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Ray Bradbury: Writing is joy and celebration


Bradbury’s remarkable keynote address at the Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea brims with an invaluable reflective view on why you should write. It’s a simple mantra, really, because it’s about fun:

“Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say “Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…”, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else. […] I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. ”

Watch the full address here:

William Faulkner: Man is so amazing and beautiful that the writer must put it down on paper


In May 1958, Faulkner read from his favourite novel, The Sound and the Fury, at an event open to the general public. After the reading, he answered questions from the audience. The surviving recording is of questionable audio quality but makes up for it in the utter depth and richness of insight into the author’s views on writing and the project of art:

“You’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them — not individually but as a race.

The writer is so interested — he sees this as so amazing and you might say so beautiful… It’s so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man — frail, foolish man — has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way… some gallant way.

That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You’re never bored. You never reach satiation.

[…] I’m writing about people. Man involved in the human dilemma, facing the problems bigger than he, whether he licks them or whether they lick him. But man as frail and fragile as he is, yet he will keep on trying to be brave and honest and compassionate, and that, to me, is very fine and very interesting — and that is the reason I think any writer writes.”

Isabel Allende: Writing is an obsession

Isabel Allende - Register files

Isabel Allende – Register files

Celebrated Chilean American author Isabel Allende has famously spoken about writing “gave some sort of order to the chaos of life” after experiencing personal tragedy (her daughter, Paula, died in 1992). Indeed, she insists that storytelling is rooted in personal experience, and is, in so many ways, an obsession:

“I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story? I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world.”

Susan Orlean: Writing feels like magic


New Yorker staff writer and journalist, Orlean, has previously noted that the first rule of writing is that “you have to simply love it, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.” Yet she goes further when reflecting on her own writing motivation:

“Writing gives me great feelings of pleasure. There’s a marvelous sense of mastery that comes with writing a sentence that sounds exactly as you want it to. It’s like trying to write a song, making tiny tweaks, reading it out loud, shifting things to make it sound a certain way. It’s very physical. I get antsy. I jiggle my feet a lot, get up a lot, tap my fingers on the keyboard, check my e-mail. Sometimes it feels like digging out of a hole, but sometimes it feels like flying. When it’s working and the rhythm’s there, it does feel like magic to me.”

Italo Calvino: writing is becoming part of a collective enterprise


From his collection of letters (1941 – 1985), Calvino often addresses the motivation beneath his attempts at poetry, fiction – and even letter writing:

“Personally, I believe in fiction because the stories I like are those with a beginning and an end. I try to write them as they best come to me, depending on what I have to say. We are in a period when in literature and especially in fiction one can do anything, absolutely anything, and all styles and methods coexist. What the public (and also the critics) require are books (“open” novels) that are rich in substance, density, tension. […] One writes most of all in order to take part in a collective enterprise.

[…] The fact is that I have always been more a writer of short stories than a novelist, and it is second nature to me to close — both in formal and conceptual terms — even a story that remains open; to condense into a short narrative space all the elements that give a sense of completion to the story. However, I do not mean by this that I am in favor only of short time-spans — or rather, there is no doubt that we are living in a period in which time has been shattered, there is no room to breathe, no possibility of foreseeing and planning ahead, and that this rhythm is imposed on what I write — but ideally I believe more and more that the only thing that counts is what moves in long, very long time-spans, both in geological eras and in the history of society. Trying to work out the directions in which these things are moving is very difficult; for that reason I feel more and more incapable of understanding what really is happening in a world which does nothing but prove each model wrong. “

Joy Williams: Writing is fumbling around in the light


In her beautiful essay, Uncanny Singing That Comes From Certain Husks, Williams considers the impetus for writing with equal parts insight, irreverence, and that blend of anguishing ambivalence and convulsive conviction so characteristic of the writer’s mind.

“It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole, of course the writer is not whole, or even particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process. Writers are like eremites or anchorites — natural-born eremites or anchorites — who seem puzzled as to why they went up the pole or into the cave in the first place. Why am I so isolate in this strange place? Why is my sweat being sold as elixir? And how have I become so enmeshed with works, mere works, phantoms?


A writer starts out, I think, wanting to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up usually just making contact, contact with other human beings. This, unsurprisingly, is not enough. (Making contact with the self — healing the wound — is even less satisfactory.) Writers end up writing stories — or rather, stories’ shadows — and they’re grateful if they can but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough. […] A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.”

