Help—AI Algorithms Stole My Keyboard!

I have seen the future of writing. And it might not include me, but I can always clean up stray punctuation.

We all know automation is threaded through today’s workforce, from Amazon robots picking your favorite paper towels off shelves in a galaxy far, far away, to artificial intelligence (AI) reading your x-rays with a precision that many radiologists can’t approach.

But we writers thought that soulless machines, bland blocks of code, couldn’t invade the field of creatives. Our work takes a unique combination of insight and awareness, experiment and structure, flash and incubation not afforded to the canned collection of inputs that machine learning extracted from countless texts. Doesn’t it?

Not so fast, me hearties. You may have heard of GPT-3, a language-prediction AI that has devoured mountains of text, fiction and non, so that when fed some kind of text anew, it can draw upon its wide database of how particulars of expression are built, and spit out some new material relevant to the initial input.

This is substantively more clever—and repeatable—than those legendary monkeys finally typing a Shakespeare play after eons of gibberish. But surely the unseen hand here is just dry bones wielding a dull brush, not a vibrant painter of imagery and language? Not exactly. Not Margaret Atwood yet, but if Margaret were a four-year-old today, she might get into weaving as a backup profession.

I had a chance to try a beta of Sudowrite, a creative writing tool based on GPT-3. And the results were intriguing, if not unsettling.

I wrote a couple of goofy paragraphs for Sudo AI to get cooking:

The ogre was moody today. Every one of his horns felt itchy. His mother hadn’t called him in two weeks. His oldest child lit a village on fire yesterday, trying to cook some marshmallows.
But the worst was his painting! All his ideas, bright in the mind, came out derivative and dull. He needed a change.

 
I asked the Wormhole function (which then gives you five paragraphs of distinctly different elaborations on your prompt, trying to harmonize tone, characters and voice) of the software to provide me with some more story strides; I chose one of the five:

Ogre turned to his advisor and asked, “What do you see in my painting?”
The advisor paused in the middle of feeding himself from the tub of acid.
“I see…darkness,” he said, eyes flashing deep within his skull. “I see a tribe of cowards making a garden in a forest. A tribe of cowards—no, it’s actually a tribe of cows. But belligerent cows, with nasty attitudes. I think they are protesting the price of Netflix subscriptions for bovines.

 
I accepted the AI’s first three Wormhole sentences, but then meddled: Sudo gave me a tribe of cowards, but I decided that wasn’t as fanciful as a tribe of belligerent cows, which I edited in. Then I put forth:

The ogre pondered. “Yes, but what does that have to do with me?”

 
My advisor, abandoning caution through the Wormhole, let loose:

The advisor stood on a stool, letting the acid eat from his ripped robe and slippers down to the bone. “You are the darkness in their garden, the anger behind the bovine protest. You are the beast at the doorstep, the teacher that will teach us all lessons. But above all—you are the ooze that will devour this section of the canvas, because no one has made anything creative in ages, and the old ideas stink.”

 
Always good to ponder the words of someone on acid, or someone with acid on them. I agreed and offered my advisor a 10% raise in the story.

The program then suggested that the ogre should fight his oldest child. Here’s part of that:

“Is that wise?” the advisor gagged. “He’s got horns like a gazelle. A merciless killer.”
“If you want me to paint anything worthwhile, I’ll have to win this battle,” the ogre stated.
“Don’t forget my raise.”

 
I should have advised that ogre to never make personnel promises you can’t keep, but too late on the raise.

What if you get bogged down at some plot point? Sudo AI dodges bogs by giving you the Twist function, which supplies you with a number of varying paths. Here are some small excerpts of some twists (the full excerpts are too long for the post):

• The ogre discovers that he’s not an ogre at all; he’s a Tcho-Tcho, a race of dwarves who’ve been living underground the whole time.
• The advisor is the brother, who thinks he is the ogre.
• The king’s brother is really the king’s long-lost son; the advisor is really a demon sent by his father to con the king out of his fortune [Sudo seems to have decided the ogre is a king]

Or left wanting for some piquant spicing, you could choose a word and use the Describe function to elaborate on the selected term. I chose “advisor” here:

• Advisor is a tall man with a tousled beard and approachable smile. His eyes look like a dragon’s—he’s pasty white and jaundiced.
• His breath even carries the smell of old parchment, the stale odor of a library that’s been locked up for decades.

or, with gusto (and a pileus):

• He was a little old man covered in ash and soot, with a wrinkled, crinkled face and skin as taut as a drum. He had a beard of celery, callused hands, and a pileus made of vegetable leaves. He wore plaid clothing from the chest up and straw sandals from the waist down.

