Ethan Crane
If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways.

Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer

One of the pleasures I take from writing, before any writing has actually happened, is the stimulation and ideas received from reading the writing of others. Discovering how this feeds into your own ideas makes reading for me more pleasureable than when I was just reading. But, as with food and alcohol and money and all manner of other stimulants, I regularly forget that every increase in stimulation does not lead to an increase in pleasure.

This is especially difficult to understand in relation to reading the writing of others: ever-increasing stimulus does not lead to more writing, another book read is not another page written. In any moment of spare time I am  tempted by a book/article/online lecture/random surf of my favourite websites. But the short-term dopamine hit from discovering one more new idea has to be resisted for the longer-term pleasure gained from not-reading, from the wordless activities of walking or sitting or whatever you like to do, that allows your mind to sift through the ideas.

When I remember, this is the greater pleasure for me: to be involved in a wordless activity with a notebook to hand, and ideas coming to mind unbidden.

(See also: Self-imposed Rules for Rationing of Good Stuff)

What Do I Need to Improvise This Scene?

The parts of the novel I’m working on that I have already written, and that I like best, all seem to have come about through improvisation – the more unconscious the writing, the less I was thinking as I wrote it, the better.

Which ought to make progress easy: improvise more. Except it doesn’t, because improvising doesn’t come easy.

So I need to understand the times when it does come easy: what are the circumstances, what materials do I need for the best improvising?

An initial list – circumstances: start first thing in the morning, as little interaction with other people as possible… certainly no interaction with the internet. Materials: not too much pre-plotting that will limit improvisation… but some idea of the direction, otherwise too many possiblities… good knowledge of the characters…

(My list will no doubt be different from the lists of others.)

Live Cheaply But Don’t Feel Poor

Following the news that wages for the under 30’s have fallen by 11% in the last 5 years, GraduateFog, a website for career-seeking graduates,  wrote an article about graduates’ attitudes to having less money:

But a Channel 4 News report provided a fascinating insight into this age group’s attitude towards the future. Economics editor Paul Mason interviewed set designers Charlotte Osborn and Samara Tompsett, both 27, who run a ‘collective’ company called Morning. Both women – who had done internships, part-time work and moved from job to job since graduating – looked pretty skint. But they also seemed remarkably cheerful and hopeful. This is how the interview went:

Paul Mason: How long has it been since you’ve had a regular, well-paid job?
Samara Tompsett: [laughs] I’ve never had a regular, well-paid job.
Mason: You’ve never had a regular, well-paid job?
Both women: [laugh] No!
Mason: Do you expect to have one?
Tompsett: Well, we expect that what we’re doing now will build up to become something that we can call a regular, well-paid job, but at the same time that it will always be… not. It will always be slightly odd. We don’t know any different, because we’ve never… We came in [to the workforce] at the beginning of that [recession]. So I don’t know what it would be like to have a lot more money.

I love these graduates’ attitude. Who cares if you have little money, if you’re managing to do work that you love?

The difficulty is managing to feel like to still have status in society even though you have little money. Perhaps the lack of graduate careers and reduced earnings will cause more people do find (badly- or un-) paid work of their own that they really love – rather than poorly paid career jobs that they later discover they really hate.

But I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed. I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is fully employed.

Leonard Cohen in Paul Zollo’s book, Songwriters on Songwriting (you can read the whole Leonard Cohen interview on his website here)

'Even people with jobs are unemployed' – more fuel to the lie that a career or full-time work automatically means fulfillment.

Work is the source of fulfillment, but not necessarily paid work (probably not paid work), and only work you have decided to do yourself.

See also Alain de Botton on misemployment

(once again via the ever-resourceful brainpickings.org)

The young Kundera dreamed of creating a work in which the bridges and the filler have no reason to be, and in which the novelist would never be forced – for the sake of form and its dictates – to stray by even a single line from what he cares about, what fascinates him.

Geoff Dyer, from Out of Sheer Rage (via comfortstrangerworries)

Which suggests a possible writing strategy: just write the parts you want to see included, and thread them together with as little as you can get away with.


My friends play in bandsThey are better than Everything on radio.

