From Sam Anderson’s great profile of writer John McPhee:
I grew up surrounded by farm fields — soy beans or corn, depending on the year. When the beans were in, you could still see the horizon, and everything felt wide open, but when the corn was high, the horizon was gone, and you were walled in…
I continue to be fascinated by how slow, seemingly inefficient methods make my self-education more helpful and more meaningful.
Example: This week I was reading Jan Swafford’s introduction to classical music, Language of the Spirit, and I wanted to see the lives of all the composers on a timeline. Instead of googling for one, I decided to just make one for myself with a pencil in my notebook. It was kind of a pain, but I had a feeling I’d learn something. Pretty much immediately I was able to see connections that Swafford wrote about that just hadn’t sunken in yet, like how Haydn’s life overlapped both Bach’s and Beethoven’s while covering Mozart’s completely. Had I googled a pre-made timeline, I’m not completely sure I would’ve studied it closely enough to get as much out of it as the one I drew.
Another example: I copy passages of text that I like longhand in my notebook, and it not only helps me remember the texts, it makes me slow down enough so that I can actually read them and think about them, even internalize them. Something happens when I copy texts into my notebook that does not happen when I cut and paste them into Evernote or onto my blog.
A lot of this way of studying has been inspired by my son, Owen.
Even before I had kids, I wrote, “We learn by copying… Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.” Funny now that I have a four-year-old budding mechanic, who actually spends a great deal of his time copying photos and drawings of cars, taking them apart in his mind and putting them back together on the page to figure out how they work.
What I love about my son’s drawings is that he does not really care about them once he’s finished them. To him, they are dead artifacts, a scrap of by-product from his learning process. (For me, they’re tiny masterpieces to hang on the fridge.) Milton Glaser says that “drawing is thinking.” I think that drawing is learning, too, and one thing Owen has taught me is that it is more valuable as a verb than it is as a noun.
I felt sure that my children would teach me more than I taught them. I was not anticipating that they would actually teach me how to learn again…
Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work.
“Forget about being a Writer,” says novelist Ann Packer. “Follow the impulse to write.”
Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).
Doing the verb will take you someplace further and far more interesting than just wanting the noun.
I finished the first draft of Show Your Work! today. It’s printed out and sitting on my desk. Nobody has read it other than me. My wife will be the first. Then I’ll take her notes, make some changes, and send it to my editor.
The biggest challenge for me is structure. Once I have a structure, once I have a skeleton, then it’s easy to just pack on the meat. This book started out in three parts, with about two dozen chapters. Now it’s another list of ten, like Steal. Maybe it’ll morph into something else before this is all done.
For now, it’s time to sit back and have a beer and let people read. Then, it’s back to work.
“The disorder of the desk, the floor; the yellow Post-it notes everywhere; the whiteboards covered with scrawl: all this is the outward manifestation of the messiness of human thought.”
— Ellen Ullman
I’m writing a new book. It’s my third book, and the weirdest one for me so far, because I’m writing it the way you think of someone writing a book: I had an idea for a book and now I’m sitting in the same room every day all day and trying to write it.
Neither of my other two books were made this way. Newspaper Blackout was “written” the same way I’d always made blackout poems — one at a time on my lunch break and my commute to and from work. The only difference was that I didn’t post them to my blog and I made a hell of a lot more of them than usual for about 20 weeks, then half of those pieces were thrown out and the rest were pieced together into a sort of narrative. Steal Like An Artist began as an hour-long talk written in a hotel room which was mostly adapted from over five years of online writing, that talk was turned into a 4,000 word blog post, then over two months of nights and weekends I expanded that blog post into 10,000 words and about 30 or so illustrations.
Both those books presented themselves as books after being something else online. This one is like starting from scratch.
This is what the book look liked a month or two ago — just a big stack of index cards and a few notebooks full of scribbles.
A few weeks ago I jumped over to handwriting on sheets of cardstock — essentially, really big index cards that I could then shuffle and play around with. (Above are the stairs leading up to my office filled with an insane, completely unsustainable marathon day’s worth of writing.)
I’m still working, slow and steady. I’m not quite ready to talk about the subject of the new book yet, but as I alluded to yesterday, I think it picks things up nicely from Steal, and if you’ve been following my Tumblr or my “Show Your Work” videos you have some major hints.
