Showing posts with label Chris Knopf. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chris Knopf. Show all posts

22 April 2024

Punctuated equilibrium. Also capitalized.


I love France, and many of the French, though they can be annoying like anyone else.  I find their language confounding, even as I love the way it sounds.  One of my good friends is fluent, as is my niece, and I’ll always marvel at their achievements.  The problem with French, to me, is there are far too many vowels, which to my ear all sound the same.  Though while I understand virtually nothing French people say, I respect their determination to preserve their native tongue, to maintain it exactly as it is for all eternity.

I also think they are completely, foolishly and historically wrong in this, though you have to admire their grit. 

The term Lingua Franca means universal language, which it used to be, but not anymore.  This is because they refused to let the language evolve, and thus the world passed it by, in favor of my language, English, which almost everyone on Earth knows “a leetle.”

I learned this traveling around Europe and other continents, and working with people from all over everywhere.  I’d ask if they spoke English, and they’d all say “a leetle”, and then display a mastery of the form far surpassing most of the knuckleheads I grew up with in Philadelphia, Pa.  USA. 

The secret of this success, aside from being spoken by the predominant global military/economic powers of the last two centuries, is unlike French, we could care less about preserving linguistic purity.  If French has the moral rectitude of Mother Superior, English would embarrass the Marquis de Sade.  Anything but pure. 

So this is a good thing, overall, though the process of change can be irksome, and exhausting.  New English words are created, often pilfered from others, in such profusion you feel like you’re in a swarm of breeding may flies.  Usage is entirely fungible, and no army of authoritarian schoolmarms could ever staunch our various and sundry populations’ creative misuse, mispronunciation, garbled grammar and syntactical sin.

Though change is inevitable, you don’t have to always like it.  A favorite pastime around this household is gritching about popular degradations of proper speech.  That is, proper by our likes, but in the future these preferences will be considered archaic.  Using the noun “impact” as a verb has achieved such widespread acceptance it’s a fait accompli.  That written, to me the only correct use of impacted relates to wisdom teeth, or when Carl Sagan described a giant asteroid slamming into the side of Jupiter.

But I console myself from such fretting by thinking of language as perfectly mirroring natural history.  Both evolve relentlessly, in the same fashion.  Species arise, dominate, splinter into sub-species, some wither away, others become entirely distinct.  It’s fair to bemoan the loss of a particular dialect, or even an entire language, but realize that thousands have arisen and died off over the eons, and any field left fallow will soon be bursting with new life.  Most of New England was once farmland.  Now you can barely see the forests for all the trees.

The natural historian Stephen Jay Gould defined a phenomenon he called “punctuated equilibrium”.  This describes how a portion of a certain population becomes isolated from the main herd (which could have been in a stable state for thousands of years), and then very quickly, evolves into something notably different.  Language does exactly the same thing. 

Everyone thinks American English is a corrupted, devolved version of the genteel speech we hear on Downton Abbey.  In fact, during the Revolutionary War the British sounded pretty much like Americans do today.  We’re the ones who’ve stayed the locutionary course while the Brits have moved on.  No one had a Southern accent as defined today until sometime after the Civil War.  The South was, and still is, bursting with distinctive dialects and styles of expression, but only the flattening of mass media could bestow upon us a fully regional inflection.

There used to be an American accent called Mid-Atlantic, sort of a hybrid British/American contraption.  The most useful exemplars were FDR and William F. Buckley, though it was so common in old movies – think Katherine Hepburn or Errol Flynn (an Australian, for Pete’s sake) – that few realized Cary Grant was actually an Englishman.  Since this manner of speaking signaled a kind of aristocratic superiority, we’re well rid of it.  Meanwhile, millions of Americans were quite eager to put Bernie Sanders in the White House, and while the majority rejected his politics, no one thought his Brooklyn accent was a disqualifier. 

