Two weeks ago we talked about the writing business as a microcosm of today’s economy. Like nearly everyone else in the modern world, writers have to deal with a barrage of advice—no, let’s be honest and call it propaganda—that’s meant to lure them into choices that benefit the corporate system at their expense. Like nearly everyone else in the modern world, in turn, writers have options that the glossy magazines and the glossy websites don’t mention, and those options are by and large a much better deal than the ones being pushed by the propagandists.
In writing as elsewhere, however, there’s another factor that has to be taken into account. To make use of the options just mentioned, you have to have certain skills, and the entire system of education in the industrial world today is designed to make sure you don’t develop those skills. Once again, we’ll use writing as a microcosm, as it’s the business I know best, and so we need to talk about how and why so many people have been convinced that they can’t write.
You can, you know. If you can read one of my blog posts and take part in a conversation about a subject you’re interested in, you know the language well enough to write professionally. The late Marion Zimmer Bradley used to say that anyone who can write a literate English sentence can make a living writing genre fiction. She was right, too, and proved it in her own life; as a single mother with two children to support, she started off writing for the true-confessions magazines, the bottom of the barrel in the mid-20th century writing business, and clawed her way up from there to establish herself as an influential and well-paid writer of science fiction and fantasy.
(Yes, I’m aware that Bradley has been assigned the posthumous status of a nonperson because of her abuse of her children. Not all writers are nice people. The points she made in her writing workshops, which were responsible for launching a number of successful careers in genre fiction, are still worth remembering.)
You can write. If you’re like most people, however, you’re convinced that you can’t write well enough to get published. You were taught to think that, and it’s worth understanding why.
Over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, education in the industrial nations was reshaped from top to bottom using the factory as a model. Before then, education was less rigid and more successful. Here in the United States, for example, the classic one-room schoolhouse was common. You had one teacher, who supervised the process; a half dozen or so older students, who served as assistant teachers and who might go on to teach schools of their own someday; and a gallimaufry of children between the ages of seven and fifteen, who worked at their lessons alone or in little groups and got help from the teacher and her assistants as needed. It followed the familiar model of group work on harvests and quilting bees; it was busy, disorderly, and remarkably effective, and it made literacy, numeracy, and a solid stock of general knowledge about the world all but universal in mid-19th century America.
That was replaced by the current scheme, where children are separated by age into different classrooms and drilled in endless repetitive lessons. The reason for the change was quite simple: the goal of the new education was to manufacture interchangeable parts for the economy out of the utterly non-interchangeable raw material of young human beings. That’s why schooling is as dreary as it is. The boredom is an essential part of the process of getting children used to the stunning monotony of labor in a modern industrial economy, so that they won’t get foolish ideas about doing something less deadening with their lives.
An essential feature of the same process is lowering the standard level of education to whatever minimum the business world needs. Each child has distinct strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning, and one of the ways these function is that children become ready to learn different things at different ages. The great thrust of education for the last century and a half has therefore been a matter of finding ways to force children down to the lowest common denominator of learning so they can all be made to learn at the same pace.
Reading is a great example. Some children—I was one of them—are ready and eager to start reading at the age of two and a half. Others aren’t ready for the same task until they’re seven or eight years old. Children in the second group aren’t stupid, or developmentally disabled, or any such nonsense: their growth has simply taken a different route, and they may be able to do things at two and a half that I couldn’t do until I was eight or so, like tie my shoes so they wouldn’t come untied after a few steps. An approach to education that takes each child’s needs into account can deal with this factor easily by adapting lesson plans to each child’s readiness to learn. Modern industrial schooling can’t do that—or, more precisely, won’t do that.
That’s why most schools here in the US forbid the use of phonics—the simple, natural process of learning to read by sounding out unfamiliar words a letter at a time. A child taught phonics can figure out how to read a word he or she has never encountered before in print. Since we all learn spoken language earlier and faster than reading, a bright child taught phonics will quite often end up reading at an adult level by the age of twelve. That’s a problem from the point of view of the industrial schooling system, which again is meant to produce interchangeable parts. So in American schools, children are taught reading using methods that force them to treat each word as an abstract squiggle. That way the children all learn the same words at the same time, and nothing beyond the approved word list, so that those who might otherwise be reading faster and better than their classmates are held back to the same pace as everyone else.
