Zadie Smith’s Ten Rules of Writing

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

“Saigyo in traditional poetry, Sogi in linked verse, Sesshu in painting, Rikyu in tea ceremony, and indeed all who have achieved real excellence in any art, possess one thing in common, that is, a mind to obey nature, to be one with nature, throughout the four seasons of the year.”

— Basho

“[S]everal things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

— John Keats

Just a few random thoughts on a Wednesday afternoon:

As an artist, you confront a lot of rejection. At first, it’s one of the main responses you receive from audiences and funders. Or even worse: indifference. 

It’s difficult to not have a platform to buffer the great artists and people you know from the pain of rejection. Because of this, Kanye’s recent rants (or “visionary stream of consciousness,” which he has recently been calling them) oddly make a lot of sense to me. You can be the biggest rock star on the planet, but face rejection and/or exploitation in other fields. Until you have a platform, you are harshly subject to anxiety and insecurity caused by those who determine the “worth” of your work. Kanye’s meltdowns, to me, are what unbridled id looks like when responding to the insecurities of the ego playing at high stakes. 

I have become largely numb to rejection, which assists in pursuing my work with confidence, but disrupts my gratitude when I occasionally screen at festivals and/or receive accolades. 

Tips from Kurt Vonnegut

1. Find a subject you care about.
2. Do not ramble, though.
3. Keep it simple.
4. Have the guts to cut.
5. Sound like yourself.
6. Say what you mean to say.
7. Pity the readers.

— Kurt Vonnegut

“The image that I shall leave when I’m dead — we’ve already said that this is part of a poet’s works — and maybe the most important — I don’t know exactly what it will be, I don’t know if I’ll be viewed with indulgence, with indifference, or with hostility. Of course, that’s of little importance to me now; what does matter to me is not what I’ve written but what I am writing and what I’m going to write. And I think this is how every writer feels. Alfonso Reyes said that one published what he had written in order to avoid spending his life correcting it: one publishes a book in order to leave it behind, one publishes a book in order to forget it.”

Jorge Luis Borges on writing and legacy (via explore-blog)

“Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

— Albert Einstein

Louis CK encouraging people to make short films. 

Thoughts on Storytelling and Listening

I gave a guest lecture on storytelling and listening yesterday. Here are some notes I wrote in preparation. Maybe they’ll be of use?

I use story as a means of clarifying my thinking. When I am working with clients, it often occurs to me that their greatest setback is not that they lack an interesting or desirable product, but that they do not know what their story is. Many times, when they have a story, it’s not the one that best describes their company and product. It’s difficult to create a clear brand, blog, logo, etc. when the author doesn’t know their story.

To me, storytelling and identity are intrinsically linked, because we package our memories in anecdotes. So, if we have a difficult time telling the story, it may mean that we do not clearly understand the nature of the identity, or essence, at hand, whether that be individually, as a company, an idea, etc.

"Storytelling is essential to human life. Telling stories — arranging the events of our lives into units with beginning, middle, and end so that we can understand them — is the primary way people create meaning for themselves, teach, and learn how to behave, understand their history. Conversation is itself a performance. We manipulate facial expression, gesture, voice tones, body language. We enact different characters. So our ordinary lives empower us “all” to be storytellers, to make that first step toward public performance of self and other characters."
— Jo Radner

"Memory is a poet, not an historian."
— Paul Geraldy

Stories train us to identify the essential and eliminate the rest. They are a filter for getting rid of extraneous details that bog down our messages. Stories teach us to be intentional in our thinking and ask ourselves the question, “what can go?”

ee cummings once said, “like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.”

He knew that precision creates movement, whereas inexactness slows movement. Any good magic trick or comedy act, which have their base in storytelling, are performed with an attention to the details and a close shepherding of the story. 

The more we clarify our stories, the easier it is for people to find themselves in them. The easier it becomes to find ourselves.

Stories are malleable. They can change and grow. There is a certain creativity inherent to storytelling that is inspirational. It tells us that, though facts certainly exist, we often mischaracterize stories for facts. When we recognize this, we see the road open up again and invite us to tweak our stories in service of betters ones.

"Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives — the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change — truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts."
— Salman Rushdie, Novelist

Any good story needs a listener.

I believe that the future belongs to listeners. With the overwhelming torrent of information that flows in a single day, it is much-too-easy for our story to fall on deaf ears.

What different ways can we listen through social media? 

- listening stations
- hashtags
- Retweeting and ‘giving’ more than ‘getting’
- What else?

Through listening, we have the potential to discover our tribe. For example, that is how I met Michael Margolis. He was obviously tracking tweets that used the hashtag storytelling, so he came across my post on David vs. Goliath and the Art of Storytelling.

A friend of mine once said that digesting content is a process of aggregation, curation, and integration. First, we grab a bunch of data. Then we curate the most interesting stuff. Finally, if we are lucky, we make strides in integrating the information we curate.

We are also able to keep track of how our particular story is being received through listening. If we pay attention to the statistics and, maybe more importantly, the conversation, then we are uniquely equipped to evolve our stories to accommodate our audience.

As you know, social media is not a megaphone. Thought it may seem like it is, at times, the most fruitful exchanges, as in life, will always be the ones where people meaningfully reciprocate.

Through listening, we have a unique opportunity to learn. We can shape our efforts by following and listening to experts who regularly broadcast tools and tips at no cost.

On a less technological note, the exchange between the storyteller and listener is ancient and profoundly human, as we can easily note when we are forced to sit and just take in stories, like StoryCorp. It goes back to the campfire.

Creativity as process.