What a Story Does Part 1: Response to Umberto Eco’s Richard Ellman Lecture Series 2008d

The Richard Ellman Lecture series comes every two years at Emory University, and the next one coming is Margaret Atwood in October this year.  Umberto Eco’s lectures are available on iTunesU, so hopefully Atwood’s will be too.

I’ve never read Eco’s books, but am aware of him as a famous author and intellectual.  I’ve read books that refer to him.  And I saw Name of the Rose with Sean Connery, but I don’t think that counts for much.  Despite all that, his lectures were very provocative and interesting.

In the first lecture, How I Write , Eco reveals much of his writing process, how his ideas are formed and how he works out his novels.  He also talks about how he came to be a writer. I like to hear authors give autobiographical accounts of how they started writing and how they sustain themselves.  The other day I listened to an interview with Michael Bracken on Reading and Writing podcast.  Bracken says he became a writer when he was 14, seriously.  He decided he wanted to be a writer and he set about to make it happen.  Now he’s in his 50’s had has over 800 short stories published!

Eco came to his writing much later in life, following a career as an academic.  But he talks about the strong narrative influence even in his academic writing.  This comment reminded me to find writing everywhere, to be a writer all the time, even if I’m making a grocery list.  Any moment where I’m using language I can choose to engage the language as a writer.

When I was working construction I noticed the unique way language is employed on a construction site to facilitate physical work.  Language is about doing. The names of things become verbs, as well as nouns.  Language is scaffolding around the physical world, supporting the work being done.  Words are used sparingly, often because you have to shout to be heard, but has an immediate effect on the world. In the morning, my boss gave instructions that determined if I was climbing up on a hot roof or crawling around on my knees with a can of touch-up paint.

On the other hand, I’ve also worked in academic settings at a university and several k-12 schools.  In these jobs, the language is complex, verbose, and almost powerless.  Communication is written as often as it is spoken, and the physicality is almost completely lost, so that any physicality stands out with some significance.  Language’s impact on the physical world is diminished, creating the sense that every meeting is pointless and nothing ever gets done.

As a writer at both of these jobs, I bring an awareness of language with me.  Now when I sit down to write, my varied experiences of language can certainly add texture to my prose.

Rarely do I think this interfered with my performance, but neither do I think it was much benefit.  I remember a discussion with one of my bosses about my choice of listening material on the job. For much of the day we could wear headphones and I took the opportunity to listen to lectures and talks. I got to “sit in” on a Philosophy and Western Literature class offered at Berkely, as well as many great author interviews and book discussions. My boss liked to listen to Drum and Bass. He believed the tempo of the music made him work faster and wanted me to listen also. He was really into it, had a whole philosophy behind it. It was his art. On the weekends he was a DJ. And he was probably right about working faster, but I wasn’t getting paid enough to pass up those free Berkely classes.

I believe all artists should work.  Real jobs.  Jobs regular people work.  It will make us better artists.  The corollary is that all regular people should be making art.

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