Wyrdwend

The Filidhic Literary Blog of Jack Günter

REAL READING AND REAL WRITING from MEMORABLE LITERARY LINES

Real Reading is far more than just mentally decoding terms and words, it is psychologically apprehending and comprehending the very most subtle and sublime ideas and ideals that it is possible for man to ever understand.
Real Writing is far more than just encoding and transcribing phrases, it is transmitting, mind to mind and soul to soul, the very marrow of manhood and the very embodiment of human experience through script, so that it may be read again whenever needed into the design of the future.

My personal take on the true nature of real reading and real writing

FRUIT OF THE BERRY

To a large degree I agree with the man.

Wendell Berry on Solitude and Why Pride and Despair Are the Two Great Enemies of Creative Work

by

“True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.”

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary. Few writers have come to write about it — and to it — more directly than the novelist, poet, and environmental activist Wendell Berry, who describes himself as “a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts.” In his wonderful and wonderfully titled essay collection What Are People For? (public library), Berry addresses with great elegance our neophilic tendencies and why innovation for the sake of novelty sells short the true value of creative work.

Novelty-fetishism, Berry suggests, is an act of vanity that serves neither the creator nor those created for:

Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty — the faint surprises of minds incapable of wonder.

Pursuing originality, the would-be creator works alone. In loneliness one assumes a responsibility for oneself that one cannot fulfill.

Novelty is a new kind of loneliness.

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

Berry paints pride and despair as two sides of the same coin, both equally culpable in poisoning creative work and pushing us toward loneliness rather than toward the shared belonging that true art fosters:

There is the bad work of pride. There is also the bad work of despair — done poorly out of the failure of hope or vision.

Despair is the too-little of responsibility, as pride is the too-much.

The shoddy work of despair, the pointless work of pride, equally betray Creation. They are wastes of life.

For despair there is no forgiveness, and for pride none. Who in loneliness can forgive?

Good work finds the way between pride and despair.

It graces with health. It heals with grace.

It preserves the given so that it remains a gift.

By it, we lose loneliness:

we clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us;

we enter the little circle of each other’s arms,

and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance,

and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from ‘Wild,’ one of the best children’s books of the year. Click image for more.

Echoing Thoreau’s ode to the woods and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s assertion that cultivating a capacity for “fertile solitude” is essential for creative work, Berry extols the ennobling effects of solitude, the kind gained only by surrendering to nature’s gentle gift for quieting the mind:

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

The return from such humanizing solitude, Berry cautions, can be disorienting:

From the order of nature we return to the order — and the disorder — of humanity.

From the larger circle we must go back to the smaller, the smaller within the larger and dependent on it.

One enters the larger circle by willingness to be a creature, the smaller by choosing to be a human.

And having returned from the woods, we remember with regret its restfulness. For all creatures there are in place, hence at rest.

In their most strenuous striving, sleeping and waking, dead and living, they are at rest.

In the circle of the human we are weary with striving, and are without rest.

Indeed, so deep is our pathology of human striving that even Thoreau, a century and a half ago, memorably despaired: “What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” But the value of such recalibration of our connectedness in solitude, Berry suggests, is that it reminds us of the artist’s task, which is to connect us to one another. He returns to the subject of despair and pride, which serve to separate and thus betray the task of art:

The field must remember the forest, the town must remember the field, so that the wheel of life will turn, and the dying be met by the newborn.

[…]

Seeing the work that is to be done, who can help wanting to be the one to do it?

[…]

But it is pride that lies awake in the night with its desire and its grief.

To work at this work alone is to fail. There is no help for it. Loneliness is its failure.

It is despair that sees the work failing in one’s own failure.

This despair is the awkwardest pride of all.

But Berry’s most urgent point has to do with the immense value of “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and of keeping alive the unanswerable questions that make us human:

There is finally the pride of thinking oneself without teachers.

The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner.

In ignorance is hope.

Rely on ignorance. It is ignorance the teachers will come to.

They are waiting, as they always have, beyond the edge of the light.

All of the essays in What Are People For? are imbued with precisely this kind of light-giving force. Complement it with Berry on what the poetic form teaches us about the secret of marriage, then revisit Sara Maitland on the art of solitude, one of the year’s best psychology and philosophy books.

