What kind of stuff do you write?

As I was getting ready to enter the MFA program, I thought it would be smart/useful to meet a few people and pick their brains on the program. Get the inside skinny on faculty, etc. So I chatted with a couple graduating students, and they both asked me, What kind of stuff do you write? I had no idea how to respond.

Four years later, I still don’t.

I don’t think I’m the only one who struggles with how to frame my work in a larger context, or even just offer a workaday description of it. For instance: a lot of what I write about involves pop culture and family. But what does that mean? Nothing! And to answer the question more thoroughly would invite all manner of horrible blowhardisms. I imagine the result would read something like the impenetrable, jargony gabble your average young visual artist composes to describe his own work (I think architects do this as well). The kind of language I’m talking about is the sort that tries to create its own ironclad case for a) seriousness and b) intelligence. It’s the equivalent of waving one’s own creative insecurity like a banner. This is the stuff that drove Orwell to “Politics and the English Language.”

Not everyone struggles with this. Maybe some have a knack for discussing their work in an interesting way, or maybe it comes with practice. Take, for instance, this really great interview with Johnny Marr. Here he is answering a question about bands that were clearly influenced by The Smiths:

There’s no bigger honor. Occasionally, though, there’s a sound from some of those groups that is, shall we say, quite fey. I’ve heard some records by bands that came after us who had their music been any more fey and lightweight, then I’d expect petals to come out of the speakers. [Laughs.] That’s kind of missing what we were about, because The Smiths were not all “Oscar Wilde at 3:30 in the afternoon” and feyness. The truth of it is, if you were to see any songs from any of our shows, we were, what I would say, quite heavy. Even the ballads were intense. We were a rock band, really, that played a type of pop music, if I care to analyze it. I don’t know very much about The Wedding Present’s music, but what I’ve heard of Belle & Sebastian was often quite fey, and light in a very deliberate way. I think they have their own thing, which is absolutely fine. But I don’t actually think they sound like The Smiths.

Which makes total sense. Belle & Sebastian are obviously influenced by The Smiths in terms of their album covers/visual look, too.

Morrissey did all the artwork, and it was always a surprise, and a great sense of anticipation of what was going to happen next. I loved the sleeves, and I still do. Obviously you have your favorites or some you like over others, but I like them all. That was there from day one as well. Even when we were making little cassettes, Morrissey would do little photocopied ideas on the cassettes.

I did not know that. But these quotes aren’t the ones that are focused on sound specifically, and Marr is equally interesting and down-to-earth in that section of the interview as well. In contrast, this Jack White interview is almost intolerable. Is it supposed to be funny? I am not amused. Is it supposed to be revealing about its subject? I feel as if I’ve seen an ugly side of him, self-conscious and prickly, but not in an especially interesting way. More’s the pity.

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