I Am Because You Are – Book review


You might assume that an anthology celebrating the centenary of Albert Einstein’s famous General Theory of Relativity might be a little too deeply rooted in its heavily theoretical source material. Yet in reading this marvellous little book, it soon becomes clear that I Am Because You Are (Freight Books)is the kind of anthology that helps even the least scientifically-minded reader understand the mind-blowing, reality-altering beauty of physics.

This feat alone should grant this book deserved accolades – for too often it seems we are content to sit within increasingly closed worlds, and it so often falls to literature to open these portals through space and time, to capture our imaginations and take us on journeys we perhaps didn’t think were possible – opening up whole new realities, worlds and ideas.

Indeed, it is thanks to I Am Because You Are that, as readers, we are able to encounter fantastical circuses and impossible acrobatic stunts; brought into intimate scenarios of family lives struck down by familial break down and depression; encouraged to question our response as we watch “rising temperatures and new weather patterns [the] oceans evaporate and the atmosphere wither”; asked to contemplate whether we are simply “talking about the end of time”; we are able to discover delightful new turns of phrase that leave us asking whether we are “wise beyond our years or too immature to appreciate terror”; and we are even forced to consider whether we might, in actuality, all be rabbits – or was that a pygmy marmoset?

Such is the display of writerly talent on display here that we are reminded that, as with space and time, the possibilities of literature will likely never cease to astound, amaze and inspire us.

Yet the success of this collection of fiction, poetry and non-fiction goes beyond this. Largely, this is down to the excellent variety of writing on show from a wide-range of authors, and thanks to the incredible depth each individual story works on.

This depth stretches from the microscopic to the macroscopic, variously seen through intimate, tightly focused stories to wider reaching, expansive pieces that look at grand ideas. Yet each are original and provide gripping insight into the universe as a wide, grand space, and also into our own worlds and universes we create for ourselves. The existentialist themes that are found throughout the anthology of course look to continue Einstein’s greatest quest – to help us better understand our place within the universe, and our place within time. Fittingly, the book often leaves us asking more questions than it gives us answers for.

There are 23 pieces of writing here, from 23 writers. Naturally, we have 23 different points of views and 23 ways of approaching narrative, of using language, 23 different voices; 23 different styles.

Each deserves its own review and description – but that is perhaps for another day, since this review is about the collection as a whole. Fortunately, this is neither a case of the collection being more than the sum of its parts; nor of one or two stories or poems overshadowing everything else. The two work in perfect equilibrium and balance together. This feat, one might be tempted to suggest, perhaps is an example of Einstein’s theory in practice, and even to use that rather hammy and corny phrase, “it’s all relative”.

This is not to say that every piece is excellent or without fault, and nor is it to guarantee that they will all be to your liking; but isn’t that the point of an anthology? For their part, the editors – Tania Hershman and Pippa Goldschmidt – have skilfully created a place to showcase original and unique thinking, all through the prism of Einstein’s greatest theory. Their precise placing of each piece is extremely deft, and it’s charming to appreciate the way the structure of the anthology allows ideas and emotions to build up inside of you, only for these to change suddenly as a new piece of writing takes you down some entirely unexpected route or direction.

To badly paraphrase the great man himself (for the purposes of this review): Imagination will take you from A-B, but this book will take you anywhere you want it to. To put it another way; you won’t be quite the same after reading it.

  • To order ‘I Am Because You Are’ for £8.99, go to 

How not to write about music

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. "

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. “

Firstly, gratitude: Extensive thanks to Dan McGurty for his help with this piece.

Musical epiphanies

Musical epiphanies are fun. I mean specifically like when you just get a song where you never did before, which I often find happens when listening to the song in question out of its usual context – say you always listen to the whole album and this song’s maybe three-quarters through by which point you’ve stopped properly paying attention how you do to the openers, or you haven’t listened to this band in years and back when you did this was one of the ones you skated over, or, or – but whenever it happens, at least that first time, it is an out-of-nowhere fist clenched round the sternum, is like a body of water you long since convinced yourself was placid empty now suddenly come thrashing all leviathan, and all you can do is sit back and behold. But this I tend to find comes mixed in with a kind of regret, and also a kind of anxiety: lost time, coupled with the possibility that this is only temporary, the attunement will pass, and both of these down notes are maybe not just inevitable but actually necessary for the proper shape of the rush in that they make it that much more vital, immediate. And this is all pretty much instantaneous, which is kind of trippy. So: fun.

