Category: Stuff We Love

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Stuff We Love: A Writing Ritual

The notion of writer’s block has always upset me. It is presented as something that comes externally, like bad luck, which you can’t fight against. In general, I have a problem believing that we can’t get better at any activity we concentrate on, and that would include writing. I believe there are ways of improving the chances of having a good writing session—no guarantees, of course, but what fun would that be?

 

Developing a writing ritual can help you increase those odds. Rituals are supposed to be kept private, but people sharing theirs in broad strokes helped me shape my own, and so perhaps I can do the same for you. I should note that the ritual presented here begins after any number of other activities. After meditation and/or running and/or reading at the coffee shop and/or meaningless errands, etc. What all of those activities have in common is their ability to help me drop the outer world, in preparation for the inner. Eventually, I will step inside of a sacred center — see, there you go, now you know whether to start reading something else — and there I will cast the circle that helps me take time to stop time.

I don’t have a wand, or any crystals — although my relocation to San Diego puts the latter in jeopardy (check back here). But I might use statuary, such as the figurine of Piet Mondrian, who reminds me to embrace the structural ideas that come, as well as content-based ideas; ideas about the thing I’m writing, as well as ideas for the thing I’m writing. I might use talismans, such as this baseball I speared on one clean bounce at an MLB Spring Training game to remind myself it’s time to Play Ball!

I might use candles — okay, I will definitely use candles — even though I forget why certain colors are important. I have heard it said that working within the light in this way helps uplift others and also yourself. I have also heard it said that, in candlelight, the mind is rendered receptive to spiritual energy. I will add, as regards any aspect of a writing ritual: If it works, stick with it.

In the circle, I include functional items, especially those functional items that are also talismans, crossing the real boundary into practical magic, objects that you need and that also remind you of your history—the times you got it right. I find it useful to arrange whatever ritual implements I am using in a half-circle on my desk. This arrangement connects them to each other so they share energies and form an unbroken arc which I sit in the middle of. This circle can be continued behind you in terms of additional lighting, incense, etc. so that it takes up the entire room with you in the center of it.

 

 

Now, I know what you’re going to say. It sounds like you have an office. I do, but when I travel, I also pack a smaller bag of ritual implements. Wherever you are writing, you can cast a circle. It might be bounded by the train car you are riding in, or have an obstacle in the form of a water heater taking a bite out of one of your arcs. There are always cures, as they say in Feng Shui, for a recognized problem. Everything can be overcome with intention.

The boundaries of a circle can also just be traced with the mind and blessed, as you bless yourself. Entering the circle is an important step away from the world of business, time, and relationships — those relationships where you have to do something now regarding them, anyway — in order to see some of them in their truer nature. Stepping inside the circle establishes protection. Protection from the quotidian and from low self-esteem. Protection from our enemies, in the form of forgiving them.

It is the essence of writer’s block to have someone else stuck inside your own mind; when you can forgive them (except in a few places where you are using them for fuel, albeit with a higher intention), when you can let go of them, you are free. If you can’t forgive a particular person from a place deep down, at least call some kind of truce in your mind: you know, something like we’re all broken in some way, we’re all in process

Writing exposes you to enough self-criticism without other voices attacking you while you are vulnerable. We don’t have to allow anything unrelated to the writing to approach your flow of words, unless it wants to be used in an imaginative form.

Inside here we are free to be present on just this subject.

 

P.S. If you get really far out there, don’t forget to blow your candles out when your writing session concludes. I then take pictures of them, in the state of being unlit, because I have a level of anxiety about some things that needs practical assistance.

 

Stuff We (Don’t) Love: Author Crushes

To get meta about it, thoughtful words from thoughtful friends sit high on the list of stuff we love. And there are few sources of wisdom as pure in our universe as Beth Monaghan, founder and CEO of Inkhouse PR. Follow her on Medium, and Twitter, and Instagram, and don’t be shocked when her creative non-fiction hits the big time. To Beth, we now hand this installment.

 

The man who runs this enterprise would caution against author crushes. Should I tell Stuart that I named my new electric car Joan Didion? This thought fluttered briefly the first time a notification flashed on my phone:

 

Why would someone name their car after an author? Well, if you’ve ever had to rely on books to help you survive life, you get it. I always chose irreverent and courageous female authors who left guides for that survival behind. In fact, I loved books before I loved writing.

My crush on Didion began in college when I read Play It As It Lays. I still have the used copy I bought from Follett’s Orange Bookstore in Syracuse, New York for $6.75. Back then I didn’t write in my books so I don’t have a key to my favorite parts. But I remember the feeling when I finished: she was showing me how to stand inside my own darkness while still being able to take a look around. I wanted that.

 

When I began typing my own words, I wanted to write beautiful sentences. They’re how most of my author crushes begin. He looks shaken by this request, but still I monster on about it. Jenny Offill carving a moment in Department of Speculation. On and on she’ll go, the way she does when she thinks she doesn’t understand something and she’s scared, and she’s taking refuge in scorn and hypercriticality. A single sentence in Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, that tells us everything we need to know about her mother.

Time is the school in which we learn. That’s Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir about her husband’s death. She possessed the power to go through grief while witnessing it, which is how we make things make sense. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all. Didion again, in that book that made my crush run amok. I wanted to write and live like Joan.

When I read Didion back through time, I also wanted to be her in 1968. In The White Album she published her own psychiatric report. She’d gone in for vertigo and nausea, but was kept there because of her “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive view of the world around her.” After a page-long reprint of her fragile mental health, Didion wrote, “By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does now seem to be an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” Her packing list that year included 2 leotards, a mohair throw, cigarettes, bourbon and a typewriter.

