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Posts tagged writing

from "A Conversation with David Foster Wallace," interview by Larry McCaffery, Dalkey Archive Press, 1991 :: via more than 95 theses

If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

image from Tughra, Wikipedia.
from "Everyone Speaks Text Message," by Tina Rosenberg, The New York TImes, 9 December 2011

“For a long time, technology was the enemy,” says Inée Slaughter, executive director of the New Mexico-based Indigenous Language Institute, which teaches Native Americans and other indigenous peoples how to use digital technologies to keep their languages vital. Heritage languages were being killed off by increasing urbanization, the spread of formal education and the shift to cash crops, which ended the isolation of indigenous communities. Advances in technology seemed to intensify the decline. “Even in 1999 or 2000, people were saying technology killed their language,” Slaughter says. “Community elders worried about it. As television came into homes, English became pervasive 24/7. Mainstream culture infiltrated, and young kids want to be like that. It was a huge, huge problem, and it’s still there. But now we know ways technology can be helpful.”

by Andy Crouch for Culture Making

Amy Julia Becker is a remarkable young writer whose book A Good and Perfect Gift, a memoir about discovering that her first child had Down Syndrome, comes out this fall. She sent me an email asking how I handle speaking requests, and especially the question of how to handle the occasions when invitations come without any apparent plans to compensate her for her time. With her permission, here’s a slightly expanded version of what I wrote in response.

I have a pretty standard reply when I receive speaking requests that require travel outside the Philadelphia area. It starts this way: “My speaking fee is $2,500/day or partial day, plus travel expenses, which I work hard to keep to a minimum.” If I have reason to expect that they will be taken aback by that number, I add: “I realize this may be out of the reach of some academic or nonprofit budgets.” (Note that I don’t offer to reduce the amount. :) ) I sometimes also emphasize: “I’m all yours during the time I’m with you—please feel free to pack my schedule! I’m happy to wash dishes if that would be helpful.” (That’s true! I actually like washing dishes. Not many groups take me up on the dishwashing, but a lot sure do take advantage of the packed schedule, and I love it.) And I often add: “My family and I have decided to focus my volunteer speaking time on the Philadelphia area, where I never charge at all. However, this means that when I do travel, I have to charge my full fee.”

Now, there are a few exceptions worth noting. I often make different arrangements when my travel is connected with my day job at Christianity Today—this approach applies to the roughly half of my time that I spend on my own speaking and writing. Another exception is that in the months following the publication of a new book (which will happen, God willing and me writing, late next year) I generally do several events, ones that my publisher’s marketing team feels are especially significant, for little or no compensation except travel. It’s a recognition of all the investment they are making in the book. I only do this in consultation with the publisher, though.

Also, there are a handful of people who are most significant in my own life and growth, with whom I want to spend as much time as possible in order to sustain and deepen the relationship. If discounting my fee or waiving it altogether means we get to do something together, then I’ll do so.

This approach is hard won over several decades of experimenting and learning from my mistakes—in particular, things I found myself desperately wishing I had not agreed to do. :) To be honest, in my experience there are few times where traveling any great distance to speak without payment is actually a good idea. As for the specific amount I charge, it’s based on essentially one criterion: an amount just high enough that even if my hosts were to do a terrible job preparing for my visit (alas, that does happen from time to time), I could happily cash the check and know that if nothing else was accomplished, the income had helped to set me free to do other things at other times without worrying about money. For various reasons the amount has gone up over the past few years, but interestingly, the higher I’ve set that number, the more lasting fruit my work has seemed to bear.

That said, I think the least important thing in my whole approach is the dollar amount I charge—much more important are the principles behind it. Most important is the commitment Catherine and I have made that in Philadelphia, we will discourage churches and ministries from paying me altogether. We have decided we are called to “tithe” our time as well as our money, and we want to tithe our time in the place where God has placed us and where there are the greatest chances of building and nurturing ongoing relationships. So with my fellow Philadelphians I set all these considerations aside and try just to serve generously and wholeheartedly, expecting nothing in return—and that, too, interestingly, has borne a lot of fruit in the form of joyful friendships and partnerships of a sort I could only dream of when we moved here eight years ago.

image from "Beach Calligraphy," by Andrew van der Merwe, Japan Letter Arts Forum, 21 October 2008 :: via The Ministry of Type :: first posted here 8 September 2009
newsWhy stories matter

This afternoon I had the great pleasure of interviewing Carey Wallace and Jill Lamar, two remarkably creative women with deep insight into creativity, faith, and the world of publishing. Carey’s first novel, The Blind Contessa’s New Machine, will be released by Viking Penguin this summer. Jill is a senior executive at Barnes & Noble who directs their Discover Great New Writers program.

