Dear Mother…A short writing tip from John McPhee


“You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whisper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”

Draft No. 4: John McPhee On the Writing Process, McPhee, John, pg 157,158

A trick to help loosen up your mind and get some words down on the page.

I’m hoping posting it here will help me remember to return to it when all feels impossible.

Write like a Plumber. Tyler Cowen’s interview with Ross Douthat

Conversations with Tyler is my must listen podcast.

Tyler’s interviews have introduced me to disciplines I’d never consider exploring.

He speaks with urban planners, novelists, economists, tennis players, journalists, doctors – an incredible array of minds.

The final part of his interviews is called the Production Function. It’s where he asks his subject – What’s your productivity secret?

I found journalist Ross Douthat’s response helpful:

But there is a sense in which writing a column is — it’s like you’re a plumber. The toilet has to be fixed, so you fix the toilet. The column has to be written, so you write the column…

On approaching journalism with a tradesman’s mindset:

But journalism is a trade, right? I mean there is obviously an intellectual component. And we wouldn’t have been able to sit here and have this conversation with me babbling at you if I didn’t have intellectual pretensions. But the work of journalism — this is less true in the age of the internet — but it is linked to a very physical thing that comes out every week, or every month, or every day, and it comes out and it has to be filled.

And when there’s space to be filled, you write the column:

There is a place on the New York Times, on the printed New York Times, that would be blank or have an ad stuck on it if I didn’t write my column. And so you write the column. You write the column. And it’s useful for journalists to think about it this way — it’s useful for anyone inclined to over-romanticize or over-admire journalists to think about it this way.

On not sitting around waiting to become the next George R.R. Martin:

Certainly I like to imagine that — or at least something that sold as well as George R. R. Martin. But it also might be the case that if I had spent my life sitting around with my unfinished novels, I never would have produced anything interesting. And so it’s better to be a tradesman, and that’s at least part of how I think about my job.

Listen to the interview in its entirety here

Or read the transcript here

Hitchcock/Truffaut pg. 16

To reproach Hitchcock for specializing in suspense is to accuse him of being the least boring of filmmakers; it is also tantamount to blaming a lover who instead of concentrating on his own pleasure insists on sharing it with his partner. The nature of Hitchcock’s cinema is to absorb the audience so completely that the Arab viewer will forget to shell his peanuts, the Frenchman will ignore the girl in the next seat, the Italian will suspend his chain smoking, the compulsive cougher will refrain from coughing, and the Swedes will interrupt their love-making in the aisles.

– François Truffaut

From: Hitchcock/Truffaut (Revised Edition) by, François Truffaut

The introduction alone makes Hitchcock/Truffaut worthy of a place in your personal library. Plenty of ideas and tips to inspire writers and filmmakers alike.

Writer’s Inspiration

“When I took this decision, I imagined, “OK, what’s the worst possible scenario? What can the worst happen to me?” In that time, my books were not like they are now. They were handmade, photocopied books, just a bunch of A4-size papers stapled together, and I would sell them around in bars and hostels.

I decided, OK, it cannot get worse than that. If the worst possible scenario is I would be an old hippie going around Southeast Asia, sharing inspiration with his younger travelers and making a living out of it, welcome. I can go for that. It will look nice in my biography. After that, I never again had fears of the future, retirement.”

Juan Pablo Villarino

 

An excerpt from Tyler Cowen‘s interview with travel writer Juan Pablo Villarino.

Read the transcript or listen here.

 

Writer’s Inspiration

Drawing/How to Keep a Sketchbook Tips from Gary Panter. I know, I know, he’s an “artist”. But he writes short stories too, so this counts.

 

INTRODUCTION

Get a book-size (or paperback-size)d sketchbook. Write your name and date on an early page and maybe think of a name for it — and if you want, write the book’s name there at the front. Make it into your little painful pal. The pain goes away slowly page by page. Fill it up and do another one. It can be hard to get started. Don’t flunk yourself before you get the ball rolling.

You might want to draw more realistically or in perspective or so it looks slick — that’s is possible and there are tricks and procedures for drawing with more realism if you desire it. But drawing very realistically with great finesse can sometimes produce dead uninteresting drawings — relative, that is, to a drawing with heart and charm and effort but no great finesse.

You can make all kinds of rules for your art making, but for starting in a sketchbook, you need to jump in and get over the intimidation part — by messing up a few pages, ripping them out if need be. Waste all the pages you want by drawing a tic tac toe schematic or something, painting them black, just doodle. Every drawing will make you a little better. Every little attempt is a step in the direction of drawing becoming a part of your life.

TIPS

1. Quickly subdivide a page into a bunch of boxes by drawing a set of generally equidistant vertical lines, then a set of horizontal lines so that you have between 6 and 12 boxes or so on the page. In each box, in turn, in the simplest way possible, name every object you can think of and draw each thing in a box, not repeating. If it is fun, keep doing this on following pages until you get tired or can’t think of more nouns. Now you see that you have some kind of ability to typify the objects in your world and that in some sense you can draw anything.

2. Choose one of the objects that came to mind that you drew and devote one page to drawing that object with your eyes closed, starting at the “nose” of the object (in outline or silhouette might be good) and following the contour you see in your mind’s eye, describing to yourself in minute detail what you know about the object. You can use your free hand to keep track of the edge of the paper and ideally your starting point so that you can work your way back to the designated nose. Don’t worry about proportion or good drawing this is all about memory and moving your hand to find the shapes you are remembering. The drawing will be a mess, but if you take your time, you will see that you know a lot more about the object than you thought.

3. Trace some drawings you like to see better what the artist’s pencil or pen is doing. Tracing helps you observe closer. Copy art you like — it can’t hurt.

4. Most people (even your favorite artists) don’t like their drawings as much as they want to. Why? Because it is easy to imagine something better. This is only ambition, which is not a bad thing — but if you can accept what you are doing, of course you will progress quicker to a more satisfying level and also accidentally make perfectly charming drawings even if they embarrass you.

5. Draw a bunch more boxes and walk down a sidewalk or two documenting where the cracks and gum and splotches and leaves and mowed grass bits are on the square. Do a bunch of those. That is how nature arranges and composes stuff. Remember these ideas — they are in your sketchbook.

6. Sit somewhere and draw fast little drawings of people who are far away enough that you can only see the big simple shapes of their coats and bags and arms and hats and feet. Draw a lot of them. People are alike yet not — reduce them to simple and achievable shapes.

7. To get better with figure drawing, get someone to pose — or use photos — and do slow drawing of hands, feet, elbows, knees, and ankles. Drawing all the bones in a skeleton is also good, because it will help you see how the bones in the arms and legs cross each other and affect the arms’ and legs’ exterior shapes. When you draw a head from the side make sure you indicate enough room behind the ears for the brain case.

8. Do line drawings looking for the big shapes, and tonal drawing observing the light situation of your subject — that is, where the light is coming from and where it makes shapes in shade on the form, and where light reflects back onto the dark areas sometimes.

9. To draw the scene in front of you, choose the middle thing in your drawing and put it in the middle of your page — then add on to the drawing from the center of the page out.

10. Don’t worry about a style. It will creep up on you and eventually you will have to undo it in order to go further. Be like a river and accept everything.

The original post vanished from the Unbored site. But I was able to track it down on Lynda Barry’s Near Sighted Monkey blog.

Shout out to Austin Kleon who led me to the post years ago.