Archive for October 2009
A writing pal and I are going on a blinders-on fiction sprint in November, so I won’t be blogging or tweeting or Facebooking (?) or anything that month. (I will continue blogging and tweeting and Facebooking (?) for work, though, for the obvious reason.) Email responses will be slower than usual, too.
Seeya December 1. I’ll tell you how it went.
… and not just because it’s the second-worst album by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The word “magic” is particularly annoying when applied to consumer technology, starting with Arthur C. Clarke’s oft-quoted “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That’s pithy and pungent, but untrue. Air conditioner technology is quite advanced. We all know the difference between air conditioning and magic.
Bill Gates, during his post-CEO/pre-departure years at Microsoft, tried to push this word. I saw him use the term “magic” to describe what his company’s software did at many conferences, much as he does in this 2004 column for InformationWeek:
It’s the magic of software that will connect these devices into a seamless whole, making them an indispensable part of our everyday lives.
He’s describing Windows Update, a service about as magical as a doorbell.
And now Apple is playing the “magic” game. Its new mouse replaces its previous wireless “Mighty Mouse,” which was characterized mostly by its inability to hold a Bluetooth connection for more than 90 seconds. It’s called a “Magic Mouse.” It’s amusing to see the trendsetters at Apple picking up on a half-decade-old discarded Microsoft slogan. So much for thinking different(ly). But it emphasizes how much trouble computer makers are having selling their wares nowadays. With computers becoming more and more commoditized, it’s hard to get anyone excited about them for reasons other than design, at which Apple excels. So the companies who sell us computers and products that connect to them have to start making things up about them, like they’re “magic.” This doesn’t seem like much of an exaggeration anymore.
I’m more familiar with Lydia Davis’s work as a translator than I am with her fiction, a deficiency I intend to remedy shortly. In an interview with The Economist’s Intelligent Life promoting her new collection of short stories, Davis talks about what she learned as a writer from translating Proust (her Swann’s Way is the strongest of the Penguin series a few years back):
She considered each sentence a “little puzzle”, and strove to stay true to Proust’s sounds, rhythms and word choices … “Translating makes me much more acutely aware of shades of meaning,” she explains. “You have a set problem and you can’t get around it by avoiding it. You have to pick just the right word.”
Jane tagged me in her meme about learning to write. At first I wanted to write three contradictory practices that illuminate my development as a writer. That’s hard for me, not because I have trouble telling stupid stories from my youth (I don’t, as my friends know all too well), but because because I feel like I’m still becoming a writer. Yes, I know I’ve been writing or editing for more than 25 years, long enough that I have plenty of work in the remainder bin or landfill, but I’m still trying to get good. So, rather than tell you about the 11th grade high school teacher who inspired me or the thrill when I heard my fiction read on the radio, I’ll tell you three things I’ve learned along my “twisted path to becoming a writer,” a path I have yet to complete.
1. Hate adverbs.
One practice I’ve picked up is to eliminate as many words ending in “-ly” as I can.
I’m writing a novel. To solve a problem I created for myself in the second act, I went back and looked at something similar I had written years ago. It was a terrible piece of writing. Trying to make the sentences more powerful than the story dictated, I loaded them with tricks. Some of them I had picked up from my years as a cranky rock critic (fellow travelers know the “comma, say, comma” formulation); others confused listmaking with storytelling. The worst of them was my reliance on adverbs and adjectives to do the jobs that nouns and verbs are for. The sentences was full of pairings like “astonishingly precise” and lots of adverbs like “actually” and “simply” that, most of the time, are just fancy ways of saying “very.” I even used the words “insouciant” and “insouciantly” in a 3,000-word section, which should trigger some sort of penalty.
Almost every one of my sentences gets better when I remove the adverbs. As I continue down the path, I’m learning not to put the adverbs in at all.
2. It’s not about me.
Go to bookstores. The local Booksmith, workplace of my favorite bookseller, has a wall of new hardcover fiction. I am a ravenous reader, but the wall is full of novels I’ll never read by authors I have never heard of and novels I’ll never get to by authors I have heard of. Even if I complete a novel worth reading and talk someone into publishing it and inserting it into such a display, most people who go to bookstores looking for fiction (a small percentage of a small percentage) will never notice it. This once made me despair; now it liberates me. Here’s why.
