Prolific versus Non-Prolific

Some writers are very prolific, and some writers are very good, and these two groups are not the same. Oh sure, there is some overlap—those writers who are both very good and very prolific: Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Stephen King, for example—but in writing, as in most things, quantity does not necessarily equal quality. There are other writers who are/were very good but not very prolific. John Kennedy Toole, whose A Confederacy of Dunces is one of my favorite books, is a good example. His only other known book was The Neon Bible, written when he was just 16. It’s a remarkable book for a 16-year old author, but that is its only claim to fame. The other famous example of a good-but-hardly-prolific author is Harper Lee. Like Toole, she won a Pulitzer, and like Toole, she is known for just one book: the brilliant To Kill a Mockingbird. Her only other book, Go Set a Watchman is basically a first draft of Mockingbird. As such, it is interesting to read, but only as an historical oddity. It’s not very good.

As a songwriter, I have not written anything of note (See what I did there? Songwriter – “note?” Clever, huh?) in years, but during my prolific period, I was…well…prolific. I wrote a TON of songs, and most of them have one thing in common: They are very, very bad. There are a few that I’m proud of, and a few that I enjoy on a personal level for various reasons, but you won’t be hearing any of them on the radio any time soon. (Actually, does anyone hear anything other than angry right-wing chatter on the radio these days?)

As a blogger, I have been very un-prolific lately. I’ve been in a rather weird head-space, but then that describes nearly everyone in this time of COVID-Climate-Protest-Political crises, so I can’t very well use that as an excuse. I can, however, use it as the topic of a blog post on Prolific versus Non-Prolific.

This has been that post.

Critiquing Myself

It’s very easy to criticize, to point the finger, to be the armchair quarterback. When I read an essay or article, there’s a little part of my brain that always wants to be an editor, finding fault with the author’s phrasing or choice of words, spotting typos, and suggesting improvements. Today I thought I’d do a bit of that with my own writing. One of my recent blog posts had a simple message: Don’t blindly follow whatever religion you are hand by your parents, society, or anybody else. I fleshed that out with 300+ words, and in the end, I wasn’t very happy with it. So let’s put on our editor hats!

These people say God, the Bible, and their Faith are the most important things in the world for them—that their religion is, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich (although most of them wouldn’t know Paul Tillich from Kim Kardashian), the “ground of their being.”

The first problem is that in an essay in which clarity of meaning is a theme, I don’t do a good job of distinguishing what I mean by “faith” and “religion.” Then I somewhat inappropriately drag Paul Tillich into it. To compound my error, I make a crack about Kim Kardashian that sounds clever but makes no sense.

Did you choose your religion, or was it chosen for you? … What do you really know about your own religion? About other religions? Why is it important to you? How is it informing your actions?

Too many rhetorical questions!

I don’t mean we should ignore everyone and stick entirely to our own counsel; we have a president now who tends to do exactly that, and it’s not pretty.

I probably should have left politics out of the discussion. That’s just opening a can of worms that needn’t  be opened in this context.

We owe it to ourselves and to posterity to be broadly informed. BROADLY informed.

The repetition might work in a speech, but it flops in print.

Choose wisely, because how we decide matters.

At the conclusion of my post, I wanted to add, “Make sure the ground of your being isn’t shifting sand.” I thought that line tied in neatly with the Tillich quote at the top. Wisely, I opted against doing so; it was a cute line, but only confused what I was trying to say. As Stephen King says in his excellent book, On Writing, “You must kill your babies.” If a sentence doesn’t fit, throw it out, even if it’s your favorite.

 

 

The Pressure’s On…Or Off

One of the hardest things for me when it comes to writing is just getting myself to sit down and do it. No. Wrong. It’s not “one of the hardest things”; it is far and away the hardest thing. But here’s the funny part (funny strange or funny ha-ha?): I love sitting down to write in my journal. In that situation there is no pressure; it’s just me writing for myself and my own enjoyment. As soon as I put an audience into the equation, it becomes a chore. I feel the pressure of performing.