I’m pretty shit at listening to music so I’ve had probably six or seven musical epiphanies with Don Caballero (or Don Cab, if you prefer, which I do) alone, two of which were with the same song (The Peter Criss Jazz.) (Both of them, incidentally, happened when I was falling asleep; I don’t quite know what that says about me, or it, or anything, but probably not that much.) The first one – which was during the second movement – I was on a train, (somewhere in Yorkshire I think,) and actually it wasn’t so much that I was falling asleep as I was shifting back and forth between sleep and not, where you don’t entirely know where you are, or what that would mean, and then it doesn’t matter because where you really are is carried on the movement of this music, fluting and wind and gorgeous in the way of something behind glass and refracted and then I properly woke up. The next one – the first part of the song – I didn’t get until probably a couple of years later; I was mostly asleep on a floor, (in Edinburgh this time,) drifting again, and I think one of the speakers was like right next to my head which probably influenced matters somewhat, but the song it just opened up like I’d never quite heard before; like the mouth down into a cave, or I guess like a story.


I don’t know if this is a particularly common thing or not – based on the (again kind of few) people I’ve spoken to about it, I’m not sure that I know anyone else for whom this is true, but that might just be me explaining it badly – but I tend to (kind of, sort of, a bit) experience or conceptualise music visually. As far as I can tell this isn’t synaesthesia; there aren’t actual sense impressions or associations, particularly. More it’s as shapes, or as a series of lines. Picture an xy line graph, like plotted from a polygraph or a richter scale in many films. The line shifts over time, peaks and troughs, goes back on itself, overlaps, evolves. It’s like that, only it’s not the same because a graph is just that – is a graphical representation of data, which data is something and somewhere else. The graph is a signifier; the music – the image – is itself.

Only that seems somewhat incomplete, at least in that music itself doesn’t just exist; somebody made it, or somebody made the instrument that made it, or the device through which you listen to it, and so on and so forth but which would mean that the shapes are, in fact, a representation of something else: some data, or else information, whatever was in the musician’s head when they made it. Crappy morning. Argument between the bandmates. Relationship: complicated. Financial pressure. Producer’s insane. Extensive drugs. Any and all of these things are there because nothing about music – as all art – is inevitable, and however much it’s refined, however much that which is not the statue gets stripped away, it’s still fundamentally contingent. Only I’m not convinced that matters? However too much coffee the drummer had before the band started jamming, whatever phone call the singer got, the pianist’s sister’s pregnancy, it is or it can be basically meaningless in the listener’s experience of the music. (You don’t have to ignore biography, but it helps.) So at least in the event of experiencing, the shapes are shapes; are music; are themselves.


Depression is a funny thing. (Debatable). (But it kind of really is). There are explicable, empirical reasons for it, and it (both the state and specific episodes, or bouts) can be traced to triggering events, and to an extent it can be understood, sometimes fought (if that’s a useful way of describing it, which it may well not be) or otherwise dealt with, but I can’t help feeling like these are to depression – the experience of it – as the hangover the band had when they went in to record is to the experience of listening. The state of depression is itself. A concrete phenomenon, yes; separate from the fact of the chemical imbalance (or possibly more accurately the altered chemical balance,) the sensation itself is (sometimes, for some people, maybe) all but physical – something like nausea, but also something like pressure, and also like you exist twice: you are, and you are slightly – say five centimetres – shifted left, occupying or overlapping the same physical space, pulled simultaneously toward and against, unable to reconcile and unable to maintain that tension, but it’s really not as if you have much of a choice. (Whether one or the other of these iterations takes precedence – is the “real you” – is I guess up for debate, but me personally, I would say not.) But it is a dislocation beyond or beside the physical, as well; a separation from time into only moment. There is this, now, and it is unconnected to any then, because to suggest that there even could be a then in any direction would be to imply that now, that this, could be other than it is. Could be not this adrift. And colourless; or not so much colourless as no colour in itself but a muting or a greying of others, dragging all surrounding into its own leaden unevent. Flat, but also warped; wrong like an angle but at the same time inexorably right. This is it. This is what you are. Do I contradict myself. Very well I contain zero. I contain entropy. Depression is a slowing; is the inside of a collapsing mouth.

