I read The Tin Drum, Gunter Grass's most well-known novel, when I was 16, and I've read it twice since then. It's an unusual novel to read as a teen, since some of its high-terrain concepts of wartime trauma and fractured relationships might not be the usual fodder for teen reading. But as a book nerd, I was all about experimenting with novels both challenging and intellectually nourishing.
What I always loved about The Tin Drum was its coming-of-age story, tracking the story of young Oskar, born in 1924 in Poland and steadfastly refusing to grow up. With a hint of Peter Pan in the opening passage, Oskar desires to retain his youthful stature so much he flings himself down the basement steps and is stunted in his growth, forever being his prepubescent height as his mind matures. I'm not sure why, but this premise hooked me.
Oskar also had a voice that could shatter glass...literally. Such magic realism, which Salman Rushdie later popularized, was a revelation to me. Wait, you can blend fantasy into an otherwise historical novel?!
Grass's writing is so damn compelling, I always recommend this novel to friends looking for a great read. It's a thick read, sure, but like any worthwhile books, Grass expertly develops Oskar and other characters with such detail and humanity, the writing keeps you engaged til the last page.
I don't want to reveal much more, lest I spoil some of The Tin Drum's best passages, but rest assured this book is worth your time and attention. In fact, I now have an itch to re-read it once again.
You think you're hilarious don't you? Playing hide-and-seek is so 80s, and frankly I'm frustrated by this playfulness that feels more like a malicious attempt to keep my glasses from being streak-free.
When I look for you, it's as if you want to evade all the usual places I often leave you. Were you not happy in my jeans pockets? Too warm and linty? Or did you see a better future for yourself languishing under my bed, between couch cushions, behind that Joan Didion I'm re-reading? Yeah, she's a great writer, I don't blame you.
You're not the only one, buddy. I've bought more of you so I won't have to freak out the next time my glasses need a solid cleaning. Yes, you're replaceable, don't you forget that!
You have one job, Cloth: to give me clarity in the most literal sense. I'm not looking for anything magical here; just a swipe here, a swipe there, and I'm on to tackle my day smudge-free. If you can't get down with that...hell...I don't even know you any more.
So it's up to you how this all ends. You can continue being my pocket companion when the going gets wet and foggy, or you can keep playing keep-away like I'm getting bullied in a John Hughes movie. Either way, I'm on the prowl for you...because Lord knows I won't ever resort to wiping my glasses with your nemesis, Edge of Shirt.
You need to know a few things before you fully accept and sign the contract of bending your will to the Writer Gods that will forever entrap your mind, body and fine spirits.
First, the from-the-heavens call for inspiration may not siren-song its way into your morning every day. You'll face days if not weeks of Damn, when will the muse come a-callin? Sorry to be so blunt, but there's no bloody muse. It's just butt in the seats, it's just hard work. Every day. Seth Godin believes there's no such thing as writer's block; just a fear of work being shit and bad habits. I heartily agree: Don't wait for revelations to strike you and instead pump out that crap first draft.
Second, you needo thustle. You need to be bustling. And another rhyming word, why not?, is muscle. Hustle, bustle, muscle. You need to move quick to find other ways to support yourself while you get down to the busy work of writing creatively. That could mean finding a career in writing, maybe even technical writing, or you could work in a completely unrelated field but one that still gratifies you.
Bustling means not staying static, not staying still. I mean: Write in different places, place yourself in new environments. I always like a change of setting when I write, even though there is comfort in routine. Some writers only like to write at 5am before they go to work, at their desk. Others prefer the same coffee-shop table, every day. I think it's healthier to be open to places that could invigorate your writing brain, such as a new cafe on the other side of town, or a writing retreat so you can focus without the usual distractions.
Muscle is all about exercising that muscle. Every day. Writing every. Single. Day. You don't have to produce exquisite jewels of poetry and prose every sit-down. Look at this exercise as working out: You might not bench-press 200 lbs every time you hit the gym, but instead try more toning reps. Either way, your muscle is flexing and staying active, and so should your writing muscle.