Disparaging how other people speak is snobbish at best, 

and at worst, bigoted, since there is no rational or scientific justification for ascribing character flaws to styles of speech.  As with any social construct, accent discrimination is used by those with the upper hand to bludgeon others they’d prefer remain in their disfavored social class. Luckily, our language itself has a way of slipping out from under these predations, dissolving advantages and disadvantages alike. 

And churning out new words like Twinkies at a Hostess factory.

Merriam-Webster added 690 new words to the dictionary last year.  And that doesn’t include thousands more candidates.  James Joyce made up seventeen words, though only “quark” survives to this day, and only because Murray Gell-Mann used it to name a subatomic particle.  Shakespeare, on the other hand, invented over 1,700 English words, most of which are still in use. 

I’m pretty sure I invented the word “rictify”, which I used to describe what happens to some people whose attitudes and beliefs become rigid and fixed in place as they age, suggesting some sort of combination of “petrify” and “rigor mortis”.  A psychologist friend of mine liked it so much, he started using it in his practice.  Haven’t seen it in the dictionary yet, but keeping an eye out. 

Your turn.   

08 April 2024

Do not go gentle into that good night. Bring a flashlight.


I’m in my seventies, which makes me officially an old person.  In our euphemism-afflicted age, the preferable term is Senior, though I still think that label is better suited to someone in the twelfth grade of high school.

Another sop to this PC frenzy is to call someone like me older.  Okay, older than whom?  My brother is older than me, and always will be.  He was when I was ten and he was fourteen.

They say you’re only as old as you feel.  I feel like I’m in my seventies, at least with regard to aching joints and memory lapses.  The rest of the brain appears to still be functioning, surprisingly, given how I’d mistreated it as a younger person.  It’s a known fact that when one part of the body declines, or is abruptly taken offline, the other parts compensate, growing stronger.  This is a pleasant thought, which suggests I might be getting even smarter as I stagger out of bed in the morning and lose my car keys.   

I’m not sure what effect this all has on ones writing.  I’ve had the displeasure of reading some of my juvenilia, and it’s predictably callow and risible, though I can hear my voice buried in there, yearning to be free.  There’s no certainty that being on the other end of the age spectrum means your writing will improve, or decay.  But there are plenty of examples of the former, and precious little of the latter, barring critics’ mercurial tastes, not known for their discernment at any age. 

Thorton Wilder wrote my favorite Wilder work, the novel Theophilus North, when he was seventy-six, back when that age meant something.  And nothing good. 

I published my first book when I was fifty-three.  When checking Google on this subject, I noticed that people over fifty were categorized as “starting late.”  I didn’t know that at the time.  I did write about three books in the decades before, none publishable, but it was good exercise.  And I got to enjoy a blizzard of rejections, which strengthens the spine. 

Arthritis aside, the only physical demand of a starting-late writer is typing.  And staring at the computer screen through bifocals.  What we do have, as compensation, is a lifetime of accumulated knowledge and experience.  This is a quality that’s revered in Eastern cultures.  In America, it mostly qualifies you to be ignored by the middle aged and ridiculed by your children (the grandchildren instinctively know better, though they’re too young to copy edit or help you find an agent.)  However, if you’re lucky enough to not reprise your old mistakes, writing becomes a much more efficient process.  The key here is knowing more quickly when the work sucks, and much more willing to swipe it into the trash icon with little or no regret.  When you’re young, you don’t know that it’s possible to compose thousands, if not millions, of sentences.  That you’re capable of drastically revising a hundred-thousand-word manuscript.  So every line on the page is more precious, more deserving of life in perpetuity, even though they might, in a word, suck.

At writers conferences and panel events, when I look out at the audience, most of the heads are white or grey, or would be if not for hair dye.  So writing and reading are largely pursuits of the not-so-young.  We have more time, and fewer pressing responsibilities, and if fortunate, greater resources to sustain the habit.  And unlike Olympic-level gymnastics, something you can do until you face-plant into the keyboard. 

