“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”–Antoine de Saint-Exupery
An inspirational preamble in a book on math pedagogy (subject of my current work project).
In the summer of 1943 I was eight, and my father and mother and small brother and I were at Peterson Field in Colorado Springs. A hot wind blew through that summer, blew until it seemed that before August broke, all the dust in Kansas would be in Colorado, would have drifted over the tar-paper barracks and the temporary strip and stopped only when it hit Pikes Peak. There was not much to do, a summer like that: there was the day they brought in the first B-29, an event to remember but scarcely a vacation program. There was an Officers’ Club, but no swimming pool; all the Officers Club’ had of interest was artificial blue rain behind the bar. The rain interested me a good deal, but I could not spend the summer watching it, so we went, my brother and I, to the movies.
We went three or four afternoons a week, sat on folding chairs in the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater, and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.”
As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.
An unforgettable narrative voice. The opening of Joan Didion’s essay, “John Wayne: A Love Story”
“The faint aroma of gum and calico that hangs about a library is as the fragrance of incense to me. I think the most beautiful sight is the gilt-edged backs of a row of books on a shelf. The alley between two well-stocked shelves in a hall fills me with the same delight as passing through a silent avenue of trees. The colour of a binding-cloth and its smooth texture gives me the same pleasure as touching a flower on its stalk. A good library hall has an atmosphere which elates. I have seen one or two University Libraries that have the same atmosphere as a chapel, with large windows, great trees outside, and glass doors sliding on noiseless hinges.”
— R.K. Narayan on a feeling I too have had in many libraries.
And to match elegance in prose, a page from William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’ Kelmscott Chaucer. Saw a copy in person at the Fogg last week; wow.
Assignment #3 was learning your way around the WordPress Reader, and also thinking about your blogging in the context of others you read. The other bit was following five new blogs and five new tags. Useful prompt–I haven’t used the Reader that much (I just follow stuff on FB), and I didn’t know that you can just use it for RSS feeds, so have hooked in my favorites. Interesting to think about how varied the content of the blogs I follow is, and how catching a particular voice is what grabs me.
Also a reminder that tying into the (vast) community of WordPress is partially dependent on tagging and categorizing. My self, my meta data.
Encountered a book called “Letters to a Fiction Writer”–an anthology rustled up by the late Frederick Busch, whom I have always liked (although I do seem to get my Busch and Bausch novelists mixed up). It may be one of the Bausch brothers I like so much.
The letter that caught my eye, somewhat surprisingly, is one by Joyce Carol Oates, mostly “write your heart out,” but it opens thus:
“To a Young Writer:
All that a man has to say or do that can possibly concern mankind, is in some shape or other to tell the story of his love,–to sing; and, if he is fortunate and keeps alive, he will be forever in love. This alone is to be alive to the extremities. –Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 6 May 1854
(Yet keep in mind Thoreau’s other, more sardonic aside in the first chapter of Walden:
I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything, to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment…untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it…One generation abandons the enterprise of another like stranded vessels.
How achingly true this seemed to me when I was a young, adolescent writer, and seems so still!)
If it’s your ambiguous destiny to be a writer, you already know that no one can tell you what to do; how to behave; still less how to think, and how to feel about yourself….
The letter also has this observation a bit later,
Don’t be ashamed of being an idealist, of being romantic and “yearning.” If you yearn for people who won’t reciprocate your interest in them, you should know that your yearning for them is probably the most valuable thing about them. So long as it’s unrequited.
Reminds me of something I read years ago by Robert Penn Warren about no experience in life being wasted on a writer.
