Friday, July 14, 2017

Bantering with Nietzsche's 10 Rules for Writers

“Be vewwy quiet. I am hunting nihilists.”
I have yet to figure out what the Facebook page Freud Quotes and its many affiliates are up to. So far as I can ascertain, it seems to be a vehicle for marketing T-shirts with quotes like “I prefer not to” and philosophy books by various authors and publishers—although the links to those books, notably, are not to the Amazon platform, but to something called Book Depository.com.

They do run decent articles on their Web site from time to time, though, and this one featuring a listicle from history’s most misunderstood philosopher, Mr. Friedrich Nietzsche, caught my attention. It turns out Nietzsche was involved with a lady Russian intellectual by name of Lou Andreas-Salomé, with whom he lived, then traded correspondence with for a time. Years after they parted ways (Nietzsche allegedly entertained unrequited affections for her), Andreas-Salomé would write a book praising Nietzsche and his work. And somewhere in the book is an Internet-ready listicle of “10 Rules for Writers.”

1. Of prime necessity is life: a style should live.
It should at least move. I’ll enjoy the most mechanically written story so long as all the gears mesh and things run smoothly. A well-written pulp actioner is a thing of joy and beauty to be cherished forever.

2. Style should be suited to the specific person with whom you wish to communicate. (The law of mutual relation.)

 In other words, know your audience. This should go without saying, but some people, I suppose, need reminding.

3. First, one must determine precisely “what-and-what do I wish to say and present,” before you may write. Writing must be mimicry.

These two sentences make no sense together. Know what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. Gotcha. “Writing must be mimicry.” Huh? Of what? Whom? Why?

4. Since the writer lacks many of the speaker’s means, he must in general have for his model a very expressive kind of presentation of necessity, the written copy will appear much paler.

“[A] very expressive kind of presentation of necessity....” This is either a bad translation or a flat-out bad sentence. From what I can gather, Nietzsche believes that oratory is better than the printed word, and that one’s writing should be as expressive as oratory, even if the end result still seems inferior to oratory. We’ll have to agree to disagree. 

5. The richness of life reveals itself through a richness of gestures. One must learn to feel everything — the length and retarding of sentences, interpunctuations, the choice of words, the pausing, the sequence of arguments — like gestures.

Finally, Nietzsche brings us news we can use—or in my case, recognize as useful. For me, the most important decisions I’ve made as a writer had to do with punctuation, e.g., whether or not to use semi-colons and exclamation marks (yes) and how often (when in doubt, no). Punctuation is the heartbeat, the pulse, the very breath of the living style one seeks to create. Or, for my part, one that simply works.

My analogy of how to make a style come to life is that of the perfectly constructed computer that acquires sentience. Any great work of art could be thought of as an artificially created intelligence, given that they seem to astonish and surpass the creator past a certain point, how often the work becomes something beyond than what the creator originally envisioned. Get all the mechanical parts working right, and let the life come to your writing. You can’t force it otherwise.

6. Be careful with periods! Only those people who also have long duration of breath while speaking are entitled to periods. With most people, the period is a matter of affectation.


I would have thought that people short of breath would have more need of periods, but, hey, whatever. The notion that the necessary end of a completed thought is an affectation, however, tells me Nietzsche’s famed dementia of his final years is kicking in. Andreas-Salomé published this listicle several years after his admittance to the nuthouse.


7. Style ought to prove that one believes in an idea; not only that one thinks it but also feels it.

Style being, of course, the finished product. This echoes the diktat of the first rule, and reverberates with my commentary on the fifth. At this point, we’re like George Carlin whittling down the Ten Commandments in the Bible.

8. The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses.


Or, in other words, “rhetoric, not dialectic.” Aristotle understood that lizard-blooded logic alone does not persuade, hence rhetoric. To turn Rule #7 on its head—and to express this more clearly for those unfamiliar with the terms and concepts—it’s as important to make your audience feel your argument/ story it as think it.
As envisioned metaphorically.



9. Strategy on the part of the good writer of prose consists of choosing his means for stepping close to poetry but never stepping into it.

I like to think of writing styles on a spectrum from full on baroque like F. Scott Fitzgerald at his Great Gatsby peak to more acetic aesthetic of Ernest Hemingway in his best short stories. For two favorite examples, Ray Bradbury’s prose leaned Fitzgerald; Charles Bukowski leaned Hemingway. 

Interestingly—maybe even ironically (yeah, I know)—it was Bukowski who was the real poet of the two. Bradbury’s attempts at actual poetry were tin-foil chewing awful, utilizing far, far too many words to describe a single throwaway image. The power of Bukowski’s poetry was such that he captured entire scenes from his life in only so many well-crafted stanzas. One three-page poem could deliver as much information as a 40-page novelette.

That said, both Bukowski and Bradbury were masters of prose craft, and therefore fine examples of how Nietzsche’s ninth rule can work for two different kinds of writers, the former a poet who could write expert prose and fiction, the latter a fantasy writer who wrote poetically.  


10. It is not good manners or clever to deprive one’s reader of the most obvious objections. It is very good manners and very clever to leave it to one’s reader alone to pronounce the ultimate quintessence of our wisdom.


Fittingly, we end on yet another one of those rules you have to read over three times to make sure you understand what Nietzsche is talking about. “Obvious objections?” To what? The writer’s work? What objections? How are they obvious? 

The second part makes sense inasmuch as we’re talking about getting the reader to internalize what the writer is talking about, without the writer “pronouncing” it for them. Great. Sounds like a plan. So how do we do this?

Never mind. I’ll have to learn by doing. I’ve got to get back to work.
Dress comfortably, drink plenty of fluids. That’s all I got.