Monday, August 10, 2009

Just Make Sure You Bring Them All Together

'Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.'
--Vincent Van Gogh. We'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on how this idea does or does not resonate for you. And if it does, perhaps you can provide an example of how it's worked in your life.


At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Mike Q said...

In a previous life I worked for the Bell System, where no organizational theory was left unexamined. Most remained in their binders on the shelf, but one that seemed useful was "continuous improvement."

It referred to the small improvements you could make over time, each seemingly insignificant but together very significant.

I think it applies to writing more than anything. You can improve a piece on each pass, finding a better word here, removing one there.

But it takes discipline, sometimes more than I have. Continuous improvement can be a grind.

Hmmm. Never knew Van Gogh was a business consultant.

At 1:21 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Great example of what I'm talking about, Mike. And of course you've nicely made the connection back to the writing craft, which was my real agenda. You're always playing chess three moves ahead of me, Irishman.

As for Van Gogh, I understand he was a Harvard Business School graduate, and spent a few years with McKinsey & Co. before veering over into art.

At 1:54 PM, Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Perhaps not 'done' but 'begun'. I would suggest that inspiration is really such an impulse, a little shove in the right direction, basically a good idea that you can run with or pass by. That said, as the years go by, we accumulate a whole variety of good ideas that we can drawn on so I'm not going to say he's entirely wrong.

At 2:51 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You note one of the good things about growing older for any writer: the greater storehouse of ideas, impressions and experiences, all of which are grist for the mill. Knowing what to do with all of it is of course the real trick.

At 7:16 PM, Anonymous Donna said...

Hi fellas:

Mind if I barge in?

John to your point about the value of maturity to the writer, have you ever come across a very young writer who is wise beyond his or her years? I have. And when I do I shake my head in wonder for days.

At 8:10 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Donna, barge away to your heart's delight. I've certainly come across plenty of young people who seem wise beyond their years, but I'm not sure a lot of young writers who seem overly wise (as opposed to skillfull in other ways) are coming immediately to mind, though I imagine they will eventually. And when they do, I'll come back and mention them.

At 9:17 AM, Blogger Britta said...

A lot of what I'm learning about writing these days has come from tutoring a woman in ESOL who is crafting her memoir. There are so many small things about writing that a less experienced writer must bring together with some effort: word choice, punctuation skills, paragraph break choices, verb tense, sentence length ... varied, of course ; ) ... and tone, questions of bias, degree of formality. It's been great to break down the language beyond what I even do for the writers I edit in my work, but it also makes me sort of sheepish about how insanely complicated English is. How has it affected my own writing? I'm much more conscious of word choice; I don't use a word just to prove that I can but instead try to put myself in the shoes of my reader. Do they respond to this word or do they skip over it and dismiss it?

At 9:24 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Britta, that's a splendid overview of what it's all about, and the list you outline is the best explanation of why no one can really begin to master serious writing until they've been at it every day for many years (okay, maybe decades). And that last thing you mention is really about the highest form of writing, and one of the hardest things of all in the craft: taking yourself and especially your writerly ego out of the piece as much as possible and allowing the material to speak for itself. You can't begin to think about anything like that until you've really got the scales down cold, as a piano teacher would say.

At 10:08 AM, Blogger Britta said...

I'm hoping that this explosion of self-publishing on the web and constant info streaming will eventually settle out into some sort of stratification -- writers who do their own research and really make the finished product sing and writers who just twitter. I have used the analogy of the art field for our field now. Yes, people can have an inexpensive, mass-marketed lithograph on their wall, but there are still buyers who seek out the work of artists who train in anatomy and life drawing and then paint original works. Far fewer artists can make a living at it, surely, than in the 1700s, but art isn't extinct and writing needn't be, either.

At 10:11 AM, Blogger Kim said...

I'm a member of a rather edgy/artsy writing network that is filled with "writers who play with words". Many times I even find myself scratching my head at what they are attempting.

What I learn from them is to bend the rules, curse, and sometimes even try something I never thought I would. I'm challenged beyond my limits by writing with them.

Do they irritate me and occasionally make me feel like nothing more than a tragically unhip old mom? Yeah. They ignore rules, they don't capitalize or use punctuation, and the things they write about sometimes make no sense to me as they comment back and forth with "insider knowing".

But it's all in the little pieces, learning to expand, study and combine our art with our skill to create a delicious feast for the mind.

At 10:41 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Britta, that stratification you mention has already begun. People who only Twitter aren't writing, nor are they writers. If they're using it to connect with others, great. If they're using it to virally spread their other writing (through links to their blog or some other venues in which their work appears) even better. But Twittering alone hardly amounts to anything more than composing random headlines. That's hardly writing as you or I would understand that term. More like editing.

Plus, all that activity has only made serious blogs stand out all the more, as places to go for real ideas and a sense of narrative. The hunger for stories and narrative is as old as humanity, and no technology can or will ever change that. I may eventually add Twitter to my bag of tricks, but for now have decided not to use it, since I think it contributes in a small way (collectively in a bigger way) to the ever-winnowing attention span of the culture. And I choose not to help shorten that attention span.

And Kim, I hope you never get too worried about being unhip. You have plenty to teach those younger folks, as they do with you also. Every writer needs to be around people of all ages, to soak up the perspective, insight and whatever other surprising discoveries they might learn from everyone. Younger people need mentors in life, but older people need news from the changing culture that they wouldn't otherwise get. We middle-agers need both. It's a wonderfully self-sustaining circle.

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Kim said...

John, I'm so glad to read what you said about Twitter. I'm attempting to tackle it and use it to promote my blog, etc., but I just find it completely irrelevant and confusing.

I know there are ways to grow your readership from it, but that is dependent upon a longer attention span to get past the 140 character tweet.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Maybe it just requires different mental wiring (and a perhaps also a dose of attention deficit disorder) than some of us have, Kim. One writer I know gave up an experiment with it after deciding it reminded him too much of what Republicans do with political arguments, trying to reduce everything to bumper-sticker-sized bites. Despite all that, it still may be worth pursuing at some point, though. We can just add that to the list of things to discuss whenever we finally catch up for coffee.

At 5:04 PM, Anonymous angela said...

It works in relationships too. Deliberately, little by little things can change. It helps to have a plan and a willingness to change yourself more than anything else. After many years of marraige I have not stopped experimenting to see what will work better and my grown children have seen me struggle and overcome many things. Now I encourage them to be more creative, and it helps them not get discouraged when their relationships hit an unexpected obstacles below the river's surface when it appeared they were in for a smooth ride downstream. (Remember being young and hopeful?)

Tiny changes are less noticeable and when your goal is to help your spouse feel more loved so they eventually treat you better; it makes you more attentive to their needs and it is nice to see them pleasantly surprised when you make changes to accommodate them.

In the end, everyone is happier.

Too bad Van Gogh couldn't have stuck around and pulled together the pieces of his life, the world would have been a richer for it. Perhaps THAT is a lesson for us all.

At 9:54 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Great stuff, Angela. I think you're a first-time commenter, and if so, welcome. I hope you'll come back, and perhaps tell us a little about yourself, if you like. Either way, I appreciate you reading, and doubly appreciate you joining the conversation.


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