Courtney Barnett’s lyrics in Are You Looking After Yourself?, on the excellent double EP A Sea of Split Peas
Lyrics which nicely encapsulate my hope in The Tyranny of Careers for the future of artistic innovation: a large number of musicians with day job subsistence work, who play in bands that are never heard on the radio.
Not just musicians – but writers, painters, toymakers, etc, producing work that they genuinely love in their spare time for little or no money. Not driven by the ambition of making a full-time living from the work they love (which often kills the love, but simply by the pleasure that this innovation brings, even if it may only be heard, read or watched by a limited audience. A society where the majority of people are fulfilled because a proportion of their life is given over to innovation.
Whether part-time innovators are ‘better than everything on radio’ or not is a matter of opinion. But I notice a strange phenomenon when experiencing the paintings or songs or other work of people I know personally: they have an additional value to me beyond what might be experienced by a stranger, brought about by my knowledge of the personality of the artist, and of the process that created the work.
You might say: what is the point of just making stuff if no one hears/reads/sees it? But the number of people is not really relevant to the satisfaction: making stuff is everything, prestige almost nothing.

My friends play in bands
They are better than
Everything on radio.

Courtney Barnett’s lyrics in Are You Looking After Yourself?, on the excellent double EP A Sea of Split Peas

Lyrics which nicely encapsulate my hope in The Tyranny of Careers for the future of artistic innovation: a large number of musicians with day job subsistence work, who play in bands that are never heard on the radio.

Not just musicians – but writers, painters, toymakers, etc, producing work that they genuinely love in their spare time for little or no money. Not driven by the ambition of making a full-time living from the work they love (which often kills the love, but simply by the pleasure that this innovation brings, even if it may only be heard, read or watched by a limited audience. A society where the majority of people are fulfilled because a proportion of their life is given over to innovation.

Whether part-time innovators are ‘better than everything on radio’ or not is a matter of opinion. But I notice a strange phenomenon when experiencing the paintings or songs or other work of people I know personally: they have an additional value to me beyond what might be experienced by a stranger, brought about by my knowledge of the personality of the artist, and of the process that created the work.

You might say: what is the point of just making stuff if no one hears/reads/sees it? But the number of people is not really relevant to the satisfaction: making stuff is everything, prestige almost nothing.

Really, think process not product

I keep coming back to the idea of process not product. I’ve been aware of it for some time (originally in this interview with Brian Eno), and latched on to other people’s ideas about it – but over time, in a similar manner to phrases about creativity such as ‘let the story write itself’, it reveals more meaning.

The most recent understanding of ‘think process’ came about during one of those writing occasions when thinking ‘why the hell am I doing this?’. Because whereas product is the end result story or essay or artefact that comes into existence at one moment in time, process is where you spend most of your time before that end point. And since so much more time is spent on process, much more effort should be made in making it a good process.

Because if I do not think about this process, focus on enjoying this process, focus on changing and discovering the process that gives me the most pleasure in making work, then why am I here, why am I doing this? If I have no inclination to write, why am I bothering? So that I can have a career comprised of this process that I find frustrating and unfulfilling?

So ‘think process’ also means ‘work out how you best take pleasure from work’. And happily, this is how the product turns out for the better.

If a situation has caught your attention […] it has meaning for you, and if you can find out what that meaning is you have the basis for a story

Dorothea Brande, from her 1936 book Becoming a Writer.

Highlighting the use of keeping a diary/journal: as a record of the events that have meaning for you, and so those which are writing source material – even if how they are source material is not immediately obvious. (Also, a great answer to the repeated question to myself, ‘why exactly am I keeping this journal?’).

See also musician Courtney Barnett’s acknowledgement of the source of her lyrics:

She keeps notes in a journal every day – she’s kept one since she was a kid – and then sits down with a guitar to “stick them all together into songs”.

Becoming a Writer is still, despite its age, one of the two how-to-write books I turn to more than any others (the other one being this).

(file on notepad Things I Forget to Remember About Writing)

An old saying that I can’t stand is, “You don’t get if you don’t ask.” [My career really started when] I did a little reading in Chicago at a club. It was just a silly show, but Ira Glass happened to be in the audience. He introduced himself and then he called me a couple of years later and…

David Sedaris on the difference between getting yourself out there and self-promotion/marketing. If the self-promotion is more visible than the (good) content, don’t do it.

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s TED talk on Flow

The state in which you discover the purpose and pleasure of creativity: flow.

Time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.

My ultimate aim for all innovative activity.