We had a fabulous conversation about fiction, story, what helps artists create (hint: too much money is actually a bad idea), and how Christians can create excellent art of all kinds. Fortunately the conference call, sponsored by Wedgwood Circle, was recorded. If you care about art, writing, and faith, it’s absolutely worth an hour of your time. You can listen here (free registration is required). Enjoy. (I’m sure of one thing: by the end, you will want to read Carey’s new book when it comes out in July.)


"Poetry by Meer Taqi Meer, a renown poet of India," paper, self-made ink and bamboo pen (2009), by Shanawaz Alam Ahmed, International Exhibition of Calligraphy :: via ephemera assemblyman
from "A sprig of verbena and the gifts of a great teacher," by Kathleen Parker, Washington Post, 14 April 2010 :: Thanks Mimi!

[My] fellow students at Dreher High School in Columbia, S.C., were way ahead of me when Mr. Gasque finally called on me to identify some part of a sentence he had written on the blackboard. His back to the class with chalk in hand, he stood poised to write my instructions.

Every living soul knows the feeling of helplessness when a crowd of peers awaits the answer you do not know. Whatever I said was utterly ridiculous, I suppose, because my classmates erupted in peals of laughter.

I have not forgotten that moment, or the next, during all these years. As I was trying to figure out how to hurl myself under my desk, Mr. Gasque tossed me a sugarcoated, tangerine-colored lifesaver from the good ship lollipop.

He whirled. No perfectly executed pirouette can top the spin executed by Mr. Gasque that day. Suddenly facing the class, he flushed crimson and his voice trembled with rage.

“Don’t. You. Ever. Laugh. At her. Again.” he said. “She can out-write every one of you any day of the week.”

It is not possible to describe my gratitude. Time suspended and I dangled languorously from a fluff of cloud while my colleagues drowned in stunned silence. I dangle even now, like those silly participles I eventually got to know. Probably no one but me remembers Mr. Gasque’s act of paternal chivalry, but I basked in those words and in the thought that what he said might be true. I started that day to try to write as well as he said I could. I am still trying.

from "Rob Walker, Consumer, Thingamabob Connoisseur," by Ariel Ramchandani, More Intelligent Life, 8 Februrary 2010

MIL: Where did the original idea come from?

RW: Both Josh and I already spend too much time thinking about value and objects, I guess. There is one minor detail of interest in the back story of S.O.: I broke a coffee cup I’d bought as a souvenir on a trip with my now-wife, early in our relationship. I was very sad to have ruined it, but I realised it only had value to me—it was just a coffee cup from some diner—because of the story behind it. This got me thinking about whether stories for worthless-seeming objects could be invented, and whether that would increase their value. That led to conversations with Josh that culminated in Significant Objects: We would buy cheap thingamabobs from yard sales and thrift stores and the like, recruit creative writers to invent stories about them, then put the object up for auction on eBay with the invented provenance as its description. (It’s important to note that we were explicit about the invented nature of the Significance; there was no hoaxing.)

MIL: Are you surprised by the results?

RW: We expected that the stories would increase the value of the objects—but we were very surprised by how much. The first round involved 100 objects/stories, and in the end we sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51. (The money went to the writers in Volume 1, by the way.) That’s a Significance Markup of more than 2,700%. While nothing we bought cost us more than $4 (and most were a buck), several objects sold for more than $100. We did not think the prices would go that high. I still have old e-mail exchanges between Josh and me from the first week, as we were very excited to see auctions reach, say, $15.

I can’t write about heroes seven feet tall and invincible. I write about people five feet eight and nervous.

—Elmer Kelton, late author of westerns ::

from "type the sky," photographs by Lisa Rienermann, 2007 :: via ReubenMiller

The researchers examined extensive letter correspondence records of 16 famous writers, performers, politicians and scientists, including Einstein, Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Ernest Hemingway, and found that the 16 individuals sent letters randomly but in cycles.