If you read the Joanna Penn Sudowrite article linked above, you can see the AI software offers other intriguing story-building functions. That article also looks at some of the broader ramifications and applications of such software. Since the company’s founder is the interviewee, he is judicious with disclaimers about such software “replacing” writers or it being used to flood markets—or at least Amazon—with haphazardly written self-published novels and stories.

I’m agnostic about those matters for now, but in seeing how the program rapidly produced variant story developments and characters in my frothy tale, I sensed both danger and delight. I see how a stuck writer could become unglued by seeing provocative hints on pushing a story forward, or become beguiled by a character trait or behavior they wouldn’t have considered otherwise. And use the suggestions, with modifications. Or none?

Many of the suggestions from software functions were clumsily worded or simply “off,” but many did give me pause to think, “Now that’s a [phrase, character, development, etc.] I wouldn’t have come up with,” or wouldn’t have taken to that degree or style. I should have taken the time to try to write something other than this fanciful tale to see where “serious” writing would go, but my beta ran out before I tried.

Check the software out, if you’re interested. Let me know if this is a great new notion or the downfall of existence. I can fall back on being a bartender if this writing thing doesn’t work out (though I hear that robot bartenders are on the ascendance).

[Author’s Note: All of the manipulated electrons in this post are the handiwork of the writer, other than the specified AI entries. But how can you be sure? Check your pileus.]

How to Effectively XXXX in Your Writing

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

If you use Google Analytics to check out what queens and prime ministers (and bandit-eyed raccoons sniffing the trash) have visited your site, you can discover all manner of stats telling you who found your posts crunchy or crappy, how much time they spent musing over your genius, and if they come back often because you give out free drinks at happy hour.

When you have Google’s tracking code on your site, they also bless you with an emailed monthly report that lets you know that the blog where you posted pictures of the Kardashians mud-wrestling got 1000x more views than the one where you did a mash-up—with you playing all instruments and doing all the voices—of “We Are The World” and “Never Gonna Give You Up.”  There is no accounting for taste.

There’s also no accounting for why a post of mine from 10 years ago regularly gets the most hits on my site. Now my site isn’t like Target when there’s a 3-for-1 sale on toilet paper: I don’t get all that many stampedes here. One issue is that I haven’t been blogging regularly, forgetting to remind people that I’m an avid typist who enjoys almost all the keys (though the circumflex is a bit much). I am going to write more often.

But I’m going to write less often about moaning in your writing. Or my writing. That 10-year-old graybeard of a post I mentioned was titled “How to Effectively Moan in Your Writing.” I didn’t put that as the headline of this post, because I didn’t want yet more queries like “how to write moaning,” and “how to type moans” and “how to describe moaning in writing” to appear as the top searches in my monthly Google tracking, as did last month’s (and the month before, and my goodness on and on). Many other intriguing moan-quest variants grace those reports as well.

Now that infamous post, which is here, probably left these searchers unsatisfied, because it was about my trying to write in a post-surgical murk. For all the thrill-seekers who for 10 years now have been desperately seeking a way to moan in their writing, here:

Uhhhh!
Ooohhhh!
Ahhhhh!
Uh-uh-ohhh!
Eeeehh!

For those alliterative songwriting types, why not try “Eee-eye-eee-eye-ohh”?

I suppose I could start some traffic building by writing posts with headlines like “How to Effectively Shriek When Your Dog Eats Your Wedding Ring in Your Writing,” but that would be pandering. For all those pornographers—er, creative writers—who have sought out my old moan post for clarity on these issues, forgive me. May your moans be answered elsewhere.

Though perhaps I could just put lines like “how to write moans” in every post, and I’d have them lining up at my electronic door. Though it would be more accurate in my case to have “how to moan while you’re writing,” because I do plenty of that.

And yeah, I could just change the subject line on that original post and be done with it, but then I’d be cutting out a colorful selection of my readership, who probably just look at the post and moan, because it’s not what they are looking for. But I do appreciate them stopping by.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Scuba Volunteers Still There for Monterey Bay Aquarium Animals Amid COVID

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a long history of dedicated volunteerism. The COVID crisis has closed it to the public since last March, but the multitude of animals still need care. See how the dive staff and volunteers keep the lights on. Published in February 2021 by Scuba Diving magazine.

