Pruning Away Neurons (And Re-Growing Them)


Of his own writing Evelyn Waugh famously quipped, “I put the words down and push them around a bit.” In Freshman Comp 101 you’d identify that literary device as understatement, of course.

Sometimes I worry an entire generation of writers may be losing the penchant for pushing words around a bit.

If I could distill writer Jon Katz’ message to a roomful of engaged writers and writer wannabes last weekend, it would go something like this: publishing is no longer the sole domain of the traditional publishing house—anyone who desires to write and publish can do so without running the gauntlet of the old-style vetting process. And a subset of this idea: the World Wide Web is the primary venue for writing these days, romantic or wistful notions of conventional books notwithstanding.

The very idea of putting down your thoughts on (virtual) paper, clicking “publish,” and then broadcasting them across the world thrills and inspires the imagination. It’s also terrifying: in the last few years social media sharing has become a big part of the publishing equation. Incredible, powerful relationships have been forged in this way. But that platform—social media—also serves as a voice for the deranged, the unstable, and the downright idiotic. Plenty of their work has also been published in the traditional way, but never before has it reached so many so quickly, and so (sometimes) anonymously. It reminds me of hideous billboards dotting an otherwise unspoiled landscape.

Lately I’ve observed what I think you could fairly call a lack of substantive content in many online publications: websites are littered with adverts, banners, and popups that disrupt the reading experience. And once you’ve peeled back all the layers of that onion, you’re often left with little language at all. (It is true of print publications, too.) I wonder what this experience is doing to our collective intellects. If we could compare a PET scan of our modern brains with one of our century-ago brains, would we see something shocking? Some piece of higher functioning anatomy reduced to a peanut?

I have no scientific evidence, but for my own part, I am more likely to pass over a lengthy bit of online prose for something shorter. Tight schedules, distractions, mental and physical fatigue,—especially at the end of a long workday—these could be the culprits. But sometimes I wonder.

Jon sat next to me during our lunch at the workshop. I was a bit whiny, complaining about the difficulty of working on my own writing when I have just spent the last eight hours sitting at a desk and writing professionally. I explained I am a copywriter and editor by day, for a digital marketing company.

Do you enjoy your job, he asked? Yes, I said: I get to earn my keep using the only other marketable skill I possess besides teaching classical ballet, an avocation that is out of reach for the time being.

I’ve had occasion to reflect on my answer to this question in the intervening days, and of course there is much more to it. The expanded answer goes something like this: I am thrilled and delighted to write professionally. The work I have is hard to come by. It is not unlike the work I once produced in grad school: I am assigned a piece of writing, I research it as thoroughly as time permits for that particular assignment, and I synthesize my findings in a document I hope our company’s clients appreciate. I also hope it is interesting reading.

And there is another dimension to my job, Search Engine Optimization. So I am not merely producing an online publication, but one designed—through the strategic placement of keywords—to drive readers to the doorstep of a particular client, versus someone else’s. It is a huge challenge to do this and to do it well: to write something that “reads” genuinely, that various search engine bots will grasp as authoritative and not “spammy.” Depending on the type of content I am asked to produce, I can be on a single piece of writing for a couple of days. There is nothing diminutive about that, nothing abbreviated. And because I always felt comfortable in an academic setting, and because there is most definitely an academic piece to this work, I thoroughly enjoy it. In fact, I am privileged to do it.

So until I find my tempo, to borrow language from my erstwhile career in classical ballet, my own personal writing and publishing probably will suffer indeed, and that is how the cookie bounces, as one of my professors liked to say many years ago.

I wonder how Mr. Waugh would view the writer’s landscape nowadays. One thing is certain: my own writing muscle is actively engaged. Every single day.


2 thoughts on “Pruning Away Neurons (And Re-Growing Them)

  1. Ann Patchett has a lovely chapter in her collection of essays “This is the story of a happy marriage” about how she finally decided that writing as her day job was the best way stay engaged in her own writing, in large part because she wasn’t as physically exhausted (from waitressing) or mentally exhausted (from teaching/grading other people’s writing). That collection is a great read for all writers.

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