I just had a birthday, an occasion once celebrated, now more regrettable, since it marks less potential for repeat performances.  Some say it’s just a number, though these people can still count the numbers off on their hands and feet without losing track. 

As I’ve noted in prior posts, short term memory does not improve with age.  If I need to carry an item from Room A to Room B, I immediately put it in my pocket.  Then it will find its way to the destination, even though I might not remember why it should have gone there in the first place.  Long term memories, on the other hand, become seasoned over time.  Leavened by recurring recollection, burnished through sharing with old friends and family.  These may not be quite accurate – actually, they probably aren’t – but if you’re a storyteller, all the better. 

Ones life becomes a kind of artform of its own, where the rough outlines of events are curated and shaped into reflections both material and inventive, true by Hemingway’s definition, faithful and well aimed.  

25 March 2024

A chip off the old block.


    When I went to sailing school, our instructor noted that it’s not a matter of if you get seasick, but when.

    That was about 25 years ago, and it still hasn’t happened. This after a few times in six-foot plus confused seas (this is an actual term, which roughly equates to being in the agitator cycle of a giant washing machine).

    Now that I’ve made this boast public, it’ll likely happen the next time I get in a kayak,  but I’m taking my chances.

    By that logic, I’ll take another flyer. I admit I’ve never had writer’s block. This thought was occasioned by a novice writer who asked me how I handle such things, including what he called “hitting the wall”, which I assume means confronting an impassable edifice suddenly erected in front of your work in progress and not the side of a building on Dead Man’s Curve. I had trouble answering because it’s never happened.

    My heart goes out to anyone who has dealt with this.

    As I once felt crossing the English Channel in a storm, watching most of the passengers lined up along the rail sharing the contents of their insides with the salt water and torrential rain. The rest were in the loo.

    A significant percentage of the mystery writers I know are journalists.

    I bet few are beset by writers block, which is probably true of former copywriters like me. From what I understand, editors share the same general attitude as creative directors. If you aren’t able to write what you were supposed to write that day, they fire you. Usually the next day.

    Aside from generating colossal amounts of stress, which by correlation supported a lively bar trade in the neighborhoods surrounding newsrooms and ad agencies, this also focused the mind, and instilled the kind of discipline notable in air traffic controllers and members of the bomb squad.

    Pressed by my novice friend, I did have a few suggestions when ones productivity seems to be flagging, or when you’re not sure what should happen next in the novel.

    Getting up to go to the bathroom is the first tactic. I wrote a lot of headlines standing at a urinal. If you have a more luxurious schedule, a nice walk around the block usually does the trick. If you have both the time and means, perhaps a quick trip to Italy. Countries where you don’t know what people are saying are excellent places to write in public, say at a trattoria or outdoor cafĂ© a la Ernest Hemingway (though go light on the Pernod).

    Reading other people’s writing doesn’t do much for me in this context, except for a few extraordinary stylists, like Bill Bryson, Gillian Flynn, or Amor Towels, whom I find inspirational, despite setting insurmountably high standards.

    But above all, whenever I feel the writing at hand is stalling out, I simply switch over to another project, any project.

    I usually have about three books going at once, at various stages of completion, and there are always emails to old friends and short stories waiting to be written.

    The best palliative for being stuck is to just start writing. The act itself, for me, usually limbers things up and then I'm back in business. The greatest impediment to writing is not writing. Don't worry how it's going to come out. Just start typing.

    Another trick with books is to write down in advance what I call "things that could happen." These are scenes or plot features, and often twists, or something unexpected. I can refer back to that to see if there's anything there to latch on to.

    I don't fear the blank page. In fact, I like it. It means anything goes. Dive in! Most editors will tell you the beginnings of books and short stories are often the weakest parts, and they're good at noting where you should have actually started the thing. That's fine. It just means you hadn't yet warmed up the engine.

    Writing for SleuthSayers, I have a long list of possible topics, and several opening paragraphs. These are handy diversions, and usually result in something I can use. Today, I thought, geez, none of this is helping.

