Writer’s Desk: Meet a Stranger for Coffee

Like many performers, Maria Bamford is often stricken with insecurities about her own work. That can make it difficult to write, much less perform.

But unlike most writers, Bamford has a unique process for working out her material:

In 2018, she began issuing periodic invitations, on Twitter, for fans who live in cities where she is appearing to meet her for coffee and listen to her run through her set before she performs. 

Is it scary to have a total stranger critique your writing before anybody else in the world sees it? Absolutely.

Is it more scary than having somebody you know critique it? Absolutely not.

If they are willing, talk to strangers about your work. Generally, they’re nice about it.

Writer’s Desk: Say It Clean

In his landmark work From Dawn to Decadence, historian Jacques Barzun has this to say about how the readability of written English can be under threat:

…the resulting obstacles to good prose were: a vocabulary full of technical terms and their jargon imitations, an excess of voguish metaphors, and the preference for long abstract words denoting general ideas, in place of short concrete ones pointing to acts and objects.

When it doubt, say it plain. Simplicity above all.

(h/t: Tablet)

Dept. of Self-Promotion: ‘What Would Keanu Do?’

Yep, it’s that time of year. Getting close to Christmas shopping season (well, for stores at least it is, actually shoppers won’t be paying attention for another couple months). What, oh what, to get that Keanu Reeves fan in or tangentially connected to your life?

May I suggest my latest book What Would Keanu Do? Personal Philosophy and Awe-Inspiring Advice from the Patron Saint of Whoa?

It was conjured up by the good people at MediaLab Books, who then very kindly asked me to produce some verbiage about the life lessons that one can take from the cinematic oeuvre of one Keanu Reeves. This entailed looking very very closely at everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Dangerous Liaisons and Toy Story 4 to derive the deeper wisdom of our most curiously Zen movie performer.

Many gems were uncovered. I was given license to re-explore the greatness of A Scanner Darkly, for instance. On the other hand, I also underwent the unspeakable experience of rewatching the second and third Matrix movies.

What Would Keanu Do? goes on sale today. Check it out.

Writer’s Desk: Get Out There and Live

When Walt Whitman first published his genre-redefining verse collection Leaves of Grass, he was not going after small game, acknowledging in the preface:

The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes…

Not everybody can match Whitman’s cranked-up barbaric yawp approach to writing. But nevertheless, it is worth taking a page or two from his tactic:

Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost. This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants … read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul…

Embrace the world. Get out there. Come home. Write about it.

Writer’s Desk: RBG and Professor Nabakov

Since Supreme Court justices communicate primarily through words on a page, not surprisingly writing is almost as important to them as making legal arguments.

The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was frequently cited for the clarity and strength of her writing. She often credited her teachers for instilling in her the proper discipline. In an interview collected in The Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, she pointed to her professor of European literature at Cornell:

His name was Vladimir Nabokov. He was a man in love with the sound of words. He taught me the importance of choosing the right word and presenting it in the right word order. He changed the way I read, the way I write.

She also said about Nabokov:

Words could paint pictures, I learned from him. Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.

Ginsburg and Nabokov knew that this in some way, this is what writing is all about: convincing the reader. On some level, art is argument. That is true whether it is in the pages of a novel or proclaimed from the Supreme Court.

Writer’s Desk: Get Away from Yourself

Twilight by Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith’s plays are often discussed in light of their signature method of presentation: No matter how many characters are in the piece, and regardless of their gender or race, they are all played by the same actor. Usually Smith.

Smith builds that shapeshifting of perspective and personality on a foundation constructed from hundreds of hours of transcripts. She interviews people herself and then puts their words on stage.

Why does she do it this way, traveling around the world to meet with people and listen to them for hours? Not just for verisimilitude, though that is part of it:

I’m very aware of travelling and being with the people and being in the place, away from my home, chasing that which is not me.

The further away you get away from yourself, the more clearly you can see everybody else. Go and find that which is not you.

Writer’s Desk: Make a Schedule

Annihilation by jeff vandermeer.jpg

The great and highly prolific sci-fi author Jeff VanderMeer (best known for his eco-apocalyptic Southern Reach trilogy) gave an interview to the Chicago Review of Books a couple years back which was just packed with fantastically clear, actionable writing tips.

One of my favorites had to do with timing and productivity, two of the great obstacles for writers who have to juggle schedules:

People sometimes misunderstand the nature of writing, in that writing and revision are ongoing processes that are intertwined and don’t necessarily happen in two distinct consecutive phases. That said, inasmuch as you do work solely on a rough draft, do that work when you are fresh and energized. This may seem like commonsense, but I’ve known many writers who never really examined their processes, just kept on with the same habits they started out with…

The point is to organize your writing days or weeks around what you know about yourself—and about diminishing returns.

Writer’s Desk: Pay Attention

If writing were just stringing words together, literally anybody could do it. Because there is more to it, would-be writers spend many thousands of hours pondering how to do it better, and even read books and take classes to learn how to do something that seemingly anyone can do once they’re in elementary school.

In his superb guide First You Write a Sentence, English professor Joe Moran did his best to illuminate all the “intangible” ways that a sentence becomes more than the sum of its parts, and how he imparted that understanding to his students. His insight is simple but profound:

What I have learned is that trainee writers do not need to be able to parse every sentence into its parts. They just have to learn to care. Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo, wrote that ‘what is done in love is well done.’ The purest form of love is just caring…. The purest form of praise is to pay attention. This is how we offer up the simplest of blessings to the world around us and to the lives of others. ‘Attention,’ wrote the French thinker Simone Weil, ‘is the rarest and purest form of generosity.’ Give your sentences that courtesy and they will repay you.