There is an additional demotivating aspect to writing these blog posts. Ironically, it is the fear that no one will read them. Wait…WHAT?? I just said I enjoy writing in my journal because that writing is for me and no one else, but it’s demotivating to write blog posts because I fear no one will read them? Yes.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Journals are supposed to be private. (As an aside: What’s the difference between a journal and a diary?) If no one reads my journal, then all is as expected. But a blog is for public consumption. If no one reads my blog posts, it feels like I have failed. The journal has met expectations; the blog has not.

YouTube boasts that over 400 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute. There are over 600 million blogs on the web. According to Forbes, “There are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day at our current pace, but that pace is only accelerating…” (Bernard Marr, May 21, 2018). It’s unreasonable for me to expect anyone to find and read my little blog posts, and yet a few people do. And some people are able to make a good living by vlogging and/or blogging.

So maybe that’s the problem—the ol’ comparing myself to other people mistake (and it’s almost always a mistake). I would love to reach a wider audience with my blog, but that won’t happen unless I write and post consistently, constantly improving my writing and posting skills. It’s okay to have a desire to be heard, and it’s okay to be aware of what others online are saying. It might also be healthy to bring some of the joy of journalling to the table, though.

Vlogging and Blogging

I’ve been doing VEDA (Video Every Day in April) this year. I was going to do it last year, but didn’t get around to it. I almost didn’t do it again this year, and in fact got a late start, so I changed my personal challenge from VEDA to 30VI30D: “30 Videos In 30 Days.” I know very little about VEDA’s origins (and frankly, I haven’t spent too much time researching it) other than a wee bit of info here. A Reddit from 5 years ago implies that even back then, VEDA might already have been passé. C’est la vie. I’m doing it anyway.

I’m mainly using it as a chance to practice recording myself talking into a camera, the camera in my case being an Android. Pretty low-tech, I admit, but it’s still an interesting learning experience. One thing I’m learning is that I say “um” and “uh” and “yeah” too much. I think my speech habits have declined in recent years and I’m not happy about it. I can do better. Seeing myself in in the short video clips I’ve been making is a humbling experience. In my head, I look fabulous and speak smoothly and mellifluously. Every word is a pearl of wisdom. In reality, I look old and overweight, I puff when I record myself while walking, I tend to babble (although not as incoherently as our so-called president); and then there are all those “ums” and “uhs” and “yeahs.”

Similarly, these blog posts are largely a chance for me to practice churning out small pieces of writing on a semi-regular basis. Reading back over them is another humbling experience, but every writer gives the same advice to would-be writers: “Write!” so I’m writing. I’m also practicing my typing, which is another skill where I feel I fall short. I prefer to write with a pencil and paper, but then there’s the problem of transferring what’s on paper to the computer. I suppose I could simply scan my notebook pages, but my handwriting, while perfectly legible to me, might be difficult for other people to decipher.

So there you have it—a brief note on why I vlog and blog. If anyone wants some helpful hints from a highly successful vlogger, check out these videos from Hank Green:

On Typing

“You either live life—bruises, skinned knees and all—or you turn your back on it and start dying.” – Captain Christopher Pike

This line, from the pilot episode of Star Trek, pops up again in Stephen King’s short story Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The line has some resonance for me, especially as I get older. It is tempting to tell myself I’m too old to learn new skills, but that’s not true. One skill I plan on honing: typing. A recent text chat with a longtime friend brought up the topic of typing, and since we were using text as a way of communicating, the message that came through loud and clear was that I suck at typing.

I never took typing in high school because there was never time for it in my schedule. Half of my school day was taken up with music classes (concert choir, jazz band, wind ensemble, etc.); I had to take both summer school and night school just to squeeze in my required history courses. Typing seemed like a class for students with no higher aspirations than secretarial work. How wrong I was!

These days, we spend a lot of time typing on computers and smartphones, and I wish I were better at it. The need for solid typing skills has never been made more apparent than in these past few weeks, when most communication cannot be done face-to-face, and we must rely on the written word more than ever.

