Monthly Archives: September, 2014

How cutting and pasting can work for creative writing

“Somewhere, out in America, it’s just starting to rain”

I didn’t get much reading done today, but I heard that lyric in a live version of a Counting Crows song from 1998. The words are originally from  1996’s”Have You Seen Me Lately” and in this were inserted into 1993’s “Round Here.” The former song is a decent cut from the band’s sophomore album, Recovering the Satellites, while the latter is the stormy opener off of their debut, August & Everything After, which I mentioned in my previous entry about “One for Sorrow.”

Copying that line from a good song and pasting it into a great song made me hear the poetry in a fresh way. The image of rain just starting – “somewhere,” perhaps out in Nebraska or elsewhere in rural America – amplifies all the small town ennui of “Round Here,” where the townsfolk described in the lyric aren’t merely bored or suicidal (as in the original album version), but now confronted with overcast skies and downpours. The verse found a new home, better than its original one.

What struck me about the lyrical transplant here was the continuity of the band’s songs (even across albums and styles) and how it was a literal literary cut and paste that worked. The idea of lifting portions of one’s old writing – an email, a draft that never really worked out, or even a nonsensical piece of business writing – and dropping it into a creative piece is hardly a new idea. Entire novels like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (described by one reviewer as “Eisensteinian“) and Will Self’s Umbrella seem predicated on cut-and-paste logic, with sequencing only barely mattering and scenes of violence and alienation opportunely cutting through the head-in-the-clouds narrative.

I’ve tried this technique before, throwing around passages from traditional folk songs, early versions of white papers, loosely transcribed podcast monologues, and lightly rewritten website copy. It’s hit or miss for me, but it’s a lot of fun trying to write around the insertion so that it (kinda) makes sense. I think cut and paste can work if you let yourself be led, rather than trying to lead and find the perfect quote/passage-to-imitate. Basically, it’s the opposite of doing research, which is good enough for me.

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“Six for gold”: The long shelf life and deep riches of nursery rhymes

There’s an English nursery rhyme called “One for Sorrow” that is about the superstitions associated with watching magpies. If you haven’t read it, it is simplicity itself:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.

The rhyme is strange, only hitting at “joy/boy” and “gold/told.” It doesn’t put on the airs of high poetry, but it succinctly covers a vast range of the human experience, including feelings, both genders (one more than many novels, poems, or short stories deal with), money, and uncertainty. Moreover, its superstitiousness masquerades as the domain of children – e.g., “if don’t go to bed early, Santa Claus won’t come,” likewise if I look at the magpies the wrong way there won’t be the number I want to see,” a feeling that every neurotic knows – yet it is of a piece with the arbitrary customs, symbols, and religious rituals of say the Book of Leviticus, making it as mature a piece as possible. It distills the idea of a world beyond willpower and an unknowable afterlife.

“One for Sorrow” was written around 1780, more than decade before the first experimentations with telegraphy, which would lead to the telephone and then the Internet, unlocking the poetic potential of the phrase “bird on a wire” along the way. It also came on the heels of Samuel Richardson’s innovations in the novel through in his epistolary works Clarissa and Pamela. More than 200 years later, though, this little nursery rhyme has long since outlived the telegraph’s relevance, will outlive the declining landline telephone, and now has more popular culture relevance than any of Richardson’s catalog.

At least two fantastic songs, both more than 200 years the rhyme’s junior, have used this song to tremendous effect, as the centerpiece to their dark poetry. Counting Crows, on “A Murder of One” from their extraordinary debut album August & Everything After, used “One For Sorrow,” with minor changes, to flesh out an image of, well “as you stood there, counting crows.” It’s the heart of the song and an explanation of a the band’s name in one package. Patrick Wolf, in “Magpie” from his The Magic Position, enlists Marianne Faithfull to give a haunting reading of the old poem. Having listened to the Counting Crows song so many times, it’s easy for me to imagine Faithfull as the female lead in the story of “A Murder of One,” reciting her side of the view.

The rhyme is beautiful and bewildering. It’s enough to make  writer throw up his hands and wonder why she couldn’t just write something as straightforward and be immortalized, instead of toiling on a complex novel or paper that no one will read. If anything, the insane instant gratification culture enabled by smartphones et al makes these nursery rhymes, with their snappy conclusions and showy phrasing, more relevant than ever.

