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Thoughts on Writing

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What is a writer?

Well, the simple answer is, a writer is someone who writes. Easy enough to explain something by citing its definition. Bricklayers lay brick, dancers dance, musicians make music, and writers write. Simple.

But why do writers write?

The answer to that question is a bit more complex. It is, as they say, a whole other ball o’ wax. The reasons people choose to write are as varied as the writers themselves. I could list all the reasons for writing by it would take up more time that I’m prepared to spend on this post. For those interested in exploring the topic, l suggest you pick up a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With the Dead, A Writer on Writing. She offers an extensive, although by no means comprehensive, list of reasons why writers write; some of them surprising, others not so much. One reason that appears elsewhere in Ms. Atwood’s book, although not among the listed reasons for writing, is that it’s a comparatively easy thing to do. There are no prerequisites; no intellectual or educational background is required beyond a certain facility with one’s native language. That, and the determination to see the process through from beginning to end. After all, it is, as Neil Gaiman is supposed to have said, simply a matter of putting one word after another on the page until you’ve finished saying whatever it is you want to say. Simple, right? Not really.

There’s a small addendum to Mr. Gaiman’s description that’s worth noting if one aspires to be a published writer. (Not all of us aspire to that lofty goal, but I’ll get to that in a bit). The addendum is, that along with putting one word after another on the page, a should be able to put the right word in the right order after another on the page. Makes this ‘writing thing’ a bit trickier, don’t you think?

Ernest Hemingway once described the act of writing as, “You just sit down and open a vein.” Ironic, considering Hemingway did a lot of his writing standing up. I’ll confess that Hemingway’s description is a bit more strenuous the Mr. Gaiman’s, and anyway most writers – not all, but the majority – manage to confine their bloodletting to the page. Suffice it to say the actual process of writing lies somewhere between the two extremes. I, myself, picked writing because it was one of the few things I was suited to that didn’t require an inordinate amount of time trying to dislodge the dirt from under my fingernails.

So, what’s it like, being a writer?

For the most part writers live pretty much to way everyone else does. Most of us have ‘day jobs’. We get up, get the kids ready for school, go to work, attend PTA meetings, grocery shop, pick the kids up after school, get the car washed, the tires rotated, go to the barber or the hairdresser, maybe go on vacation when we can afford it. Pretty much the same thing everyone else does, except when all the other stuff is done, we write; usually late at night or early in the morning, and sometimes on the weekends if there are no soccer, baseball or football games, or piano or ballet recitals to attend. We’re just like everyone else. We’re kind of like witches in that respect; you can’t tell just by looking whether we are one or not.

Writers also tend to be avid readers, and we read across a wide variety of subjects and genres. I’ll give you an example. My own small library contains books on history, biography, memoirs, religion, business, art, writing, cooking, science and politics. I have thrillers, literary fiction, classics, philosophy, occultism, humor. books on photography and crafts, wine and winemaking, books and book collecting. And these, in one way or another, inform my own writing, as well as the way I tend to see the world around me. By reading how others viewed their world, I gain insights into my own world, and how it came to be the way it is. It’s also a handy how-to for using words, a turn-of-phrase that, with practice, helps me improve my writing.

Writers have always experienced a peculiar, Janus-like relationship with the non-writing public. Being among the ‘creatives’ in society, we are encouraged, even celebrated, in our ability to provide entertainment for the masses; to allow them to slip the bonds of their work-a-day lives and enter realms where good and evil battle endlessly for supremacy, and where good doesn’t always prevail, at least not until the next installment rolls off the presses. Then the god smiles on the writer, and the critics praise his efforts and lament the dearth of creativity in society, and presses roll out another spate of how-to books exclaiming, “You, too, can be (or become) more creative!”

