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kottke.org posts about writing

The Problem of Writing and Money

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 15, 2019

Fragonard,_The_Reader - Cut.png

Now this is a lede:

When I first read Virginia Woolf’s dictum that “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” I was homeless.

It follows through on that first punch:

I know half a dozen published authors who’ve had to rely on food stamps. The seedy poverty of the author has been a cliche for centuries. We find the figure of the poor writer already in the medieval era, in the form of poet-clerics called “goliards,” who begged and sang ribald songs in taverns as they wandered from monastery to monastery. Hundreds of years later, in the Beat Generation, the type survived with no essential change. Now a new generation of writers are confronting ever lower and less reliable payment for articles, stingier advances for books, fewer jobs, and smaller royalty checks. A host of new threats to writers’ livelihoods, from internet piracy to the slow-motion collapse of the academic job market, means ever fewer writers are making a middle-class wage.

So, full-disclosure time! I have been on food stamps, as recently as a couple of years ago. I am currently on Medicaid, and thank god for that, because the open market for health care is terrible, and Medicaid is great. (Freelancers, stop paying COBRA or Obamacare and get yourself on Medicaid if you can.)

I have been a professional writer for almost ten years and have only been employed at a full-time job with benefits for (counts fingers) let’s say three of them. The rest of the time, I’ve been on the 1099 economy, piecing together pieces of living from freelance gigs. I have been homeless, and I have lived with family who’ve been much more stable than I have been. My health has never been good, which has made it difficult for me to maintain full-time work when I’ve had it. I have been behind on my child support, but am currently (thank God) current.

I would not say I am devoted to writing, with my poverty a consequence of that devotion. This entire time, I have simply not known what else to do. I have been writing for my life.

There are a lot of us. We don’t always show it.

Most writers I know who’ve been really poor practice similar forms of self-censorship. Sometimes the reasons are obvious even to someone who’s never had money problems. One writer I know went through a patch where he had to report to a subway cleaning crew to keep getting his welfare checks. He talked about this openly to friends, but went through extreme contortions to hide it from a publisher who was considering hiring him. When I was first profiled for a women’s magazine, I had their photographer come to my apartment, only to have her look around and instantly suggest we go out to a park. After that, I had photographers meet me at a richer person’s apartment to save everyone time and embarrassment.

But often the decisions are less clear-cut. Social media, for instance, can be the ideal forum for openly discussing social class—but it’s also notoriously a place where going too far can damage your career. Most of us filter what we say. This affects how we talk about being broke. A post about student debt is safe, but one about living in your car risks losing face and professional standing. It can even come across as a passive-aggressive jab at more affluent people. One writer friend of mine commented: “On Twitter, we make jokes about being poor. We don’t talk about the fucking dread eating through us because we’ll never be stable. We don’t talk about what it means, that we’re on Twitter because we can’t afford therapy or social lives.”

I don’t know what to do about any of this. I can’t promise that I’ll be more forthcoming about this on Twitter, or here on Kottke.org, or anywhere else I write. I do know that my life is changing again, thanks in part to The Amazon Chronicles, and other opportunities coming into my life. I hope it continues to change. I hope it changes for all of us.

I can only testify, right here and now, that poverty and authorship coincide, including authorship that comes with a kind of modest fame. I can testify that there is nothing romantic about it, only the very real life of compromises that Sandra Newman documents so well in this essay. I can testify that talking about and not talking about it can both eat away at you. There is no cure; only doing better and doing worse, only new wounds and a moderate form of relief.

I disagree with Newman on one point. I think there is no real market for stories about poverty, first-person or otherwise. Not really. Maybe in fiction, maybe as a one-off. But one cannot be a writer about poverty in the same way that one can become a writer about technology; and in most cases, being a writer about technology is extremely difficult when one is poor. (You can track my poverty level through my writing subjects: when I’ve done better, I write about gadgets and the business of technology. When I’ve done worse, I write about memoir or pop culture: music, movies, television, comics, the internet. Things accessible from my memory or on my computer for free or cheap.)

People may want to read about what it’s like to be poor, but they don’t want to pay for it. Paying for things is a rich person’s privilege, and people pay for access to material wealth and things that get them closer to it. And in the free economy, people like the lingua franca of pop culture. Simple stories about heroes and villains, that when you scratch them open, tell them bigger stories about themselves and the worlds they live in.

That’s not to say that people can’t be brought to hear a different kind of story, but they do have to be brought there. How to bring them there? That’s what we’re all trying to figure out.

More on Ancient Scripts and the History of Writing

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2019

World's Writing Systems.png

One post last week that y’all loved was The Evolution of the Alphabet. I loved it too; anything breaking down the history of writing in ways that are (get it) decipherable is just to me. But since then, even more great links on the history of writing have come in. To which I say, it is our duty, nay—our pleasure—to round those links up.

