Get Back

The repetition, the repetition is a killer. When watching Get Back in fits and starts over the past month, that’s what I kept thinking. A take, another take, and yet another take. Some tea and toast and tedium. The viewer gets to see the vibrancy of rock-and-roll pulverized under the weight of needing to get this chord progression just right, or adjusting that vocal line, or pointing those microphones in a different direction. You can see it wearing on everyone. Even Paul, who is really the engine keeping things moving in the weeks covered by the film, periodically drifts into a glassy dead-eyed stare.

How much of being an artist is just a willingness to keep going: to repeat and repeat and repeat?

Following up on my last post extolling hard work and dedication to artistic craft with a month of silence here on the blog I wish I could say that I started a first draft of a novel offline, or like a really excellent cycle of sonnets or something. But, alas. The days have been full – the “deluge of life” as I describe it – and there has been very little time to spend writing. Very little time, and yet I found time to watch the eight hour Get Back documentary off and on over the past month, usually in 15-20 minute chunks or so. I’m not even that much of a Beatles fan (the best thing I read on it by someone who actually knows about the Beatles was this Ian Leslie post).

Repetition is a foundational element in all sorts of endeavors – especially creative ones. Or rather, the importance of repetition is more easily identifiable in creative, performative endeavors. The office worker has to find the courage to open up the email inbox day after day, but whether the routine is leading anywhere, whether it is driving any sort of improvement or is headed any particular direction, is usually unclear. A final artistic product, the finished song at the end of all the practice, seems to place all the repetition into context, to make it worthwhile. Musicians seem to be especially at risk when it comes to the grind of repetition. The performative aspect of the art form basically enshrines it- come up with a hit song (or hit song formula) and you’ll be playing it forever if everything goes well. And the Beatles, with their unusual ability to reinvent their sound over and over again, seemed especially allergic to getting stuck on repeat.

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This is Let It Be! You are the first people on earth to hear this song!

There is a great scene in the 2019 movie Yesterday when Jack plays “Let It Be” for his parents (the poster tagline for the movie tells you more or less what you need to know: “Everyone in the world has forgotten the Beatles. Everyone except Jack.”):

Yesterday was one of my favorite movies from the past few years even though I’m not a huge Beatles fan. I found myself repeatedly bursting into laughter, but probably laughed longest and loudest at this scene. It is just so painfully recognizable (although I, like many, would love to possess even a single ounce of Himesh Patel’s charisma). Anyone who has ever made anything creative and put it out there knows exactly this sort of feeling – a collision between earnest, heartfelt passion (“This is like watching Da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa right in front of your bloody eyes!”) and the general boredom and indifference of an early audience.

I was thinking of this scene again after the economist Tyler Cowen shared Cass Sunstein’s paper on the Beatles’ path to becoming “The Beatles” (i.e. successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams). In the paper Sunstein suggests Yesterday puts forward the hypothesis that “the Beatles were surpassingly great, and their sheer greatness was, and is, a guarantee of spectacular popularity, wherever and however their music emerged.” Sunstein goes on to explore recent social science research on cultural success and failure, including the importance of informational cascade and network effects, and also points out some of the straightforward good luck the Beatles ultimately enjoyed. While recognizing the importance of these different effects, Sunstein concludes the paper (“with fear and trembling”) by suggesting that while these contextual factors were important, ultimately the quality of the Beatles’ songs meant that they would have found a way to be successful.

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Campfires and lasers

There is a scene in the 2011 movie, Moneyball, where Brad Pitt, driving alone in a black pickup truck at night, silhouetted by streetlights, breaks the silence by muttering to himself: “What the hell am I doing?”

In one sense, that’s it, that’s the post. That scene on a loop fills in for a bunch of sentences started and then deleted over the past few months. I drive a hatchback manufactured in Korea, but lately I have been there in the darkened cab of that truck, driving around alone, pondering the “what-the-hell-am-I-doing-ness” of my life. Which includes this, what I’m doing right now, writing on the internet.