Writing, finally, is subject to the same constraints. Most employees in a modern industrial society don’t need to write. Of those who do, most only need to be able to write a business letter or an interoffice memo. What’s more, a nation full of people who can use written language freely, to express whatever they want to express, is a danger to the status quo. It’s not just that they might write things the bosses don’t like, and that other people might read those things and agree with them. It’s that the bosses might read it themselves and be forced to confront the reality of what their preferred policies are doing to the people affected by them. (Good writing can do that.)
Thus it may not be an accident that the entire way in which writing is taught in American schools is set up to make children hate and fear the act of putting down their thoughts in words on paper. Every time a child picks up a pencil or a pen to trudge through one more writing assignment, the threat of a bad grade hovers over every word. If you’re not wary enough to recognize that the whole business is not in your best interests, and angry enough to write other things your own way, on your own time, out of sheer spite, the whole thing becomes such an exercise in misery that once your schooling is over, writing is very nearly the last thing you want to do. In this way the education machine succeeds in its purpose.
Oh, and may the gods help you if you’re tricked into going to college to get a degree in creative writing. I have yet to meet anyone who’s been through that experience and came out of it able to write well. There, the problem isn’t the burden of misery you find in the schools. The problem is academicism. That’s a good old word for the mental fossilization that happens when writing takes place in a bubble, where every word you write is criticized by your teachers and peers in terms of how well it fits the currently fashionable theory of writing, and the perceptions of people outside the bubble are despised and dismissed. It’s a constant problem whenever writing, or any other creative practice, is restricted to a self-proclaimed elite.
Here’s a story to keep in mind when you get told, as of course you will, that real writers go to creative writing programs to learn how to write. Eleven hundred years ago in Japan, men of the wealthy classes got an extensive academic education in how to write. Meanwhile, the women of the same classes, who were excluded from higher education, shrugged and wrote stories and poems of their own, relying on the unfashionable guidance of their own taste and what their readers liked. That’s why the masterpieces that define the first great age of Japanese literature were all—every single one of them—written by women. What the men wrote was promptly forgotten because, like all academic literature, it was unutterably dreary. What our current academically trained authors write is just as bad, and will be forgotten just as quickly.
Between the raw misery of the schools and the academicism of the universities, very few people come through their schooling without having their ability to write stunted. That stunting, in writing and in all the other creative arts, is what makes it possible for our society to pretend that there’s a thing called “talent,” which a few special people have and the rest of us don’t. The rhetoric that surrounds talent in our society is so familiar to those who know their way around a certain heavily marketed fantasy fiction franchise that I’ve come to sum up that rhetoric as the Harry Potter Principle. What the Harry Potter Principle claims is that only the special, talented people, the Harry Potters of the world, can enjoy the magic of creativity. Everyone else is just a Muggle, a faceless presence in the background whose sole job is to cough up applause and cash on cue, and to take whatever mockery and abuse their soi-disant betters decide to dish out.
It’s a lie, and a vicious lie at that. Writing is not something that only born writers can do. It’s a set of skills that, to cite Bradley again, anyone can learn if they can write a literate English sentence. If you have no natural gift for writing, you may not achieve greatness, but if you work at it you can learn how to tell stories, write poems, or craft nonfiction that people will enjoy reading.
How? Gather ‘round your Druid uncle, children, and he’ll explain.
Step One: You need to learn how to read the way a writer does. I imagine all of us have, and cherish, the experience of getting lost in a story, losing track of our surroundings because we’re so caught up in the experiences of a character in a book. Now and again, however, you’ll have to set that aside and pay close attention to how the book is helping you have that experience.
