thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: writing

Lessons From An Interview With John McPhee



In an interview with The Paris Review, John McPhee discusses ideas about writing process and structure. Here are some highlights:

 “The fundamental thing is that writing teaches writing.”

 “Structure is not a template. It’s not a cookie cutter.
It’s something that arises organically from the material once you have it.”

 “Ideas occur, but what I’m doing, basically, is looking for logical ways in which to subdivide the material. I’m looking for things that fit together, things that relate. For each of these components, I create a code…”

 “If you’ve got good juxtapositions, you don’t have to worry about what I regard as idiotic things, like a composed transition. If your structure really makes sense, you can make some jumps and your reader is going to go right with you.”

 McPhee has also written about process and structure here.

On Editing Lessons: Pruning, Voice, And Style In Writing


As I was editing a piece of writing I discovered a number of words that kept popping up and watering down the work. So I took note of the words–words that had become habitual and distracting ticks, and unnecessary connective tissue–and pruned them out. Here’s some notes on what I found:

“just, but/yet, almost, so, most, really, pretty, quite, certainly, actually, of course, you/your/you’re (instead of I), in fact, since/because, using a dash (—), is becoming, stating things in the negative instead of the positive… “

First prize goes to the word “just.”
Just sayin’.


I also noticed something else–something more subtle and knowable maybe only to me and so potentially more pernicious. Sometimes I used words or short phrases that I had read somewhere before (often quite some time ago) but weren’t appropriate to the new context in which I was using them. Reading them, the words or phrases didn’t ring true as something I would actually say here and now. Maybe the problem is that I simply haven’t used them enough yet or finally forgotten where I first encountered them. Whatever the case, they draw attention to themselves. My writing could proceed without this associative baggage only once I had found another way to say the same thing, this time in what felt more like my own voice.


Which brings me to voice and style in writing. Is our voice a sounding out using the language with which we feel most comfortable, the language that feels most authentically us? And can voice be altered? Refined? Can we convincingly bypass our voice and channel the voices of others? (A question I have explored through my Ventrilo-Dialogues.) Or is our voice preset, a way of sounding deeply ingrained in us, a physical thing? And from voice it’s but a short distance to style. As I pruned unnecessary words and flagged bits that didn’t sound like me, I thought: style must be what can’t be dodged, what remains when the work has been reduced down to its essentials.

On The Nature Of Blogs III


I have written before (here and here) about the nature of blogs and blogging. To add to that discussion, here’s four more ideas to add to the pile. This blog may be more for me than for you (though you’re welcome to it) because it’s an opportunity to:

practice writing publicly,

exercise efforts at inquiry and invention,

document links with previous writing (as the posts accumulate, the possibilities for linkages expand),

and re-align alleged interests with true interests (the cumulative theme of accumulated blog posts is what it is).

Notes On Some Kinds Of Writing

Some kinds of writing require you to be in a critical frame of mind.

Some kinds of writing require you to be in a safe space.

Some kinds of writing require you to be in dialogue with the work of others.

Some kinds of writing require you to be patient.


Some kinds of writing require you incrementally add and subtract.

Some kinds of writing require you to be open to surprise.

Some kinds of writing require you to build new concepts.

Some kinds of writing require you to multiply and amplify your thoughts.


Some kinds of writing require you to distill ideas to their essence.

Some kinds of writing require you to call out the BS, telling it like it truly is.

Some kinds of writing require you to take your time, building tension and intrigue.

Some kinds of writing require you to work as fast as the moment burns bright.


Some kinds of writing require you to fall flat. (But do get up and try again!)

Some kinds of writing require you to assume another voice, to be a ventriloquist.

Some kinds of writing require you to train at a threshold.

Some kinds of writing require you to map a territory that only materializes in its writing.


Some kinds of writing require you to bridge the private and the public.

Some kinds of writing require you to remember and feel uncomfortable in the realization that the past is always somewhat present.

Some kinds of writing require you to be polyrhythmic–like a drummer playing four parts at the same time.

Some kinds of writing require you to realize that your audience probably won’t be resonating along with your words the way you are. They’re on their own pages.


Some kinds of writing require you to see the nearness of your own writerly limitations. You’re fenced in by your word choices.

Some kinds of writing require you to make it textured or shiny to mimic and take on the affective form of your subject matter.

Some kinds of writing require you to hear the undertones beneath it–like the deep vibrational hums of a gong after it is struck.

Last but not least, some kinds of writing require you to be honest.

On The Nature Of Blogs II: Matching Form And Content To Capture Meaning

As I have said elsewhere, practically speaking this blog is more for me than for you, sure, and tries to ask questions about musical things as I encounter them. And by things I mean: musical sounds, instruments, artists, aesthetics, technologies, codes and systems of signification, compositional techniques and performance practices, and so on.

But metaphorically speaking, this blog is like a tuning fork, trying to get its forms and contents in tune with one another–to get them in sympathetic vibration, so to speak. It’s not that the topics presented aren’t of vital interest, because they are–at least to me. But what’s equally at stake is how well-proportioned the posts are in relation to the material about which they speak. This is a pursuit and a discipline that I find fascinating because, depending on what I’m talking about, it’s possible to say too little or too much, miss the right tone, harp on insignificant details while missing the main point, come across as haughty or too neutral, and on and on. Sometimes the subject matter benefits from the inclusion of photos, animation, or video clips in the post, yet at some point there’s always a prose description that’s a compression and distillation of what it all seems to mean to me, right here and right now.

