Being a writer might not exactly be a conformist thing to do, but each writer has his own comfort zone. First of all, you go at it alone. All those thoughts, words and sentences you transport to paper or your word processor, your room (or corner) for thought, your morning runs, favourite cafe, family, the surroundings that give you that ‘space’ to work and operate. A comfort zone.
And yes, that comfort zone can create the necessary stillness you need, but at times it does create a still water — it has its limits and boundaries and it can create a stillness of thought, imagination or no imagination. Sure travel will often do the trick, but what about the so-called big events, with a lot of people around you, a crowd, a mass, an event that requires you time to get there and obeying not only pre-set rules of the event but also the unwritten rules of being in a crowd?
You certainly need those with all the benefits of an exciting and intriguing live event like The North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, The Netherlands I try to attend every summer, but also with all its drawbacks of getting there and being in a crowd. It gives you a chance not only to clear your mind of all the “still water” of your comfort zone but is a source of boundless ideas.
Whether it is the excitement of listening to some exquisite music live, like the combination of saxophonist Charles Lloyd with guitarist Bill Frisell, or all those drawbacks, like infinite lines in front of the restrooms or food/drink stalls to your feet getting stuck in tons of spilt beer. But most of all it is having an interaction with people. The musicians, staff, the crowd. Separating them and observing them as individuals they are and the possible (and impossible) stories they might hold in them.
Yes, it does take an effort, it certainly disrupts your daily routines — what about the thousands of those emails you have to sift through when you get back — but it not only represents the necessary change of scenery, it gives you strands of writing inspiration that you might not have picked up in any other way.
“It’s only words, and words are all I have…” So starts the chorus of the well-worn Bee Gees song. Personally, I’mm not exactly a big fan of the Gibb Brothers music, but this one certainly has its ring when, well, words come to mind. And, yes, that is one thing writers do and should have. Maybe not the only, but certainly the paramount one. In most instances, we use them to express what we are inspired by, but how often do we use them as a source of inspiration?
Starting out at one point as a translator in a quite large translation service, I at one point noticed a colleague who was avidly reading a dictionary, any dictionary, even in her pastime, as if it was a novel that she couldn’t let go until it was finished. At first instance, it seemed like a strange habit, then as an obsession with the work you love. “It’s exciting!” she would say, “not only to get to the source of a word, track the way its meaning changes, but try to project which way its meaning would go.”
These days, trying to use those words and their meaning as a way of expressing yourself, I get the full sense of what my former translating colleague had in mind. And a bit more. Not only does every word in any of those dictionaries have its story that has a fully developed plot line that begs to be written, but each and every one of them can serve as a source of almost limitless inspiration.
You can go back in time or explore an unknown science-fiction territory with each and every one of them — they have their beginnings, their history, they will develop in some direction or other, at some point they will just be forgotten, unused. Still, they will be hidden on one of the thousand pages (online, or those that you really have to turn) ready to be used again. Or researched, developed into a story of their own.
Sometimes it is not only words that you have, but words could be the only thing you need.
It could be the style, it could be the subject matter, it could be something that couldn’t be really identified, or it could be all of these things and more in somebody else’s writing that inspires a writer. One that is at his beginnings or another that has already established himself. This inspiration could take you to new writing paths, you can make it a tribute to the inspiring writer or his writings, or it could be plain and simple copying. Or even these days ever ‘popular’ copy/paste.
The line between those could be particularly thin. With visual arts, unless you are copying everything, it is usually considered as an inspiration or a tribute. In music, particularly its modern forms, that line is not considered so problematic — what with all the different song interpretations tribute albums, artists re-doing complete albums of others, or all the samples being used. Actually, it is considered as an art form in itself.
With writing, it is a completely different artistic beast. Being inspired by somebody else’s writing can be heavily scrutinised, what with all the plagiarism checkers who control the word sequences. You can come up with one on your own and it turns out that somebody has already done it before or you can be transformed into a ‘spinner’ since you came up with exactly the same idea but you came up with a slight (or not so slight) wording?