Choose a familiar book that delights you. Find a passage in it that you like—say, half a page or so. Read it once, just to enjoy it. Now read it again, paying attention to each word. Notice the rhythm and pace of the words, the length and structure of the sentences, the presence or absence of repeating letter sounds. Go over it again and make a mental note of every verb in the passage. Now do the same with every noun. Pay special attention to the diction—that’s a fancy word for the kind of language the writer uses. (Diction is what you look up in a dictionary.) Diction’s an essential tool and these days it’s a neglected one. Consider this bit of description:
“Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess; it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.”
Now compare it with this one:
“Thunder was crackling in the foothills now and the sky above them was purple-black. It was going to rain hard. The air had the damp foretaste of rain. I put the top up on my convertible before I started downtown.”
Both of these were written by Englishmen in the 1930s, and in both of them a character is looking eastward toward mountains, but Frodo Baggins and Philip Marlowe are clearly very different people in very different places, and you couldn’t swap the diction of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Big Sleep without making hash of both books. J.R.R. Tolkien and Raymond Chandler each knew the diction they wanted and used it precisely. How did they learn that? By reading voraciously, noticing how other writers used diction, and then creating a narrative style and diction of their own that nobody has ever really been able to imitate.
You can read to learn diction. You can read to learn how to handle the mechanics of prose—for example, how to describe two characters having a conversation and make it work, whether they’re deep in love and murmuring endearments over the top of a little round table in a quiet café or battling to the death with broadswords and snarling insults at each other over the top of their shields. You can read to learn how to plot—not just the grand overall structure, but how each scene begins and proceeds and ends, how the pace picks up and relaxes, how the reader gets sucked from one scene to the next without hamfisted gimmicks like cliffhanger endings, and the rest of it. If you want to write, you’ll learn to read in all these ways and more, because it’s by this kind of reading that you learn the techniques of the art.
You’re not doing this to learn the right way to do things. There is no right way to do things. You’re doing it to figure out how the books you enjoy do what they do, so you can do the same things if you want to. While you’re at it, now and then, pick up a book you really dislike and pick it apart, so you can figure out why it’s so lousy and avoid the things that make it lousy. Giggle at the medieval characters who talk like stockbrokers, or the stockbrokers who talk like medieval characters; shake your head over the clumsy dialogue, the awkward descriptions, the endlessly rehashed clichés. That’ll immunize you against putting them into your own work.
Step Two: You need to write every single day. If all you can spare is fifteen minutes for writing, write for those fifteen minutes. If you can spare more, write longer. It doesn’t matter what you write about, and for heaven’s sake, turn off the spell checker and the grammar checker if you’re doing this on keyboard. Your goal is to pick up the habit of putting your thoughts down on paper. If you can’t think of anything to write about, write about how boring it is to have to write when you have nothing to write about. Or find some other theme. Just write.
When you’re writing, there’s one absolute, ironclad, essential rule: never edit while you’re writing. Brain researchers have found that the part of your brain that creates and the part of your brain that edits interfere with each other; if you try to use both at the same time, they both jam up. That’s called writer’s block. All those miserable writing assignments you stumbled through in school, sweating over every word to try to avoid a bad grade, might as well have been designed to give you writer’s block. Your mission, if you should choose to accept it, is to break out of that bad habit. One easy way to do it is just keep writing—don’t let your pen stop moving over the paper or your fingers over the keyboard, even if all you can write is gibberish or the repetition of some word. Keep the flow going. You can edit later.
In fact, editing later is a good habit to cultivate, right from the start. At first, it’s usually a good idea to do it at a different time of day, so you can build the habit of treating writing and editing as two separate activities. Take what you’ve written and read through it. Your goal at this stage isn’t to find faults, it’s to figure out how you can improve what you’ve written. If a sentence you’ve written looks awkward, that’s fine—you got the idea down. Now play with it, rewrite it in several different ways, and see if you can make it work better.
