Monthly Archives: July 2012

Going to the country

There are a few things I want to touch on this time, which is kind of a nice contrast from last time when I had absolutely nothing to say.

First (and foremost) you’ll see that I’m off my pace (again).  Writing has continued to be very difficult and Statler and Waldorf are currently winning the argument.  It isn’t easy to keep going when I’m not at all happy with the quality of what I’m producing.  I’m not really sure how to resolve this but there are a couple of possibilities.

The first of these is that I am firing off another chunk of product to the Eager Volunteers to get some perspective.  If I really am off the rails (as I currently feel) then independent confirmation would be good.  The second thing is something I had been sort of trying to decide how I would handle from the beginning – I have a vacation coming up and have no intention of taking my computer.  So there will be a few days where no writing will happen, at all.  I’m hoping that will end up giving me a bit of a break and that I can come back a bit fresh.  We’ll see.

Now, I also wanted to get back to a post I made a while ago about a podcast I heard about creativity and how it works that I found interesting.  The podcast was an interview with a (now former) writer for the New York Times name Jonah Lehrer and Lehrer has since been accused of, and admitted to, making up and misrepresenting many of the quotes in the book that interview was based on, in particular quotes of Bob Dylan talking about his creative process.

Reading through Lehrer’s admission was interesting in a few ways (and I’m going to stray away from fiction writing for a bit here) because some of what he talked about sounded familiar – he says he panicked being unable to find sources for quotes and ended up making the references up.  I have had the experience of being sure in my mind that I had a piece of evidence that was perfect for supporting a particular argument, written the paragraph (or what have you) that would make use of it, and then upon going to get the specific reference, been utterly unable to find the quote or fact I had in mind.  It’s a terrible feeling.  There is that impulse to think that you couldn’t possibly have invented it out of thin air, it’s got to be somewhere, and it’s so good it would be terrible not to use it.

I can say though that I have always managed to resist this impulse, and gone with evidence I actually had to hand.  Sometimes I still suspect I must have forgotten to record something properly (so sure am I that this thing I ‘remember’ must exist) but I would rather a less effective argument that I can actually back up than one that turns out to be built on fiction.  But I do understand the impulse Lehrer had and although I’m not qualified to get into an analysis of this, other commentators have already started to discuss what cases like this tell us about the pressure writers are under to turn out marketable product, and how this can lead otherwise well-intentioned people astray.

Lehrer’s reputation, I suspect, will never be the same.  It’s the kind of story I try to tell students to get them to ask for help with assignments rather than fabricating something.  I feel a little bad using academically dishonest work even on a forum as humble as this, but Lehrer’s dishonesty is not under my control.

Now, while I don’t feel like Lehrer’s intellectual dishonesty is something I need to apologize for, I do feel kind of silly about something else that came to light as I read about his resignation.  It turns out, as well, that the book (called Imagine: How Creativity Works) is (probably) not very good to begin with.  I still haven’t read the book, so I won’t advance criticisms here, but I was dismayed to see excoriating reviews like this one:

It reminds me that I always need to do my homework.  I mean, it’s not as though this blog has a wide enough audience that I feel as though I misled a large number of people, but it was still careless of me to promote (somewhat) a work that I hadn’t actually read, based on a brief interview.  It’s always important to go back to the original source material (in this case, Lehrer’s book) and check it out yourself.  Having read the reviews I’m pretty sure (flattering myself somewhat)  I would have seen a lot of the flaws they mention and probably wouldn’t have written a  post about the interview at all.

There’s something here too about how it’s important not to assume that if something is in print it must be true, even if the product is described as ‘science’.  Scientists can be as wrong as anyone, science can be as flawed as anything, and we shouldn’t assume otherwise.  Usually I like to think I keep things like this in mind, but I admit that in part at least I figured that anything that showed up on Guardian Science Weekly had probably been vetted enough to trust.  Another reminder that no one is any less fallible than the rest of us, even when their business is promoting science.

Anyway, hopefully when I post here next I will be refreshed and ready for the home stretch on the Project.  Thanks for your indulgence, if you made it this far.

