Kafka, truth, reality – and working for an insurance company

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For many aspiring writers and artists working full-time jobs, the difficulty in pursuing their calling comes from the challenge of rousing one’s creative self after hours spent in stressful offices trying to meet tight deadlines. Often, the easiest option is to simply stumble through the front door, and crash in front of the television set on the sofa, or socialise with friends.

For inspiration here, therefore, let us turn to Franz Kafka, the literary genius who spoke of the power books have to “break the frozen seas inside us” and who taught writers to trust in their ability to say what they want (and how they want to). After completing his education, Kafka worked for twelve years in an insurance company – pulling long, hard shifts, and only able to write on nights and weekends.

Despite the limitations of being shackled by the capitalist system, he nonetheless composed The Metamorphosis. And his intellectual, creative mind never ceased working.  In the last four years of his life, he befriended the son of a colleague at the insurance company – a young Czech boy named Gustav Janouch. The two began taking long walks together, on which they discussed everything from literature to love to life itself.

Decades after Kafka’s death, these conversations were put down in writing by Janouch, and published in Conversations with Kafka.

Perhaps some of the most intriguing observations contained in the collection (and there are so many to choose from), are those the pair shared on the topic of reality. For instance, in one encounter, Kafka posits his thoughts on the nature of wisdom, and “truth”:

Wisdom [is] a question of grasping the coherence of things and time, of deciphering oneself, and of penetrating one’s own becoming and dying.

[…]

The truth is always an abyss. One must — as in a swimming pool — dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order later to rise again — laughing and fighting for breath — to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.

According to Janouch, after making this point, Kafka “laughed like a happy summer excursionist” – which is perhaps how more philosophers should laugh and deliver their observations on the world, human nature and the universe itself. Kafka also added:

Reality is never and nowhere more accessible than in the immediate moment of one’s own life. It’s only there that it can be won or lost. All it guarantees us is what is superficial, the facade. But one must break through this. Then everything becomes clear.

[…]

There is no route map of the way to truth. The only thing that counts is to make the venture of total dedication. A prescription would already imply a withdrawal, mistrust, and therewith the beginning of a false path. One must accept everything patiently and fearlessly. Man is condemned to life, not to death… There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy. One must start from that.

 

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Books for pleasure: on the ecstasy of reading

An eternal, largely ineffable question has long been asked of books and the so-called ‘art of reading’. What, precisely, does reading do for the human soul?

Broadly speaking, books, reading and writing are about communication and creating connections with other human beings – people who exist beyond the page, and within the words before us. Books help us know other people – often those long dead – and help us better understand the world around us. In the process of reading, we come to know ourselves more deeply in a way that is borne out of an instinctive curiosity – a creative restlessness that exists within each of us, which we bring to each book we open.

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These tomes – both big and small – open passageways and portals to other lands and ears, and in doing so provide guidance on how we might live in our own lives and surroundings.

Little wonder, then, that the masterful E.B. White likened reading to a drug-like experience:

“Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy.”

Indeed, this extraordinary essayist went further, in a short essay titled “the future of reading”, penned in 1951, and in it White writes:

“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. This gives the experience of reading a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication.”

The intimacy of the reading experience described here reflects an intensity discovered by countless other writers, readers, and thinkers. Perhaps one of the best articulations of this feeling is captured by Franz Kafka.

In a November 1903 letter, for instance, a 20 year old Kafka writes to a childhood friend, that “some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle” – highlighting as he does so the curious ability books and literature possess to provide more insights into our own selves than we might think possible.

Kafka expands on this sentiment in another letter, penned in January 1904:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

But of course, the art of reading needn’t always be seen as something intense. Put simply, it can also be joyous.

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Nowhere is the importance of simple literary pleasure demonstrated than in the wonderful collection of posters by illustrator Maurice Sandak. Within this large-format tome are the artist’s enchanting posters celebrating the love of books and the joy of reading, many featuring his iconic Wild Things.

In the introduction, Sendak notes: “all of the pictures collected here were done for pleasure, and are offered up now with the hope that they will give pleasure”.

We’ve provided some of these posters throughout this article, and we hope you agree that they not only give pleasure; they also illustrate clearly the pure, infinitesimal joy that is possible to find within the pages of a good book.

