Thursday 12 November 2015

How to write

I was invited to sit in on a lab meeting at The Institute convened so that one of my insanely hard-working colleagues can have a couple of hours quality time with her graduate students and let them give status reports including future plans for, say, the next 90 days.  The first chap up was wrestling with his data and said that, when analysis was over at the end of November, then he would start writing up his thesis.  It was unfortunate timing for him, because I'd just read a wonderful essay by Ursula Le Guin [previously] [previEarthsea] Where do you get your ideas from? The answer trotted out by Harlan Ellison is "his ideas come from a mail-order house in Schenectady".  Le Guin predicatbly says a number of interesting things in 7,500 words.  Early on she asserts: "Well, the secret to writing is writing. Writing is how you be a writer. It’s only a secret to people who really don’t want to hear it."

I (gently) laid into the poor student and said that he, and everyone in the room, had to write a paper or several papers and/or a thesis and if he/we deferred the writing until "the spirit be upon us" or "the moment was right" or "when I've finalised my data-analysis" we all be at nothing. Writing is how you be a writer applies not only to fiction but to science where literary fluency can be a little less obvious than in The Arts Block.  But I had a solution which I borrowed from round-the-world-on-a-bike adventurer Alastair Humphreys. In his DO-lecture: The Importance of Jumping Rivers, Humphreys, ever restless for new challenges, says that he had recently undertaken to do 100 push-ups a day (!).  But he recognised that he was physically incapable of doing this right now, so he started with one push-up a day and built up on that psychological foundation.  This solution to the creative process has a certain resonance with Claude Shannon's analysis of the Creative Process: break-down the problem to more manageable chunks.  We agreed that everyone would aspire to writing 500 words a day, or if not 500, then 300 . . . or 100 [to start]. . . but every day.  It took a bit of time to settle into my rhythm but, as Blob-readers know, I do my 500 words a day every day regularly before breakfast. As well as habit, it must also be partly a process of finding your medium.  I was/am crap at mainstream science because I lacked the discipline to finish projects: get them down on paper so that they pass muster with an editor and 2-3 referees; a process which always included disheartening rewrites and extra analyses and tedious grunt work. The Editor at The Blob accepts everything I submit: that's why the content is so variable in quality and comprehensibility. Long before I blogged, I wrote book reviews.

It may not work.  When Dau.I and Dau.II were 9 and 11, we got nervous about the lack of Education At Home that was going down and I implemented a New Regime.  They would both keep a diary: it could be about anything at all but every day each child would undertake to write at least the same number of words as she had years. Dau.I was biddable about this because she was reading a book a day and had some aspirations, even then, to be a writer. Although that assessment may be coloured by hindsight, because she is definitely now an aspiring writer. Dau.II wouldn't engage, and within a couple of weeks had subverted the system to expose its patronising unreality with sentences like:
* This sentence has nine words and not one more. [Hofstadter previously]
* Counting: one two three four five six seven eight.
* I will write two words less than my sister
Well it wasn't quite like that, she wasn't that precocious, but those sentences do capture the feeling of obeying the letter while undermining the spirit of the exercise.

Elsewhere in her Ideas essay, Le Guin finds resonance, truth and empathy from a statement by Virginia Woolf, that the ideas might come in a blizzard but unless-and-until she could catch the rhythm, nothing was going to get down on paper. Le Guin can't get going until she has given he principal characters names. And indeed, revealing the true name of a magician is a key theme in The Wizard of Earthsea.  The name is a bit like the daemon, although less visibly present, associated with each character in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.  La Woolfe, Le Guin, The Blob are associated in [some] people's minds as a troika of talent.  For me, I restlessly read my corner of the blogosphere, making time to do so, looking for copy. But nothing gets written until I get a Hook: a phrase, a sentence that writes itself in the air . . . then I can start top-and-tailing and filling out that thought until I've got my 500-700 words.

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