Adventures in bad writing

Phil Ford

Happily, Andy H-D at The Black Torrent Guard is beginning to post again, and has apparently gone to Iowa to do a graduate degree in musicology.* Earlier this month he posted a clip of Ira Glass, host of This American Life and nephew of Philip Glass, talking about the challenges of writing for radio or TV.

Andy titles the post "Working Through the Suck" (such a good post title . . . wish I'd thought of it) and writes that "it encapsulates why I started writing this blog, why I stopped writing for several months, and a larger malaise that seems to affect the 'academic blog' community." I'm assuming that the malaise he's writing about is the tendency of so many academic blogs written by graduate students (the majority, since grad students tend to understand the medium more intuitively) to peter out after a while. Part of it obviously is that we're all busy and blogging is low on our list of priorities. But maybe it's also because of what Glass is talking about here: you have good taste and high standards, and what you're writing is not up to them, so you stop.

All I can say is, I couldn't agree with Glass more. You have to work through the suck, power through the feelings of inadequacy, because there is simply no other way to get better. Writing is an immensely complicated thing, and it takes years of doing it to get better. Of course you have to read and read and read, but that's only half of it. I went through my faux-Adorno phase and my faux-Orwell phase and some other phases I'm too embarrassed even to mention, and the stuff I wrote when I was imitating these various writers' voices was TERRIBLE. For example, there's this godawful analysis of Rachmaninoff's C minor piano concerto I did for James Hepokoski's 1995 sonata deformations seminar:

Theodore Adorno once wrote (with considerable scorn) that Rachmaninoff's early C-sharp minor Prelude is an exploitation of the semiotic germ inherent in the cadence –  "that is the way it is." Adorno's observation, applied in a neutral spirit, is germane to the concerto, which expresses itself through a kind of massive cadential overkill. 

"Germane," huh? My writing at this time had a certain thesaurus quality to it. Note the clumsiness with which cultural theory is being applied here. The syllogism is (A) Adorno complains about cadential overkill in Rachmaninoff's C-sharp minor prelude, (B) this other piece by Rachmaninoff contains cadences, so (C) Adorno can be applied to this other piece by Rachmaninoff. This is an example of what I call "Lee Press-On Theory," after Lee Press-On Nails of fond memory.

The development, which has been overtaken by motive b. (above), cumulates in the recapitulation, in which the P theme is now lashed to the piano's fortissimo repetitions of motive b. (mm.241-257). 

"Cumulates"? Also, your bar numbers are off, fool.

The fourth scale degree of the motive is now not sharpened, and we may now recognize the opening four-note motive that wrenched the introduction out of its delusional off-tonic opening. This is simultaneously the telos of the development and a moment of desperate recognition; the goal demanded in the opening was to escape or redeem C-minor, but in the recapitulation, the piano shouts its recognition of the truth present from the opening: there is no escape, there is no redemption. The disillusioning gesture with which the piece has opened has been elevated to a place of ultimate importance, and that gesture's content of meaning is likewise revealed as the ultimate truth: that is the way it is.

Wrenched! Delusional! There's a telos! Which shouts! There's a moment of desperate recognition! There's no redemption! There's C minor in the recapitulation! Wait, don't you always come back to the tonic in the recapitulation? What I'm trying to do in this paper is make up for the fact that I really don't have much to say by narrating a pretty ordinary formal event in a wildly melodramatic way. Also, notice how I can't get to the end of a sentence without tossing in a colon or semicolon. I was a serial semicolon abuser in those days. I'm still bad about that sometimes — it's like I'm embarrassed to come to the end of a sentence too soon. Here colons are used in a ridiculously self-serious way. It's a feeble imitation of Adorno, who often liked to end a complex dialectical thought with something compact and epigrammatic. It's not a bad trick, actually, but not for every sentence. Plus, if your punctuation says "insert devastating insight here," it helps to have devastating insights.

The recapitulation is really an anti-recapitulation, which, like anti-matter, destroys whatever it touches.  Its occurrence "breaks" the frame of the music, so that nothing after can be the same; far from achieving the goal of redemption implicitly demanded in the exposition, the sonata has been destroyed, its aspirations smashed.  Thus the psychology of the remainder of the movement is unusual; it exists to chart the wreckage left by the anti-recapitulation's cruel realization rather than to defer that realization to the end.

I don't know what I even meant by "anti-recapitulation." The semicolon abuse continues. I was very into "redemption" in those days — Adorno, again.

This is itself a deformation of the usual pattern of sonata teleology, in which the denouement is deferred to the recapitulation S or the coda, for the obvious reason that when placed any earlier it only "gives the game away," leaving little hermeneutic reason for the remaining part of the sonata.  In this case, the denouement arrives early for precisely this reason; it allows the extended contemplation of crushed subjectivity, of the life without hope.

Oh god, this is so horrible. Where to start? Mostly, it's the pathetic attempt at borrowing someone else's gravitas. "Extended contemplation of crushed subjectivity" indeed. This coming from a 20-something Canadian graduate student whose biggest problem in those days was not having air conditioning.

But the thing is, if I have made any gains as a writer in the 13-odd years since, it's because of horrors like this one. What's lousy about it —the imposture and fakery of it — is what allowed me to write less lousy stuff later. You try on other people's writing styles until you develop a stylistic vocabulary; you keep trying out ideas until the ideas you have are your own. But the thing is, there is no shortcut. You can't become a half-decent writer without constant practice. This is one thing I like about blogging: it's like exercise. Back in the late 1990s, when I was taking a few years away from graduate school, what really helped me was writing music-appreciation textbook materials for high-school students, where Adornian narratives of redemption are not greatly in demand.

*ONE OF US! ONE OF US! ONE OF US! (explanation here)

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to Adventures in bad writing

  1. Jonathan says:

    I can’t think of a better welcome for “one of us!” into the musicological fold. I may distribute this to students, Phil–it is just WONDERFUL. I’d say more, but I think I’ll blog on it. Bravissimo!

  2. Jack says:

    I read every posting on this blog and this is by far my favorite (sorry, Prof. Bellman). I’m an undergrad student who recently wrote a paper about Scriabin’s sonatas. I saw a lot of my own tendencies in your excerpts; like the whole “redemption” idea, and even the semi-colon abuse, like the one earlier in this sentence. I’m aware of amateurish tendencies in my own writing. You’re right that practice will clean it up; what else will? (damn it with those semi’s!). Thank you for a great entry.

  3. Jeff says:

    The Freaks excerpt seems eternally relevant. A friend of mine, an LA journalist, used to regularly interview Angelo, the “toastmaster” in the clip you posted. He passed along to me the following exchange from one of the interviews:
    Angelo: I set the world record for swimming from Catalina to Los Angeles.
    Friend: You mean Los Angeles to Catalina?
    Angelo: No. Catalina to Los Angeles. It took me ten hours to swim to Catalina, but I came back in ten seconds. My jock strap got caught on the Long Beach pier.

  4. Peter (the Other) says:

    All I can write is ouch, ouch and ooooowwwwwwwwch!!!

  5. Rebecca says:

    Oh wow. This will go down in history as one of my favorite Dial M posts…actually, one of my favorite blog posts, ever.

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