Third, to be a writer you need to love language. That might sound obvious, but I know many writers who aren't devoted to learning more about English, its roots, how to expand their vocabularies, how to find refreshing ways to express themselves. Writers need to love language like musicians need to adore music. Know your tools because you need to know the rules before you break them.
I'm always open to answer anyone's questions about the writing life, so drop me a line here or tweet at me via @SilverbergDave
In what will now be an annual tradition, below are my picks for the past year's greatest series, films, music, podcasts and viral videos.
Here are my recommendations when you're next looking to get your content on (I promise never to write/say that again):
What To Binge
What to Film
What to Music
What to Pod
What to YouTube
Bonus Highlights of '17
When I look back at the many editors who I've had the honour to write for in the past 20 years, I'm astounded by the journalism lessons gleaned from those relationships.
I've written for around 40 publications, which means more than 40 editors (since they come and go from outlets, and for one magazine I've worked with four editors). Some have been lacklustre in their communication and editing skills, while others have been astounding in how they shape stories, root out unclear ideas, and suggest ways to sharpen the feature. I'm not a fan of naming names of those who've impressed me, since those I don't name might feel slighted.
From more than one editor, I learned the importance of telling them ASAP if I had to file late. Missing deadlines is a no-no for writers, but editors will usually be understanding if a) you explain early enough why you're late and b) There's a real reason behind the delay. It could be that sources aren't getting back to you, or a family emergency popped up. Either way, I'm not vague about missing deadlines, the odd time I do, because I know, being an editor, how crucial hitting deadlines can be for publishing calendars.
I've worked with editors who valued clarity over flourishing prose, the latter of which I can be guilty of sometimes (I'm a poet, can you blame me?!). I've wised up the value of blending both clear writing and original phrasing so readers can be carried on this ride without getting confused by the points I'm trying to make. It's easy to be enamoured with your own wordplay but if you aren't providing any momentum forward in your writing, what's the point?
Skilled editors will also know which holes in a story need filled. If I lean too much on one source's viewpoint and quotes, an editor might tell me to interview this or that source who can provide balance to the story. Or maybe I didn't flesh out a stat with enough context. By highlighting these omissions, editors simply make me a better journalist, and I rarely commit this type of imbalance any longer.
Finally, it's integral for writers to remember the human behind their editor's keyboard. This comes up most when the invoices are filed, the payment has yet to come. It's tempting to keep pestering editors until you get your cheque but editors are often not responsible for accounting and payroll. What I learned a long time ago, and also from being behind the keyboard as editor/publisher, is how someone's rep can be tarnished when they constantly badger editors for payment.
While I heartily agree there are too many delays for freelancers to get their fees, the editors shouldn't be blamed. I always try to get the email addy of the accounting rep since paying writers is their domain. Nudge the right people. Don't bother already-busy editors with matters they can't control.
I'm also interested in learning what you've learned from editors, in any field. Comment below or engage with me on Twitter via @SilverbergDave.
To be a diehard Toronto Raptors fan, you need patience. You need to breathe deep when they give up big leads or miss their assignment on defence. It could take you awhile to see everyone clicking on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.
But not this year. Second in the East. Third in the NBA in offensive rating. Best bench in the league. Fourth in the league in assists, a surprising stat considering how often the Raps play isolation basketball with superstar DeMar DeRozan slaying it with his mid-range game.
Coach Casey wanted to see a new look from this year's Raps, so they're swinging the ball, not just leaving DeRozan on an island, and everyone is getting involved, from newcomer three-point ace C.J. Miles to veteran Serge Ibaka to rookie Jakob "Soft Hands" Poeltl.
What fans are getting with this refreshed Raps lineup is one heckuva entertaining game, practically every time the guys take the court. They communicate well on D, getting tons of steals and deflections and turnovers from their hapless opponent.