And saying what something means
in just the right way
can make all the difference.

In Praise Of Slowness: On Writing On Cellphones

It stuck me recently that I might say something about how the blog posts at are written. So here goes:

I write them on my phone.


Most of the writing happens in those moments that could otherwise be wasted moments–while waiting for the subway, standing in line somewhere, sitting on the subway, sitting in the pit. I’m often outside while I write, often under neon lights, often just waiting for something else to happen. Sometimes I even write while walking–yes, making me one of those people you really hate seeing on the street: eyes glued to the glowing orb in their hands, a body not looking where it’s going. (But in my defense: it’s usually late at night while I’m walking home on deserted streets, you see …)

The point is, I usually write the posts either while waiting for transit or while in transit, and what makes this possible in the first place is the fact of the phone itself. Let’s unpack this a little more by asking a question: What does it mean to write on a phone?

For one thing, the screen is quite small and the letter keys even smaller. This makes whatever I’m writing literally feel and look, well, quite tiny. No matter how expansive I hope the thought might be, its material expression is, for the moment, just tiny text on a tiny two-inch screen. And this is comforting to me. I like it because the micro-smallness of everything creates a kind of intimacy. It feels like writing in a diary–albeit one with a bright screen and a perpetual Internet connection!

The tinyness of the phone’s screen and keypad has another, perhaps more important effect: it slows me down. It’s really hard to write fast on the phone because you’re reduced to one-finger typing (or in my case: a left thumb and a right index finger). Trying to type fast while being constrained by the phone leads to missed keys and letters, which in turn leads to the phone’s strange auto-correct kicking in. In that sentence before last, for instance, I was offered “wired” instead of “write” and then, in the next sentence, “steam” instead of my intended “strange”. (And just now, “intense” for “intended”!) Dealing with this further slows me down and frustrates me, sure, but in the process of backing up for a moment–“of” not “if backing up”!–to correct the auto-correcting, I buy myself a few seconds that I have come to believe are used on some level as time to think about the next sentence, the next thought.

Writing on the phone then, seems to slow thoughts down to the glacial pace of one letter at a time, one auto-corrected word at a time, the message and message-writer having to wait for the medium to catch up. Overall this is a good thing, for me anyways. Why the rush anyway?

And of course, once I’m done, I can email the post to myself and then copy that email directly into WordPress and we’re off and running. This alone continues to impresses me: the fact that at no point does oxygen ever hit this text. It’s all digital, all virtual, but then so is almost everything else these days.

C.Wright Mills: On Intellectual Craftsmanship


Thinking is a struggle for order and at the same time for comprehensiveness.”
– C. Wright Mills

Charles Wright Mills (1916-1962) was an American sociologist best remembered for his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination (which is still in print). For me, one remarkable aspect of the book is its Appendix, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” Here Mills does something I have never really seen other social scientists do: discuss the nature of the research craft, particularly the creative process of linking intuition with idea generation. This is important because, after all, generating ideas is what scholars do.

Mills begins with the suggestion that one set up a file or journal in which to record ideas–ideas about stuff, about the world, about what you’re reading, about what excites you, and about that which stimulates your curiosity. This lays the groundwork for what he calls “systematic reflection.” The file or journal is a space you can unite “what you are doing professionally and what you are experiencing as a person.”  Or put another way: your personal interests are in fact linked to your professional research interests. The journal is also a place to capture “fringe thoughts”–bits of information such as overheard conversations, something you read, or even a feeling revealed to you in a dream (!). Very cool stuff to read in an Appendix, right? Keeping a journal keeps your inner life awake and allows you to develop powers of expression and the discipline of “controlled expression” by which I think Mills simply means the process of capturing those aspects of your inner life in order to study and consider them. Once the journal is up and running, its individual entries can be periodically re-arranged, cross-referenced, and so forth. All of this serves to loosen your imagination by revealing to you connections and larger themes. The most important point to remember about the journal is this: “The maintenance of such a file is intellectual production.”

Later on the Appendix. Mills suggests ways to stimulate one’s imagination, and many of these suggestions revolve around a sense of play. Playing with words, phrases, concepts and definitions is one way to start. Or you can pursue insight by considering extremes such as “thinking of the opposite of that with which you are directly concerned.” In suggesting forms of intellectual play, Mills advocates for a constant shifting of one’s attention from one level to another–kind of like playing with the zoom function on a camera. To use a musical analogy, Mills almost seems to be describing what could be called composing with ideas.

The Appendix ends with a set of suggestions for good craftsmanship. These include the importance of writing simply and clearly, the importance of grounding your writing in clear examples, and the importance of thinking broadly about the relevance of your work to your time, or in Mills’ words: “orient [your work] to the central and continuing task of understanding the structure and the drift, the shape and the meanings, of your own period . . . ” Finally, and perhaps most incisively, Mills suggests that we maintain our autonomy as scholars when it comes to deciding the kinds of projects we take on and which ideas are in fact important to us:

“Do not allow public issues as they are officially formulated, or troubles as they are privately felt, to determine the problems that you take up for study. Above all, do not give up your moral and political autonomy by accepting in someone else’s terms the illiberal practicality of the bureaucratic ethos or the liberal practicality of the moral scatter.”

You can read the Appendix here.


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