My Favourite Blogs

Here is a list of my favourite blogs right now. I have all of these saved as shortcuts on my iPhone homepage, and recommend them with much clapping and whistling.

1. The Whippet, by McKinley Valentine.

What is it?

From McKinley herself:

Science, history, weirdness and 0% contemporary politics because oh my god sometimes you need a break.

Always free, always interesting.

I hope she won’t mind that I post a few snippets here, to give a taste of how wonderful and diverse (and yet somehow glued together) all her writing is!

For example, this, from the most recent Newsletter:

Unsolicited Advice: Better questions to ask experts

So I went to a tonne of writing workshops over the last year and a half, because lockdown, some with quite famous and talented fantasy/scifi authors, and at the end the teacher asks if anyone has questions.

And the questions people ask completely threw me.

They were like, “Can I use a flashback? Can I use a prologue? Can I write a story in present tense?”

These are not good questions, in that they will not result in usable answers. It’s like saying “should I use the word ‘huge’?” Well, are you trying to describe something that’s very big? If you’re describing a small thing, you probably shouldn’t. There’s no possible meaningful way to answer that question without the context of where and why they want to use the word.

Anything’s ‘allowed’ if you can make it work. So the question is, how do you make it work? Some better questions you could ask:

  • what are prologues for?
  • what effect does writing in the present tense achieve?
  • how can I tell whether or not to use a flashback?

If you know what effect various techniques have, then you can decide when or if you should use them.

These are all writing-based, but I bet it happens in any field, people asking yes/no questions instead of how/why questions.

And this (from Issue #121):

Words for ‘hamster’ translated from other languages

Feldhamster - European hamster - Cricetus cricetus | Flickr
European hamster, admire his stripes
  • Fat cheeks (Welsh)
  • Lazy mouse (Cherokee)
  • One who hoards (Hebrew)
  • Silk fur rat (Japanese)
  • Mister Saddlebags (Syrian Arabic)
  • Cuddle mouse (Afrikaans)
  • Grain piglet (old Swabian German)
  • Earth dog (Lower Sorbian)
  • One who snores (Serbo-Croatian)
  • Eating mouse (Hungarian)

This list is by Adam Sharp, and if you like lists and language and wordplay, I can’t recommend following him enough. Or if you’re not on twitter, you could buy his book, The Correct Order of Biscuits: And Other Meticulously Assembled Lists of Extremely Valuable Nonsense.

He also includes a hamster-related aphorism translated from Swedish, the equivalent of “the lights are on but nobody’s home” —

“The wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead.”

Valentine is funny, kind, and clever. I want her to be my sister. (I have a sister, whom I love very much, and is also all of these things, but I would also happily add a third sibling, if it were McKinley).

2. Austin Kleon

Kleon is a writer who draws. His daily blog would be loved by lovers of Brainpickings, but feels like he is talking to a community of people making things. Kleon’s trilogy of books, starting with “Steal Like an Artist” are books I show and quote from to all of my songwriting students and classes. They changed my relationship to my creative process, and his blog is a daily dose of his thoughts and research that spiral in and out from observations about creative process, making things, and paying attention.

This is a graphic (from Steal Like an Artist) that I show to all my students:

Credit: Austin Kleon, ‘Steal Like an Artist’

3. Bad Astronomy, on syfy.com

I get bouts of insomnia every now and then (small kids, working at night, plus weird brain chemicals you get in your late 30s, and possibly post pregnancies, that keep the brain ticking, sigh). When it sets in, there are a few things I now know that will help recalibrate me for sleep. One of them is that I need to read something before bed that is interesting, but non-narrative. Something that fills me with calm — and it turns out that pop-astrophysics hits it on the head. Phil Plait’s astronomy blog fills me with the awe and wonder and humility that only galaxy-gazing can fill me with.

Something about the fonts on the website also make it look like tabloid news for aliens, which I love.

Can you learn to be obsessed?

