Recycling Writing

I recently checked our library database to see if Ian Frazier had published any new essays (some of them are reproduced fully within the database) and found that he’d published a piece in the New Yorker called “Bags in Trees: A Retrospective.” (The New Yorker doesn’t keep its material online for very long, so I can’t link to it.) It sounded a lot like another essay of his called Tilting at Tree Bags from Mother Jones. Sure enough, it is a lot like it (though not identical). What’s more, it’s also similar to Keeping America’s Trees Safe From Small-Curd Bubble Wrap from Outside Magazine.

Now, unlike the NewYorkish blogger, I like Ian Frazier’s writing, but even I think this is curious. On the one hand, if he can sell similar pieces to three big magazines, who am I to complain? Some authors resell the same exact piece to several magazines (they’re honest about it, and the magazines publish reprints; Harper’s is one magazine that does it a lot). But there’s something uncomfortable about it, isn’t there? For one, does it mean Frazier’s running out of ideas? Is he in a funk? Doesn’t this smell kind of like a guy who’s got one cool story and he never shuts up about it? With repetition, doesn’t it take on a tinge of bragging? Or desperateness?

The only consolation I can take from this is that even Ian Frazier has difficulties writing. Misery loves company, sure, but even more than that, a writer likes to know that he’s not the only one who struggles. It doesn’t just come easily for everyone else.

PatrickObservations03/02/04 14 comments


Dad • 03/03/04 12:21 PM:

I think there are lots of folks with one good idea that they milk for all itís worth. How many one-hit wonders are there in rock music? How many bands have multiple hits that sound strangely alike? Some people, like Yoko Ono, have no hits, but one “good” idea nonetheless. Hers was to break up John Lennonís marriage and link up with him. Of course, most people have no ideas, so they go to work in a factory (no offense intended).

As I read your entry, I thought of Michael Moore, another of my favorite ďone ideaĒ people. His 1989 movie Roger and Me was a great idea and a critical success. Ever since, Mike has been trying desperately to regain that initial celebrity. OK, I suppose Bowling for Columbine would have to be accepted as a critical success (I havenít seen it), but I’m willing to bet there are overwhelming similarities between this movie and his original. Anyway, does anyone doubt that Moore is an ugly idiot?

As for me, Iím still working on my one idea. “Tell the truth” is the front runner today, but “Do it now, do it quickly” is an old favorite. How about, “Don’t be selfish”? or Christ’s command, “Love one another”? A good bumper sticker might be, “Eschew Politics.” Or, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Anyway, self promotion at all cost is NOT the way to go.

Patrick • 03/03/04 1:53 PM:

Dad, technical training time: when you type out an entry or a response in MSWord, it is giving you “smart” (curly) quotes and apostrophes. When you cut and paste into Maddenation, those are encoded for Word, not for HTML. You can turn off the automatic smart quotes (and other annoying things like superscripting ordinal suffixes and hyperlinking web and email addresses) under Tools > AutoCorrect, then in the “AutoFormat” and “AutoFormat as You Type” tabs, deselect ‘“Smart quotes’ with ‘curly quotes.’” This is important for a number of reasons, especially since your links don’t work (see above, but quickly, because I’m going to change it eventually, if you don’t). More (on the substance of your comment) later…

Dad • 03/03/04 2:38 PM:

I use WORD to write my entries (when I remember) because this blog tends to occasionally eat entries for no apparent reason. The most recent problem came when I first tried to enter the above comment and accidentally hit the mouse while in the comment window. Gone!

What the hell are “smart quotes” and why don’t they work in html? I noticed my links weren’t working, but couldn’t figure it out. I suppose this is another reason to hate MicroSoft?

Patrick • 03/03/04 7:40 PM:

Yes, I’ve changed some of your stuff in the past when the quotes were curly and the links didn’t work…

Different programs have different coded ways of displaying text. The most basic, stripped-down version is ASCII text (which stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange), which can be read, as far as I know, by anything, even way old computers. I don’t really know the guts of Word, but it seems to write its own proprietary code, which is why you have to choose which format to save in, and if you open a Word document in another program, you have to convert. Anyway, curly (or smart) quotes are just that: curly. They look like small circles with tails, or tadpoles, and they’re usually at a bit of an angle. Straight quotes look like straight vertical thin lines. Straight quotes are ASCII standard, and they’re easily rendered on the web, as are our ten numerals, 26 letters of the alphabet, and other standard punctuation. But when you get into rarer glyphs, you can run into trouble across programs (Word to HTML, in this case). Accented letters, umlauts, long dashes, and curly quote (to name a few) are sometimes rendered on the web with weird symbols. (Haven’t you ever seen a page with an umlauted capital O where every apostrophe should be?)

