Different Writing Muscles

Different kinds of writing require different brain muscles. I’ve been reminded of this recently as I’ve started exercising my prose muscles for the first time in a while. My first ambition, as I remember, was to be a professional novelist, back when I was small and green and the world could grow such things. I wrote stories as a kid, and the occasional song lyric here or there, and noticed even then that my prose and poetry bore a strong resemblance. That made the lyrics a lot harder for me. It always seemed like I was trying to squeeze the prosaic ingredients inside my head into a poetic mold that didn’t want to accommodate them.

But, you know, practice practice practice.

Then I started writing for screens, where individual spaces, let alone words, are unimaginably valuable. Your feature script must be less than 120 pages, and really, it should be less than 116 or so. Turning “The bar was dark and looked like the inside of a toilet” to “Dark. Shitty.” saves 43 spaces, and if you do that enough through a script, you find out how many pages you can cut without actually cutting any pages.

I’ve come to appreciate that the thing I need to do, no matter what medium, is to say everything as simply as I can. Not “as simply as possible,” but as simply as I can. I think, in the end, this is what defines an author’s “voice.” We all have unique and individual thoughts, and will find different ways to express them in simplest terms. Elements of Style has a fantastic comparison of a passage from Faulkner and a passage from Hemingway, both describing lethargy. You can guess which one is more florid. I don’t think those guys wrote in their respective styles because they were posturing. I think they did it because that’s who they were.

I respect Ben Gibbard and Colin Meloy a lot as lyricists, and looking at the different ways they tackle verses really helped me find some peace of mind when I realized I was never going to write song lyrics that are terse and poetic. I think in paragraphs.

Here’s Ben Gibbard, from the Death Cab for Cutie song Crooked Teeth:

I braved treacherous streets and kids strung out on homemade speed
And we shared a bed in which I could not sleep at all
‘Cause at night the sun in retreat made the skyline look like crooked teeth in the mouth of a man who was devouring us both

Here’s Colin Meloy, from The Decemberists‘ song This is Why We Fight:

Come the war
Come the avarice
Come the war
Come hell
Come attrition
Come the reek of bones
Come attrition
Come hell

One, as you can see, is not like the other. Both are representative samples of both writers’ styles. After discovering Ben Gibbard years ago, I never felt so bad about writing song lyrics in complete sentences, which I’d never seemed able to stop myself from doing, despite all the teachers who told me poetry really should look more like what Colin Meloy’s able to do.

My advice for writers, then, if I have any, is to say what’s in your head as simply as you can, and trust in your own individuality. Figuring out exactly how simply you really can say something takes a lot of hard work, and that’s where craft comes in. When we whittle away all the other stuff, the imitation and the showing-off of the big words we know, stuff like that, what we’re left with are our own voices.

So, practice practice practice. You know, brain muscles.

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Anybody Else Tired of Personal Branding?

One of my favorite lines of poetry is from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, where he writes:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.) 

This guy: sweaty-toothed madman,
hates branding.

As artists and human beings, we should probably be trying to embrace diversity, and what better place to start than with ourselves? But right now, we’re running in the opposite direction.

When I was studying public relations back in the long, long ago of the final decade of the last century, nobody was talking much about “branding.” We talked about “positioning,” which is sort of the grandfather of what we’re seeing today with personal brands. The idea of a personal brand is that everything you put your name on has a certain flavor. Celebrities have done this forever. Think Alfred Hitchcock (movies, TV, books, all tense and mysterious) or J-Lo (she’ll sing you a song AND sell you a handbag at Kohl’s!). But now everybody seems to be doing it. Professionals, academics, journalists, bloggers, and artists of all stripes.

Authors have written different genres under different pseudonyms forever — so if you want to read a serious, literary book by Evan Hunter, you’ll buy a book with his name on it. If you want to read crime fiction by Evan Hunter, you’ll buy a book that says it was written by Ed McBain. Makes it easy to know what you’re getting. I get that. And I understand that as artists trying to break through to larger audiences, we’re advised to make things as easy as possible for the consumer. If you want to write horror fiction, make sure your Twitter feed is about horror fiction, because you don’t want people getting confused.

Sounds familiar, right?

The first time she said “off the chain”
I thought I was going to blow chunks.

