on text with texture and getting essential with the extraneous

It’s Saturday! Lose the digital avatar. Time to be human again. Take off that VR headset and return to your body. Select some premium vinyl—Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias, perhaps—and lay it down on the turntable. Drop the needle gently; you don’t want to scratch it. Now, stretch out on a comfy old divan, tamp some aromatic cavendish into your corncob, and puff away in silence while having a deep think or two. Life is short—you smoke a pipe, after all—so don’t spend all of it scrolling through updates about Trump and North Korea.

For now, let’s turn our worn and trembling minds to philosophy for a moment. (It goes back to your writing, don’t worry.)

The other day, I spotted a New York Review Books reissue of 2 William Sloane stories under the title The Rim of Morning: Two Tales of Cosmic Horror. (The Rim of Morning? What a title! Kudos, NYRB.) Introduction by Stephen King: sold.

The cosmic horror failed to chill me—Trump and North Korea have raised the bar on that way past anything H.P. Lovecraft wrote—but the 1930s period detail absolutely grounded me in the narrative and kept me reading happily despite a profound absence of action. Sloane, who never wrote another novel after these two and spent most of his career in publishing, embeds you in his era with simple, lucid descriptions of the world around his characters.

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coping with writing’s bitter aftertaste

Ship! the gurus tell us. Everyone should ship, all the time. Always Be Shipping.

For writers, this means, essentially, share your work with the public. Early and often. Better to publish an unbaked draft, solicit feedback, and then refine that published work over time. It’s trivial to change an ebook or blog post. In this vast overwhelming digital landscape, no one pays attention to the failures and the flaws. Fail a lot in public until you succeed—then scrub all evidence of prior work and bask in the glory.

This call for what you might call permapublishing has its roots in software development. The received wisdom there is that you can’t just go into your cave and build something at your own pace—you need iteration, a feedback loop from real “customers,” or you risk creating something no one wants. Or never finishing at all. Stories abound of software projects dragging on for years in isolation only for their creators to discover on release that the world has moved on. Only by shipping, shipping, always shipping can you be sure that your aim will track with the moving target of public demand.

Traditionally published books work differently. Three or more years might pass between the moment an author decides to write a book and the day the finished product appears on a shelf. Will it arrive at the proper moment? Who knows? Not publishers, believe me—they just take credit when it happens. I certainly did.

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creativity is overrated

There I go with one of my disingenuous, clickbait subject lines again.

Except…psych! I totally mean it.

(When’s the last time anyone said “psych”? The last time ever, in history? When “psych” passed from this world, did anyone mourn?)

It’s so easy (and self-congratulatory) to praise creativity, especially in the world of business. All hail “creatives”—business-code for unhappy graphic designers and copywriters who’d much rather be making their own stuff. Plus, Steve Jobs.

(Let’s not even get into invention, innovation, or ideation. I’m late for brunch.)

Saying anything negative or even equivocal about creativity and creative people is like saying you hate kittens. (Jonathan Franzen hates kittens.)

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in which I make a public call for the formation of a secret society

At last, I’m fully operational after dowsing my brand-new laptop last week.

According to the Apple Genius, AppleCare only started covering water damage with this very model. If I’d soaked the previous year’s MacBook Pro, it would have been a complete loss. (I could actually feel a few more hairs turn gray at the thought.)

As it was, I paid “only” $300 to replace every internal component, including the screen. You know what that means? I scored at least a thousand dollars in free parts. Take that, Apple! At this rate, they’ll run out of cash somewhere around the heat death of the universe.

The real problem with getting my laptop back is that I no longer have a good excuse to be unproductive.

Last year, we visited the Cooper Hewitt museum on Fifth Avenue. It was my first time. What I remember most of that visit was the array of miniature wooden staircases on the second floor. For fancy gerbils, I wondered? The label indicated that these were literal masterpieces, crafted by artisans as a demonstration of skill. It turns out that there’s a bit more to the story.

As explained over at Atlas Obscura, there is a guild of artisans in France known as the compagnons:

The name “compagnon” translates to “companion,” relating to the brotherhood between members and the shared identity of a movement that, today, encompasses around 12,000 permanent, active members. Professions usually fall into one of five “groups,” depending on their principal material: stone; wood; metal; leather and textiles; and food. Within these groups are bakers, clog-makers, carpenters, masons, glaziers, and many more. In the past century, new trades have been added and old ones have fallen away. But whatever the craft, the journey from apprentice to “compagnon” is long and highly specific, and culminates in the completion of a “masterwork”: an item that showcases the skills acquired over at least five years of sustained study.

Hence, for the woodworkers, tiny staircases. These compagnons hone their skills through hard work and travel:

As young people, they live in boarding houses together in towns across France, where they spend their days learning and training to become the country’s greatest tradespeople. After six months in one place, each tradesman will pack up and move on to another French town, and a new hostel, to learn more skills under a new master.

The Freemasons nod to their artisanal roots with masonry symbolism and aprons. Conversely, the compagnons are actual, working artisans who operate like a secret society:

After going from apprentice to “compagnon,” craftsmen undergo an initiation rite, which…remains “shrouded in secrecy to preserve its magic and effectiveness.” Depending on the trade, this ritual may include additional elements, like a two-day “symbolic journey.” A constant, however, is the adoption of a symbolic name that indicates where they have come from and something about their character: Prudence of Draguignan, Flower of Bagnolet, Liberty of Chateauneuf. The organization’s other particularities beyond the “secret” nickname include the wearing of a colored sash and carrying of a tall, ornamental wooden cane, given to them after initiation. For the rest of their lives, compagnons are part of a close-knit brotherhood, with its own patron saint, feasts, and even funerary traditions.

Clearly, we need an equivalent society for writers. Not a brotherhood, of course, but a…personhood? (The compagnons now admit women, thankfully.) A few years of intense training, migrating between, well, different publication mediums? Then an initiation rite, a symbolic journey, and a new name. (I’m thinking mine would be “the Bagatelle of Brooklyn.”)  

I’m joking (sort of). That said, I do wish high-quality, in-person, rigorous, professional writing training were more widely available. The most skilled writers of previous generations have always cut their teeth in newspapers. Cranking out hundreds of obituaries under the eye of a skilled editor gets the craft into your muscles and bones in a way no book or online course could ever do. That isn’t really a viable option anymore. Guest-blogging is no substitute. Careful line-editing and mentoring from a pro, and feedback from readers, are crucial.

Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years” is about programming—obviously—but, as always, that advice applies equally well to us writing bums.

It’s questionable how far you can get just by book learning. Before my first child was born, I read all the “How To” books and still felt like a clueless novice. Thirty months later, when my second child was due, did I go back to the books for a refresher? No. Instead, I relied on my personal experience, which turned out to be far more useful and reassuring to me than the thousands of pages written by experts.