Notebooknotes: Writing DO ANYTHING

January 6th, 2010 | paper and process

DO ANYTHING was mostly written in a Moleskine reporter’s notepad with a propelling pencil. The page reproduced below — cranked up in GIMP to make it visible, if not legible — appears to date from late May 2009. It’s written in block caps because I needed to be able to copy-type from it, and as we know from earlier posts, my handwriting is shitty.

Pretty much every page of DO ANYTHING in this notebook looks like this:

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If you’ve read DO ANYTHING, you know a lot of it is pretty densely layered with connections. The column was written in a very specific way to maximise the information. It always, always started out as longhand, early in the day. The longhand was always about the forward thrust of the column — the column meanders a lot, but it doesn’t wander, it’s constantly following a channel. As I go, I’m signposting things I need to check later, or need to remember to tie in.

Later, I sit down and copy-type the thing into Notepad, with a browser open, because I’m fact-checking as I go. The longhand draft is all mental, and that includes working in information from memory. Since I often can’t remember what I did yesterday, it needs to be checked.

I’d write the longhand version in intense two-hour stretches, and usually had way too much for a single column. After 003, in fact, I just kept writing without thinking about column breaks, and found those breaks later after the copy-typing.

Once I’d typed the column up, the real draft started. Because I’d then spend an hour plugging names from the column into Google, looking for more connections, as well as following my signposts, and layering that stuff into the piece. The Notepad draft after an hour or so on Google was the actual first draft, and that’s what’d get pasted into OpenOffice to get edited and cleaned up.

Really, an incredibly complicated and time-devouring process for a column no-one read. But it was fun, and it taught me things.


22 Responses to “Notebooknotes: Writing DO ANYTHING”

  1. If I can understand half the connections you make in a given column, I consider myself one smart cookie.

    I’ve really been enjoying the DO ANYTHINGs, though. Looking forward to the next volume.

  2. If nobody read it, would you have gotten to 26? Or were you simply willing it toward its endpoint?

    In any case, *I* was reading it, and enjoying it. It may not have widespread appeal, but the people that like it, love it. It’s that old thing about in-jokes. Not everyone gets them, but the people that do think they’re hilarious.

    I’ll gladly read 27-52. Though I’ll be sad to see the head of Jack Kirby gone.

  3. “Really, an incredibly complicated and time-devouring process for a column no-one read…”

    Whoa, hang on, son! I read it, I fucking loved DO ANYTHING. I read every installment soon as they were posted, often sent the link around to my comical-book-type friends, many times marveling, no, scratch that, DAZZLED WITH WONDER at the connections (I call them leaps myself, but whatever) you made, zigging in and out and around like a fucking killer missile… man! In bleak times the words and the spirit of DO ANYTHING were an inspiration. Acht! Ellis, you are a piece of work. And yeah, I’ll buy the damn book when it comes out. And it has a great cover, too. So there. Tongue extended. Nnnnnnn.

  4. I was paid upfront for columns 1 – 52, so I would have written it anyway…!

  5. I read the damn thing, and it was the finest piece of non-fiction I read in 2009, and one of the best pieces overall to boot. The layering sold it. It resonated with the best thing I read last year, Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, because you spent all that time googling those names, looking for the connections, the way they based theme-music in the original Metroid NES game off a few seconds of tracking from Bowie’s Hunky Dory.

    Can’t wait to sit down and read the whole thing in one swing. Who is publishing it?

  6. Yeah, I love DO ANYTHING. It’s written the way the best works of art look when you have an artist’s vision. Connections are the foundation of understanding any art. Write more, and I’ll read it.

  7. Another reader here. I found it inspirational. Bring on Volume Two.

  8. I think Warren’s idea of “not being read” and the rest of humanity’s idea are two very different animals.

  9. I really get enveloped in the driving rhythm of Do Anything. The cool thing is I get so caught up in reading I don’t think about researching the stuff I don’t know about till later. There is a super stimulating quality to the column. I even have to be careful when I read it because I get really amped up to create something afterwards.

    I also get this fatalist(?) vibe, like a character in movie that gives an important monologue before dying, or maybe the idea that you are leaving a blueprint or roadmap to creators in the future. I get the Do Anything, but I also get a very strong sense of do it NOW. Maybe this is just me projecting end of the decade fever?

    I hope the layout of the print edition makes it easy to make notes and mark up the pages.

    Anyway, I could ramble more, but thank you.

  10. Another satisfied reader, looking forward to the next sessions. I think the main reason there’s not been a lot of feedback on Do Anything is that we’re mostly sitting around with jaws slack, trying to parse the web of connections…

  11. I read it and although reletively new to this game, thoroughly enjoyed it, even if I didn’t understand all the layering. I work in the IT industry where the language is very basic, so this has been an eye opener! I will buy the book too. Mr E you have saved me from the banal and boring. Thank you. S x

  12. I think people expected something a lot easier to digest from an article on a comic book site. It’s information dense, there’s jumps between reality and fantasy, to alternate worlds and to past events. The point of the article isn’t really spelled out plainly at the end, it’s more like a big block of refined ideas.

    It could be that it’d be easier to read in book form. It’s the same text but looking at it in a web browser you have about 30 other tabs open and a load of shit around the article (or it could just be me).

  13. I read the damn thing, in fact, I’ll probably end up citing the damn thing in my Masters thesis.

  14. I read the columns, will, probably buy the book. For the cover if nothing else. I welcome my robotic Jack Kirby Head overlord.

  15. Do Anything was great. Rambly but focused like a Terence McKenna lecture.
    Jonah above is right about the rhythm. I think it would work best as an audiobook. Get one of your musician fans to do some atmospheric sounds.

  16. I found myself empathizing a little too much with the severed robot head of Jack Kirby…

  17. I’m another fan of Do Anything. I’ve been running a music night and publishing a local art zine for the best part of this year, and apart from being inspirational reading Do Anything made a lot of sense at the time. I liked scale of the history that pervaded the column, a history of ideas. That resonated well with my year.

  18. I read it and enjoyed the hell out of it. The book is tempting me to buy it. No one ever complains about something being to good, you know.

    A weakness of the species, I think.

  19. Not sure if anyone’s mentioned it, but I basically decided against reading it when I heard mention of the book. Just seemed like it would be better to be read in one chunk and on paper…

  20. What a great choice for the photo, Philippe Druillet being such an inspiration for so many artists.

  21. [...] Interesting piece from Warren Ellis on the process of creating his Do Anything columns, complete with sample scanned notebook page. [...]

  22. A question about process: Why switch from Notepad to OpenOffice? I get using Notepad; I’m a big fan of bare-boned text editors. Is there particular formatting requirements or something of the sort that leads you to switch programs or does it just represent a break between the research/writing portion of creating and the editing portion?