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

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.

Categories: Patterns, Writing Prompts, Writing Process

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Reply Stephen V. Thomas
5:43 PM on December 16, 2015 
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