Six Memos for the Next Millennium – words, concepts that unlock new layers

I’ve just finished reading Six Memos for the Next Millennium, the last work by Italo Calvino, a series of lectures on writing he was to deliver in 1985. Much is said about the hows of writing, tricks of the trade and so on, even more so now that there are more writers (emerging and established) talking about their process than ever before. Italo Calvino does something different.

Italo Calvino talks engages with writing on a higher (and fundamental) level and writes about Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility and Multiplicity. He died before he was able to write the final memo, Consistency.

He makes me want to read Lucretius and Ovid, he makes me want to reread Dante’s inferno. He inspires a kind of aspirational approach that is also humble. It is about striving, but not about ego. Five memos, five different lenses to apply to our craft, to improve the way in which we are servants to story.

I took a long time to read Six Memos. Although not literate in Italian I read the sections in Italian slowly for the sounds and rhythms of another language and to see how translation shapes that rhythm. Calvino quotes German authors, Italian authors, English authors as well as authors from ‘classical times’ (which might mean Greek into Latin into Arabic into Latin for all I know), convincing me yet again the doors to the mind that are opened when a person speaks more than one language.

Reading Six Memos felt like such a lively, personal experience that I feel a pang of sadness now as I read Cosmicomics, also by Italo Calvino. Now that I read Cosmicomics I feel the loss of this lovely author, that I am reading from a finite collection of his works of imagination. Calvino does not feel dead to me, he is too alive in his writing.

Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity and infer what he might have said on Consistency. Read, read the writers with big ideas, the writers that have grappled with the cosmos. Go forth and grapple.

Italo Calvino came up with his six phrases, six keywords to unlock deeper layers in his own work and the work of others. I wonder what my six phrases are. I think I’ll have to throw the ideas around for a while as I try different words on for size.

What are your six keywords today? What are your six keywords tomorrow?

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