In section 38 (“Hoarding is Toxic”) of his book The Practice, Seth Godin writes:
“Hoarding your voice is based on the false assumption that you need to conserve your insight and generosity or else you’ll run out of these qualities.”
Scarcity mindset at its finest. I recognise it in myself almost every time I post here. “Could I save this for a book instead?” “What if someone steals this?” Well, as Austin Kleon teaches us, theft goes on all the time in art and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But at the heart of these worries is the fear that if I give away these ideas nothing else will replace them. The well won’t fill back up again. And yet that’s never been the case. Sure, sometimes it’s not as full as I would like, but the well always fills back up. How can it not? I’m alive aren’t I?
“Abundance multiplies. Scarcity subtracts. A vibrant culture creates more than it takes.”
I’m three quarters the way through the first draft of my first book. When the world first went into lockdown last spring I figured it was as good a time as any to start since I was getting paid indefinitely to stay at home, but sometime in the summer I stalled and I haven’t picked the book up since.
When I still had momentum, writing two pages a day on the advice of David McCullough, I remember how receptive I was to anything that might relate to the book as though the days and weeks of consistent work turned me into a charged magnet. Because writing a book takes a long time and demands you venture into the unknown of the next blank page, despite whatever thorough research and outlines you may have, you can’t help but discover things.
… of all team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittences of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seems to me best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner.
I love this sentence. I love the sound of it and how Updike uses punctuation to balance what would otherwise be a cluttered and breathless sentence. Notice the repetitive s sound. In phonetics, the study of how we make the sounds of speech, this s sound is called a hissing sibilant and here it’s part of a larger literary technique called consonance, the repetition of consonants between words. (Notice also the assonance between baseball and graceful.) We’ll never know for sure how conscious Updike was of these techniques but I’d wager at that point in his career he had a feel for their use and it wasn’t necessary to be conscious of them.
Though I avoid adjectives on the advice of many writers because they’re often used to disguise bad nouns, I think Updike chooses wisely here. I’ve never seen a game of baseball but I imagine, unlike football (or soccer in the states) where the action is constant from start to end, baseball includes many pauses which Updike eloquently describes as “graceful intermittences of action”.
I’ve never been to America but, if I ever do, I think I’ll see a game, and maybe get a vegan hot dog.
John Yorke writes in his book Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them that “Art is born out of as well as encapsulates the continuing battle between order and chaos.” Yorke also quotes Nietzsche who said, “Art owes its continuous evolution to the Apollonian-Dionysian duality.” In other words, we need both order and chaos for our art to remain vital. But why?
“To write is to overcome a certain resistance: you are trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, to wrestle a snake into a bottle, to overcome a demon that sits in your head. To succeed in writing or making sense is to overpower that steer, that snake, that demon.”
But he also warns that “if, in your struggles to write, you actually break its back, you are in trouble … In transforming that resistant force into a limp noodle, somehow you turn your words into limp noodles, too. Somehow the force that is fighting you is also the force that gives life to your words.”
The bottle, or form, can be a sonnet, haiku, play, essay, etc. A snake, or chaos, by its nature doesn’t like being in a bottle but that’s where it needs to go. How else can we express ourselves but in form?
In their work George Orwell and William Zinsser encourage us to choose short words over long words because short words tend to be Anglo-Saxon and clear while long words tend to be Latin and unclear. Zinsser says of Latin words that “In general they are long, pompous nouns that end in -ion- like implementation […] or that end in -ent- like development and fulfilment. Those nouns express a vague concept or an abstract idea, a specific action we can picture – somebody doing something.” But is clarity the only reason short words are preferable over the long?
Joe Moran writes in First You Write a Sentence that “lots of short words in a sentence fattens the vowel sounds and cuts down on schwa. Schwa is that little indistinct uh sound in unstressed syllables – such as the a in above or sofa. Schwa is the most common sound in English, although you barely hear it, because it doesn’t shape the mouth.”
If, like a poet, you care for the sounds of your sentences, for the “sonic force” of your sentences as Moran put it, choose shorter words and cut the schwa.
Lewis Hyde writes in The Gift that “the artist in the modern world must suffer a constant tension between the gift sphere to which his work pertains and the market society which is his context.” Hyde also writes of a “disquieting sense of triviality” that haunts artists in societies like ours. You know the feeling. Every so often we’re neck deep in doubt and ask ourselves “why bother writing, painting, etc. if I’m not going to be paid for it?”