The first full movement of The Peter Criss Jazz – after the intro with the harmonics (I think that’s what they are) over the drums, in I think 6/8 or possibly 4 with a triplet feel, with the drill-sound tremolo bass hits underneath the layered guitar, at the edges the chords bleeding in, and over the top, around, the throughline guitar melody, coiling and fractured and barbed like a voice, like someone saying I can’t go on I’ll go on I can’t I’ll on I can’t I will can’t I: this – if music is noumenon, or is as close as we can get to direct experience – is the sensation of depression. Or if depression refers not specifically or not solely to the emotional state, but – as a clinical diagnosis – the concomitant physical effects, the triggers, all of it, then those two and a half minutes, stumbling and cyclical and subdued and a lurch through tangled water and with no promise of an end, are despair.

The second section’s something else. Tenser, more urgent, I think; the bass loop through the whole is nervy, hunted, and above that mark the repeating four-note melody colliding with itself in bent reflections on like a wire-edge balance, dancing round a vortex, step to keep above, always on, and it’d be frantic enough without the drums in cardiac landslide under, beating from the wire, but see where in the first section they were a structure underpinning, were the bones, here they pick up where that chanting melody left off: centre-stage, a torrent dragging through and where despair strips you of time, anchors you in windowless grey, here in this stretched-shape anxiety you’re hyper-aware of the passing, it’s all you can do to keep moving, to find anything like a stable footing, to keep up to the impossible evershifting now with the blood like caustic blink thrumming in your ears and your chest gone echo and your eyes patchwork out until it settles.

Which is in itself a key difference: in some way, this section resolves. Where the first movement spirals on itself, layering chords and loops and shaded by the leading melody but never really undergoing any fundamental change from where it starts, the second stays more stripped-down the whole way through while the drums build into a climax; and then there is a shift, and that four-note melody, at the end, has moved forward by one beat from the off- to the on. Surer footing, maybe. A different balance achieved. Story: someone climbs up a tree, comes back down from said tree having changed. It arcs out, this part, held just together with the loop but it’s an orbit deranged to shatter, to battering cascade and when it comes back round it has learned something out there in the dark.


The whole album is a classic

It sounded like a narrative to me, I guess is what I’m getting at, when I was mostly passed out on the floor. There’s a third movement to the song – after an interlude with these ghost-colour harmonics that curve and pan from left to right – and it is maybe best described as happy. All major-key swung rhythm and clatteringly bombastic fills over walking bass and the melody tangling over and this would make sense, as a conclusion, or a reward; through despair, then panic, into primary-colour relief. But it’s not; there’s no resolution, no single cathartic moment, it just continues into fade and the melody never exactly repeats but works through the chord always off-kilter, pushed back to where it nearly falls off the beat every time but just about makes it. Not calm; happy, sure, but no less tense, no less of a balancing act than ever before. It’s work; it is always going to be work. – but I mean this is projection, this is all subjective, this was no insight into the true nature of anything it was just I was half-awake and stoned and dumped and fucked up, and no one experience of anything whether music or depression or any anything can necessarily ever meaningfully map onto another, so, like, what the fuck. But then if music is a direct experience of some kind – not an expression of any one person’s particular emotional state, but a capturing of something that actually is – even then it doesn’t follow that we can hear it as such. By what mechanism could anyone, observed as we are, actually grasp it? Wouldn’t we just fit it as best we could into the shape of our own experience, twisting it where we have to, maybe widening ourselves where we can? Or: you hear what you hear; I guess I heard something that sounded familiar, and maybe some thoughts about getting better. Or maybe not so much getting as staying. (Which – to be clear – most likely requires somewhat more than a song.)