Writers – and this applies especially to journalists, whether they write books or newspaper and magazine articles – have also always had the responsibility to “speak Truth to Power”, to expose, whenever possible, the misdeeds of governments and corporations, and provide the public the information necessary to combat the abuse of power. Then the god frowns on the writer, and governments and corporations berate him or her for the “misleading information”, “the lies”, “libels”, “unfounded accusations” and “unsubstantiated rumors”. These centers of power and influence have always viewed the writer as suspect, unreliable, and possibly subversive. Writers who continually joust with those in power have often been described in stereotypical terms; alcoholic, drug-addicted and mentally unbalanced, all to discredit those who question authority; and not only those who currently challenge authority, but those who would do so in the future.

That’s what it means to be a writer. It’s just like any other job or avocation. You have your good days and your bad. Like my mother used to say, “You pay your money, and you take your chance.”

In the end, I guess, it really doesn’t matter what type of writer you are (or become); whether you labor in the public eye like Stephen King, John LeCarré, or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, or you labor in secret like Winston Smith, the reluctant hero of George Orwell’s 1984, or even if you write a single word. It doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is that you do it. But if you’re human, and I’m betting you are, sooner or later you’ll give in to cacoethia scribendi, “the itch to scribble”. Just be warned, if you scratch that itch once, you won’t be able to stop.





The Thing About Writing . . .

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There are times I feel this “writing thing” will drive me mad. Errant thoughts dance through my mind just at the edge of awareness and just as my conscious mind is about to snatch them up, they skitter away, laughing (or so I imagine), like children in a game of tag. I try to capture these twinkling, dancing bits of brilliance and lash them to the page with streams of ink but I cannot.

Neil Gaiman once said something to the effect that writing was simply the act of sitting down at the computer and writing one word after another until you’re finished. (I don’t write at a computer; only transcribe the finished work. I use a pen — a Zebra F-301 ballpoint with a fine point). There is a part of the writing process missing from Gaiman’s description, the absence of which anyone who has attempted to write anything will recognize. Writing isn’t simply the act of putting one word after another. The thing that makes writing so deceptively simple and so maddeningly difficult at the same time is writing the right word, in the right order, on the page. That is the agony and the ecstasy of the writing process. It is also why there’s so much emphasis on rewriting; the need to find the right words.

Re-writing (writing, too, for that matter) is a sadomasochistic act; sadistic in that we demand it of ourselves, masochistic for submitting to it willingly (even eagerly). Writers have a tendency to perversity (in our writing regimens, if not elsewhere), so rewriting is just one more bit to be added to an ever-growing list of perversions, including (but not limited to) imbibing obscene quantities of caffeine-laden beverages along with dangerously high levels of nicotine (I tried e-cigarettes, but it’s just not the same), prolonged periods of self-imposed isolation (during which friends and family may be inclined to fear for our health, mental and physical), and repeated bouts of self-flagellating, mind-fucking self-doubt; all this, and more, in some demented attempt to simply “put one word after another” on the page. What sane person would submit, willingly, to such a nightmarish ordeal? Me. I would. I’m a writer.

And when it’s all over, the writing and the rewriting; when we feel, finally, we’ve found all the right words and managed, through force of will, to put them in the right order on the page, ready for the world to see, what then? We bind our wounds; gather up all the tears of frustration, the curses of self-doubt, the whoops of joy and the screams of anger and fear. We bundle these into our journals and diaries . . .and pour them all into our next book, or short story, or essay.

