TUMBLR

A scrapbook of stuff I'm reading / looking at / listening to / thinking about...



Posts tagged "index cards"

Jul 02, 2013
Permalink
Outline for Mary Karr’s new book, inspired by John McPhee’s article on structure

Filed under: show your work

Outline for Mary Karr’s new book, inspired by John McPhee’s article on structure

Filed under: show your work

Mar 03, 2013
Permalink
The book is…an outdated mediation between two different filing systems. For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index.
— Walter Benjamin, “One-Way Street,” Reflections

Jan 17, 2013
Permalink

John McPhee on structure

You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.

There’s a (paywalled) piece by John McPhee in the January 14, 2013 New Yorker on how he has to find the structure of his feature stories before he can get down to writing them.

I had done all the research I was going to do…. I had read all the books I was going to read, and scientific papers, and a doctoral dissertation. I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.

He likens the process to cooking:1

The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intent to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.

Pre-computer, McPhee started out by typing out all of his notes, leaving blank space after each one. After studying all of his notes, he’d write out elements of the story on index cards, each representing a component of the story.

All I had to do was put them in order. What order? An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood—thirty-two square feet—on two sawhorses. I strewed the cards face up on the plywood. The anchored segments would be easy to arrange, but the free-floating ones would make the piece.

And then it was time for the scissors:

After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size. If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders. One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladder line on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood. If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write.

It’s interesting to note that McPhee usually has his beginning and ending in mind when he starts writing. How does he know when he’s done?

When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.

See also:

(Thx @twliterary)


  1. Funny to contrast McPhee’s cooking metaphor to David Rakoff’s: “Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.” 

Oct 13, 2012
Permalink
How Rebecca Skloot built The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


  I started watching a lot of movies structured like that and eventually found my way to “Hurricane,” about Hurricane Carter, the boxer. As I was watching it, I just freaked out because after the first few scenes I realized, Oh my God, this is the structure of my book. Three narratives braided together, a journey, etc. So I storyboarded that whole movie frame-by-frame on color-coded index cards (one color per narrative thread). I’d already mapped my own book out using the same three-colored index card scheme, and I’d mapped out a structure, but it wasn’t working. After I mapped out “Hurricane” I spread the cards out on a bed and put my book’s index cards on top of them, lining up the colors, to see how the film was braiding differently than I was. I immediately realized the problem with my structure was that it didn’t move around in time fast enough.


Above: her color-coded index cards. Filed under: index cards, storytelling

How Rebecca Skloot built The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I started watching a lot of movies structured like that and eventually found my way to “Hurricane,” about Hurricane Carter, the boxer. As I was watching it, I just freaked out because after the first few scenes I realized, Oh my God, this is the structure of my book. Three narratives braided together, a journey, etc. So I storyboarded that whole movie frame-by-frame on color-coded index cards (one color per narrative thread). I’d already mapped my own book out using the same three-colored index card scheme, and I’d mapped out a structure, but it wasn’t working. After I mapped out “Hurricane” I spread the cards out on a bed and put my book’s index cards on top of them, lining up the colors, to see how the film was braiding differently than I was. I immediately realized the problem with my structure was that it didn’t move around in time fast enough.

Above: her color-coded index cards. Filed under: index cards, storytelling

Sep 06, 2012
Permalink
Instead of a body of work I have an index-card habit.
Sam Savage hits a little close to home

Aug 21, 2012
Permalink

Phyllis Diller’s “gag file”

A large, Steelmaster-brand beige metal cabinet contains jokes that comedienne Phyllis Diller used to create her unique solo stand-up comedy routines. Forty-eight drawers hold thousands of 3” x 5” x 5” white index cards, each bearing a typewritten joke. Drawers are labeled with topical headings and arranged in alphabetical order. Headings range from “Accessories” to “Washing.” Large segments of the file are devoted to material about the mythical characters of her husband “Fang” and neighbor “Mrs. Clean.” The “gag file” is a part of the Museum’s Phyllis Diller Collection, which also includes costumes, props, scripts from her TV appearances, photographs, recordings, and several of her trademark cigarette holders with wooden cigarettes.

See also: the card catalogue system of Joan Rivers

Watch a Smithsonian video about the gag file→

(via @pennjillette)

Jul 23, 2012
Permalink

Writer’s Blocks

jndevereux:

This weekend my friend Austin and I were talking about writing, and I remembered an interview with Lawrence Weschler in The New New Journalism in which he talks about building with wooden blocks while he’s thinking about the structure of his articles or books. Here’s the passage, after he’s talked about his idea-gathering and information collecting:

Are there any activities that help at this point?
Two things. One is that I read a lot of novels. Writers like Larry McMurtry and Walter Mosley are especially good. I’m sort of like a bicyclist riding behind a truck: I want to get into the slipstream of that other narrator’s narrative. To get the feel of narrative, to be on the road, to remember what it feels like to tell a story.
The second thing I do is play with blocks. I have a very large collection of wooden blocks. Some of them are my own invention, and some of them are just rectangular.