It is a bit of an odd one, though, even-especially within the context of the rest of the band’s music; I guess embedded within/necessary for the idea of a musical epiphany is the fact of not initially being that into the music in question, and I strongly did not get this song for, like, a while. (As previously noted: shit at listening to music.) You can maybe hear aspects of it prefigured in the stuttered, uncertain close-out of No-One Gives A Hoot About Faux-Ass Nonsense, or the swirling-embers-into-night end sequence of In The Absence Of Strong Evidence To The Contrary, One May Step Out Of The Way Of The Charging Bull but I don’t know you’d ever guess that they’d lead into this. Ian Williams (guitarist) has talked fairly extensively about taking influence from composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley, particularly in terms of cyclical structures; he and Damon Che (drummer) famously despised each other, and given the different musical directions they pursued after Don Cab’s breakup – respectively, Battles, and a reformed (and significantly more straightforward math-rock) Don Cab – it’s difficult, as much as anyone might want to ignore biography, not to hear a tension in the architecture of the song. Personally I always visualise it as a line, and horizontal. Overhead are brief lights, like moments of frost formed and then gone in the air, which silvers at its edges; the line is both black and white at once, and it rises at intervals to the glow but always returns to flat. In between the line and the light are, variously, empty space; interruptions of tangling, like minor clouds by cross-hatching, and dense; an asemic scrawl of one symbol insistent, and repeating, and lit; and another line, like a ribbon, maybe paper and with both edges torn, and unfurling.

About the author of this post

David Greaves

David Greaves’ poetry and fiction has appeared in ‘Valve’, the ‘Verge’ anthology and ‘From Glasgow To Saturn’ journal, and his prose-poetry pamphlet, ‘Hinged’, was released by the New Fire Tree Press in 2011. He mostly doesn’t tweet at @dgrbolith

The science of beautiful writing

fountain pen

Man has an instinctive inclination toward communication and the written word. Indeed, it is writing that can be held up as the defining record of our civilisation – an enduring and expansive catalogue of human feeling, expression, discourse, thought, history and philosophy. Yet we are also drawn to the study of writing as an art form – inspired by a belief that, through learning, tips and advice, we can learn to write well and beautifully.

Perhaps this is because good writing has to be learned – and even if there are those who possess a natural flair or talent for the craft, this must be honed and cut from its raw bedrock if it is to be perfected. As David Oglivy – iconic businessman and original ‘Mad Man’ – wrote in a 1982 memo to his advertising agency employees: “Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.”

Yet to move beyond simply ‘good writing’, and to attempt to create writing that might be termed great, canonical or beautiful, is to learn more than simple writing tips, tricks and hints. In fact, it requires no less than the someone miraculous mastery of “style” – a rather illusive term that nonetheless is at the heart of one of the most important writing guides; Strung and White’s The Elements of Style, a book of legendary status that has inspired countless writers – and even inspired a rap.

Nearly a century after The Elements of Style was first published, Harvard’s Steven Pinker – arguably today’s most prominent and prolific psycholinguist – has now taken up the task of trying to articulate the science of beautiful writing, in his book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

In the prologue, Pinker writes:

“I like to read style manuals for another reason, the one that sends botanists to the garden and chemists to the kitchen: it’s a practical application of our science. I am a psycholinguist and a cognitive scientist, and what is style, after all, but the effective use of words to engage the human mind?”

From this starting point, Pinker approaches the question of style first and foremost as a scientist – applying the findings of his field to debunking a number of longstanding dogmas and dictums about writing that are often followed blindly, for instance:

“We now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically naïve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.”

However, there is nothing cold or overly analytical in this scientific deconstruction. And this is thanks, largely, to the very obvious fact that the book has ultimately been inspired by Pinker’s love of writing and the written word.

His broader point that carries through the book is that language is not a set of static doctrines; but rather a living, breathing thing – born from a dynamic interaction between writer and reader, speaker and listener. This is the inverse of E.B White’s ‘ecstasy’ of reading – in which White notes that “as in the sexual experience, there are never more than two persons present in the act of reading – the writer, who is the impregnator, and the reader, who is the respondent.”

Because of this intimate relationship, and because of the organic nature of writing, Pinker notes that such rigid rules are both limiting and unnecessary:

“Although some of the rules can make prose better, many of them make it worse, and writers are better off flouting them. The rules often mash together issues of grammatical correctness, logical coherence, formal style, and standard dialect, but a skilled writer needs to keep them straight. And the orthodox stylebooks are ill equipped to deal with an inescapable fact about language: it changes over time. Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.”

This cross-contamination – or fertilization – of ideas is what drives language and literature forward. Writers have long noted the influence of other writers on themselves and their own work, and this can be seen as a natural evolution of consciousness, creativity, culture and, ultimately – style. As nobel-prize winning writer, J.M Coetzee, notes in this detailed interview:

“There are works of literature whose influence is strong but indirect because it is mediated through the whole of the culture rather than immediately through imitation. Wordsworth is the case that comes to mind. I see no marks of Wordsworths style of writing or style of thinking in my own work, yet Wordsworth is a constant presence when I write about human beings and their relations to the natural world. […]

“One does not pick up ideas from writers, but a style, an attitude to the world [which] as it soaks in, becomes part of the personality, part of the self, ultimately indistinguishable from the self.”