That this resonates with me surprises, as, although I’ve always been impressed by Oates industry, I haven’t really clicked with her writing — at least the fiction. But she is apparently a wonderful mentor. To wit, this this recollection by Jonathan Safran Foer:
JSF: She [Oates] wrote a letter to my house in DC during one break, and she said, “We talked a lot about your work in the context of the class and now I would like to talk about it a little more personally. “You appear to have a very strong and promising talent coupled with that most important of writerly qualities, energy.” And man is she right! Energy is the most important writerly quality. In any case, she gave me a reading list. It was a very Joyce Carol Oates thing to do. She gave me suggestions for what avenues to pursue. And somebody took me seriously. It was a revelation for me. The revelation was not just that—the smaller revelation was that a writer of Joyce’s caliber would like my writing. The much larger revelation was that there was such a thing as my writing. It had never occurred to me.
This will be old news to many, but in the light of The New Republic’s meltdown, I have been nosing around new digital approaches to what is (loosely speaking) journalism, or maybe publishing, or at least, typing. Herewith, a brief list.
Cir.ca is a news service (currently only for mobile, but coming to the browser). Nicely presented stories, gives you a simple way to follow any particular beat you are interested in, as well as sharing of course. Not sure if this will become part of my regular news diet, but in the emerging world of “journalism apps” seems like one that solves a problem.
Medium is platform rather than a publication as nearly as I can tell, and certainly handsome. It seems to be open to any kind of long form material, by professionals or duffers. Like Cir.ca, has a very striking design (although some will not be a fan of the wide horizontal one-page scroll approach–something that is all over current web design). Medium comes from the people who created Twitter, and presumably they aimed for the same kind of pick up. Upstart Biz Journal’s Alex Dalenberg was asking good questions a year ago about it–how their business model will work? and just what kind of tool it is? He also mentions something that a writer friend also pointed out, the license appears to let Medium sell your content, presumably in search of “sustainability”. (Like “platform” and “content,” another drab word.)
As far as I know, those questions are still out, and he also links to some weirdly fascinating info about Medium’s business structure, called Holacracy. It boasts “no managers” and seems to be a distributed system. (Classic Google goose chase, I just learned about Holacracy researching Medium, and now I discover that it’s already contested: fad versus brilliant management approach? Zappo’s is finding out.)
Finally, there is Ghost, which is a blogging platform from some of the same people who worked on WordPress. It’s intuitively appealing and also beautifully designed–pared down for clean presentation and ease of posting. WordPress, of course, has a lot to offer, but its development as a powerful publishing platform means that for me, at least, its sort of blown past plain old blogging. I’m tempted to move everything to Ghost, but, of course, it’s a little like moving house if you have hundreds of posts to fool with, and since part of my living is made with WordPress, is nice to stay close to the platform, even if I use 1% of its power. Ghost, like WordPress.com, has a more writer-friendly license than Medium (although, like anything online, they reserve the right to change it any time.) But you own your stuff, and their only right is to post snippets for promotional purposes.
Over years of steady (if part-time) work as a music journalist and as program annotator, I’ve read a lot of résumés, bio-sketches, programs, web sites etc. for classical musicians. They are sometimes, even often, a bit of a mess, felled by typographical errors, out of date copy, fuzzy writing, and unusable visual or other resources.
They don’t do the job of presenting the artist in a clear, engaging way, and certainly don’t help the harried program note preparer or music critic find a needed fact and get on with it.
In the spirit of helping (with what is admittedly one of the world’s less pressing problems) here are some tips on improving editorial materials for classical artists (with singers in mind specifically).
1. Establish a set of consistent, and easily updated editorial materials and keep them fresh. Go for quality over quantity, both for your sake and those of your readers. I would recommend a résumé, and at most a bio in two flavors, short and long. Be strategic about the way the bio is written: build it out in modular sections that can be swapped out and supplemented when there are new things to add, rather than requiring a redo from scratch.
2. Keep track of versions of documents by clearly naming and dating them (in both the file name and inside the doc). A file naming convention is good, for instance Violetta_Valery_Bio_Short_11_14_14.docx. Note the filename, author of the doc and important details right in the document as well.