Even the questions we ask ourselves are framed in terms of their market value. But John McPhee thinks different. The author Tim Ferris studied under McPhee at Princeton and in his class notes he wrote “McPhee never has suggested that the point of writing is to make money, or that the merit of your writing is determined by its market value. ‘A great paragraph is a great paragraph wherever it resides’ he’d say. ‘It could be in your diary.’”
But I think so long as the market exists there will always be a temptation to cater to its demands and become what Seth Godin cautions us not to become in The Practice, a hack.
But what about worth? Again Hyde says “I mean ‘worth’ to refer to those things we prize and yet say ‘you can’t put a price on it.’ We derive value, on the other hand, from the comparison of one thing with another.” When we live in a society where almost everything has a price and we’re bombarded day and night by adverts it’s hard to recognise worth apart from value, especially the worth of one’s art when we also believe time is money.
Writer’s block. That dreaded phrase. When it came time this past week for me to choose the topic for the next post I felt hesitant and uncertain. My last post ‘Marginalia’ got seven likes, my highest so far, which is a relative success (not that I’m counting) but about a day or two after posting it the block set in.
In Draft No.4: On The Writing ProcessJohn McPhee says “I think it’s totally rational for a writer, no matter how much experience he has, to go right down in confidence to almost zero when you sit down to start something. Why not? Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.” Bear in mind this guy won the Pulitzer Prize.
Is there such a thing as writer’s block? Yes, but it’s not what you think. It’s no coincidence I felt blocked right after a relative success because now, it seems, there’s something at stake: my reputation. Seven likes on a blog post hardly makes a reputation but my Ego makes no such distinctions. Praise is praise and by god we’re not going to do anything to tarnish it. That’s when the thought of writing badly comes into the picture.
The thing about writing badly is I can only write bad when I’ve wrote good. Anything after a good piece of writing will be bad, or so it seems. But what makes good writing good? Is it really good or is my Ego so flattered by praise it can’t tell the difference?
Orwell wrote that sheer egoism was one of four motives for writing. E.B. White also wrote that “only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.” Sounds bad doesn’t it. But both writers only acknowledge that Ego is necessary to some degree for creative work. The issue is when it steps out of line and it will because there are no lines, so to speak, in my mind where I can cordon off my Ego. But that’s okay. I’ll keep writing.
Writing isn’t just writing. Writing is rewriting; writing is editing; writing is brainstorming and organising; writing is all of these and more. According to writing coach Roy Peter Clarke, writing is a recursive process and every writer has their own process for each step.
In an interview with Conan a few years ago, the novelist George R.R. Martin revealed he writes on a DOS machine with Wordstar 4.0. The software is ancient but he’s wrote all the current books in A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) on it (some two million words) so, despite its age, it works for him.
At one point in his career John McPhee used KEDIT, a text editor, with two extensions, Structur and Alpha, to support and automate his system for structuring his writing. I tried his system for some of my essays and found it to be too much work. But it works for him.
When I wrote screenplays in university I tried the system Vince Gillian used for outlining episodes on Breaking Bad: a Sharpie and index cards. But that didn’t work either. I guess the magic isn’t in the Sharpie but in the person who wields the Sharpie.
In his introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of On Writing Well, William Zinsser says:
“I don’t know what still newer marvels will make writing twice as easy in the next 30 years. But I do know they won’t make writing twice as good. That will still require plain old hard thinking […] and the plain old tools of the English language.”
Beneath my desk is a small box full of utility top-up receipts. Every once in a while I’ll reach down and use one for notes or scribbles and clip them together in a notebook or feed them to my paper shredder if they’re no good. (They were never meant for writing in the first place, so what’s the harm?)
The issue that never goes away for writers is our creator and our editor occupy the same space in our minds and more often than not it’s the editor who has the loudest voice. I think any writer who has stuck around long enough has found their own way to balance the two most of the time because otherwise we stay blocked.
In theory I use receipts to keep the inner editor asleep until I want its counsel. Receipts and other scraps of paper tip-toe past the editor because they’re not intended for writing. Notebooks and lined paper sound the alarm before I’ve even started to write because nothing says ‘writing’ like a notebook.