Writing

Review: The magic spell of Hamilton on stage

I had the good fortune last night of sitting in the third row to see Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda’s crowning hip-hop opera detailing the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton.

I’d listened to the show a few times and enjoyed the virtuosity of the lyrics and the cleverness of casting complex issues of revolutionary history, like the foundation of the American banking system, into amusing, trash-talking, over-the-top rap battles.

But seeing the show captured what listening to it could not, the moving emotional arc of Hamilton’s story, from obscurity to an early grave, with all the prizes and penalties of life in between.

His life had that quality of drama and scope which seems so often to apply to figures from the long 19th Century. He knew poverty, wealth, fame, peace, war, love, sex, illness, health, ugliness, and beauty. He was an orphan, a soldier, a lawyer, banker, high government official, husband, father, rake, grandee, and, above all, a writer. At every moment in his life, he wrote his way forward, out, and up. His words, like the lyrics that Lin Manuel drew forth from the story of his life, were armor and incantation, a means of analysis and redemption. He made a career and a new nation from them.

The three hours of the show are like a Greek mass I once heard sung continuously from the light of dawn until well into the morning. At the end of the performance, the language and the power of language entranced me.

Love and thanks to Bevan Thomas and my parents for the tickets, and for finally getting me out of my office and into the room where it happens.

On writing: Lyric copywriting v. long-form

To be a bore, one merely has to say everything.

-Voltaire

I’m not the kind of copywriter who tends to write short. I write business-to-business pieces, mostly, which are meant to draw you in, explain the world, and then explain why my clients make something or deliver a service that will make the world better, starting with you, the reader. I want you to read what I’ve written and sound smarter in the next meeting with your boss or client, and that takes time to do. 

When you’re about to spend $8 on a burger, shorter copy is better (“I’m lovin’ it”).

When you’re about to spend $2 million on a piece of industrial machinery, a three-word slogan just doesn’t cut it. The longer and more informative the copy, the better it tends to boost sales or reputation.

But even then, an economy of words is necessary. Every sentence has to balance on a knife’s edge of being informative or soporific. After all, the next sentence might be the one where you stop reading. 

It takes talent to write a short slogan, akin to singing a song or shooting a perfect basket from across the court. But it takes endurance and discipline to write long and not falter.

In the copywriting world, writers of short copy are the rockstars, poets, and abstract expressionist painters. But us long-form copywriters are the novelists, symphony writers, teachers, and genre painters. We are (and I say this affectionately) what Samuel Johnson called the lexicographer: “A harmless drudge.” Our superpower is endurance. Our spells take longer to cast, but are, in my opinion, more powerful for it. 

That said, I have this cartoon pinned where I can see it from my keyboard, to remind me never to overstay my welcome. 

Misusing “around” is making us sound dishonest

Here’s an imprecision in the language that I’d like to call out for deletion: using “around” when we really mean “about,” “in support of,” “relating to,” or any other more forceful preposition.

Around is precise when it is used to describe a physical location. “Let’s all gather around the campfire” invites us to position ourselves on all sides of it. “She was hanging around the neighborhood” means she was both anywhere and nowhere in particular, but somewhere close by.

“Let’s make sure the discussion is around the topic of leadership,” however, means nothing.

That sentence could invite us to revile leadership or praise it. Using “around” to describe notions rather than places is vague in a way that is only useful to propagandists, whose job is often not to say anything substantive, but to say something merely because something has to be said. Propagandists really do speak “around” issues, the same way that soldiers patrol a neighborhood or thieves case a joint. We’re there for strategic reasons. We hang around an issue, both anywhere and nowhere in particular, but somewhere close by.

When I spotted “around” used in The New York Times by a journalist in a piece that purported to clarify the public conversation I was dismayed. Newspapers and magazines should never speak “around” anything. They speak candidly about certain issues to certain audiences with moral authority. The phrase is “speaking truth to power,” not “speaking truth around power.”

We have enough circumlocution (literally “speaking around”) of the truth these days. Let’s expunge it from the only sources of truth we have left, i.e. newspapers and magazines. If we only have enough courage or clarity to speak around something, maybe its better to stay quest until we have the force of mind to speak about it.

From the Commonplace Book: Annie Dillard

Before private libraries and long before the invention of the search function, people used to copy important passages into notebooks called “commonplace books.” I’m not so old fashioned that I keep a written one, but I do have a tag in my files called commonplace book. I click on it for inspiration, so I thought I’d share some of the quotes with you, in the hopes you’ll be similarly inspired.

I read this quote years ago in The Artists Way by Julia Cameron and it has echoed in my mind ever since. It’s less of an inspiration and more of a challenge. We all carry a vision of our future selves with us, usually one that’s better off than we are today, one with more purpose from day to day, more money, more fulfillment, etc. And somehow the days we live, or are forced to live, never quite seem to add up to that future self, do they?

To me, this quote is about the small heralding of big things. Relationships are nourished and great ambitions are shaped one day, one hour, one minute at a time.

What will you do with the next one?

The view from my keyboard, Tuesday October 2nd, 2018

It’s not often these days that I get to write in places that aren’t my office, but today is one of them. Some deadlines converged unexpectedly and in order to meet them I need to be in a place where my co-workers can’t find me. Since my co-workers are in the habit of opening up the doors of conference rooms where I am working alone, in a corner, in the dark, with headphones on, that means fleeing the office entirely.

New York does many things poorly (square footage, being roach-free, public transit, politeness, smelling good, etc.) but one thing it does well is neat little street level cafés to work in, like Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, where I am alternately typing these words, and gazing out over my screen at the humanity loitering, ambling, stumbling, strutting, and zipping by. Venturing out into the world for my working day keeps me lively in a way that writing in my garret doesn’t.

And if you’re wondering what’s in the mug to the right of my computer, it’s a cup of Earl Gray, naturally.

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Note the classic combo of red brick facade and black iron fire escape over my little window.