The state of the artist

In my last post I laid out the nature of this project. Since I’m not exactly starting from scratch, it bears setting forth where I am right now. If you’re not interested in the biographical aspect of this project, by all means skip it.

I’ve been aware of a vocation for writing since at least fifth grade. A routine creative writing assignment prompted me to craft the phrase “fireflies in the fog” in a paragraph beginning some pseudo-Victorian work, somehow before I had any conception of what that might mean, and which I never expanded on because I was, like, 10, and I was not one of those adorably precocious children who wrote a socially-conscious play and had the class put on a production of it while still in grade school (you know who you are). The phrase stuck and this little morsel of alliteration gave me a wholly unearned reputation as some kind of prodigy.

In any case, it was a defining moment for me. I quickly formulated the life goal of becoming a New York Times bestselling author (my tastes tended towards the middlebrow; Michael Crichton was a formative influence). I never truly committed to it, but the specter of this ambition never left either. I caved to it by majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing. In the course, I found little in the way of direct instruction (it was mainly workshop-based, and I can think of little I find less useful than a writers’ workshop), but it did give me some vague awareness of the directions in which I needed to grow. I also had a sobering encounter with people much further along in their development than I was (several of whom have already published novels, some fewer to critical acclaim).

After graduating college, I was keenly cognizant that, without something holding me to it, writing would fall by the wayside and I would never get back to it. The way that I found to keep it from slipping away was ghostwriting.

I have worked as a ghostwriter for a few years now – not enough to make a living at it exclusively, and my rates are decidedly still low-end, but books I have worked on have been published and I have made money out of it. I’m still at it, and it may be my main source of income in the middle term.

The missing piece in this story is depression. I was afflicted for most of my teens (with a brief respite at about age 16) and then most of my twenties (and maybe my childhood too; the onset, in retrospect, came at about age 8). This took a serious toll on my productivity. Depression hampers writing beyond sapping your energy and motivation (the nature of which hampering I intend to discuss at length in future posts (so be warned, I guess)). I am emerging from it only now, in my late twenties, having written nothing I’m particularly proud of, but thankful for having stuck to it in the ways that I could.

The waning of my depression (with much belated help, chemical and otherwise) coincided with a sort of awakening, an awareness and clarity about the art and the craft where a lot of things just clicked on a lot of levels. I find myself now champing at the bit to sink my teeth into something substantial, to mix my dentile metaphors, but finding I still have a ways to go before my ability matches my ambition.

This is where the story leaves off and this blog begins.

A mission statement

I am currently a barely adequate writer of fiction. I would like to become as close to a master as I can get. This blog is a record of that attempt.

Specifically, I am setting the following five-year goals:

  • Make enough money from writing for a comfortable living
  • Attain at least niche or cult popularity
  • Attain critical respect (generally positive reviews of published works from the more respected media outlets)

These are not modest objectives. There is a significant probability that I will fail. But that I might fail is precisely the point: any criteria with clear success conditions must also clearly expose failure. I also don’t want to mentally adjust my goals down if the going gets tough. Also, I’m already just about good enough to get published, so I want to shoot for substantial improvement. Even if I fail, I want to fail better.

I’ve been meaning to start this blog for months now. Serendipitously, Brienne Strohl posted on Facebook about her own project which provides a nice framework for this one. A short excerpt:

I notice that there are few phenomenologically focused records of rationality training. In other words, there’s not a lot of highly transparent description of what it’s like *from the inside* to gain cognitive skills. I think this is a terrible situation and I want to rectify it.

This blog, then, is a record of my own reaching towards becoming a master writer. I’ll offer some retrospective ideas about what I’ve learned (I’m not exactly starting from scratch), but this blog is not about an accomplished artist teaching disciples, but a student fumbling his way through and offering insights into his own learning.

I have a vague idea of what this will entail. A few features I’m certain of: a miscellany of inspirations, case studies of aspects or excerpts of particular works and what they can teach us, reviews of books on writing and other pieces of writing advice, the nuts and bolts of writing as gleaned from experience, philosophical and psychological considerations, exploration of the mystical (for lack of a better word) side of writing, hopefully a step by step log of the creation of a story, and an attempt to develop a practical cognitive poetics (this is the most ambitious single part of this project, beyond the actual becoming a better writer; more on this soon).

I will assess my progress no later than a year from now. In the meantime, let’s get to it.

Is there potential for cognitive poetics?

I don’t really get poetry. This is a profoundly embarrassing confession to be making as a writer and an English major.

I mean, there are particular poems that I have a good enough understanding of, which I can enjoy on an aesthetic level. There are some that I sincerely love. But they are few and far between. Mostly, the appeal tends to be incomprehensible.

One reason, I suspect, is that I am usually stuck in a highly logical mode, treating everything as propositions, to be evaluated on their literal truth and falsehood. The consequence, in my writing, is that I am terrible with lyricism in general. I can do it intuitively, up to a point, but for the most part when I try I flounder.

Enter cognitive poetics.

I noticed, in reading about cognitive science, that some literary devices have clear correlates in cognitive phenomena. Foreshadowing, for instance, seems to be a form of, or at least to involve, a priming effect. Lyric poetry makes use of associative networks to create meaning and effects. I suspect the effects of sound devices like rhyme and meter depend at least partly on the induction of cognitive ease.

(Cognitive poetics already exists as a tiny interdisciplinary academic field of study. I know nearly nothing about this field, but I think it is roughly what I have in mind. I intend to read some stuff and blog about it – probably articles I can get for free or off jstor, because the books are way expensive. In any case, my purpose here is practical application, which I don’t believe has been developed to any significant degree.)

The idea is to identify potentially useful insights from cognitive science and work my way to a method of applying it in the practice of writing. I want to consciously avoid mere explanation or interpretation, which I have no doubt the academics have done better than I can. My focus is specific application.

I’m casting out blind with nothing but a handful of ideas here. They seem promising, but for the most part I’ll be feeling my way around in the dark, and I don’t know if they’ll get somewhere helpful. For instance, it’s possible that, while perhaps cognitive poetics may illuminate a few mechanisms of good writing, actually doing it is a purely intuitive endeavor.

So this may be a total failure. Time will tell. But at least it’ll be my total failure, and I should learn a thing or two along the war regardless. You’re invited to come along for the ride.

How to Be a Poet by Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.