If Words Fail Us – Tony Judt

Last night, I watched  Charlie Rose interviewing Tony Judt. It was Judt’s last interview before passing away on August 6 of ALS.

I had barely heard of Judt before, maybe only because he had won the George Orwell Prize in 2009, and anything referencing George Orwell gets my attention.  Shame on me because this man had written so much, so clearly.

There was so much in the Charlie Rose interview, that resonated with me. That he only felt himself when he was on his way to somewhere, that he loved to write while riding on trains all day. Seemingly aimless travel was the perfect writing environment for him.

He also talked about the progress of his illness and gradually losing physical abilities to the point where all he had left was words.

He reflected that: “I’m now very clear that living can be reduced to the business of communication”

In one of his last essays for the Guardian, He says:

“Translating being into thought, thought into words and words into communication will soon be beyond me and I shall be confined to the rhetorical landscape of my interior reflections.”

I could have said right at the beginning of this post that here was a man who thought so much the way I do about words and communicating. And by writing down his words, and speaking his words, I feel a kindred spirit. Even if he is gone now and I never read him when he was alive. How many others are out there?

Today’s Listening:
1. Bumpin’ on Sunset – Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express fr: “Live Oblivion 1
2. Passing Thru – Leonard Cohen fr: “Live Songs
3. Wish I – Jem fr: “Finally Woken

Organization (it has to start somewhere)

I was once in a horrid management training course in which all kinds of moronic theories were marched out for us poor radio producers to memorize. Some of the management flavour of the month dictums included the 5 “T’”s of dealing with problem subordinates (Talking, Training, Teaching, something beginning with T, and Termination), the Pareto Principle, and one that actually stuck with me.

This was a little list on a flip chart with the words Why, What, How. In the context of the course, these words represented the theory that people who know How have to work for people who know What, and people who know What work for people who know Why. Now, there is probably a branded name for this principle and I know it still gets spun six ways from Sunday as a new enlightening tool, and like all of these things, it’s a tad disgusting. But… the order is right. Even if you work alone.

Luckily for writers, and songwriters, and visual artists, the Why is usually taken care of. You “gotta use words”, or that melody has just broken it’s water, or the image that you alone see demands to be shared. As the John Mayer CD says: “Inside Wants Out”.

The What is also covered automatically. Your natural bent is towards a particular medium, as is the output: a book, a CD, a painting. I still cherish the memory of holding a finished 10” reel of tape in my hand, (7”, if truth be told).

Where this blog joins all the above is in the How.

When I imagined what the focus of this blog would be, I had a pretty good idea that it would be about How creative people do it. Not the techniques, or learned skills,  of their craft, but how they shoehorn their inspirations out into the external world. This is magic to me. My problem would be how to organize the content, the topics, etc., into something people could navigate easily.  I had my own How to deal with.

A lot of whirling thoughts went down into my notebook something like this:

notebook blog map

This is kind of a poor man’s mind map. But, being out in the country with no electricity, it did fine.

Back at the ranch, I used a real mind mapping program and came up with this:

How Writers Write 2

Beats your old to-do list doesn’t it? At least it’s a start.

Listening for today:
1. Pink-O Boogie – Ry Cooder fr: “I, Flathead
2. There’s A Rugged Road – Judee Sill fr: “Heart Food
3. James – Pat Metheny Group fr: “Offramp

Tangents Part Two

Before you know it, your thoughts have strayed off in some unpredictable direction. Something you’ve heard, read, seen, has sparked some idea and you say to yourself: “my mind has gone off on a tangent.” Again.
But is a tangent the line between two ideas or an idea in itself?
My thinking may be non-linear but wherever I’ve ended up, I’ve started somewhere. Every tangent has a starting point. The trick is to do be able to work backwards. You get this idea and by the time you write it down, you have forgotten where it came from.
Very often, there is some kind of incongruity that I’m observing. Something that sticks out as odd. A mis-perception of something that everyone around me doesn’t notice.
Maybe they’re not looking for the signs or maybe nothing untoward has actually happened. It doesn’t matter anyway because it’s just given me a launching point to go off on a tangent. An extrapolation of what just happened or an expansion of the perception towards trying to make sense out of it. What are the possibilities?
The fantasy starts to take shape.

Tangents Part One

This is the way my mind works and it can make it hard to write something coherently.
Hierarchical outlining does not always work because you still have to place things in order (in a tree structure for example).
Index cards simply leave too many options. This is not a jigsaw puzzle kind of thing. With the jigsaw puzzle, you can always refer to the finished picture on the box. With your own mess of cards, you still have no idea how it’s supposed to look when it’s done.
To harness all my tangents, I might use something like a mind-mapper. Then I could connect the dots. It’s a real scattergun way to write.

Imagine having a box of treasured items that you picked up while making a leaf collection. Along the way, through the trees (doing the real assignment) you pick up a snail shell, a piece of an old green toy, a heart -shaped stone, a playing card. These seem like found art or messages left by the muse. Or a terma left by an enlightened being. At the very least, they are happy accidents. At most, they are signs. And you know you should look for the signs.

You get your required leaves, but you also have this grab bag collection of things that you have attributed meaning to. Now you can’t dispose of them. Aside from having gathered them in a particular/defined area of land, they seems to have some connection to each other. Their relationships make me

Imagine a narrative. Not just clues to be used as a contrivance in a mystery story, these objects now have many possible lives of their own. Each has a history, and a history with each other.
How did they get there? Who was the kid who just had to have that green toy and his mother couldn’t afford it?
Was that playing card someone’s fortune? Was the heart-shaped stone formed here far below the surface, or lost or thrown away by a girl whose young suitor scanned the lakeshore miles away for it for two days?
Put each of these items into a mind-map, each one representing a character with a story, a history, a time-line, a beginning and an end.


I can remember how I got turned on to the subject of notation, in 1973, when my sociology professor handed me a book called “Notations” by John Cage.
Inside were scores (literally) of pages illustrating how composers put down their musical ideas onto paper. You mean there was more than one way? More than filling in that daunting sheet of lines and spaces with little black blobs of notes. It was shocking and liberating.

Here, in this book, I was seeing the antithesis to everything I’d learned in music classes. Almost every page displays unconventional ways of getting ideas out of your head and into the external world. Here’s an example of George Cacioppo’s score for his work “Cassiopeia”.

From the top, Miss Smith! Now, doesn’t that look a little more like a mind-map than your conventional 5-line music sheet?

There are some 250 more examples in Cage’s book. Very heady stuff for an 18 year old. And it was a liberating experience in that I now had evidence that there were hundreds of minds out there that thought differently and had found a way to express themselves. Now, I’m upping that to millions.
The book was an answer to the hackneyed question “What were they thinking?!?”. Well, THIS is what they were thinking – and this is how they were writing it down.

When I applied this to my own writing, I felt a lot of kinship with these composers. I often got stuck trying to do a story straight through from “once upon a time” to “the end”. I had all the components – premise, characters, locations, even plot – but getting it all together so someone could follow it, that was the problem. I started looking around to see how others did it. And this will be subject for further posts.