There is so much advice out there for writers about the importance of habit and ritual in your creative practice. But lately, I have become—frankly—a little suspect of it.

The insistence on habit as the conduit of creative output is embodied by the American painter Chuck Close, who famously said, “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

John Cleese gave an extraordinary lecture in the 90s, talking about the vital importance of carving out 90 minutes for creative work. Don’t leave the chair after 30 minutes. The first 30 minutes are basically the opening credits. Nothing happens. Nothing is meant to happen. All the action comes after 30 minutes. The key message here was that creativity is not a special talent, but a discipline.

But I often wonder if this ‘advice’ isn’t really advice at all. It’s more of an observation of what highly productive, creative people tend to do. By framing it as advice, it assumes a causal direction: that if I sit everyday and apply myself to my creative practice, that something will happen. It’s prescriptive. 

But there is a line between what is prescriptive and what is descriptive, and I think the two often get confused. Someone can describe what they did to get where they got, and then offer that as some kind of prescriptive method for others, even though it would never work if you weren’t that person, with their passion, their motivation, their invisible networks and threads of connection to others who move their careers along.

I think it’s important to add in a detail here. As Austin Kleon puts it, persistence is much easier “when there’s obsession behind it. (And likewise, discipline is much easier when it’s fueled by desire.)” It’s not habit that drives creative work; it’s obsession. The chain of causation begins with that drive, that motivation, not with the habit itself. The habit is an outcropping of the obsession; it’s a necessary extension of it. It’s a vehicle to cultivate and harvest that obsession, but there has to be obsession at the root. 

The question then becomes: can you learn obsession? Can you practice it? Is passion a feature of disposition, or like so many things, is there a range in which we each individually fall by genetics and circumstance, and our effortful acts of will can only move us around within those limits?

Songwriters on songwriting

I’ve been baffled lately that there aren’t more songwriters in the world who write about writing. Luckily, there are centuries worth of novelists, essayists, and other author types who have written so lucidly and honestly about the craft of writing, its messiness, its need for discipline. (Some of my favourites are On Writing by Stephen King, Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman, and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.)

There is, of course, the classic ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, which I dip into a few times a year, and has given me almost a decade of interesting insights. With that said, it also reveals the ways in which songwriters are much more oblivious to their craft than their counterparts in prose or poetry. There are so many references to being a ‘channel to the muse’ that it makes my muse want to shrivel up and take up chain-smoking.

With all of that said, there have a been two delightful books that came out in 2020 that are, I hope, forging a more honest and fertile ground for other songwriters to share the details of their practice.

One is ‘How to Write One Song’, by Jeff Tweedy (which I discovered reading Austin Kleon’s blog, one of my faves).

I loved, and tried, his ‘word ladder’ exercise, which reminds me a lot of Pat Pattison’s metaphor collision exercises. The exercise basically involves having a column of nouns that are drawn from one area/field/room, and another column of verbs that are drawn from something totally unrelated. What I like about Tweedy’s version is the sense of freedom and experimentation in how to simply mix and match, with a loose brain:

“…take a pencil and draw lines to connect nouns and verbs that don’t normallyw ork together. I like to use this exercise not so much to generate a set of lyrics but to remind myself how much fun I can have with words when I’m not concerning myself with meaning or judging my poetic abilities.”

My go at the word ladder!

The exercises are fun, creative, and specific. But the real gems in here are the stellar insights into the creative process:

“One of the reasons I advocate so strongly for maintaining some creative pursuits in life is my belief that not knowing exactly how something like a finished song comes together creates an incredible magical feeling that always leaves me satisfied and full of wonder. There’s really no exact way to do it—it’s not like putting together IKEA furniture. It’s just about getting started on the right path.”

What I love about the book is that Tweedy is all about the wonder, but also about the nitty gritty of HOW you go about putting yourself on that path. I’m so glad he wrote it.

The other book that came out this year is Anais Mitchell’s ‘Working On a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown’, but more about that later…!