Lists, listicles, whatever you want to call them, seem to be all the rage these days. Whether it is the short attention span or time devoted to the reading of today’s readers or Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy that media is becoming the message, with online discourse dictating how and what we read, makes no difference. The fact remains that lists and listicles dominate, and writers have to cope with that as something that will also dictate their writing.
So, if you want to put it in musical terms, whether you prefer rock and you would favour The Killers and their “My Lists” or country, and Toby Keith’s song of the same name, as a writer you would still have to deal with a fact that listicles will be something you’d be requested to write more often than not.
Now, you might be of the opinion that it turns your writing into consumer-ready shopping lists, that it puts constraints on your imagination and style and curtails any free-form writing. But then, who says that you have to limit yourself to writing lists. It is just a fact that they can support your ‘other’ writing, that it in most cases cannot do.
Still, there remains a question whether there is something else to be gained in writing lists besides the financial backing all writers need. As could be expected, there certainly is, besides the fact that any writing is better than no writing at all.
You can approach writing listicles as if you are writing pieces of ‘flash non-fiction’ grouped together. That would mean that you have to be quite succinct, both in your thinking and writing process, concentrating your thought process to come up with as much essence in as least number of words and sentences as possible.
In many ways, that purifies both your thinking processes and your writing of anything you might do without. Applied to your ‘ordinary’ writing it will most probably make it clearer and easier to read and understand. And that is not only for your readers' sake — it will clearly show you whether your ideas have been translated into writing the way they should be.
When you think of ‘old ways’, the first thing that comes to mind is conservatives in some form or other, going back to something familiar, ‘tried and tested. sticking to what you know. Somehow, it seems that everybody takes that approach at some point or other, no matter of their way of thinking or age.
Even a usually forward-thinking, and now at a forward age singer/songwriter Neil Young made a song and an album called “Old Ways”.
But what would happen if approach old ways in a more literal manner, as a process of retracing your steps with an outlook on how it can bring benefits for the future?
Of course, for writers that process corresponds primarily with the editing of what they have written, looking hard at all those grammar and spelling mistakes, hard to read sentences and inconsistencies in presenting their thoughts and ideas.
But retracing your writing steps should certainly go beyond that. It is not just looking at what was done wrong, or what could be made easier to read and understand, but what can be done in another way, taking in all the circumstances. And those circumstances include how the writer has evolved personally, how his outlook and ideas and changed all in the respect of how his writing can be better and how he as a person has changed, even if the text is only a day old. That process also includes a look at the ideas, books, art or anything else that has inspired us, what is their place in our mindset now.
In that respect, looking at ‘old ways’, retracing our steps can serve as a source of new, fresh, or refreshed ideas and inspire us to take our writing in new directions, whether they refer to something old, conservative or something completely new.
Usually, one of the things that overflow everybody’s electronic mailbox (quite often the standard one too) is piles of polls, questionaries and other requests for your opinion — from politics and climate change to which garbage bags you use. You even get offers to be paid for one or all of these, for seemingly pitiful sums of money.
For most writers, as for anybody else, these are the nuisance they can’t seem to get rid of, more unnerving than a message of rejected manuscript/story/article. Who wants to waste time and effort on telling somebody about which shampoo you use most often when you get better things to do.
But what if you don’t have better things to do? What if you are still waiting for that publisher’s response or all ideas have gone down the drain or are not coming up at all, or when pitiful money is better than no money at all? Turn to polls and questionaries!
No, I’m not kidding. I did not have the time, I did have better things to do, but people that create the polls and questionaries are writers too since they are usually quite good at what they do, they manage to reach and intrigue anybody at any level of intelligence and education. So I decided to try my hand at answering as many of these in 30 days. On top of everything else, from writing to throwing away the garbage (with no polls in it).
Let's get the question of the money out of the way first. No, you can’t get rich out of it, but any money is exactly what it is — money. The second thing to always have in mind is that the people that composed those polls and research questions are marketers, with a specific goal of extracting the targeted information out of the polled audience.
Sometimes they are very open in the direction their questions are going, more often they circumvent and they lead you towards the information they really want from you. In a way, sometimes it is an open market, other times it is like that great fusion jazz band Weather Reports would say “Black Market”.