Spirits Of French Lick: Tasting History In The Whiskey

Fascinating interview with an Indiana distiller who is a warehouse’s worth of information on distilling history and practices. For instance, he hunts out old yeasts from long-defunct distilleries to add punch to his whiskies. Published in February 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Trail Mix: San Juan Bautista hike and lunch — distanced but delightful

Goldurnit, traveling is tough these days—lucky there are some places nearby that still hold intrigue. My piece on a hike on a historic trail and lunch and street-hopping in the equally historic Mission town of San Juan Bautista. Published in January 2021 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Acid Rain Isn’t Always What You Think It Is

Woodstock it wasn’t. But they did drop LSD from the sky (with predictable results). My addle-brained account of an infamous 1970 Southern California “Christmas Happening” concert. Published by An Idea on Medium, January 2021.

Other People’s Posts

This 12-Second Trick Trains Your Brain to Be More Positive

“To do this, spend at least 12 seconds recalling a positive memory, image or relationship. Sit with it. Think about all the reasons your brain classifies this memory, image or relationship as something good. Continue to do this any time you feel stressed out or find yourself veering into negative territory. Over time, your brain will train itself to look on the bright side, rather than giving into the negativity of the moment.”

How to be lucky

“You might think of serendipity as passive luck that just happens to you, when actually it’s an active process of spotting and connecting the dots. It is about seeing bridges where others see gaps, and then taking initiative and action(s) to create smart luck.”

How to Create More Clarity in Your Life

“Clarity is a powerful sorting mechanism. It allows us to quickly dismiss that which is irrelevant or harmful.

It’s difficult to become addicted to your social feed when you’re clear about your intentions. It’s difficult to become overwhelmed by media and options when you’re clear about what you’re looking for.”

Stateless

“But there’s another way to approach this: you just do what’s in front of you right now, in the moment. If you’re creating art, you work with what’s in front of you on the canvas, in your heart and mind, and create the art right then. This doesn’t have to be about all art that came before it, and everything else you need to do. It’s just you and this canvas and paint, right now.”

Confessions of a Between-The-Margins Scribbler


Books have always seemed like magical things to me, from when I could barely hold one, through the long years to now. Because of that, and maybe more so because I never saw anyone in my house doing it, I never wrote in books. Even when I bought my books in college, and saw how many people would highlight material or write margin notes, such behavior seems almost sacrilegious to me.

But when I encountered things people wrote in the margins of books—“Not intuitive,” “Good point!” “Will be on test,” I always read them with fascination, particularly notes that were longer, and often that took issue with the author. (It’s always easier to argue with an author in his pages than in his face.)

That’s why when I saw the extensive marginalia (really, end-of-book blank-page marginalia) in Wade Davis’s One River, which my sweetie Alice is reading, I poured over it. That took some doing, and at some points a magnifying glass, because the writing was in a tiny scrawl. I am a person whose handwriting can give you liver failure, so I speak with authority.

The Davis book is nonfiction, its topic exploring the Amazonian rainforest. Why some reader took it upon him or herself to inscribe topics like “My Drug History” in the back of this book was puzzling, but gratifying. And why the writer would mingle “beer” and “coffee” amidst “DMT” and “Magic Mushrooms” was intriguing, but how much volume of drinking “Irish Cream” would cause one to note it as an entry in one’s drug history? And “Speed H20” was beyond any personal abuse of mine.

The most fascinating and extensive list on the pages is the “People I’d like to meet,” Perhaps this dates the writer, or the desired names were aspirational from the scribbler’s other reading, but among the luminaries:

Neal Cassady
Alan Watts
Albert Hoffmann (first synthesized LSD)
William Burroughs
Gary Snyder
Bukowski

He goes from these literary counterculture figures into bands and singers, i.e., The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones. But in another column there’s Mort Saul, Debbie Reynolds and Bob Hope, so he’s digging deeper than those tie-dyed 60s years. And there are interesting compositional distances between Margaret Mead and Ann Landers, but they are near each other in this writer’s pantheon.

There’s a “My Reading Record” area near a “Minds I’ve Entered Into…” but the material below that doesn’t seem to list books or minds, but titles of songs and events, like “Hands Across America.”

