In 'six memos for the next millennium' Italo Calvino explores six principles, which can be adapted for use as flexible heuristics

  • Lightness
  • Quickness
  • Exactitude
  • Visibility
  • Multiplicity
  • Consistency

Full text


“…my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

writing is a search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living. Too often writers look to include every detail in their stories, and it bogs them down. But we can choose to remove the unnecessary ties and worldly weight. Doing this liberates your writing, thus allowing you access to the realm of the combined consciousness, the shared magical.

“Quickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread a hundred times and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns.”

When Calvino speaks of quickness, he is referring to the ability of a writer to control the speed of a story. A writer is a manipulator of time, and must wrangle and wrestle it, delay it, cycle it or render it motionless using rhythms, patterns and formulas.

Success can come from quick flashes of inspiration, but as a rule the finished product involves a patient search for the sentence in which every word is unalterable, the most effective marriage of sounds and concepts. Embrace quickness, but not in favour of substance. Calvino’s personal motto, from an old Latin phrase, is pertinent here. Festina lente. Hurry slowly.

“To my mind exactitude means three things above all: (1) a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question; (2) an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images; (3) a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination”

  • Being concise is different to being precise. The best writers and editors don’t simply revise down – they edit for clarity.
  • Deleting tangential elements (scenes, characters or entire plotlines) in a piece isn’t done to avoid confusion, but to increase intensity.
  • avoiding language that is random, approximate or careless.
  • before a word is placed onto the page, preparations are made. Calvino alludes to an old Chinese parable whereby a king asks an artist to draw a crab. The artist replies that he needs five years, a country house and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing has not began. “I need another five years,” says the artist, and the king grants them. At the end of these ten years, the artist picks up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he draws a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen. (see also flower_arranging by Thich Nhat Hanh)

“If I have included visibility in my list of values to be saved, it is to give warning of the danger we run in losing a basic human faculty: the power of bringing visions into focus with our eyes shut, of bringing forth forms and colours from the lines of black letters on a white page, and in fact of thinking in terms of images.”

For successful imagery, writers must do two things: convert the visuals of the mind into words, and at the same time make sure that the words are so well-crafted that when read, the reader can instantly visualise every setting, every character, every chosen detail as if they were looking at it directly, and not at a page. It’s a deliberate process, this transmogrifying from image to text and back to image. And often it all starts with a single spark, a solitary image that for some reason is charged with meaning. Calvino describes the progression as something that is painstaking but not necessarily painful, from the moment you grasp the significance of a single image and then associate it with other images, forming a field of analogies, symmetries and confrontations, and then organising this material, which is no longer purely visual but also conceptual, to try and give order and sense to the development of a story.


“Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement…the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various “codes” into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.”

Such ambition – or overambition – is central to literature, if we are to believe that writing is an attempt to represent the multiplicity of connections in the universe: in short, everything. Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in writing.

  • Writing has to aim high. It seeks to represent any and every area of knowledge – science, philosophy, politics, you name it – intertwining them all into narrative and setting. And not only must it include the past and current thinking of these fields, but it must go further, higher and over. This is multiplicity: realising the never-ending and labyrinthine variety of things, both in effect and in potentiality.
  • Multiplicity works through the abiding of rules. Rules give one boundaries to work in, a set space, even if the space is to be thought of as infinite.
  • Like a system of poetry – a system that could be deemed artificial and mechanical – rules can produce inexhaustible freedom and wealth of invention. And like a single deadline can work as the major driving force for a writer, a large array of directives act as stimulation, as ongoing spurs.
  • if we are mindful of lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity and consistency in our writing, if we respect that ‘the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different’, then we might just be able to follow the true bent of language.

From Sam Cooney:

The title Consistency appears at the bottom of the list of Six Memos. His wife Esther notes that Italo planned to write it when he arrived in Cambridge to give the lectures. Since many of Calvino's tales seem to leave something for the reader to finish, perhaps this book provides an example of his consistency in process, an unwritten but hinted at sixth memo for the new millennium for us as his readers to flesh out for ourselves after reading the first five memos.


“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…” (see also: thalience)

  • calvino_heuristics.txt
  • Last modified: 2019-12-20 06:20
  • by nik