Why the title? According to Mark Forsyth in The Elements of Eloquence, “adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order.” So, for example, a “lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife” is OK, but move one word out of place and watch out: a bevy of Boschean grammar devils will gleefully sharpen their ink-stained pitchforks for you.
(I don’t believe in an afterlife per se, but I will pay a karmic price for the damage I’ve inflicted on the English language in this newsletter alone. This punishment could take the form of a bevy of Boschean grammar devils. Why, is your afterlife more plausible?)
“Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose.” Memorize that and you’ll have your English adjective order issues all arranged. (Forsyth admires alliteration, as well.)
Adjectives, solved, and we’re only a few paragraphs into this week’s “thing.” Not too shabby for a lousy lengthy old vertical black-and-white Brooklyn-based digital newsletter!
By the way, Mo Bunnell deserves the credit for recommending Forsyth’s book. That said, recommending a grammar guide to a professional editor is a bit like offering your dinner companion a stick of gum. Thanks, Mo, I’d love a piece, but we both know what you think of my breath.
You know all there is to know about fighting, so there’s no sense us going down that same old road again. To beat this guy, you need speed—you don’t have it. And your knees can’t take the pounding, so hard running is out. And you got arthritis in your neck, and you’ve got calcium deposits on most of your joints, so sparring is out…So, what we’ll be calling on is good ol’ fashion blunt force trauma. Horsepower. Heavy-duty, cast-iron, pile-driving punches that will have to hurt so much they’ll rattle his ancestors. Every time you hit him with a shot, it’s gotta feel like he tried kissing the express train. Yeah! Let’s start building some hurtin’ bombs!—Duke, Rocky Balboa
Duke’s training philosophy applies to writing as much as boxing. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Personally, I don’t got much. I’ve had to learn to be strategic in spending it. Again, as with boxing, timing is everything. Rhythm.
Our first computer was an Apple II+. We didn’t have many actual games beyond a Pac-Man clone called “Taxman.” (Yes, really.) So I did what I could to entertain myself otherwise, like fiddling with a program that came with it called BioRhythm. According to the theory of biorhythms, our physical, emotional, and intellectual capacities wax and wane on predictable cycles starting on the day you’re born. Every 23 days, your physical health goes from trough to peak and back again. Emotional: 28. Intellectual: 33. In the 1970s, everyone from celebrities to gamblers to football players used biorhythm charts to choose auspicious days and to take things easy on those rare intersections when two or even all three bottomed out simultaneously.
Despite the lack of any scientific evidence, biorhythms became a big fad and, as a result, came prepackaged with early personal computers like our trusty Apple II+. At the age of 6, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were intended to measure, but the charts looked like something out of The Six Million Dollar Man, so I generated mine frequently.
While biorhythming is just astrology with a pseudoscientific paint job, our bodies and minds do wax and wane. As a 40-year-old, I’ve become attuned to my own, actual biological rhythms. Age and experience have helped, but really figuring mine out has taken deliberate observation: I’ve watched my performance vary wildly through the day (peak around 10 a.m., trough around 2:30 pm) and the week (peak Sunday morning, trough Wednesday afternoon).
You can spot these differences, but only if you’re pushing yourself: working out, solving a puzzle, having a heated discussion. Attempt challenging tasks at different times or on different days and you will see the difference in your performance. I play a brain-training game called Elevate on my iPhone. Even the difference between an 8 a.m. session and a 9 a.m. is pronounced.
This wasn’t always necessary. In my 20s, I was more than capable of writing for hours and hours or late into the night. I was almost always “on”—if I bothered to flip the switch. As a younger man, I barely scratched the surface of my productive capacity because I lacked discipline, but when I tried, I could. (Youth is a hell of a drug.) Now I have the discipline, but not the capacity. I simply can’t do it. I have to time my shots.
In a way, I’m grateful I wasn’t wildly successful in my 20s. Writers and other artists who achieve fame through an abundance of early, wild inspiration run into a tough transition when their neurons stop firing quite so effervescently. Look at Bret Easton Ellis in this remarkable New Yorker interview with the brilliant Isaac Chotiner. Politics aside, Ellis strikes me as a writer who made a practice of flinging himself into tough situations and letting his supple cerebral cortex get him out again, over and over again. That strategy is failing him in his 50s, especially when he’s put on the spot.
Once the sparkle is gone, will you have the substance?
Learn your rhythms. Time your shots. The sizzle subsides, but the skill can continue to grow. Leverage over brute strength wins out over time.
Remember what I said about DTP: create a regular day, time, and place to work. Above all, find that one good hour based on your body’s actual rhythms and and then spend it wisely, like the priceless, irreplaceable artifact it is.
Yes, mostly. But not the Maven Game, I can assure you. There are only two levels here: you, the Maven, forging your expertise into ingots of lucrative and widely admired thought leadership, and me, down below in the mines, swinging my pen in search of a seam of useful inspiration for you.
That said, if you do aspire to teach others to write their own Maven Game newsletters—and who doesn’t?—try my special Maven Game advanced teacher training, whereby I will teach you how to teach other people how to write their own esoteric and perplexing essays for an increasingly exasperated audience in the triple digits.
Or attend my week-long Maven Game retreat. MLM types go for exotic destinations. Mine will take place in Duluth, Minnesota, which, according to The New York Times, will make a great climate change refuge in a few decades. Unfortunately, the Maven Game retreat is this February. Bring thermals.
No, there’s no profit in writing this newsletter. (I think you knew that.) It’s my ship-in-a-bottle practice. I build each one in my attic with tweezers and glue, you look at it politely and nod, and then we both go on our merry way.
I hope you’ve been memorizing as I suggested. To start my own journey, I went ahead and ordered Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language. Meanwhile, Chantel Hamilton recommends How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare (which, yeah, I’ve also ordered, sorry, kids). And Mark Hurst recommends starting with Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” which you should only memorize once you understand it’s intended meaning.
Let’s all make memorization a practice, guys. One poem or monologue a week sounds doable. Julia Cameron has her Morning Pages, Lewis Howes has his Perfect Day exercise. David Moldawer is bringing back rote memorization. In karate, you drill kata to get different combinations of movements into your muscle memory. Memorization is kata for writers. Instead of a karate gi, you wear corduroy. So I dub this practice the Corduroy Kata.