    Then it occurred to me, why not write about not knowing what to write?

11 March 2024

Your attention is most kindly requested.


            I often read in the newspaper that there’s been a general erosion in common civility.  That may be true, since why argue with sociological studies and the finely tuned antennas of our media watch dogs, ever alert for any diminishment in our quality of life.  

            But I just don’t see it.  That is, I rarely suffer this during my day-to-day undertakings.  In fact, I think people are mostly more congenial and sociable than they used to be.  It could be that since I now have white hair they take pity on me and my declining faculties, and express greater kindness than I experienced as a young man.  Maybe I’m now more convivial myself, and get rewarded by a response in kind.  I’m willing to accept these variables as suggesting I’m all wrong.

            Though still not be convinced. 

            It might be that social media interactions are larded with terribly disrespectful and aggressive behaviors, and that has warped our perception of the overall state of public comportment.  Since I participate in social media only glancingly, and then only with friendly people I know, I never confront such conduct.  If I did I’d tell the offenders, in the nicest way possible, to stick it in their ears and never communicate with them again.


              It helps to have a dog.  Only the hardest heart can resist our terrier’s charms.  He elicits good feelings from every version of human being, irrespective of socio-economic standing, race, creed, orientation or nationality.  We once had a motorcycle gang cooing over our pups, comparing notes on healthy diets and grooming strategies.  I think foreigners first learn our language by saying “Hello.”, “How much?”, “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Cute dog!”  We’re the fortunate beneficiaries of this canine charisma, since much of it seems to rub off. 

           

            I’ve been to Ireland and Australia, countries that have set the English-speaking gold standard for full-throated cheerfulness and good will toward any and all.  By contrast, I live in New York and New England, who many contend occupy the other end of the spectrum.  But this isn’t really fair.  New Yorkers are actually quite friendly and garrulous, it just feels like they’re shouting at you.  You have to tune your ears to the right pitch.  


            New Englanders are taciturn and reserved, it’s true, though get them started on a favorite subject, like the Patriots’ defensive line or the best route from Cambridge to Logan Airport, and they’ll talk your head off.   You do have to make more of an effort to engage a New Englander, unlike a person from almost anywhere else in the country.  If all you say at the check out line is “thank you” as they bag the groceries, don’t expect much.  If they ask, “How are you today?” give them a broadside of jolly commentary on your current state of being.  Even include a complaint or two, delivered with the sort of rueful irony that invites commiseration.

          

            “Could be sunnier.”

          

            “Yeah, but we need the rain.  My Roma tomatoes just lap that stuff up.  And the zucchinis?” 


“Don’t I know it.”

            

             I used to drive the Massachusetts Turnpike all the time, and before they did away with the toll gates, there was one guy so irredeemably buoyant and busting with bon homme that a line would form at his booth. 

            

            “There’s your change, sir.  One dollar and thirty-five cents.  Buy yourself something fun!”

    

              

            Mindful of our brief here at Sleuth Sayers, I do have a way to link this happy state of affairs to writing fiction.  If you only follow the observations of our gloomy journalists and academics, you’ll not only feel enduringly depressed, you’ll deviate from your lived experience.  You’ll break the law of authenticity.  The world isn’t a disagreeable place, most of the time.  Genuine assholes are notable simply because they’re so rare. 


                Writing hardboiled crime novels is no excuse.  Even Humphrey Bogart (channeling Marlowe) said, "I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners.  I don't like ‘em myself.”

 

12 February 2024

Solitary confinement.


            Novels, short stories and poetry may be the last bastions of solitary writerly pursuits.  With the exception of the rare co-author team, most fiction writers labor in isolation, islands unto themselves.  In other creative fields employing writers, notably film and TV, and advertising, creativity is a team sport.  Playwrights usually start out on their own, but in the course of production, others are likely to stick their hands in the cookie jar. The playwright still gets all the credit, but she knows that others had their say.

