Robert Cormack

1 year ago · 5 min. reading time · visibility ~10 ·

chat Contact the author

thumb_up Relevant message Comment

Are You A Word Zombie?

How to get humanness back in your writing (like right away).

Are You A Word Zombie?

Make them think you’re one of them.” Johnny Cash

Okay, I know this is a weird way to start something on writing, but Johnny Cash knew a thing or two about zombieism. He saw it creeping into country music, the same way Hunter S. Thompson saw it creep into journalism, what he called “hag-written myopia.” Zombieism is a constant threat. We all have to guard against it, or we’ll end up “stuck in a bog if stagnant mediocrity.”

That’s Hunter again, but I’m sure Johnny would’ve agreed. Lifeless writing surrounds us, and it’s only getting worse as we’re encouraged to create more and more content, putting shit down, thinking one day it’ll become the Bible or something, when, in fact, it usually remains shit.

So how do we avoid zombieism? How did Johnny do it? Well, that requires going back to his early years at Sun Records, when Sam Phillips told him to dump the gospel “and go out and sin.”

“He was just doing what everyone else was doing,” Phillips said. Johnny needed to put something real into his music, which Sam figured would need a whole bunch of sinning.

Gospel was what Johnny knew and believed was honest. Phillips disagreed. “He was just doing what everyone else was doing,” Phillips said. Johnny needed to put something real into his music, which Sam figured would need a whole bunch of sinning.

Sinning was just another word for experience. That experience — including getting every song rejected at first — eventually led to “Folsom Prison Blues.” What separated this song from gospel was Johnny’s telling a story of life. Sure, it was sinful, but it also felt real. It spoke to a lot of people—so many in fact, it ranked #51 among Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest country songs of all time.

“You’ve got a song you’re singing from your gut,” Johnny Cash once said, “and you want that audience to feel it in their gut, too.” He spent a lot of recording hours and touring, just trying to connect this way.

In the years that followed, Cash must have sung Folsom Prison Blues thousands of times. He even recorded it at Folsom Prison. When he got to the last line: “Then I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away,” the prisoners rose and clapped like crazy. Obviously, they felt it in their guts, too.

“I guess I’m not Johnny Cash,” we’ll say, forgetting that Cash didn’t find it any easier than the rest of us.

We all like songs that touch us. We like words that ring true. Yet when it comes to using words ourselves, instead of guts, we choose clichés. They hang like dying fruit. “I guess I’m not Johnny Cash,” we’ll say, forgetting that Cash didn’t find it any easier than the rest of us.

When Phillips told Cash to go out and sin, Cash admitted he wasn’t sure what Phillips meant at first. It took “Folsom Prison Blues” and other songs before he learned that humanness made a song believable. With humanness, there’s vulnerability. Nobody’s particularly crazy about being vulnerable. It’s the only way, though, even for interpretive artists like Johnny Cash.

“I had to close my eyes and feel,” he said, often with other musicians like Scotty Moore and Marshall Grant waiting. When songs including “So Doggone Lonesome” and “I Walk The Line” were the result (each reaching #1 on the country charts), it was clear Johnny had it in him to be honest.

Not that honesty comes simply by wanting to be honest. Like any musician — or writer — there’s always that slip and slide back into zombieism. It grows out of a belief that familiarity is better — and easier — than originality.

They’re the quick-dried verbiage that populates the internet every day. Without honesty, there’s no nutritional value at all.

Familiarity is always easier. You can write an article in a couple of hours. Many people do, but words without emotion aren’t words at all. They’re the quick-dried verbiage that populates the internet every day. Without honesty, there’s no nutritional value at all.

You’ll try to be sincere, even saying, “Honestly, this is the truth.” Even if it is the truth, you’re still relying on clichés. Nobody’s going to believe you. It’s like politicians saying, “I’m going to be honest with you now.” If they were going to be honest, they wouldn’t have to announce it. Same goes for people who say, “I understand.” They don’t understand.

Being open and sincere requires constant humanness. Since we’re human, it should come as second nature. Only we don’t follow what our heart tells us as much as what our brain does.

Somewhere in our cortexes we disembody words. We don’t want to get too close to them. We form them into safe sentences, the ones we’ve heard thousands of times before. We say, “This sounds right,” because it’s exactly what someone else has said, and maybe published, and that makes it okay.

But if we’re not saying anything new, the real problem is feeling.

“People have to relate to what you’re doing,” Johnny Cash said. We think that means saying what people expect. But if we’re not saying anything new, the real problem is feeling.

