Why America is called America

Why America is called America and the power of acknowledging “We Don’t Know”

From Harari’s Sapiens: “During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Europeans began to draw world maps with lots of empty spaces–one indication of the development of the scientific mindset, as well as of the European imperial drive. The empty maps were a psychological and ideological breakthrough, a clear admission that Europeans were ignorant of large parts of the world. The crucial turning point came in 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed westward from Spain, seeking a new route to East Asia. Columbus still believed in the old ‘complete’ world maps. Using them, he calculated that Japan should have been located about 7,000 kilometres west of Spain. In fact, more than 20,000 kilometres and an entire unknown continent separate East Asia from Spain.

On 12 October 1492, at about 2 a.m., Columbus’ expedition collided with the unknown continent. Juan Rodriguez Bermejo, watching from the mast of the ship Pinta, spotted an island in what we now call the Bahamas, and shouted ‘Land! Land!’ Columbus believed he had reached a small island off the East Asian coast. He called the people he found there ‘Indians’ because he thought he had landed in the Indies–what we now call the East Indies or the Indonesian archipelago. Columbus stuck to this error for the rest of his life. The idea that he had discovered a completely unknown continent was inconceivable for him and for many of his generation.

For thousands of years, not only the greatest thinkers and scholars but also the infallible Scriptures had known only Europe, Africa and Asia. Could they all have been wrong? Could the Bible have missed half the world? It would be as if in 1969, on its way to the moon, Apollo 11 had crashed into a hitherto unknown moon circling the earth, which all previous observations had somehow failed to spot. In his refusal to admit ignorance, Columbus was still a medieval man. He was convinced he knew the whole world, and even his momentous discovery failed to convince him otherwise.

The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian sailor who took part in several expeditions to America in the years 1499–1504. Between 1502 and 1504, two texts describing these expeditions were published in Europe. They were attributed to Vespucci. These texts argued that the new lands discovered by Columbus were not islands off the East Asian coast, but rather an entire continent unknown to the Scriptures, classical geographers and contemporary Europeans. In 1507, convinced by these arguments, a respected mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller published an updated world map, the first to show the place where Europe’s westward-sailing fleets had landed as a separate continent. Having drawn it, Waldseemüller had to give it a name. Erroneously believing that Amerigo Vespucci had been the person who discovered it, Waldseemüller named the continent in his honour–America. The Waldseemüller map became very popular and was copied by many other cartographers, spreading the name he had given the new land. There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world, and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-known Italian whose sole claim to fame is that he had the courage to say, ‘We don’t know.’...”

Amazon link to Sapiens here.

Grice Maxims

Tools for Writing Dialogue

Grice’s Conversational Maxims

I’ve not across these maxims before or at least not described as Grice’s.  Huh…. shows still so much I don’t know.

From Stephen Jeffrey’s book: Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write

“...As well as there always being a minimum of two speakers in every play, there is always at least one listener, even in a monologue, or when a character delivers a soliloquy. For as well as the person or persons on the stage to whom their speech is usually being made, there is always the theatre audience itself. An onstage character may be listening to the speech, but that wider audience is also listening and making certain assumptions. In this section, I want to talk about the ‘rules’ of conversation. Any audience will have preconceived ideas about those rules. There is an interesting literature on this subject, covering topics such as ‘turn-taking’( how do you know when it is your turn to speak? When do you deliberately step back and allow others to speak?) and ‘self-election’–i.e. deciding on the moment when it is your turn to speak. These kinds of questions are quite important to think about when you are writing dialogue, when it comes to choosing who is the next person to speak and deciding whether they are being encouraged to speak, or are having to interrupt to get their way.

The philosopher of language, Paul Grice, made the following observations about how conversation works in his 1989 book Studies in the Way of Words, which have come to be known as the ‘Gricean Maxims’.

