RSSCategory: Writing

End the use of long-term solitary confinement in Illinois!

February 22, 2012 | By | 3 Replies More
End the use of long-term solitary confinement in Illinois!

Hey all. I haven’t been posting since last summer, mostly because I’ve been drowning in graduate school duties. One of these duties has been interning at Chicago’s Cook County Jail. There, I sit in on group therapy sessions for inmates with drug-related offenses. I’ve been consistently touched by the philosophical and psychological depth of these men, their gentleness and the span of their regrets. These are men who will sit down and opine for hours on topics you wouldn’t expect low-SES drug dealers and addicts to have much knowledge of: gender identity is a big topic, for example (these guys live firsthand the consequences of masculinity). And when it comes to living with shame or regret, these guys are almost the best resource you can find.

The only place where you can find more affecting people, I think, is at prisons. I’ve been volunteering for a Chicago-based group called Tamms Year Ten, which advocates for prisoners housed in long-term solitary confinement. I write and read inmates’ letters, respond to their requests for photos and magazines, and read their countless reports of abuse– from medical staff, from Corrections Officers, from mail room staff, and from the state itself.

Let’s be clear on what “long-term” solitary confinement means. These men at Tamms are housed alone for 23-hours a day, with zero human contact, for decades. Some have been locked up alone for 23-28 years.

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National Geographic photo showcase

December 7, 2011 | By | Reply More
National Geographic photo showcase

What else can be said about National Geographic’s photos that hasn’t already been said? Check out the National Geographic Homepage for photography for many jaw-dropping photos, including this photo of Camel Thorn Trees, Namibia.

If you are wondering what to get someone for Christmas, and they don’t yet have a subscription to National Geographic, consider it. I’ve blogged on NG stories regularly, for good reason.

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Kahlil Gibran’s “On Children”

October 31, 2011 | By | Reply More
Kahlil Gibran’s “On Children”

How often do you cross paths with a parent who is attempting to make his or her children in the parent’s image and likeness? I see it on a regular basis. The prototypical case is the parent who didn’t make it to the Broadway stage who tries to turn his/her child into a Broadway performer. You often see parents who demand athletic excellence from their kids, often (it seems) in an effort to compensate for the parent’s failed strivings to make it big in sports. This style of parenting reaches every high-earning or high-prestige profession.  Or maybe it’s not to make up for the parents own failings as much as it is an attempt to create a trophy child so that, at cocktail parties, the parent can nonchalantly drop a few hints about his or her child’s (sometimes admittedly spectacular) accomplishments.

This afternoon, a friend sent me a perfect antidote for this mindset. It’s a poem by Kahlil Gibran, titled “On Children.”

Upon reading it, I was reminded of the following quote by Friedrich Nietzsche:  “What does your conscience say? — ‘You should become the person you are’.”

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How to write like Stephen King

September 15, 2011 | By | Reply More
How to write like Stephen King

I don’t write horror stories, but I did find this summary of Steven King’s advice on how to write useful.

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Whence books?

September 11, 2011 | By | Reply More
Whence books?

What is becoming of the classic paper version of books and the bookstores that sell them? The Economist offers its analysis.

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Why is writing so difficult

August 26, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More
Why is writing so difficult

Why is writing so difficult, and why is it that I write so slowly? These are two questions addressed by a well-written and presumably slowly-written article by Michael Aggar at Slate.

Kellogg is always careful to emphasize the extreme cognitive demands of writing, which is very flattering. “Serious writing is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task,” he declares. It requires the same kind of mental effort as a high-level chess match or an expert musical performance. We are all aspiring Mozarts indeed. So what’s holding us back? How does one write faster? Kellogg terms the highest level of writing as “knowledge-crafting.” In that state, the writer’s brain is juggling three things: the actual text, what you plan to say next, and—most crucially—theories of how your imagined readership will interpret what’s being written. A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience.

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Ira Glass and the taste-ability gap.

June 13, 2011 | By | 3 Replies More
Ira Glass and the taste-ability gap.

Creation is daunting. Partly because the drive to create is always rooted in admiration for others’ creations. What writer hasn’t struggled against inadvertently ghost-writing their favorite author? What aspiring auteur, poet, or painter doesn’t begin with work that is heartrendingly derivative of others’ better attempts? Or worse– what creative person hasn’t struggled to make something ‘great’, something ‘great’ as the art they adore, only to find they can’t quite compete? And who doesn’t infer from these failings that maybe they weren’t cut out to be a creative type after all?

