For those who don’t know (and that is probably quite a number of people) John French, also known as Drumbo, was the drummer for Don Van Vliet, also known as Captain Beefheart, in his Magic Band from its beginnings to the day until Beefheart, due to his illness quit music altogether.
In his book “Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic” and in interviews recollecting his life with an eccentric that Van Vliet, aka Beefheart, was, he recollects that while they were preparing their first album, “Safe As Milk”, Beefheart would write down pieces of lyrics for the songs on almost anything — from scraps of paper to napkins, matches, anything. French would then collect them and put them in order and meaningful lyrics. With Beefheart’s approval, who probably then got new ideas. Like the one later on when he decided to incorporate the sound of his almost exhausted windshield wipers into a song.
Every writer probably has a pile of such scraps of ideas, lines, sentences, even full passages lying around or hurried somewhere on their hard disk, USB, whatever… Sometimes we don’t even know where they are or what is in them. And actually, it is those almost forgotten or simply unconnected ideas that can bring an outpour of not only new ideas but writing that would actually, as another pair of musicians, Richard & Linda Thompson named their album, “Pour Down Like Silver”.
These old scraps are a perfect antidote to any possible fear that you’re out of ideas, that no words will come out. The ’scraps’ can let you remember when and where these ideas and would ‘poured’ out of you and simply pull out new ideas and words and make them settle down into a cohesive whole.
Collecting these old and/or forgotten ideas as if doing a pre-spring cleaning, even changing a spot where you go through them might not only turn into a cohesive whole but possibly into one of the best things you have written until then.
Writing a review of a book, movie, piece of music, visual art or anything connected is easy as a pie, isn’t it ? All you need is personal taste a bit of extra knowledge you can easily grab online these days and off you go! You can be ecstatic about that piece of art, or hate it immensely. You can keep your tone cool, calm and collected or you can jump from joy or be ironic, or even condescending. Of course, all that is quite possible, but not really.
Presenting an opinion about of a piece of art (‘good’ or ‘bad’) is exactly that - an opinion, and as such has to take into consideration any number of elements - knowledge and/or adequate research, accumulated reading, viewing, listening experience and the capability to present the reasoning behind the expressed opinion.
Of course, then there’s that question of whether you should be objective or opinionated. In essence, the question of objectivity in any artistic review can solely rely on the level of reviewers knowledge and correctness of the facts he presents. In the end, he is expressing an opinion about something that is not exactly fully fathomable and certainly depends a lot on personal taste.
And tastes can vary. Sounds a bit trite when you say that, but here’s a telling example. John Coltrane’s landmark album “A Love Supreme” is considered one of the best (some critics naming it the best) jazz album of all time. Last year, when the Coltrane documentary “Chasing Trane” was in full swing , renowned British daily “The Guardian” pulled out of its archives a review by one of its jazz critics from August 1965, titling it ‘An exercise in musical monotony’.
Who knows, maybe the original critic would stand by his review today, even though time has proven him wrong (and that is my opinion talking now). But the point of this example is that by reviewing, expressing an opinion, you at the same time are presenting a review (or re-view) of yourself, not only your taste(s), but also about your approach to somebody else’s imagination, views, tastes. Can turn out to be quite tricky…
We all got and use some kind of time measuring mechanism — watches, cell phones, computers, wall and pocket calendars, you name it. We set our obligations and work habits according to those tools and try to abide by them as strict as possible. No exceptions. Unless you need to be reminded about that now almost trite expression — time is mo…
The problem is, your writing urge, inspiration, and all things connected to it usually doesn’t care much about watchers, calendars or any other time measuring device. It comes and goes, quite often at ungodly hours, with no respect for Christmas New Year’s Eve, kids birthdays…
And what’s worst about it, the moment you get that bug, it becomes like love, you know, like in that Roxy Music song “Love Is The Drug” (you might prefer any of its versions, like that of Grace Jones, for example). You just have to do it — at any moment it rushes to you, whether you’re eating, in the shower, you name it (or not). You just have to sit down (or stand up, whatever) and do it, even just to jot down the idea on the bill you have yet to pay.