First, a riff on Jason’s post from the man himself, Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall. Josh, like me, is obsessed with the history of writing. He recommends two books (Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Oster and The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet by Amalia E. Gnanadesikan) and adds this reflection:

Historians of writing believe that our current alphabet originated as a sort of quick-and-dirty adaptation of Egyptian hieroglyphics into a simpler and more flexible way of writing. You take a small number of hieroglyphic characters representing specific things, decide to use them not for their meaning but for their sound and then use this as a way to encode the sound of words in almost any language. In this particular case it was to encode a Semitic language related to and ancestral to Hebrew and Phoenician. It was likely devised by soldiers of traders operating either in Egypt or between Egypt and what’s now Israel and Jordan.

This basic A B C D formulation is the foundation of the writing systems for not only all languages that use the Latin alphabet but also those which use the Greek, Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets along with numerous others. What is particularly fascinating is that most historians of writing believe that this invention - the alphabet, designed by and for sub-literate Semites living on the borderlands of Egypt about 4,000 years ago - is likely the origin point of all modern alphabets. In some cases, it’s a direct lineal descent as in Canaanite to Greek to Latin to our modern alphabet. But the creators of the alphabets that now dominate South Asia (originating 2500 to 3000 years ago) also seem to have borrowed at least the idea of the alphabet from these Semitic innovators, though others believe they are an indigenous creation.

The deep history of these letters we are now communicating through is like the DNA - or perhaps rather the record of the DNA - of human cognition and thought, processed through language and encoded into writing.

The second link comes from linguist Gretchen McCulloch. It’s The World Writing Systems, a site that doesn’t focus narrowly on our updated Latin alphabet and its antecedent forms, but on every system of writing that ever is or has been. It lets you search, browse, sort, and generally geek out to your heart’s content. It also lets you know whether the scripts are supported by Unicode (a surprising number are not), and links you to Wikipedia entries about them. So you can easily read about the Cypriot Syllabary, an Iron Age script and descendant of Linear A that was eventually replaced by the Greek alphabet.

Differences between Cypriot syllabary and Linear B
The main difference between the two lies not in the structure of the syllabary but the use of the symbols. Final consonants in the Cypriot syllabary are marked by a final, silent e. For example, final consonants, n, s and r are noted by using ne, re and se. Groups of consonants are created using extra vowels. Diphthongs such as ae, au, eu and ei are spelled out completely. In addition, nasal consonants that occur before another consonant are omitted completely.

See, you just learned something!

Now, many of the Aegean writing systems (including Linear A) are still undeciphered. For that, you want classicist Anna P. Judson’s “A very short introduction to the undeciphered Aegean writing systems” from her blog, “It’s All Greek To Me.” (Hat tip here to the polymath sportswriter Zito Madu.)

Here’s what Judson has to say about Linear A (which unlike Linear B, wasn’t used to write Greek, but a related language called Minoan):

It’s generally agreed that at least some Linear A signs, and quite plausibly the majority of them, can be ‘read’, since they are likely to have had similar sound-values to their Linear B equivalents (Linear B was adapted directly from Linear A in order to write in Greek); but it’s still not possible to identify the language involved or to understand any of its grammatical features, the meanings of most words, etc. As an example, the word AB81-02, or KU-RO if transliterated using Linear B sound-values, is one of the few words whose meaning we do know: it appears at the end of lists next to the sum of all the listed numerals, and so clearly means ‘total’. But we still don’t actually know how to pronounce this word, or what part of speech it is, and we can’t identify it with any similar words in any known languages.

The most promising set of inscriptions for analysing linguistic features is the so-called ‘libation formula’ - texts found on stone vases used in religious rituals (‘libation tables’), which are probably dedications (so probably say something like “Person X gives/dedicates/offers this object/offering to Deity Y”), and across which similar elements often recur in the same position in the text. In principle, having a ‘formula’ of this kind should let us identify grammatical elements via the slight variations between texts - e.g. if a particular variation in one word seemed to correlate with the number of dedicators listed, we might be able to infer that that was a verb with singular or plural marking. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough examples of these texts to establish this kind of linguistic detail - every analysis conducted so far has identified a different element as being the name of the donor, the name of the deity, the verb of offering, etc., so it’s still not possible to draw any certain conclusions from this ‘formula’.

Cretan Hieroglyphic and its variants are even less well understood than Linear A! Some of them are only attested in single inscriptions! God, writing isn’t a smooth series of adaptations leading to a clear final goal! Writing is a total mess! How did anyone ever make sense of it at all?

But they did; and that’s how and why we’re all here, communicating with each other on these alphanumeric encoding machines to this very day.

