The Under Ground Writing Project

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Intellectual Lineage: Rocking Out vs. Writing Books

Posted by Oliver on June 24, 2015 at 12:20 PM Comments comments (2)

I spent the last few days reading the lists Rolling Stone magazine compiled enumerating their take on the hundreds best--the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Aside from making me feel cultured (I had heard of almost every artist and I had heard most of the five hundred greatest songs), anyway, aside from that, this stuff from Rolling Stone felt kind of annoyingly bland. It felt bland for the particular reason that it didn't illuminate any great mysteries into the heritage of my favorite bands. All I got from reading this stuff from Rolling Stone was that rock-and-rollers have a respect for their history and, when they're good at what they do, they recognize the direct line they can trace in their craft from themselves backwards, almost without variation, to Robert Johnson, and through him to Irish immigrants in the Appalachians. Any attempt to trace rock and roll further back than that takes it into the slipstreams of ultimate history and Music of the Spheres type navel gazing. The great thing about American rock and roll is it is possible to put boundaries on its history and study it as a semi-nuclear phenomenon. In that way it's a really neat sort of petri dish of history. In a semi-enclosed system, your aspiring historian can look at rock-and-roll as a study of the way culture develops. Wars, strife, victories, losses, ethnic diversity, technology, monuments, myths--it's all there.


Writing hasn't got that kind of history. I mean to say, writing has got history. It's got among the grandest histories in the world, if you think about it. Before humanity even made an attempt to figure out actual cause-and-effect explanations for things, we made up highly improbable and fantastical stories to explain things. Reading into the oldest history of mythology is interesting because it's a little like reading into the history of rock-and-roll legends: you can see trends. For instance, the head honcho in the Mesopotamian pantheon was the god of storms. I've always had this hypothesis--and it's slowly becoming a theory--that the first myth got invented because some little kid was scared during a storm and his grandmum, feeling a maternal drive to comfort the kid, invented a story about the man in the sky driving the storms. If this is the case then it's also the seed of all religion, all literature, and, really, all civilization. It's a pretty thought.


Mythology is the first and greatest example of stories getting bigger and more important than storytellers, and that has been a trend in writing ever since. Writers don't have the same defined, nuclear history as rock-and-rollers. When a rock-and-roller sits down and looks into the history of his craft, he finds his roots--he finds a rich and intricate history filled with people, many of them still alive, who he can go and personally study. The rock-and-roller finds paved roads, often covered in graffiti and marked with confusing signs sure, but he finds a recognizable heritage that he can step into, if he's clever enough.


As a writer, I feel differently than that. When I study my intellectual history, I usually feel like I'm staring into an infinite depth with no way in and, should I be so unwise as to take some steps into its myriad floods, no survivable way out. When I look at the lineage I'm attempting to inherit I feel like I'm looking at a cave of light populated by everything produced by everyone before me ever. You can get lost in there.

When you just want to puke.

Posted by John Ridge on November 20, 2012 at 1:05 PM Comments comments (0)

For those of you who don't me, I once trained in Olympic Weightlifting and CrossFit, Google the terms if they are unfamiliar to you.

My first year of training in Olympic Weightlifting took place at the Olympic Training Center, where the personal records of the people headed for the Beijing Olympics were posted on the walls. As I learned the movements, and lifted weight these people lifted in middle school, I would think to myself, "Okay, that's what I have to lift in order to go to the Olympics. Okay, guess I better keep working."

When I trained in CrossFit, I put my body through some of the most taxing, near tortuous physical exertion I've ever had the privilege of experiencing. I say near tortuous, because no one was forcing me to do it, except myself. Many, many times I brought myself to the point of incredible muscular pain, an exhaustive expenditure of glycogen, and near intolerable buildup of lactic acid. Especially at the beginning I often stood at the threshold of vomiting, while still hoisting heavy things over my head. As of this writing, I am having a difficult time remembering if I ever came in first place during a WOD. Usually I was either dead or second to dead last.

Both enterprises, in hindsight, were quite impossible. Between everyone else's lifelong time spent training, genetic potential, and blatant disregard for personal safety, I was completely out of my element. I was able to compete at the National Collegiate Level in Olympic Weightlifting, but I wasn't very competitive in my weight class. When it came time to see who could compete in the CrossFit games, I was in the bottom third for my region.

Why did I keep at it? Because there was someone in the room who was doing it faster, more easily, and without looking like they were about to puke. It bothered me enough that I couldn't do it as well as the other guys. While in the thick of it, it didn't matter as much that I couldn't perform at their level. What mattered was I was bumping against the ceiling of my own potential, and it felt damn good to make a breakthrough from time to time.

Over the weekend I sat in a write-in full of writers I hardly ever met before. I was (and still am) writing out my rewrite by hand, spending time to think about the next sentence, rather than blaze through and "just type" (like Jenny just talked about). I was surrounded by the sound of keyboard tapping, and stories of the amazing feats of imagination that are created when the mind is allowed to flow unrestricted. So many moments of, "Oh my god, I can't believe I just wrote that, but it makes SENSE!" The Bradburian Million was getting closer for a lot of these people, and it was exciting to watch.

One aspect of NaNo culture that I was previously unaware of is The Word War, also called The Word Sprint, The War, and really any other label for something competitive. You take everyone in the room, agree on a period of time, and then in a frenzy everyone tears through their prose, the goal being to write the most amount of words in the time allowed. I immediately recognized this as a CrossFit AMRAP (this is a test to see how thoroughly you Googled). My first Word War was completely comfortable for me. I've worked out in the same room as Olympians. Some of the people I worked out with in CrossFit were active duty members of the Special Forces. Writing with a pen when everyone else is typing? Bring it.

During more than one Word War, my hand cramped. You know what? It hurts a lot less than an entire body that's gassed from doing Grace. Sitting down for that long can make my back a little sore, which is nothing compared to seven rounds of deadlifting 125 kilos for seven reps, then doing ring dips for seven reps. Sometimes my brain started to fatigue, which is easier to deal with than keeping track of how many burpees I have left when I'm already overheated and my knees are shaking. Sometimes my brain wanted to puke. You'd be amazed how long you can maintain an exertion without actually puking.

Out of maybe eight Word Wars I've participated in so far in this NaNoWriMo year, only once did I out-write a typist. I usually ended up writing close to half or more than half the words that the winner wrote. More than once, the typists agreed the situation would be different if I were typing.

There are people who "thought about writing a book" and people who have written, or are writing books. I challenge you to see how close you can bring yourself to puking. At the very least you will no longer be one of the ones merely thinking about it. I don't think I've come close bumping against the ceiling of my potential with regards to writing. Have you bumped yours yet?

Now, quit reading this and go write something until you think you're gonna puke.



Advice Column Writing Prompt

Posted by Ali on October 26, 2012 at 11:00 AM Comments comments (0)

I like to read the Dear Prudence advice column on Slate. All of the strange, tragic, and sometimes hilarious situations people find themselves in are a great dose of reality and also a reason to appreciate my own life and its lack of insane in-laws or baffling bosses.


Another thing advice columns are good for? You guessed it, writing prompts! For this prompt, your job is to mine the column for goodies. Click over to Dear Prudence, or your advice column of choice, then pick one of the following options.


Option 1: Scan through advice column headlines, like "The Only One-Or Else". Write the headline at the top of your page. It is now both your title and your inspiration.


Option 2: Read a few letters and pick one that seems to have a lot of backstory. Write that backstory, filling in all of the character and plot details that might have led up to the letter.


Option 3: Pick your favorite letter and write your own response. When you write your advice while channeling one of your favorite, and most outrageous, literary/TV/movie characters.

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