Making the Muse Be Your Monkey

I came across an article from the New Yorker by Louis Menand today that had some great insights about writing.

Although it starts off as a review of Lynne Truss' ubiquitous new book, Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, it soon becomes clear that the point of the article isn't so much to discuss the book as to use the review as a launching pad for a meditation on what makes writing good.

Some bits I found interesting:
One of the most mysterious of writing's immaterial properties is what people call “voice.” Editors sometimes refer to it, in a phrase that underscores the paradox at the heart of the idea, as “the voice on the page.” Prose can show many virtues, including originality, without having a voice. It may avoid cliché, radiate conviction, be grammatically so clean that your grandmother could eat off it. But none of this has anything to do with this elusive entity the “voice.“

The reason this resonated for me was that, more than anything, voice is what keeps me reading. If the voice of a novel is irritating or unconvincing or unoriginal or simply nonexistant, I can't force myself to finish a story. All other factors are irrelevant. Maybe I was able to when I was younger, but now I derive almost no pleasure from reading something that doesn't personally create a voice for me. And when a piece of writing does have an engaging voice, it can keep me riveted, at the expense of food, sleep and personal hygiene.

I also liked that Menand discards the myth that voice has any basis in truth, in the sense that it should sound the way the writer sounds in real life:
Wisdom on the page correlates with wisdom in the writer about as frequently as a high batting average correlates with a high I.Q.: they just seem to have very little to do with one another. Witty and charming people can produce prose of sneering sententiousness, and fretful neurotics can, to their readers, seem as though they must be delightful to live with. Personal drabness, through some obscure neural kink, can deliver verbal blooms.

This is the truth. It's a good thing writing exists, I think, for the sake of all of the terribly boring people whose fascinating thoughts we might otherwise never know.

For this reason, however, it's easy to think that authors may choose, in writing, to invent a persona that they can't be in real life—they can seem funnier or more intelligent or charming than they are able to convey by other means. After all, if people could be as interesting in real life as they can be on the page, then writers would all have thousands of friends and would therefore never write. But Menand argues against the idea that a writer consciously invents a “persona.” Rather, he sees it as something less manufactured: the Voice either comes or it doesn't on its own.

To this I can add my own experience. Everything that I've written that, to me at least, has seemed to work on some level, always had as its source that little spark of inspiration, the germ of something that seems to come from another place. The process of extracting that idea, of developing the germ once it has made its appearance, is for me an intensely pleasurable one. Characters speak to each other on their own and plotlines develop themselves. And the times that I have attempted to just pound something out (especially in the case of fiction) without waiting for the Voice to make its appearance, I have invariably been disappointed by the results. Talk to any writer worth reading and they'll tell you the same thing. Those who don't believe in magic probably never had it.

So how does a person make sure that the Voice shows up more often? Menand doesn't really address this question, but in my case, it seems to wait until the absolute last moment that I need it, and then comes about an hour and a half later. For this reason, I love deadlines. The more deadlines I have, the more of a nervous wreck I become, but I also feel more alive and productive, because, even if the Voice comes late, it nearly always does arrive. The goal, I guess, is to give myself as many deadlines as possible and hope that the people that depend on them will forgive my unreliability. Another good technique for getting the Voice to come around is to give myself a lot of unrelated projects to do, and then shirk my responsibility by writing instead. The kiss of death for creativity, at least for me, is to have a lot of free time when it would be perfectly convenient to write.

If the Voice is so patchy, is he really worth pursuing? For those of us who believe in the power of writing, and who truly love to read, it goes without saying. The Voice is the glimmer of a personality behind the words on a page, the paradoxical evidence of magic in language. It's what's human about a book, what makes you love a character and feel like you know him. It is what makes it, in Menand's words, "more painful to stop reading than it is to keep going." The least I can do is listen when he comes around.


