Thursday, November 13, 2008

Writing Rebellion

He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth. -- Goethe

Three Not-Quite-Non Sequiturs:

I remember my high school English teacher telling us that in order to break form you need to understand and be capable of the original form. In specific, she was speaking of the sonnet. Shakespeare was perfectly capable of penning a perfect sonnet. He did so. Therefore, when he deviated from the format, using a spondee instead of a iamb, he did it with full intention and purpose.

This taught me to look at the concept of rebellion in a new light: In order to truly rebel, one must first understand and be fully capable of performing, thinking, doing, etc, whatever it is one is rebelling against. (After all, it's only lashing out against your infirmities otherwise or fighting against someone else's beliefs, neither of which are truly rebellious in nature.) And secondly, rebellion without a purpose is stupidity personified.

When applied to writing, then, it seems that in order to pen something new and fresh and thought-provoking one needs to become a student of the masters. Without an understanding of the accepted form(s), how can one make playful references to the past or purposeful breaks from essential truths?

All this is to say that I'm contemplating the purchase of the Harvard Classics, originally known as Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf. Of course, owning said books and actually reading them are two different things, I acknowledge, but Dr. Eliot promises that in just "fifteen minutes a day" I can obtain all the elements of a liberal education.

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. --George Orwell


Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I always say, "I want to know where the box is, so I can be outside it." Is that the same thing, I wonder?

stu said...

As the old musical saying puts it, 'if you do something wrong, play it again until it sounds deliberate.' Knowing what you're doing makes the difference between sounding like the unexpected bits are conscious transformations of the form, and sounding like you're making it up at random.

Alex Moore said...

@uppington: i always wonder at boxes. For example, I want to be a good wife, daughter, sister, daughter-in-law, teacher, friend, caregiver, passerby, stranger... but I'm not always certain that my definition fits the broadly accepted one. On the other hand, my definition has been shaped by my experiences, upbringing, readings, education, etc. So, how do I know how far outside the box I should be? And is it even beneficial to be outside certain boxes?

Alex Moore said...

@stu: as my old English teacher told me, "Fake it 'til you make it." That bit of advice has helped me along, actually, in years past. But your comment also makes me remember the motto I've adopted for the year: Be deliberate. Interesting! Thanks for the thought-provoking comment.

Dal Jeanis said...

Pay special attention to Plutarch's "Lives of Great Men". With that one book, you'll never run out of plot lines. And if anyone modern accuses you of plagiarism, you can agree and point to a really old history book.

Alex Moore said...

@dal: good advice. i'll look into it...much appreciated! & welcome.

gordsellar said...


You could spend the money on an ebook reader and just download the Harvard Classics. They're public domain now... :)

gordsellar said...

Urk. That url looks weird in the comment thread. I was directing you here.

diane said...

Not a bad idea. Basically, I agree with you about the value of knowing the classics as your starting point. On the other hand, when I finished college I was so glad knowing that I'd never have to read another classic unless I chose it myself.

Nowadays, I feel I should be reading more genre classics - like Heinlein and Asimov, etc... But when looking for books to read, there's always something newer and flashier that catches my interest. Guess it's a lack of self-discipline. Oh well.

Good luck reading your five feet.

Alex Moore said...

@gordsellar: oh yum. You are awesome. thanks for the direction!

@diane: it will no doubt take me a lifetime. I always get waylaid by "junk food" reading. I also end up reading a lot of books my students recommend, which provide many a merry detour but don't get me very near my goal :) no worries. Slowly but surely, yes?!