In the early ’90s, I had a difficult job with a difficult boss. Much of that boss’s direction was unhelpful, both to the financial and editorial health of the magazine I edited, but one of his suggestions was brilliant and has stayed with me. I was editing a music magazine that had its offices in Peterborough, New Hampshire, no center of pop culture. There were elements of the office’s physical location that were useful, but bucolic setting = cloistered attitude for some of the editors there. They were self-conscious tastemakers, out of touch with our readers. My boss suggested we talk to readers regularly and learn what they thought. My initial response was negative — no one knows better than I what my readers want, damn it! — but within the week I tried it. It was fantastic! Much of the feedback was obvious or mundane, but some of it was surprising, provocative, and essential in helping me understand what my readers wanted. Without it, I would have been unable to turn the magazine from one intended to please four editors into one set on entertaining several hundred thousand people.
Which brings us back to that wall of new fiction and the practice I draw from it. I’m only going to get a few people to notice my book; what can I do to make it stand out? Do I know what is my book about? Do I have characters, subplots, or themes that don’t support what that book is about? Are they there just to entertain me? What about the reader? There is a difference between what one writes for herself and what one produces for an audience. After I’ve written something, I ask: Will anyone who picked up this book because of what it is about care about this? No? Then why is it there?
3. You can’t get to the 10 percent until you throw away the 90 percent.
The first two practices are about taking things about. This one is about putting things in. I think I’m starting to get good; I even have some external validation to support that belief. But most of what I write is still crap. Most of what everyone writes is crap. Tama Janowitz once wrote that the first drafts of her novels were 1,200 pages; the second drafts were 800 pages; the final drafts ran 400 pages.” Regardless of whether you’re a Janowitz fan, that sounds about right. You can’t have the best writing on paper until you put everything down on paper, including the dumb ideas, cliches, forced transitions, clever asides, and limp dialogue. None of that will be in the final/published version, but you can’t get to a good-enough final/published version until you have written out all the junk. My practice: Pour it all out, then sort it all out.
Chuck Berry is the greatest lyricist in the history of rock and roll. His unprecedented synthesis—blues (especially the jump-band variety), country, and swing funneled through his wry, nonlinear mind—extended ideas about what the new teen form could encompass. Berry took over rock and roll moments after its birth, and anyone who has subsequently picked up a guitar with the desire to write a rock’n’roll song that described real life knows that Berry provided most of the tools. He also coined the word “motorvatin’,” which counts for a lot.
His Chess recordings have a bit of fluff toward the end (Owen and I have already weighed in on “My Ding-a-Ling”), but not much. Those records showcase Berry in his prime, all train-track guitar lines and images of “coffee-colored Cadillacs.” Berry’s prime musical foil is his St. Louis compatriot Johnnie Johnson, a pianist with a blues background whose rhythmic style was so flexible and skeptical that it influenced Chuck’s fret work, not to mention his lyrical world-view. Piano and guitar hop over each other throughout this set, like grinning duelists. Detractors often claim that Berry’s songs “all sound the same,” but they’re referring only to the jump-start guitar introductions that were Berry’s duck-walking trademark—though even those were immediately distinguishable to seasoned fans. There’s a tremendous variety of styles on his Chess tracks: Listen to “Havana Moon,” “School Day,” “Dear Dad,” and “Have Mercy Judge” and hear a performer able to thrive in blues, rhythm and blues, straight rock’n’roll, and his own fusion of them all. The only thing that’s the same is the high quality.
Like Jerry Lee Lewis, Berry alternated between adult and teen topics as surely as he moved from adult to teen beats. Sometimes he could call up lines like the hilarious hyperboles in “No Money Down” (by the end of the song, he has an entire furniture store installed inside his new car) that rang true and immediate to both. Berry’s conversational singing is a major part of his appeal—everyone can understand what he is singing, although some couplets like “it’s way too early for the Congo/So keep a’rockin’ the piano” (from “Rock-and-Roll Music”) have defied attempts at explication for half a century.
Berry presented himself as a guy next door with a penchant for pungent and detailed singing, writing, and guitar-playing. He always considered himself an artist (he allowed none of the usual “It’s junk because it’s for kids” crap), and the most amazing thing about his wildly imaginative work is that there’s no condescension. Although the kids in the audience couldn’t comprehend the singer’s child-custody anguish in “Memphis,” Berry wrote the tune in such an open-ended way that everyone could be included. Everyone could be included: that’s Chuck’s genius in a nutshell.
Just a quick public thanks to Scott Kirsner for coming up with the idea for the Coffee for No Reason that we hosted. The attendance was much larger than we expected (thanks to Cosi for being kind about that) and I got the chance to meet a bunch of cool people doing cool things. Some I knew already; plenty I was lucky enough to meet for the first time. I shouldn’t have to be reminded than Silicon Valley isn’t the only place where tech innovation is happening.
However, if you do live near San Francisco and you didn’t fly cross-country for a cup of coffee, you can see Scott at a “Fans, Friends & Followers” workshop at BAVC on December 1. It’ll cost more than a cup of coffee but I’m sure it will be a bargain.