What’s worse, if you don’t get to it at that very moment, you feel that emptiness that makes you almost tremble, like the lousy actors in those Fifties (we still don’t specify the century for that decade) anti-drug documentaries. Basically, you’re hooked, and it is no more a question if you want to write or not. You have to.
You also realize that you can practically draw inspiration out of anything -people sitting across your table in a cafe, who at some point might start wondering why you have your gaze fixed on them (like an addict?). Anything, like a nagging Roxy Music song that comes back to you after you hear its first refrain and starts pushing you to somehow write everything down. Again and again.
Are you an avid viewer of Tv reality cooking shows, Master Chef et al? No? As a writer, you should be! Why? Because you could easily play the game every writer should. It is called ‘spot the cliche’. After all, the game itself includes a fancy-sounding French word that has stuck into practically every language round world to signify a trite, stereotyped expression, as almost any online dictionary would tell you.
‘I gave it all I got’, ‘I was cooking from my heart’… Just a couple of the usual ‘standards’ you can hear it over and over in any of these shows done in the English language, from New Zealand on one end of the globe to Canada on the other. They have become such a standard that that gospel/jazz tune “When the Saints Go Marching In” could easily change into “When the Cliches Go Marching In”. I’m afraid we’re all prone to cliches, and writers need to be reminded once in a while (can become a cliche expression itself, can’t it?) about them.
Usually, when a writer notices one (or a few) in the text(s) he’s written he grabs a Thesaurus or any such writing tool to seek and replace it with something else. Fair enough. Sometimes you’re just stuck, or distracted and cannot exactly express what you really want to say.
Then, there could be deeper problems. What if you haven’t been doing some extensive reading recently or have stuck to texts that are in a rut themselves and have more cliches that saints marching’ in?
That is easy(er) malady to correct. You can read more, diversify your reading, particularly if it is research-based. The words and expressions just stick in your head, and then, why not even write them down? But, what if the problem lies somewhere else?
There, maybe one of the cooking cliches mentioned comes into play. The one where the contestant(s) bring their plate of food to the judges and utter: ‘I was cooking from my heart (or soul, take your pick)”. What if you as a writer was not cooking, or to be more precise, writing from your heart (soul)? What if you were actually indifferent to your text, what if it was on a subject matter you don’t care about, or you simply are not into it for any reason?
You can bet that the cliches will fly in then, whether you want it or not, and no thesaurus will help you there. That text will simply not fly. There you have two choices - the easy, where you simply give up on that text or the other one, where you start all over, find a good reason to try, involve yourself in that text and then start all over. Then the cliches will probably simply disappear and the real (word) saints will start marching in again…
When aspiring writers, copywriters, journalists (the list goes on) read or hear all that is written or said about doing it freelance, it is usually these fairytale-like things, like freedom, working at your own pace and no bosses or colleagues trying to climb over your back or even doing it based on your work. These last few elements seem to be prevailing elements. Oh, so I don’t forget, after you set yourself up, the money starts flowing like best red wine…
Now, let's leave the money thing aside, even the new starters in the writing venture(s) have their doubts in that respect. We’ve all had too many of those sweepstakes winners stories piling up in our (regular or email) mailboxes every day. If you are any good, the money will start coming. Eventually,
But that ‘eventually’ can be a long, ongoing process and certainly an unpleasant one if you constantly have nagging and demanding bosses and trickster back-stabbing colleagues, that are not that collegial after all. That is one of the key reasons why most of the people would contemplate going freelance. And anyway, most of the writing is a single person process, isn’t it?
Well, you can only hope so. Even if you start writing freelance, you have that publisher, site or magazine editor, or company PR guy who wants all those white papers. They can and would be all your bosses. One after the other, or sometimes, a few of them at the same time. And all those trickster colleagues suddenly transform into anonymous writers who bid for the same writing job achingly low, giving you no chance of getting it, even if you seem to be a perfect fit for it.