Ira Glass, creator and longtime host of This American Life, says there’s a very simple reason for the head-bashing frustrations of early creative production. Simply put: if you are interested in creating something, it’s probably because you have immaculate taste. Taste that outpaces your own ability. At least, at first. Glass says:

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

I found this snippet in a video interview with Glass (below) a year or two ago, and I find it incredibly inspiring. Glass’ view of creativity suggests that even if you lack innate, immediate creative ability, you are not a lost cause– and that, in fact, a little creative self-loathing may be a sign of good aesthetic instincts. It also suggests there is a solution to the problem of making unsatisfying dreck: just keep making more. And more. And more.

This wisdom is especially powerful in context. As a radio producer, Glass was a very late bloomer. He worked in public radio for twenty years before conceiving of This American Life; he readily admits (in another portion of his interview, and on his program) that the first seven years of his radio work was deeply underwhelming and often poorly-paced.  He’ll readily admit that his early stories were bad, and that even he knew they were bad, and that this tormented him. Only through tireless efforts and the cultivation of exceptional taste was he able to develop and bloom. And he bloomed big:  This American Life is one of the most widely-heard public radio programs ever, with 1.7 million weekly listeners, and has topped the Itunes podcast chart continuously for years. If Ira had given up after a few years of shoddy radio stories, we’d all have missed out on TAL’s  hundreds of hours of thoughtful, poignant, high-quality public radio.

I found this interview snippet a little over a year ago, and Glass’ words of experience have galvanized me ever since. Whenever I write something that strikes me as uninspiring or derivative dreck, I reassure myself it’s a matter of taste, and time. And more time.

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What I Have To Say About Ayn Rand

April 25, 2011 | By | 30 Replies More
What I Have To Say About Ayn Rand

From time to time, here and there, someone brings Ayn Rand up as some kind of role model. Lately it’s even in the national news, thanks to the Tea Party and an apparently not very good film of Rand’s seminal masterwork, Atlas Shrugged. The uber conservatives now crowding reason out of the halls of congress with their bizarro legislation and their lectures from the floor and on committees about how their toilets don’t flush right so why should regulations on light bulbs be passed are the children of the Dragon’s Teeth cast randomly by Ms. Rand and her philosophical cult followers. It amazes how people who profess to believe in a philosophy of independent thought can sublimate themselves so thoroughly to the dogmas of that philosophy and claim with a straight face that they are free thinkers on any level. The phrase “more Catholic than the pope” comes to mind sometimes when crossing verbal swords with these folks, who seem perfectly blind to the contradictions inherent in their own efforts. Rand laid out a My Way or the Highway ethic that demanded of her followers that they be true to themselves—as long as they did as she directed.

Ayn Rand’s novels, of which there were three (plus a novella/parable I don’t intend to discuss here), moved by giant leaps from promising to fanciful to pathetic. There are some paragraphs in any one of them that are just fine. Occasionally a secondary character is nicely drawn (Eddie Willers is possibly her most sympathetic and true-to-life creation) and from time to time there is even a moment of genuine drama. But such bits are embedded in tar pits of philosophically over-determined panegyric that drowns any art there might be.

But then, her devoted fans never read them for the art.

What Rand delivers in both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged is a balm to the misunderstood and underappreciated Great Man buried in the shambling, inarticulate assemblage that is disaffected high I.Q. youth.

The give-aways in both novels involve laughter. The opening scene in The Fountainhead characterizes Howard Roark for the entire novel, prefiguring the final scene in the novel, which translated to film perfectly in the weird 1947 Gary Cooper thing.

Howard Roark laughed.

He stood naked at the edge of a cliff….He laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning and at the things which now lay ahead.

Of course, the thing that had happened to him that morning was his expulsion from university for not completing his assignments. You can pretty it up with philosophical dross, but basically he didn’t do what he was required to do, instead opting for self-expression in the face of everything else. Hence the misunderstood genius aspect, the wholly-formed sense of mission, the conviction of personal rightness, and the adolescent disdain for authority no matter what.

But his reaction? To laugh.

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Never use a polysyllabic word…

March 20, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
Never use a polysyllabic word…

…when a diminutive synonym will suffice.

The Onion nails it here:
Microsoft Word Now Includes Squiggly Blue Line To Alert Writer When Word Is Too Advanced For Mainstream Audience

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