Writing Aside #21.
In the old days, all a writer had to do to stay in shape was drink scotch and smoke non-filter cigarettes. Oh, maybe you’d play a little tennis, golf, or croquet. Or go hunting in Africa. But times change. Ever since I gave up smoking 20 years ago, I’ve played tennis, racquetball, and squash; done some fierce aerobics; and cycled several thousand miles. At the beginning, it was just to deal with the adrenaline-fueled nicotine fits. But soon, working out became an integral part of the rhythm of my writing day.
For the last few years my favorite workout has been spinning. With girls. Where else, in 45 minutes, can you get totally out of breath and drenched in sweat, while listening to ear-splitting music and a beautiful woman yelling, “What’s holding you back right now???” Not to mention being told that you’re the only person in the room with real balls.
But, as if that weren’t enough to make a guy happy, I have a confession to make: I do some of my best writing while spinning. Which isn’t exactly the point.
You see, in addition to knowing how to turn your heart rate into a mere plaything, real good spinning teachers make the class a meditation. An opportunity to let go of the stresses of the day. To bring yourself back to center. To experience your body fully. To let go of “everything outside this room.” In short, to not think.
Once in a while I actually do experience my body fully in the moment. But, it really hurts. So, I go back to thinking. About a scene that’s overwritten. A transition that makes no sense. A character who isn’t saying what she really wants to say.
People occasionally question my motives for spinning in a room full of women. But, by the time I get to my car, I’m really inspired.Dec182010
Writing Aside #20.
I like the idea of meditating in the morning. In fact, I did it every day for about 20 years. For some people, it’s a gentle way to make the transition from the chaos of dreams to the illusion of structure. But, for me, it’s like telling a dog that just woke up to lie down again. Got to let that puppy out to run around for a while.
After one hit of caffeine and a distracted look out the window, the ideas start bubbling up. To try to let them go or tamp them down—what Plato called creatus interruptus—seems not only like an exercise in futility, but oddly unnatural.
Often, it’s just a phrase or sentence that rises to the surface. Occasionally, it’s a big-time holographic vision that can take months to elaborate.
When I was younger, I’d try to keep my legs crossed and mind relatively still, while quietly sending those thoughts off into a kind of mnemonic holding tank. But now, if I don’t catch them while they’re flying by, I’ll never remember them. Or, more importantly, why the hell I thought they were so brilliant in the first place. Which, often, they’re not.
Eventually, my mind stops on its own to take a breather. Like a dog who, after relentlessly chasing a tennis ball or frisbee for half-hour or so, is panting so hard its gullet is hanging out. She may act like she wants more, but is actually quite content to collapse at your feet.
In the same way, after spending a while calmly drinking coffee and frenetically chasing ideas, my mind is actually quite content to collapse at my feet.
That would be a good time to meditate. Of course, I have been all along.
(With thanks to Bella & Milly.)Dec082010
Writing Aside #14.
I’m in a foreign city. I know where I want to go. I have a map. But it has no relation to the street signs.
I go in circles. Try to avoid crowds. Promising side streets turn into dead ends. The distractions are endless. I need food. I need wine. I need coffee. I need all of the above and more.
Maybe it’s not writer’s block we have. We just get lost.
For one inspired moment, we know where we want to go. We can see it. The whole thing. We scribble the words as fast as we can. But they evanesce way, way faster.
It’s OK. We’ll fill in the blanks later. But, by then, we can barely read our own scribbles, and can only guess at most of the blanks.
We go in circles. Try to avoid banalities. Promising phrases turn into dead ends. The distractions are endless. We need food. We need wine. We need coffee. We need all of the above and more.
But we keep walking. We keep writing. Until, we’re there. We don’t know how we got there, but we’re there.Oct052010
Writing Aside #13.
A few years ago, I traveled across country in a VW van—which is, I admit, my generation’s version of a religious pilgrimage.
During that trip I listened in fits and starts to Susan Orlean’s travel stories. I felt I’d found a friend on that razor’s edge of outer loneliness and inner familiarity you feel when you find yourself in a Talking Heads song. Deeply displaced, but not really lost.
All writing requires at least some sense of separateness, doesn’t it? Even if you’re writing about the oneness of all creation—in which case that sense would seem to belie your message.
That’s one reason I like airports, train stations, crowded highway rest stops: any place I can look at the faces of hundreds of humans I’ve never seen before and probably won’t again.