Some time ago, I gave some advice on how to succeed in college. I would like to add to that list: Learn to type! It is a skill that will serve you well! I am taking this advice myself. There are plenty of online sites that will teach you to type, many of them free. I am currently using typing.com. I’m sure your local library also has books and tools to help you learn to type, so once they are open again you can take advantage of that resource.

Yes, even an old dog like me can learn new tricks!

“Get busy living or get busy dying.” – Andy Dufresne and “Red” Redding

Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut books

Since I’ve been talking about science fiction, perhaps this would be a good time to mention one of my favorite authors: Kurt Vonnegut. One of the things that most appeals to me about his writing is the meta-ness of it. His novels sometimes contain generous helpings of autobiography, as in Slaughterhouse Five, and many of them are aware that they are novels, as with Breakfast of Champions. Then there is Kilgore Trout, the failed science fiction writer who pops up in many of Vonnegut’s books. We are given many samples of Trout’s writing, and Trout himself frequently appears within the story. His reality is multi-leveled; sometimes he is the author, and sometimes he is the innocent creation.

Time travel is also a frequent Vonnegut theme, and provides the central conceit for his last novel, Timequake. It’s no wonder time travel appeals to science fiction writers; it offers possibilities and paradoxes by the score! (Incidentally, that’s the second time in this blog post that I’ve use a semi-colon, which Vonnegut would have strongly opposed.) And here I can use time travel to tie Kurt Vonnegut to another writer whose work I admire: Harlan Ellison. Trekkies regard Ellison’s time travel episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” one of the best in all the Star Trek canon.

 

Book Glutton

bookshelf 7-23-2019

I am a glutton. Not with food—well, not usually—but with books. I look at the books on my shelves, many of which I still have not read, and I want to dive into all of them at once. When I pick up a hefty book like Kristen Lavransdatter, War and Peace, or Bleak House, I want to devour it in huge chunks. I want to fill myself to the brim with all the delicious words I just know are waiting for me between the covers. I recently made the plunge into George R. R. Martin’s massive Song of Ice and Fire (five volumes and counting). Proust’s complete In Search of Lost Time (4,211 pages according to Amazon), has been sitting by my bedside, waiting patiently for at least two years now. There are literally hundreds of classic books I have not read in the world, not to mention those old favorites that I want to re-read. Every year a new batch of great books is published, both fiction and non-fiction. I don’t want to read some of them; I want to read all of them! Right now I have four books going at once, which even by my standards is a bit much. Happily, they are all dissimilar enough that I am unlikely to confuse them.

In an effort to consume as many books as possible, I am tempted to read too quickly. Though I have never been and never intend to be a speed reader, I often gobble down more than I can comfortably digest. Just as I can be overwhelmed at a large buffet (remember, I said I’m not usually a glutton with food), the sheer quantity of great books tempts me to overfill my plate. I have to remind myself that I am not in a contest of quantity. I must remind myself to slow down. As author John Green says, “Being a slow reader can in some ways make you a better reader.” His brother Hank follows this advice up with, “An important part of reading is not reading.” Put the book down and contemplate what has just been read. Spend some time thinking, musing, and engaging the text through questions, thought experiments, and creative writing.

“Instead of rushing by works so fast that we don’t even muss up our hair, we should tarry, attend to the sensuousness of reading, allow ourselves to enter the experience of words.” – Lindsay Waters

So tonight after supper, when I pick up a book (I’m not sure which one it will be yet), I will endeavor to savor the experience. Instead of counting pages, I will swim in them. If I drown, I can’t think of a better way to go.

Morning Pages and Evening Pages and In-Between Pages

journals

Many people are familiar with the practice of writing Morning Pages thanks to Julia Cameron’s wildly popular and influential book The Artist’s Way. I first heard of them via a YouTube video from Lavendaire. The truth is, I had already been doing something similar for many years before I heard the term “Morning Pages.” I always just thought I was writing in my journal. Now there are subtle differences between journaling and Morning Pages which I won’t get into here, but suffice to say I am seldom without a notebook of some sort and a pen or pencil. (I actually prefer the latter; I’m a bit of a Charlie Brown with a pen. Peanuts readers will understand what I mean.)

