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amreading Commonplace Book ideas music

Composers and Copywork

Copywork has long been an essential practice for writers. Notable practitioners include Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Benjamin Franklin, Hunter S. Thompson, Mary Karr

But copywork isn’t limited to writers. Composers too, have appreciated the benefits of copywork. In his memoir Words Without Music, Philip Glass shares how copying Gustav Mahler’s scores was vital to his development as a composer:

My second study of the orchestra came through a time-honored practice of the past but not much used today-copying out original scores. In my case I took the Mahler Ninth as my subject and I literally copied it out note for note on full-size orchestra paper. Mahler is famous for being a master of the details of orchestration, and though I didn’t complete the whole work, I learned a lot from the exercise. This is exactly how painters in the past and present study painting – even today, some can be seen in museums making copies of traditional paintings. It works the same way in music. This business of copying from the past is a most powerful tool for training and developing a solid orchestration technique.

Copywork, regardless of the discipline, helps you understand how a “thing” is constructed. A piece of art, music, a car engine, can all be better understood by taking each piece apart and reassembling it in the same manner of its original creator.

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amreading Commonplace Book ideas science Thinkers writer's inspiration

Favorite Passages: Home

All quotes are from: On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

In the final pages, of the final chapter of On the Move, Sacks returns to one of his favorite topics – writing.

Journaling was essential for Sacks. He always kept a notebook close:

I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs.

On using journals as method for talking to one’s self:

My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.

Sacks strays away from the tortured writer narrative. His attitude towards writing is similar to Ray Bradbury.

It’s a pleasure. It’s a joy. It’s an elixir to the chaos of life.

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place – irrespective of my subject-where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.

And after seventy years writing is still fun!

Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.

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amreading Commonplace Book ideas science Thinkers writer's inspiration

Favorite Passages: City Island

From On the Move: A Life. By Oliver Sacks

After 3 months, I’ve returned to Dr. Oliver Sacks’ memoir – On the Move: A Life.

Reading each page is skiing downhill. A smooth, lightning shot of a journey that slaloms through Dr. Sacks’ curious life.

It’s been a joy.

From the chapter, City Island:

Especially in our early days, I sometimes felt terrified of his directness – terrified in particular, that he would find my writings, such as they were, muzzy, dishonest, talentless, or worse. I had feared his criticisms at the beginning, but from 1971 on, when I sent him Migraine, I was eager for his reactions, depended on them, and gave more weight than those of anyone else.

Dr. Oliver Sacks

Even Dr. Sacks feared critique of his writing. Especially from his friend and correspondent the poet Thom Gunn.

But as much as Gunn’s directness terrified Dr. Sacks, he valued Gunn’s feedback of his writing more than anyone else’s.

Sacks understood Gunn’s feedback would improve his writing.

Sacks also describes Gunn in the opening of the City Island chapter as a tremendous walker:

Thom was always a tremendous walker, striding up and down the hills of San Francisco. I never saw him with a car or a bicycle; he was quintessentially a walker, a walker like Dickens, who observed everything, took it in, and used it sooner or later in what he wrote.

Throughout On The Move, Sacks introduces us to new characters as if you’d be joining them for a Friday dinner party.

Sacks’ detailed descriptions of their character quirks reveal their humanity.

P.S. I want to be considered a tremendous walker!

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Art comics Commonplace Book Drawings writer's inspiration

Seth’s storytelling advice to Noah Van Sciver. And you too, if you’d like…

Write about losers and loners. Don’t get dragged down that road of trying to resist your natural inclinations.

Seth

Noah Van Sciver has a YouTube channel.

Yeah!

The prolific cartoonist generously shares his works in progress, conversations with colleagues, and on occasion, words of encouragement.

A few days ago he read a letter of storytelling advice from fellow cartoonist, Seth.

Warning!

The letter contradicts most storytelling advice you’ve heard.

Keep drawing y’all.

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Art comics Drawings writer's inspiration

Cartoonist Lynda Barry keeps us going


I remember picking four comics that I was going to read for the rest of my life. And one of those was Family Circus.

Lynda Barry

Let Lynda Barry’s encouraging words on drawing and Canada and Family Circus, help you through today.

Then go make some marks. Doodle. Sketch. Write a few bad sentences. Edit. Draw some more. Read.

Keep going.


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amreading Commonplace Book writer's inspiration

Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles outlines

For a writer I associate so much with writing from the subconscious I was surprised to discover Ray Bradbury’s outlines for the Martian Chronicles.


The handwritten Martian Chronicles outline.