Since curly quotes are not ASCII characters, they need to be coded some way within the defined character set for the pages in our site, which is called ISO-8859-1. I don’t know what that stands for, but it’s the standard for web pages. It allows all kinds of special characters, but they have to be coded properly. For instance, an e with an accent on it would be é or curly quotes would be “ and ” (left and right facing). Since certain symbols are used within HTML code, they have to be written out in the same way. For instance, ampersand is & and less-than and greater-than are < and > respectively.

I’ve just educated myself a bit, and apparently, your Word curly quotes get coded properly when they’re written on a web page in our site. That may be part of Movable Type (to properly encode those quotes so that the HTML will display them properly), or Word may have improved so that it uses web-compatible coding. In any case, it still won’t work for links. So at the very least, redo the quotation marks around links so they’re simple, dumb quotes. And if you’re feeling like a purist, go ahead and make all quotation marks dumb. The way I’ve got Movable Type set up, it converts dumb quotes into smart quotes with the proper HTML code. But if we ever wanted to get rid of that, it’d be a simple matter (where the Word-generated curly quotes could not be changes universally like that).

Patrick • 03/04/04 8:52 AM:

Regarding the “one idea” theory: If you’ve got a big idea, then it’s okay to play within it and spin off variations that point to your same idea. One example is Brian Doyle, who claims that all he ever writes about is “love.” But you can’t say he’s repetitive because “love” is big enough to accomodate him (as well as 90% of popular music, though I think Doyle’s “love” and pop music’s “love” may be completely different beasts).

What Frazier is doing here is not that. He’s got a smaller “idea” (which is more like an “experience”) that he’s rewriting using a lot of the same material. It’s not illegal for him to do it, but if someone else were to write his second or third essay, I think Frazier could probably sue them.

As for “If you want peace, work for justice,” I think the sentiment is nice, but in the end it’s as sticky as any other call for peace. What is justice? The search for justice has led to our current insanely litigious society. It’s obvious we have no real idea what justice is. Well, ok, we have a notion, because we always know who to root for in Arnold Schwarzennegger movies, but justice is a complex web of blame and responsibility that no one but God can untangle. I realize that the quote says “work for” justice, but I don’t trust most people to do that honestly or well. I could do it, of course. But what most people mean when they shout “justice” is “more for me!”

Dad • 03/05/04 11:43 PM:

The key to working for justice is to let impartial third parties make the decisions. If I seek justice for me, I might very well give myself a little bit more than my “fair share.” Likewise, the other guy might trample a little bit on my rights if he’s in charge. Seeking peace by working for justice means promoting justice outside your own personal space so you can be objective about it. I like the phrase because it expresses a simple truth, that most conflict is fueled by perceived injustice. Often, the injustice is obvious to any fair-minded observer.

Unfortunately, justice in our world is most often connected to the legal system. This is the crudest, least admirable kind of justice, because it usually involves pay-back for crimes committed. This kind of “revenge” isn’t what the virtue of justice is about, in my opinion. The justice one is seeking when he works for peace is much more charitable and kind. It means fairness, honesty, impartiality, and possibly sacrifice. Mostly it’s about recognizing that we’re all equal before God, and He calls us to share the resources He has provided.

Americans, as charitable as we are, do not share very well. I sometimes feel ashamed about that.

Anita • 03/06/04 11:49 PM:

Oh my. I just came across your blog searching for One Hundred Years of Solitude, and here you are writing about the Ian Frazier essay that I love so much. I’d never read anything of his before, for whatever reason I’d always passed over his essays and articles. But this article just captivated me, I saved it in my files so I could reread it, and also as an example of great humor writing. Maybe I could learn something from him? And it also made me want to read more of his writing. So, these two other versions are so … interesting. I want to make a closer comparision, but at a glance, they don’t seem to have the humor, maybe because of being directed at a different audience.

Yes, there is something uncomfortable about it. On the one hand, I have to wonder why the New Yorker did this. Like the NewYorkish blogger said, couldn’t they come with something more original? Isn’t there lots of excellent writing out there? Are they just supporting a small group of writers? On the other hand, I did love the article, and it does seem to be an improvement on the first two versions.

Patrick • 03/07/04 2:21 PM:

Now I’ll have to find the New Yorker version. Frazier does humor and serious nonfiction equally well. Try Great Plains for serious and Coyote v. Acme for humorous. As for the New Yorker, they have their cadre of staff writers, then their nest of freelancers, and there’s very little room left for new folks.