Fiction: The Umbrella

I don't typically steal from little old ladies in wheelchairs. As a general rule, I make a special effort to be kind to the elderly, given the bad rap they get these days. In fact, I like to think of myself on the whole as a “good” person. I don't take office supplies from work. I volunteer occasionally at the Special Olympics. On polls or survey questions, I usually tell the truth. So I think we can establish that it would be altogether uncharacteristic of me to accost a sweet old grandmother in her wheelchair, wrest an umbrella from her clutches, and flee.

The woman had no business owning an umbrella like that. A vintage Romanelli 1915 pagoda with paisley print is the Stradivarius of antique umbrellas. Romanelli himself made less than a hundred, each bearing his trademark flair for mother-of-pearl inlay along the shaft, the swirls twisting and looping into the camel-fur handle. The canopy of the pagoda is made of the finest imported Chinese silk, hand-dyed in Romanelli's own painstaking method. At auction, the umbrella can sell for as much as $20,000. Now, I'm not saying that any of this justifies what I did, but hopefully you can understand where I'm coming from.

I work as a computer programmer for a company that builds machinery to feed chickens. Chicken farms are almost fully automated these days, and the machinery that feeds them several times a day needs software so that the farmer can control when and how much he is feeding them. I don't write that program. I write the program that controls the machinery that kills the chickens when they are ready to be eaten. I hate my job.

When people ask me if I'm dating anyone, I don't want to seem pathetic, so I tell them that I just broke up with my girlfriend. It's been three years now since we broke up. We dated for two weeks. They were the best two weeks of my life.

So I collect umbrellas. There are stranger hobbies. Collecting has always appealed to my need to organize things, and umbrellas in particular were a narrow enough specialty that I felt I could become an expert in at least that one area. I come home from work, eat from my cartons of Chinese takeout, listen to music, and study umbrellas. There are probably only a dozen people in the United States with a more thorough knowledge of vintage umbrellas than me. And, after three years of dedicated effort, I've amassed a very respectable collection. I've scoured nearly every antique shop in seven states, and so far, I've found four pieces that are especially good, two original LaDuke ruffled parasols, a jeweled Carver, and a double-layered plaid from the mid-19th century. But the Romanelli is in another league. Most collectors are lucky to see even one in their career, because of the sixteen that are known to still exist, only two are on public display. The discovery of a Romanelli is an epic, life-defining moment, one that will make its owner a minor celebrity among collectors and forever divide his life into two periods, Before Romanelli and After Romanelli.

Which is why, on that overcast day as I walked from work to the bus stop, that little old lady appeared to me not as a ninety-year-old puttering down the sidewalk in her motorized wheelchair with an umbrella on her lap, but as a beautiful shimmering goddess surrounded by hosts of angels singing praises, come to bestow on me her sublime gift. Her name was Ramona.

“Excuse me, what's your name?” I said, my voice quavering.

“Ramona. What do you want? You're in my way,” said Ramona.

“I...couldn't help but notice your umbrella,” I said. I was at a loss for words. My ears were ringing, and I suddenly felt faint.

“Could you please move?' said Ramona. “You're blocking the whole sidewalk.”

I knew I needed to act quickly, or the opportunity would be lost. “Sorry,” I said. “It's just that I collect umbrellas. And if I might be so presumptuous, I'd like to buy yours. I'd be willing to pay quite a lot of money.”

“Not for sale,” said Ramona. She had black, sunken eyes, like pits in a dried apple. “I need it for shade when I'm sitting in my garden.”

My stomach lurched at the thought of the umbrella being exposed to the sun's rays. Fortunately, it appeared undamaged. “No, you misunderstand. That umbrella is worth far more than you might think. I'd be happy to buy you another umbrella if all you use it for is shade.”

Ramona was unmoved. “Well, that would be fine if I wanted another umbrella, but I don't. Now, please move.” She pressed forward on the controls, and her wheelchair bumped against my legs.

