“In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogenous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language.”
– Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium
The impulse for this essay struck hazily, one of those ideas that snuck in between pillow and sleep, or after too many coffees. I’d just read Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium for the first time and thought, ‘fuck me, this is important stuff’ and then, ‘I want to tell other writers and readers about this’.
The following revised memos, which are bits of Calvino that I’ve sliced and diced, bits that I’ve twisted and mushed together with my own words.
“…my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”
Calvino on Lightness
In his youth, Calvino wrote tangible, considered stories, fictions rooted to the ground with references to the political and social backdrop of his own 1940s Italy – stories about soldiers on trains, factory workers, bachelors. Before long, he grew weary of such realism, finding it increasingly difficult to synchronise his instinctive impulse to write with the frantic spectacle of his surroundings. A gulf grew: Calvino wanted his writing to be deft, nimble, light, but the world around proved to be increasingly heavy and material. And so he began to remove the weight from his writing, and in doing so gained a lightness which in time produced masterworks like Invisible Cities and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, writings that speak to the universe, that speak across place and time.
We today can learn much from Calvino’s love of buoyancy. As he averred, writing is a search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living. Too often writers look to include every detail in their stories, and it bogs them down. But we can choose to remove the unnecessary ties and worldly weight. Doing this liberates your writing, thus allowing you access to the realm of the combined consciousness, the shared magical.
Imagine this: you swim out amongst a group of boats fastened to their moorings. These boats are ordinary. They exist, lolling heavy in the water, anchored to the sandy floor. Each one is of a particular size and shape; some are new and some old. None are distinctive or exceptional. The tide moves them, waves cause them to sway – these boats are corpulent for their burden, almost pathetically. So you decide to free them, to rid them of their weight. You swim up to each and cut the ropes, you throw everything overboard and you untie all their anchors. You jettison all that is cumbersome. And what then? Well, the boats begin to float. But not like you thought they would. They don’t float across the water, but instead, they float upwards into the sky. Each yacht and speedboat and dinghy lifts off the water so that before long, the air is filled with the undersides of a thousand hulls. By freeing the boats of all their weight, they have become extraordinary.
Of course not every writer wants to be magical, but any writer who desires relevance should be able to show their readers that they have access to the magical. Writing laden with minutiae ages quickly and is easily forgotten. This is not to say that detail is the enemy, but heavy, fixed detail is. The famous Chekhov quote declares that you cannot mention a shotgun hanging on a parlour wall unless you intend to fire it before the story’s end. That shotgun could alternatively be an axe, or a length of rope, a tomato or a grandmother. The strength is not in the object itself, but in what it embodies.
In the boundless realm of literature there are always new avenues to be explored. Everything can be looked at from an infinite number of perspectives, with different logics and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. And it can be done so that it is universal. A writer can take on lightness in their work, using the most deft and nimble language to speak of things that are true now, but more importantly, true always.
“Quickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread a hundred times and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns.”
Calvino on Quickness
When Calvino speaks of quickness, he is referring to the ability of a writer to control the speed of a story. A writer is a manipulator of time, and must wrangle and wrestle it, delay it, cycle it or render it motionless using rhythms, patterns and formulas. T.S. Eliot counts in coffee spoons, Borges in forking paths. The most adept writer can depict one second or a thousand years with the same allure. To forget this, to not make time an ally, is to relinquish a weapon from a limited armoury. And it’s not just in content that speed can be distorted, for the black marks on the page are cues for the reader. Sentences can be used like the beats of a drum, dictating the march of the reader’s eyes. Syllables can warp time, pronunciations matter, spaces shape tempo.
Calvino’s quickness also alludes to the rapidity at which the written word can travel, and his words are sage. Do not dismiss the scope and speed inherent in all things written: welcome the immediate connection that writing can establish between everything existent or possible. This is not about technology; it is far older. Hold onto the idea of reflection, of germination. Toil for yourself, and then for others. Make your words precious. Margaret Atwood said that good writers work as if one hand is writing and the other hand is following with an eraser, as if no one will ever read the words. The danger of today is to type with two hands and follow that with manic workshopping or instant publishing.
Success can come from quick flashes of inspiration, but as a rule the finished product involves a patient search for the sentence in which every word is unalterable, the most effective marriage of sounds and concepts. Embrace quickness, but not in favour of substance. Calvino’s personal motto, from an old Latin phrase, is pertinent here. Festina lente. Hurry slowly.
“To my mind exactitude means three things above all:
(1) a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question;
(2) an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images;
(3) a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination”
Calvino on Exactitude
Being concise is different to being precise. The best writers and editors don’t simply revise down – they edit for clarity. Choosing the best word or sentence is not about being less verbose or the most flamboyant. Deleting tangential elements (scenes, characters or entire plotlines) in a piece isn’t done to avoid confusion, but to increase intensity. Even the most ornate or seemingly garrulous writers (Nabokov, Joyce, Pynchon) are at their base rigidly coherent.
