What’s At a Man’s Fingertips

In this blog post, Alan Jacobs casually quotes Isaiah Berlin, Michael Oakeshott, Robert Conquest, W. B. Yeats, and Christopher Hitchens, and makes several references to George Orwell. I have benefited from Dr. Jacobs’s writing over the years primarily, I think, because of his incredible range of reading and the ease with which he can tie together disparate threads of thought. It’s a skill to aspire to.

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 Lists Things Learned

Tom Whitwell put together this list of 52 things he learned in 2019. Among them…

  • Each year humanity produces 1,000 times more transistors than grains of rice and wheat combined. [source]
  • Let’s say a bank receives an average of 5.8 customers every hour and takes an average of ten minutes to serve them. With a single teller, the average wait time for a customer will be five hours. But if you add a second teller, the average wait time goes down to about three minutes. [source]
  • People who live in “harbinger zip codes” are a reliable tracker of things that fail: products, house prices, political hopefuls… [source]

See Tom’s list for more head-scratchers.

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