With all those grey areas of being inspired, paying tribute or quoting, there’s always that honest, simple thing of giving credit where its due. You can simply just let your readers guess what the inspiration was, whom you’re paying tribute to, or where the quote is coming from.
Actually, it has less to do with copyrights and acknowledgements and more with your personal clear conscience. In visual arts you may guess, musicians say which song they’re interpreting and who wrote it. The fact that it is more complicated with writing makes crediting a must.
How many times have you heard the phrase, and go as far back as yesterday, “my life is an open book”? So people insist that everything is known about them, that they’re easy to understand, whatever. And how many songs are there with that worn out phrase? Usually it involves a heart, but either way…
It could be true as far as the heart goes, but when life is concerned, it is usually crap. And as far as the songs go, former Dream Syndicate singer and guitarist Steve Wynn got it best, when he went for “If My Life Was An Open Book”. With an accent on the word if.
Nobody tells everybody else all the minute details, let alone secrets of their life, and as far as the writers go, they should tell all, shouldn’t they? Well, there goes that ‘if’ again. Even if you are writing an autobiography, you have to ask yourself a question — should even al the hard facts be included? Of course, that is even physically impossible, you have to ‘round off’ things, and then, are you presenting an accountants or writers outlook?
Writers present their view, their interpretation of things, including their own life. After all, why would be the Chines I Ching, Book of Changes, be the oldest Chinese classic? The facts may not change, but their interpretation will, after all, some of those chapters are yet to evolve and can certainly change the context of the whole story. And as Wynn says,
“And you could try to change the end
But I’d just change it back again”.
And that is what writers do and should do. Their books are made to be opened, so the chapters are re-written, added or dropped. It is their interpretation, their view and it should be taken as such, liked or disliked.
“Lonely days are gone, I’m a goin’ home
My baby jus’ wrote me a letter”
So goes the refrain of that big Sixties hit “The Letter”, Alex Chilton sang for his then band The Box Tops in a raspy voice he had in the studio after a night of wild partying. Of course, the letter he was singing about was that ‘old fashioned” artefact, a handwritten letter…
But then, The Sixties are long gone, and so seem to be the days when we all used to think in detail, sit down and express our thought and emotions in writing with our own hand a letter to practically everybody — from secret love to the water company. Email has taken over.
Sure, it is more convenient, quicker, the mistakes you made, or thoughts and sentences you wanted to change, are simply erased, not be seen even by you. But, is that the ‘true’ letter? Does it really reflect the full spectrum of your emotions, ideas and what you really wanted to convey? Also, should all those misspellings, changed sentences be really erased, and what do they really show?
Through the centuries, handwritten letters developed into an art form in itself. They always had that human touch involved, the capability to present the full spectrum of your thoughts and emotions, including all your frailties expressed in all those mistakes, or change of mind expressed in all those corrected, rephrased or erased sentences. Compared to it, email is exactly what it is — an electronic tool that not only serves to instantly send a message but also as some sort of a shield that is supposed to represent you as somebody you are supposed to be, maybe not always as who you truly are.
Chilton’s ‘letter’ concentrates on one person, it is an artefact, a physical proof of all those emotions that the person who wrote it had to focus on, actually strengthening personal focus on what is written, what is to be conveyed. Isn’t that what writers should really do with their words and what they really want to express?
Maybe each writer should write a handwritten letter once in a while, even if it is just a complaint to the water company for all that mud that is coming out of your faucet. It could certainly have a stronger impact…
So the editor somewhere out there thought your text was up to scratch, or you scribbled down something that sounded great at the moment and just left it there, even forgot about it. For some reason or other, beyond being pissed at the editor, you are revisiting those texts. And yes, you truly messed up. Maybe a bit, maybe it is all ashes. It is not just the pile of spelling errors or grammar mistakes. It is not even the never-ending sentences or paragraphs. It is that most of the stuff either makes no sense or it is just a pile of vapid words and phrases that make those vaping electronic smoking paraphernalia taste like full-flavoured cigars.