            I’ve written alone and as part of a team and each has its charms.  This may be self-evident.  When working alone, all you have is yourself, and you can write what you want.  No one is over your shoulder, no one is scowling at one of your ideas (except your editor, who usually comes in at the end of the game).  It’s you alone, all by yourself, the god of your world, immune from interruption or censure.  It’s what I also love about fine woodworking and single-handed sailing. 

            But few places on earth are more fun and exhilarating than a writers room.  In advertising, we usually worked in teams of two – a copywriter and an art director, where our specialization would dissolve at the conceptual stage and each would throw in ideas for art or copy without restriction.  I might have a half-baked notion that my partner would slice into a fine part and add something interesting.  I’d take this fledgling thought and add something else, and it would go from there.  Before we knew it, something workable would emerge, and when the creative director came into the room, we’d have something to show for the time spent.           

            When writing alone, all the talk is inside your head.  In a writers room, the talk is usually about anything other than the thing you’re supposed to be working on.  If this was recorded, most strict administrators would fire us for wasting precious business time on nonsense.   But we knew we were actually circling the idea, finding context, getting to the destination via a circuitous route.  That’s because we were always thinking about the task at hand, and any nutrition from the conversation went directly into the conceptual efforts.  Ideas beget ideas.  Talk gives birth to lines of thinking that spew out concepts.  This is how it works. 

            Advertising might not be the noblest of pursuits, but it’s not that easy to do well, and when it all comes together, the adrenalin flows just as strongly as when you compose a satisfying piece of fiction (though some would argue advertising and fiction are not that different from one another).

            In his book The Innovators, Walter Isaacson maintains that the most important common element of all history-making digital advances was collaboration.  He makes his case vividly and convincingly.  Though he also cites iterations as key components.  One idea building on another.  You could apply this to fiction.  Where would the modern detective novel be without Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade?  What constitutes inspiration versus simply cribbing from an earlier work?  

             Discerning readers know the difference.  They can spot a derivation, which can be rewarding, and just as easily condemn a book as derivative.  I once wrote a book that was heavily influenced by the first chapters of James Joyce's Ulysses, which my editor mentioned to a Joyce scholar he knew.  The scholar was offended, telling the editor that my work had nothing to do with Joyce.  Okay, but I knew how I felt when I was working on that book, the same way I felt reading about Stephen Dedalus.  In the quiet of my private mind, I told the Joycean snob to stick it where the self-importance doesn't shine.  

            I think it’s fair to say that an iteration, at its most benign, is a form of collaboration.  Musicians will tell you at least half of popular music is based on the traditional 12-bar blues - tonic, sub-dominant, dominant - format (Steve Liskow, please weigh in).  That doesn’t mean so many priceless songs are illegitimate.  

Often when confronted with two equally appealing alternatives, I vote for both.  Working alone is the best, except when working in a team.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

           

             

29 January 2024

Made by hand.


            I never learned how to create on a typewriter.  I tried, but I just couldn’t do it.  Instead, I wrote in tiny cursive so I could fit as much as possible on a yellow pad, since pads were expensive when you didn’t have much money. 

            I eventually evolved a useful compromise, where I would advance the work as far as I could by hand, then type it up, double-spaced, which I would continue revising through subsequent drafts.  But I could never conjure those first words and sentences solely through mechanical means. 

             (Ironically, I’d learned touch typing in high school to such a proficiency that I could work as a Kelly Girl, leading to a nice gig at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, but that’s another story.)

            But then I was introduced to my first word processor.  It was a Wang, which no one under fifty remembers, but was the de riguer method of digital composition in its heyday.  I immediately fell in love with that sickening green screen and those pixilated, poorly kerned characters.  The real beauty was you could modify and correct on the fly, balance out the formatting and be able to read the polished result as soon as it emerged from the printer.  This was sorcery, a seamless blend of human imagination and electronic technology.  I never wrote creatively in longhand again, unless it was to sign my federal tax return.

