Subject line courtesy of David Bowie:
If it’s wearing a pink hat and a red nose, and it plays guitar upside down, I will go and look at it. I love to see people being dangerous.
From a 1999 interview with the late master in Rolling Stone. It sums up my attitude toward books, toward all writing, toward the making of anything. (Except cars. And planes. Bridges…) Take risks. Throw on a pink hat and play your guitar upside down—with your writing.
All of us—myself included—play it safe far too often. So much of what I read every day feels the same. Honestly, even New Yorker essays, as lovely and fascinating as they can often be, stultify with their homogeneous consistency. Surprise me, people‽ (You weren’t expecting an interrobang there, were you? Surprise.)
It’s always an internal battle to take a risk in front of others, even if you’re writing for a readership of one. You have to fight this battle if you want to stay alive as a creator, but you have to accept that you will often lose. I’m not sure you get better at it with practice, either. If anything, taking risks gets harder as you progress in your career.
Risk-taking must have been a battle for Bowie, too—he was a human being, however extraterrestrial—but he won more frequently, and for longer, than just about anybody.
This week, I joined my fellow young Americans to spend a couple of hours at the traveling David Bowie exhibit, now at the Brooklyn Museum. I left that labyrinth—no scary monsters, thankfully—and went outside feeling hunky dory, if a bit low. In reality, I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone interested in the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust. Don’t be a heathen. Go tonight. Spread the word about the exhibit and you’ll be heroes. Um, blackstar.
Like many postmodernists, Bowie employed collage. He would assemble chunks of text from various sources, cut them up, and rearrange them to forge lyrics with surprising and memorable combinations of words, images, ideas. Eventually, a programmer friend wrote software to help. Here’s video of Bowie showing Verbasizer in action.
(That’s a clip from Inspirations, by the way. It’s a 1997 documentary directed by Michael Apted, director of the Up series, which has taught me more about life than anything else. Inspirations itself isn’t streaming so I bought the DVD on Amazon.)
As I wrote last week, my college playwriting professor Len Berkman always astonished me with his endless array of story scenarios. He began every class with a skeletal plot for us to build a scene around: “A owes B money, but little does B know that A doesn’t intend to pay it back…” I always planned to save Len’s scenarios for my future writing projects like a squirrel hoarding nuts, but I never got around to doing it, something I’ve always regretted. Until now.
Author Madeline Iva reads the Maven Game and also happened to study with Len:
One weekend I went to see The Talented Mr. Ripley, and then the next week in class Len started off: “R meets D but R is not exactly who R says he is…”—it was pretty obvious.
Well, mystery solved. Thanks for ruining the magician’s trick, Madeline. I guess I can steal plots from Matt Damon movies just like Len did. Still, he was an amazing teacher. (Bowie: “[I’m] a tasteful thief. The only art I’ll ever study is stuff that I can steal from.” Also Bowie: “It’s not what you steal, it’s how you use it.” He stole the latter from Picasso.)
Speaking of idea theft, someone I would happily steal from on a regular basis is Jane Friedman. Nobody knows writing, books, and book publishing like Jane does. Whenever I have a question myself about how some aspect of publishing works, Jane’s site is the first place I check.
Thankfully, Jane shares everything she knows freely, so instead of stealing from her, I can just point people there, whether they want to know how to get their book published or how to write a book proposal. This saves me so much time. Freelance writers and editors everywhere should contribute to support Jane the way traditional publishers dole out for Nielsen BookScan and Publishers Marketplace.
Jane has a new book: The Business of Writing, offering “the business education every writer needs.” Go.
One last bit from Bowie: “Trust nothing but your own experience.”