Many people share share the sheer strangeness of these places—which makes them oddly unifying rather than separating. But traveling still always reminds me of the way I felt when I was 14 and, despite all evidence to the contrary, felt I was the only 14-year-old who ever arrived in Grand Central Station and walked the streets of Manhattan alone.
More than 40 years later, rather than feeling lost in those crowds, I feel found in them—that I’ve again rediscovered a sense of myself I can’t experience any other way. A sense of separation that I need in order to keep writing. Even when face to face with the oneness of all creation.Oct042010
Writing Aside #12.
With the exception of Emily Dickinson—and even she went to Philadelphia—travel is another thing many writers do when they aren’t writing.
Location, of course, plays a starring, or at least supporting role, in countless novels about traveling. From Caesar’s Gaul to Jack Kerouac’s America, it’s hard to imagine how there’d be any there there, if there’d been no there there back then.
These days there are a lot of books and articles—in the tradition if not spirit of Mark Twain—written by people lucky enough to get paid to tell everyone about the best places to go that nobody has ever heard of—until, of course, they write about them.
* * * * * *
I like the perceptions of strange people in strange lands as much as the places themselves. The aloneness of Maugham’s barely fictional Ashenden at Lake Como or Remarqué’s Ravic* in Vichy Paris is palpable—even more so because, at any moment, either could be exposed as men without clear country. For Ashenden it always seemed there was another intrigue; or Ravic, no matter how late in the occupation or early in the morning, it always seemed seemed there was another bar in which to take refuge, and another Calvados or Vouvray to drink.
* W. Somerset Maugham: Ashenden, or the British Agent
Erich Maria Remarque’s: Arch of Triumph.Oct032010
Writing Aside #11.
There’s an Egyptian myth that Thoth was bragging to Ra he was teaching humans to write. Ra laughed at him, explaining he was destroying human memory in the process.
* * * * *
I always figured if you had writer’s block, it just meant you had nothing to say. You should probably have a beer, pickaxe some ledge for a path, or practice Italian. Maybe all three. Fare attenzione!
For many years, I’ve claimed I never have writer’s block.
But reading this Egyptian myth got me thinking. About a lot of things. Memory. Meaning. Subconscious. Soul. And suddenly—seriously—I’m having trouble figuring out what I want to say.
I’m don’t feel blocked so much as caught in quicksand. Or, as a good friend reminds me in many other contexts: “Tar-Baby, she ain’t sayin’ nuthin’, and Brer Fox, he lay low.”
Reading that story again got me thinking. About a lot of things. Aspiration. Inspiration. Impatience. Patience. Desire. Fulfillment. Cleverness. Humility. And suddenly—seriously—I’m having trouble figuring out what I want to say.
* * * * *
Maybe if I go back to the ancient myths, I’ll figure it out. Many of them say that writing comes from the Gods. So if there’s a “block,” it must come from a kind of inability to…to…Sep242010
Writing Aside #10.
When I ran a small ad agency, my two biggest management challenges were temperature and music. Clients could be difficult; writers and designers could be creatively blocked; and suppliers could be late; but, eventually, we were always able to deal with those crises. The battles over temperature and music were chronic and insoluble. First, temperature (we’ll get to music another time):
Some people had their windows wide open. Some had heaters under their desks. Some wore sweaters. Others just t-shirts. Some people drank iced coffee while others needed hot. (As I remember, one person simply transitioned from gin-and-tonics to Jack Daniels straight-up.)
You could attribute some of this to the vagaries of temperature in a wide open office. But more had to do with the vagaries of personal comfort.
Eventually, we gave up, and installed some kind of fancy microprocessor-controlled thermostat that allegedly time-zoned the entire office. That way, the people who got in at 7am would be warm enough, and the ones who were still working at 7pm wouldn’t be overheated. Which worked fine until just about everybody figured out how to re-program the thing.
Some of my best writing has been done on chilly October mornings while looking for the guy in the basement who has to “bleed” the heating pipes every year so the radiators will start hissing. Or finding a big sheet to hang over the south window during that early December afternoon when the sun starts coming in at a certain angle, immediately raises the temperature 20 degrees, and makes my screen invisible in the process. Or bringing wood in to my cabin on a frigid February morning, starting a fire, and walking around rubbing my hands to get warm; and proceeding to making minute adjustments to that stove and the overhead fans throughout the day.