A Writing Shed of One’s Own

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2019

In the first couple of minutes of this video, Roald Dahl introduces us to the writing hut behind his house that he used to write all of his famed children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Danny the Champion of the World. Dahl describes his working routine and details how he’s designed his writing environment, his “nest”, to be as free from distraction as possible.

The Guardian used to run a series about writers’ rooms and in 2008, illustrator Quentin Blake, who worked with Dahl on many of his books, wrote a piece about Dahl’s shed.

The whole of the inside was organised as a place for writing: so the old wing-back chair had part of the back burrowed out to make it more comfortable; he had a sleeping bag that he put his legs in when it was cold and a footstool to rest them on; he had a very characteristic Roald arrangement for a writing table with a bar across the arms of the chair and a cardboard tube that altered the angle of the board on which he wrote. As he didn’t want to move from his chair everything was within reach. He wrote on yellow legal paper with his favourite kind of pencils; he started off with a handful of them ready sharpened.

I like that he tied the footrest to the chair to keep it from sliding away when he rested his feet on it.

As someone who sits down daily to write, nothing seems so luxurious to me as a separate writing hut that is off limits to everyone and everything else. George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain both had separate houses in which to write; Shaw’s shed could even rotate to catch the light throughout the day. Someday I’ll have one of my own…

P.S. Ernest Hemingway used a standing desk, as did Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, and Virginia Woolf, among others. I got this one a few weeks ago and am still getting used to it. (via @ftrain)

Writing as bureaucracy vs. writing as magic

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 06, 2018

Chinese oracle bone script.jpg

Michael Erard pokes away at the “administrative hypothesis,” the idea that ancient writing had its origin in accounting bureaucracies and existed primarily as a function of state power. There’s just as much evidence, he argues, that states and proto-states co-opted already-existing symbols used by pre-state farmers to keep tallies and mark time, and more provocatively, by priests who used writing as a script for prophecy, narrative, and magic spells.

Over and over, what we see is that writing is more like gunpowder than like a nuclear bomb. In each of the four sites of the independent invention of writing, there’s either no evidence one way or the other, or there’s evidence that a proto-writing pre-dated the administrative needs of the state. Even in Mesopotamia, a phonetic cuneiform script was used for a few hundred years for accounting before writing was used for overtly political purposes. As far as the reductive argument that accountants invented writing in Mesopotamia, it’s true that writing came from counting, but temple priests get the credit more than accountants do. ‘Priests invented writing’ is a reduction I can live with - it posits writing as a tool for contacting the supernatural realm, recording the movement of spirits, inspecting the inscrutable wishes of divinities.

It’s a complex argument, because it has at least two parts:

1) writing wasn’t invented by states (even writing for accounting purposes);
2) writing has been invented for reasons other than an accounting function.

So most of Erard’s examples are arguing against one part of the most robust version of the adminstrative hypothesis, rather than refuting it outright. This is hardly a knockout blow, but it makes for some notable asterisks. (I wish there were more here about China.)

Kurt Vonnegut on how to write a good story

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2018

In this 90-second video, Kurt Vonnegut provides eight guidelines for writing a good short story.

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

This appears to be a reading of the introduction to a collection of Vonnegut’s short fiction; in it, the list is referred to by the author as “Creative Writing 101”.

See also Vonnegut explaining the shapes of stories. (thx, jeannie)

The Finkbeiner test for gender bias in science writing

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 27, 2018

In a 2013 piece, Christie Aschwanden suggested a test in the spirit of the Bechdel test for avoiding gender bias in profiles written about scientists who are women.

To pass the Finkbeiner test, the story cannot mention:

- The fact that she’s a woman
- Her husband’s job
- Her child care arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she’s such a role model for other women
- How she’s the “first woman to…”

Aschwanden named the test after her colleague Ann Finkbeiner, who wrote that she was going to write a piece about an astronomer without mentioning that she, the astronomer, was a woman.

Meanwhile I’m sick of writing about [gender bias in science]; I’m bored silly with it. So I’m going to cut to the chase, close my eyes, and pretend the problem is solved; we’ve made a great cultural leap forward and the whole issue is over with.

And I’m going to write the profile of an impressive astronomer and not once mention that she’s a woman. I’m not going to mention her husband’s job or her child care arrangements or how she nurtures her students or how she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field. I’m not going to interview her women students and elicit raves about her as a role model. I’m going to be blindly, aggressively, egregiously ignorant of her gender.

I’m going to pretend she’s just an astronomer.

(via @john_overholt)

Franz Kafka: Great writer, bad boyfriend

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 16, 2018

Kafka Was A Terrible Boyfriend” is a sentence that is simultaneously unsurprising and revelatory. But it gives us a chance to dive into Kafka’s letters, which are, along with the stories, unfinished novels, and the conversation slips he passed back and forth at the end of his life when he could no longer speak, among his most treasured works.