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In this digital age, some might suggest that books are no longer necessary – that they belong to a previous era. Yet such thinking is not only flawed; but in fact is dangerous. For books, as Susan Sontag told us: “are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence […] a way of being fully human.”

Books – and literature – therefore, are a vital part of our lives, because they keep us in touch with our humanity. They keep us in touch with life.

 

Writing tips from writers

So. You want to be a writer. You’ve looked in detail at the alternatives – the refined meals in the company of elegant people; socialising with high society; going places; doing things; paying bills; eating food not made in a tin can – and you’ve decided it just ain’t for you. You’re the next Carver, the next Atwood, the next Tolstoy. You look down on EL James and nod seriously during long debates about the use of the semi-colon. You enjoy – perhaps a little too much – the smell of books; and you get a strange feeling every time you hold a pen to paper, as though in that moment you could sit there for eternity, crafting words from your imagination, pouring your thoughts out onto the page. And because of this, you’ve concluded that you’re ready to get writing.

Ah! But there’s a catch, isn’t there. Whenever you sit down, clear a desk, plonk that picture of Hemingway holding a gun in front of you for ‘motivation’, and get ready to write, you find yourself with a sudden urge to do the vacuuming, or take a stroll around the local park – complete with drug users squatting beneath a children’s slide – for ‘inspiration’. It’s time to admit it; you’re stuck. You’ve caught the most dreadful lurgy of all! Writer’s block.

Though not as terrifying an ailment as housemaid’s knee, hearing the diagnosis can hit even the most enthusiastic aspiring writers hard. But fear not. As with so many maladies, the first step to recovery from WB is acceptance. They even do WB Anonymous meetings now, we hear.

But how does one recover from WB? Aside from the well-known prescription, ‘Read; write; edit. Repeat’, we think it can prove pretty valuable to hear from writers themselves on how they actually go about doing this so-called ‘writing’.

To such ends, we’ve very kindly gathered a set of #WritingTips: from writers; for writers. We hope you find them useful!

Writing isn’t about getting laid, all right? Stephen King

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 “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”

The nitty gritty from Cormac McCarthy

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“I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.”

Stop while the going’s good! Hemingway

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“The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.” 

Don’t waste your money on creative writing schools or courses – Chinhua Achebe
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“I don’t really know about [the value of being taught creative writing] to the student. I don’t mean it’s useless. But I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to teach me how to write. That’s my own taste. I prefer to stumble on it. I prefer to go on trying all kinds of things, not to be told, This is the way it is done. Incidentally, there’s a story I like about a very distinguished writer today, who shall remain nameless, who had been taught creative writing in his younger days. The old man who taught him was reflecting about him one day: I remember his work was so good that I said to him, Don’t stop writing, never stop writing. I wish I’d never told him that. So I don’t know. I teach literature. That’s easy for me. Take someone else’s work and talk about it.”

On revisions and the rhythms of a story – Alice Munro

Alice Munro wins Man Booker International Prize

“I’ve often made revisions at that stage that turned out to be mistakes because I wasn’t really in the rhythm of the story anymore. I see a little bit of writing that doesn’t seem to be doing as much work as it should be doing, and right at the end I will sort of rev it up. But when I finally read the story again it seems a bit obtrusive … There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.”

Be practical – Margaret Atwood

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“Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.”

Don’t worry about swearing – James Kelman

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“People can use swear words to emphasise the beauty of something – so it’s not really a swear word at all. If you say something is ‘fucking beautiful’, how can it be swearing, because you’re emphasising the beauty of something. If so-called swear words should only be used when appropriate, well what do you mean, ‘when appropriate’? I was in my 20s before I even realised the word ‘fuck’ had to do with a sexual act for some people. It was never used in that way for myself, and none of my community used it in that way.”

Don’t start out writing novels (they take too long) – Ray Bradbury

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“The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories.  If you write one short story a week, doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing. And at the end of the year you have 52 short stories. And I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”

Trust in your ability to say what you want – Kafka

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I am not of the opinion that one can ever lack the power to express perfectly what one wants to write or say. Observations on the weakness of language, and comparisons between the limitations of words and the infinity of feelings, are quite fallacious.”