Putting on sweatshirts, taking off sweatshirts; heavier socks, lighter socks; woolen hats and baseball caps (you lose a lot of heat through a bald spot, you know); opening windows as wide as possible; raising and lowering storm windows; putting air conditioners in and taking them out; adjusting the placement and speed of fans and heaters; going outside for a walk because it’s still too hot or too cold…
It’s all part of the creative process. When you’re on a roll there are no distractions. When you’re not, everything is.
Shown here with our artist friend Jessica who also, clearly, knows how to dress for creative success.Sep172010
Writing Aside #9.
The two most important Bar Mitzvah gifts I received were a Smith Corona Electric typewriter and a touch-typing course that consisted of several 33-rpm records and a manual.
“A,” the record would say. “A” “A” “A” “A”… I could have obeyed its commands all day. And, for many days I did; until I could type 30, 40, and eventually 70-80 words a minute. But the real accomplishment wasn’t speed; it was discovering that you could have a direct connection between brain and fingertips. From then on, while the words might not always come easy…the actual “writing” could be seamless; without the distractions of pencil sharpening, left-handed smudging, and trying to write in a straight line. All you had to do was change the ribbons once in a while and use a pin to pick out the ink that had hardened inside the o’s, p’s, d’s, & etc.
I’ve worked at a keyboard virtually every day since my teens. Let’s call it 45 years. 300 days a year. A minimum of two hours a day. That’s 27,000 hours. Let’s say I’m actually only typing words (as opposed to staring into space or drinking coffee) for 30 minutes in each of those hours. And only typing a leisurely 50 words a minute.
If my math is right, that’s 40,000,000 words. Give or take a few 100,000.
Of course, I’ve erased a lot of them: first with a nice soft pink eraser on “Corassable Bond,” Then with Ko-Rec-Type, Liquid Paper, and the Delete key. Still, I better stop here, and move along to the show-and-tell:
I’m sure we had a manual typewriter when I was little, but I can’t remember it. I do, however, remember the now-forgotten, instinctive childhood game of banging on the keys to see how many you can jam up at the platen. The first typewriter I ever used for its designed purpose was my dad’s Smith-Corona Electric. He said it was the very first one. Which I took to mean first on the planet, although he meant in terms of model years. I liked this machine. In fact, at some point while I was in college, I traded him. Not only could you watch the action like on a manual, it had the old-fashioned manual return. The very way you hit that lever and threw the carriage back told volumes about who you were—as a person as well as a writer.
On the right is that Bar Mitzvah typewriter. As I remember, the color was more slate-blue. The automatic return was somewhat magical, and could be banged on in frustration when the words wouldn’t show up.
Talk about magical…the IBM Selectric. They were way too expensive for me at the time, but somehow I got a hand-me-down in the late ‘70s. The only problem was that watching the ball spin around was much more interesting than actually writing. More problematically, it let writers change typefaces. Beginning the process that has only escalated since then of being able to distract ourselves from the work at hand by screwing around with formats.
I did use a friend’s dedicated word processor in the early ‘80s, but my first real foray into computers was in January 1984, on a two-disk drive IBM-PC. The program—WordPerfect of course, was in the top drive. The data was in the lower one. There were two problems: accidentally erasing your un-backupable file, and trying to get the printer—a bulky, enclosed typewriter type thing—to understand what the computer was trying to tell it.
Finally, I’ve gone through probably five or six laptops over the last 20 years+. Each has become an extension of my brain. I keep backups on a flash stick and eternal drive. That misspelling was probably intentional…
My daughter now owns a couple of vintage typewriters which she’s bought more for their artistic than literary potential. This is a picture one of them. She had it set up at her wedding so people could write congratulatory notes. Too bad my dad wasn’t still around. I can see his face slowly shift from his signature sardonic bemusement to the self-absorption of making sure he gets every word right.
There’s a lot of great writing on the web about vintage typewriters and typewriting. I particularly enjoyed http://www.mrmartinweb.com/type.htm, which is also the source of many of these pictures.Sep012010
Writing Aside #8: Voice Recorders.
In the spirit of the subject matter I am, against all my better literary judgment, posting this exactly how I dictated it. Just imagine a [sic] around the whole thing.
…I think most writers do. After all, who else could fully appreciate the raw, half-baked ideas that run rampant through our brains waiting for someone to make sense out of them. More importantly, or, as importantly, who better to appreciate the sound of our own voices. The transcendent thrill of reading your own words again and again? It seems like some slightly perverse sexual innuendo could go here, but I think I’ll skip it.
