Words to lose: utilize

utilize |ˈyoōtlˌīz|

verb [ trans. ]
make practical and effective use of : vitamin C helps your body utilize the iron present in your diet.

To improve your writing, strike the verb “utilize” from your vocabulary. If it were a person, it would be a self-important snob, a loud-mouth schnook. Instead, try “use.” It’s unobtrusive. It doesn’t call unnecessary attention to itself, it doesn’t distract your reader from your ideas and most importantly, it gets the job done.

Be curious–seek possibilities

Steven Pressfield says that to be a professional, you have to retain curiosity and look for possibility:

A pro turns up his nose at nothing. A pro respects everyone and everything, however humble. A pro keeps his eyes and ears open. All things are fascinating to the professional, because he understands how much thought and effort go into even the most unassuming articles (and jobs and concepts and people, including ourselves) in our lives.

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Book Cover--Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman
Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman

In 1993, drug-money mule Piper Kerman smuggled $10,000 from Chicago to Brussels for a West African drug lord. Years later, when the drug smuggling ring went down, the judge gave Piper 15 months in prison for her part in the crime.

Kerman does her time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, a minimum security camp for low-risk offenders.

A college graduate, Kerman has far greater self-awareness and is far better educated than most of her fellow inmates. All the names in the book, save two, were changed to protect the women at Danbury. Most “campers” were serving time for non-violent drug crimes, things like allowing their phone or apartment to be used for drug trafficking.

So-called dregs of society

The great irony is that the derision, apathy, disrespect, and humiliation Kerman suffers is by so-called law-abiding jail employees. Compare that to empathy and kindness from her fellow inmates–the oft-abused dregs of society who greeted her with small gifts and reassuring words on her first day.

This memoir of course, is a variation on the old fish-out-of-water story. Kerman encounters women of every “tribe” other than her own: Poor, uneducated Blacks, Latinas, and Whites, who despite their disparate backgrounds, demonstrate humanity and compassion. As such, the title Orange is the New Black rings false, disservicing these women and reducing their collective stories to a tired cliché.

Kerman has a loving, stable family, a good job, and a nice house to return to, unlike her fellow inmates. To paraphrase prison pedicurist Rose, these women have “a lot to give”– potential that remains undeveloped in prison. This egregious waste of human potential is the greatest crime the book depicts: The apathetic prison system leaves the inmates ill-prepared to re-enter society, save for a few who gain skills marketable to the outside world. Most Danbury campers have little to go home to:

Pom-Pom, whose mother had preceded her at Danbury, had been worried about what would happen when she was released. She had relatives who grudgingly agreed to let her live with them, though she considered going straight to a homeless shelter. Now she was back on the outside and she had received a chilly reception. The apartment where she was living was in a neighborhood where gunfire was audible every day…the cupboards had been completely bare and she had taken the little money she had to stock the house with food, shampoo, and toilet paper. She was sleeping on the floor.

This small update on Pom-Pom is all the reader learns about Kerman’s tribe post release. Kerman walks out of jail and resumes her life of privilege. What happened to Yoga Janet, Sister Ardeth Platte, Pop, Nina, Annette, Little Janet, Natalie, and Jae? The second greatest crime in the book as that as a reader, you never find out.

On Original Details and the Truth of Experience

In a 2008 New York Times Measure by Measure column, Rosanne Cash writes about the power of original details in writing, and about writing as work and as discovery:

Facts are not necessarily the best indicators of the deepest human experience. The table where you found the suicide note, the cup of coffee that turned cold because you were distracted in a painful reverie staring out the old wavy–glass window at the rain dripping off the eaves, the seashell left in the coat pocket from the last time you were at that favorite spot at the ocean, when it all came clear that you were at the right place with the wrong man, the letters, the photos, the marbles and jewels—all these physical, material, real-world artifacts carry poetic weight and should be used liberally in songwriting. These are the facts that convey truth to me.

The exact words he said, who was right or wrong, whether he relapsed on the 7th or the 10th, why exactly she does what she does, the depth and weight and timbre of the feelings, whether Love Heals Everything — these aren’t facts, these are ever-changing blobs of emotional mercury…it can be much more powerful and resonant to write about the shards of the coffee cup than about the feeling that caused him to throw it across the room.

Cash says that as a writer, you must suspend your certainties to find out what’s really true. That takes work:

Real artistic accomplishment requires a suspension of certitude. E.L. Doctorow said that “writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” He may not have been referring specifically to songwriting, but it applies. Great songwriting is not a poor man’s poetry, or a distant cousin to “real” writing. It requires the same discipline and craft. Bright flashes of inspiration can initiate it, but it cannot be completed that way.

Original details are the “facts” in great writing that create meaning:

But in the space where truth and fact diverge, a larger question arises: if the facts don’t lead us to meaning, what does? Perhaps a willingness to live with questions, not answers, and the confidence to ascribe meaning where we find it, with our own instincts as guide.

Steven Pressfield and Paul Graham on writing

From Steven Pressfield on how to get started:

Start before you’re ready

Have you ever asked a friend who’s an artist or entrepreneur how they’re doing on a project you know they’re psyched about? Sometimes you get the answer, “I’m getting ready to start on it.”

“I’m working up the outline.” “I’ve almost got the business plan.” “I’ve got a little more research to do.”

When Resistance hears phrases like that, it can hardly contain its glee. Resistance knows that the longer we noodle around “getting ready,” the more time and opportunity we’ll have to sabotage ourselves. Resistance loves it when we hesitate, when we over-prepare.

