Music, Math and Words

In Writing Tips for a Disorganized Mind I describe how I get out of my own way and let my brain do its thing when I write. This is not only because it works for me, but also because I am so very—on a deeply fundamental level, which, I assure you, shames me only a little—very, horribly lazy. I don’t much care for work or trying hard. In school, I only got A’s in subjects I enjoyed, which I enjoyed because I was good at them.

I did well in music performance, for instance. I tried playing several instruments–most of them, poorly–but piano was my favorite, and I play with great emotion. I also use music to help me write. There’s a scientific reason many writers do. Brainwaves will try to sync with soundwaves. While writing my parts of Animal Instincts, by M.J. Ortmeier, I listened to two albums: Days Gone By by Bob Moses to evoke alpha waves of emotion; Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, for beta waves of agitation. (By the way, you should only listen to Downward Spiral with headphones. It’s meant to be inside your head). Eventually, I didn’t really even hear the music as I worked, I just felt it.

On the other hand—again, placing the blame where it obviously belongs, on my brain—I am really bad at math. As opposed to my nearly effortless ability to focus and translate mental images to words, there is a physical dysfunction that I can feel inside my head when I try to do math or think in mathematical ways. The neural pathways simply don’t exist. The greatest irony of my life is that I have no problem with words, yet a crippling inability to do word problems. Straight C’s, all through school.

Yet there is a similarity between words and numbers. They are, after all, merely symbols, parts of language, a means by which we describe and understand…everything, though in different ways and to varying degrees. You know, the difference between describing a tree, exploring the wider meaning of a tree, and stating that there are nn−2 trees on n labeled vertices. Yeah, that’s gibberish, but it rhymed, which makes it poetry.

Speaking of poetry, if you went to school, you undoubtedly wrote a poem. And if you’re like me, you received an A for plagiarizing* one that your brother wrote years ago at another school (thanks, Ed). Did I stoop so low because I’m lazy? Yes, and I’ve never been able to write poetry, except for the epic that’s in a box in the basement which once filled me with pride, but is actually trite.

“But poems are made of words, right? You’re good with words, you said.” I’m also apparently inconsistent, because life is complicated and full of seeming contradictions. Besides, math is made of lots of words, but I can’t do that, either. “Hang on,” I hear you say, rudely interrupting yet again. “Math is numbers, not words.” Good point, now shut up.

Math—if I’m not talking completely out of my butt—is about structure. It describes spatial relationships such as size and distance; physical realities, such as molecular bonds, etc.—things that exist on the physical plane. And I’ll bet those who can understand such formulas are often overwhelmed by the intricate and complex dance of numbers that give a glimpse of a vast, wonderful and beautiful universe.

With words, however, we can just make up shit with the purpose of stirring up shit. One might argue that there is a universal formula for manipulating human emotions through the use of imagery and metaphors. Why, then, do I hate inspirational sports stories? They have the opposite effect on me!

Poetry—using the classical definition—is a hybrid language, a fusing of math and words. You make up shit, but within a structure. As is plainly proven in this blog post, structure is my enemy. Rhythm and meter can kiss my ass. I hate writing poetry. So imagine my surprise when this happened one day:

Running running running forward
Stopping for a while to remember
Around you, with you, nearer tomorrow
Nothing goes backward
And time can’t stay forever like flies in amber

Open open up the window
Love, for a lie, powerfully borne in
Who are you? Who am I? Given or borrowed
Disparate, hollow
But time won’t lie on its bed late in the morning

Waiting waiting is not willing
Spin in circles, bronco not broken
Flying apart, from sad joy to glad sorrow
Illusions of stilling
For time is long gone before your eyes are open

Keep yourself
For me
Keep yourself
For you

What the heck was that? I think it’s lyrics to a song. That’s what it’s meant to be. Whether anyone thinks it’s crap or brilliant, it still happened. And I’m baffled. I couldn’t plan such a thing if I tried. I don’t do structure!

But here’s the process. M.J. Ortmeier’s novel, Animal Instincts, is so called because it’s about the eternal vigilance we need to overcome our baser natures and the paramount role of communication and awareness. Use your words, human!

One of the characters has a secret love of music and another character says: “I know you don’t like hearing the ‘L-word’ yet, but the emotion is powerful and sneaky. As good as you look with your new hair and clothes, and as happy as you want to make a potential mate, be sure to keep yourself. You know what I mean? All those disparate things you like that don’t seem to go together? They all meet and blend perfectly in a wonderfully unique” you.

I thought, “that would have a poetic impact on someone prone to introspection and lyricism.” I extracted some words I might use, like sneak, unique, keep yourself, powerful, disparate. That, and the nature of the meeting and relationship of these two people, hummed in the background of my mind for months. I didn’t work on it in all that time.

Then I downloaded another Bob Moses album, All in All, and found Hands to Hold (Acoustic). It was the last element needed for a Perfect Storm of Creativity, of crashing alpha waves and buffeted structures. Literally, within half an hour of downloading the album and repeatedly playing that song, I had written the first draft of the above poem. Another night of sleep and ten more minutes, I had the completed version.