Think of the teachers we had growing up. Weren’t the best ones able to turn a subject into something we didn’t expect? Hadn’t they, in fact, stopped being academics and turned into storytellers? If that’s what makes us learn, then we need to keep these things in mind when we write (and feel).

Each of of has to find it in our own way. What worked for Johnny—or Hunter S. Thompson—might not work for you. There are some simple starting points you can follow, though. Hopefully these can help you avoid zombieism and be a better writer (or songwriter, for that matter):

Be the Story

Regardless of the subject matter, it’s all a storyline. There’s a beginning, middle and end, a climax, a twist in direction. Anyone who can’t turn information into a story with meaning isn’t a writer. They’re a regurgitator.

Have the Guts to Say Something

Any fool can extrapolate information. It’s what under the details that interests people and makes them relate. Like when Walter Cronkite was speaking about the Vietnam War. He said: “I covered the Vietnam War. I remember the lies that were told, the lives that were lost — and the shock when, twenty years after the war ended, former Defense Secretary Robert S. MacNamara admitted he knew it was a mistake all along.”

Make Your Audience Feel

I mentioned earlier the response Johnny Cash got at Folsom Prison with his last line: “Then I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.” They clapped like crazy because they felt crazy. Words are meant to draw emotion — even anger. Think of Cronkite’s most famous quote: “I’ve gone from being the most trusted man in America to one of the most debated.”

Don’t Follow the Pack

This is where my favourite writer, Hunter S. Thompson, pretty much says it all: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity.”

We have to get back to injecting ourselves into our work. We have to stop being dullards, bums and word zombies.

Any form of writing, whether it’s the news, product information, corporate correspondence, or making a speech, is always a hair’s breadth from being stagnant mediocrity. We have to get back to injecting ourselves into our work. We have to stop being dullards, bums and word zombies.

The alternative is to go on regurgitating, presenting one fact after another, never doing anything right — but never doing anything seriously wrong. If you can live with that, there’s nothing more to say.

If you can’t, then try showing some guts.

Leave zombies to the movies.

Robert Cormack is a novelist, journalist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores (now in paperback). Check out Skyhorse Press or Simon & Schuster for more details.

2bffc73a.png


thumb_up Relevant message Comment
Comments

Robert Cormack

1 year ago #4

#3
Great comments, Ken Boddie, especially the finger dash to the keyboard. The idea promoted on Medium that more writing means better writing is a bit of a contraction in terms. Writing an article every day usually insures the fast word or phrase is used (since an original one takes too much time and brain muscle). As @Paul Waters says, "I'm lucky if I can write an article a week." We're lucky he takes a week. We wouldn't have his beautiful travelogues if he didn't. For the small batch of us who follow his example, it's good we can read each other's work. It gives hope. Ratty, gray-haired hope, but hope just the same. Good thing you're here, Ken, stirring the pot close to the fire instead of well away from it.

Ken Boddie

1 year ago #3

It seems that everyone's an expert these days, Robert. The problem is that so many want to inflict their expertise on readers without understanding that the discerning reader wants more than verbal diarrhoea and boringly repetitive listicles. This platform is a good example of this. We used to have writers bursting at the seams to tell interesting or even riveting stories of life, and to reveal their characters and inner souls by painting pictures of their personal experiences, with a dash of humour, a soupçon of civility, perhaps with a sprinkling of occasional frustration, but always with a liberal dash of refreshing originality. Valid and interesting writers are, unhappily, now a rare beast on this platform, which is becoming more like a clone of the LI nightmare that so many of us left in disgust many years ago. Such appears to be the dash to get finger to keyboard these days, without crafting the story with expression, or tempting the reader with appropriate figures of speech, that so many are sinking into a vortex of plagiarism, driven lower and lower into the sea of boredom, propagated by your 'word zombies' (a valid and illustrative term) who are merely stirring the pot well way from the heat of the kitchen.

Robert Cormack

1 year ago #2

Thanks, Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr#1

don kerr

1 year ago #1

Robert Cormack You've described the difference between generating content and storytelling. The former being ubiquitous. The latter being rare. Well said.

More articles from Robert Cormack

View blog
1 day ago · 6 min. reading time

Tamarin and Kookaburra.

A love story by Robert Cormack · Courtesy of Pixab ...

2 weeks ago · 7 min. reading time

The Visitor.

A short story by Robert Cormack. · “Acting isn’t i ...

1 month ago · 9 min. reading time

Merry Sieg Heil Christmas.

She came bearing gifts, mostly stolen, but so what ...