What Writing Looks Like

At my job I'm supposed to be writing, but at one point I pushed the chair back from the desk, crossed one leg over the other, put my hands behind my neck, leaned way back in the chair, and stared at the plaster wall for a couple minutes toward the end of which I worried that someone might walk in and doubt I was earning my keep. Had anyone asked what I was doing, I would have wanted to answer, "I'm writing," but probably would have said I was thinking because so few people would believe that, staring at the wall, I really was writing.

The look of writing differs throughout the process, changes according to the kind of work and the tools employed, and varies according to the writer. It even sounds different. I talk to myself while writing, whispering the lines as I work through something difficult. Sometimes writing is a good pen moving across and down the page. Most of my writing has me sitting at a desk rapping too hard on the keys and beating holy hell out of the space bar with my thumbs. I'd hate to share an office with me. But writing is also staring at the wall, looking out the window, filling the water bottle or coffee cup, crumpling a sheet of paper, massaging the eyes, and sometimes going for a walk or a run. Aaron Sorkin writes in the shower. I doubt he brings the paper and pen or his Macbook in there, but he's not taking a break so much as advancing the process.

No one questions Aaron Sorkin at this point. Not anyone with half a brain. I'm a lot less established and feel the need to account for what I'm doing. Good people are paying me money to write and I'd hate to have them think my staring at the wall is a waste of all that. I want to explain that looking at the wall got me the fix for the paragraph on page three. I pretty much wrote it on that wall, my body reclined in the chair, hands behind my head, but the pen in my head writing, scratching, and rewriting words. I found the words as if they were written in the textures and patches on that wall. I just needed to see their outlines enough to begin hearing them drop into place one after the other, one sentence and then another.

Now that's writing.

No one caught me in the act of it and had to hear my explanation. Except you.

I've been staring now at the two-word sentence that precedes this one, wondering, how will this end? Check back with me in a while. I'll still be staring out the window, into the pattern of the carpet, or maybe even at the painted wall. You'll have to get my attention. I leave this world when I'm writing even without pen or keyboard involved. I hate to come back until I've found the words and have arrived at the period that finishes it off just so.

Albums & Empty Boxes

As I've said before, listening to a record doesn't sound better than streaming, but I listen better and enjoy the experience much more. This is why I was disappointed when the new Brad Mehldau record I had ordered wasn't in the box from the record company. It's the thought that counts, but a box of packing material and a packing invoice isn't much of a thought. I so wanted to listen to that album.

I could have streamed it, but no.

Mehldau is a jazz artist and those folks, more often than not, know how to write liner notes. A good evening is listening to a record while reading the sleeve, learning who played what on each track, and getting some of the story behind the music. Sure, some of this is online, but on the computer I'm likely to check email, Twitter, or, God help me, the news, all of which wrecks the listening. Holding an album make the music that much better, makes it more interesting.

Streaming is like listening to the radio, something I've long avoided because when I want to hear Supertramp's "The Logical Song" or Pat Metheny's "As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls" the radio sticks me with the Thompson Twins' "Hold Me Now" and Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is." I'm often depressed, but that's suicidal. This is why I bought a tape player in middle school, a turntable in high school, and a CD player in college so I could play what I wanted to hear. Actually, I bought none of those. They were generous gifts from my parents. Thanks Mom and Dad.

I bought my own turntable this time and have given up tapes and all but a few CDs in the car. I also use my streaming service. It's convenient and sounds clean, but it isn't in any way romantic. It's not a whole experience the way it is listening to a record, reading the album cover and sleeve, and focusing only on the music.

I can't wait until the record company ships the album. This time I'll open the box nervous of more emptiness but hoping to be filled up by what's inside.

Dreyer's English, Benjamin Dreyer

A few days ago I wrote about having no guru, master, or teacher. I was wrong. I don't attend a specific school, but teachers, masters, and gurus are all free at the public library and Benjamin Dreyer filled those roles for me as I read, enjoyed, learned, and laughed through Dreyer's English, a book I recommend to every writer and reader as well as pretty much anyone who enjoys smart, funny people talking about interesting things. My wife tired of me laughing and reading sections to her, but she often tires of me and who can blame her?

Just about everyone has written about this book by now and what more can I say about it? My first thought when considering writing about it was this: don't. It has all been said by wiser and stupider (page 263, #22) people than I. Still, deciding not to write out of the fear of repeating what has already been said is the height of cowardice. But now that I'm here, what do I have to say other than that Dreyer is funny and made me smarter?