Put another way, you have rarely written a sentence that would not be improved by another pass. Pay attention.

Writer’s Desk: What Hamill Said

When Pete Hamill died last Wednesday, we lost one of the greats. Once called “a two-fingered typist with miraculous powers,” he knocked out poetic tabloid prose for pretty much all the newspapers worth working for in New York, even editing a couple of them. He wrote novels, a killer memoir, and was old enough to have attended the funeral of Diego Rivera (who he wrote about) and to remember early Sinatra (you know, before the really good stuff).

A complicated Irish guy from Brooklyn who tilted toward but didn’t abandon himself to either of those cliches, he embodied that old city progressive spirit but still knew when to draw out his stiletto. Read his 1969 piece, “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class,” for everything you need to know about the country’s “ethnics” and their curdled embrace of conservatism over the past half-century.

In the end, though, Hamill’s rule for writing was short and sweet. A couple years back, at an NYU event with James McBride, he said you needed to do the following:

Imitate, emulate, equal, surpass…

Do as the man says. Go forth.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Caste’ and the Other American Exceptionalism

In the newest book from Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns), she brings a sweeping narrative scope and pointillist detail to her argument that three societies in modern human history have established strict caste systems: Nazi Germany, India, and the United States. It’s a bracing stance and one that is likely to cause some heated debate.

Caste will be published next week. My review is at PopMatters:

…as Wilkerson writes, race is not only important to understanding the American class system, it is crucial. Talking about America’s “shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid”, she says there are essentially only two notable corollaries in human history: Nazi Germany and “the lingering, millennia-long caste system of India.” For Wilkerson, each system relied on stigmatizing people deemed inferior “to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement.”

The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt here.

Nota Bene: Patricia Highsmith and Stan Lee

During World War II, Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee was working as an in-house writer for the U.S. Army (training movies about organizing your footlocker or field-stripping your rifle). He was still moonlighting for Marvel (then called Timely Comics), where the editor who replaced him, Vince Fago, was intrigued by another of their writers: Patricia Highsmith.

According to Highsmith’s biographer Joan Schenkar:

Vince Fago took Lee up to Pat’s apartment “near Sutton Place,” hoping to make a “match” between Pat and Stan Lee. But the future creator of the talented Mr. Ripley was not fated to go out on a date with the future facilitator of Spider-Man. “Stan Lee,” said Vince Fago, “was only interested in Stan Lee,” and Pat wasn’t exactly admitting where her real sexual interests lay…

Which raises the question: Who would win in a showdown: Captain America or Tom Ripley? Discuss.

Writer’s Desk: Story Over Style

The late graphic designer Milton Glaser was respected not just for his iconic creations (everything from DC Comics’ “bullet” logo to “I Heart New York”) but for what he had to say about creativity.

One of his best-known advice essays was a talk he gave called “10 Things I Have Learned.” While some are likely more relevant to the design business than other creative endeavors, lesson six is one that writers will want to keep in mind: “Style is Not to be Trusted”:

It’s absurd to be loyal to a style. It does not deserve your loyalty.

There are many writers who may unthinkingly box themselves in. Because they have always written narrative essays, they may think they cannot try fiction. Or a writer of cozy mysteries may not follow an idea for an autobiographical sketch dealing with family trauma because that is not “their style.”

Glaser’s point was more about not chasing trends, which is also valuable advice for any artist.

But in the end, it’s the story that counts, not your style.

Reader’s Corner: Add Your Favorite Book

James Mustich’s 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die is one of those books that some readers eye with interest but trepidation. On the one hand, is there anything better really than poring over a compilation about the greatest books ever written? On the other hand, doesn’t this just end up adding to the already untenable pile of unread books in the corner?

It’s a challenge.

Either way, it’s worth going over to Mustich’s website. In addition to letting readers categorize the 1,000 books into three groups (Agree / Life’s Too Short / Want to Read), it also has the “Add a Book” function. Don’t see your favorite book? Suggest that he add it. (For instance: He has William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition but not Neuromancer and nothing by Roddy Doyle or Junot Diaz; however, he does have some welcome but less-expected choices like the first Nancy Drew mystery The Secret of the Old Clock and Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis.)

And by doing so you can add to somebody else’s untenable pile of the unread.

Reader’s Corner: John Lewis and Thomas Merton

On Bloody Sunday in 1965, the late civil rights icon John Lewis (who passed away last Friday) was marching with other voting-rights activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama when they were attacked by a mob of police and vigilantes. Many marchers were hospitalized, including Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull.

Lewis had planned to be arrested, so he had a backup with a few essentials: fruit and some books. One of the books was The Seven-Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer whose work Lewis studied during the civil rights movement.

Later, Lewis said the books were never recovered:

I just wished I had them. The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress are always asking me what happened to them and I tell them I really don’t know.

Writer’s Desk: It’s All Material

A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would have thought had he been wiser. A writer turns his life into material, and if you’re in his life, he uses yours, too.

Walter Kirn, Blood Will Out

There is one rule that should be learned by everybody who knows or is related to a writer: Beware. Everything that happens and is said is fodder for the printed page.