So, why did this person write these things, and why in this book? Alice is only a short way in, but what she’s said doesn’t indicate that the work is some kind of pantheon of the greats that might prompt such an exercise. Did the marginalist not want to buy a diary? The scribblings remind me a bit of what F. Scott Fitzgerald has the Gatsby character write to himself in his formative years: Rise from bed; dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling; study electricity; work; baseball and sports; practice elocution, poise, and how to attain it; study needed inventions.

Did this writer want to construct lists that told him he was on the right path, had tasted of stimulating minds, was a member in good standing of this coterie? I don’t know, but it made me wonder if I should write such a list.

Oh, there’s also a list titled “Mexico”:
Vitamins
2 Kerchiefs
3 Shirts
Red Jacket
Green Levis
Swim Trunks
Sandals

I didn’t see Frida Kahlo on the want-to-meet list, but if the writer included a good deal of food in that packing, they might be able to search for her ghost for a while. I’m not yet tempted to write my own confessions in the back of a book, but I do know Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups would be in my drug history.

Even When the Whiskey Runs Dry, There’s a Story in Every Bottle

Were Pappy here today, he’d be smoking a much more expensive cigar

In the summer of 2011, I made a video homage to Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV, only instead of sipping and then tripping on the layered characteristics of wine, I swilled three whiskeys instead. One of those fine vintages was Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old bourbon, at the time considered one of the best bourbons in the world.

I’d been given a bottle that past Christmas, and as I explained in the video, at $110.00, it was a galaxy beyond my normal price range. Though I’d been given the whiskey months before, I’d been doling out its precious drams—it was a Christmas miracle that I had any left by summer to make the video.

But alas, even bountiful loaves and fishes must go the way of all things. Yet, after I did suck out the last drop of the distillate with a glass pipette in a thermally regulated room and wearing a blackout mask to concentrate on the taste, I kept the bottle on a shelf in my office. Sort of an aspirational inspiration.

Aspirational indeed.

Let’s See: How ‘Bout Two Ounces of Gold for 750ml of Bourbon?

If you Google Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old, and you read current prices for the hootch, you will lose your eyebrows. You probably won’t find it for under $1,200 a bottle (if that cheapo bottle is actually available), and in some rarefied zones, you will see prices climbing over the $3,000 dazzlement barrier. Zounds!

Sure, Pappy is fine whiskey, and perhaps it was and is the best bourbon in the world. That’s arguable. But $3,000 a bottle is more of a theoretical thing, a result of smashing atoms together and coming up with a particle that can’t be explained. Along the lines of the tulip mania craze in the 1600s in Holland, where the price of tulip bulbs unpredictably lifted to the heavens, and then resoundingly crashed in 1637, a hellish year for bulb brokers.

Now Pappy hasn’t crashed yet, but one suspects as all markets climb and all markets plummet, it will. The whiskey will still be good, but the folks who have hoarded it for its investment value might start mixing it with Coke.

I’ll Take the Porsche Carrera GT and Two Empty Pappy Bottles

But artificially inflated whiskey prices aren’t what I actually wanted to discuss. I want to discuss artificially inflated bottle prices. Empty bottles. I’d heard a bit back that empty Pappy 20-year-old bottles were selling for $75 on eBay. What? Empties? I checked it out, and sure enough, many people had sold their Pappys for $60 and up. Mine had sat on the shelf for 8 years, and I’d never bought another. (And if prices hold, never will.)

So, I put that pup on eBay, and in a week’s time, sure enough it had sold to some lucky fellow in Ohio for $115, including shipping. It wasn’t lost on me that the bottle sold for more than the sizzlingly high price it held when it was full of its soothing elixir. I was pleased that someone had paid me a tidy sum for a bottle that only held vapors (it did still have a nice bouquet), but being a writerly sort, I had to wonder: what was he (and all those other bottle buyers) going to do with the bottle?

Fill the Bottle with Stories

Was he going to fill it with Early Times bourbon and casually whip it out at a poker party to lavishly indulge his friends? “Yeah, I bought it a while back at only $900. I figured you guys were worth it.”

Was he going to fill it with some nice but not nearly as pricy wheated bourbon (maybe even Maker’s Mark), get the cork professionally resealed, and try to get three grand for it on some Dark Web site where he’d be forever anonymous?