CLOSE TO HUMAN

The Art of Close Writing

By posted at 6:00 am on August 5, 2014 10

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coverJonathan Russell Clark sits at his desk, writing an essay about free indirect discourse. Surrounding him are books by authors who employ the technique with considerable skill: Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Dixon, and Joshua Ferris. He recalls a time when he did not even know what free indirect discourse was, and a time, later, when he knew the term but viewed it more as a descriptor than a crucial component. He remembers how his relationship to the term evolved over the years: his initial distrust of it, as many of his favorite writers cavalierly disregarded the tactic; his frustration with its limitations: how would he communicate the thoughts of other characters if he couldn’t leave the brain of the protagonist?; his eventual understanding of its importance while reading James Wood’s illuminating (though much debated) book How Fiction Works, in which he refers to it as “close writing”; and then, finally, his acceptance and full embrace of the method. Though he still admired novelists who could successfully avoid using free indirect discourse, he knew he would never break from it himself. It was just too liberating, the way close writing allowed his sentences to spill out of him, effortlessly, like thoughts, rapid and rabid and rampant, just spit out onto the page––it was so easy, or, well, easier, because it’s not as if he’s without problems, creatively speaking, oh he has problems, like how is he supposed to know which thoughts are important and which simply aren’t? and why is he unable to write economically, why are his pieces always longer than they need to be?––but yeah anyway, he now loved close writing because it made writing fun.

To be clear: close writing is not vital to all fiction. In fact, it doesn’t even speak to most fiction. For instance, first-person narrations cannot use free indirect discourse. When a character is speaking directly to a reader, the aim of close writing is already happening; no technique required. Also, novels and stories that feature an omniscient narrator are similarly excluded––all-knowing narrators simply tell us information. The skill required to pull off such a voice is its own subject. No, close writing only relates to third-person limited narrations, and, even more specifically, ones with an active interest in the inner lives of the characters. Not all fiction cares about that.

Here’s how James Wood explains close writing:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing.

And later:

Note the gain in flexibility. The narrative seems to float away from the novelist and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to “own” the words.

Without being able to articulate it, free indirect discourse appealed to Clark greatly. Novels that used the style effectively gave him a giddy sensation, the prose seeming to not have been written but transcribed from a person’s mind but filtered through the ostensibly distancing third-person point-of-view, and though he didn’t know it, he came to depend on such techniques to let him “settle” into a character. Even more striking, when he read a piece of fiction (especially in a workshop environment) that failed to use close writing and didn’t effectively employ another style, something irked him as his eyes moved over the words. He was made uncomfortable by these stories, but he didn’t know why. What the hell was it?

When he finally learned the term––in a college course, he thinks––he started to understand what it was that had been bothering him. Once he read How Fiction Works, he knew with satisfying finality. Free indirect discourse. Close writing. Thankfully the grey cloud hovering over his frustration had a name. Nameless things give aimless dreams.

coverHow important is free indirect discourse? In the history of the novel, it’s extremely important. Clark at first didn’t even realize that the technique had to be developed at all, but in fact it was an astonishing feat. According to Michael Schmidt’s monumental and astounding work of scholarship and criticism, The Novel: A Biography (a book so big and important it merits its own essay, which is forthcoming), early iterations of the novel concerned themselves less with verisimilitude than outright deceit. When Daniel Defoe composed Robinson Crusoe (or, to use its full title––no joke––The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein All the Men Perished but Himself. with an Account of How He Was at Last as Strangely Deliver’d by Pirates), “he believed he had to honor readers’ expectations of a true and edifying story. An untrue story had to seem true.” The nuanced psychology of the characters was irrelevant to the task of moral tutelage. But the method of mimicking eventually morphed into the representation of human thought.

covercoverGenerally, the development of close writing into its modern form is attributed to Gustave Flaubert in novels like A Sentimental Education, but the early traces of “inner monologue” are as subtle and elusive as the technique itself. Gabriel García Márquez “detects the original use of ‘interior monologue’” as far back as Lazarillo de Tormes, a picaresque work from 1554. James Wood points out an example in Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock from 1712. Jane Austen, who died four years before Flaubert was born, occasionally abandoned her lofty point-of-view in order to take the reader into the character’s mind, if only briefly, as in this passage from Pride and Prejudice:

Elizabeth felt herself completely taken in. She had fully proposed being engaged by Wickham for those very dances:––and to have Mr. Collins instead!––her liveliness had been never worse timed. There was no help for it however. Mr. Wickham’s happiness and her own was per force delayed a little longer, and Mr. Collins’s proposal accepted with as good a  grace as she could. She was not the better pleased with his gallantry, from the idea it suggested of something more.––It now struck her, that she was selected from among her sisters as worthy of being the mistress of Hunsford Parsonage, and of assisting to form a quadrille table at Rosings, in the absence of more eligible visitors.

