Monthly Archives: December 2020


I’ve never advanced beyond the idea I first had when I was twelve, that being a music journalist would be the coolest job in the universe.

Even then, back when Rolling Stone was still on newsprint, I recognized the essential paradox of music reviewing: It is impossible to describe in words what a song sounds like.  You can fling around your adjectives, you can label a genre, you can list the recording and production details.  But you cannot tell a reader whether they will like a song or not.

I’m so glad, after all these years, to be able to point to a music column I love: “The Number Ones” by Tom Breihan at  Mr. Breihan is writing brilliant reviews about every single #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 from its inception in 1955. 

Accumulated years have provided music journalism something today that it didn’t have when I was twelve: history, context, memories.  Writing about songs everybody knows brings music journalism into the realm of archival research, perfect for an old librarian like me.  A number of music magazines/sites today are focused on recycling old information, re-reporting quotes from the past with new headlines.

“The Number Ones” transcends that.  Mr. Breihan’s writing is incomparable.  Online publication makes possible something print magazines could never offer: the chance for the reader listen to the song, and watch the video, at the same time they’re reading the article.  This allows the writer to stop trying to explain music, and instead to delight in a role of accompanying it.

It turns out that there’s something magical about writing in chronology, and it’s this: The readers know what’s coming next and can plan their comments in advance.  Stereogum has attracted an audience of readers who know their music.  The comments section of “The Number Ones” is packed with would-be music journalists themselves, who take the column about the song at hand and explode it into something extraordinary that encompasses the whole universe.

When I was unemployed for a few months in 1986, I started to write a novel about a planet that only used music for religious purposes, and what happened when a scientist on that planet picked up radio waves from Earth from 1955.  Now I have a column that reminds me of that experience.  “The Number Ones” gives me the gift of discovering old music for the first time.

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Creativity is a process suffused with magic and mystery for me.  Who can explain where imagination comes from?  How did humanity learn to put marks on a page that would become stories in the minds of readers?  One of the reasons writing and writers are so fascinating to me is respect for something so potent yet so little understood.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a resource that shares this sense of wonder and delight.  At the same time, it’s a practical and effective guide to becoming a better and more productive writer.  I recommend it for people who, like me, believe inspiration is something that can be cultivated.

I was introduced to the technique of “morning pages” by The Artist’s Way.  The idea, and these are my words not Julia’s, is to start the day by clearing away the accumulated load of mental trivia and idle thoughts and anxieties, before starting on the day’s real creative work.  Morning pages are completely free-form and personal, to be written as quickly and as mindlessly as possible.  They have no apparent purpose.  They are not intended ever to be read again. 

Morning pages have made me a better writer.  I’m not able to give a rational explanation why, but I don’t argue with what works.

I don’t strictly adhere to Julia Cameron’s method.  For one thing, I don’t always write them in the morning.  I might need to knock some distracting stuff out of my head in the middle of the day.  I sometimes have the feeling that there’s too much on my mind and it’s blocking me from focusing on my story.  Writing morning pages can help me push that detritus aside.  For me, it’s something of a cousin to keeping a to-do list.  If you write it down, you don’t have to think about it anymore.

Julia wants morning pages to always be written by hand, and for the morning session to always end up with three filled pages.  Again, with my thanks but apologies to Julia, that doesn’t work for me.  I don’t write anything by hand any more except notes and lists.  Truthfully, I think that I never learned to hold a pen correctly, and writing more than a few sentences by hand starts to cause knotty muscle pain in my forearm.  I think faster than I can write (we all do), and for me the speed of using a keyboard is essential.    

“It is harder to be blocked than to do the work.”  — Julia Cameron

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