When freelance writing jobs are offered these days, the term often used is - remote work. And remote seems to be the operative word here. In all its positive, but also negative aspects.
It might seem nice and pleasant, even time saving to have as little personal contact, particularly these days when online writing seems to be dominating. But that remoteness can create a loss of sense of obligation, even decency.
Just remember how many times you solicited for a writing job, sent in your writing samples, CV’s, and you didn’t even get a one sentence response in the form of: “Sorry, we(I) am not interested”. Or, you get a job, with a ‘trial rate’, with a promise you’ll get more work that would be paid better, only to never hear from these people again. And lets not even mention those SEO writing scavengers circulating the content mills trying to suck out work out of fresh into the field writers without ever paying them a single cent.
In the words of grate late Captain Beefheart that he sang on his “spotlight Kid” album - “When it blows its stacks, he ain’t nowhere to be found…”
Not the stuff that all those inviting established freelance bloggers would tell you about, but then, they are still here, aren’t they? Just, have in mind that there’s quite a few of the other stuff you’ll have to swallow along with all that milk and honey that is coming to you when you become a freelance writer.
‘Taking stock’ advice is practically available on almost any writing site or blog page. Usually, it is something that you have read before, but that is not necessarily the problem. Reminding yourself of what you have been doing for those three hundred and something days is certainly a necessity in itself.
The problem can be that all that advice can often be in some vague, general terms, like telling you that the weather in December is usually very cloudy. And you don’t need somebody to tell you to take stock of what you’ve earned from your writing this year, you got your bank account for that.
Unless you are currently writing a novel (or two), or are involved in some long-term project, pre-holiday and holiday season is usually quiet and it does allow most of the writers time to really take a thorough look at what they have really achieved, or what they didn’t.
Certainly, all that feedback you got from clients, readers, reviews is the first thing you will get to. And like all those pro and con sheets you used to make in high school about which college you should apply to (or not), so can the feedback you get on your writing be sorted. It does give you a nice, imaginary balancing scale about how your writing was viewed.
Fine, but what about your own, personal rating? Again, nothing new, but taking a cue from literary, music, movie critics might be quite helpful - make a list of how you rate your writing. From top to bottom, or another way around, whichever way you prefer it. Even better, separate the list into the best and the worst.
You can then compare your list(s) with the feedback you received, and see where you agree with it and where it doesn’t. The real answers will most of the times be in matching opinions. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stick to your opinion where you strongly agree or disagree with somebody else.
But what it definitely does is give you a perspective, not only about how you have done in the past period, but what you need to change or what you certainly need to stick to. Some more vague, general advice, guess.
Oh, and don’t forget to make your own lists of best books, movies, music. I certainly got The War on Drugs, Aldous Harding and The National on my music list…
Way back in 1972, when some avant-garde rock sounds were coming out of Germany, British rock journalists named the genre ‘Krautrock’ . At the time, Can, one of the seminal bands coming out of that scene came up with a track named “Vitamin C”. A mantric song, with the band’s Japanese singer Damo Suzuki, who usually sang in a language known exclusively to him, continuously repeated, in clear English - “Hey, you’re losing, you’re losing your Vitamin C!”
While in no way truly musically connected, it also harked back to Terry Riley’s late Sixties modern classical masterpiece “In C”. A note. A vitamin. Ideas connected. But, what has all this to do with writers and writing anyway?
Well, it has to do with vitamins. C, B12, the lot. Or with the method in which you access your writing ideas and what stimulates them. Besides the fact that writers, as anybody else for that matter, need to have a regular intake of ‘physical’ vitamins, they often need a dose of those unfathomable idea vitamins, stimuli that would push them forward and formulate words, sentences in their minds and transform them into something comprehensible and worthy of reading.
Sometimes it is just good old, plain observation that does the trick. People, relations, moods, atmosphere. Good, solid and diversified reading. Music. Any music. Often, just solid personal concentration will do the trick. More often, its is good solid and steady research - sometimes without a strictly set goal - that will represent that stimulus that will lead the writer in a good direction.