*In answer to the accusation of plagiarism which has been lodged here today: we used pseudonyms in class so we could anonymously critique each other’s work. My pseudonym was Mr. Davis, my brother’s name. So I didn’t so much “plagiarize” as “quote” with attribution.

Writing Tips for a Disorganized Mind

I specifically remember lying on my stomach on the bed in my room as a teenager, staring at a blank piece of paper (yes, actual paper and a pencil). My favorite writing surface in this position was one of the big “Illustrated Stories from the Book of Mormon” books, specifically the one where the puma is about to leap out of a tree onto Lehi or Moroni–or whoever–strolling along in his belted tunic and sandals. They were thin, solid and slightly larger than a 7×11 page. (And I found a pic online!)

Jacobs-StoriesThe perfect opening line, however, never came to me, so whatever it was that would have followed never got written down. Oh, the disappointment of needing to be brilliant on demand and failing to perform!

Michael often teases me about how my mind jumps all over the place. It’s most apparent when we do a crossword together. He goes through each question and will consider one thoroughly, studying the vast map of information his brain has laid out. I skim through them all and if the answer doesn’t pop into my head immediately, I move on. I’ve filled in all the small, obvious clues and come back around to where I left him earlier when he’ll suddenly fill in “Arizona Cardinals” with no cross hints solved because he finally located it in his mental spreadsheet of western cities with football teams.

I mention this anecdote because, though I seem to have an agile mind, I still want to work in a very linear fashion, which is why I never got past that perfect first line. Perhaps it was the static nature of a piece of paper, whether forming words with pencil or typewriter. Once it’s on the page, it can’t be moved. I imaged professional writers simply started from the beginning and worked their way to the end, producing a final draft in one go because the drudgery of reworking paragraphs was unimaginable to me. However, even with this amazing machinery I’m clacking away on, I still have the impulse to start from the top.

I know there are courses I can take on how to write. There are tons of articles on process, overcoming block, techniques, structure, organization, etc. But I believe in reinventing the wheel. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about my most difficult obstacles.

Write what’s on your mind. There’s an important scene with technical language and concepts you don’t fully understand. You’re disciplined. You’ve done the research, made the notes, but it’s not there, flowing out of your fingertips. So go back to that other scene, the fun and colorful one that makes you happy. There’s a reason that scene is trying to burst through. Its time has come.

Don’t push it. Your brain runs background programs. You plug in various bits of information all through your life which get collated and filed. Even if it’s something you forgot years ago, it’s still in there somewhere, forming your beliefs and view of the world. Your mind has been putting it all together for you while you were going on with other business. There’s a reason we’re advised to sleep on it. Why consciously try to force something when you can reap the rewards with minimal effort?

Cleanse your palate. It’s all a muddled mess. You don’t know who’s saying what, or where that character is going or why, but you know he has to get over there somehow. So, screw it. Play a video game. Read a book. Watch a movie. Generally, I try to read or watch something that’s along the lines of what I’ve been working on. The mental short circuit will clear the churning detritus, creating a navigable course.

Stand on the shoulders of giants. Brilliant insights don’t pop up, fully formed, from nothing. Frankly, you stole it from something you read or saw years ago. When I’m cleansing my palate, I’m only a little worried I might plagiarize, or, more worrisome, feel constrained from writing something because someone else already did it, and better. In fact, I read a novel that had lots of elements of something Michael and I had written. Obviously we didn’t plagiarize it. We just seem to have commonalities with the author. Anyway, there are apparently only Seven Basic Plots that can exist, and it’s currently popular to rewrite fairy tales and classic novels, so don’t worry about it.

Hmm. During the process of writing, I seem to have taken a great deal of time and energy (both the reader’s and mine) to illustrate my final point. When I was young and having a difficult time in life, I’d randomly open my copy of the Tao Te Ching for wisdom and comfort. My copy with the mysterious stain on the cloth cover is a 1988 translation by Stephen Mitchell. Passage 76 ends, “The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.” This is attributed as the first known instance of a concept that has many iterations, notably by Confuscious, Aesop and the Bible, and is most recognized in this form: “I will bend like a reed in the wind.” My favorite, however, is spoken by Wash in the movie Serenity: “I’m a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar.” Joss Whedon obviously didn’t make that up, he just relayed it very well.

Talvas the Ogre


“Talvas the Ogre” is the first complete story published by M.J. Ortmeier. There’s a version on Amazon and a slightly different (better, IMO) version on iBooks.

This story came out of a larger project about William the Conqueror. It’s such a highly complex topic with so many players that I needed a way to separate some out, to pull their backstories out of the main story line. I, however, still need to know who these people are. It made sense to give them their own short stories.

William “Talvas” de Bellême became a reviled character in his own time. For anyone who knows about medieval punishments, that’s saying something. What he did wasn’t any more awful than any of his contemporaries, yet for a while, he was stripped of his possessions and exiled. History doesn’t really explain why he was so thoroughly routed, but I came to the conclusion that it was contextual–think “The Red Wedding.” There was probably other elements of politics, opportunism, and “daddy issues.” The usual tropes.

Oddly, however, I didn’t fully tell Talvas’s story here. I set it about 4oo years in the future, being retold as a fairy story to children, a cautionary tale about honor and revenge. There will be another coming up that will explain more about what happened.