One of the most jaw-dropping stats is how The Raptors are still somehow 10.1 points per 100 possessions better with DeRozan off the court. That would've been unconceivable last year, but then again last season we had the hapless DeMarre Carroll and the inconsistent Patrick Patterson. Now with Miles knocking down 3s and OG Anunoby winning court time with his wet shots, these role players make up the best bench the Raps have ever seen. No exaggeration.
And don't get me started on backup PG Fred VanVleet. OK, I've already started: Dude is so reliable as a backup to Lowry I can picture many NBA GMs salivating when they watch Raptors games, wondering how Fred could fit in their schemes. He always looks calm, confident, unflappable.
No wonder he boasts an offensive rating of 114.1 and a defensive rating of 95.2, giving him a net rating of 18.9, the best in the league among qualified players. To compare, Steph Curry is sitting at 16.6. James Harden is at 13.2.
Watch him dominate when he's on the floor against the Suns in a recent December game:
Fun basketball is up-tempo basketball. Smooth basketball. Limited turnovers from the Raps means they control the pace and execute with ease. It's what makes Golden State ball so entertaining to watch, as well.
I could keep going, but you get the idea, even if you're not a basketball nut like I am. The Raptors learned from last year's mistakes (too much iso ball with DD, not enough tenacious defence, weak bench) and they remedied their sorest spots. And for the average fan, they're making Toronto basketball so much fun to watch.
Keep it up, fellas.
Hot take: Mr. Robot creator/writer Sam Esmail is damn good at his job, and even better when he takes the helm as director. He's directed a slew of episodes of Mr. Robot for its third season and I've noticed every show he touches is gold.
Don't worry, no spoilers here, but let me just say a few general things about Esmail's technique: tracking shots are beautifully executed, he lingers poignantly on details that other directors would quickly pan over, and he depicts Eliot's mania so powerfully through cinematography.
If there's any season 3 episode that best shows off Esmail's talent it's episode 5. For a show that loves long takes, this ep was a masterpiece in the form, since it was practically all one long take. For 40 minutes. But it wasn't truly one long take, just made to look like that, but still...it was a stunning piece of art that you have to watch right now.
Esmail also gives us some gorgeous shots when two characters engage in a scene together, using colour effectively. Such as this shot from last week's episode:
Many shows have talented directors, even writer/directors, and David Fincher in the Mindhunter pilot episode comes to mind as a recent example. Esmail might not be at Fincher's level yet, but his consistency episode after episode shows a focus yet also a restraint that I find admirable; he doesn't try to do too much, but just enough.
Again, I'm tempted to explain more about certain scenes and their significance, but I know some of you still haven't given Mr. Robot a chance, and I implore you to try out the show at some point. You'll thank me later.
In a new regular segment of my blog, I'll be listing the longreads I've enjoyed in the past month, breaking down the articles and offering links so you can check out my recommended reading.
As many of you know, I'm a huge fan of Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi, and he's been straight killing it with his columns on U.S. politics. Recently, he wrote about the Trump-LaVar Ball fiasco, summing it up thusly: "Sadly, the two men have remarkably similar media instincts, the difference being that Ball is mostly trying to sell sneakers, whereas Trump is trying to sell race-hatred."
If you want a tasty column full of acerbic writing and shade so thick it could be pitch black, read all of Taibbi's recent columns on the idiotic Twitter wars Trump starts and how his presidency is nothing but a glorified WWE match.
Making a sharp turn, I read this fantastic overview of the Black Panther comics' role in spreading the good word about Afro-futurism, the concept of blending science fiction with a future informed by blackness. As a Black Panther noob, I wanted to learn more about Black Panther's world of Wakanda and what makes this African nation so advanced in the Marvel universe. It's a great read, especially if you're nerding hard on all things Black Panther ahead of the film's release on February 16.
