“Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas”: Walter Benjamin’s 13 writing tips

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“The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses” is part of his 1928 treatise One-Way Street, one of only two books published in his lifetime. This 13 tips were posted on Twitter recently and I thought I’d share them. It reminded one tweeter of a sign that read: “The worst words you ever write are far better than the best words you never write.” Another remembered an old, established writer I heard on NPR back in the 1980s: “Write through your mediocrity. Keep writing… right on through it.”

But these are far more enigmatic. If some of them sound flakey, don’t dismiss them offhand. Sit with them awhile. As Morgan Meis wrote: “They are often elusive texts that can take years of reading, over and over again, before the mists begin to clear. What, for instance, is Benjamin really talking about in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility?” Is it a theory of art and historical change? Is it a political manifesto about the revolutionary potential of film? Is it a long lament about the loss of that magical quality “aura?” The more you read the essay (in its various versions), the harder it is to decide just what Benjamin is saying. But it is impossible to dismiss the essay altogether. The ideas contained within it have a way of staying put in your mind, festering there. That was Benjamin’s special talent, to elude and to linger.

“This makes for a writer who has baffled interpreters for a couple of generations since his suicide while fleeing the Nazis in 1940. Some are convinced that Benjamin was primarily a Marxist. Some think of him as a cultural critic. Others detect the sensibilities of a religious mystic. Many see an aesthete, the last of the great European flâneurs. Not all of these interpretations are mutually exclusive. But some of them are, which makes Benjamin among that elite group of major intellectual figures about whom almost no one completely agrees. An accomplishment in itself.”


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