I could sense that I was losing control of the situation. “Please,” I said. “Just wait a moment and let me explain. I've been looking for years for an umbrella like yours.”

Immune to my pleas, Ramona managed to maneuver her wheelchair around me, and I jogged at her side to keep up. It moved surprisingly fast. At this juncture, the sense of impending disaster had become almost unbearable. In my mind's eye, I saw myself years later, recounting with bitter regret the story of how I had been so close to obtaining an original Romanelli, and my entire being revolted at the thought. I saw the umbrella sitting on Ramona's lap, and my arm reached out, as if disembodied, and grasped the umbrella. A short struggle ensued, and Ramona's grip proved stronger than her appearance might have indicated. However, I finally managed to pull it free, and at that moment, I did what anyone in my situation would have done, and ran.

It is entirely possible that I would have beaten a world-class sprinter that day. My feet seemed light, my legs springy, and my muscles taut, as the city around me blurred to streaks of color. I arrived home a few minutes later, and slumping into my chair, I was able to examine the prize in my hands at length. It was real.

Later that evening, I was watching television. The umbrella was resting on my coffee table, but since I'd brought it home, I had avoided putting it with the rest of my collection. I had as much right to it as Ramona, didn't I? At least I cared about it, which she obviously didn't. A piece like that belongs in the hands of a collector. If she still had it, it would only be a matter of time before it ended up pawned off or sold at a garage sale, neglected and damaged.

I flipped the channels to the local news, and a familiar, shriveled face looked out at me like a dried apple, the sunken black eyes burning into my soul.

“Where were you when your umbrella was stolen?” the correspondent asked.

“I was driving down the sidewalk in my wheelchair,” answered Ramona. “The thief just grabbed it right out of my hands, and ran off.”

Unbelievable, I thought. Don't they have any real news to cover in this town? I thumbed through the latest issue of Umbrella Enthusiast, noticing that there were several display racks that would nicely complement the Romanelli.

The reporter was asking Ramona another question. “Now, why do you think anyone would do that sort of thing?”

“I don't know. That umbrella has been in my family for years, and my mother told me that I was to give it to my daughter. Now, I guess she will never have it.” Ramona's lip quivered, and a tear glistened in her eye.

I rolled my eyes. As if anyone would believe that sob story. She used the umbrella for shade, for God's sake. It was clearly in better hands now.

The program then cut to a shot of Ramona's middle-aged daughter, who went on for another thirty seconds about how society had become hopelessly degenerate lately, and how she was going to apply for a concealed-weapon permit to be able to protect herself. “I know the umbrella was worth a lot of money,” she said, “but what hurts the most is that it meant so much to us as a family.”

This is too ridiculous, I thought. As I was reaching to switch off the television, the newscast cut to a police officer, thickset and mustachioed. “We've got several promising leads,” he said. “You can't just steal something in broad daylight in downtown Newport, in front of several eyewitnesses, and expect to get away with it. Whoever the thief is, he should know: we will find him. There's no question about that.”

I felt sick to my stomach.

I couldn't sleep at all that night, my thoughts full of large uniformed men chasing me down in motorcycles and forcing me to give up my umbrella. The following day, I stayed home from work. At around noon, the phone rang. I hesitated before answering. What if it's the police? I thought. Is that how they do it? Do they just call you up and tell you to come in for some questions? I picked up the phone. It was my mother.

“I'm so glad I caught you at home,” she said. “I just wanted to tell you, I was watching the news last night, and I saw a story about a sweet old lady who had her umbrella stolen! Can you believe it? What kind of person would be so sick? My bridge partner was telling me, she thought he must be some kind of pervert. I can imagine this sort of thing happening in Montpelier, but here in Newport? Unbelievable. Honey, are you still there?”

I gurgled something about being terribly sick and hung up the phone.

A few hours later, my doorbell rang. I managed to pull myself upright and shuffled to the door. Through the obnoxious sunlight, I squinted at a group of children asking for donations.