This fact maybe illustrates why so many writers are bad boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, and wives (but let’s face it, mostly bad boyfriends and husbands) — especially from the point of view of their writing to their significant others. Kafka in particular seemed incapable of thinking about his writing, on any topic, as anything but writing, in a literary sense. So his putative love letters are filled with sudden ironies and reversals, meditations on ambiguity, contingency, and the self. The dude couldn’t get out of his own head, or out of his own way.

Would it help if we write to each other only once a week? No, if my suffering could be cured by such means it would not be serious. And already I foresee that I shan’t be able to endure even the Sunday letters. And so, to compensate for Saturday’s lost opportunity, I ask you with what energy remains to me at the end of this letter: If we value our lives, let us abandon it all.

Did I think of signing myself Dein [Yours]? No, nothing could be more false. No, I am forever fettered to myself, that’s what I am, and that’s what I must try to live with.

Franz

Needless to say, I identify with him completely.

How to write a comic book

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 26, 2018

Greg Pak is one of my favorite comic book writers, an intellectual and superfan who really knows how to do world-building and get into his characters’ heads. Among other books, he wrote Planet Hulk, a huge part of the basis for Thor: Ragnarok (minus Thor) that’s also one of the best (largely) self-contained comic book stories ever.

The other day, Pak took a moment on Twitter to describe his process for writing comics. It’s really good descriptive/prescriptive advice for any kind of writing, and well worth a read:

How I write a comic book script:

1. Outline the whole thing.

2. Break the outline down into pages.

3. Write from the beginning, but if I get stuck, skip around and write the easier scenes first.

4. Go back and write the harder scenes, which are easier now that I’ve done the rest.
5. Rewrite the easier scenes now that I’ve written the harder scenes and know my story better.
6. Go through and edit everything multiple times.
7. Turn it in when I run out of time.
8. Enjoy that fourteen minutes of calm you get after turning in a script.
9. Work on revisions.
10. Figure out what it’s REALLY all about and make the subtle dialogue tweaks that bring out that deeper theme/emotional thread.

The whole thread includes lots of dynamite numbered (3A, 3B, 4A) and unnumbered supplementary notes (the work of revision is never done). This one is probably my favorite:

Two general notes to myself that always seems to work is give your characters quiet moments that dramatize character, especially early in the script/story, and give the big emotional beats time to play out. Let it breathe when it needs to breathe.

George Saunders on “what writers really do when they write”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 28, 2017

From The Guardian, a typically illuminating piece from George Saunders on how he approaches writing…and more specifically how he approached writing a novel after so many years of writing short stories. Regarding the writer/reader connection:

This is a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture — that whatever is present in me might also be present in you. “I” might be a 19th-century Russian count, “you” a part-time Walmart clerk in 2017, in Boise, Idaho, but when you start crying at the end of my (Tolstoy’s) story “Master and Man”, you have proved that we have something in common, communicable across language and miles and time, and despite the fact that one of us is dead.

Another reason you’re crying: you’ve just realised that Tolstoy thought well of you — he believed that his own notions about life here on earth would be discernible to you, and would move you.

Tolstoy imagined you generously, you rose to the occasion.

Facebook is wrong, text is deathless

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 15, 2016

It’s a throwaway line in a longer talk and we probably shouldn’t make too much of it, but I will anyway.

In five years time Facebook “will be definitely mobile, it will be probably all video,” said Nicola Mendelsohn, who heads up Facebook’s operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, at a conference in London this morning. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, has already noted that video will be more and more important for the platform. But Mendelsohn went further, suggesting that stats showed the written word becoming all but obsolete, replaced by moving images and speech.

“The best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, actually is video,” Mendelsohn said. “It conveys so much more information in a much quicker period. So actually the trend helps us to digest much more information.”

Maybe this is coming from deep within the literacy bubble, but:

Text is surprisingly resilient. It’s cheap, it’s flexible, it’s discreet. Human brains process it absurdly well considering there’s nothing really built-in for it. Plenty of people can deal with text better than they can spoken language, whether as a matter of preference or necessity. And it’s endlessly computable — you can search it, code it. You can use text to make it do other things.

In short, all of the same technological advances that enable more and more video, audio, and immersive VR entertainment also enable more and more text. We will see more of all of them as the technological bottlenecks open up.

And text itself will get weirder, its properties less distinct, as it reflects new assumptions and possibilities borrowed from other tech and media. It already has! Text can be real-time, text can be ephemeral — text has taken on almost all of the attributes we always used to distinguish speech, but it’s still remained text. It’s still visual characters registered by the eye standing in for (and shaping its own) language.

Because nothing has proved as invincible as writing and literacy. Because text is just so malleable. Because it fits into any container we put it in. Because our world is supersaturated in it, indoors and out. Because we have so much invested in it. Because nothing we have ever made has ever rewarded our universal investment in it more. Unless our civilization fundamentally collapses, we will never give up writing and reading.

