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.

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!

 

Grunt and Snort

Truman Capote said that everyone wants to have written, but no one wants to write. Sometimes I feel like that. Like now. I have a notepad right next to me on which I’ve written a whole list of ideas of things to write about. At the moment, not one of them appeals to me. So should I put off writing until I feel more inspired?

I have a few options at this point:

  • I could plow ahead with my writing. (Apparently this is the option I’ve chosen, since I’m still writing.)
  • I could turn my attention elsewhere.
  • I could try to force inspiration on myself.

That last one is not as crazy as it sounds. Of course it’s awesome when a compelling idea hits me out of nowhere like a blinding flash of creative lightning, but that happens pretty rarely. More often, it comes down to what my 11th grade English teacher called “a grunt and snort exercise.” You simply have to sit down and grind away at it. Between giving up and grinding is the option to give inspiration a little nudge–doing something to kickstart the creative juices. That could mean watching an inspiring TED talk, listening to an appropriate podcast, or doing some reading. (I have to be careful with that last one. It is vital for a wannabe writer to read, but I can easily get so involved with my reading that my own writing never happens.)

What works best for me is walking. Sometimes it helps to deliberately think about my writing while I walk, or to consciously seek out inspiration, but more often than not, simply walking with no particular aim either mentally or geographically is most effective. Other times planting myself in a busy public space and people-watching does the trick. One thought that is counter-productive is, “I must be productive!” Some of the times when I’ve accomplished the most are times when to an observer I would appear to be doing nothing at all. (I can overthink this too if I’m not careful. The awareness that I’m doing nothing only in order to be productive is not helpful!)

Voila! In this case, the grunt and snort method worked. I’ve earned a nice relaxing walk.