“We're here representing the Buy a New Umbrella For Ramona fund,” the oldest said.

I closed the door and returned to my spot on the carpet to lie down.

By evening, I had resolved to do something about the umbrella. It was still resting on the coffee table, and its presence had become intolerable. I found myself wishing that I had never seen the Romanelli, that I had been unscathed by its curse. It was with deep regret, but also a certain wistfulness, like hearing a beautiful symphony and knowing that I could never again hear it for the first time, that I slid the umbrella into a garbage bag and put it into the back seat of my car.

I pulled into the museum parking lot. It had begun to drizzle, so I tucked the package underneath my arm to protect the umbrella from the rain. The girl who worked at the front desk had red, spiky hair, and was disarmingly attractive. She was reading a book, Tuesdays With Morrie.

“What's up?” she asked, looking up from her book. She had a pierced eyebrow. Suddenly my previous plan of simply turning the umbrella over to the museum to be properly cared for seemed at best underdeveloped.

“I brought in a...” I said, searching for the right word. “Donation?”

“That's great,” said the spiky-haired girl. “And what are we going to do with your bag of trash?” She looked up at me, bemused. She wore a black zippered jacket.

“This isn't really trash,” I said. “Rather, it's an umbrella.” I could tell by her squinting eyes that my explanation was not achieving its desired effect. “Well,” I said, “it's really a very valuable piece, and I thought you might want to display it here or something.” I held the bagged umbrella out at arm's length, hoping she would take it.

Brow furrowed, her arm rose to receive the umbrella I was handing to her. She stopped. A look of dawning comprehension came over her face. Her eyes widened, and she smiled and shouted, “Ha! You're totally the umbrella thief! You're the one who stole the umbrella from that old lady in the wheelchair.”

I stammered. “That's preposterous,” I said. “I...don't know what you're talking about.” I looked around, wary of any museum patrons who might be passing by.

The girl burst into a fit of uncontrolled laughter. She was beside herself. She rolled off her chair onto the floor, her giggles echoing off the cavernous halls of the museum. This was not at all what I had intended to happen. I was relieved that she hadn't called the police, but this turn of events did not exactly put me at ease.

“Shhh,” I told her. “People are trying to look at art.” An older man looked around a corner to see what was happening. The girl had tears streaming out of her eyes. After a few minutes, she managed to compose herself enough to return to her chair. She wiped the tears from her face with her jacket sleeve.

“So,” she said. “Let me get this straight. You stole an antique umbrella from an eighty-year-old woman in a wheelchair, and now you're trying to give it back? To a museum? By just walking in and handing it to me? You, my friend, have serious problems.” She settled back into her chair and looked up at me, smiling, one finger playing with the bright red hair behind her ear.

I was unsure of how to proceed. “So...does that mean you'll take the umbrella?”

“No, we won't take it! Do you think I'm an idiot?” She leaned forward in her chair. “But they say this thing's worth thousands. Can I see it?”

I soon learned that by “see,” she meant “hold,” as she opened and closed it vigorously, testing its mettle. I pointed out that the umbrella was not a thing to be manhandled.

“What makes this umbrella so great?' she asked. “I've got my own right here, and it works for me.” She held up a common black umbrella. “By the way, my name's Samantha.”

“Samantha,” I repeated, conscious of her brown eyes looking directly into mine. “Well, there are a number of details, starting with the handle. If you look here along the inside of the curve, you'll see where Romanelli personally signed and numbered it.” But Samantha was no longer listening. She was rummaging around in the desk drawer, and pulled out a large magic marker.

“The Unicorns are going to be in town tomorrow night,” she said, taking my arm and using her teeth to pull the lid off the marker. She leaned over the desk and began writing large, black numbers on my skin. “This is my cell phone number.” Her hair smelled like fruity shampoo. “Call me, and we'll go.”

“I...” I began, but found myself unable to complete the thought with Samantha standing so close to me.