Maxim of Quantity

1. Make your contribution to the conversation as informative as necessary.

2. Do not make your contribution more informative than necessary.

Maxim of Quality

1. Do not say what you believe to be false.

2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Relevance

Be relevant (i.e. say things related to the current topic of the conversation).

Maxim of Manner

1. Avoid obscurity of expression.

2. Avoid ambiguity.

3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary wordiness).

4. Be orderly.

When an audience is listening to stage dialogue, they will expect it to follow these basic conventions. However, what can be really interesting is to occasionally break the rules. You can experiment with breaking the rules systematically, one at a time, and you will find that extremely interesting things start to happen to your dialogue….

… here are a few brief notes on breaking them. The breaking of his two ‘Maxims of Quality’ (i.e. never to lie, or say something for which you lack evidence) have led to the creation of immortal villains, both tragic (Iago) and comic (Falstaff), as well as a mixture of both (Richard III). Not to break Grice’s ‘Maxim of Relevance’ (i.e. only to talk about what you are supposed to be talking about) would have deprived the world of such compelling digressors as Justice Shallow (in Henry IV, Part Two)–and even Hamlet, whose dialogue is perhaps the supreme example of breaking all four components of Grice’s ‘Maxim of Manner’: 1. Avoid obscurity of expression. 2. Avoid ambiguity. 3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary wordiness). 4. Be orderly. ‘Obscurity of expression’, which according to Grice is best avoided in our daily conversation, can be used to disguise a deceit or fault in a very useful way on stage, or in politics. Likewise ‘ambiguity’, which there are good reasons to avoid in real life. One of the most famously ambiguous sentences in the English language is ‘Let him have it’. In an infamous case from 1952, a policeman arrested two youths–Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley–on the roof of a building they had been trying to burgle. Bentley said to his accomplice, who was holding a gun, ‘Let him have it, Chris!’, which could have meant two things: either ‘Give the gun to the policeman’, or ‘Shoot him.’ Craig shot the policeman, but because he was sixteen he could not be prosecuted. Bentley, however, a nineteen-year-old with learning difficulties, was convicted, and then hanged, on the basis of his having apparently ordered the murder. (He was posthumously pardoned in 1998, seven years after a film–Let Him Have It–was made of the story.) The injunction to ‘be brief’ means avoiding the use of too many words to make your point (which is different to not giving too much information). ‘Be orderly’ means saying things in the correct order, rather than lurching from topic to topic, which we saw some of in the Nixon transcript. Florian Zeller’s The Father (2012) depicts an elderly man with dementia and is anything but orderly; the resulting confusion gives the audience some insight into the condition. It is always fascinating to break the rules, whether one at a time or all at once, and when you begin to experiment with such ‘conversational maxims’, amazing scenes are almost guaranteed to flow from your head….”

Stephen Jeffrey’s Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write

Stephen Jeffrey’s manual on how to write plays is brilliant. He had a celebrated series of workshops he used to do, although I never made it to one. The book covers character, form, structure and story in one of the most accessible, comprehensive and erudite fashion. Great for an enthusiastic beginner or seasoned writer alike.

One short passage “your characters do not necessarily understand their motivations, and that the gap between characters’ stated intentions and their deeper motivations is a very fruitful area for the playwright. Indeed, you may not fully understand your character yourself. During rehearsals for the second production of my play The Libertine, I asked John Malkovich, who was playing the Earl of Rochester, what he thought the play was actually about. He replied by saying that he thought Rochester was a man who had been given every conceivable physical and intellectual gift and had quite deliberately proceeded to waste them. On hearing this for the first time, I not only understood my play, but realised for the first time why I had written it. In a sense, the characters you write will never be entirely knowable, just as you will never entirely understand the people you meet in life..."

If you are interested in the structure of plays (and also film and some similarities/differences), I can recommend it.

Stephen Jeffrey’s Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write

How not to bore your audience at a reading, Viet Thanh Nguyen

“Am I the only one who finds literary readings boring? I usually avoided them. Then I had to go on book tour and tried not to bore people. I learned to think of myself as a performer rather than a reader.”

