16 Tips on Writing, from Jorge Luis Borges
This list is part of a story that was never written, and which emphasizes the whole sense of humor that characterized Borges.
Borges was always careful that his drafts never survived him, so that the researcher would not see his prior steps, his hesitations, and could only compare the first publication with later ones. He delivered his texts with great care, and helped many learn how to write — to break the narrative time, to play with the universal and the individual — but he never taught them how he wrote.
In a special edition of French magazine L’Herne, Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote that, 30 years ago, Borges, himself and Silvina Ocampo planned to write a story set in France whose protagonist was a young writer from the countryside. The story was never written, but Borges left something in that draft: an ironic list of 16 tips on what writers should never include in their books. And although it is blatantly ironic, this list offers a glimpse of the author’s great sense of humor and underscores his pleasure of confronting thesis with antithesis, affirmation with negation.
In literature, one must avoid:
- Interpretations that are too non-conformist of works or of famous personalities. For example, describing the misogyny of Don Juan, etc.
- Partners of personalities who are coarsely dissimilar or contradictory — for example, Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, Sherlock Holmes and Watson.
- The custom of characterizing a person by his madness, for example, as Dickens does.
- Over the course of the story, the technique of extravagant games with time or space, as Faulkner, Borges and Bioy Casares do.
- In poems, situations or characters with whom the reader can identify.
- Characters susceptible of becoming myths.
- Phrases or scenes intentionally attached to a given place or time — i.e., the local environment.
- Chaotic enumeration.
- Metaphors in general, and especially visual metaphors. More specifically, agricultural, sea or banking metaphors. One absolutely unwise example: Proust.
- The creation of novels whose storyline is reminiscent of another book. For example, Ulysses by Joyce and The Odyssey by Homer.
- Writing books that resemble menus, albums, itineraries or concerts.
- Anything that can be illustrated. Anything that can suggest the idea of being adapted into a movie.
- In critical essays, all historical or biographical references. Always avoid allusions to personality or the private life of one of the authors in question. Above all, avoid psychoanalysis.
- Domestic scenes in police novels, dramatic scenes in philosophical dialogues. And, finally:
- Avoid vanity, modesty, pederasty, the absence of pederasty, suicide.
Image: Alicia D’Amico, 1963, Grandes Maestros de la fotografia argentina.
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