“Little Miss Muffet” and “One For Sorrow,” to name but two, will be with us long after “Infinite Jest,” but creating something similarly universal and monocultural will be so hard, if only because of the current media saturation (ok, I’ll stop with the dairy puns). “One for Sorrow” was a brilliant foil to the excessive art and writing that emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries – a mere nursery rhyme, going up against complex novels, albums, and films. But with all those latter forms seeming in decline thanks to the “too busy” mindset of today, its shortness is still a virtue but in a fresh new way, as philosophy condensed for pop music and bite-size attention spans.

How are writing skills developed?

“Practice makes perfect” is a formidable cliché because it seems to have empirical validation, or at least praise from Malcolm Gladwell, which is sufficient for professionals in tech, education, and many other industries. Gladwell is the author of folksy, “disruptive” books that are actually white-bread. I can’t improve on Steven Poole’s take on Gladwell:

“Gladwell is a brilliant salesman for a certain kind of cognitive drug. He tells his readers that everything they thought they knew about a subject is wrong, and then delivers what is presented as a counterintuitive discovery but is actually a bromide of familiar clichés.”

It’s fitting that peddler of clichés would create one of his own – the inescapable “10,000 hour rule.” If you’re not familiar with it, it stipulates that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are needed for anyone to become a master in a specific field, whether classical music performance or chess. Gladwell’s book Outliers is the source of this particular formulation of the theory, although the research was done in the 1990s by Swedish psychologists, demonstrating what Poole was talking about.

The 10,000 hour rule always seemed fragile to me. Cracks in it began to form with questions about high jumpers last year. Then this year there was the study that showed that deliberate practice accounted for but a sliver of the differences in performance in every field from sports (26 percent) to professions (1 percent!).

I was relieved that someone was willing to undermine the 10,000 hour rule’s stranglehold on our imaginations. The argument is romantic – if anyone practices enough, she can get ahead. Everything is in her control, ultimately. If she fails, it’s her fault – she didn’t want it enough, didn’t go out and get it or some such reductivist nonsense. This mentality is used by the elite to justify their position and by politicians to starve the welfare state. David Hambrick summed it up nicely for Slate:

“[The 10,000 hour mindset] perpetuates the myth that is at the root of much inaction in society—the myth that people can help themselves to the same degree if they just try hard enough. You’re not a heart surgeon? That’s your fault for not working hard enough in school! You didn’t make it as a concert pianist? You must not have wanted it that badly. Societal inequality is thus justified on the grounds that anyone who is willing to put in the requisite time and effort can succeed and should be rewarded with a good life, whereas those who struggle to make ends meet are to blame for their situations and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”

For writers, the 10,000 hour shores up the foundation of fiercely competitive creative writing programs. They exist to make everyone believe that with the right coaching or group exercises can become a competent novelist or poet. But the 10,000 hour also seems like a particularly poor fit for writing, because…well, what constitutes “practice” for a writer?

Stream-of-consciousness rambling in iA Writer or MS Word? Editing poetry with cute line breaks? Being a grammar hound (eww)? Perhaps. But those techniques, even if done for years, can be hugely counterproductive, producing nothing that anyone could possibly wade through.

What about day job writing? Professional content writers can write millions of words in the course of a few years. These people toil in obscurity, cranking out volume on par with the King James Bible every 12 months. Does it give them the “practice” needed to become experts or to become luminaries? For many of them, no – the deliberate attention to construction, clarity, voice, etc. result in being able to play to someone’s expectations – here’s a keyword, here’s a voice-y section – and little else. Yet, content writing is the most demanding writing “practice” imaginable, at least in the classical conception – i.e., something with the long hours and toil of violin practicing or doing coding exercises.

I think the problem with the 10,000 hour rule as applied to writing is that so much of the actual “practice” of writing isn’t even writing – it’s reading.  Reading doesn’t seem like “practice” to American society, in which it is at best a leisure activity and at worst something that no one has time for because Facebook messages, email, and touching-base are too important. It’s passive, it’s quiet. Plus, it doesn’t further a “brand” or contribute “business value” in any obvious way, so it’s worthless for a wide swath of the population, at least the ones in charge.

What the writer reads is her world, in terms of what tools she has at her disposal, what references and mythic frameworks she can reach for as needed, and what styles she can feel competent channeling. It’s funny, though, to think of other artistic endeavors if they worked like writing – a musician would become proficient mostly through listening rather than playing, and an artist by viewing rather than painting or drawing.