The answer: plunge in

Short on ideas? Don’t know what to write about? Paul Graham says the ideas will come, you just have to start writing. From Writing, Briefly:

Write a bad version 1 as fast as you can; rewrite it over and over; cut out everything unnecessary; write in a conversational tone; develop a nose for bad writing, so you can see and fix it in yours; imitate writers you like; if you can’t get started, tell someone what you plan to write about, then write down what you said; expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong; be confident enough to cut; have friends you trust read your stuff and tell you which bits are confusing or drag; don’t (always) make detailed outlines; mull ideas over for a few days before writing; carry a small notebook or scrap paper with you;

GoodFellas — 20 years later

For the movie’s 20th anniversary, GQ interviewed over sixty members of the cast and crew of GoodFellas, the movie that resurrected director Martin Scorsese’s career after the controversy surrounding The Last Temptation of Christ.

The movie is based on Wiseguy, a non-fiction bestseller by Nicholas Pileggi. Here’s what Pileggi has to say about the main character, Henry Hill:

As bizarre as it sounds, Henry is the moral center of the movie. He is with a collection of totally amoral, aberrational sociopaths. And he is with them during the early years, when they are the most charming, funny, great guys. They make it so he doesn’t have to go to school; when he gets arrested and he doesn’t say anything and he comes out of court, they’re all waiting for him and cheering him. It was like his birthday, like his confirmation. But you pay a price. The world of the child ends.

The Copacabana scene is considered the gratest steadycam shot of all time, with 400 precisely timed movements. Kristi Zea was the movie’s production designer:

He (Scorsese) wanted a long preamble before they get into the space. The Copa didn’t have a long enough walk before they actually get into the nightclub. So we had to build a hallway, and we literally took the walls away while the camera was in motion, so that they were gone by the time Ray and Lorraine showed up in the main room. The delivery of the camera into that big space had to be done like a ballet. Henry is saying hi to everyone, everyone knew who he was. And then the table flies across the camera and lands smack dab in front of Henny Youngman, and suddenly there’s champagne coming over courtesy of these other guys.

See a Penny, Pick it Up

As a child, I remember feeling joy at discovering a penny on the street. Today, if I even notice a penny, I step right over it. I never bother to stop. Do you?

How many other small treasures do I miss, or worse, dismiss during my day as unworthy of my time and, more importantly, my attention?

American author Annie Dillard says pennies (instances of beauty and joy) are all around us and we’re missing out if we don’t take time to fully experience them.

In Seeing, the second chapter of A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard urges us to rediscover joy by paying attention, and to:

“Cultivate a healthy poverty of simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted with pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”

In fact, Dillard says paying attention is our obligation:

Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is be there.

I know what I’m going to do, the next time I find a penny.

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Book cover-The Liars' Club by Mary Karr
The Liars' Club by Mary Karr
The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr, isn’t so much a memoir as a story of survival. Karr recalls her rags-to-riches-to-rags upbringing in Leechfield, Texas (and later Colorado) in the early 60s–a place where “a slow race” was the definitive competition among the kids–where you pedaled just slow enough on your two-wheel bike to be in last place, without tipping over.

Next to her sister Lecia (pronounced “Lisa”), Karr’s father Pete, a hard-drinking oil refinery worker who spent his life punching the clock and paying his union dues, was the most stable influence in her life. Her alcoholic, pill-popping mother, Charlie Marie, was given to dramatic outbursts. She ignored her kids and longed for the glamour of New York in the 40s.

Karr’s recall is vivid and detailed–so consistently detailed, that as a reader I sometimes questioned where the memoirist left off and the storyteller began. For a person who experienced several traumatic events–rape at age seven, sexual assault later on, and her mother’s violent mental breakdown–you’d think you’d want to forget as much of your childhood as possible. But The Liars’ Club is, as Karr notes, about healing “…through exposure.” Through writing the book, Karr found that her family’s “…distant catastrophes became somehow manageable. Catharsis, the Greeks call it.”

The book takes its name from Pete Karr’s group of buddies who met to drink and shoot shit. The card-table lies he told were the most benign in the book–exaggerations and half-truths about his upbringing and experiences. Charlie Marie Karr’s lies were altogether different, the kind of lying American poet Adrienne Rich said is done “with silence.” The silence Charlie Marie kept after her first husband left one day with their two young kids nearly destroyed her, until she too, found her distant catastrophes somehow manageable by exposing them to Karr during a Marguerita-soaked mother-daughter evening.

This book is worth your time.

Train your brain muscle with attention interval training

Clay Johnson over at infovegan.com uses attention interval training to increase his ability to focus and concentrate on productive work. From How to Focus:

Neuroplasticity is how your brain changes its organization over time to deal with new experiences. It involves physical changes inside of the brain based on the particular tasks the brain is asked to complete. It’s why the hippocampus of a seasoned taxi driver in London is larger than average, and how a meditating monk grows grey matter. Your brain isn’t a mythological deity but a physical part of your body that needs to be taken care of just like the rest of your body. And your body responds to two things really well — diet and exercise. Let’s presume your brain, being a part of the body, also does.

Johnson uses the Pomodoro Technique to improve and track his attention during work sessions.

Modeled after how I trained to run my first marathon using Jeff Galloway’s technique, I practice attention interval training. I got this timer installed on my computer. It’s an excellent interval timer based on a technique called the Pomodoro technique — but I’m primarily using it based on its ability to make sound, set good intervals, and support logging. I started small: 10 minutes of work with two minute breaks. My strategy has been to keep it so when the timer goes off that tells me it’s time to take a break, I feel like I can keep going. I’m up to 35 minutes now with 2 minute breaks.