Billy Collins on finding your voice

The poet Billy Collins was speaking at a White House poetry student workshop and was asked about “finding your voice”. Here’s a portion of his response as shared by Austin Kleon:

Your voice has an external source. It is not lying within you. It is lying in other people’s poetry. It is lying on the shelves of the library. To find your voice, you need to read deeply. You need to look inside yourself, of course, for material, because poetry is something that honors subjectivity. It honors your interiority. It honors what’s inside. But to find a way to express that, you have to look outside yourself.

Read widely, read all the poetry you can get your hands on. And in your reading, you’re searching for something. Not so much your voice. You’re searching for poets that make you jealous. Professors of writing call this “literary influence.” It’s jealousy. And it’s with every art, whether you play the saxophone, or do charcoal drawings. You’re looking to get influenced by people who make you furiously jealous.

Read widely. Find poets that make you envious. And then copy them. Try to get like them.

This is so good and rings true for me, not just for poetry but for any creative endeavor.

Consume everything you can about what grabs you. Be voracious. Read and explore and scour every curiosity.

Find the very best people in the field you want to be in and soak up their insight and their style. Follow them on Twitter. Read what influenced them. Act as if you were a peer of your creative heroes.

And don’t wait to get busy making your own stuff, even if at first it seems like a derivative copy of those you’re aspiring to emulate.

Your voice will come only from using it.

The encouragement of noticers

My friend Alex was a student on my staff a couple of years ago when he came to me and asked why I, at that time, posted on this site so infrequently.

I was surprised he was aware I even had this blog, much less that he cared how often I wrote. But he challenged me to write more often. He liked reading my stuff.

That conversation sparked a much more consistent writing habit for me. It’s one thing to share your writing publicly. It’s so simple now to publish and post and share on the internet. It’s another thing altogether to write with the expectation that someone actually will read it and care.

Before that conversation with Alex I had been writing without much awareness of an audience. There is great value in writing to better understand what you think, without regard to any audience. But writing with readers in mind will sharpen your thinking and your prose.

I said this last year (which was paraphrased from something I had read online somewhere):

Kind of like how you clean your house so much better when you’re expecting company, writing something with the awareness that others might read it will lead to clearer thinking and better work.

Today happens to be Alex’s birthday. We had lunch together today, and he reminded me again that he’s continuing to read my stuff. And I was reminded how potent an encouraging challenge from a friend can be.

And I’m also reminded that I need to be a more diligent noticer of the art and craft and kindness of others. I need to be like Alex more often (and Tim and Trey and Angie and Emily and other friends who regularly notice my work) and challenge those whose work I admire to offer their best.

Make art, people. Express yourselves. Do your part to make sense of it all and to enjoy the ride we’re all taking together.

On Writing Well, on living well

The author William Zinsser died recently, and his obituary in the New York Times prompted me to start reading his highly acclaimed book, On Writing Well. The book had been recommended by several writers I respect, including John Gruber of my favorite Apple web site, Daring Fireball.

The book begins with a firm exhortation to simplify:

“Look for the clutter in your writing and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine each sentence you put on paper. Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it’s beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.”

I’m two chapters in to Zinsser’s book and already more aware of how sloppy my writing is. I just went back to the post I wrote yesterday and trimmed a few unnecessary words.

Writing should serve a purpose, and anything that detracts from that purpose should be eliminated. Simplify. Do less, better.

This is good advice for writing, but it applies well to living, too.

Consider the passage above with these changes:

“Look for the clutter in your life and prune it ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Reexamine every thing (or commitment or relationship) you put in your life. Is every thing doing new (or meaningful) work? Can any task be done with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something (or someone) useless just because you think it’s (or he’s/she’s) beautiful?

Simplify, simplify.”

Steinbeck’s writing advice: Your audience is one single reader

Here is just a bit of author John Steinbeck’s advice on writing, taken from a Paris Review interview:

It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.

            Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

            1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

            2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

            3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

This is good.

Focus on just one page at a time. One line at a time. Just the next word, even.

Don’t try to edit as you go. Just let it flow and see where it goes.

And, instead of imagining some potential vast audience or the possible impact of your work or the rewards that might come from it, focus on just one single reader.

Be the reader, in the way that director Christopher Nolan puts himself in the position of his audience when making films. But reading is a solitary affair, so you need to imagine only that one single reader.

One. Single. Reader.

Apple’s event: MacBook thoughts

I took a day off today. My kids are on spring break, and my wife is out of town for work. Daddy-daughter day included plenty of play time, a trip to the movies (Spongebob… meh), dinner out, and a grocery run. Yet, somehow, I was able to take in the entire live-stream of Apple’s product announcement event this afternoon.