Austen’s tactics are very subtle––the exclamation point punctuating the shock over Mr. Collins, the italicized she, and the sound of contemplative flow in “There was no help for it however”––but those little moments of language all belong to Elizabeth, not Austen. It is Elizabeth who can’t believe she has Mr. Collins instead; it is Elizabeth who can’t believe that she was selected from among her sisters, and it is Elizabeth who doesn’t think there was any help for it however. A reader may not be able to articulate with precision the, as Wood describes it, “marvelous alchemical transfer” that just took place, but they’ll feel it. They’ll understand Elizabeth a little bit more.

Flaubert took it a bit further. He organized his entire style around close writing. In A Sentimental Education, the prose moves into the protagonist Frédéric’s mind without any explicit hint at the shift. Here is Frédéric’s first seeing Mme Arnoux, the older woman with whom he falls in love with:

Never before had he seen more lustrous dark skin, a more seductive figure, or more delicately shaped fingers than those through which the sunlight gleamed. He stared with amazement at her work-basket, as if it were something extraordinary. What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past?

Those last questions are Frédéric’s, as if transcribed verbatim from his thoughts. But where did that shift happen? There was no, “He thought…” Instead, the language slips first into the character’s vernacular––the words “lustrous,” “seductive,” and “delicately” are all Frédéric’s––and then into his mind. It’s quite a nifty trick. “Thanks to free indirect style,” James Wood writes, “we see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once.”

If this all seems very basic to you, consider that there was a time when close writing simply didn’t exist. Additionally, though readers and writers often implicitly understand these ideas, sometimes the act of naming something and recognizing its traits leads to understanding. Like David Foster Wallace’s fish parable, sometimes you have to say: This is water.

coverMoreover, once the modernists enter the picture, close writing is taken to new depths: the inner thoughts of characters become just as important––or more important––than the plot. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce went so far as to construct novels that took place in a single day, Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, meaning the reader spends most of the narrative inside a mind as it thinks. Joyce loved to catalogue very ordinary thoughts, and through Leopold Bloom he mastered close writing like nobody before him. Here is Bloom just after he is first introduced, as he prepares breakfast for Molly:

Another slice of bread and butter: three, four: right. She didn’t like her plate full. Right. He turned from the tray, lifted the kettle off the hob and set it sideways on the fire. It sat there, dull and squat, its spout stuck out. Cup of tea soon. Good. Mouth dry.

Listen to the fragmentary nature of Bloom’s thoughts as they mingle with action. Taking Flaubert’s technique even further, Joyce gives us full access to Bloom’s mind with almost no indication he’s doing so. His thoughts aren’t profound––they’re quotidian, mundane, banal. Clark’s favorite moment comes when Bloom is unable to recall someone’s name:

Stream of life. What was the name of that priestylooking chap was always squinting in when he passed? Weak eyes, woman. Stopped in Citron’s saint Kevin’s parade. Pen something. Pendennis?

Who hasn’t had a similar moment, a name stuck on the tip of the tongue? Then, a full 25 pages later (in the 1922 text, that is), as Bloom assists a blind man across the street, and whose face strikes him “like a fellow going in to be a priest,” it suddenly hits him: “Penrose! That was the chap’s name.” The image of a priest brings to mind the “priestylooking chap” whose name he couldn’t recall earlier and he’s able to conjure the name, except Joyce doesn’t clue the reader into the association. The line is simply plopped down in the middle of another scene.

Virginia Woolf wastes no time delving into her titular character’s inner life. After her famous opening––”Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”––the prose immediately becomes one with Mrs. Dalloway’s ruminations:

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning––fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”––was that it?––”I prefer men to cauliflowers”––was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace––Peter Walsh.

Who’s Lucy? Why does she have her work cut out for her? Why is Mrs. Dalloway buying flowers? And who is Peter Walsh? Why does he suddenly appear in her mind? Remember: this is the first page of the novel. In 1925, when Mrs. Dalloway was published, people still expected some exposition, some introductory orientation, but Woolf provides none. She doesn’t have to. That’s the power of close writing.

>Since then, free indirect discourse has become an integral part of third-person novels. Grab any one at random and you’ll probably find that it employs close writing. And there are still writers who experiment with this voice in their fiction. Stephen Dixon’s I. plays around with the separation of author and subject. The protagonist’s is named I., which means Dixon gets to write sentences like: “I. met Fels more than twenty years ago.” Yes, it’s third person, but it’s also first.  Dixon, then, further erases the gap by having the character, I., also be the writer of the prose, so that he can stop in the middle of a paragraph (which, in Dixon’s fiction, are always long) and say, “Oh, he’s not explaining himself well,” or “What’s he going on about?” Then, those murmurs of uncertainty become full-blown self-doubt:

Oh, stop with the crypt of memories swinging open and all that. Fine, then what? Simply this: he finished something yesterday––okay, a short story––wanted to start something new today––story, novel, two-page short-short: what did he care? A fiction of any length––even a play if it was possible––because he gets agitated with himself and grumpy with his family if at the end of the day after the one he finished a fiction he still doesn’t have something to work on the next day. In other words––but he thinks he explained that okay.