            Another wonder was the speed you could achieve with a computer.  Even the slickest IBM Selectric felt clunky and under-powered in comparison.  That you could quickly repair all the typos and mangled constructions caused by such reckless haste, in real time, only encouraged more daredevil velocity. 

            Since the Wang was modeled on the minicomputer, you worked on a (nearly) dumb terminal hooked up to a central disc storage unit in a secret room somewhere in the office, lorded over by the emerging class of IT professionals just beginning to hone their technical and interpersonal skills.  I once lost a whole day of work because a tech wanted to scoot out early and just flicked off the machine.  In a reverse Big Bang, pages of copy, due the next day, collapsed into one tiny green dot in the middle of the screen, forever irretrievable.

             Unlike disasters faced by earlier pioneers, no one was killed in the catastrophe, though the thought crossed my mind.

            Now that we’ve reached the point where Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” is nearly realized, all you hear is people bitching about technology.  Official magicians like Gandalf and Saruman the White never had to put up with that kind of kvetching.  No matter how powerful, how convenient, how fast and furious our devices become, they’re never good enough.  You can have virtually the entirety of human knowledge at the tips of your fingers, but really, only 60 Hz -110 PPI screen refresh rate?   What is this, the Middle ages?

          

I’ve been known to hurl invective at any number of glowing screens, but in my heart, I’m actually grateful.  I feel the same way about air travel, even when snaking through the TSA line at JFK.  It doesn’t seem possible that all I have to do is be hungry, sleepless and crippled by leg cramps for only a little over six hours and I’m in Ireland.  Tell that to the ragged refuse making the reverse trip in steerage. 

            But my deepest gratitude is toward my laptop, which feels like an extension of my inner being.  I avail myself of only a tiny fraction of its functionality, and I’m often lost in the simplest management of files, formats, upgrades, applications and other torments that gush at me on a relentless basis, but what really matters is how fast and easy it is to convert my cacophonous jumble of thoughts and feelings into words on the page, with only the limitation of talent to stand in the way. 

           

15 January 2024

Does anybody really know what time it is?


           Einstein taught us that time is relative.  Popular writers will say this explains why an hour in a waiting room is longer than an hour having a beer with your best friend.  This isn’t true.  These occasions feel different because your perception of passing time is highly contingent on the qualities of the experience.  Einstein’s got nothing to do with it.

    The human factor, in those cases, has mostly to do with patience.  I’m not an expert on the subject, since I have none.  For me, a dentist’s office, traffic jams, my living room while waiting for my wife to put on her makeup, my bedroom as a child waiting for Christmas morning to commence, the queue administered by the NTSB, are torture chambers. 

            Checkout lines at the food store are the ultimate gladiator combat zone of patience.  Recently, I got behind a crowd of cheerful partygoers preparing for a big night at home.  They were having a lot of fun, and the food store employees were infected by the high spirits.  There was non-stop joking and laughing.  I was dying, since I really needed to get through that line as soon as possible, since I had to flee the store for reasons inexplicable at the time.  In retrospect, I was merely impatient. 

            So I bailed out of my position and went to the line next door, where only a single elderly lady was ready to find her way through the self-checkout. This was a huge mistake.  She had no idea how to navigate the automated system, stumbling her way through every transaction.   She had also stacked her purchases to overflowing in the little bin at the rear of the cart, and having angled the thing so she was now at the front end, had a great deal of difficulty retrieving her packages, fruits and vegetables.  I rescued this effort by moving all her stuff onto the conveyor belt.  She thanked me, while complaining loudly that nothing in life worked as well as it used to.  I agreed.

The young guy in charge of helping people through the self-checkout came over about a dozen times to recalibrate the system after the woman did some novel things with the barcodes and buttons at her disposal.  The guy had to call over his supervisor at least twice with the words, “Never seen this one before.”

