Writing as performance

Stephen Greenblatt in Harvard Magazine:

“The calculation that underlies the appearance of effortlessness”

Greenblatt_2The first and perhaps the most important requirement for a successful writing performance—and writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig—is to understand the nature of the occasion. This particular occasion, the Gordon Gray Lecture, is unusually gratifying, since I am called on to talk about something I care passionately about—writing—and, indeed, about that aspect of the subject to which I have given the most sustained practical attention: my own writing. Under most other circumstances, so self-centered a focus would seem fatuous, and I would fear to cut what Italians call a brutta figura. In the sixteenth century, a famous behavior manual by Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, counseled what it called sprezzatura, or “nonchalance.” The successful courtier must cunningly hide all signs of practice, calculation, and effort, so as to make everything he or she does seem spontaneous and natural. But the Gordon Gray Lecture is an invitation to lift the curtain and reveal the calculation that underlies the appearance of effortlessness.

Editor’s note: Cogan University Professor of the humanities Stephen Greenblatt adapted this essay slightly from his Gordon Gray Lecture on the Craft of Scholarly Writing (sponsored by Harvard’s Expository Writing Program), presented to students and colleagues last October.

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