Robin Sloan had a post back at the start of this year making an analogy between writing and uncollimated and collimated light. Writing on the internet, he suggested, is uncollimated like a campfire (diffuses in multiple directions, fades fast, is simpler to produce); a book is more of a laser beam (the material points in a particular direction, is focused, is more durable, more difficult to create). I like the analogy.

How is the ability to build a campfire related to the skills necessary to construct a laser? In the broad sweep of history sense you can draw a developmental line between prehistoric campfires to a lab at MIT. But, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of overlap between the skillsets of the contemporary wilderness survivalist and a physicist in a lab coat.

So, what am I doing here. The problem with trying to produce collimated light is that you risk becoming a sort of mad scientist crank with a big hunk of metal in your basement that produces no light at all. On the other hand, being a weirdo setting off bonfires in the middle of your suburban street will just make people pull the curtains and call the cops. I have some hunks of inert metal in my basement. I have made some fires in the street.

There’s successful versions of both modes – the roaring fireplace around which friends gather during a crisp autumn evening; the laser that cuts a hole through the carapace of the buffered self (the whole axe to the icy sea thing). Do I need to be building a fireplace? Should I be diagramming circuits and diodes? Do I actually have the skills for either? How about the fires in the street? Continue with those? Keep connecting wires in the basement and seeing what sparks fly?

I am still driving around in that truck – no grand announcements or insights here other than that things may be even more haphazard than usual around here (and I am open to suggestions).

Writing in the Real World: Four Quotes

As embarrassment has both private and public functions, so, too, do writers’ self-criticisms have several purposes, which are more complex and performative than an outright condemnation of their writing. Though, to some extent, it comes from a real and desperate need to admit how awful it is to have to live with the things one has made, it is also a way of controlling the narrative around one’s work: pre-empting the failings others might find, and therefore mitigating them.

Considering First Books – Lamorna Ash
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Purposeful Public Foolishness

Austin Kleon recently posted on the need to “learn to play the fool” (included in the most recent edition of his excellent newsletter – I also liked the “searching outside the algorithm” and “nobody should have to hustle” links this week). In the post Austin reminds the reader that learning anything new generally involves being willing to risk embarrassment and failure.

This reminded me of a J.M. Coetzee quote from Youth that I had posted a while ago and came across again the other day while working on my little Knausgaard essay project (no one is waiting for them, but #2 and #3 are on their way). Coetzee describes the dawning realization (and accompanying frustration) that fundamental to learning to write (and to live) is a willingness to fail:

What more is required than a kind of stupid, insensitive doggedness, as lover, as writer, together with a readiness to fail and fail again? What is wrong with him is that he is not prepared to fail. He wants an A or an alpha or one hundred per cent for his every attempt, and a big Excellent! in the margin. Ludicrous! Childish! He does not have to be told so: he can see it for himself. Nevertheless. Nevertheless he cannot do it. Not today. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps tomorrow he will be in the mood, have the courage.

I, like Coetzee’s protagonist, even though I am old enough to know better, often still want an “Excellent!” in the margin on first try, at least in the things that matter to me. Being willing to risk a little failure, a little foolishness can be hard.

I frequently start a post with a “what I think I’m doing here” statement just to give a little signpost to the reader. And, I have been doing some big picture “what do I think I’m doing here” reflecting on this blogging project as a whole (the reflection isn’t happening in public, thank goodness, that sort of navel-gazing is for my journal, to be burned after writing). But, “an attempt at a little purposeful public foolishness” isn’t the worst description in the world of what’s happening here.

Writing Cricket Bats

Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly … (He clucks his tongue to make the noise.) What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel… (He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.) Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. (Indicating the cricket bat.) This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels off the field. It’s better because it’s better. …

…He’s a lout with language. I can’t help somebody who thinks, or thinks he thinks, that editing a newspaper is censorship, or that throwing bricks is a demonstration while building tower blocks is social violence, or that unpalatable statement is provocation while disrupting the speaker is the exercise of free speech … Words don’t deserve that kind of malarkey. They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more, and Brodie knocks their corners off. I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.