Word Count: 86, 460.  It’s something.

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Update in name only

I don’t have too much to write at the moment but need to get a weekly check-in done, so here it is.  I have been back writing, but haven’t been able to build a lot of momentum – I’m really having to work at it right now.  I have had a couple stretches like this through the summer so I imagine this too shall pass, but I also imagine that breaking the process and missing those days didn’t help either.

As I have put pieces into the places they might logically go, I did find (and fix) a couple of continuity errors, so that’s a positive.  I also wonder how many more are lurking there, though…

Anyway, I’ll try to do better the next time.
Word Count: 82.329

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Well, I suppose this was inevitable, or at least I comfort myself by believing that it was.  Over the past weekend, I did not get any writing done.  Yes, the great Project ground to a halt in July.  While it’s true that I was sick, and the weather was oppressively hot, the bottom line is I still didn’t accomplish anything.  This is bad.

I spent today getting all the disparate pieces of out-of-order text slotted in where they will eventually need to go, and I guess the good news is I can now see where there is more work, and in some cases a lot of work, that still needs to be done.  I do still have a pretty long piece of work that has a general shape to it and I don’t hate it entirely at this point.  Now to recommit to at least 1,000 words a day and knock out the last quarter of it (or whatever the exact proportion turns out to be).

Now currently I have massive gaps in the story so whether it is finished or not isn’t in question, but I did think it was interesting to start thinking about how you know when a story is finished.  The best description or advice that I have read so far (and, as usual, I can’t remember where it’s from) is that you know it’s done when you can read it through and would not add or subtract a single word.  The thing is I’m not sure I ever do that when I read through my own writing.  Even on the final draft of my thesis when I was meant to just be fixing footnotes and so on, I kept changing little parts of the phrasing.

I think there has to be some kind of point at which you walk away – usually I have used an impending deadline to identify that point – but I’m not sure I will know it when I see it.  Perhaps I will need to put my trust in the Eager Volunteers.

Anyway, I hope I will now be un-stalled and get back on pace.  I really can get this thing done if I don’t talk myself out of it.

Word Count: 75,160

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It’s Done??

No, it isn’t.

However, I have reached the lower end of that ‘ideal length’ for a novel (70,000 words) and so that got me to thinking about whether the book (as I guess I can now call it) feels like it is finished, or not.  The first and obvious answer is that it doesn’t – there are several scenes that are not done at all (you can tell on account of the notes that say ‘write better dialogue later’, and so on) and so there is still work to do here (leaving editing temporarily out of the equation).

More importantly, even though the thing isn’t finished, it is starting to feel like it is in the ballpark of getting finished.  Most of the major plot points are there.  I have written the beginning, some junk in the middle, and the end.  I need to flesh some parts out, and I’m sure I will need to clean up a lot of continuity messes, but there is (I think) the framework of the story established.  I’m pretty pleased with it.

My ‘don’t write things in order’ method is kind of coming back to haunt me at this stage, and makes it a little more difficult to assess the level of ‘doneness’.  I have a bunch of scenes written that are not in their correct place and some that I don’t exactly know where they will go in the story, yet, just that they need to be in there someplace.  For that reason I think the next major task needs to be moving all the bits n’ pieces around and trying to spackle and stitch them into place.

All of this before Statler and Waldorf get too much louder, of course.

Anyway, it’s not done, but it does have the feel of something that might one day be done, at least.


Word Count: 72,011

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I was listening to a Guardian Science Weekly podcast the other day and on it was a neuroscientist named Jonah Lehrer talking about creativity.  (The episode is actually from way back but I am currently backlogged on Guardian Science Weeklys)  Anyway to be honest a lot of the time when I hear or read about The Scientific Explanation for Creativity I usually start to get deeply sceptical or to start to wonder what the point of it is – functionally it doesn’t matter if you can say that creativity is the result of a chemical process or gene combination thinger rather than something ineffable, not really.  Some people are still creative to greater and lesser degrees and the label on it doesn’t change what it does, to me anyway.