Right now, that messy office above is cleaned up and in the corner under the guitars is a baby swing waiting for a baby. My wife is about a week or so away from giving birth to our first son. With the baby coming, I might be pretty quiet for the next month. (I’ll probably still be updating my Tumblr and posting a baby picture or two or three on Twitter.) I’ve been told that becoming a parent lights a fire under your ass like nothing else, so we’ll see what happens!
My TEDxPennQuarter talk is centered around a flowchart that compares my own publishing journey with what I was taught in college was the traditional route of becoming a published author. Looking at the chart, it strikes me that no matter what route you take, everything always comes back to the simplest beginning:
Write something good.
It’s easy to get caught up in the madness of the machine, and not get any time to do the thing you love. Brittany Forks said the same thing on her site recently:
The release of my book came and went. There was no big hurrah, no parties, no signings. As I am writing this, it is over a year after my book release, and finally I have climbed out of that depression and I am ready to start creating beautiful things again.
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My friend Brandon (who keeps refusing to answer my e-mails now that he’s a fancypants graduate student — maybe he’ll read this and feel guilty) once told me that in the lazy afternoons, he’d been watching soap operas with sound off, writing his own dialogue for the characters on the screen. I thought that sounded like a fun writing exercise, but wasn’t sure what the equivalent would be for drawing.*
Then, a few weeks ago I came across a crappy-looking movie that was shot in the same whaling town one of my characters lived in. So I picked up the DVD, sat down with my sketchbook in front of the TV. But instead of watching it, I used the fast forward and pause buttons to freeze-frame scenes that I thought were pretty decent. Then I super-imposed my own characters over those scenes.
By the time I’d made it through the movie, I had several pages worth of comics panels (without dialogue — but you could certainly add dialogue), and it occured to me, you could do a whole comic like this, if you really wanted to.
* Though, come to think of it, Kenneth Koch used to give his poetry students comic books that they’d never read, and order them to white-out the speech balloons without reading the dialogue, and write their own….
by Paul Hemphill
LOVESICK BLUES is a bare-bones telling of the life of Hank Williams, written with the love of a true fan. Hemphill makes a Southern, blue-collar point to strip away anything unnecessary, (page count: 210) and that’s probably what makes the book such a compulsive read from start to finish. Wiliams used to tell his band, “keep it vanilla,” and LOVESICK BLUES reads like the best of novels: it keeps the prose lean, and the plot mean.
To hear it cold in one sitting, the drama of Williams’ life is Shakespearean. A superstar at 25, dead at 29, the great American poet of lost love grew up essentially fatherless due to his father’s stints in VA hospitals. He would seek affection from two Lady MacBeth-like women: Lilly, his overbearing mother, and Audrey, his tone-deaf stardom-seeking wife. Both would fail him to his demise. But it was only amongst the men of his life–his mentor Tee-Tot, his producer Fred Rose, and his best friend and lap steel player Don Helms–that he would find brief love and acceptance.
While LOVESICK BLUES sticks close to the tale, Hemphill also uses Williams’ life to illuminate three truths of writing:
1. Genius doesn’t come out of nowhere.
Hear the lonesome whippoorwill / He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low / I’m so lonesome I could cry
While many wonder how a hillbilly dropout from rural Alabama penned lyrics like these, Hank’s early life roaming the woods of the South and chasing a black blues singer named Tee-Tot around town provided all the observations and inspiration he would need for his poetry. The woman troubles would come later…
2. Every good writer needs an editor.
In the producer’s seat, Nashville music publisher Fred Rose provided the arrangement know-how and polish to turn Hank’s songs into classics.
3. At the end of the day, the work is what counts.
While Hank might’ve spent most of his days drunk and rowdy, he treated the studio as a sanctuary. He poured his soul out into the microphone, so for those of us who never got to see him on the Opry stage, his true vision and lasting legacy–the 66 recorded songs he cut–are with us forever.
LOVESICK BLUES is lean, but it could be leaner. I found Hemphill’s intro and closing chapters about his truck-driving Hank-loving father to be a little sentimental. Does Hank really only belong to the truck drivers and waitresses working that lonesome highway? Doubtful. Hank belongs to all of us who are listening.
Now I’m just waiting for someone to write a novel based solely around Charles Carr: the college kid who found himself in the middle of a New Year’s Eve snowstorm with the father of country music dead in the backseat of his car. There’s a character with a story to tell.