He continues to edit himself as he goes, noting, at one point, “that last parenthetical sentence could be clearer, and he knows it’s going to take work.” After a lengthy explanation of I.’s morning, he writes, “He could have done that so much more simply: he finished writing something yesterday, wanted to start writing something today, saw the obituary and started to write.”

The transfer of voice from the author to the character, here, is thrown right back to the author. Dixon’s I. is also the writer, so close writing here traces not simply the character’s thoughts, but the very words he’s typing. Thinking and writing meld into one organism. Dixon’s metafictional approach could be thought of as elaborate autobiography, but whatever it is it shows how close writing can still be stretched and expanded for new purposes. Dixon’s work is often neglected, or deemed too difficult for casual enjoyment. Too bad; he’s wonderful.

coverThe last writer Clark wants to focus on is Joshua Ferris, a writer noted for his experiments with voice. His Then We Came to the End is written in first-person plural, an entire office represented with the narrative we. Recently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (in the first year Americans were considered), Ferris is one of contemporary fiction’s most assured practitioners. His abilities with close writing are prodigious, as unequivocally demonstrated by his New Yorker story “The Pilot.” It basically focuses on the neuroses of Lawrence, a wannabe television writer who gets an email invitation to a producer’s “yearly blowout.” “He’d R.S.V.P’d,” we’re told, “but not immediately. Two days after the message came in. Two days plus maybe an hour.” When he receives no reply from her, he starts to worry:

He would have liked a reply. After a few days went by, he’d have liked a reply a lot. Was his e-mail too effusive? Was it a mistake to use the word “sick” to describe her show? Or maybe she was just busy shooting the season finale. She was just busy shooting the season finale. He should have just written back quick-like, something like “Thanks for the invitation, Kate. See you then.” Then she might have quick-like hit Reply, with a confirmation, and he’d have known that she knew he was coming. Did she even know she’d invited him? Sometimes, with e-mail, some programs, you hit All Contacts or something and invite people you didn’t even mean to invite. Of course she’d meant to invite him. He just didn’t have any confirmation that she’d received his R.S.V.P. That was kind of unnerving. But, think about it, would he then have to confirm her confirmation? That wasn’t really feasible. It was just…Everything was fine. She was just wrapping. He was too effusive. “Sick little fuck-you”: that might have been––no, it was fine––just a little insulting? No, no, it was fine, who knows, not him.

That is a virtuoso stretch of comic writing, and a better representation of human thought as it occurs than almost anything Clark’s read in his life. The thoughts interrupt each other, the narrator oscillates between two poles of neurotic uncertainty, even repeating himself to emphasize a statement’s validity (yet inadvertently showing how questionable Lawrence finds that validity), and yet the reader never loses the train, the writing is crystal clear, the rhythm natural. Even though Lawrence isn’t technically narrating, he owns every single word on the page. The reader is in his mind.

Close writing really is an amazing thing. Consider that this essay right now has been narrated in the third person, and yet there is no question as to what Clark’s opinions are. There was never any confusion over “who” was asserting the statements made above. The “marvelous alchemical transfer” made it so the separation between Jonathan Russell Clark and some ostensible narrator disappeared––after a while, you probably stopped noticing, except for the occasional use of Clark’s name. Here, of course, Clark and the author are the same, but the same technique used in fiction functions the same way. The writer disappears and only the character is left––the voice, the thoughts, the little details that make us human.

THE MYTH OF THE WRITER, AND THE FANTASY THEREOF

Last night a friend and I were having a discussion regarding Myth and Fantasy on his Facebook page. Since this is a subject I have much studied and long thought about I decided I would post my reply to his discussion on this page. So here is my summation of some of the more salient differences, and some of the basic similarities, between Fantasy and Myth.
This is in the form of my Facebook page response, of course, but later I will create an essay out of this and related material I have written in the past on the same subjects.

 

SOME OF THE DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES BETWEEN FANTASY AND MYTH

To me it mostly depends on if you’re writing Myth or Fantasy.

Myth, such as Tolkien wrote is filled with footnotes and endnotes and much of Tolkien’s myth refers directly to real world history or is a thinly veiled modification of it, just as Classical myth is, e.g.. Homer and Virgil.