To do that they use practically the same techniques any writer would use in building their plot, story, even a set of characters. Usually, they try to keep you in ‘suspense’ who their lead character (the company which wants the information from you in the first place) is. To be able to get straight answers from you, to get the reaction they are aiming for from you as a ‘reader’, they really have to be good at it, and quite a few of them are.
As a writer, you can approach the whole process with this question — isn’t information, your thoughts, and opinions, the thing that you want to offer your readers after all? And secondly, isn’t researching other methods of building your plot and characters something that you need?
Not really the conventional writer’s way, but certainly useful. Oh, and after a month, I was able to cover a full supermarket shopping list.
Finding similarities between writer’s research and writer’s exploration wouldn’t be that hard, both can fit into each other like a glove (unless it is the O.J. Simpson trial glove). The key connection there is finding facts, information, and ideas to a theme you have already pre-set. No problem, unless it comes down and doing it. It is often time consuming, can be tedious and boring when you find everything else except what you nee, but is immensely rewarding when you reach upon the exact material that you need.
Still, are there any differences? No matter how every writer is conscious of the importance research has for what they do, exploring is in my mind a broader concept that is contained in the term itself — you can go in search of something when you know exactly or close enough what you are looking for, or you can just throw yourself into unknown — unknown set of information, facts ideas…
Sure, exploration can often be as time-consuming or tedious as ‘focused’ research but it is the unknown that can surprise you, bring about a new writing idea or make you stumble upon a fact that you weren’t able to find when you were looking for it. But writer’s, or any artist exploration can be even more rewarding, put you in a place exactly where you need to be and give you exactly the angle for your writing that you might have not been aware you need.
I’ve no idea how the leader of South Carolina band The Explorers Club came to the idea how to call his band, but he and his band members started out by exploring the sound of California’s The Beach Boys. That gave them a chance to make a brilliant summer harmony album “Freedom Wind” (2008). But that didn’t stop them to further expand their exploration of ‘California sound’ their follow-up “Grand Hotel” (2012) looking and sounding like a meeting with Herb Albert & Tijuana Brass and their “Whipped Cream & Other Delights” (1965). Maybe soon their club will explore something else.
As a writer, there should always be a time and place for exploration. Even when you are doing focused research, you may stumble on something new and unexpected, something that can be that writing spark. Don’t abandon it or overlook it, the results will probably be better than you’ve expected.
Merriam-Webster, our dictionary fave says that “meditation is a practice where an individual uses a technique, such as focusing their mind on a particular object, thought or activity, to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state”. If you go into more detail, you can find almost infinite concepts of meditation, depending on culture, religion, even social circumstances…
Concentrating on your work, and that definitely includes writing can be a double-edged sword. The idea is to clear your mind, and besides all the health benefits meditation brings, to tie all the loose strands that will make a certain piece of your writing exactly what you want it to be. Exactly as it should be. But concentrating too much on it can become confusing and can lead you into a thinking stalemate.
Meditating, concentrating on a certain piece from another art form, might lead a writer to see his work through the eyes of another artist, another thinking person and help him find his way through the maze of his personal thoughts.
Music seems to be one of the favourite art forms that are advised and used for meditation. There’s even a separate branch labeled meditation music, usually instrumental, of a calm nature that is intended to clear your mind and focus your thoughts. Sure, if it works for you. It doesn’t have to. As writing is such a personal, individual process, so is the music that can clear your thoughts and inspire a writer to tie all those loose threads or steer him in a right direction.
Learning recently of the death of Marty Balin, one of the founders of Jefferson Airplane, a great songwriter, singer, musician, led me to listen again to “Coming Back To Me,” one of his masterpieces from the Surrealistic Pillow album. The moment the quiet passion of Balin’s voice came in, contours of an adulthood story set in, within an hour and repeated listening to the song, the story was there.
Now, I’m not sure if the whole process of ‘pure’ meditation was involved, but the trigger, focusing on a piece of ‘another art’ was there, and so was the writing.