Tom Stoppard, in his play The Real Thing, talking about good writing. Of course, getting the right words in the right order isn’t enough if the author doesn’t have anything true to say and much of The Real Thing is wrestling with this dynamic (the “real thing” being discussed in the play is as much art as it is love). The same character later cautions that it’s easy to get good at “persuasive nonsense. Sophistry in a phrase so neat you can’t see the loose end that would unravel it.” But, in the evangelical subculture I inhabit too often authors fail to recognize that the “cricket bat” of writing is more than just a block of wood. They keep trying to bash (very possibly true and meaningful) ideas with ugly hunks of lumber and then are puzzled by the fact that they don’t “travel.” This tendency extends from the popular level to the academic (but I mean, academic writing in general is very often just beating the ball into the ground with a splintery two-by-four, so evangelicals aren’t alone there).

Freelancing, “Office Occupations” and the Writing Life

Writing for the press cannot be recommended as a permanent resource to anyone qualified to accomplish anything in the higher departments of literature or thought: not only on account of the uncertainty of this means of livelihood, especially if the writer has a conscience, and will not consent to serve any opinions except his own; but also because the writings by which one can live are not the writings which themselves live, and are never those in which the writer does his best. Books destined to form future thinkers take too much time to write, and when written come, in general, too slowly into notice and repute, to be relied on for subsistence. Those who have to support themselves by their pen must depend on literary drudgery, or at best on writings addressed to the multitude; and can employ in the pursuits of their own choice, only such time as they can spare from those of necessity; which is generally less than the leisure allowed by office occupations, while the effect on the mind is far more enervating and fatiguing. For my own part I have, through life, found office duties an actual rest from the other mental occupations which I have carried on simultaneously with them. They were sufficiently intellectual not to be a distasteful drudgery, without being such as to cause any strain upon the mental powers of a person used to abstract thought, or to the labour of careful literary composition.

The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill – courtesy of Alan Jacobs’ Pinboard. Some alternative titles for this post, (for me at least): “Be careful what you wish for,” “Get on with it already,” and “But, maybe you’re simply delusional.”

Saul Bellow on writing and “Experience”

Now I don’t want to make jokes on serious matters, and it is serious when people feel that they must be able to demonstrate that reality has happened to them, certified and approved reality in the form of Experience. Have they met life, not fled it? That’s fine. Very good. But Experience in this aspect is something resembling a merit badge; something like a commodity. Let us admit it, Experience with a capital E is something of a writer’s commodity …

Well now, does it harm writers to teach in universities? I am not sure the question is a real one. It is to some extent a postural question. It assumes that by doing the right things we get the desired results. Those right things are conventional. Leave your hometown; don’t leave your hometown; don’t write for the movies; travel; don’t be a sissy; don’t tie yourself down – and you will turn out fine. But the wind of the spirit is capricious … It bloweth where it listeth. And in the end a correct posture can give you nothing more than the satisfaction that comes of fidelity to good form.

It is not easy to find the right way. You must learn to govern yourself, you must learn autonomy, you must manage your freedom or drown in it. You may strain the will after Experience because you need it for your books. Or you may perish under the heavy weight of Culture. You may make a fool of yourself anywhere. You may find illumination anywhere – in the gutter, in the college, in the corporation, in a submarine, in the library. No one man holds a patent on it. No man knows what it is likely to tell him to do. For this reason universities and corporations may find the illuminable type unreliable from a personnel point of view. A writer may do better in the anxiety of the gutter; he may do better in the heavy security of the college. Despite the purity of your posture he may do well. It’s up to the spirit, altogether, and the spirit prints no timetable.

Saul Bellow, “The University as Villain” in There is Simply Too Much to Think About

Writing Advice

I’m not going to discuss writing as self-expression, as therapy, or as a spiritual adventure. It can be these things, but first of all—and in the end, too—it is an art, a craft, a making. And that is the joy of it. To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it.

Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft

Why do writers read craft books? Rather, why do I (an amateur, a “writer” only in an aspirational sense) read craft books? I read two last year: Ursula Le Guin’s helpful Steering the Craft and Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd (along with any number of articles and interviews online – David Mitchell’s Advice to a Young Writer was a recent favorite). The thing is, once you’ve read more than two or three of these sorts of things you find that all the craft books and “how to become a better writer” articles typically address one or more of three basic questions, and all provide more or less the same answers:

Q: How do I become a writer?
A: By reading and writing, mostly.

Q: How do I become a better writer?
A: By reading and writing better (and here are some exercises and/or reading suggestions that might help with that).

Q: How do I become a real writer? (i.e. a published, successful, famous, wealthy etc. etc.)?
A: No idea, but here are some anecdotes from my life or the lives of writers from the past, YMMV (and, by the way, getting published is not that important).

That’s it really. You can read a bunch of them, and they all say something along those lines, at least the decent ones. There’s plenty of snake oil seven-easy-steps-to-bestsellerdom stuff out there, along with ego-stroking books about nurturing the unique flower of your creative genius etc. but I don’t really count those as craft books. They’re self-help books: books more about the fantasy of being a “writer” (which, according to the movies, includes a full time career writing novels, a loft in New York, and a relationship with a beautiful woman that starts off on the wrong foot due to a hilarious misunderstanding but ends in true love) than the actual nuts and bolts of writing.

So, if the questions and answers are pretty much the same, why do I keep reading them?

1. Sometimes I need a little self-help and as Austin Kleon puts it:

every book is self-help

Despite my sneering dismissal of some examples of the genre the reality is that all writing advice is a form of self-help, and everyone needs a little help once in a while. I get stuck and sometimes breaking problems down and asking some diagnostic questions about what it is exactly I’m doing with my life writing can be useful and offer perspective. Sometimes a tip or exercise can help knock me out of a creative rut or see things from a new angle. I suppose my issue is that some of the books that are more focused on “finding your inner creative” probably just aren’t all that helpful in actually creating things (at least not for me).

2. It’s easier to read about writing than to write.

Rather than sit down and face the challenge of a blank page it is easier to read about someone who has already conquered their own blank page and still feel like you’re doing something that’s more virtuous than scrolling through your Facebook feed. I mean reading about writing is at least related to writing, right? It’s easier to prepare to write, to think about writing, than to actually just get on with the work of putting one word after the other.

3. Writers/readers are interested in writing/reading.

I am, as Francis Spufford puts it in his The Child that Books Built, a reading addict. Like any addict, I’m always hunting for new ways to get my fix and I suspect many writing projects are just that, attempts to get the high of reading in a different way. Anyone who has tried to lay claim to the role of “writer” usually has some sort of story about how they read something once that prompted them to say: “I want to try and do that” (tell the story of a lost Roman legion, or the discovery of Narnia, or the greatest detective who ever lived, or whatever). It is genuinely mysterious how marks on paper can make people and worlds come to life or how you can know someone who has never existed except in the pages of a book. The best craft books aren’t just flat how-to manuals; the best ones keep the mystery in sight while exploring the how and what and why of the process.

4. They provide a sense of camaraderie.

Writing is a lonely business, necessarily so, and craft books and writing advice make me feel like I’m not alone in the struggle to find the right word or discern a path forward through a foggy section of a plot. Sometimes it’s helpful to know that the literary greats write the same way as anyone else, one word after the other, struggling with the difficulties of making something up from nothing. Often, some of the best writing advice isn’t advice at all, just a recognition of shared insecurity and frustration (and joy, there really is joy the odd time things work out and some glimmer of authorial intention is reflected back from the page).

5. I want a silver bullet.

And at last: the truth. I hope that the next craft book will hold the secret to solving my life writing difficulties. I want the magic item that will slay the werewolf of self-doubt that scrabbles at the back of my mind, threatening to burst out and reveal me as a failure and a fraud. If I use these special (expensive) notebooks, with that fancy index card system and this (expensive) 19th century fountain pen and I get that (really expensive) desk and that (understated, but yeah, expensive) coffee brewing device and (so on) maybe I can dodge the simple reality that I just need to get the words down on paper, one after the other (bird by bird by bird…).