Writing is labor-intensive and often unpleasant, but – to rely on a cliche, forgive me – it’s the tip of the iceberg. When I began reading R.L. Stine and J.R.R. Tolkien as an 11 year-old, my writing became exponentially better. It also helped that I started young. Had I become a a serious reader at 21 instead, my abilities would probably be much more limited. But what kind of 11 year-old has the will to read voraciously with the goal of becoming a “professional” writer someday? He probably does it because he enjoys it and that’s all. If someone encourages him and supports him, then he’s lucky.

And indeed “luck” is the source of many of our skills, the oft-denigrated word that nevertheless is like a secular term for God and a symbol for all the forces, paths, and pressures that we can’t control. Even practically, writers should embrace this conception of luck, since so much writing seems to come from not exactly knowing where something is going when you sit down. Will this character live? What if I interrupted this scene in the middle to cut to something else that I haven’t even planned out yet? For me, that’s so much of the thrill of writing. It’s having all that mental pollen from reading, waiting for the honeybee of inspiration to light.

Writing a poem in 15 minutes

I came up with the following process while writing an email. Poetry can be daunting to write. Writers may think they need to know meter, need fancy writing software, or deliver profound insights about the universe in order to be good poet. None of that is required! A readable poem can be produced in 15-20 minutes by just being aware of your environment.

For recreational poets, it’s easy to produce a poem a day by following these steps:

1. Download and install TextWrangler (Mac) or Notepad++ (Windows)

These free, barebones text editors are ideal environments for writing poetry. Since they were designed for writing computer code, they also help the writer by numbering each line and eliminating the hassle of wrangling with fonts, colors, and sizes (since they don’t allow you to). Better yet, write it in an email client.

2. Pick up any book, magazine, or go to a website that you read frequently

Writing poetry is easier when you have just read something/are reading something. Anything will do, from a verse from Shakespeare or the Bible to today’s New York Times headline or Reddit front page. Think about the words used and the syntax. For example, a NYT headline – “Fresh from the printer, that new car smell” – is a good jumping off-point. With a little rearranging, you could write “My car’s smell, fresh for the morning ride home…”

3. Write and arrange your line breaks

Once you have material to work with, more ideas will start flowing. Look around you and incorporate details you notice in everyday objects into your adjectives. Colors are always good, evocative descriptors. For the line breaks, don’t feel that you have to end each line with a complete thought – be playful and cut them off to leave them nicely incomplete. So, “going downstairs, to see if I can ever be free” is a little less magical than “Going downstairs/to see if I can ever/be free,” since the latter construction creates a ton of suspense with the powerful line-ending “ever.”

4. Polish it up and publish

I like to save poems as Markdown files in Dropbox for easy Web publication and backup. Another possibility is to screenshot the text and then process the screenshot with a simple photo editor like Pixlr Express. Add some filters and colors to create a visual mood to go with the text. Then post it to Tumblr or your own blog. I do this with my own Tumblr.

Writing creatively in an email client

Have you ever written an epic email? Did it feel effortless? You wouldn’t have written that missive first in Word or Pages, right?

Email can be a liberating medium for the writer. I’ve never figured out why – maybe it’s the notion that, when in an email or webmail client, what I’m writing isn’t really writing. Email isn’t exactly high fiction in its content or poetry in its structure. It’s mostly noise, but sometimes you need that “noise” to trick yourself into thinking that what you’re making has no value and that there’s no pressure. Email excels there – the vast majority of it (spam) isn’t even read, so you’re in good company.

Brent Simmons had analogous thoughts on email’s relationship to blogging a few weeks back:

“[T]o the people who send email, to me or to any blogger: please consider publishing what you write instead of emailing it. Not because email sucks, but because more people than just me should be able to read what you wrote. You have something to add to the discussion.

If it makes it easier to compose in your email app, then that’s fine. That’s a good approach to writing blog posts — imagine you’re writing an email to a friend, but then publish it.”

Email is great for drafting out:

  • Point-by-point rebuttals to articles/posts you disagree with
  • Cover letters (seems like Word et al are just too high-stakes-feeling to make these seem right)
  • Guides (I’m guessing because a significant volume of email is explaining how to use things, e.g., via customer support channels).

I came up with something from scratch in an email client – Apple Mail – today. I’ll post it soon.