Ok, most writers love their home atmosphere, the consistency of their writing space and their daily routine. Somehow, it seems to secure them the ability to think, come up with ideas, write… But then, what happens when you do your writing on the move, or move to do your writing?
Travel writing is, and it seems was always very popular, and in many cases is quite effective for its readers. What ‘always stay home’ writers seem to miss are the reasons why that is the case. On one hand, the readers itch not only for new experiences they get from travelogues but also a new perspective or set of perspectives. On everything. They expect that not only from themselves but from the writers too.
Joni Mitchell, one of the best singer/songwriters in modern music wrote (and sang) in “All I Want”, one of her most impressive songs:
“I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Traveling, traveling, traveling
Looking for something, what can it be
Oh, I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some
Oh, I love you when I forget about me
All I really really want our love to do
Is to bring out the best in me and in you too…”
And that is exactly what travel writing does. It brings out the best in writers and readers because it makes them both look at everything from a different perspective. It doesn’t matter whether it is a never-ending journey or stepping away from your comfort zone for a day or two. The moment you step away into unknown or into a place you moved away from a while ago, you sense the differences, you pair the similarities and your perspective shifts. So does your writing.
It can only become better. New and unknown people and experiences bring along new ideas. Re-visiting places you have known give you not only the chance to compare the changes in them and the people that remained, but also give you a chance to clear your focus, like cleaning your glasses from all the muck you didn’t even notice was there. It revitalizes you and your writing, or as to quote the title of a song by Arthur Alexander a brilliant Sixties soul singer — “You Better Move On”.
Running out of writing ideas is probably one of the scariest things any writer can experience. The more the feeling that there’s nothing more to write about creeps in, the scarier it gets and even a scent of an idea seems to rapidly evaporate.
You start feeling that you need a magic wand that you tap on your computer screen, notepad or whatever that will suddenly bring you that life-saving idea, a magic carpet that will transport you from the desert to an idea plentiful oasis.
But if you can imagine that, you are already on an idea recovery track. But then, there’s always the possibility to run back and grab your security blanket, or you could borrow Linus’ one if he can be without it for a few seconds.
Usually, that is all it takes. A few seconds with your (writing) security blanket. Whether it is a person or persons, present or away, or a dear object, a blanket for that matter, it makes no difference, the inspiration is back and the ideas start to flow again!
Now, no matter how disconnected or obscure the initial idea(s) might seem, they tend to lead you on a path of a renewed creativity that produces real results.
Commenting on the reissue of Furr, Blitzen Trapper’s most coherent album so far, the band leader Eric Earley explained that in the preparation of the album he simply recorded seemingly unconnected images that even he initially didn’t know what they meant. In the end, he and the band came with a series of musical vignettes portraying Old Portland, where the band is from; vignettes that actually make sense even to listeners that may only have a vague idea where Portland is located.
Whether he was aware of it or not, Earley’s hometown served as that safety blanket that produced writing ideas. So if that idea-less time starts to creep in, maybe it is time to see where your loved ones are or start digging through the cupboards to see where all your childhood stuff is hiding…
Walter Kent the songwriter is probably best remembered for the holiday classic “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and the Forties hit “The White Cliffs of Dover”. But there’s a song he wrote that is really a jazz classic — “Love Is Like A Cigarette”. Quite a few artists covered it, including Duke Ellington and in more recent times, there’s a memorable version by Caroline Henderson.
Personally, the version that hits the mark was the one from the late Eighties by the jazz composer/producer/arranger Kip Hanrahan, where, in a mostly instrumental version, the sultry female vocals suddenly appear and in the same manner disappear, as they weren’t there:
“Love’s like a cigarette
You know you had my heart aglow
Between your fingertips
And just like a cigarette
I never knew the thrill of life
Until you touched my lips
Then just like a cigarette
Love seems to fade away
And leave behind ashes of regret
And with a flick of your fingertips
It was easy for you to forget
Oh, love is like a cigarette. ”
As with love, it is the ideas, particularly writing ideas that suddenly appear and as quickly disappear, or fade away. It doesn’t matter; they are gone. If we don’t record them down. In any way we can — sitting down staring at whatever screen we have in front of us, recording them on the telephone answering machine as we pass by it, on a napkin in a cafe, or in any manner possible, just making sure it isn’t lost forever.