The first journal entry I remember making was sometime when I was in junior high. (Middle school hadn’t been invented yet, at least not in Des Moines.) I had a dream about Agnetha Fältskog, the beautiful blonde singer in Abba, upon whom I had a boyhood crush. But this dream wasn’t about me having a torrid pre-pubescent affair with Agnetha. In this dream I actually BECAME Agnetha. (Details not forthcoming.) Upon awakening, it seemed odd enough to warrant writing down. That was the start of my “dream journal,” and for a long while recounting the previous night’s dreams made up the bulk of my journal entries.

After I started writing songs in earnest, lyrics began to take up more and more pages. The real flowering of my journal writing happened after I moved to Boston when I was 19. Favorite writing spots included the Reflection Pool at Christian Science Plaza late at night, the Charles River Esplanade while tanning in the afternoon, and Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park, watching planes take-off and land at Logan Airport just across the Channel. Ideas from journals of that time found their way into letters to friends, elaborate plans for musicals and other large-scale projects that never happened, and above all: songs. Lots and lots of songs. Those journals are long gone now, and I very much wish I had them back.

So. Morning Pages. It was 3 or 4 years ago when I first watched Lavendaire’s video about them. Formalizing the journal writing routine has its plusses and minuses, but on balance I’d say the plusses win out. Making a deliberate habit of Morning Pages forces me to write even when I don’t feel like it. That’s important these days, when my creative spark doesn’t light as easily as it once did. Even though I write these blog posts (mostly) on computer, my Morning Pages (and I now call them that no matter what time of day it is when I write them) are always written by hand in notebooks with weird titles. And for the record, my favorite pencils are Blackwing Pearls by Palomino.

Calling: Writing

Flower

I try to avoid “realty” TV like the plague. Whenever I mistakenly see a bit of it, I am reminded what a good decision it was to ditch my television set over ten years ago. Occasionally, however, in a waiting room (Why does every waiting room in America these days have a fleet of televisions, all turned up VERY LOUD?), or at my parents’ house, I have had realty TV foisted upon me. One show that has made an impression (not a good one, just an impression) is “Hoarders.” I have also seen segments about hoarders on other programs or online. My parents are collectors and savers, but I would not call them hoarders.

Real hoarders have a real problem. They save and collect compulsively, obscenely. One category of items that seems to be a particular favorite (this is that part that made an impression of me, since this is something I also allow to take over a great deal of space in my apartment) is BOOKS. The stranger part is that the type of book very often hoarded is “self-help books.” Clearly they aren’t helping.

All of which is to say I have a healthy skepticism of self-help books, in spite of having read a lot of them myself. A LOT of them. They always feel inspiring while reading them, but the effect quickly wears off. These books create a false impression of accomplishment, but leave me right back where I started. By far the best self-help book I’ve ever read was a handmade pamphlet by artist Paul Fata. It didn’t belong to me, so eventually I had to return it to its rightful owner, another artist, David Zermeno. The pamphlet was called 101 Rules For The Starving Artist . Good luck finding a copy.

This brings me to another self-help book that I recommend: Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. In this short but actually helpful book, Pressfied comes back again and again to the same theme: Whatever calling you are most resisting is probably the calling you should be following. For me personally, I can immediately think of two such callings. The one I’m going to discuss today is: writing. Once I get into the groove of writing regularly, it feels nice and natural, but I very easily fall out of that groove and once out, it’s very hard to get back in.

So it comes as a surprise that I have lately been having more ideas that I know what to do with. This is a nice problem, but it does lead to too many irons in the fire and not enough finished products coming out. I get started on one thing, then another thought occurs to me (usually  when walking or trying to sleep) and I plunge into that one. The result is a whole slew of works in progress. I’m writing the present blog post as a sort of placeholder—something to dash off by way of explanation as to why my recent posts have been more erratic and eclectic than ever.

I’m no longer resisting; I’m giving in fully. I’m letting my muse run amok for a while. Stick with me; it could be fun!