Written by stevewthomas

April 19, 2015 at 6:12 pm

Creativity . . .curiouser and curiouser

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          What is creativity?  Nobody knows.  It’s a mystery; one men have been trying to unravel for thousands of years.  The ancient Greeks thought creativity was the result of intervention by the gods; sending a “daemon” or “genius” to a poet for inspiration.  Later, they assigned these tasks to The Muses.  With the ascension of religion (most notably Christianity), creativity was seen as a “gift from God” in the form of inspiration from The Holy Spirit (pretty much the same thing as the Greeks, only with a dash of “theological creativity” thrown in).  Wikipedia, the oft-suspect online encyclopedia, defines creativity as, “a phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is created”.  Sir Ken Robinson described creativity in much the same way.  He said, “creativity is having an original idea that has value”.  I have a small problem with these two definitions (actually, I have three small problems) and it stems from the words, “new“, “original” and “value“.  I know,  new and original can be viewed as synonymous (they aren’t, but that’s a discussion for etymologists), so that leaves two problems.  The first is there is nothing new/original; everything having been built on something preceding it.  The second is the question of “value”.  Value to whom?   When a problem or puzzle or difficulty is resolved, the solution, naturally, has “value” to the person who resolved the issue.  If the solution is perceived as applicable to a larger, more varied number of problems/puzzles, etc. . . the person possessing the solution may present it to the general public (after patenting, of course, because, let’s face it, with 8 billion + people on the planet, it’s a sure bet someone, somewhere, sometime had the same, or very similar, idea) in hopes of eliciting the same (or even greater) value.  Today, we’d assign the task to a “marketing team” and move one to the next problem/puzzle, etc. . . None of this addresses the question of what creativity is, of course, other than to demonstrate the inadequacy of definitions; also the fact these definitions have been bugging me for some time and I felt the need to deal with them.

          Creativity has, over the centuries, undergone a metamorphosis, from the province of the gods, to the province of the one God, to the domain of humankind (most notably during the Renaissance).  Since the end of the 19th century, creativity has undergone a further transformation, from singular trait or aspect to a “creative process”, consisting of a number of steps or stages which are seen as requisite for the production of a “new” and “valuable”, hence creative, idea.  This latest iteration of creativity, from thing to process, has become the de rigueur position among all the sciences (esp. social sciences) studying the phenomenon of creativity.

          The most widely held model of the creative process was developed by Graham Wallas (Art of Thought, 1926).  It proposes five stages of the creative process:  Preparation, when the problem is identified and explored, Incubation, when thinking on the problem and its possible solutions takes place.  My brother, Mike (an exceptionally creative individual), likes to refer to this as the “percolation” stage (an especially apt designation to me as I am an avid coffee drinker).  This is also the stage where “nothing much” appears to be happening.  The third stage, Intimation, is when the first stirrings of a possible solution begin to take shape, but it’s not quite there yet.  The fourth stage is Illumination, when everything comes together and you have the “Eureka” moment.  The fifth, and final, stage, is Verification, when the idea is tested against the problem in the hope of it being a workable solution.  If it works, if the problem is solved, so much the better.  If not, the entire process is repeated.  If this sounds familiar, it should.  It is a slightly expanded, more artistically (shall I say, “creatively”?) expressed iteration of the scientific method.

          But what sparked the process?  What would drive these men to devote so much time and effort, so much intellectual energy to solving the “problem” of creativity?  I found, or rather I think I found, one possible answer in a somewhat unlikely place.

          I’ve never taken a journalism course but I have read a number of books and articles on the subject.  In nearly all of them the author, usually a practicing journalist or an editor, at some point will invoke the rule of “the 5 Ws”: Who? What? Where? When? Why?.  These were the five questions the journalism students were admonished to answer in their reportage; the better to pique and hold their readers’ curiosity.  There it was, staring up at me from the page.  I had, quite unknowingly, stumbled into stage four of Wallas’ model of the creative process.  I had my “Eureka” moment.

          They were curious!  They wanted to know about creativity.  They wanted to know, Why are we creative?  Why are some men and women more creative than others?  How were they creative?  Under what circumstances?  When were they creative? How often?  They wanted to know . . .the answer.  And so they studied, amassed knowledge, developed theories, designed experiments to test those theories and in the process added to the vast and expanding compendium of knowledge available to those who came (and those who will come) after them.  I thought I had found the “First Cause” of creativity.  Then I thought . . .

          Why are we curious?

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