from Cheever's "Why I Write Short Stories"

"To publish a definitive collection of short stories in one’s late 60s seems to me, as an American writer, a traditional and a dignified occasion, eclipsed in no way by the fact that a great many of the stories in my current collection were written in my underwear.

This is not to say that I was ever a Bohemian. Hardly a man is now alive who can remember when Harold Ross edited The New Yorker magazine, but I am one of those. The Ross editorial queries were genuinely eccentric. In one short story of mine, I invented a character who returned home from work and changed his clothes before dinner. Ross wrote on the galley margin: "Eh? What's this? Cheever looks to me like a one-suiter." He was so right. At the space rates he paid, I could afford exactly one suit. In the mornings, I dressed in this and took the elevator to a windowless room in the basement where I worked. Here I hung my suit on a hanger, wrote until nightfall when I dressed and returned to our apartment. A great many of my stories were written in boxer shorts."

Unlearning bad writing

Aaron Sachs in The American Scholar — "Lopate thinks of himself primarily as a storyteller rather than as a teacher or interpreter or critic or advocate; the literary essay, he insists, “is not a logical proof or a legal brief.” It thrives on internal contradiction and a sense of exploration: “If you know already what all your points are going to be when you sit down to write, the piece is likely to seem dry, dead on arrival.” So much for the disciplined outline. At the same time, though, Lopate acknowledges that “my own essays do always contain an implicit argument and make an attempt to persuade.” To see the potential compatibility of narrative and analysis, of exploration and argumentation—say, in classic nonfiction writers like James Baldwin, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, or Susan Sontag—is perhaps to see new possibilities for combining deep research with gripping, memorable prose."

Tradition and the Individual Talent

First published in The Sacred Wood in 1921:

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.

— T.S. Eliot

Montaigne on eloquence and accident

'Tis said of Severus Cassius that he spoke best extempore, that he stood more obliged to fortune than to his own diligence; that it was an advantage to him to be interrupted in speaking, and that his adversaries were afraid to nettle him, lest his anger should redouble his eloquence. I know, experimentally, the disposition of nature so impatient of tedious and elaborate premeditation, that if it do not go frankly and gaily to work, it can perform nothing to purpose. We say of some compositions that they stink of oil and the lamp, by reason of a certain rough harshness that laborious handling imprints upon those where it has been employed ... I am always worst in my own possession, and when wholly at my own disposition: accident has more title to anything that comes from me than I; occasion, company, and even the very rising and falling of my own voice, extract more from my fancy than I can find, when I sound and employ it by myself. By which means the things I say are better than those I write, if either were to be preferred, where neither is worth anything. This, also, befalls me, that I do not find myself where I seek myself, and I light upon things more by chance than by any inquisition of my own judgment. (from Michel de Montaigne: "Of Quick or Slow Speech")

David Foster Wallace and The End of the Tour

David Lipsky interviewed in the Awl:  "Hemingway once wrote to Fitzgerald: Your problem is you keep trying to write masterpieces. Just write as well as you can every day, and know that it will be good and at the end you’ll have a really good book. But if you try to write masterpieces, nothing will come. That’s what happens to people when they get the acclaim that they want for their work. That’s what David says at the end of the book: If you listen to the outside culture, if you care what they think about you, the weapon pointed at you goes from being a .22 to being a .45…"

The greatness of Eva Brann

From the Washington Free Beacon: Had the Athenians lost at Salamis, Herodotus’ Histories would never have come to be, not to mention the entire subsequent literary tradition of Athens, or, indeed, America itself, which is a consequence of that tradition. As Brann puts it:

If the Greeks had lost here…[w]hat great and wonderful works would then have come to be in Europe and its America? Probably not these: science and democracy. For the Persian bequest to Europe, the one that would have aborted the Greek legacy we actually live off, would have been the religion, not the science, of nature, and the institution of despotism, not of freedom.

T.S. Eliot on Lancelot Andrewes

"Andrewes takes a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which  we should never have supposed any word to possess. In this process the qualities which we have mentioned, of ordonnance and precision, are exercised."

"She wanted to do something else too: be Nietzschean!"

Is it OK to be changed by reading a philosopher? Tom Stern in The Point: "You have to be careful about questions like this, and not only because the number of murderers claiming Nietzsche as their inspiration is higher than I would like. What the student usually means is: “Nietzsche mocks careful scholarship: Can I, in his spirit, write my paper however the hell I want and still get a good grade?” In this case, though, the student knew perfectly well how to write a scholarly paper. She wanted to do something else too: be Nietzschean!"