3. Make it as easy as possible for all involved to tell at a glance whether materials are up to date and what to do if they aren’t. Nothing wastes time (and annoys editors) like trying to determine which of 3 or 4 different versions of bios flying around as email attachments should be used for a program. One approach is to write something like “Violetta Valery’s s bio was last updated 11/17/14. Please check, http://www.allaboutvioletta.com for the latest version). Alternately, you can just say something like this, “This biography valid for the 2014-2015 season only, see the web site for more info” and make a point to do an annual update. Importantly, if you have doubts about your ability to keep the web site up, be realistic with yourself, and don’t set up expectations you can’t meet.
4. Avoid excessive revision. Good: an opera singer slightly reworking a bio to emphasize her achievements in song as she prepares to make her debut in a distinguished lieder series. Bad, completely rewriting a bio because you got cast as the cover Marullo for a big opera company. Also, while it’s reasonable to present the best possible take on your background, don’t lie and don’t inflate. Singing “Ines” in a volunteer performance of Trovatore at Una Volta Opera Company of West Pitchfork, Montana, is all well and good, but does not a major credit make. Arts editors and presenters are savvy readers and can generally read through pad and discern what credits actually mean for the career in question. Don’t oversell or undersell yourself.
5. Choose and abide by a consistent copy-editing style. This is simple to describe although not so simple to do. It means applying consistent rules for things like the capitalization of titles, names of composers, working with foreign terms, abbreviations, etc. Style guides also specify which choice should be made when several options are acceptable (form of titles, writing out numbers, certain spellings, use of the serial comma, the way sources should be cited etc.) Newspapers frequently use the Associated Press Style Book. Academe typically uses a style guide specific to the discipline or the big kahuna of style guides, The Chicago Manual of Style. None of these is targeted to the needs of practicing performing artists and presenters (as far as I know, there is not a resource tailored to this task). If that’s all too much for you, just make sensible rules for yourself and follow them. (Keep track somewhere of your decisions.)
6. Set reasonable expectations of yourself and enlist others to help. If writing and updating these materials is not a strength, don’t sweat it. There is probably an English major in your life who would be happy to help. I’ve flirted with the idea of starting a service to help with this–although in truth, I’m not much of a copyeditor. (Extra points to readers if they can spot all of the inconsistencies and other errors in this post!) Professional writers at all levels have editors, so it’s certainly no shame to ask for help on your materials.
6. Provide a range of photographs in usable formats. Print requires higher resolution photos (300 dpi or greater is preferable) and for a large photo, this may make it inconvenient for emailing. Provide a print and digital-friendly format of key photos (again, don’t go overboard) on your site for download (or in a cloud resource). Provide a caption and a photo credit, and explain any restrictions on use. Make other media (audio clips, video) as easy to use as possible (for instance, making sure it can be embedded).
7. Abide by copyright and other IP requirements. Don’t use materials without permission and don’t put your presenters in the position of inadvertently using copyrighted materials unlawfully. Just because it’s on the web and can be downloaded, doesn’t mean it’s okay to use in your press kit or materials you submit for a program. Also, “fair use,” is a complicated issue, in that it is a decision that is dependent on a number of relative factors, one of which being whether there is any commercial interest involved. Given that marketing and promotion are implicit in a singer’s biographical and other materials, there is a risk in assuming that material could be used on a fair use basis automatically.
7. Be on time and responsive. There are a lot of things to juggle for artists, god knows, but stay on top of this, and don’t let the line go dead on this topic. Many presenters and program editors pull their hair out waiting for long-requested materials, or holding a spot to accommodate a program change or bio update. Playbill–and most other publications–fine presenters for late material, and, of course, late changes breed opportunities for errors. Managing things in a timely fashion will be enormously appreciated, as will be being forthright when problems come up. A practical example: if you can’t get a program note you had hoped to write done in time, call and explain yourself. That will give enough time to consider a “plan B” (for instance, doing a Q&A on the program that can be pulled together in two days). Just hiding in a bunker and not answering email for two weeks risks making a minor glitch into a major hassle.
Your editorial materials are not the most important part of your tasks, certainly, but handle them professionally from the get go and they’ll add polish to your presentation, save everybody some time and headaches, and might even open some unexpected doors.