The same mathematical model the Northwestern team used in a previous study to explain e-mail behavior now has been shown to apply to the letter writers. This refutes the rational model, which says that people are driven foremost by responding to others.

No matter what their profession, all the letter writers behaved the same way. They adhered to a circadian cycle; they tended to write a number of letters at one sitting, which is more efficient; and when they wrote had more to do with chance and circumstances than a rational approach of writing the most important letter first.

by Andy Crouch for Culture Making

My friend Adam McHugh, whose first (very good) book is about to be published, wrote me asking if I had any advice. He was going through the roller coaster of excitement, nervousness, anxiety, and eagerness of a first-time author. It’s a common experience (and not just for authors), and with his permission I thought I’d share what I wrote in reply.

Well, first of all, congratulations! Enjoy opening the first box of books—it’s pretty fun.

It is good to keep in mind Mark Twain’s admittedly harsh dictum, “Most books come into the world with all the fanfare of a stillborn child.” The truth is that unlike, say, your wedding day, there will be a great and utter lack of excitement about your book the day it is published. And the day after. And most days after that. Believe me. My book has done well, perhaps embarrassingly so, and the truth is it just is not that big a deal. Considering that “doing well” in these latter days means that maybe 25,000 people read a book over the course of its first year—that would be 0.1% 0.01% of the American population—it’s not surprising that it just doesn’t rise to the level of a big event for anyone except the author. (The foregoing does not apply, at least not entirely, if you are Bill Clinton, Dan Brown, or Donald Miller. But you are not, so no worries!)

What Absolutely Does Not Matter and Should Be Ignored If At All Possible is the Amazon rank of your book. It means nothing. (There are whole Web pages documenting this.) If your book is doing well enough for the Amazon rank to provide any meaningful information (say, less than 250 or so) you will know that anyway, because people will be calling to say they saw you on Oprah. If it is among the vast majority of books, including very good, solidly selling, important, and influential books, the number will fluctuate maddeningly and inscrutably, providing you with periodic endorphin rushes that will get you hooked but will tell you nothing about the success, let alone the worth, of the book. So I recommend never checking it. But of course you will. At least know that you’re basically just feeding your endorphin needs, nothing else.

What will be a big deal, hopefully, over the coming months, are individual letters, emails, conversations and even (we hope!) reviews from grateful readers. This is what makes it worth doing, in my opinion—the amazing chance to meet people for whom your words were genuinely, even dramatically, helpful. And then further down the road, to hear stories about people who actually created something or started something or persevered in something because you wrote the book. But of course by definition, all these truly worthwhile outcomes will happen months or years from the date of publication. We authors play a long game, which is a very good thing.

The other big deal will be the opportunities, whether few or many, that come to speak to groups and find that for some strange reason, they actually listen to you now that you have published a book, even though you are basically saying the same things you said before you published a book and basically have the same gifts and limitations you did before you published a book. It is a truly mysterious thing, and in many ways a bit absurd, but you will find yourself with an additional quantum of cultural power. I knew about this in the abstract when I wrote Culture Making (the importance of concrete cultural artifacts rather than disembodied ideas) but I must confess I still find myself surprised at how true it is.

So, as with all events that confer additional power and also expose insecurities and fears, this is mostly an opportunity to deepen your own prayer life, entrusting both the elation (assuming there is any—see first few paragraphs above) and the deflation to God. I have found John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer to be incredibly useful in turbulent times like these.

Oh, one other thing: I highly recommend never responding to critical comments (in reviews, blog posts, comment threads, etc.) online. I have done so a handful of times and regretted it every time. You are very unlikely to be able to respond to criticism in a constructive way in the heat of the online moment, and once the moment has passed you will realize it is faintly ridiculous to respond to things that were written after half a moment’s thought and most likely not even based on the slightest serious engagement with what you have written. You’ve had the great privilege of being able to spend a great deal of time shaping and polishing your ideas, then interacting with editors and early readers to refine them further. Why throw that all away with a hastily (and probably angrily/nervously/defensively/imprudently) composed reply? And furthermore, a hastily composed reply that, unlike your carefully written book, will be instantly accessible via a Google search for your name for ever and ever? I highly recommend simply taking online criticism as a chance to pray John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer again.