There is a section in which he describes working with Richard Russo on Straight Man, my favorite book and the funniest I know, followed closely by Russo's Nobody's Fool and Jess Walter's The Financial Lives Of The Poets. All of those make me stop and laugh out loud, not just smile and keep reading. That Straight Man still has this effect on me after at least half a dozen readings testifies either to its hilarity or my simplicity. I'd like to think it's the former. I'm sure that's what all us simple people hope.

(I liked the section enough to type "Hello," He Smiled: The Richard Russo Story in full, a time-consuming process far more useful than it might seem.)

Dreyer's English had me laughing at least as often as any of those and just as hard. This from a guide to clarity and style, though it's important to note that it is, as advertised on the cover, An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (emphasis mine). Well, in that case.

I can't cherry-pick things to quote here. There are too many. Get the book from your library. If you're a writer, buy a copy — I suspect I will — and within a few pages you'll understand. It's good right from the get-go and it stays good.

The footnotes are especially funny though, no laughing matter, my eyes skate right over the tiny asterisks. There's a terrible word to pronounce, but I looked it up so as not to write asterices or some other atrocious mistake that sounded Latin and highfallutin (page 137). I'm not utterly correct, but hope springs eternal for my education, edification, and whatever word begins with e and ends in tion that would round off that triple.

Of course the problem with having read such a book and especially with writing about it, is that I'm imagining all that might be made better about this post were I to better pay attention to all Dreyer has told me. That and if I could pull of jokes as he has. Perhaps I just need a few footnotes, but alas, no.

That's enough out of me. Go read him. Buy the book from the link above and make me a rich man, yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum. Or something like that.

Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska It's an acquired taste. A dark album. Sure, there are a couple tracks to sing along with. It's Bruce Springsteen after all and if you don't want to sing "Atlantic City," I don't know how to help you. But the album starts with a retelling of the Starkweather murders, sung pretty much in a dirge, and it mostly goes that way for the rest of both sides. This is not an album with a good beat that you can dance to. Unless you're about dead. Yet, it's spinning on my turntable and I can't tell you how happy I was to find it in a bin for a measly twelve dollars.

Springsteen recorded it as four-track demos. I picture him working alone though he probably had someone there with him. It's a lonely sounding album. To paraphrase what Hayden Carruth said about Raymond Carver's last book: Jesus, this is the saddest son of a bitch of an album I've heard in a long time. A real long time.

"Atlantic City" is on and, as I've said, you just have to like this tune. "Down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line." There's stuff like that all over this album:

New Jersey Turnpike, ridin' on a wet night, 'neath the refinery's glow, out where the great black rivers flow. License registration, I ain't got none, but I got a clear conscience 'bout the things that I done. — "State Trooper"

Well your honor I do believe I'd be better of dead. So if you can take a man's life for the thoughts that's in his head, then won't you sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time. And let 'em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line. — "Johnny 99"

Seen a man standing over a dead dog lyin' by the highway in a ditch. He's lookin' down kinda puzzled, pokin' that dog with a stick. Got his car door flung open, he's standin' out on Highway 31. Like if he stood there long enough, that dog'd get up and run. — "Reason To Believe"

Your eyes get witchy in the wee wee hours, sun's just a red ball risin' over them refinery towers. Radio's jammed up with gospel stations, lost souls callin' long distance salvation. Hey, Mr. Deejay, woncha hear my last prayer? Hey ho rock n' roll deliver me from nowhere. — "Open All Night"

Listen to that again: "Lost souls callin' long distance salvation." That's a killer line. I mean, come on. That's writing, man. It's perfect. Spectacular.

A lot of artists have moments when it all comes together. Nebraska is like that, but it's not even his best album. He made Born To Run and Tunnel Of Love, two perfect albums. He wrote The River and Darkness On The Edge Of Town. In a couple weeks he'll release Western Stars which has all the marks of becoming classic. That much greatness come out of one brain, heart, and set of hands, that's genius.

The genius of Nebraska is reserved and distant like the sound of a train in the distance or the wind sweeping across the Midwest. It's full of possibility and maybe danger. I can't get enough of all that. Give it a spin. "Atlantic City" is track two. I swear you won't be able to resist.