Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Steinbeck's cleansing technique

I believe any writer worth his or her pen will confess that at least 50 percent of their work is garbage. I believe this to be especially true of those who simply plop down at their PC and start hammering out text. I hold to this idea fervently. Why?

Let's look to the venerable John Steinbeck, author of classics The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and Of Mice and Men. Years ago, I read a bit of his wisdom about the creative process. He admitted that before he began writing each day, he would spend close to an hour penning whatever came out of his head. Just to get the junk out.

This was the writerly equivalent of stretching before a workout. It was also a method of cleansing the distractions from his mind before focusing on a larger project. Within that habit, there's a keen insight.

Imagine you're about to continue work on a story after you finish watching a country music video (the music genre's irrelevant; you'll soon see my point). The images from the video and the lyrics and rhythm of the song leave a residue in your brain. You may even tap your pen in time to the bass line or drum beat. You'll find elements of the music--in everything from its diction to its cadence--infiltrating, even poisoning, your best laid efforts.

It's the effect of recency. The last thing we're exposed to tends to be what we recall best. Or what influences us most. Which is why the 30 minutes or one hour spent jotting your thoughts and distancing yourself from that last song or TV show may help you produce clearer, smarter, untainted prose.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Winston Churchill said words to the effect of, “Truth is so important she must be protected by a vanguard of lies.” Of course, that was wartime.

A few years ago, Stephen Colbert introduced America to “truthiness”—the feeling that an idea must be true, even without evidence of its veracity.

Last year, Salon blogger Farhad Manjoo authored True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. Mind you, I haven't read this book (yet) and thus can't speak to it. But isn't the idea itself fascinating in a disturbing way? I'm intrigued by the mere usage of the non-word "post-fact" and the implication that truth belongs to a bygone era.

After simply reading the title, I'm confronted by two disparate thoughts. One: a dread that truthiness even exists and that it should not relegated to satire, lest we laugh ruefully at our own ingrained cynicism. Two: truth should be mined, like a diamond.

Two blogs I value

At the intersection of marketing and wisdom, you'll find Seth Godin. And for navigating the restless waters of social media, there's Birmingham's own David Griner.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Some words just stick in your head...

like ineffable. Sure, it's a word the average person would rarely use in conversation. You don't hear people say, "Wow, that touchdown pass was... ineffable."

Because ineffable literally means "incapable of being expressed in words," according to my favorite online dictionary, www.m-w.com.

It's been stuck in my head recently due to its usage in a running faith-based debate on Andrew Sullivan's blog at www.theatlantic.com. And when it comes to discussing God, ineffable feels appropriate. Frankly, I'm hoping to encounter many instances throughout my life that are... ineffable.


I’m a word guy. Fascinated by the usage of words in advertising, prose, speeches, screenplays, you name it. And as a creative, my greatest tendency is to seek self-satisfaction and third-party applause for my work. Because any artist’s most demanding need is typically appreciation and/or adoration from the audience.

Which is quite infantile—and appears to spring solely from ego.

Contrast that with the product of most successful blogs in any field: information of use to the reader. So you’ve got two nearly diametrically opposed objectives—self expression (an ego-driven desire to leave one’s mark upon the world) versus putting the reader first.

Am I overthinking this? Likely, yes. But here is my pledge. I’ll work to provide helpful information and comments about the power of words and link to those communications skills I admire. My goals are two-fold: to educate myself and others and to gain readers.

So there. A bit of altruism mixed with a yen for personal achievement. Just being honest. And away we go...