The Black Gate is a modification of the Iron Gate of the Byzantines, Rohan was a modification of a real place and people, etc..

If it is fantasy it might also contain heavy historical elements, but they are greatly modified and changed significantly. In that kind of fantasy (swords and sorcery fantasy) magic is more important than myth, the supernatural more important than technology or realism, story more important than history, and character more important than culture (typically).

Tolkien for instance created very realistic cultures and landscapes that were well developed enough to imagine living in, or wanting to live in. Howard, with Conan (fantasy), created heavily modified versions of semi-realistic, but mostly underdeveloped proto-human cultures that few if any would really want to love in. Same with Moorcock (another fantasy writer). A lot of underlying history and myth in both Howard and Moorcock, no real admirable cultures or worlds to live in. No real higher mythic and spiritual content, a lot more grunt-work and gritty adventure and survival.

I follow that same general pattern. I’m writing a mythic series (The Other World) which is a mix of Byzantine realism and the mythos of Prester John. It is also a retelling of the Fall of Constantinople and the founding of America in mythic form. It has a lot of “high, mythic, poetic, and spiritual content.”
I am writing another series of what I call magic and miracles fantasy which is based on what we now know of pre-historic and proto-human cultures, but the emphasis is not on sweeping myths or great cultures, but on personal adventure, and individual supernatural and magical experience.

(And this is paradoxically why poetry and song so rarely appear in pure fantasy, and when it does, it is almost always of very inferior quality – but in myth really good song and poetry is a primary and necessary component – Beowulf and the Iliad are poetic, in Conan real poetry and song are absent. Real Myth is poetic, by nature. Fantasy is prosaic, comparatively speaking.)

In myth magic is tightly controlled and there is little of it, especially overtly. Magic is underground and few can master it. Magic is an elite force employed by an elite few. In fantasy it is usually ubiquitous yet extremely dangerous and likely always out of control, or completely uncontrolled. In fantasy the elite think they can master magic but it almost always it overmasters them. In myth they often can master magic, be it Gandalf or Wotan, though it always has a price for the greedy and unwise. (Such as Fafnir.)

On the other hand, Conan being a fantasy character and a barbarian and a primal man instinctively knows this about his world, he lives in a supernatural and fantastical environment (not a mythic one) , well above his personal pay-grade. The way to equalize magic is not to make it rare and tightly controlled, like in myth, but to avoid it altogether, or destroy it if possible. In myth magic is really a spiritual force, good or bad, and not easily understood or mastered. In fantasy magic is not a spiritual force, but supernatural nitro-glycerin.)

In myth there are also obviously miraculous and apparently fated events. In fantasy fate is what a man makes of himself.

And to me therein lies another of the real differences. In myth, although the characters are very important, the myth is Fundamental. Obviously much bigger things than the individual are at Work.

The myth is what is really being discussed; the characters are archetypes in action.

In fantasy the cultures and the environment are the archetypes, it is the characters being discussed. The individual is what is at Work. The person is in reaction, struggling to bring things under his own control, and usually failing.

In my second series, the fantasy series, the books are about the adventures of Solimar, who is renamed by his god and given a mission to fulfill in the world. So he roams the world seeking to fulfill his mission and understand his supernatural origins, both at birth, and at “rebirth and renaming.”
Solimar, who begins as Soar (So-ar), is really a retelling of the stories of Jacov and of Abram (Solimar’s god, Olim, or Holim, inserts his own name in the middle of Soar’s name to remake him into his representative in the world) in a vaguely Conan like form. Though Solimar is not a warrior but more of a spy, and a Jack of all Trades adventurer, who has become his god’s semi-reluctant and covert Agent.

Now all of that being said I still think there is plenty of room in the middle. As a matter of fact GRR Martin and his series is exactly that. Half-mythic realism, half-magical fantasy. Half Westeros mythos (and Real World history – Dunk and Egg), and half Dragon-Egg/White Walker fantasy. And you can clearly see how the two separate worlds impinge upon and overlap one another, and you can also clearly see how they are separated by, “A Wall.” (In Tolkien the wall of separation was the frontier of Mordor.)

So if you ask me you can lean towards the ends of the bell curve, or, if you wish, seek the top and the middle.

Plenty of room to roam landscapes in all directions if you so wish.

 

 

THE ABILITY HOARD

This is an introductory essay I wrote for my gaming blog but it has far wider applications, especially in the realms of Business, Career, Self-Development, Writing, and Work.