As we continue with Pinker’s book, then, we see that his personal intention is to “distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings” and to supplant “dogma about usage with reason and evidence.”

The trick then, is to apply insights, writing advice and tips, mindfully – rather than robotically. This is, then, ultimately about consciousness, and deliberately thinking hard about why we do what we do and understanding our intentions when it comes to penning a word, a phrase, a short story, a novel.

Pinker carries on, denoting the three main reasons why style is so important – and why it matters so much today:

“First, it ensures that writers will get their messages across, sparing readers from squandering their precious moments on earth deciphering opaque prose…

Second, style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily…

Style, not least, adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures… This thoroughly impractical virtue of good writing is where the practical effort of mastering good writing must begin.”

Pinker, then, does not take Oscar Wilde’s view that “nothing worth knowing can be taught”. Rather, he believes fervently and passionately that everyone and anyone can learn to write beautifully, and write with style – through a combination of both instruction, and – most importantly – by absorption. A kind of creative osmosis, whereupon one is fertilized by the ideas and writings of others. Our own writing self, then, is not who we personally are – but is rather a continually learning, growing thing, created by all the writers we have read and all the ideas we have heard and all the things we have seen.

The most important scientific tool to enable one to write beautifully, then, is no new gadget – no minimalist typewriter – but rather the simple book. And the best guide to good writing is good reading. Just as Susan Sontag said she became a writer by first becoming a reader, and like David Foster Wallace – who urged his writing students to read a lot and read attentively, and as Ray Bradbury advised aspiring writers that the only education they needed was available to them through their local library – so too does Pinker advocate the immeasurable value of reading in learning to write:

“Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash… The starting point for becoming a good writer is to be a good reader. Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose.”

He offers some words of assurance to those entering the craft:

“An aspiring writer could be forgiven for thinking that learning to write is like negotiating an obstacle course in boot camp, with a sergeant barking at you for every errant footfall. Why not think of it instead as a form of pleasurable mastery, like cooking or photography? Perfecting the craft is a lifelong calling, and mistakes are part of the game. Though the quest for improvement may be informed by lessons and honed by practice, it must first be kindled by a delight in the best work of the masters and a desire to approach their excellence.”

The siren call of clichés

But, of course, there are a few time-honoured elements to be aware of, if one is searching to “approach their excellence”. And perhaps the most important of these, Pinker suggests, is to resist any and all urge to fall back to tired clichés:

“Every writer faces the challenge of finding a superlative in the English word-hoard that has not been inflated by hyperbole and overuse… Good writing can flip the way the world is perceived, like the silhouette in psychology textbooks which oscillates between a goblet and two faces.”

Thankfully, Pinker is on hand to offer keen advice on how to search out the perfect word:

“Readers who want to become writers should read with a dictionary at hand (several are available as smartphone apps), and writers should not hesitate to send their readers there if the word is dead-on in meaning, evocative in sound, and not so obscure that the reader will never see it again. (You can probably do without maieuticpropaedeutic, and subdoxastic.) I write with a thesaurus, mindful of the advice I once read in a bicycle repair manual on how to squeeze a dent out of a rim with Vise-Grip pliers: “Do not get carried away with the destructive potential of this tool.”


Writing as conversation

Ultimately, Pinker reminds us that writing is a “kind of conversation, or correspondence, or oration, or soliloquy” – and because of that is alike to the instinctive human need to communicate (just as Darwin noted that “man has an instinctive tendency to speak”).

However, the trick with writing is to converse with invisible men and women – our inscrutable readers who never show us their reactions. This may at first sound challenging; however, as writers the prescription or remedy to this challenge should come easy enough, since Pinker suggests it requires a simple act of imagination:

“At the time we write, the reader exists only in our imaginations. Writing is above all an act of pretense. We have to visualize [a conversation], and put words into the mouth of the little avatar who represents us in this simulated world.

The key to good style, far more than obeying any list of commandments, is to have a clear conception of the make-believe world in which you’re pretending to communicate.”