Some good advice for writers who would like to get better and a comprehensive demolition of clichés by bad writers in William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well. As I point out every single damn time I do a post about good writing, forty years on from this book’s original publication, people are still making all the mistakes Zinsser pointed out as ancient and trite even at the time. Many a supposedly professional author or journalist is still allowing themselves to be “a writer lives in blissful ignorance that clichés are the kiss of death, if in the final analysis he leaves no stone unturned to use them, we can infer that he lacks an instinct for what gives language its freshness. Faced with a choice between the novel and the banal, he goes unerringly for the banal. His voice is the voice of a hack.”
Old never meets old
“There are many categories I’d be glad never to see again. One is the future archaeologist: “When some future archaeologist stumbles on the remains of our civilization, what will he make of the jukebox?” I’m tired of him already and he’s not even here. I’m also tired of the visitor from Mars: “If a creature from Mars landed on our planet he would be amazed to see hordes of scantily clad earthlings lying on the sand barbecuing their skins.” I’m tired of the cute event that just happened to happen “one day not long ago” or on a conveniently recent Saturday afternoon: “One day not long ago a small button-nosed boy was walking with his dog, Terry, in a field outside Paramus, N.J., when he saw something that looked strangely like a balloon rising out of the ground.” And I’m very tired of the have-in-common lead: “What did Joseph Stalin, Douglas MacArthur, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sherwood Anderson, Jorge Luis Borges and Akira Kurosawa have in common? They all loved Westerns.” Let’s retire the future archaeologist and the man from Mars and the button-nosed boy. Try to give your lead a freshness of perception or detail…
Towns situated in hills (or foothills) are nestled— I hardly ever read about an unnestled town in the hills— and the countryside is dotted with byways, preferably half forgotten. This is a world where old meets new— old never meets old.”
Ego and egotism
“A thin line separates ego from egotism. Ego is healthy; no writer can go far without it. Egotism, however, is a drag, and this chapter is not intended as a license to prattle just for therapy. Again, the rule I suggest is: Make sure every component in your memoir is doing useful work. Write about yourself, by all means, with confidence and with pleasure. But see that all the details—people, places, events, anecdotes, ideas, emotions—are moving your story steadily along… Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all.”
“The common assumption is that the style is effortless. In fact the opposite is true: the effortless style is achieved by strenuous effort and constant refining. The nails of grammar and syntax are in place and the English is as good as the writer can make it… writing is the expression of every person’s individuality, and we know what we like when it comes along. Again, however, much can be gained by knowing what to omit. Clichés, for instance.”
The Hotspur, October 1944. “GOOD-BYE, DEAD-WIDE DICK!”
Two accidental forays into surrealism by British boys’ paper The Hotspur, which amazingly lasted until 1981. I say amazingly, although on the other hand there were lots of British colonial era things that inexplicably carried on into the 1980s and beyond. Not to mention that The Hotspur‘s first issue had on its cover a plane-sized eagle attacking an actual aeroplane, and came with a free “Black Cloth mask” for no immediately apparent reason, so they definitely started as they meant to go on.
The cover above is almost certainly not referring to the fact that this football player has a feature likely to make him popular with the ladies and about 10% of the gentlemen, but instead that he scores goals by kicking unexpectedly wide. As for how and why somebody decided to counter this tactic by installing a gung ho bipedal elephant in football kit… I’ve got nothing. Dick’s certainly surprised, as you would be.
Perhaps it was the same genius who decided to deploy their centre-forward on the roof of a nearby building instead of on the pitch?
The Hotspur, January 1943. THE ROOF-TOP CENTRE-FORWARD.
All the laser beams, neon lines, wireframes, Knight Rider-esque cars called Fairlady Z, and er… giant salamis floating in space that you could want in this 1983 demo reel by Japan Computer Graphics Lab.
Some bonkers choreography with Heather Parisi, from the 80s Italian variety show Fantastico. Firstly, Frankie Goes to Hollywood never seemed so… confusing? It looks a bit like a toned down, bowdlerised high school production of Cruising. Still molto gay, though. If Heather’s dance partner is thinking about relaxing, doing it or coming, I very much doubt it involves her. Put some trousers on Heather, love. You’ll catch your death of cold.
Even better, here’s Heather again doing some way-ahead-of-their-time Gangnam Style ridiculous dressage pony moves and gurning to Tullio De Piscopo’s nail in Italo Disco’s coffin, Stop Bajon (Primavera). The smoke in these bubbles must be what the choreographer was inhaling when they came up with this number.
Watch out for a random, drunken, camp fellow enjoying his big acting break at 11:48, a bit of very irresponsible chiropraxy at 12.49, some very unsexy from 13.35, and– saints preserve us!– pierrots throughout.
(Let’s pass silently over the fact that I haven’t posted anything new for more than a month.)
The experimental films made by Ukrainian-American Maya Deren in the 1940s and 1950s are incredibly influential, whether most people know it or not. Once you’ve seen them you’ll notice reflections of them all over the place, in everything from art photography to pop videos. Her work has also definitely had a huge effect on me, particularly 1943’s Meshes of the Afternoon, whose haunting imagery– and imagery of haunting– is done an injustice when it’s described as merely surreal or dreamlike, even though it is surreal and dreamlike among many other things. It’s actually as if time has been turned inside out like a glove, but when it turns right side out again it’s a different glove, belonging to someone or something else entirely. It’s particularly fitting that reflections or decontextualised fragments of her most famous film turn up so often in popular culure, given the way that Deren dwells upon imagery of reflection and fragmentation in Meshes of the Afternoon.
Her obvious interest in ritual, repetition, nonlinear time and the perils of inner journeys has found its way into some of my own work too; these subjects can all be seen obliquely in Deren’s Meshes and much more directly in her collaboration with Marcel Duchamp, Witch’s Cradle (also embedded here). In the late 1940s she took a more documentarian interest in the practice and ritual of Haitian vodoun.
Meshes of the Afternoon.
Although resident in Los Angeles, Deren resolutely resisted Hollywood and was proud to be involved in every aspect of her own films. She made them, she said, “for what Hollywood spends on lipstick.” She also gave the great advice that independent or artistic film makers shouldn’t try to ape Hollywood but instead “use your freedom to experiment with visual ideas; your mistakes will not get you fired.” Deren paved the way for many of the independent American makers who created personal artistic statements in film (and later, video) rather than following a formula, but sadly Deren’s career wasn’t as long as it should have been. She died in 1961 at the age of 44, most likely because of prescription drug abuse.
Below you can watch Meshes of the Afternoon (with a soundtrack commissioned in 2012 by the late, lamented Bird’s Eye View Festival for film making by women) and Witch’s Cradle.
PS: There’s a Tumblr called Fuck yeah, Maya Deren! Of course there is.
Otherwise known as the now traditional lazy retrospective listicle
We all know by now don’t we my little blackguards my pretty roadside fartflowers of the friggingfields my dearest filthy fuckbirds yes we know yes yes yes oh yes that the top pages on the site are invariably James Joyce’s paeans to using the tradesman’s entrance and the translation of Hokusai’s tentacle hentai. Tens of thousands of you, constantly, from all over the world, day and night. You must have massive right arms by now (if you’re right handed).
But there is so much more to explore, and some of it doesn’t even involve sexual fetishes. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.