It all may be down to the fact that you were rushing to meet a deadline, juggling at least three texts at a time, or maybe you just abandoned the whole thing, letting it lie somewhere.
No wonder reggae songs like the Gregory Isaacs masterpiece “Cool Down The Pace” seem so simple, relaxed and not rushed. When you try to look into their substance you see all their complexities and intricacies that made them sound like that and you realise how hard it is to actually get them right. Yes, cool down the pace!
No big difference if the text was just forgotten, even abandoned. If you did so, somewhere in the back of your mind you knew perfectly well that it is half-baked and not ready to be dealt with seriously. Whether you did it intentionally or not, it needed time to rest, just like that roast you only took out of the oven, needing some time to be properly served.
There always needs a cooling period, both for you and the text, deadline or not. Sometimes you’ll need to give it one more look, sometimes 23. Even you let some other pairs of eyes take a look at your precious text, even if it just seems like a routine email. Forget the deadline, cool down the pace!
Every writer is tempted to try writing in a stream of consciousness. At least once. Sometimes it seems like a good idea, particularly if you are stumped and have absolutely no clue what to write at that moment. But then, how many writers are Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, or Marcel Proust? Or, Bob Dylan singing about his dream on “ The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan?
Recording your thoughts is one thing, what comes out of it is yet another. The problem here does not lie in the manner you thoughts will read like, whether they will make sense to anybody, including yourself, or whether your sentences will be grammatically correct. It is, in what the early cybernetics researchers used to call ‘the black box effect’ — you might know what is coming in, but you cannot be certain what is going to come out.
The stream of consciousness is complicated in its simplicity — it is revealing. It leaves no places to hide your thoughts and feelings, it is, first of all, revealing about the writer himself. It is often a process where a writer turns himself into his own therapist. Thoughts come out as if they have their own free will, with no respect or excuses. No hiding.
For some, that could be quite a frightening process. You may fashion and modify, those thoughts when they have been written down, but then, is that the true stream of your thoughts? Sure, you can fashion and modify the text, it can seem and read like the stream of consciousness, but is that really it or is it something you think it should be?
Not everybody is willing or courageous enough to practically bare it all, you leave yourself completely open to a judgment of anybody and everybody who is reading your thoughts. But then the key question you need to answer is whether you really want to judge yourself. Writing down whatever comes to your mind is simple, what comes out can be very complicated.
It started out like this: “Spam — “A tinned meat product made mainly from ham,” as Oxford Living Dictionary puts it. I guess, the accent there should be on “mainly”. Spam it seems was coined out of spiced ham where that ‘spiced’ part turned out to be neither spicy or particularly healthy. I guess that is where all the complaints came from, as far as the original spam is concerned.
But then, that ham part seems to have been lost completely, while that ‘spicy’ or ‘not so main’ part took over, and it all turned into “Irrelevant or unsolicited messages sent over the Internet, typically to a large number of users, for the purposes of advertising, phishing, spreading malware, etc.”
These days, it turned into an irritating habit of mass bombardment, of your email or almost any online page you try to open, basically taking over your information (and inspiration) sources. Oh, with another irritating habit of your email services, in an attempt to alleviate the pressure deciding themselves what needs to end up in your spam or trash boxes, with quite a few messages you do want to read or need ending up there.
In the end, you find yourself looking at the spam anyway. Useless exercise, besides retrieving something you want or need? Not really, particularly if as a writer, you are scraping the barrel for ideas, for whatever reason you are in a situation that they are running dry.
So why not use this current, modern spam as inspiration? At least three music bands use it as their name, there are as many album that hold that title, and the range of songs go from Weird Al Yankovic spoof to classical compositions like “Menagerie: №7, Spam Guitar by Rolland Miller.
