Winter 2009     ISSN 1096-1453     Volume 13, Issue 4     Editorial page 4
Outgoing Editorial: Six Memos for Writing

With this editorial, I step down as editor of Academic Exchange Quarterly. Three years have flown swiftly for me, and a new editor is ready to take my place. During my tenure, AEQ reached its ten year milestone, continues to grow as an international journal, and continues to adapt with changes brought by technology. To the publisher, board of directors and staff of AEQ, I offer a sincere thank you for the opportunity to be editor of this fine journal and for your support throughout my time with the journal. To the authors for whom we have published manuscripts in the past three years, thank you for submitting your work to AEQ. Please continue to submit such quality pieces in the future. To the many feature editors and reviewers, this journal is good and gets better with your considerable efforts. Thank you for the hundreds of volunteer hours you offer toward the publication of each issue.

When I was asked if I wanted to write a final editorial, I seized the opportunity to share some wisdom from the Italian novelist and essayist Italo Calvino. In 1985, Calvino was about to leave Italy to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard when he suddenly died of a cerebral hemorrhage. His lecture notes were published posthumously in Italian in 1988 and in English in 1993 as Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a compact little book filled with philosophy and wisdom about literature and writing. Herein I offer the values and qualities of literature that make a strong narrative that are most significant to Calvino, but are also important for writers in any genre. Because he was in tune with the paradoxes inherent in establishing a list of values, in his lectures, Calvino warns the audience that with each of the six memos, its opposite or paradoxes are not excluded. In Six Memos, Calvino advises one should write with lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency.

Two opposite tendencies have often competed in literature: language as a weightless element, floating like clouds and butterflies and language that has muscle, weight, density, and the concreteness of bodies and sensations. Calvino sees his task, the function of writing, as the removal of weight, not only from language and from stories, but from our lives. The value of lightness is in its precision and determination; meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same “rarefied consistency.” Lightness is about subtleties and abstractions and a visual imagery of lightness. Mostly, however, the lightening is about changing one’s approach, about looking at the world from a different perspective. For the new millennium, Calvino would choose an image of the poet-philosopher rising above the weight of the world, showing that with gravity of thought, he has the secret of lightness.

Quickness is about economy, the economy of expression. In a fairy tale, for example, all key points mentioned have a necessary plot function; similarly, in writing, one ought to use examples that make the points one intends to make. Quickness is also about the relationship of physical speed and speed of mind. One’s metaphors ought to be quickly grasped and understood by the reader. Calvino cites Galileo as one who understands good thinking to mean quickness, agility in reasoning, and economy in argument with the use of imaginative examples. Calvino notes that on occasion, however, one should not deny the “pleasures of lingering.” So, one may need to use the literary devices of repetition or digression to provide the reader opportunities to stay awhile and linger with a particular meaty concept. Festina lente, a Latin motto that means hurry slowly, is the writing paradox one has to balance with the value of quickness.

To Calvino, there are three concepts of meaning with the value of exactitude. One has a well-defined and well-organized plan for the work in progress. There are clear, incisive, memorable visual images evoked in the work. Language is used as precisely as possible from the word choices to expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination. Thus, with the proper use of language, one communicates with discretion, attention, and caution, shared notions of exactitude inherited from our hunter/gatherer ancestors who communicated first without words. The paradoxical path a writer must choose is based on two types of knowledge. One path goes through abstract, formless space where one’s task is to find the converging lines, projections and forms; the other path is through space filled with words, objects and forms where the writer’s task is to adapt what is written to what is not, to the sum of what is sayable and not.

Calvino uses Dante’s Purgatorio to provide his audience an example of understanding visibility. His assertion from the poet is that “fantasy is a place where it rains,” and by fantasy he means the loftier part of one’s imagination. In devising a story, for example, Calvino finds an image full of meaning to be communicated and rather than over-exaggerating that one idea, he expresses it and plants ideas in the reader’s mind about “potentialities.” By including the value of visibility as a memo, Calvino advises the writer to be cautious of losing a basic human faculty: the power of the imagination to bring visions into focus with eyes closed, of bringing forms and colors from the written word, and, most specifically, of thinking in terms of images. One forms the visible imagination by weaving several elements together: direct observation of the real world, one’s dream world, and the figurative world transmitted by culture at its various levels, and abstracting, condensing, and internalizing one’ sense experience.

Multiplicity, Calvino wants his audience to understand, is about the infinite possibilities and potentialities that are open to us; literature is one place where we are meant to set immeasurable goals and be overambitious. Because influences and sources of meaning are myriad, literature should include within itself its various orientations, projections, layers, polarities, paradoxes, ambiguities and multidisciplinarities. Akin to systems theory that describes the world as a set of systems in which each system influences and is influenced by the other systems, multiplicity is a way of knowing that transforms singular ideas into a network of relationships and holds a writer responsible to find the correlation or opposition to the various layers or links in the network.

Calvino died before the sixth, and final lecture on consistency, was written. What would he have meant by consistency; what could he have been thinking? While we can only surmise what he would have told his audience about consistency, I leave it up to the readers of this editorial to imagine what consistency means, based on Calvino’s wisdom and insight. Personally, I think consistency might mean a coherency or harmony based on one’s life pattern, that we are each obligated to find that which we hold true, and bring that trueness as balance into our lives. Toward the conclusion of his fifth lecture on multiplicity, Calvino noted that a writer’s life’s goal is to discover his own truth, to find the inner self. He adds at lecture’s end, however, that a work of literature conceived from the external world would be closest to his heart. “Think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic …” I would suggest that within our fully lived lives, we must find an order (consistency) so that the chaos we experience may be used creatively for expression and writing. Without consistency and order, the chaos that allows for creativity will be for naught. It is the ultimate paradox that at the edge of the chaos of creativity and the order of consistency writing takes place.

JoAnn Danelo Barbour, Ph.D.
Professor of Education Administration and Leadership, Texas Woman’s University
Outgoing Editor, Academic Exchange Quarterly