Later on, when you have some experience with editing, you can have fun at this stage: try rewriting one of your passages so it sounds like something in The Fellowship of the Ring, and then rewrite the same passage so it sounds like something in The Big Sleep—or pick two books you like, which use very different diction and style, and do the same thing. That’s for later, though. Start with simple editing, cleaning things up, having fun with different ways of saying things. Keep it playful, and remember nobody has to like it but you.
Those are your first two steps: first, learn to read like a writer; second, make it a habit to write every single day, and save editing for some later time. There’s more to it, and we’ll get to the next steps as we proceed, but I want to stop here for the moment and take a broader look at the macrocosm of modern society.
The same pressures that taught you that you can’t write were also used just as systematically to teach you that you can’t do plenty of other things, too. The interchangeable parts that come out of a factory can’t do anything by themselves; all they can do is carry out some prearranged function in a machine somewhere. The goal of schooling as it’s practiced in today’s industrial societies is to make sure you can’t do anything by yourself, either, so that you’ll accept being plugged into a machine somewhere to carry out a prearranged function there. Maybe that sounds like the kind of life you want. It never interested me, which is why I did something else—and if it doesn’t interest you, why, you too can do something else.
Every human being without exception has the capacity for magnificence. We are not condemned to a life of lurching through prearranged functions by anything but the lies we’ve been taught and the capacities we haven’t yet learned to use. Your potential for magnificence may well not be the same as mine—that’s the reality behind all that pretentious babble about talent—but you have the potential. If you want to do something with it, why, you now know how to get started, because the same principles noted above apply to most human activities:
- Pay close attention to how other people do the thing you want to do, and learn from their successes and their failures.
- Practice the thing you want to do every single day, without burdening yourself with stress about doing it right—you can sort out the details later.
Do these things and a door will open for you. As for what lies beyond that door—why, we’ll talk about that in three weeks.
* * * * *
There are five Wednesdays in this month, and by a longstanding tradition on this blog, that means the readers get to vote on a topic for the fifth Wednesday post. What would you like to hear me chatter about?
I just wanted to note that this series of posts has encouraged me to resubmit my as-yet-unpublished novels again and to keep working on the others tucked away in my brain.
As for 5th Wed topic, I’d be interested in an assessment of the US political landscape and near-term (next decade timeframe) spectrum of possibilities in the current populist-elitist struggle.
Does anyone have experience of democratic schools like Summerhill in Britain and Sudbury Valley in America? From the moment I heard such places existed, to me they were The Promised Land. Unfortunately the promise remained unfulfilled and I never went to one.
The Fifth Wednesday (still say that needs to be the title of a conspiracy thriller): Russian Cosmism. Partly inspired by this book – https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/id/64f39b61-3e43-40f1-a397-389eb65ed847/1003383.pdf. I knew Bolshevik occultism got weird but…oh boy.
Excellent piece! I recall that Stephen King, who can’t stop writing, says he finishes a manuscript without editing and then puts it in a drawer for several weeks before he returns to it….
You sure do like the word “gallimaufry.”
My experience in public school was being targeted for destruction, for reasons I can only guess at. The teachers I had, with precious few exceptions, made it their mission to inform me I could do nothing right and to make me regret it if I tried to do anything. The one exception to that was writing. I must’ve had enough natural talent that even they had to give me credit and encourage it to some degree. Though they did hate what I chose to write and read about (I was into horror very young, that was just not acceptable), so it did get swept up in the effort to forcefully reprogram my fictional tastes (which didn’t work).
My creativity died later on, after a very failed attempt to share something online, when I realized while I could maybe write well enough, I lacked all the other necessary, mainly social, skills to get anything seen. As well that anything I did write would be very niche. I’m reading this series of yours with some interest, wondering if it’s worth it to try something again.
That was very good.
I dropped out of school somewhere in the sixth grade and read a lot. I found school deadly dull and depressing. The smell of primary schools is, for me, the smell of despair. I also travelled a great deal and came back to my home country 11 years after I left it as a youngster.
I went back to college and did my requirements for grade 12 in two semesters. Then, I did two years of university transfer courses at the same college and then went to a University.