Calvino’s own musing on exactitude is itself a faithful illustration of the push-and-pull difficulty of how to use words to their best effect. His essay meanders and distends, filled both with specificities and generalisations, but it is always precise, and more importantly, always on topic. This is good writing: avoiding language that is random, approximate or careless.
Being exact is as much foundation as it is revision. A tightrope walker doesn’t simply jump out onto the rope and then try to find the equilibrium point of their balance pole. The same goes for writing: before a word is placed onto the page, preparations are made. Calvino alludes to an old Chinese parable whereby a king asks an artist to draw a crab. The artist replies that he needs five years, a country house and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing has not began. “I need another five years,” says the artist, and the king grants them. At the end of these ten years, the artist picks up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he draws a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.
“If I have included visibility in my list of values to be saved, it is to give warning of the danger we run in losing a basic human faculty: the power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut, of bringing forth forms and colours from the lines of black letters on a white page, and in fact of thinking in terms of images.”
Calvino on Visibility
As Calvino identified twenty-five years ago, something that is exponentially truer today, we live in an unending rainfall of images whereby the most powerful media transform the world into images, and we in turn multiply them by means of a phantasmagorical play of mirrors. Words therefore have become devalued, and at the same time the capacity to write imagery-based text is exalted. But to what extent are writers creating new images?
Exceptional writing renders visible that which tends to be neglected in our everyday relationship to reality. It arouses awareness of what might superficially be overlooked; it draws our attention to the marginal, the forgotten. An authentic writer accomplishes this by paying unwavering attention to the world around and the world inside their head. In the past the ability to conjure up and relay such imagery has been called divine inspiration, tapping into the collective unconscious, or even a matter of genetics.
For successful imagery, writers must do two things: convert the visuals of the mind into words, and at the same time make sure that the words are so well-crafted that when read, the reader can instantly visualise every setting, every character, every chosen detail as if they were looking at it directly, and not at a page. It’s a deliberate process, this transmogrifying from image to text and back to image. And often it all starts with a single spark, a solitary image that for some reason is charged with meaning. Calvino describes the progression as something that is painstaking but not necessarily painful, from the moment you grasp the significance of a single image and then associate it with other images, forming a field of analogies, symmetries and confrontations, and then organising this material, which is no longer purely visual but also conceptual, to try and give order and sense to the development of a story. Here the writing, the textual product, becomes increasingly important. From the moment you start putting black onto white what really matters is the written word, first as a search for an equivalent of the visual image, then as a coherent expansion of the initial stylistic direction, so that eventually it is the image that is being pulled along by the text, and not the other way around.
In an era where visuals dominate, writing has to be potent and vivid in order to vie for attention. Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text reminds us to be aware of the visceral nature of words; the mix of sensuality and truth hoists writing above the smog of uninterestingness.
“Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement…the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various “codes” into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.”
Calvino on Multiplicity
Many writers have attempted to write encyclopaedic works – Proust, Mann, Eliot, Joyce, Gadda, Musil, Borges and Bolaño, to name a few. Such ambition – or overambition – is central to literature, if we are to believe that writing is an attempt to represent the multiplicity of connections in the universe: in short, everything. Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in writing. As Calvino avers, only if writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function.
Writing has to aim high. It seeks to represent any and every area of knowledge – science, philosophy, politics, you name it – intertwining them all into narrative and setting. And not only must it include the past and current thinking of these fields, but it must go further, higher and over. This is multiplicity: realising the never-ending and labyrinthine variety of things, both in effect and in potentiality.
Multiplicity works through the abiding of rules. Rules give one boundaries to work in, a set space, even if the space is to be thought of as infinite. Sartre said that writing, properly employed, can be a powerful means of liberating the reader from all kinds of alienation, and by this process, the writer also frees their own self and overcomes their own alienation. Like a system of poetry – a system that could be deemed artificial and mechanical – rules can produce inexhaustible freedom and wealth of invention. And like a single deadline can work as the major driving force for a writer, a large array of directives act as stimulation, as ongoing spurs.
If this millennium’s writers can take up Calvino’s predilection for mental orderliness and meticulousness, and combine that with the intelligence of poetry as well as of science and philosophy, achieving an aesthetic ideal of precision in imagination and in language, then we could potentially create works that surpass Borges or Beckett. And if we are mindful of lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity and consistency in our writing, if we respect that ‘the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different’, then we might just be able to follow the true bent of language.
Calvino died before finishing his memo on Consistency.
This essay first appeared in The Reader, an anthology edited by Aden Rolfe and published by the Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne, Australia.