Or perhaps he is going to put it on a shelf with some other distinguished empties he bought online, some outrageous 200-year-old single-malt, maybe a Screaming Eagle or two, a Chateau d’Yquem, and invite his new girlfriend over to his mancave to have her gasp at his impeccable palate and his bulging bank account?

Who knows? But it’s amusing to work up a story or two on the disposition of the bottle, and how even empty, it might provide intoxication to come for new owners. In the meantime, I’m scouring the house for eBay potentials. There’s a Sock Monkey that’s been sloppily grinning at me for years now. Surely after I shake off his dust he’s worth a grand or two.

Coughing Up a Writer’s Block


Lately, I am a thing coughed. Or a vehicle for spasms, which deny the pleas of my brain—the so-called higher powers—in favor of the visceral dominance of the thundering lungs. At least the coughing doesn’t interfere with my typing—except when it’s a sudden blast in the middle of keying in a word.

“The coughing,” in this new world of mine, is what happens nearly every time I try to navigate a spoken sentence. I had a cold five weeks ago that seemed your standard package of sneezy blear and leaden fatigue, playing itself out in a week or so. But the cough. The cough, Coltrane’s longest saxophone screech, a filibuster of a cough, endless, monopolizing.

That cough, the one that won’t stop.

Writing and Other Blasts of Air

You, as any sensible person who doesn’t want to read about self-gazing medical conditions might ask, “What’s that got to do with writing?” Well, a couple of things: one, it’s odd to be taken out of your day-to-day and made to realize how locked in you are to certain behaviors and “natural” expressions. For the last five weeks, I haven’t been able to speak more than a sentence or two without coughing or wheezing or sputtering. This obscure debility keeps creeping into my thoughts about writing, my motivations toward writing. I seem less a writer with a cough than a cough with a writer attached.

My condition has made for truly odd phone calls where I’ll drop away in mid-word, or in conversation with someone where I’ll try and hurry out a sentence before my convulsion. Trying to avoid this reflex abdominal trampling has changed the tone of my voice as well, where I’ve gone from a brimming baritone to the sound of, perhaps, a pecking piccolo.

Since I regularly assert my masculinity by knowing the right deodorant and shoe color to buy, these squeaky voicings trouble me.

Drug Him!

I’ve gone the inhaler route and prescription cough medication route and groovy-cough-medication-from-the-natural-foods-store route and all those routes have been dead ends so far. So I’ll see a lung doc next week; maybe we can smoke some cigarettes together and mull it. (Weirdly enough, when I last had this condition—and yes, I’ve had it before, once lasting more than six months—one of the things my doctor recommended was to smoke pot with a vaporizer. That was 10 years ago, before vaporizers were available like apples from the market. Vaporizing pot didn’t help the cough, but it rekindled a love affair with Doritos.)

All in all, I feel fine; it’s just the cough that’s the problem. This setback, temporary I’m sure, does make me wonder: how do people deal with the disruption to their lives (and deal with the anxiety and fear) when their condition is serious? You really don’t know how you’ll behave in the face of something grave. I only have the frustration of a minor condition—I don’t have to muster up any courage.

At least I can write without breaking into hacking barks. And my cough gave me something to write about today. I have heard that laughter is the best medicine, but since laughing makes me cough, I’ll stick to bourbon and honey.

Save Yourself from Toxic Novels

We all know that literature can rot your mind. Or was that candy corn? Regardless, many people don’t know that books are literally dangerous, particularly new releases. Here I examine my new novel, Aftershock, for cholera, plague, St. Vitus Dance and other conditions. All in the name of keeping you safe.

Your Writing Niche: Does it Mix Well with Whiskey (and Chocolate)?

I made sure to close the drapes so the neighbors couldn’t see

Update: here’s the published piece: Whiskey and Chocolate: Collaborators, Colleagues,Comrades

Many freelance writers have written compellingly of how finding a writing niche—SEO, senior health care, inbound lead-generation for hiking sock companies—can provoke a steady stream of assignments and income. There are some persuasions: you understand your clients—and their audience—more clearly, your facility with the language and arguments of the narrow discipline becomes sharper and sharper, and as a specialist, you can often charge specialty fees.

I’ve mentioned this before, that because my brain has lobes that tingle over the oddest variety of subjects, I’ve never been inclined towards a niche or a specialty. In the past couple of months, I’ve written pieces about viral marketing techniques, Hawaii, rock and roll, house-sitting, the vulnerability of fictional characters, and issues facing independent contractors.