However Lehrer’s study was really interesting because he wasn’t talking about why creativity exists but rather looking at how creative processes work.  The part that really stuck out at me was something he calls a ‘Feeling of Knowing’, which is when you have the sense that you will be able to solve whatever problem you’re currently working on.  It’s not that you *know* the answer yet, just that you feel that you *can* get there.  He compared it to driving to a destination, and you don’t know how to get there yet, but you do know that if you turn left you’ll be headed in the right direction.  That sense of being headed in the right direction is the Feeling of Knowing.

Anyway Lehrer’s work suggest that when you’re at work on a creative process (writing, painting, whatever) and you have that Feeling of Knowing, this is the time to keep working as long as you possibly can, because your brain is working well.  Drink some coffee and keep at it.  On the other hand, if you *don’t* have that feeling, the more useful thing to do is take a break, engage in some other activity that has nothing to do with the task you’ve been struggling with, and essentially ‘waste’ some time until you’re ready to try again.

Some of this, I suspect, a lot of successful artists and creative people would have known intuitively anyway, but it is interesting to see that scientific study apparently confirms that this intuition is correct.  Unfortunately Lehrer’s work doesn’t have anything to say about how to get the Feeling of Knowing, aside from ‘work very hard’, which again I think a lot of people would have guessed.  So no shortcuts, just work hard, keep at it when you know you are making progress and take breaks when you know you’re not.

The one thing I disagreed with Lehrer about was that he said, essentially, that the idea of inspiration being granted by Muses with unknowable motives was something we’ve moved past in our understanding of creative processes.  I actually think it’s still quite a useful metaphor, really – even based on what he had to say, whether you get that Feeling of Knowing or not may not be entirely under your conscious control, and having it show up (or not) at potentially inconvenient intervals certainly gives the whole process a kind of capricious feeling.  Maybe it’s just nicer to imagine that the capriciousness comes from an external entity rather than our own brain.

Sometimes I really think we do people in the past a disservice by taking everything they wrote quite so literally.  It’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that they didn’t *really* think there were literal magic ladies who would either give an artist inspiration, or not.  It’s just an evocative, and relatively accurate (I think) way of describing how it feels to suddenly have your Feeling of Knowing, and how frustrating it is when you don’t.

Word Count: 67.968

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Reading Series

I’ve been thinking lately about reading habits (again) and how I am the biggest sucker in the world for sticking with a series once I get hooked into it.  I have grimly finished series that I didn’t like at all just because I couldn’t stop partway through.

I comfort myself, slightly, that I have reached the point where I no longer feel obliged to keep buying a series that I don’t enjoy any more.  But I still get the books out of the library.  This just happened – although I won’t say which series (because I don’t want to start ripping authors who are, objectively, way better than me on here) – there was a series of novels that started out really well and got steadily worse.  I managed not to buy the latest one, but I just read it and it’s really not very good either.  I think it was probably worse than the previous installment.  Of course I’ll read the next one when it comes out.

I guess this is, for one thing, the attraction of writing a series.  You get people like me who will keep coming back becauseit’s the next in the series!!!! whereas an entirely new book is a bit more of a crapshoot.  I guess it’s also how a series is, to some extent, supposed to work.  It’s supposed to get you hooked and pull you along right to the end.

I’m not entirely sure why that works though.  I mean yes, obviously if the story is really good and compelling you want to know how it works out.  But what is it about cases where the story isn’t very good that  you still get people like me following along to ‘the end’, even assuming there is a clearly defined end envisioned.  Maybe the answer is that ‘people like me’ is basically ‘me’ and I’m just deeply strange.  Maybe there’s something about stories where not knowing the ending is just too unsatisfying to settle for.  Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to abandon the characters in the middle of whatever situation they happen to be in, which I recognize is a silly way of looking at it.

Anyway, one thing I always appreciate is when each book in a series would work ok as a story on its own.  Partly that means if you can’t find Book One you can jump in anyway, but it’s also (to me) somewhat dissatisfying to read a book that is clearly just a bridge to … the next book.

That oughta hold you until the next update.



Word Count: 63,522

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