We’re still not even talking to our computers as often as we’re typing on our phones. What logs the most attention-hours — i.e., how media companies make their money — is not and has never been the universe of communications.

(And my god — the very best feature Facebook Video has, what’s helping that platform eat the world — is muted autoplay video with automatic text captions. Forget literature — even the stupid viral videos people watch waiting for the train are better when they’re made with text!)

Nothing is inevitable in history, media, or culture — but literacy is the only thing that’s even close. Bet for better video, bet for better speech, bet for better things we can’t imagine — but if you bet against text, you will lose.

The unease of impossible idealism and extreme altruism

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2015

New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar has written a book on people who are wholly devoted to helping others called Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. At least a few of the books’ subjects were first profiled in the NYer by MacFarquhar, including this amazing story of a couple who adopted 20 children and a Japanese monk confronting his culture’s suicide problem.

David Wolf of The Guardian recently wrote about MacFarquhar and her unique writing style, writing from the perspective of her subjects, like they themselves had written the piece.

MacFarquhar attributes her restlessness with form to getting “productively bored”: “For a profile, I do try to make the piece sound and feel as though it were written by the person themselves, rather than by me. What I’m trying to get at is a sense of intimacy, a sense that you are, insofar as is possible, inside the mind of the person, so that you understand why they’re in love with the ideas they fell in love with, what moves them, what drives them.”

These principles guide most of her stylistic decisions. Anything that diminishes the immediacy of the reader’s access to her subject is thrown out. “People think I’m a total freak for not using the first person,” she says. “The way I think about it is that if you’re making a conventional feature film, all it takes is for the director to walk across the camera just once and you have a completely different relationship to the whole story. For that reason, even though it sometimes means sacrificing great scenes, I take myself out.”

What point of view is that? It’s like a mix of first person and third person. Is one-third person POV a thing?

Greening the text

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 08, 2015

John McPhee, maybe our greatest living nonfiction writer (depending on how you feel about Joan Didion), has a lovely essay on omission in this week’s The New Yorker. Along with a tidy analysis of Hemingway’s iceberg metaphor and some great shaggy-dog stories about citrus fruits, General Eisenhower, and more, he includes an exercise he learned writing for Time that he’s adapted for his students at Princeton.

After four days of preparation and writing—after routinely staying up almost all night on the fourth night—and after tailoring your stories past the requests, demands, fine tips, and incomprehensible suggestions of the M.E. and your senior editor, you came in on Day 5 and were greeted by galleys from Makeup with notes on them that said “Green 5” or “Green 8” or “Green 15” or some such, telling you to condense the text by that number of lines or the piece would not fit in the magazine. You were supposed to use a green pencil so Makeup would know what could be put back, if it came to that. I can’t remember it coming to that…

The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed. Easier with some writers than with others. It’s as if you were removing freight cars here and there in order to shorten a train—or pruning bits and pieces of a plant for reasons of aesthetics or plant pathology, not to mention size. Do not do violence to the author’s tone, manner, nature, style, thumbprint. Measure cumulatively the fragments you remove and see how many lines would be gone if the prose were reformatted. If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line.

Greening seems like such a material thing, wholly specific to print — not just to the fact of magazine layout, but a specific kind of workflow. One’s tempted to say with digital writing, we’ve overcome those space limitations, but I’m less sure. Twitter’s the obvious example, but doing web layout, I’ve killed more than my share of lines to preserve symmetry or squeeze everything into a smaller space.

Holding on to the blank pages

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 06, 2014

A short profile of writer/editor Roger Angell, still coming in to work most days at The New Yorker at age 93:

Angell saw Babe Ruth in his prime, but he never writes sentimentally about baseball, a sport that has inspired many sports-writers to produce reams of awful, faux-poetic prose. His habit of telling it straight is what makes his nine books hold up and keeps him relevant today. “I don’t go for nostalgia,” he says. “I try not to. It’s so easy to sentimentalize the good old days, but I don’t ever do that. I’m aware that things have changed, but I try not to go there. It’s very easy, and you get sort of a mental diabetes. All that goo. I am a foe of goo, maybe too much so.”

Angell’s extended essay “This Old Man” offers an extended dose of that lucidity.

Here in my tenth decade, I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news. Living long means enough already. When Harry [Angell’s fox terrier] died, Carol and I couldn’t stop weeping; we sat in the bathroom with his retrieved body on a mat between us, the light-brown patches on his back and the near-black of his ears still darkened by the rain, and passed a Kleenex box back and forth between us. Not all the tears were for him. Two months earlier, a beautiful daughter of mine, my oldest child, had ended her life, and the oceanic force and mystery of that event had not left full space for tears. Now we could cry without reserve, weep together for Harry and Callie and ourselves. Harry cut us loose.