Typed version. The first four chapters match the handwritten version exactly.

I’m astounded at Jonathan R. Eller and William F. Touponce’s dedication to the research and cataloging of Ray Bradbury’s fiction writing career.

But it’s like Mr. Bradbury says:

Everything I do is a work of love. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t do it. I would like for people to say of me, ‘Bradbury’s books are all his children. Go to the library and meet his family.’

We’re fortunate they did.

From: Ray Bradbury the Life of Fiction. Jonathan R. Eller, William F. Touponce. The Kent State University Press.

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amreading Commonplace Book writer's inspiration

Start with one page

I start with very short pieces, usually no more than a handwritten page. I try to focus on something specific: a person, a moment, a place. I do what I ask my students to do when I teach creative writing. I explain to them that such fragments are the first steps to take before constructing a story. I think a writer should observe the real world before imagining a nonexistent one.

In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri. pg 61

Many of the exercises Jhumpa describes for learning how to write in Italian can be used for improving your writing in English.

Start small. Start by filling one page.

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amreading Commonplace Book writer's inspiration

Finding Sentences

If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.

Joan Crawford

Good sentences, enviable sentences even, can be found in places other than books or articles. In his book How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, author and law professor Stanley Fish shares this story:

One nice thing about sentences that display a skill you can only envy is that they can be found anywhere, even when you’re not looking for them. I was driving home listening to NPR and heard a commentator recount a story about the legendary actress Joan Crawford. It seems that she never left the house without being dressed as if she were going to a premiere or a dinner at Sardi’s. An interviewer asked her why. She replied, “If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.”

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Stanley Fish. Pg 4

Fish breaks it down:

It is the bang-bang swiftness of the short imperative clause-“go next door”- that does the work by taking the commonplace phrase “the girl next door” literally and reminding us that ” next door” is a real place where one should not expect to find glamour (unless of course one is watching Judy Garland singing “The Boy Next Door” in Meet Me in St. Louis).

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Stanley Fish. Pg 4

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Commonplace Book writer's inspiration

Nick Cave’s encouraging words

Hello everyone,

Here’s a piece of writing I enjoyed today.

From Nick Cave’s blog – The Red Hand Files, Issue #67

A reader asked:

How much time do you spend answering these questions? Thinking of a response? Researching for a factual (where necessary) response? Writing, editing and moulding the response? The fluidity of your responses seem like an almost spontaneous stream of consciousness, but the conciseness, the beauty, the lyricism, the depth of meaning and the way the response pulls together within its own universe belie a great deal of time. How long does it all take?

– BRETT, PORT PIRIE, AUSTRALIA

Nick’s response:

Dear Brett,

Fucking ages.

Love, Nick

Writing takes time. Good writing takes ages.

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Commonplace Book

On Index Cards – the Sharks of the Stationery World

A few thoughts on the enduring usefulness of index cards:

I fold an index card lengthwise in half, stick it in my back pocket along with a pen, and head out, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange enough worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it. Sometimes, if I overhear or think of an exact dialogue or a transition, I write it down verbatim. I stick the card in my backpocket. I might be walking along the salt marsh, or out at Phoenix Lake, or in the express line at Safeway, and suddenly I hear something wonderful that makes me want to smile or snap my fingers-as if it has just come back to me-and I take out my index card and scribble it down.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott, pg 134

Ivan Brunetti also incorporates index cards in many of his exercises from his book Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice. He suggests:

try orienting your index card horizontally instead of vertically. “Going wide” has two immediate benefits. First, it more closely approximates our eyes’ field of view and (perhaps not coincidentally) correlates with the proscenium’s composition space, seen not only in stage plays but also on film and computer screens. Second, it damningly highlights those unconsidered compositions that focus on the figure to the detriment of any surrounding environment. We’ve all seen examples: a character is cut off at the ankles and surrounded at the top, left, and right by an undeliberate emptiness, a vast halo of nothing, a rickety non-space, or what I call the Arch of Uninterestingness.

Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, Brunetti, Ivan, pg. 42

I’ve used many types of notebooks. Moleskines (anyone else think that’s a gross name?), Field Notes, Composition books, Evernote, but index cards are the sharks of the stationary world – they adapt better than any note taking invention.

Their size allows me to scratch out a poem or sketch on the run without elbowing fellow passengers on the subway.

They are easy to catalog and store.

And they make perfect bookmarks, especially for library books. You can take notes without marking up the book.

For a short history on index cards. Yes, if you’re that much of a geek, that you would be interested in such a topic, click here.