Kind of like wearing a favorite UGA shirt on a football Saturday, I put on my Daring Fireball t-shirt and pulled up the event on my Apple TV to cheer on the possibilities that would be unveiled. Apple is great at these carefully choreographed events, which are filled with sharp product videos and occasionally genuine surprises. I’m a complete sucker for them. As a fan of both great presentation dynamics and Apple products, these events are right in my wheelhouse.

Today’s event was expected to be about the new Apple Watch. And it is a fascinating new product category that may ultimately change the way many of us use technology. I’m in wait-and-see mode as to whether I will ever want one.

But what I’m still thinking about hours after watching is the new MacBook that was unveiled. It’s lighter and thinner than the 11″ MacBook Air (which my wife has and we both love), yet it has a 12″ retina display and all-day battery life. Plus, it includes new engineering for a flatter, more fluid keyboard and something Apple is calling a “Force Touch” trackpad which responds to how hard you tap. There’s a bit of trade-off in that the processing power of this new MacBook is not as robust as what you can get in a MacBook Pro. This is not the machine for those doing regular heavy lifting like video editing and Photoshop.

This new MacBook, though, looks like the ultimate writing machine. The form factor seems like they’ve finally hit the sweet spot for portability and features. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling famously said a few years back: “The MacBook Air changed my life.” She felt it was the ultimate writing tool because of its size and performance. This new MacBook improves on the Air in many ways, but especially with the HD screen.

And you can see the convergence across product lines for Apple. If an iPad married a MacBook Pro, this is what their offspring would look like. This MacBook is a bit like an iPad that runs Mac OS with a killer keyboard attached.

My personal Mac is an old iMac that’s more than six years old. This new, svelte MacBook has jumped to the top of my wish list. And Space Gray? Yes, please. (Guess I need to start saving. That hot water heater we had to replace today did not help…)

The iMore crew has a good summary of the features and a glowing early assessment from their time giving the new MacBook a go in the hands-on opportunity after today’s event.

 

 

Art & Fear: The ceramics class and quantity before quality

This story from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland popped up in a favorite technology blog yesterday:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Brilliant. And I’ve been having this lesson delivered to me repeatedly over the past year. Quantity leads to quality. I don’t know if I’m learning it. I still get stuck overthinking, delaying, waiting for inspiration. When what I need to do is just show up. Do work. And keep showing up.

Attempt mediocrity, even. Dare to write one really awful sentence if you have to. It takes the pressure off. And mediocre might just lead to good, which every now and then might get me to awesome. But if I start by expecting to begin with awesome, I might just sit there instead, waiting for lightning to strike. Or, more likely, start scrolling Twitter and RSS feeds.

Quantity. Hammer away at the thing you want to get good at. Not to the point of grooving an easy path or just mailing it in. You need to challenge yourself routinely with hard things, by stretching your skills. But the more you do, the better you’ll be.

Don’t wait for the muse to show up. Your showing up is more likely to summon the muse than the other way around.

The ceramics class story, by the way, has been linked in several places (Cool Tools, Herbert Lui, and Coding Horror are three I found), and then I saw that book recommended today in a Chase Jarvis post, 6 Books Guaranteed to Make You More Creative. I have five of his recommended six books. The one I’m lacking: Art & Fear. The internet, great and powerful, clearly, is telling me to get that book.

Just keep scrolling

Rands in Repose linked to Michael Sippey who linked to Anil Dash’s post from last fall, 15 Lessons From 15 Years of Blogging and this particular insight:

The scroll is your friend. If you write a bad post or something you don’t like, just post again. If you write something great that you’re really proud of and nobody notices, just post again. One foot in front of the other, one word after another, is the only path I’ve found to an overall body of work that I’m proud of. Push posts down the page, and the good and the bad will just scroll away.

Make a home for yourself on the internet. Own your URL. And tend to your site regularly, daily even. Express yourself. Observe. Analyze. Stand for something. Share what you’re learning.

Maybe no one ever reads it. But the practice of expressing yourself in public, where at least there’s the potential for others to read your words or see your art or hear your music or watch your videos, that practice is good for you, for your mind and for your heart.

And the good posts and the bad and the mediocre will line up and will fill your screen with your work and guide you to a better understanding of who you are and where you can go.

Kind of like life, a regular habit of showing up and sharing online will build, bit by bit, a body of work. Some days are better than others. Occasionally, something with truly shine. Just keep scrolling.