Anyone who’s been writing for a long time has tools they like and come to depend on; one of Angell’s is a discontinued Mead three-subject notebook:

The best notebook in the world. David Remnick and I talk about how you can’t get anything to replace the Mead notebook, which is unavailable now. They take ink perfectly. There is a great flow. All the other notebooks are coated with something so your pen slides along.

“In recent years, when he goes on reporting trips,” Angell’s interviewer notes, “he has resorted to making use of old Mead notebooks that still have blank pages.”

Loving pencils

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 29, 2013

Three years ago, I came across a post on the Sharpie blog — I don’t know how or why I was following Sharpie’s blog, but such were the mysteries of our universe in those long-ago days — announcing a new kind of pencil: a mechanical pencil with liquid graphite ink, with leads that could not break, whose writing was initially erasable but over time (about three days) would become semi-permanent.

Sharpie eventually had to back off some of its claims for the liquid pencil — the original promo material said pencil would become permanent like a Sharpie Marker, which isn’t quite true — but they brought them to market, and sell them for about $3 apiece. (Sadly, the reviews aren’t very good.)

People love pencils. They love them. It’s partly childhood nostalgia, partly how a craftsman comes to care for her tools, and partly the tactile experience. It’s also a blend of appreciation for both their aesthetic and functional qualities, and (especially these days, but not only these days), a soupçon of the disruptive passion that comes from willfully embracing what poses as the technologically obsolete.

Over at The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen has a story about Pencil Revolution, which she quite rightly calls “The World’s Best Website About Pencils.” She lists ten representative posts, from which I’ll select my favorite five:

I found these at Staples (in the US) a few weeks ago and bought a pack. At $10 for three dozen, it was a pretty good deal. Less than $3.50 for some quality pencils is something I’d find it difficult to pass up. But three dozen is…a commitment to make to the Pencil Gods, when the pencil might just be terrible. I mean, they are pencils. One can’t just throw them away if they turn out to be awful. Luckily, these pencils are not awful at all. Unluckily, having a Big Box means that I’ve given most of them away already.

I feel like there’s something powerful about pencils that I feel viscerally but don’t fully understand. There’s the manuscript part: as much as I love to type, there’s something super powerful in that alignment of the eye and the hand. But that’s pens and chalk and crayons and markers too, and I have completely different feelings about all of these things.

In “Why pencils?” Pencil Revolution’s founder Johnny Gamber tries to explain:

The first and best reason to use pencils is because you like them and enjoy writing/drawing with them. Because you feel better connected to the paper you’re writing on (or the wall, etc.) and the earth from which the clay, the graphite and the wood all came. Because they smell good. Because sharpening them can be a sort of meditative process. Because you can chew on them. Or for reasons we can’t explain.

The point is that it’s best to write with what we like best, no? I’ll admit to enjoying taking notes and writing papers and poems with pencils better than pens. That’s the biggest reason that I use pencils at all.

Maybe it’s that sense of work that’s best realized in sharpening: the continual, attentive maintenance to a thing that’s ultimately, necessarily, and even intentionally disposable. To adapt George Carlin’s observation, when you buy a pencil, you know it’s going to end badly. You’re buying a small tragedy. Caring for a pencil becomes like caring for a pet, or a person, in accelerated miniature, like in time-lapse photography.

Pencils are like love. Pencils are like us. They are free to love, free to squander, and free to give away.

I’m going to do something rare here at Kottke and open up the comments. I’ll close them down at the end of the day. Do you love pencils? Do you hate them? Why? What’s your favorite pencil? What’s your best pencil story? Did a pencil ever break your heart?

David Ogilvy offers copywriting advice

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2012

Letters of Note ran a 1955 letter from advertising legend David Ogilvy that details his process for writing advertising copy.

I have never written an advertisement in the office. Too many interruptions. I do all my writing at home.

How to write books

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 22, 2011

Before embarking on writing his new book, Steve Silberman asked a bunch of authors (like Cory Doctorow, Jonah Lehrer, and Carl Zimmer) for their best advice about writing books.

A few things became clear as soon as their replies came in. First of all, I’ll have to throttle back my use of Twitter and Facebook to get this writing done (and I may never rev up my idle Quora account after all.) Secondly, scheduling intervals of regular exercise and renewal amid the hours of writing will be essential.

Toy stories

posted by Tim Carmody   May 03, 2011

One thing I will be doing from time to time this week is pulling down random books from my shelves and writing about them, under the belief that the internet is better when not all of it comes from the internet. Here’s the second installment (you can read the first here).

One of my favorite writers, poets, and teachers is Susan Stewart. She’s just one of those people who radiates intelligence and fun.

She also helped show me that you could put both of these things into critical writing — that plain, everyday language and willfully studied, obscure language were both traps.