I became the old lady’s fiduciary for the final act of cashing out, which involved discovering that only one of her fistfuls of credit and debit cards actually worked.  I nearly wept with joy when the word “Approved” finally flashed on the little screen.   Somewhere in the middle of all this, the partygoers left the store, in full celebration.  We waved to each other.

            The lesson for me was a little bit of patience at first would have saved a huge amount of time, and stomach acid, on the back end. 

             I know several people who have virtually no sense of passing time.  Whether a blessing or a curse is up for debate, since one can easily fill in both sides of the ledger.  I have an acute sense of time, which I blame on the German side of my family, who considered five minutes early as being on time.  Not five minutes before, nor five minutes after.  None of them wore a watch, since they could tell you the exact time aligned with the GMT down to the nearest second.  So I’m almost never late, though someone I live with is never on time, unless by happy accident. 

Another relative of mine ascribes his wife’s time blindness to the perfidy of the Magic Clock.  If she needs twenty minutes to complete a task, she merely looks at the Magic Clock, which will tell her five is all she needs.  Her surprise at the actual outcome is endlessly recurring and never instructive.


  My German grandfather was a clock smith, who would translate time’s march into pendulums, springs, axels and gear sprockets.  He filled his house with about 100 clocks, most of which were strikers.  At midnight, the house would erupt with bells, chimes and ancient clackers.  His family would sleep through it all, since it was merely a cacophonous reminder that another day had just ended, a little bit of life consumed, and new days ahead, a few more bits yet to be endured. 

01 January 2024

"Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin." - Barbara Kingsolver


I know I’ve forgotten something, I just don’t remember what it is. 

I said that once, in all sincerity.  I think it adequately sums up the mystery that is memory.  Most of us are really glad to have memories, even ones clouded by misfortune, because they are a testament that we have lived a life.  I’m referring to long-term memory, which has a much different role to play than the short-term variety.  Short-term memory is responsible for me losing countless gloves and sunglasses, a few wallets, where I’ve parked the car, the most recent line of dialog on the TV and the name of the person I was just introduced to.

Speaking of TV, fictional eyewitnesses remember the color of the gunman’s jacket, his slight limp, a noticeable Brooklyn accent and the make and model of his getaway car.  In real life, eyewitnesses can’t do any of these things, which is why they’re mostly disregarded by cops and prosecutors.

People often say, “Aunt Harriet doesn’t remember what she had for breakfast, but she remembers the smell of her mother’s fresh-baked oatmeal cookies and the look of her prom gown.”  Well, of course she can, or at least she can conjure up what she thinks she remembers, and do it with total conviction.  In fact, she’s probably close, but not nearly exact. 

This is because long-term memories are stored in a different, deeper part of the brain.  A short-term memory is only good for a few moments before the brain wants to get rid of it, which it usually does with dispatch.  

It really doesn’t matter if your old memories are precise recreations.  Because it’s more important what you feel when dredging them up again.  This, to me, is the writer’s chore, to hold on to certain emotions and impressions, to later recollect in moments of tranquility, or when overcoming temporary writer’s block to meet a pressing deadline.  

A friend of mine, whom I’ve known since we were roommates in college, likes to play a game called, “Did that actually happen?”  It’s an occasional check-in on old memories, which he usually gets close, but never exactly right, according to my memory of the same event, equally unreliable. 

But as noted, it’s the feelings that matter.  I’ve re-watched beloved movies after a few decades have gone by, and often, usually, they’re not that great.  Better to have retained how they made me feel at the time, because I’m now much older, clogged with accumulated experience (wisdom is too big a word) and concerned with very different matters.  

As with Aunt Harriet, we assemble our long-term memories out of snatches of images and narratives gleaned from the last time we tried to remember what happened.  They are never quite right, but they’re what sticks in the brain as received truth, corrupted files that perpetuate themselves, and continue to warp, over time. 