I hope these thoughts are in some way helpful! Godspeed and I hope to see you somewhere in person soon!

from "The lost art of handwriting," by Umberto Eco, The Guardian, 21 September 2009 :: via 3quarksdaily

My parents’ handwriting was slightly slanted because they held the sheet at an angle, and their letters were, at least by today’s standards, minor works of art. At the time, some – probably those with poor hand- writing – said that fine writing was the art of fools. It’s obvious that fine handwriting does not necessarily mean fine intelligence. But it was pleasing to read notes or documents written as they should be. My generation was schooled in good handwriting, and we spent the first months of elementary school learning to make the strokes of letters. The exercise was later held to be obtuse and repressive but it taught us to keep our wrists steady as we used our pens to form letters rounded and plump on one side and finely drawn on the other. Well, not always – because the inkwells, with which we soiled our desks, notebooks, fingers and clothing, would often produce a foul sludge that stuck to the pen and took 10 minutes of mucky contortions to clean.

from the "Shettima Kagu Qur'an," Early Nigerian Qur'anic Manuscripts :: thanks Andrew!
from "Friendship in Letters," by Jessica Mesman Griffith, Good Letters: The IMAGE Blog, 30 July 2009

This is what I love the most about letters: through them, we are a part of each other’s daily lives in a profoundly intimate way. We see what the other sees—think what the other thinks—in a way that would be impossible through any other form of communication. Different even than when we were together having the same experience, filtering it through our own perceptions. It’s a profound intimacy, profoundly comforting.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve made a character of myself in our correspondence, and of Amy. I realize, returning now to the letters, that my voice there is different than anywhere else. The diction is a little higher; I use less contractions and slang. They are intensely personal, and yet strangely formal—another effort, made unconsciously, to elevate the contents.

But that elevation isn’t a writerly embellishment; it’s the dignity demanded by the subject. Sometimes in recreating and narrating an event for Amy, I’ve finished with my heart literally racing at the beauty and significance of the moment I’ve described. But it isn’t merely that I’ve enriched the moment’s meaning by writing it. No—in writing it to her, I’ve uncovered the meaning that was hidden there all along.


from "Mary Gannon, Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine," by Christy Tennant, IAM Conversations, 23 Jul 2009
excerpt Adoration

Praise God, men and women dressed in brown, carrying your lives on your backs. Praise God, street-side café with your goggle-eyed Chihuahua sign. Praise God, scrap metal horse. Praise God, basement shop full of silky foreign scarves.

Praise God, shoe store so proud of being in Collegetown since before you were born.

Praise God, little tattoo parlor with the brass sign on your inner door, Confessions, 3-5 pm.

excerpt Fridge logic
from "Writing: Jargon Preservation 4," by Rogers, Kung Fu Monkey, 28 April 2005 :: via Schott's Vocab

“sock barrel”: a collection of roughly identical jokes all about the same thing.  Pick one, cut the rest.

“hang a lantern on it”: Instead of trying to hide a script/credibility problem, address it in full measure, so it can be dealt with and discarded. “How does she break into the base?” “Hang a lantern on it, how tough it is to get the codes, but that makes her twice as cool for pulling it off.” This is often a bit of sleight-of-hand, but hell, you’re probably using it to address some—

“fridge logic”: a logic problem in the script that the average viewer would only ask themselves about, say, an hour later when they’re at the fridge getting a snack during commercials. TV is a very tight little medium time-wise, with an enormous amount of hand-waving to begin with. Often a logic problem that seems to smack you in the face because you’ve had the time to read the script, reread it, give notes, break it down, etc. is going to fly by your average—and hopefully emotionally engaged—viewer.

“Well, how’d she get from Dallas to Houston.”
“Commuter flight.”
“Could she make the drive to the airport in time?”
“That’s fridge logic.”

Note that you’re not trying to be lazy here—you’re just dealing with the fact that every line of exposition is a line that isn’t active or particularly interesting, and you only get so many of those in 44 minutes before your show is now boring. Logically flawless, but boring.

"????????????? (Fujimori Festival/Every 10 Years/8th Century" from the Miyako Nenju Gyoji Gajo (Picture Album of the Annual Festivals in the Miyako), hand-painted on silk by Nakajima Soyo (1928) :: via Bibliodyssey