Thus, niche-less I am. But, that’s not to say I don’t have some distinct interests. One of them is spirits, meaning booze, hootch, firewater, grog—you know, the sauce. I enjoy looking at it in bottles, and out of bottles. I perk up to its piquant aromas. I like the mad-scientist aspect of mixing it with today’s wealth of natural infusions, bitters and botanicals that supply tang and lift to cocktails.

I even like to drink the stuff.

High-proof Publications

It took me a while (probably because of that drinking) to realize that there’s an audience for those interests, even for those subhumans that think Jaegermeister is something to drink, rather than a wood refinisher. So, in the last couple of years, I’ve sent out my share of queries to various publications on various intoxicant ideas, and I’ve published pieces in magazines like Whisky Life and Spirits (now defunct), Draft, and Wine Enthusiast.

One of the most recent tippling magazines I’ve worked with is Whiskey Wash, which is bathed in all things whiskey. After I wrote a few country-specific whiskey histories for them, they invited me to work up my own queries, one of which resulted in a fascinating interview with a professional “nose,” who works with distillers to refine their products in very exacting ways.

But my latest assignment was sweet. Literally. They accepted my pitch for what high-end chocolates might pair best with three kinds of whiskey (straight whiskey, bourbon and rye). So this past Friday night my pal-so-gal Alice and I nibbled, sipped, and nibbled and sipped again. My, was it fun. For hours, I forgot that our president-elect is a misognynist, racist, First-Amendment-mocking orange gasbag.

Pitch Until They Itch

Useless political commentary aside, my point in this is that some freelancers aren’t comfortable, or not interested in establishing a niche for their work. Some might take years of generalized commercial writing to find a niche, which they then lovingly settle into. And some, like me, might write about a whirling world of things, but might also find a way to take their special interests into their writing.

Oh, not to make it sound TOO easy: I’ve sent lots and lots of queries to lots of magazines on a crazy range of spirits pitches. The bulk have been turned down, but that’s freelancing. Enough have been accepted to keep me pitching anew, as any freelancer should do as a matter of course.

Oh, and I’ve tasted some interesting booze too. I’m not sure when the chocolate & sauce article will run, because I haven’t written it yet. That’s for the next day or so. But it will be up on Whiskey Wash soon, and there’s even some chocolate and whiskey left over.

And they pay me for this. Goodness.

[Oh, and a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kraazy Kwanzaa and Freaky Festivus to all!]

Writers: Warren Zevon Died for Your Sins

BurningGuitar

Good American that I am, I was waxing my car in the garage last weekend, when a Warren Zevon song came on the radio. The wax job immediately brightened, because Zevon’s stuff is often jolly wordplay, painted with irony and wit, and this song, “Werewolves of London” is Zevon at his absurdist perfection. The whole song is weirdly, rollickingly splendid, but it has a line that kills me every time: “I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vics,” a pause, and then the insouciantly delivered, “His hair was perfect.”

The writing credits for that number have a couple of other names, but if you know Zevon, you know he had a heavy hand in arranging that werewolf’s hair. So many of his tunes were spiced with the oddly angled, delightfully perverse bite of his mind: “Excitable Boy,” “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” He could also be perfectly world-weary, like in “Carmelita” (and truly world-weary, near his death, with “Keep Me in Your Heart”).

Legacy and Fame: Two Different Things

But I don’t come to praise Zevon, but to dig him up. What I mean by that, for writers, is that Zevon had a pretty good career, cut short by a form of lung cancer that undoubtedly was part of his hard lifestyle. He was highly respected in songwriting circles, but he never blasted to the top-tier of stardom. I don’t have a clue if he even wanted that, but I want to look at his work in light of what he put into his writing: himself.

His work is sardonic, witty, and sometimes outright weird. He wasn’t afraid to go into areas—death, sex, crime—where some other writers might shy from. And his work is highly original—if you listen to many of his songs, you see he didn’t take the easy way out. Probably because he couldn’t—he couldn’t help putting himself fully in his writing. His version of the perfect rock ’n roll love song wouldn’t top the charts because the charts were almost always topped by writing that never ventured into grottos of the imagination, didn’t step in muck and then laugh about it.

