The Writer in the Mirror

Jonathan Bellman

Phil’s Bad Writing Blog is a virtuoso example of the medium, from the wonderful self-mocking weirdness of the Freaks clip, to the thought-provoking Ira Glass clip, to the sheer machismo of putting one’s old writing (the equivalent of juvenalia, though it’s from graduate school) up for public view and submitting it to his own scorn and contempt. If you haven’t read it, read it now. Read it again. And a confidential to Jack, the second commenter: I completely understand. I’m movin’ on, too. These are allergies, by the way; I haven’t been weeping. My eyes look this way because of allergies. Really.
My first thought on reading this delectable blog was GET OUT OF MY BRAIN! I really thought I was the only person whose self-loathing reaches this level of hysteria during the writing and revision process. I’m doing final rewrites on my Ballade book right now, so I’m pretty much through that. Truth to tell, though, during the countdown to submission this past winter, when I was going through chapters again and again, I was constantly flagellating myself: Jerk! This is incoherent! Do you even know what you think? Ever consider writing a paragraph without using the em-dash parenthetical trick more than three times? What about trying an appropriate transition—maybe just one or two, for a change? Can you really expect the reader to divine what’s in your closed and crabbed mind throughout an entire chapter? Pretentious fool! Pedant! Loon! Blowhard!
And, yes, I am the author of A Short Guide to Writing about Music, now in its second edition. Where did I get off writing the thing, you ask politely? To be honest, I constantly wonder the same thing, and I have often wondered if William Zinsser ever felt the same way. In an earlier edition of his classic On Writing Well, he reproduced an excerpt from an eighth draft (or something), which was nonetheless covered with emendations and cross-outs. Cross-outs?? This is William Zinsser we’re talking about!
Why was I allowed to write the book? Because I pitched it, hard; other than having an English Professor for a father I’ve no credentials beyond being a bookworm as a kid, writing a lot, and having an abiding belief that much writing about music should be better than it is, especially in the scholarly arena. The circumstances were these, in my first or second year here at the University of Northern Colorado: one Assistant Professor’s salary, wife and baby son, house. WAIT! says the genius. I’LL WRITE A TEXTBOOK! I’LL MAKE ALL KINDS OF MONEY! The very afternoon I got the idea I called HarperCollinsCollegePublishers, my old publisher. No reflection, no time for cold feet. So I wrote the textbook, over the course of some centuries: two drafts for the proposal, two drafts for the book itself, myriad revisions from outside readers, certain of whom violently disagreed with key issues, which I somehow had to explain to the office personnel in charge of making me finish the book on time. (Authors know what I’m talking about: you get the form letter saying “Please explain to us the revisions to intend to make in response to the reviewer’s concerns,” but you’re never given his identity and so can’t say “Look, he’s a moron, but I didn’t choose him.”) And, no, I didn’t make all kinds of money. Incidentally, I was tormented throughout the entire process—or so it seemed at the time (see? Em-dashes!)—by the editor of the series, Sylvan Barnet. I remember getting back a page of manuscript with his recasting of one of my sentences and the following comment: “Your version is eighteen words in length; mine is seven. Are you really prepared to make the argument that your version has eleven words’ more meaning than mine?” Ouch. Up to that point, I had made the mistake of believing people’s compliments about my writing. No longer.
Of course, Sylvan did me a tremendous service. I won’t call him a diplomat, but he went through my drafts with a fine-toothed comb, a cold and clear eye, and a complete lack of concern for my poor little feelings—because the Short Guides Series was his baby. My long-suffering DMA Final Project advisor, George Barth, had done this kind of draft-after-draft service years earlier, with both promptness and diplomacy. From satisfying the two of them, I learned to be as harsh with myself as…Phil was with himself in the other blog. Except Phil was much more antic about it. Comedy may be hard, but I was laughing aloud.
So let me end with a challenge: Phil mentioned his youthful writing phases, such as the Adorno phase, plus others too embarrassing to mention. Who? The mind positively races with possibilitites: Carl Dahlhaus? Richard Brautigan? George Sand? Norman Mailer? Rigoberta Menchu? Paul Gallico? I’m dying to know. Of course, I should talk; in childhood I—completely inexplicably—used to try to affect a folksy, Americana-like style in my own writing, à la Will Rogers. (Rogers died c. 1935, so why I should latch onto this in the mid-1960s puzzles me also.) It is also not clear why I thought a science project involving watching mold grow on bread and pumpkin might be a good opportunity to use such a style. (“Well, first we soaked the bread in water, so’s we could…”) You can imagine how utterly mystified my third-grade teacher was. “Jonathan—ahh—we don’t write like this in a report.” Lots of loving support from my father the English professor, too: “Oh, Jonathan, Jesus Christ, y’know?”
So why bother writing at all? Well, if not us, who?

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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4 Responses to The Writer in the Mirror

  1. Phil Ford says:

    Thanks for your nice comments on my self-flagellation! The funny thing was, my wife read that post and said “your bad writing is making me nostalgic!” We were in our first year of dating when we took this seminar, and my weird Adorno phase is part of her memories of the time.
    In answer to your question of what else I was imitating: well, this and that. I fell in love with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and tried to imitate its quirky, footnotey style (you can imagine how that turned out). Parts of my dissertation have something of the cadence (but not the wit or learning) of Eric Hobsbawm (a great Marxist historian). Even now I think that my writing occasionally picks up the flavor of critics whose writing I like, like J. Hoberman and Geoffrey O’Brien, but I think I’m a bit more self-aware than I used to be and can tell what sounds like them and what sounds like me.
    Actually, George Orwell is an abiding influence — you can learn a lot about how to turn a good sentence from reading him, but the trick is not trying to imitate him. One useful point he made — the English language is strange in that many of its common words have latinate and anglo-saxon synonyms, and when we’re trying to puff ourselves up and sound smart we always go for the latinate one. Also, his cruel mockery of things I used to do — the “not un-” thing, for example, and wandering metaphors — stuck with me. Haters like Louis Menand and Stanley Fish knock Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” but I still think it’s one of the best things ever written for aspiring intellectual/academic types to read.
    See here:

  2. Jonathan says:

    I’d never read this. Superb.

  3. Andrew says:

    I will be checking in here often.

  4. Jack says:

    For Hollywood’s take on developing a writing style, see the underrated but cliched film “Finding Forrester” with Sean Connery. A young writer is told [by Connery, the master author] to begin re-writing, word for word, the opening lines of Connery’s book until the student’s own style emerges. A fun movie overall.
    Gina Balestracci used your “Short Guide to Writing” in our freshman seminar class at Montclair State, and I still come back to it. It’s interesting to know that even a book on how to write can go through painstaking writing process.

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