I loved it and as I was paying for it, I went to every class. Because I could think on my own and write well in English, I had an A- average my last two years. Before that, it was somewhat higher but the last two years, I was also playing rugby.
Last year, I mentioned that I wanted to learn to play the cello but thought that was an impossible dream and only people who came from elevated-musical families and started at the age of four could do such things. A friend promptly lent me his beautiful, very expensive cello and found me a cello teacher.
The teacher gave me a hard time for the first couple of months but when he saw I would not give up, he softened and became the most generous and kind teacher I have ever known.
I love playing the cello and insist on an hour’s practice no matter what else is happening. My teacher, my family and friends are all very happy with my progress and are very supportive.
Now, I just need to find that 15 minutes a day to write my fiction. My family love the story and want more of it. I learned to write fiction from you, Mr. Greer and nothing could be easier!
Hugs from Maxine
My vote for 5th Wednesday is something about W.B. Yeats.
It seems that “they” are trying to turn EVERY process into an assembly line.
I work in IT. We have project managers who are supposed to track every stage of the process, ensuring that they know when this part will be done, as it needs to be complete before they start the next stage. Coding is NOT a predictable, rote, assembly line process: it’s a creative process.
Imagine trying to run a factory full of artists, trying to turn out large quantities of fine art. Stretching canvas may be amenable to this but actually putting something compelling onto that canvas … good luck with that. You may succeed in generating a significant quantity of something, but it’s not going to have much value.
While there is little about modern programming which would qualify as “fine art,” the processes by which both are made are far more similar than anything involving an assembly line.
Fantastic Post, JMG. Try not too judge me too harshly here, but I did get the Creative Writing education you mentioned. It was interesting, I’ll say that much. I had some excellent teachers that helped me up my game, so to speak, but…And here’s the but that proves you right…I didn’t come out of the program with my self-esteem intact.
I’ve mentioned this to you in past comments, but many of the writers in the program seemed horrified by the notion that they might accidentally entertain someone. By nature, I’m a storyteller. I have no pretensions about being an academic writer, and my writing reflects this. So I spent my years in college experiencing a weird dichotomy where people would read my stories, become engrossed, laugh, etc., then shake their heads at me when they finished.
“It’s good, but it’s very commercial.”
“This is nice, but I found myself wanting to know what happened next at the end of the chapter. Which…That’s really kind of a genre trick, isn’t it?”
“I don’t see this getting picked up in a lit journal.”
Those are just a few of the greatest hits. Another shining moment was when a student from outside the program read one of my stories and said “I don’t want to offend you, but your writing reminds me of [I forget the guy’s name, but he was a bestselling author at the time].”
Everything culminated with a final thesis project that was just absolutely unlike my normal writing (in a bad way), because I was too busy trying to figure out what exactly I was doing wrong to pay attention to what I was getting right.
I’ve continued to struggle with confidence for the past few years, but I’m working through it, still putting pen to paper, and finally sounding like myself again. I don’t entirely regret the experience, but I can tell it’s made me more protective of my daughter (a very talented budding artist herself) and how she interacts with the “teachers” she meets along the way. Thank goodness I’m too stubborn to quit, though, or my education might’ve done me in.
Apologies, this has become a big ramble about my life.
Thanks for writing this. It made my day and gave me some renewed enthusiasm about my prospects. And I just started a new novel project on Sunday, so it couldn’t have come at a better time!
The whole thing about ‘talent’ afflicts music at least as badly as writing. There seems to be an idea that there’s a small minority with massive talent for music and everybody else, who shouldn’t even bother trying.
This ignores several realities:
-within music people have talents for different things. You may be physically well-suited to playing one instrument while another is too big for your hands to reach at all, for example. There’s also a lot of different kinds of mental challenges, from memorizing music to sightreading two different clefs at once, to learning to by ear, to composing, to improvisation. You’re probably better at some than at others, and each person’s set is different.