I have no way of knowing if the recollected emotions are authentic.  Context is usually a good clue.  I saw Cream play at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia when I was about seventeen.  I think it’s a fair bet that I was thrilled to hear Eric Clapton at the height of his guitar-god powers.  I also remember him wearing a black knit beanie and spending part of the concert standing behind his massive wall of Marshall amps.  I remember Ginger Baker looking like a skeleton, seconds away from early death.  He made it to 2019, so he must have just been having a bad week.  Or maybe I don’t remember it correctly.  It doesn’t matter, since I also remember his drumming to be astonishingly complex, exacting and other-worldly. 

The whole night felt great, and that’s all that counts. 

18 December 2023

Writing, writing, writing.


            You really don’t have to write every day.  You can avoid writing for a week, and then spend two days developing carpal tunnel by writing non-stop.  It’s up to you.  The point is to write a lot, because not writing is not writing.  Writing a lot is like playing the guitar a lot.  The more you do, the better you’ll get.  That’s the only advice I feel confident giving. 

            No one has the exact formula.  For you.  Read everything all the writing coaches have to say, then set your own course.  

            In the same way, listen to all the advice from other writers (including this blog post), take it seriously, then do what you think you should.  You’re the goddess, or god, or you own work.  Only you know what will make it work.  And where you’ll do it.  You can have a quiet, private place somewhere in your apartment or house.  Or you can go to a loud bar.  It can be your back porch or your Uncle Bennie’s basement.  It’s yours to discover.  What other writers do is irrelevant.  Their proper place is probably not yours.

             You can try to game the market by writing what you think will sell.  You might hit it, you might not.  Some have done this, and they are now wealthy.  Most have not.  By most, I mean 99.999%.  Some of us win the lottery, some get fricasseed by lightning.  Ignore the press on these matters.  They only focus on the unicorns. 

            Expect to fail.  It’s a lot easier on your mental health than you think it is, because every failure is a lesson.  When you do make it, and you will if you try and have the talent, and don’t give up, it’ll be a pleasant surprise.  But don’t sit there thinking about how your work will succeed in a material way.  Or any way.  Don’t think at all about the idea of writing.  Just do it. 

When Glenn Frey was an aspiring rock musician he was befriended by Bob Seger.  Seger told him. “You know, if you want to make it, you’re gonna have to write your own songs."  And Frey said, "Well, what it they’re bad?”  And Seger replied, “Well, they’re gonna be bad.  You just keep writing and writing and eventually, you’ll write a good song.”           

Do the work you want to do.  What moves you, what makes you feel good to compose.  This is way more fun than trying to write about something you don’t care very much about.  And much more productive.  “Write what you know”, then, is good advice, but it’s not the whole story.  Sometimes writing what you simply imagine can be just as fruitful.  Science fiction is often the result.  But not always.  You can be interested in something you know nothing about, say high school curling competitions in Northern Minnesota.  All it takes is a little effort doing research (Googling, reading, watching a lot of curling matches, interviewing the Minnesota State Junior Curling Champion).  This can also be a lot of fun, and chances are good you’ll learn things that you never imagined, things about the subject that launch you in a totally  unexpected direction. 

           Writing begets writing.  It’s one of the magical things about it.  The very act of composition tends to generate ideas and plot moves, fresh characters, and voices and insights you didn’t know you had.  These are all unavailable to people who think about writing, but rarely actually write. 

When it comes to flexing the muscle, it doesn’t matter what you write, because everything is exercise.  So if you don‘t feel like advancing the novel, there’s nothing wrong with starting a short story.  Or finally writing to your Cousin Francine in Duluth (where they do a lot of curling.)  Essays are good practice.  And letters to the editor.  And outdoing your siblings for Funniest Birthday Card to Mom. 

Charlie Parker played the sax every day, all day and into the night.  His roommates report removing the instrument from his lips when he fell asleep.  Jimi Hendrix, from all accounts, was rarely seen without a guitar hanging from his shoulder.  Stephen King has written about 8 million words worth of novels alone.

It worked out for them.