Anita • 03/07/04 10:37 PM:

Oh, I’d gotten the impression you’d read the New Yorker version (from the library). I printed out the other versions you linked to, because I find this fascinating, and I want to compare them and see what he chose to change, each time, and how he improved it (or didn’t). Actually I was at the bookstore this afternoon and looked through Great Plains but didn’t buy it because I have far too long a reading list as it is. But, eventually, I will read more of his work.

Patrick • 03/09/04 4:31 PM:

Ok. Now I’ve read the New Yorker piece (from the library). I found it ok, but not my favorite Frazier piece. Not only did the subject matter and some of the episodes in the piece seem recycled, but the writing seemed thrown together. The piece lacked the interesting cohesion that many of Frazier’s pieces have. When I got to the end, I thought I finally understood the motivation behind the piece: he wanted to write about his solution for the Grand Central mylar balloons problem, but he needed to fill in a lot more to sell the piece. So he backtracked to the related story about the bags in trees and tacked it on. I could be wrong, but that seemed like a likely genesis. In any case, I still like Ian Frazier.

Anita • 03/13/04 9:37 PM:

Now I’ve read the Outside & Mother Jones versions, and reread the New Yorker article. This is so fascinating, to see how a writer reworks a piece. There are so many differences in chronology and emphasis. Just one example: In Mother Jones, it sounded like it was Mylar balloons in one particular tree that got Tim to invent the bag snagger, but in the New Yorker, it’s the bags themselves that get them started, and balloons aren’t mentioned at all until the end. None of the differences made me question the basic articles, but they sure did show the process of shaping a piece. What to leave in, what to take out, how to handle problems of chronology that can bog down the writing.

On second reading, I had some problems with the New Yorker version, but I do think it has the strongest writing of the three. Which to me shows the importance of working with a good editor, and writers who work for places like the New Yorker are fortunate indeed. You said the “only consolation I can take from this is that even Ian Frazier has difficulties writing.” Not sure if this is what you meant, but for me the consolation here is seeing that writing is hard, it takes time, even after a piece is finished it can be reworked and improved, and it’s often hard to see what needs improving. There are sentences I love in all three pieces, but also things I don’t care for.

The Outside article is really a separate piece, after the first two paragraphs there’s not much overlap with the other two. I thought it had a weak opening, but overall I found it the most interesting (though not the most well-written), with its detail of how people clean up (or don’t) after a flood, so I’m glad I found the article through your blog. It reminded me of another Outside article I liked enough to save for my files, about a guy who started a business cleaning up trash along the Mississippi River

Patrick • 03/18/04 6:06 PM:

I was thinking some more about this and realized that Frazier does a different sort of recycling with a series of New York Essays that he published in the mid-90s. “Take the F” (about Brooklyn) and “Someplace in Queens” (about Queens) were both reprinted in Best American Essays, and there’s another piece about Canal Street that I read in the New Yorker, and all three are long observative lists of things about their places. They’re exceptional essays, but they’re tackling things the same way. I’ve even done my own version of that kind of essay. Mine is about Montevideo, Uruguay. I figure if Frazier can use that style three times (or more), then it’s not so unique, and I can try it too…

Anita • 03/21/04 5:13 PM:

Not sure what you mean by using the same style being a form of recycling, but then I’m not familiar with any of the three essays. Is the style so unusual that seeing it used more than once is surprising? Or, with all three being about NY, maybe he sees them as a series? He has a piece called Route 3 in the Feb 16, 2004 New Yorker, which is in my files “to be read at a later date.” It’s a long descriptive piece about the NJ suburbs, and Route 3 in particular. It has some list-like qualities — have you read it, is it similar to the three pieces you mentioned? I filed it away for later because there wasn’t anything particularly interesting to me, although when he talks about trying to walk Route 3 into NYC, that caught my interest. Partly my lack of interest is also because so much of writing about NJ is about North Jersey, the suburbs of NY, and South Jersey, where I live, seems almost to not exist. But, I will read this eventually.

Oh — I did read the Meteorites — thank you for recommending it. It’s truly beautiful.

Patrick • 03/21/04 5:40 PM:

I guess it’s not the same exact thing, but reading those pieces (and even hearing your description of this piece on Route 3 in NJ), I think anyone would say, “He’s doing another one of those.” Now I’ll have to go copy that new one from the library. I do really like all these pieces, but they are very different from other essays I’ve read, and more alike than what I’ve seen from other essayists, even those who do a sort of series (I’m thinking of Scott Russell Sanders who did a series of one-word-title essays (“Beauty,” “Silence,” “Fidelity,” many more). And I do see them as a series. I’ve wished for him to publish them (and some new ones) in a book of similar pieces about that area. Maybe he will some day.

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