THE ABILITY HOARD – AN INTRODUCTORY ESSAY ON PERSONAL AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

When it comes to my own characters (be they fictional or gaming) and even the players and characters I DM I think of Skills, Capabilities, Abilities, Attributes, (innate personal and individual features) and so forth as much more important character elements and possessions than magic items, spells, money, and other types of what is normally thought of as “standard treasures.”

To me the single greatest types of treasures a character (or a real person) can possess are what they can actually do for themselves (and for others) in the world, devoid of all outside help, material/materiel, and extraneous accoutrements. So I’m going to call this idea and post the Ability-Hoard, or the Treasure of Personal Capacity. I think that this is where the true emphasis of “characterization” should be evident, and most brightly shine.

Let me, at this point, briefly define the Ability Hoard…

The Ability Hoard is that accumulated set of skills, talents, abilities, capabilities, extraordinary qualities (be they physical, mental, psychological, or spiritual), educational and individual merits, virtues, and sensory capacities that a character or person possesses which allows them to resolve difficult problems or to gain some beneficial advantage over others or over a particular set of circumstances.

THE TWO WORLDS

If I had my druthers I would rather live in two different worlds from the world and time and place I now live. I love my home and my estate and my family and friends and my pets, and would readily keep all of those, but the age in which I live – I am not all that impressed by the contemporary and supposedly modern age of man. Nor am I much impressed by “modern man” in general. Though, to give him his credit, he has done some amazing things – in some respects at least.

If I had my way though I’d live in two very different other worlds, or perhaps even in both.

The First World would be an immensely primitive world (compared to today) which is largely unexplored and uninhabited. I would travel everywhere by foot, horse, or wooden sailing ship. I would live in the wild frontier. I would build my own shelters everywhere I went, and small cabins anywhere I wanted to locate for a while. I would explore forests, and open plains, and mountains, and oceans and seas. Perhaps even a few deserts.

I would carry a simple and well-made sword, a spear, a bow, and a long-knife everywhere I went. Perhaps a hatchet as well. I would have forged or made these weapons myself, with great and careful craft. They would be sharp, strong, and reliable. Otherwise my possessions would be what I could carry and my clothing would be hard and durable and made for tough use and wear. I would design and build and construct things using my own two hands. Everything I made would be unique. Including the flute I made to play music and write songs as I went.

I would grow or gather my own food, drink from clear streams, fish high rivers, and swim in fresh lakes. I would go everywhere with my dog who, just like my current dog, would be a huge mastiff and a wonderful companion. Animals would be my friends and we would understand one another. I would be at peace with everything that lived. I would sketch what I saw, write what I experienced, but only for myself, or perhaps as a record for someone to eventually find and make use of. I would spend time every day with God, observing what he showed me, and I would wander the wide world uninhabited and unrestricted by anything or anyone. My money would be my own breath and blood.

I would explore both night and day, taking as much pleasure in roaming some mountain in the moonlight as I did crawling over ancient ruins at noon. Occasionally I would run across other men and women like myself, explorers and frontiersmen, people who lived in the wild. Because I would speak and write multiple languages it would be easy to communicate with them, and trade with them. We would spend a few days or maybe weeks in each others company, becoming lifelong friends. We would not have to see each other often, or speak much in the presence of the other. We would just know and understand. We would however drink, and laugh, and do crazily dangerous and enjoyable things as we wandered for a time the world together.

I would live my life deep in the frontiers; far from man, and the ways of man. When I did finally feel the desire to return to civilization I would visit some great city, like ancient Alexandria, reading in the Library, researching the Museum and conversing with the inventors and scientists and craftsmen, examining the great Wonders, like the lighthouse, and burning deep into my memory all I saw and did. And when I had once again had enough of that I would return to the forest and the fields and the lands that had no road and no well-worn path and I would disappear again.

When I finally married and had children I would be a grizzled old man, and yet I would on occasion still wander when I desired to and I would be very tough and very wise by then. And if my children wanted to explore and roam with me then I would take them from time to time, showing them how to survive and live off the land and love nature and the solitude.

That would be a happy world, a world of blood and bone and strength, a world that would satisfy my body and my soul.

The Second “World” would be immensely advanced, scientifically and technologically. I would explore countless other worlds through time and space. I would have a craft, one that I had designed and built for myself that could easily and rapidly traverse any distance or any time, and probably many different dimensions. My craft would be able to construct and create anything I needed whenever and wherever I went, including my shelter, food, and drink.