Wired has been pumping out some fantastic journalism in the past year, and this Virginia Heffernan column on the Net's uncanny valley is no exception. She looks at how "the gap between the real and the replica can seem nauseatingly narrow" and how the Net distorts the truth almost by the minute. I love this line: "What we’re doing still, after all these years, is seeking serviceable metaphors that will make sense of the digital onslaught, trying to match its many facets, in scale and tenor, with traditional human experiences."
Finally, in the same vein, The Nieman Lab published this interview with Baylor University professor Alan Jacobs, author of How To Think. The author writes: "We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking. Relatively few people want to think. Thinking troubles us; thinking tires us. Thinking can force us out of familiar comforting habits.” He brings this theory to the Twitterverse, explaining how responding to tweets is so reflexive it's almost animal. He wants us to slow down. To think about how we'll respond to tweets and posts. And as a news junkie, I was especially enjoying his take on how news networks can help improve civil discourse.
Jacobs even offers an idea to help us think harder about what we post online: "I think Twitter would be doing a great service to humanity if they put a five-minute timer on tweets before people could respond to them. Of course, they won’t do that."
Do you have a friend whose work ethic or passion is just so damn invigorating? Are they making things happen in a way you admire, and ultimately get inspired by?
Thanks to the many talented artists I know, I'm lucky to be surrounded by folks who can focus so astutely it makes me jealous. But I'm not kicking dirt at what I may lack; rather, they encourage me to be better, because I know it's possible.
Sure, I might know sitting down to write new poetry is possible, but when I talk to a friend about it and learn about how she wakes up at 5 a.m. to have one solo hour of writing time, away from her husband and kids and teaching life...I can't help but think What's my excuse?!
My mind is taking me to these places because recently I haven't worked on my poetry as strictly as I'd like to, with my attention quickly diverting to journalistic obligations or social funnery or the first season of Fargo (I know, I'm late to the game). So I'm trying to find the writers in my life now (having dinner with one tonight in fact) so I can glean from them how they shut out the distractions and have those hours of pure writing time.
I think when we get rid of the toxic people in our life and get closer to those who inspire us, for whatever reason, we benefit immediately from that close contact. It's as if we get kicked in the ass by osmosis.
Writing is fucking tough, and while I've recognised this truism in fits and starts, this year has given me a deeper understanding of the discipline needed to put bum in seat and fingers on keyboard. But thanks to the successful writers around me, I know good work CAN and WILL get done.
In tennis, an unforced error is a play where you make a mistake that is entirely your own doing, as opposed to your adversary pressuring you with an impressive shot. When I've committed unforced errors in tennis, sometimes they avalanche into an unravelling that'll have me down too many points to surmount a comeback. Other times, those head-shakers will inspire me to be sharper, faster, stronger.
Sometimes I get this mean-face:
Unforced errors can frustrate us outside sports, in everyday life. I've made unforced errors in relationships, believing something that wasn't, or not being considerate or romantic enough. No external forces influenced those lapses in judgements; that's all on me.
In basketball, unforced errors creep up when you try to do too much, like making fancy passes or trying to drive into the paint with two defenders waiting for you. You'll lose the ball, clunk a tough shot, and the guilt of selfish play can shiver up your spine. Same with the freelance projects I've tackled: If I try to do too much, I'll spread myself thin, and all the projects don't get the right amount of attention. To avoid unforced errors in this arena, I had to drop a podcast idea I was working on, which was one of the toughest decisions I've made in awhile.
The best way to avoid unforced errors is focus. In tennis, if you train your concentration on the first serve, you'll have a high chance of acing your opponent, as long as the mechanics are on point. So I'm applying this to relationships (focus on what's in front of you, ignore those Tinder pings), to work (focus on my articles when the deadline nears, and ignore those unread emails), to health (focus on what my body needs, not what I crave).
The less I endure unforced errors, sparking that anger or determination (or sometimes resignation), the more I'll be boasting this Nadal face:
About David's Blog
I write about journalism, freelancing, the arts, Toronto, technology, sports and why egg nog is under-rated.