Other times, that might be the good, old, ‘boring’ TV. Particularly the ads. Usually, these contain a concentration of possible ideas in brief seconds or minutes than complete feature shows don’t contain in an hour or so.
All it takes is afresh mind and a penchant for picking up ideas, even from people, places and situations that seem to contain none. It can lead to a multitude of directions of thinking and writing that do not necessarily have to do with the original context. Like that Can song, which seems to have been intended as a warning to drug users, alcoholics…
But then, why not use an already formulated idea, re-shape it, transform it, turn it into a completely new one and start your writing from there?
Oh, good old vitamin supplements, in healthy doses will do the trick too…
Joni Mitchell came up with “Both Sides, Now” almost fifty years ago and it still remains one of her most known and re-recorded song. A lot of people love it, nobody hates it, a lot of people heard it too many time to care about it.
As far as its connection to writing goes, Joni might have been a bit too young when she wrote it to realize that along with the two sides, there is that middle ground for writers. After all, she wrote music and lyrics, hopefully, she still can and does.
Doesn’t sound reasonable? Ok, lets put it this way - every writer has his highs, days when words just simply keep pouring out of you, more than you ever thought you could come up with in weeks, let alone a single day. But then there’s that other, darkish side when nothing plausible comes to mind, let alone come out of it, not even boredom, emptiness or figuring out whether you’re actually procrastinating or not.
Of course, you want and need those (natural) highs, not only do they produce abundance, but usually come with your exemplary work. The only problem is they only come once so often.
On the other hand, lows were here, have gone, but will be back at some point again. The best way to handle them is to accept them as an inevitable moment(s) of your writing (as well as other) life. Ignore them in that manner and they’ll be gone sooner than you were afraid they would. After all, fear is the thing that feeds them.
And that you get that third side, the one Joni forgot or neglected, that middle ground that writers too take for granted because… well, they’re so average. But those ‘average’ days are writer’s bread and butter - you have a set pace of writing, research and ‘everything else’, from shopping to… whatever.
As a writer, you hope for more highs, but those can be very exhausting in every way, and unfortunately, when their tide leaves, it is lows that remain, and you definitely don’t want those hanging around for too long. So those might be the two sides that bookend the middle ground the place where writers usually sit in but aren’t aware of. Maybe that was the thought circling in Joni’s mind when she wrote:
“I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all” (Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides, Now”)
With all those ‘oh so successful’ writers/copywriters selling their expertise through those hundreds of emails you get every day, telling you those monetary thousands are just around the corner, it still seems really hard to get a decent writing gig, doesn’t it?
You scrape and roll, do whatnot, and it seems it only brings peanuts. Not even roasted or salted. But then, suddenly, the right offer comes in! You make the arrangements, the deal is struck, and you are flying! Might not be the dream thing, might not be something you feel totally comfortable with, but it promises to at least get you that bit closer to those promised thousands.
But then, a sense of fear creeps in, the sense if incompetency, a sense that you might not be completely up to the challenge. A challenge that seems to be growing in its insurmountability by every second. And you simply get overwhelmed and start singing Carla Olson’s “I Can’t Fight It” in your head, even if you don’t really know it or remember it.
Here’s the thing though - that fear may actually mean exactly the opposite! It might mean that you are a responsible individual who is aware of her/his limits and who really wants to do a proper job. Steering that fear in the direction of proper preparation, research plotting and writing down all the key elements of your text, no matter how long it will be can actually make you come up with exactly what is needed.
That is probably the best context in which you can place that fear and turn something very negative into something positive and stimulating, something that will tell you yes you can fight it, and exactly for the right reasons.
And then you can either ‘whistle while you work’ or sing (or just listen) to Carla Olson and her “I Can’t Fight It”, she is singing that for other reasons anyway.
To learn more about me, please check my LinkedIn page at www.linkedin.com/profile/preview?locale=en_US&trk=prof-0-sb-preview-primary-button.