My clothing and body would be filled with immensely powerful apparatus, highly miniaturized, even down to the atomic level, which would give me immense sensory capabilities and physical and mental enhancements. I would have already long ago genetically modified myself, through recombination, to further enhance my own capabilities and I would turn those capabilities to exploration, invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

I would have a Suit; one I had designed myself, which would be an astronomical advance over my current Aisthpleis Suit. It would be my clothing, my protection, my extra-sensing device, my computer, my communications array, and an extension of my own senses and mind. It might even possess its own sentience.

I would be immensely wealthy (a trillionaire many times over by today’s standards) from my own inventions, creations, and discoveries and would use my profits to assure everyone I knew was taken care of, as well as to further capitalize and fund my numerous enterprises, expeditions, ventures, and adventures. Money itself would mean nothing to me but I would use it carefully and wisely to fund every good and noble cause I could and I would use it to explore every place and every world I could possibly discover and reach.

I would make numerous friends among other species and races and would enjoy discovering things about them and their world(s). In the periods of travel time in my craft I would talk often with God and he would advise me of what I should see and where I should go and why. I would also, in my travel time, conduct numerous scientific experiments, to placate my curiosity about how things work and to come to a better understanding of the nature of matter, energy, and life.

I would build an entirely unique observatory, probably on some uninhabited and desolate planetoid that would allow me to watch other times, different places and points in space, peer upon other dimensions, and make discoveries and observations no one else ever has before.

I would scour the universe for new God Technology and I would seek to create some of my own. I would invent new things and reinvent/innovate upon old things that would be of immense benefit to mankind.

I would find ways to extend not only my own life, but to greatly augment and amplify both my own health and well-being, and that of others. I would work cooperatively and with good friends on some great ventures and enterprises, but on most things I would work alone.

I would still travel with my dog, of course, (maybe with a few other animals as well), but he would be greatly enhanced and modified. He would be immensely intelligent, as intelligent as any person alive now, and physically he would be awesomely strong, capable, and healthy. I would extend his life too.

When I finally married and had children I would bring them with me on my travels and expeditions anytime they wished, showing them what I had discovered. I would train them in whatever they wished to learn. I would keep careful and detailed records of all I saw and did and discovered so that others could build upon my work in the future to do even greater things.

That would be a fascinating world, a world of thoughts and ideas and discoveries, a world that would satisfy my mind and my spirit.

I can live in the world I currently live in. On my lands I live a physically and psychologically pleasing life. In my work I live a mentally and spiritually pleasing life.

But I can imagine far better. And desire far better.

THE CURSE OF BAD ASSUMPTIONS (about EVERYONE ELSE)

I very often agree with Pinker’s insights and criticisms, especially regarding linguistic and intellectual matters. And in this case I think he has a point as well. At least in part.

On the other hand the equally weighty criticism of this critique of the audience is as follows: 1) it assumes that every reader and audience (or even a significant proportion thereof) is ignorant, whereas in fact literacy is at an all-time global high, and most people intentionally ignorant of a particular subject matter would not be reading your words in the first place if they truly were, 2) it assumes that your insights, definitions, and assumptions (as a writer or supposed expert) about a particular subject matter are the correct ones (and that in itself is a patently false and often easily disproven position), and 3) it assumes that the writer himself is a sort of knowledge expert (as modern men wantonly and ignorantly define the term “expert“), and few things are both as personally disgusting to me and as effortless to successfully dispute as the idea that the majority of writers are expert (modern or otherwise) on any given subject matter in any way at all. (Of course I could easily marshal other such arguments against the “curse of knowledge” premise, – sounds awful scary doesn’t it, but that is enough to work with at the moment.)

In other words just because you are writing on a given subject matter, or feel yourself qualified to write upon a given subject matter, is not evidence of any kind that you actually are qualified to write on a given subject. That shouldn’t stop you, and indeed it won’t stop most writers, and throughout history has never stopped most writers, but it should at least give you symbolic pause about your own expert assumptions about your own supposed expertise.

I do not in any way assume my audience is automatically ignorant or uneducated on any subject I write on or they read on, I do not assume that even if they were ignorant (of either a term or an idea) that they could not easily rectify this situation themselves with a modicum or research and effort, I do not assume that my writing will be “bad” merely because my audience’s intellect does not soar to my vaunted levels of erudite elocution and elucidation (interject here the proper level of sarcasm you feel might be warranted by this comment), and I do not assume that merely because I am well educated on a subject that either my conclusions, theories, or definitions cannot be incorrect. Those would be wholly unscientific and ridiculous assumptions on my part about both myself, and you, the reader.