Didion lives deep, lets herself off the hook, and never assumes she knows everything. I hoped reading her words would work like osmosis, but that’s not how writing or life go down well. The shift from reader to writer asked me to type my own way into living.

These days I read in between writing projects, but rarely during them. Didion’s new volume of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, just arrived and I haven’t opened it yet. In advance of its release Time asked her what it meant to be the voice of her generation. Didion: “I don’t have the slightest idea.” I fell for her all over again, for a single line that is both humble and arrogant. I aspire to pull that kind of thing off. It’s okay to have stuff we love; it reflects the parts of ourselves that we’re working to grow into. And it helps us create our own stuff we love.

Stuff We Love: Spring Training

Everyone has their own personal new year. For some, it’s New Year’s Eve, or the Lunar New Year, or the first thaw of spring when the crocuses burst from an impossibly frozen ground. Mine is going to see some Spring Training baseball.

I have been fortunate enough to go to Arizona four times now, where the teams from the western part of the US tune-up their skills. The first time I walk out onto the concourse and glimpse the field in its entirety, my heart bursts open. Coming from New England every time but this last, I would have said it was largely the weather. But now that I call Southern California home, I know it is something else. It is possibility.

 

 

As a writer, I interpret this possibility in the light of a new project I am embarking on, or a fresh draft of an existing one. Commitment, or recommitment, it doesn’t matter a whole lot. It’s the knowledge that a new season is at hand.

We can get better at certain parts of our game—and there are drills for that. There are even exercises with aptly named “resistance bands.” We can refresh our strengths while we dig into tools we fear are missing. There are coaches, there is sunshine. And the best thing of all…we don’t have to be game-time ready yet. In that sense, this edition of Stuff We Love has a lot in common with the piece we ran on demos last month. It’s the same feeling of we’re just getting started here.

At the early stages of a new process, the first requirement is to announce to yourself what you are doing. Invite the work. It is one of those paradoxes of creativity: you have to prepare yourself to receive.

Now, not every idea that tries out is going to make the team. It would be foolish to say there is no competition here. But there is a moment, in the first few weeks, when the intensity of an inning isn’t turned all the way up. Everyone is on their own journey: young kids seeking their long shot or on a meteoric rise, depending on how the papers write about them, alongside mature veterans looking to hold onto their peak of mastery.

Some ideas will get sent down to the minors, the developmental leagues, but those decisions aren’t being made this week. Coaches are still trying to familiarize themselves with players, more than evaluate them. And the players are playing hard—but it doesn’t matter if they win. Imagine that for a minute. So many other things will have to fall into place before you get your jersey assignment. Right now, your best is all that matters.

Without the shadow of constant competition, players hang out in centerfield before the game, joking with members of the other team. The heckling from the stands is a little softer. The stadium staff, the fans, the players—numbered #0 to #99—stand in that possibility that anything can happen. This team can win the World Series.

In a similar way, there is nothing to say this piece isn’t going to go all the way, provided you can just keep that love of the game.

 

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Stuff We Love: Demos

For a good solid year of my tour, I opened up a session on The Book Architecture Method by playing two clips from the Beatles’ song “Sexy Sadie” in succession. The first 0:46 was basically just John playing some dusky chords into a two track recorder in India. Then I played the first minute of the finished version and we talked about how George changed the lyrics to make them less of a direct attack on his guru at the time, Paul brought some bright piano chords right off the top followed by Ringo’s shuffling drumming, and they all contributed sarcastic La-la-la-la’s  in the background. 

The Beatles – SexySadie from Stuart Horwitz on Vimeo.

If someone walked in late, looking confused, I asked them, Are you here for the class on the White Album? My point was to show the distance traveled between the initial, halting idea for a song and the polished and produced version. We hear the latter and we thing: I could never do that… We hear the former and we think: Interesting. 

It’s the same across genres and media. It’s one thing to examine a smudged charcoal landscape sketch of Van Gogh’s and quite another to be engulfed by the final days intensity of “Wheatfield and Crows.” We get confused. Confused that art isn’t made, by somebody, over a succession of drafts, each improving, if not entirely, on the version that came before it.

And that’s why some Stuff We Love are demos. I recently treated myself to a box set of Bob Dylan’s studio recordings from 1965-1966. It contained the finished songs from this era, which I had heard a hundred times each. There were multiple master takes so I could listen to just the piano and the bass on “Like a Rolling Stone.” But there were also a series of screw-ups and false starts, experiments, arguments, breakthroughs and new directions until some of these famous songs were codified.

 

 

I love hearing the banter between Dylan and his bandmates, such as lead guitarist Robbie Robertson soon to be of The Band. Among the 25 takes of “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” you can hear the following exchanges:

 

Dylan: “Can you do that, Robbie? But I don’t mean just, I don’t just mean that. Can you do anything else? But not that. Some kind of a… no, no, no. Yeah, I do want it, but not so specific.”

*

Dylan: “I don’t think that’s the right way… do you think so?”

*

Robbie: “I’m going to modify it a little bit. To make it blend with what he’s doing.”

Dylan: “Sure! Tell me what you mean…”

 

 

I don’t know what Dylan means when he complains to Rick Danko, “No! I don’t like that bass run. That’s… that’s modal.” I’m not even sure he does. These tapes communicate being in the wilderness with only a small spark of an idea, and tending that flame so it can get air under sheltered conditions until it begins to burn on its own. 

And that’s why we recommend looking for demos—translated to whatever art and taste suits you—when you need to be reminded of not just your humanity but the humanity of the artists you admire. Their experience of being lost, then gradually found, through a combination of curiosity and faith, looks like something we could call perseverance—if it wasn’t fueled at least as much by residing in the delight of creation.