Of course the other side of the stories is that most writers read their stuff out loud to themselves while editing. It’s usually a humbling experience. This isn’t the raw stuff of brilliance. This is the stuff you thought was brilliant, and turns out to be flat, lame, poorly constructed, confusing, and, at worst, banal. And to make it even worse, or if you want to make it worse, I guess I’d say, you read into a tape recorder and then play it back to yourself. If that’s not enough to make you cringe, then I’m not sure how good a writer you really are. That sounds sort of arrogant. Well, let’s leave it. We all have our scraps of paper, back of envelopes, weird pads, those things lying all over the car, parking tickets, to capture a word or two, usually illegible, that you have to stare at for a while. But if you’re serious about writing a piece, it’s great to have a small tape recorder.
I bought my first or, probably, it was bought for me, in the early ‘80s when I was a copywriter and would go interview clients. It was great. You could go interview them, pop the cassette into the car on your way home and, by the time you got back, you’d start…be already editing their words in your head. I always said that if you got a client to talk long enough he’d eventually or she’d eventually write her own headline. But while those recorders … that one there … was really good for putting on a table and interviewing of a CEO of a bank or young startup guy of a computer company, it wasn’t that great for driving around or putting on your own desk, or else I was too young or too self conscious.
The second tape recorder took those little microcassettes. And I don’t really know what the point was except it was easier to hold and it did look better when reporters shoved them in the faces of politicians or criminals. For me, it was just easier to hold in my hand, and I got a little more used to, uh, I got a little more used to transcribing at that point, so I could tape for a while and then transcribe what I wrote. Of course, I was so obsessive, I tried to get every word when very few of them really mattered.
This will be kind of interesting, because this part I’m dictating after getting on a plane, whereas the last part I dictated after getting off a bike. And then a kid is screaming behind me. Nevertheless, for me, the big leap in talking to yourself was the introduction of those little handheld digital tape recorders. I can’t remember when I got my first one. I’d say in the middle to late ‘90s. But it’s when I began putting it on the seat next to me, so that when thoughts came to me while I was drinking coffee and talking on the cell phone, I could put down the coffee, hit the record button and start dictating. As soon as I put down the cell phone. Now again, it’s important to say that I used these in fits and starts. Sometimes for just for something a few thoughts I might use at the office the next day.
The next leap came in the early 2000s, the brown one there, the Olympus. The cool thing about this one—they thought the cool thing was that it played music, to me the cool thing was that you could plug it into your laptop and put the recording into a file, so you could be playing as you typed. Which meant the whole thing could be done on the keyboard.
The problem is that I used it a lot on a long trip I took, a long trip I took along the East Coast in 2005 during which time I dictated lots and lots of stuff, just impressions while driving. Most nights for a while I had the discipline to transcribe, but by the end of the trip, I was several hours behind. Imagine my dismay when suddenly the display turned into Japanese. Something I never quite understood. It just kind of scared me to death. Eventually I called and learned that what I had to do was reformat the software, whatever they call it, on the cassette recorder, which, of course, would erase the 25 files I had on there.
Now theoretically I could have transferred all those files into a laptop. But that made me nervous since the instructions were in Japanese. So, traumatized, I occasionally added a few files and transcribed a few. My recording career ended pretty quickly. A few years later, I was going somewhere where I knew I wanted to record a lot, so I bought the last one, which was the old style, the one that you couldn’t plug into the recorder. That’s the one I’m dictating into now, daring myself to put up a post exactly as transcribed. For usually I’ll draft one in 10 or 15 minutes, and then spend two or three hours making sure everything is exactly how I like it.
I can’t say that it’s a fair experiment. From the beginning I knew I’d do this. So I thought about each word carefully and paused, though less frequently than I thought, to re-collect my thoughts and speak them. Coming up with an ending which can take a while to get right, feels particularly like cheating because I have the recorder on pause to think about it. And the pressure is becoming almost too much to bear. I exaggerate of course.
I understand that I could just plug this into my computer that speech recognition software has gotten good enough that it could actually understand my mumble. I tried one about ten years ago, and didn’t like it, but I guess they’ve improved a lot since then. I suppose I could also use BlueTooth. A name and a technology that I have trouble grasping for some reason.
But maybe that’s the real story. Because now, people walk along city streets, or stand in airports. Everyone has learned to talk to themselves and, of course this is almost too trite an ending, but I need to stop, the question is always whether we’re saying anything.
Sculpture by Brenda Bullion.Aug252010
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