Here is an audio recording of her reading one of my favorite of her poems, “Apple,” which begins:

If I could come back from the dead, I would come back
for an apple, and just for the first bite, the first
break, and the cold sweet grain
against the roof of the mouth, as plain
and clear as water.

This poem also includes a Twitter-worthy quip: “If an apple’s called ‘delicious,’ it’s not.”

And here is an excerpt from one of my favorite of her books (which I’m pretty sure was originally actually her doctoral thesis), On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection:

Problems of the inanimate and the animate here bring us to a consideration of the toy. The toy is the physical embodiment of the fiction: it is a device for fantasy, a point of beginning for narrative. The toy opens an interior world, lending itself to fantasy and privacy in a way that the abstract space, the playground, of social play does not. To toy with something is to manipulate it, to try it out within sets of contexts, none of which is determinative… The desire to animate the toy is the desire not simply to know everything but also to experience everything simultaneously…

Here is the dream of the impeccable robot that has haunted the West at least since the advent of the industrial revolution. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mark the heyday of the automaton, just as they mark the mechanization of labor: jigging Irishmen, whistling birds, clocks with bleating sheep, and growling dogs guarding baskets of fruit. The theme of death and irreversibility reappears in the ambivalent status of toys like the little guillotines that were sold in France during the time of the Revolution. In 1793 Goethe wrote to his mother in Frankfurt requesting that she buy a toy guillotine for his son, August. This was a request she refused, saying that the toy’s maker should be put in stocks.

Such automated toys find their strongest modern successors in “models” of ships, trains, airplanes, and automobiles, models of the products of mechanized labor. These toys are nostalgic in a fundamental sense, for they completely transform the mode of production of the original as they miniaturize it: they produce a representation of a product of alienated labor, a representation which itself is constructed by artisanal labor. The triumph of the model-maker is that he or she has produced the object completely by hand, from the beginning assembly to the “finishing touches.”

It’s a kind of writing that’s totally within the boundaries of the historical and theoretical conventions of the academy, but is also always rhetorically and imaginatively precise and correct, from the individual syllable to the grouped processions of images.

I can’t tell you how rare that is. Probably you know already.

JK Rowling’s plot spreadsheet

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2010

JK Rowling's spreadsheet

Rowling’s writing process visualized. Looks like this page is from The Order of the Phoenix. (via famulan)

Writing tips for anyone

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 22, 2010

Author Janet Fitch wrote a list of 10 Writing Tips That Can Help Almost Anyone.

Long ago I got a rejection from the editor of the Santa Monica Review, Jim Krusoe. It said: “Good enough story, but what’s unique about your sentences?” That was the best advice I ever got. Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences. The music of words.

How to write a Malcolm Gladwell book

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2010

There are seven main features of a Malcolm Gladwell book.

5. Give things names and remember Douglas Adams’ rule of capital letters. Capital letters make things important. For example, in The Tipping Point, Gladwell conjures up the following important concepts: The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context. In Outliers, there’s The Matthew Effect and The 10,000-Hour Rule.

And totally unrelated but related, here’s an awesome photo of a 14-year-old Gladwell running the 1500 meters. (thx, nick)

Agatha Christie’s messy working method

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 14, 2010

A book about Agatha Christie’s working notebooks reveals that the writer known for her intricate plots worked in a highly nonlinear fashion. Sometimes she didn’t even know whodunnit until late in the writing process.

The contents of the notebooks are as multi-dimensional as their Escher-like structure. They include fully worked-out scenes, historical background, lists of character names, rough maps of imaginary places, stage settings, an idle rebus (the numeral three, a crossed-out eye, and a mouse), and plot ideas that will be recognizable to any Christie fan: “Poirot asks to go down to country-finds a house and various fantastic details,” “Saves her life several times,” “Inquire enquire-both in same letter.” What’s more, in between ominous scraps like “Stabbed through eye with hatpin” and “influenza depression virus-Stolen? Cabinet Minister?” are grocery lists: “Newspapers, toilet paper, salt, pepper …” There was no clean line between Christie’s work life and her family life. She created household ledgers, and scribbled notes to self. (“All away weekend-can we go Thursday Nan.”) Even Christie’s second husband, the archeologist Sir Max Mallowan, used her notebooks. He jotted down calculations. Christie’s daughter Rosalind practiced penmanship, and the whole family kept track of their bridge scores alongside notes like, “Possibilities of poison … cyanide in strawberry … coniine-in capsule?”

I don’t know why this approach seems so surprising. From all that I’ve read about how book authors work, writing a book is like sanding wood…you can’t just start with the extra-fine sandpaper and expect a smooth surface.

David Mamet’s guidelines for screenwriting

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2010

In a memo to the writers of The Unit, David Mamet (the show’s executive producer) provides a short but master class in writing for television.

THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER RATHER THAN A FUNCTIONARY, BECAUSE, IN TRUTH, YOU ARE MAKING THE FILM. WHAT YOU WRITE, THEY WILL SHOOT.

HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

(thx, mark)

Rules for writing fiction

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2010

The Guardian asked a bunch of writers to share their tips for writing fiction. The responses appear in two parts. Elmore Leonard:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

Here’s Philip Pullman’s response in full:

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.

(via mr)

Living on $500,000 a year

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 29, 2009

Who knew that a long article about F Scott Fitzgerald’s tax returns could be so interesting?

The five months of furious short-story writing in 1923-24 had left him with a stake of $7,000. In Great Neck, that would only cover two and a half months of expenses. How could he stretch the $7,000 to gain the time to finish Gatsby? Earlier, as he was struggling to save, a friend wrote from France to suggest that Fitz-gerald join the many Americans living well in Europe on the strong American dollar. The friend wrote that it cost one-tenth as much to live in Europe: he had just finished “a meal fit for a king, washed down with champagne, for the absurd sum of sixty-one cents.” Fitzgerald thought, based on the friend’s recommendation, living expenses on the off-season Riviera would be low enough to let him finish Gatsby without any short-story interruptions.

How to write badly well

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 26, 2009

Writer Joel Stickley keeps a blog about how best to write badly. Here’s a snippet from a recent entry titled “Describe every character in minute detail, taking no account of narrative pacing”:

Terrence Handley shifted his weight, the weight that had been steadily increasing for the last ten years and showed no sign of diminishing, at least while his wife Marie continued to excel as she did at the design and production of delectable gourmet meat pies, and shuffled his feet restively as he waited.

Write different

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 21, 2009

At 70, writer Charles Bukowski started using a computer — a Macintosh IIsi that his wife gave him for Christmas — and was so taken with it that he never went back to the typewriter.

There is something about seeing your words on a screen before you that makes you send the word with a better bite, sighted in closer to the target. I know a computer can’t make a writer but I think it makes a writer better. Simplicity in writing and simplicity in getting it down, hot and real. When this computer is in the shop and I go back to the electric, it’s like trying to break rock with a hammer. Of course, the essence of writing is there but you have to wait on it, it doesn’t leap from the gut as quickly, you begin to trail your thoughts — your thoughts are ahead of your fingers which are trying to catch up. It causes a block of sorts indeed.

Vonnegut’s rules for short story writing

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 05, 2009

One of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing short stories:

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Ayup. See also How to Write With Style.

Gay Talese interview

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 10, 2009

The Paris Review has posted an extensive excerpt of an interview with writer Gay Talese from their summer issue. Wonderful stuff, ranging from his unusual writing process to how he got his start to a brief behind-the-scenes about writing Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.

All the other reporters of my generation would come back from an assignment and be done with their piece in a half hour. For the rest of the afternoon they’d be reading books or playing cards or drinking coffee in the cafeteria, and I was always very much alone. I didn’t carry on conversations during those hours. I just wanted to make my article perfect, or as good as I could get it. So I rewrote and rewrote, feeling that I needed every minute of the working day to improve my work. I did this because I didn’t believe that it was just journalism, thrown away the next day with the trash. I always had a sense of tomorrow. I never turned in anything more than two minutes before deadline. It was never easy, I felt I had only one chance. I was working for the paper of record, and I believed that what I was doing was going to be part of a permanent history.

It had better be good too, because my name was on it. I’ve always thought that. I think this came from watching my father work on suits. I was impressed by how carefully he would sew, and he never made much money, but I thought he was the real thing. His name was on those suits-the buttons couldn’t fall off tomorrow. They had to look great, had to fit well, and had to last. His business wasn’t profitable, but from him I learned that I wanted to be a craftsman.

Don’t miss the piece of shirt board that Talese used to outline the Sinatra story. (via submitted for your perusal)

Update: Who else used shirt boards? Robert Rauschenberg.

Design award deadline approaching…

posted by Jason Kottke   May 19, 2009

The deadline for entering the Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing & Criticism is nearing. Get your entries in by June 1.

The Writing Award of $10,000 is open to writers, critics, scholars, historians, journalists and designers and given for a body of work. The Education Award of $1,000 is open to students (high school, undergraduate or graduate) whose use of writing in a single essay demonstrates originality and promise.

Tighter, simpler, more transparent

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 03, 2009

Cathy Curtis, a former staff writer for The LA Times, shares how the web made her a better writer.

Another impetus for scanning, I believe, is the web’s seemingly limitless content. It’s like being unable to enjoy yourself at a party because you might be having a better time at someone else’s house. Add the growing mania for speed (“This #%&* site is taking 20 seconds to load!”), and it’s clear that web writing has to pick up the pace.

(via subtraction)