Sure, it takes an effort, maybe even a stretch of imagination, but you can pick up almost any spam message and turn it into a source that will get your writing on the roll. Sometimes, those that seem almost unbearable to look at can be even more inspiring — at least if you turn the anger they created into something productive. By chance, the one I’m looking at right now from somebody that claims they are representing “a luxury hotel company” is asking me to be inspired by their ad.
And why not? New love at a sandy beach, a mystery evolving by a crackling fireplace in a ski resort, anything that involves a ‘luxurious’ or not so luxurious hotel. Somewhere. Make that ‘spice’ useful. With or without ham. If the inspiration is still lacking, you can always resort to Weird Al Yankovic or that “Spam Guitar” modern classical piece and find the ham in spam.
I have a pile of documents, notes, thoughts my late father left behind him. Some of them are clear and precise, some are disjointed, puzzling, even mystifying. Still, they present an opportunity to create some meaningful writing about a life that possessed something that is worth writing down, from a man that was very eloquent when he talked but was never able to turn his life stories into something that was truly readable.
The first thing that comes to my mind confronted with exploring documents, notes, whether they are official records of some sort or personal, belonging to somebody you know or family is probably — old. But, that is probably just the surface behind them. After all, they don’t really have to be that old, they could be something that pertains to something that happened just a few moments ago, or a thought written down that has no time definition.
How do you approach these, records, memories, thoughts when you want to transform them into thoughtful, cohesive writing. Do you just stick to the “Old”, like in that not so well known Paul Simon song, or are you in the realm of “Into The Mystic” that more known one by Van Morrison?
Like with all things that passed, memories, you enter the territory of interpretation and viewpoint, and it certainly depends on the question of the writer’s approach. How do you tackle facts and views, even your own when you want to delve into writing about them?
The dilemma lies somewhere between ’sticking to the facts’, relying on some sort of data that is presented in those ‘documents’ and interpreting them from your personal standpoint, or even using them just as a springboard that will take you ‘into the mystic’, a set of events and explanations that are really existing only in your imagination.
Most of the time though, unless your writing is just the strict ‘setting the record straight’, there is no dilemma. It is all of those, and even ‘setting the record straight’ is not that straight, unless you are talking statistics. The question that constantly comes to my mind is — what are all those documents, notes, memories thoughts telling me about those who recorded them, my father, and what are they telling me about myself. Maybe then that ‘mystic’ I’ll be entering as a writer might be less mystifying.
"If your memory serves you well..." The quote comes from one of the most iconic opening lines in modern music, Bob Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire”. Musicians kept and keep recalling it. Canadian singer Serena Ryder titled (a very good) album with that line, and the experimental jazzers Material, led by Bill Laswell at the time just shortened it to “Memory Serves”, giving it more space for thought. Either way you look at it, memory can serve you well, or it can’t, the question for the writers is — does it have to?
It depends. Even if you are writing memoirs. But what about the facts, some might say. The facts? The accurate facts are for historians, academics and reporters of events, journalists, and yes, they are writers too (let us leave politicians and business PR people out of it this time around), but even their accounts of facts and events can be modified and they too have their slant on these. Whether they should or shouldn’t. Maybe the mind serves the writers well, the question is, so what?
We can use our notebooks, note-taking software, audio and video recording material, and even then, after an event or a moment in our lives has passed by, we modify them in our mind, we give some persons or elements in those a certain designation, move them forward or backward. Our mind often plays tricks on us. Or maybe we play tricks on our mind.
Writers, particularly of fiction, and it doesn’t matter whether it involves some form of science or not, always present a personal interpretation of events, true or false. And yes, we can debate what is true or false and come up with an infinite number of answers, but key fact remains that writers’ recollections and memories are their own, even when they are recounting real-life events.
So yes, as a writer you can and should ask yourself whether your memory serves you well, but there is a more pertinent question you always have to have in mind — does your point of view serve you well?
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