These blocks belong to your daughter?
No, my daughter is not allowed to play with these blocks. They are mine.

And what do you do with these blocks?
Well, my wife, who is an important human rights monitor, and my daughter, who has been off at school, will come home and see the elaborate cathedral I’ve built on the kitchen table. And they’ll say, “We see you’ve been busy today.” And I have! Because although I’m not thinking about the material at all, I am thinking about structure and rhythm….

And how do these block structures get translated into writing?
I’ll be playing with my blocks and find myself thinking, “Hmm, I suppose if I put this part of the story in front of that rather than after it … That might be interesting.” And gradually I start to find formal issues of sequencing. Then I start to notice rhymes that I hadn’t noticed before.
For instance, when I was writing about Breytenbach there was a key moment in his story when he is being arrested at the airport and passes by a window in which he sees himself. I thought about what it might have been like to see himself at that moment. And then I remembered that in one of his poems he had a line about “South Africa is like the mirror at midnight when you looked in it and a train whistle blew in the distance, and your face was frozen there for all eternity, a horrible face but one’s own.” And I thought, hmm, if I put that quote next to that scene …
Now this gets really interesting. This is fun. And at a certain point everything flips around: I’m suddenly magnetized north rather than south, and everything else in the universe except the blank paper before me is north. I’m at my desk, and wouldn’t even notice if the house was burning down around me. And yet, I’m not interested in the material, I’m interested in the form. And the thing that is totally mind-blowing is that elements I put side by side for purely formal reasons turn out to be true about the real world. And this is because beauty is truth, and truth is beauty. It is the same kind of satisfaction that a mathematician gets out of an elegant proof.

Although the process sounds somewhat mysterious, and I’m not sure I would find it helpful in my writing, the important idea—that structuring writing is easier when you turn it into a physical activity—is undoubtedly true for me. I usually use index cards and shuffle them around, but using building blocks or Lego or even drawing a picture would probably work, too. The key is to get things out of your head and into your hands.

(All the interviews in that book are good, by the way, very focused on craft and would be of interest to any writer, not just journalists new new or old.)

Feb 15, 2012
Permalink
Nabokov’s index cards.



“Nabokov wrote most his novels on 3” x 5” notecards, keeping blank cards under his pillow for whenever inspiration struck. Seen here: a draft of Lolita.”


Filed under: index cards

Nabokov’s index cards.

“Nabokov wrote most his novels on 3” x 5” notecards, keeping blank cards under his pillow for whenever inspiration struck. Seen here: a draft of Lolita.”

Filed under: index cards

(via fuckyeahmanuscripts)

Jan 06, 2012
Permalink

How Many Stephen Colberts Are There? - NYTimes.com

Fascinating article on Stephen Colbert. Few facts:

  • His fireplace has the Latin motto “Videri quam esse” (“To seem to be, rather than to be”—this is the reverse of the North Carolina motto, “Esse quam videri”, “To be, rather than to seem (to be)”)
  • He’s the youngest of 11 children (As Vonnegut wrote, humorists “are very commonly the youngest children in their families.”)
  • His father and his two brothers died in a plane crash when he was 10

Article also contains some shots of behind-the-scenes on the show.

Nov 20, 2011
Permalink
Found this screenshot from Julie & Julia on my hard drive—anybody know if Julia Child and her editor Judith Jones actually brainstormed names for Mastering the Art of French Cooking with index cards?

In My Life In France, Child talks about what a pain in the ass coming up with a title was, and how her and her husband debated “the merits of poetic titles versus descriptive titles.” They made lists and lists of titles, trying to come up with the right “combination of words and associations” that would work. Judith Jones finally came up with the title after “playing with a set of words like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, trying to get them to fit together.” (Alfred Knopf supposedly shook his head and said, “I’ll eat my hat in anyone buys a book with that title!”)

Found this screenshot from Julie & Julia on my hard drive—anybody know if Julia Child and her editor Judith Jones actually brainstormed names for Mastering the Art of French Cooking with index cards?

In My Life In France, Child talks about what a pain in the ass coming up with a title was, and how her and her husband debated “the merits of poetic titles versus descriptive titles.” They made lists and lists of titles, trying to come up with the right “combination of words and associations” that would work. Judith Jones finally came up with the title after “playing with a set of words like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, trying to get them to fit together.” (Alfred Knopf supposedly shook his head and said, “I’ll eat my hat in anyone buys a book with that title!”)

Subscribe to my newsletter and get new art, writing, and interesting links delivered to your inbox every week.