A Man is Beaten by Pulp

As an unabashed disciple of Ray Bradbury and Steven Spielberg, both masters of balancing the timeless and the tasteless, I approve of this message. Partly, I approve because this is the just kind of thing I need to hear, as I am way, way too perfectionistic about my writing.

I’m reminded of something Austin Kleon wrote about his son in Keep Going. When it came to drawing, not only was his son “medium agnostic,” he also didn’t seem to care about the finished product. All of his energy was focused on the verb.

I’ve noticed this same thing about my daughter. If I hand her five sheets of blank paper, she’ll draw five spirals in five different colors and then ask for more sheets.

Back to the article on pulp fiction, the author gives three lessons we can learn from the pulpists.

Write Like You’re Freelance

Artists of all kinds are suspicious of money. (With good reason, in some cases.) Money can inject a healthy amount of work ethic into your writing, however. The list of great books that were written because someone was desperate for a paycheck is endless. The need to sell a story can make you more realistic about what to leave and what to cut, when you need to finish, and who you should be writing for.

Make Your Writing Visceral

This piece of advice goes hand-in-hand with the one above. If you need to get paid, you need to get an audience. And if you need an audience, you need to hook them and reel them without wasting any time. You do that by appealing to their guts. During an interview one time, Darren Doane gave someone the following scenario.

You’re in front of a whiteboard. A guy hands you a marker and says, “In sixty seconds, your family is going to walk through that door. You need to write something on the board that will cause them to have a physical reaction – laughing, crying, whatever. If they don’t react, I’ll shoot all of you.”

The guy who was interviewing Darren said that he’d probably write something dirty, since that would be the easiest way to get a physical reaction. Darren said, “And you’ve just explained ninety percent of movies.”

A little violent for a thought experiment, perhaps, but his point is that this is the situation every artist (writer, musician, filmmaker) finds himself in. The stakes are high, and you have a limited amount of time. Don’t ask your readers to care. Make them care. Hook their guts.

Think Disposable

This is actually a big theme of Austin Kleon’s books, which I get mixed up because I read them back to back. You might think that in order to produce good work, you need to save up for it, but in fact the opposite is true. Good work only comes once you’ve gotten rid of the bad and the mediocre stuff. Produce vast amounts. Discard a little less than you produce. Find the diamonds.

The upshot of all of this is a word of advice to myself: don’t let the pulp writers outdo you. You can write worse stuff faster than they can.

A Man Smudges Productively

Austin Kleon writes about chalkboards, quoting this NYT article:

In many fields of science and investigation, blackboards have been replaced with whiteboards or slide show presentations. But chalk is cheaper and biodegradable. It smells better than whiteboard markers and is easier to clean up, mathematicians say. It is also more fun to write with.

One of the chalkophiles he cites says that “the value [of chalk] is in using it up.” This is one reason I love using wooden pencils. Yes, you have to sharpen them, but you get to measure your work against the diminishing length. Empty pens, too, give me the same satisfaction.

Austin’s post reminded me of this NHPR story (that’s New Hampshire Public Radio) about why mathematicians love using chalkboards. Here are a few of the juicier quotes.

On the sound chalk makes on the chalkboard:

It’s much louder than any other writing implement would be. And as a result it’s much harder to interrupt somebody who’s writing on a blackboard. So if you’re up there, it’s like there’s this noise that keeps you from saying “Wait a minute! What about this?” whereas if you’re writing with a marker on a whiteboard, it’s easier to interrupt. This actually leads to longer flow of thoughts, which is important in mathematics; you’re not breaking it up as much. So that’s one possibility.

On the size of the writing:

You have to write big. Easier to see. But also it means you can fit fewer character on, you have to be more concise. And frankly, conciseness is what mathematics is. Mathematics is distilling information down to the minimum amount of characters. That’s really the essence of it. So that contributes to it.

On “productive smudging”:

Another thing he talked about that’s actually useful, and this is my favorite one, he said that blackboards smudge productively, which is just a great line. You know, you’re writing on a blackboard and oops, you make a mistake, you can rub it out with your hand, or you rub it out with an eraser. And it’s really easy to do. But it’s really hard to do it completely. You can’t get rid of it entirely. There’s always a little bit of a smudge and you write over it. And I’ve always thought that was a bad thing. And he argues that for mathematics, and particularly mathematics research, it’s a good thing because a lot of math research involves taking existing concepts and applying them in new ways. And so if you’ve written an existing equation everybody’s familiar with and then rubbed out a part of it and written something new over it, there is a visual sign that you have taken an existing concept and tweaked it, which is sort of like a reminder to the people in the audience that this is how you approach it. This is not some new thing you’ve brought down from on high, it’s an alteration of an existing one.