This was probably good advice back when we were still talking about “positioning.” But you know how any hip new phrase (like “hip”!) loses all credibility when you hear your mom say it? By the time everybody knows about it, it’s no longer relevant. Well, now everybody knows about branding. I think with our heavily mediated public existences these days, the old wisdom is just that…old. Evan Hunter got that advice in 1953 and rode it to great success. It’s a different world now. I think it’s now okay to admit we have diverse interests and influences.

And I worry about packaging human beings, let alone volunteering to be packaged. Our public discourse has eroded to a level I’ve certainly never seen in my lifetime. “Branding,” or “brand thinking,” makes it easier to turn human beings into straw men (and women) that we can brush aside or put in a box or dismiss as idiots because we disagree on a particular point. It makes it easier for us to attack each other on the internet and forget human decency.

It’s sticky for artists, because we need people to keep coming back if we want to make a living, and conventional wisdom says they keep coming back if they feel comfortable and know what to expect. But if we try to compartmentalize creativity too much, we run the risk of producing stilted work that doesn’t draw on our total experience as individuals.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m finishing a book that has nothing to do with how most people know me, which is as a musician. But I am large, I contain multitudes. So here’s what I’d like my “brand” to be: Good, and honest. Whatever genre, whatever medium. If you want good, and honest, alt-folk music, you can go here. If you want good, and honest, reviews of obscure and cult movies, you can go here. If you want good, and honest, writing that is sometimes funny and sometimes scary and sometimes sad, you can go here. I won’t bore people with it if I make something and I don’t firmly believe it’s good, and honest. Not a bad standard to shoot for, right?

But mainly, I’m just tired of hearing people talk about their “personal brands.” Maybe I’m wrong. Let me know in the comments.

Great Album Reviews: The Milk-Eyed Mender (Joanna Newsom)

Album: The Milk-Eyed Mender
Artist: Joanna Newsom
Genre: Folk
Year: 2004


Joanna Newsom plays harp and sings. When my five-year-old first heard her in the car, after about ten seconds he said “Oh! What a terrible voice!” Probably any discussion of Joanna Newsom has to include, somewhere, the mention that her voice isn’t for everybody. And now that’s out of the way.

Milk-Eyed Mender received all kinds of accolades on its release and landed on several best-of year end lists. Her follow-up album Ys did even better with the critics, landing on many best-of-the-decade and several best-album-ever lists. There’s a tremendous contrast between the two albums. Ys is a lush and lavish tapestry of mind-bending, fully orchestrated storytelling that plays out across five 7- to 16-minute compositions, with an all-star team behind it, including orchestrations by Van Dyke Parks and production work by Steve Albini (who has has a happy place in my Hall of Fame for his work with Nirvana and Neurosis). Milk-Eyed Mender, though, is almost exclusively Joanna. It’s her voice and a harp, or a piano, or a harpsichord.

And it seems to come from somewhere else. A different time and place, or maybe an entirely different world. The album feels like a faerie or woodland spirit stepped out of a fantasy novel and learned that there was such a thing as a “folk song,” in which someone plays an instrument and sings words about things, so she decided to try it. But instead of a guitar, she grabbed a harp (it’s an instrument), and when she tried to sing about highways and human struggle and loneliness, it came out like this:

There are some mornings when the sky looks like a road
There are some dragons who were built to have and hold
And some machines are dropped from great heights lovingly
and some great bellies ache with many bumblebees

I don’t know what that means. But I know how it feels, and after eight years with this album, it still transports me and remains deeply, deeply evocative. What else can you really ask from an album? Ys is beautiful, but less surprising to me. If I told you there’s this harpist who’s making waves in the indie music community, and you nodded, then I told you she writes 10-minute songs about monkeys and bears while backed by a full orchestra, you’d probably keep nodding. Harpist, orchestra, ok. It seems to kind of fit. The thing I love about Milk-Eyed Mender is hearing the same artist put her utterly unique stamp on traditional 3- to 4-minute songs. The result is one of the more beautiful attempts to fit a square peg into a round hole I’m aware of.

And I genuinely like her voice. The moment toward the end of “Peach, Plum, Pear” where a whole chorus of Joannas join in is one of my favorite moments of the album. There’s a lot to love on this album, if you can acquire the taste for it. I will attempt to leave you with something that’s easy to love. Like all thinking people, I have a profound distaste for YouTube comments. But this one nailed it for me: “This song just gets me in the marrow, you know?” I do.