This is the multitudinous, pretentious, and totally self-fabricated bullshit of the modern writer, modern literary theorist, the modern “expert,” and the so-called writing coach. (Or indeed almost any kind of modern coach.) It is everywhere and reflexively repeated as the common and self-evident wisdom of all good writing – Dumb it down boys and girls for you are the rarefied mental wonder of the ages whereas your reader is the dim-witted lackey who struggles to pace himself against your enlightened – whatever it is you are so dammed enlightened about (and it must be something important, after all, you’re a writer – so Hooray for you Einstein)!

Truth is this is merely a modern conceit to the modern man about what he assumes about the modern mind. That being his own mind. The modern man thinks himself smarter than everyone else and he does so without even a hint of self-irony or self-reflection. And this is, to a very large extent, why modern man is as modern man so obviously is.

I am no dammed “modern expert” on any subject matter and have no wish to be. I hold forth on probabilities as related to reality as best I can determine such things, I do not hold forth on my own expertise. To hell with that, and the probabilities entailed by it.

Modern writers often border perilously close upon the idea that subject-matter knowledge makes their writing automatically admirable, correct, useful, and illuminating. It only makes their writing informed. At least informed about what they are informed about. Which may or may not be correct. But they assume that just because it is informed this is the same as being correct. Whereas I know human nature and psychology far too well to automatically make any such laughable assumption about any information presented to me on such a flimsy foundation of validity – informed and correct can lead to entirely different conclusions about reality. I’ll let you guess which one is likely to prove the more accurate of the two approaches, because Truth be told, I suspect you don’t need my help at all.

See how that works?

I have no more automatic respect for the supposed genius and infallibility or absolute correctness of a writer, any writer, including myself, than I believe most actors give Wise Life Advice.

We (writers of any kind) like to think ourselves brilliant and Wise. Truth is we’re a dime a dozen and that’s intelligence and Wisdom on the cheap. Sure enough.

I always try to keep that in mind when examining my own ego and assessing my own writings.

The Source of Bad Writing

The ‘curse of knowledge’ leads writers to assume their readers know everything they know

Updated Sept. 25, 2014 12:06 p.m. ET

Poor wording drains vast sums of money from the economy, writes Steven Pinker. Nick Cunard/Zuma Press

Why is so much writing so bad? Why is it so hard to understand a government form, or an academic article or the instructions for setting up a wireless home network?

The most popular explanation is that opaque prose is a deliberate choice. Bureaucrats insist on gibberish to cover their anatomy. Plaid-clad tech writers get their revenge on the jocks who kicked sand in their faces and the girls who turned them down for dates. Pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.

But the bamboozlement theory makes it too easy to demonize other people while letting ourselves off the hook. In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. The kind of stupidity I have in mind has nothing to do with ignorance or low IQ; in fact, it’s often the brightest and best informed who suffer the most from it.

I once attended a lecture on biology addressed to a large general audience at a conference on technology, entertainment and design. The lecture was also being filmed for distribution over the Internet to millions of other laypeople. The speaker was an eminent biologist who had been invited to explain his recent breakthrough in the structure of DNA. He launched into a jargon-packed technical presentation that was geared to his fellow molecular biologists, and it was immediately apparent to everyone in the room that none of them understood a word and he was wasting their time. Apparent to everyone, that is, except the eminent biologist. When the host interrupted and asked him to explain the work more clearly, he seemed genuinely surprised and not a little annoyed. This is the kind of stupidity I am talking about.

Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The term was invented by economists to help explain why people are not as shrewd in bargaining as they could be when they possess information that their opposite number does not. Psychologists sometimes call it mindblindness. In the textbook experiment, a child comes into the lab, opens an M&M box and is surprised to find pencils in it. Not only does the child think that another child entering the lab will somehow know it contains pencils, but the child will say that he himself knew it contained pencils all along!

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.

Anyone who wants to lift the curse of knowledge must first appreciate what a devilish curse it is. Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it. Thirty students send me attachments named “psych assignment.doc.” I go to a website for a trusted-traveler program and have to decide whether to click on GOES, Nexus, GlobalEntry, Sentri, Flux or FAST—bureaucratic terms that mean nothing to me. My apartment is cluttered with gadgets that I can never remember how to use because of inscrutable buttons which may have to be held down for one, two or four seconds, sometimes two at a time, and which often do different things depending on invisible “modes” toggled by still other buttons. I’m sure it was perfectly clear to the engineers who designed it.

Multiply these daily frustrations by a few billion, and you begin to see that the curse of knowledge is a pervasive drag on the strivings of humanity, on par with corruption, disease and entropy. Cadres of expensive professionals—lawyers, accountants, computer gurus, help-line responders—drain vast sums of money from the economy to clarify poorly drafted text…

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