What Your Writing Needs Most Is You

The point of my elegy here is that writers should put their flesh in their writing: the stuff that tears at you, the stuff behind a forbidding door, the soft gong of alarm in the night that no one else hears. Zevon left early, and maybe he’s forgotten by many (or never ever heard by many more), but he managed to be true to himself in his work, even if he danced with some demons too. He left early, but he left a lot behind.

Bonus Zevon Sighting

Zevon was a hard drinker, and it didn’t always serve him well. I was at a Grateful Dead concert in Santa Barbara in the late 70s, and Zevon was one of the opening acts. This was an afternoon concert, in a stadium, and the Dead crowd was restless to get twirling, and were calling for the Dead during Zevon’s set. He was about six sheets to the wind, and started screaming back at the crowd, calling them 60s burn-outs (was that an insult?). He wobbled off the stage at the end of his set, after he unleashed a frenzy of punitive guitar feedback.

Devon lost some good years to the bottle, but his songwriting output was still prodigious, and wholly individual. I don’t recommend that you pour Jack Daniels over your corn flakes before your morning pages (it’s better on oatmeal), but I do recommend that you remember to put your real self in your writing, whether it’s in fiction or non—put in the wrinkles, put in the bloodshot eyes, put in Mona Lisa’s sly smile.

Leave the best (and sometimes the worst) of you on the page, and as one of Zevon’s inimitably titled songs suggests, you can sleep when you’re dead. If the words ring, there’s a fair chance someone will remember.

Writing Tips, Ticks and Tics

Malibu, tickled that she's tick-free

Malibu, tickled that she’s tick-free

A couple of days ago, my cat came in with a large tick between her shoulder blades. Ticks are things that should never be invited to champagne parties, debutante balls or bar mitzvahs. They are vile things, going from the size of a fairy’s sneeze to a small olive in a few days by gorging mightily on their host’s blood. When I discovered the tick, I immediately did the wrong thing: I Googled “how to remove a tick from a cat.”

Juggling hand grenades would have been safer. Not only did I learn that ticks can give a cat Lyme disease, kitty paralysis and illegible handwriting, but removing them in the wrong way (and all suggested ways were deemed wrong or contradictory in the next link) would leave behind all kinds of tick mouth machinery, plus a toxic squirt of the poisons ticks carry when the tick-removal service (me), in his stress to remove it, inadvertently squeezes the tick.

The Tick (or Tic) of Writing Paralysis

What has this to do with writing? This: Invariably, with writing projects or assignments pending, my brain freezes. “I can’t write about that, I’m not qualified, I don’t know the subject well enough, the editor won’t like it, my keyboard is dirty.” These are the songs in the skull that stop the first word of a story, article or essay. Thus, after thoroughly immersing myself in how to remove a tick, I got to work: for 24 hours, I fretted on the tick’s removal from my skittish cat, which resulted in my tick swelling a third again in size, and tick lobbyists everywhere rejoicing.

Note: this feckless ticking coincided with me not having started two article assignments for which I had the interviews transcribed and the background info recorded. Why hadn’t I started? My keyboard was dirty. Besides, the editors wouldn’t like what I came up with. [Note, I know from years of experience that just starting writing, even if the writing is crackers, gets the story in gear. But why should I listen to writing tips from me?)

When I touched the tick the next morning, its ghastly growth sickened me. I dithered for a bit, then grabbed Malibu (who is quite resistant to more than a moment’s grabbing), got my fingernails under the hairline and twist-yanked him out clean. She took it placidly. Look, 30 hours of shilly-shallying, and with two seconds of work, tick-free!

Or so I thought. I was astonished when I thoroughly ran my hands through Malibu’s fur again, and I found another tick! Much smaller than his engorged ancestor, but head in, and working away. But this time, I didn’t spend any time thinking about the process. Same procedure, same result: Tick in a jar of rubbing alcohol, cat on the floor not acting as though anything out of the ordinary had happened.

Grabbing the Assignment by Its Bloody Neck

Oh, after I removed the ticks, I started (and finished) one of my writing assignments. I started and finished the other today. I KNOW that I have a brain-itching resistance to starting a piece, I know that once I start that the gates of serendipitous writing will open, but yet, I have to dance this same ding-dang dance almost every time. Ticks me off.

Lesson: just start. Start anywhere, start with random words, start with a single sentence. Type and ye shall be free. And you ticks out there—I’m on to you.

Please share your tick-removal tips (no blowtorches) in the comments. Or how you manage to start a writing project without bedeviling yourself. Happy Holidays!