NER winter intern Will Koch ’21 talks with former NER intern Dustin Lowman ’15 about writing music, copywriting, and reflecting on New England Review.
Will Koch: Where are you now—geographically and professionally?
Dustin Lowman: Geographically, I’m in Westport, CT; professionally, I own and operate my own freelance writing business, Guitar & Pen, LLC.
WK: At one point you were pursuing a career as a performing songwriter/musician. Do you find that there is any overlap between songwriting and creative or journalistic writing? What components of these processes, if any, are similar?
DL: What a great question. There certainly are overlaps—the biggest one being that at the outset of any writing project, there’s going to be a voice in your head telling you not to do it. It’s a similar voice to the one that discourages you from exercising, getting up early, saving money, etc. The skill I’ve had to develop over time is ignoring this voice, embracing the anxiety that accompanies a blank page, damning the torpedoes, and starting.
I’ll add that, in each type of writing, people think that the writing process will have you starting at the beginning and ending at the end. That’s almost never true. First paragraphs end up as final paragraphs; verses end up as choruses; beautiful phrases end up on the cutting room floor. Beginnings and ends are the luxury considerations of writers who’ve already written.
Other than that, the biggest commonality between songwriting, journalism, and other forms of professional writing is rhythm. A collateral benefit of having written songs for a long time is that I’ve developed a strong sense of internal rhythm, which is my guiding principle as I write for the page. Writing is like driving; reading is like being driven. If it’s a smooth ride, with occasional thrills and an underlying sense of safety, it’ll be enjoyable.
WK: It’s safe to say that your career has been very writing-centric, from your own journalistic pursuits to coaching undergraduate students on their writing. To you, what constitutes “good” writing? How does your experience as a writing coach influence your writing?
DL: Interesting. It’s hard to make rules about “good” writing because any style of writing can be “good” if carried out effectively. It’s a true, though not exciting, answer to say that I know good writing when I see it. But on a more personal level, my favorite kind of writing is that which 1) Cares about the reader and doesn’t treat them like an adversary; 2) Challenges the reader and doesn’t coddle them; and 3) Is completely unique and can’t be done by any other writer.
As for coaching, I’d say that telling other writers what does and doesn’t work makes me get very detailed about the things that tend to work/not work in writing. It’s easy to rely on my intuition when judging writing/creating my own, but articulating the products of my intuition is much harder, and much more rewarding when it’s my turn to create something.
WK: What was your most memorable experience with NER? Are there any pieces or moments that you remember particularly well?
DL: There were a handful of times that I talked with Carolyn and/or Marcy in the office about writing, often toward the end of the day, when we were both a little fried and able to be candid. It was immensely rewarding to have those frank exchanges with people who’d spent their lives in and around writing. I also remember evaluating writing submissions with a combination of fondness and dread—like my answer to #3, that was an early lesson in articulating the facets of effective—and more often, ineffective—writing.
WK: How much creative writing do you find yourself doing these days? How does it compare to writing you find yourself doing as a freelance copywriter?
DL: I do much less creative writing now than I used to, but it’s still a very central component of my life, and integral to my happiness. Lately, I’ve been much more focused on getting my business off the ground, establishing relationships with clients, setting income goals, and all in all, figuring out the specifics of making writing the engine of my life.
My private creative writing and public freelance writing are unalike for one main reason: Creative writing is artistry, freelance writing is craftsmanship. Of course, there is art in craftsmanship, and craft is indelible to artistry, but the pie charts (if you will) are inverses. The yin-yang symbol is actually a perfect way to visualize this. When my life is good, and my soul is happy, my days are made up of these equal but opposite halves.
WK: What do you read for pleasure? Have you read anything good lately?
DL: I read mostly novels for pleasure. Most recently, I read Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie, which I found to be both bursting with wisdom and oddly superficial when it came to its characters. Before that, I read Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon, who is among the most skilled writers of the last century, and whose narrative engine—paranoia—is less cool today than when Gravity’s Rainbow came out. The most impactful book I read in the past year was Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Despite its very underwhelming last 30 pages, it was a heartbreakingly well-rendered novel about divorce in the city.
WK: Thanks for taking the time to update us, Dustin! Best of luck as you continue with Guitar & Pen and any other pursuits!