Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 4, 2010

On Empty

That’s it. I’m finished. I’m all out of things to say. I only had about three ideas to start with, and two of those turned out not to be so great once I saw them on the screen and imagined someone else reading them.

Real writers have subjects. They have beats. Oh, yes; they have expertise in those beats. They have time to research and they have assistants to look up weird stuff and fact-checkers and proofreaders and editors and … well, they have resources. Heck, even the Tampa Scribe has a baseball or football or hockey game or two each week, plus someone he can call up and get quotes from, or at least he did until Mr. Steinbrenner passed away. And the Maine Outdoorsman up there in Portland has about 50,000 friends on Facebook emailing him story ideas every day. He probably can’t walk into the post office or the dry cleaners (do they ever dry clean flannel shirts?) without someone saying, “Hey, Bill, you know a great story you’ve never covered is the Duck Festival out in Pagwonsett.” And an hour later he’s off with the video crew to Pagwonsett. Video crew? Oh, yes, I am also my own photographer and videographer and editor and ….

It’s having a beat that matters. Walter Mossberg has been writing about gadgets for about 20 years in the Wall Street Journal, maybe more. He tests gadgets, and he writes about ’em. I’m betting he has a staff of interns who really sit there for endless hours testing the Playstation I against the Playstation II, then Mr. M. writes about it. Do great as an intern working for Mr. Mossberg, and maybe you’ll get a chance to move on to the fact-checker desk. Dan Neil has an English degree, but he writes about cars. He won a PULITZER for writing about CARS. Now HE writes for the Journal too. He drives the world’s most interesting, fastest, most bodacious cars and writes about what it was like. It’s having a beat that matters.

That’s why I brought Bob Brumfield to life from the back pages of The Enquirer. Man, that guy started writing the weather column. Probably fact-checking was a step up from there, but he turned it into, eventually, a four-times-a-week column. And he had about 100,000 readers to satisfy every day. How did he do it? He made stuff up.

Don’t be a bozo, Nixon, you say. You have the biggest beat anyone ever cut out for themselves. “Under Western Skies?” Are you kidding? A million square miles of cities, oceans, mountains, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, deserts, water rights and the Beach Boys plus Dick Dale?

Don’t kid yourself. It’s daunting, because we’ve had, well, a few writers who’ve covered something like the same beat, from John Wesley Powell to Edward Abbey and Raymond Chandler, to Marc Reisner to D. J. Waldie (a link to his blog; I recommend Mr. Waldie highly to anyone interested in cogent thinking about Los Angeles, well-written). What am I going to do, scoop these cats?

That’s why, in desperation, I am writing about not having anything to write about. I’m done. Finished. Washed up. Out of ideas. Nada, zip, zero, niente, kaput. Another blank page to fill (Hemingway called it the White Bull – typical self-dramatization for him) and only a swirling void between my ears. Why doesn’t someone come up to ME and suggest I write about the Pagwonsett Duck Festival, or why don’t I have sports teams who play like three times a week and in between have press conferences and run-ins with the law, not to mention greedy owners who want the public to pay for their stadiums?

Hey. Wait. It just occurred to me. There are days here in L.A. you can’t throw a Prada bag without hitting a millionaire holding a press conference about how HIS plan will bring pro football back to L.A., if only we will give them 800 million dollars plus free tax breaks plus free water, sewer, electric, sidewalks and streets and tickets to the next Julia Roberts premiere.

Okay, okay, so it was a trick. Not very cleverly disguised, but there are dozens of similar “help-I’m-staring-at-the-page-and-I-can’t-write-a-word” escapes. There are books full of them, in fact. If there is literally nothing in your head to write about, start writing about THAT, and listing all the things you HAVE written about or DON’T WANT to write about or any other angle and, voila, you’ve written about something. If the condition continues, of course, you can get more aggressive, castigating your brain or your former teachers or perhaps the characters in your moribund story (I still might use THAT one, too).

Before I go, I’ll update a couple of recent items.

First, the title of the post on Saturday, “Boy Pondering Dogs” was supposed to suggest the name of the indie-rock group, “Poi Dog Pondering.” I’m not surprised no one called in with that one. Pretty darned obscure. I’d include a link, but the site for their publisher or record company or whatever it is is even more impenetrable than the group’s name.

Second, I got a lot of hits from the community of Pynchon followers, not least of whom is a former classmate of mine from the ol’ Alma Mater, who edits “Pynchon Notes,” deeply serious academic studies about Pynchon’s work. That was a treat to hear from him. He reminded me that I was part of the long-ago conversation with a professor that launched him on the course to become one of the leading lights in the scholarly Pynchonian world. I also should have included in that post earlier this week a link to “The Unofficial Thomas Pynchon Guide to Los Angeles,” which uses Google Maps to highlight spots in L.A. that appear in Pynchon’s books. Yes, 217 33rd Street is on there. It’s fun to look at, and I recommend it for geographical reference if you’re reading one of the books, particularly Inherent Vice or The Crying of Lot 49.

Finally, happy birthday to President Obama, Artie, Teresa P.’s mom and to me, as well as anyone else lucky enough to be born today! A very merry Unbirthday to the rest of you. No political comments, PLEASE.

© 2012 Brad Nixon



  1. Happy Birthday to YOU, Brad!!!!!


  2. “The Crying of Lot 49” – you’ve done it again Brad – another memory dredged from the lower levels to the warm light of day. I think I have taken this book more seriously and ruminated over for longer than Mr Pynchon might have imagined.


  3. What was that – 5 pages of “I got nothin'”? Ha-Ha! Happy Birthday Bro!


  4. Having never been to LA, I think I missed out on a noticeable part of Inherent Vice, but am now at least trying to find more Pynchons to work through. Rather uncommon in this part of the world unfortunately…


    • Two Pynchon novels, of course, have significant portions of the actions set in South Africa: “V,” from about 1966, and “Mason & Dixon.” Let me know if I can help ship you a copy.


  5. Hey Brad I was really impressed to see you had
    the good taste to mention, Bill Green and the great State of maine on your Blog, If you promise to keep up that kind of good stuff I might tell all my friends to check out this site.



    • By golly, I’ll root for Maine in the Frozen Four if it’ll help.


  6. Isn’t LA like first to get everything new and great…and our being in Maine means we get it last?! That might be worthy of penning a few things about…


    • Good idea. LA does get lots of new: film premieres, fashion trends, car rollouts – not necessarily always GREAT, though!


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