Here are some tips for writers who have to speak in front of audiences:

1. Do not be defensive and think that you are a writer and that writing is different from performing. I have seen poets who say that the words on the page are what matter and therefore they will read them with minimal interpretation. I invite them to do so in the privacy of their own rooms, because listening to them in public was painful (for me). …

2. Perform from a script rather than just read your book. I also like to blow up my font to 16- or 18-point size to make the text easier to see.

3. Make eye contact with your audience. Not just once or twice. Regularly. This will help keep the audience involved.

4. Do not just read 20- to 40-minutes straight while never looking up from your book and speaking in a soft monotone. PLEASE.

5. Consider reading just short excerpts and insert them into a story you are telling or a talk about some larger issue. Imagine what the larger story or talk is about

If you’re lucky enough to get an auditorium, dim the lights to get your audience in the mood for a performance. 

Dress up, whatever that means to you.
 A vintage outfit, a motorcycle jacket, a cowboy hat. T.C. Boyle looks like a punk rock statesman.

Consider visual aids
. T.C. Boyle has the advantage of actual movies made from his work that he can show. For my initial tour of The Sympathizer, I had a friend make a three-minute highlight reel from American movies of the war in Viet Nam.

If you just cannot perform, consider having someone interview you

Writing programs should teach their students how to perform.
 Just a one-unit course. 

Last, bring energy to the room.
 Your energy level will be the room’s energy level, which comedians understand

Full details in his article at Lithub here.

See some Zadie Smith writing tips here.

Philip Roth on writing

If you write every day, eventually you’ll have a book.

I can’t explain the fact that there have been a series of books coming rather regularly out of me. I work most days and if you work most days and you get at least a page done a day, then at the end of the year you have 365.

-from a 2009 interview with Tina Brown for The Daily Beast

Learn to edit yourself.

Part of being a writer is being able to read what you’ve written and see what’s missing, see what needs development, see what’s suggested by what you wrote. It’s like a trampoline. You know, you’re jumping up and down on this draft, and each jump is an idea.

-from an interview with Robert Siegel at NPR

Write towards what works for the story (or for you).

You go with what’s alive. Two thousand pages of narrative and six lines of dialogue may be just the ticket for one writer, and two thousand pages of dialogue and six lines of narrative the solution for another.

-in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

Work sentence by sentence.

Solving the problem of the book you’re writing always remains hard work, and your progress is snail-like. Even if you write a book in two years, sometimes you get a page a day, sometimes you get no pages … every sentence raises a problem, and essentially what you’re doing is connecting one sentence to the next. And you write a sentence and you have to figure out what comes next or what doesn’t come next.

-from a 2013 interview with NPR

World echoing language and lacuna choices

Four observations on the power of language and lacuna.

Language can take us out of context. But, language and artistic choices will and should always reflect the wider world, when made public.

The choice to use a puppet to portray a severely autistic boy in a recent play in London has had much criticism from the wider world outside the play.*The creative decision is mediocre, but beyond that the social political world beyond the play cannot be ignored. We live in a world of metaphor and symbols.

The decision for a German CEO to use words that echo the phrase that appears on the entrance of Nazi Auschwitz, even if accidental shows a lack of judgment for the reflection it would bring to the wider  Germanic world.

The casting of a queer-phobic actor into a leading bisexual role (the Color Purple) has echoed angrily and awkwardly with queer audiences and creatives.

On the flip side, the New Zealand Prime Minster, Jacinda Ardern has evoked  “Damnatio memoriae”. In Roman times the state condemned the memory of a person and erased their name from history, it’s been done within many civilizations.

"I implore you, speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless."

She’s condemned the recent terrorist to no name, such that their cause and “fame” fail.

Our words and actions echo like small and major myths. If you will speak to the wider world, the world will judge what words and actions you use.



CEO blunder:


UK casting of Color Purple


No name to the terrorist.