Ok, so it doesn’t really have to be lost completely if we don’t record it immediately. The vestiges of our thoughts usually remain. But a question arises — is it the original idea we had in the first place? Sure, we can develop it from what we wrote (or record) down, but there will always remain that nagging feeling that something is missing from ‘the original’ one.
It is usually the case that the original idea is the best one we had. We can always develop it in any direction or direction the idea takes us from there, but like in Kent’s song ideas, like love “seem to fade away” and if not recorded will “leave the ashes of regret” behind.
After his initial surge of creativity at the end of the Seventies, Elvis Costello, as he personally stated, came to the conclusion that he needed to constantly and on purpose invite chaos into his life so that he could continue his creative streak. It seems that worked, at least for a while — some of his best albums like “Get Happy!!”, “Imperial Bedroom” and “Blood and Chocolate” came during that period.
On “Punch The Clock” from 1983, one of the albums from that period he came up with probably one of his best songs — ‘Everyday I Write A Book”, where, among other things he (writes) and sings:
“The way you walk, the way you talk and try to kiss me
And laugh in four or five paragraphs
All your compliments and your cutting remarks
Are captured here in my quotation marks
I’m giving you a longing look
Everyday, everyday, everyday, everyday, everyday
Everyday I write the book
Everyday I write the book”
So Costello thought that it was chaos, his own and personal, that was needed to inspire him to write. Some other artists and writers didn’t necessarily need to invite it — chaos came on its own volition.
In both cases, it was inspirational. And certainly damaging in many aspects. But while on one hand, such events and people that create them, including yourself, can become an eternal source of inspiration, the effects of chaos oil your life could also have a damning effect on your inspiration and writing.
Dire circumstances, whether it is Costello or Charles Bukowski are not something that somebody should purposefully invite onto themselves to have them as a source of any kind of inspiration. At some point, they will arrive announced anyway. It is just a matter whether you will be able to use them as something that will produce meaningful writing or something that will force you to abandon writing completely. Everybody should certainly hope it will be the former.
There has been a quite extensive debate going on recently whether listening to audiobooks is the same thing as actually reading the book. Quite a few arguments are presented claiming that, on one hand, just listening might be a step closer to illiteracy, while on the other, it is said that listening to audiobooks is actually the same, even better.
[Listening to Audiobooks Is Just As Good As Reading, If Not Better, So Back the Hell Off | The New Yorker](https://www.newyorker.com/humor/daily-shouts/listening-to-audiobooks-is-just-as-good-as-reading-if-not-better-so-back-the-hell-off)
It is probably a debate that is not going to be over soon — which is ’the real thing’ and which is just a bad substitute, as The Who would sing about in one of their best songs, that unfortunately turned out to be great, but just a substitute for a popular hit.
On the other hand, the debate, if there is one, whether writing by hand and even typing are the same as text processing is quite subdued. No matter the fact that text processing sounds as such a mechanical term, as you are sticking your words into a meat grinder or a food processor, with disregard what will come out, as if it something that doesn’t really depend on the writer, but on the manner in which he is coming up with his writing.
The thing is, we have no full comprehension yet in which manner a new technology or just a new technique has on our thought processes, including the one of creative (or not so creative) writing. Is one methodology a natural progression, does it only bring something new and advanced or does it phase out things that might be something we are so grown and accustomed to? Is text processing just a shoddy substitute of writing by hand or typing (nobody seemed to complain much when that switch was made), or is it just an outdated process that belongs to an old, or again, as The Who would say just a thing of the past, something that belongs to “My Generation”?
As with audiobooks vs. reading, with writing vs. text processing, there probably is no straight answer. To get to your computer and start ‘text processing’ those words you have to learn to read and write first. There’s at least ‘the obstacle’ to be able to recognise the letters on your keyboard, or screen. At least for now. There is a certain process involved in your conceiving and coming up with your thoughts materialising in front of your or somebody else’s eyes and that process evolves. Along with it so do the thoughts that we would like to present on paper or the computer screen, whether we like it or not.
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