My lovely writer friend Juan lent me Italo Calvino’s collection of lectures, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, which chronicles the five main pillars of Calvino’s philosophy surrounding writing. The language is quite dense, and it feels like the sort of book that requires several rereads in order to really capture the meaning. Because of this, every time something finally clicked for me, I felt the need to scramble and write it down. Here is a record of things that stood out to me, before I forget (and before I have to return Juan’s book).

1. Lightness

Calvino describes this concept 3 ways:

  1. "meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless"

  2. "subtle and imperceptible elements are at work"

  3. "there is a visual image of lightness that acquires emblematic value"

As with many of the essays, Calvino does not provide concrete advice, but rather presents a new way for looking at one's writing. I realized that I tend to think of my writing like a brick wall. Once I've found words that satisfy me, they feel like solid bricks fixed securely one on top of the other. I also find it difficult to delete things and move things around - maybe these two are connected. Does the way we visualize our writing affect the end result?

I also liked this line: "...literature as an existential function, the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of being." Thinking about potential purposes of literature make me feel inspired to write.

2. Quickness

This essay is about the relativity of time in literature.

Calvino talks about folktales and the "economy of expression," but also about how literature has the power to stretch seconds into forever, such as in Thomas De Quincy's The English Mail-Coach, where the narrator contemplates two coaches that are about to crash. Calvino writes: "The motif that interests us here is not physical speed, but the relationship between physical speed and speed of mind." I tried to convey this in a recent story I wrote – I tried to make a panic attack that lasted only a few seconds feel to the reader like it lasted forever.

Calvino definitely has a bias against modern media. He says that in this modern, high-speed world, the value of literature is that it explores mental speed, which "cannot be measured...nor can it display its results in a historical perspective. Mental speed is valuable for its own sake, for the pleasure it gives to anyone who is sensitive to such a thing, and not for the practical use that can be made of it." I appreciate this - literature is not always about economy or cutting to the point. Instead, it is an exploration of human thought and our associated perception of time. Similarly, I enjoy his personal motto, "Festina lente, hurry slowly." Be concise, but don’t rush.

He writes: “Just as for the poet writing verse, so it is for the prose writer: success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves the patient search for the mot juste, for the sentence in which every word is unalterable, the most effective marriage of sounds and concepts. I am convinced that writing prose should not be any different from writing poetry. In both cases it is a question of looking for the unique expression, one that is concise, concentrated, and memorable.”

This really resonated with me, because this is the philosophy with which I’ve been trying to approach writing over the past few years. That’s why I’ve been focusing on short fiction, and why I’ve been trying to read more poetry. He then follows this with: “It is hard to keep up tension of this kind in very long works.” Novels are my first love, but this is honestly the reason why my longform projects have been put on the back burner. I don’t know how to approach them anymore. Unfortunately, Calvino does not provide a solution, so I guess we are in the same boat.

Calvino then talks about Jorge Luis Borges, who had an idea to “pretend that the book he wanted to write had already been written by someone else, some unknown hypothetical author – an author in a different language, of a different culture – and that his task was to describe and review this invented book.” This is such an interesting concept to me. Talk about quickness – Borges condensed his whole novel into a review. I’m not sure I believe this could take the place of a whole novel, but it sounds like a fun exercise to try! Especially for planning a novel, this might help define what it should look like from afar.

The essay closes out with the conclusion that (paraphrased) “concentration and craftsmanship are needed to record adventures and metamorphose. Swiftness and mobility are needed to make endless labors become bearers of meaning.” Balance must be struck between dwelling and speed.

3. Exactitude

Calvino describes exactitude in 3 ways:

  1. “A well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question”

  2. “An evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images”

  3. “Language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination”

Even vague works are successfully vague by “exact and meticulous attention to the composition of each image, to the minute definition of details, to the choice of objects, the lighting and the atmosphere.” This essay is a good reminder to be intentional with every word.

Jumping to another interpretation of literature that I enjoyed, Calvino writes, “The universe disintegrates into a cloud of heat, it falls inevitably into a vortex of entropy, but within this irreversible process there may be areas of order, portions of the existent that tend toward a form, privileged points in which we seem to discern a design or perspective. A work of literature is one of those minimal portions in which the existent crystallizes into a form, acquires a meaning.”

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend in Alaska, about how the universe tends toward clusters. Stars and planets gather into galaxies. People gather into towns and cities. Riding in a bush plane and looking down at the Alaskan wilderness, the clusters of trees and lakes looked remarkably similar to the tiny microcosm ecosystems I see when I crouch to examine the forest floor. I love the idea that this exists in literature too. Life is so random and chaotic, filled with so many events and emotions. Literature captures some of this random matter into a cluster and attempts to assign meaning.

Calvino describes two conflicting paths his writing takes in his efforts toward exactitude: “One path goes into the mental space of bodiless rationality, where one may trace lines that converge, projections, abstract forms, vectors of force. The other path goes through a space crammed with objects and attempts to create a verbal equivalent of that space by filling the page with words, involving a most careful, painstaking effort to adapt what is written to what is not written, to the sum of what is sayable and not sayable.”

My interpretation of this: there are two ways to approach exactitude, one in which you cut away the story to its most clear connections, so the reader can easily see all the moving parts, and another in which you present everything, even the things that cannot be put into words (or at least try to).

I also enjoyed the excerpts by Leonardo da Vinci. It shows three versions of a passage he wrote about an ancient sea creature. In each one, he gets a little closer to accurately representing what he sees in his head.

4. Visibility

I enjoyed Calvino’s story of how, before he could read, he would invent his own narratives for comic strips based on the pictures alone. He relates this to how he later wrote stories based on tarot cards or paintings; he would interpret unrelated paintings and link them together into a narrative. I’m not sure what lesson I learned from this, but it sounds like a fun exercise!

5. Multiplicity

Another interpretation of literature that I enjoyed: “…literature is attempting to realize this ancient desire to represent the multiplicity of relationships, both in effect and in potentiality.”

I could relate to this – sometimes when I experience a spiritual moment, like deep awe or deep love for life or the people in it, I wonder how I can capture this and express it in writing. Contemplating my place in the universe requires taking into account everything that I know exists as well as everything I know could exist. How can I capture everything that exists and could exist in writing?

Luckily, Calvino says, “Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement.” Perfect!

Lastly, Calvino talks about the writer Georges Perec, who wrote a highly organized novel about a Parisian apartment home. Each chapter moved through a different room. “As for the content, Perec drew up a list of these, divided into categories, and decided that, even if barely hinted at, one theme from each category ought to appear in each chapter, in such a way as constantly to vary the combinations…” Calvino expresses that applying these rules to his writing stimulated Perec’s creativity rather than limited it. A fun exercise!

I’m still trying to decide how exactly to translate the information from these essays into my own writing. My friend Juan suggested that Calvino’s essays provide a spiritual understanding of writing, as opposed to technical advice about the craft. In any case, this book has given me several ideas for fun exercises to try, as well as much to chew on. My hope is that, just by holding these philosophies in my head (or as much as I can grasp at once), it will influence my writing to be more authentic and impactful.