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Prime Cut

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So this guy, Michael Erard, wrote a column for the series Draft in the New York Times. What worries me is, I’m pretty sure Erard burrowed into my mind and stole my thoughts. He then used them to write a terrific article on the problem of structural priming. Structural Priming is the theory that you’ll tend to reproduce patterns you’ve most recently experienced — so as a writer, you’ll reproduce the pattern of sentences you’ve most recently read, because you’re primed to do it; a pretty serious problem for anyone trying to break into writing while holding down a day job that involves words (ask any Hollywood script reader when was the last time they tried to write anything of their own and you’ll generally elicit a gag reflex at the thought of dealing with more words). The Evidence of Erard’s thought-stealing is clear: he says he’s written short stories, news articles, essays, reviews and a couple of nonfiction books, whereas I’ve written screenplays, stage plays, software reviews and a children’s book. See? All he did was change everything except the part where I was worried about my own poor sentence structure, and then put it into a really well crafted article. But now I’m afraid to say anything bad about this guy because he’s got a grip on my brainstem like one of those L. Ron Hubbard engram-thetan-brain-control critters and he might do something evil like put the squeeze on my corpus callosum and turn me into a streaker or a flat-earther or a Red Sox fan.

Anyway, Mr. Erard’s got my writing problems nailed down like scrap of cheap carpet in a doghouse. Alan’s day, thy name is fracture: Programming, texting, posting, wiki-writing, blogging, more programming and more programming. And then, somewhere in the late night hours, some actual writing. Most of the time I’m at the keyboard; little of the time I’m at my manuscript. This is a sure formula for writing a novel that sounds like an extended warranty disclaimer for a bottom-of-the-line toaster oven. Wiki description of record class exceptions leech into my story of young love, thwarted by condition code 7: invalid input to third parm.


Erard suggests a few solutions: work in a different location for your night writing than the one that might prime you for your day writing; don’t let the web or email intrude on creative writing time; re-prime yourself by typing out some sentences from a writer you admire. Good ideas all.

The thing that works for me, which he doesn’t mention, is getting out there and getting your heart pumping. I do this by walking the dog in the morning, then going for a mid-day run or a bike ride. But my routine is beginning to strike me as a little tame, and un-priming, so I’ve been looking into what other writers do to break up the day and send some blood to the frontal lobes. Other writers have gone further than I have in their aerobic approaches to clearing their heads and un-priming their sentence structure. Hemingway never said they were writing techniques, but he favored deep-sea fishing, running with the bulls, chasing women and shooting machine guns — good choices if you have a big boat, live in Pamplona, can handle rejection and know how to aim. Lord Byron reduced this to just skirt-chasing, but maintained an apparently energetic enough level that his writing was never in danger of sounding like it had been primed by all the threatening letters he got from cuckolded husbands. Hunter S. Thompson likes guns, but added hallucinogenic drugs in combination with rum, which can get the heart racing at epic levels while minimizing the danger of skin cancer by keeping you safely under your furniture.

Some writers go further, running marathons or doing yoga in steam baths. But at some level you’re moving away from un-priming exercises and getting into serious work-avoidance. The diminishing returns of having your un-priming exercise take up more of your day than your writing might be a good indicator that you’re actually meant to be runner, a professional dog walker or an experimental heart surgery patient.

There are heaps of other great articles in the Draft series, including one on how Miles Davis’ mid-century playing inspired the writer to simplify his own style. Check it out at the NY Times.

Go Sox!

Written by Alan

October 17th, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Posted in Writing