“Here's your umbrella,” she said, handing me the garbage bag. She smiled. “Now get out of here before I call the police.”

I stepped out of the museum's front door and hurried through the rain to my car, umbrella in hand. Putting the key into the ignition, I tried to gather my thoughts. I still hadn't managed to dispose of the umbrella, but I remained optimistic. And Samantha was certainly intriguing. I glanced again at the phone number she'd written on my arm. Maybe I would call her. It would be good for me to get out of the house for a change.

I lifted an edge of the garbage bag to look at the umbrella, at which point I discovered that it was no longer a Romanelli. That is, sitting in the bag on the seat next to mine, there was not the vintage masterpiece of a brilliant craftsman, but an ordinary black umbrella. The rain surged, thudding against the roof of my car. I wondered if Samantha still wanted to meet me for the concert.


An Open Letter to Brian McKnight

Dear Mr. McKnight,

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to read this letter. I understand that you have precious few moments to read letters from people such as myself, so I will therefore be brief.

I am writing in regards to your hit song, “Back at One,” for which you made millions and millions of dollars. Now, I would never quibble with your lyric intent—as a contented fan says on the Amazon.com website, “Brian Mchknight’s [sic.] Back At One, in my opinion, is one of the top five albums of the nineties.” But I was hoping that you would clarify the meaning of the chorus for me, as I have yet to completely decipher it.

It appears that the chorus, if not the entire song, follows the standard format of a counting song, in that each line begins with the counted number (one, two, three, four) followed by the step that the narrator intends to follow. The first line, “One, you’re like a dream come true,” I understand to be a simile in which your narrator attributes a kind of metaphysical well-being to his object of affection. And the second line, “Two, just want to be with you,” continues with an expression of the desire that she inspires in the narrator.

By the third line, “Three, Girl it’s plain to see, that you’re the only one for me,” you have clearly established this pattern—the listener now has the expectation that each number will correspond to a reason, if you will, that the narrator’s girl is the only one for him. Now, line four is where I get hung up. In it, you sing. “Four, repeat steps one through three /Make you fall in love with me.” It seems here that you are treating lines one through three as if they were steps that one could follow. But if you remember, step one was, “One, you’re like a dream come true,” which seems to be more a statement of fact than a step, indeed, a step that if followed, would make the girl fall in love with the narrator. Lines two and three only further the confusion. How could one repeat the step “Just want to be with you,” or even “Girl it’s plain to see, that you’re the only one for me?”

I’m sure you can imagine my concern upon hearing this in your song. If I, for example, had a girl that I felt was the only one for me, and wished to emulate your narrator’s methods in an effort to make said girl fall in love with me, then where would I begin? “Repeat steps one through three,” your narrator mockingly tells me, as I vainly attempt to carry out step one, “you’re like a dream come true.” Certainly you would admit that no girl has ever been made to fall in love with a person for simply “wanting to be with [her].” This I can say from sad experience. I can only imagine how many impressionable young fans have rehearsed these steps, believing mistakenly that because it is plain to see that a girl is the only one for them, and because she is, to them, a dream come true, that she will somehow fall in love with them. This is absurd. You, Brian McKnight, have deceived us all.

Thank you for your time. I can only hope that in your future songwriting efforts, you will strive for more internal consistency.

A Concerned Listener,

David Anderson


About Me

My name is Dave Anderson. I am a student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where I am studying physics.

Physics alone, however, does not begin to encompass my ambitions. Oh, no. I also love karaoke. And I try to read as much as I can, even to the detriment of my schoolwork. And I have, like most people, tried my hand at becoming a rock star. Feel free to write me at yowzadave@hotmail.com.



This website is a tiny collection of experiments, gathered here only because I had nowhere else to put them. There will be no regular publishing schedule, and it's likely that the most recent post will be the last. Read at your peril.

All email can be sent to yowzadave@hotmail.com.