-the vital, critical importance of practice in gaining skill. When someone tells me ‘oh, you’re so talented!’ I tend to go ‘skill, and years of practice. Talent is nothing without hard work.’ People get skill and talent confused, and it drives me crazy, because a) they end up not realizing how much work it takes to get to a given level and not respecting the work, and b) it means they assume they can’t ever do it themselves. And they’re quite likely wrong. As far as I can tell, I’m not outstandingly talented at playing musical instruments. I was probably a bit more gifted than average but sunk massive amounts of time, hard work, and non-minor amounts of money into learning. And it paid off.
also c) it means that when they don’t get good in a lesson or two, they get discouraged and start thinking about giving up.
Composition and improvisation are a bit different from me. Improving is easy for me and I don’t know how I do it. This tends to throw classically-trained musicians for a bit of a loop. Classical musical training doesn’t normally train improvisation, and it therefore tends to scare classically-trained musicians. I think the difference is that I grew up learning folk music by ear, and decorating church hymns and renaissance music with my own inventions when I got bored in rehersals. Nobody told me what I was doing was supposed to be hard, so I just did it. Sometimes I’d fall flat on my face, but then the next time would be fine. And I got better at it. This did result in weird things, like jamming with the drummers on my piccolo playing whatever and them going ‘I didn’t know you could do that with a piccolo’. And me looking confused and going ‘Why not? It’s just a small flute and I know jazz flute is a thing.’
Composition… my skills improved dramatically after taking 1 semester of classes in high school. I only knew music theory as it pertained to the flute before that, and my lack of skills with harmony was holding me back from doing anything really interesting. Taking up the harp has definitely helped, too.
I’d like to hear you chatter about your next books, the ones using magic in the modern world. Loved the Weird of Hali series!
Thanks for another great article. These are very heartening and fortifying.
My first vote is for a discussion on limits and their use in poetry.
My second vote is on the influence of William Blake for the Druid Revival.
My third vote is on the historical origin of the standard four elemental tools in ritual magic.
(I think I may be a fan of ranked voting in some cases. I haven’t decided yet though for sure.)
Much thanks for this essay. I was reminded immediately of two occasions in my life that fit well into your descriptions of creativity versus “industrial” education. When a young teen in Art class I was deeply immersed in a project on a large piece of paper – but it was all cancelled because we had to “move on” to other things. I regret to this day never having finished nor preserved that drawing. Much later I did an essay for a class in uvinercity [there is nothing ‘unifying’ about multivercities] that was straight from the heart and gut. The mark did not matter as much as the one comment: “Epigrammatic”! And it was not a compliment.
My 6 year old grandson is a great story teller already. He can neither read nor write yet. I fear, greatly, that he will lose that marvelous ability with more ‘industrial education’. I shall encourage him and his parents to never allow him to lose that “talent”.
Just thinking about the recorder and school. The recorder is a good starter instrument, and I do approve of as many people as possible learning an instrument. I teach recorder.
The trouble is, the way it is taught in elementary school has done horrible things to the instrument’s reputation. Mention ‘recorder’ and people immediately imagine a plastic soprano being played very badly by a child. And a lot of people think that’s all there is.
Play a recorder decently, even just a simple song, and you get shocked reactions because a lot of people don’t realize it’s a real instrument that can played pleasantly. That’s not even getting into the fact that the recorder comes in many different sizes, has hundreds of years of music written for it, and virtuoso recorder players are a thing and can sound utterly fantastic. You also get no respect as a recorder player until and unless people hear you, and often not even then because the idea that a recorder is not a proper instrument is so ingrained.
The recorder is potentially a wonderful instrument for the long descent. You can buy decent quality instruments very cheaply right now, they aren’t hard to learn the basics of, and they can play chromatically so you can play many different styles of music. Further down the curve, recorders are easy to make from wood with relatively simple tools, and you don’t need electricity to play them, or a vehicle to transport them (unless you’re talking contrabass recorders those are huge). The recorder was very popular during the middle ages, and I can’t see us losing the ability to make them any time soon.
But if all people know of the recorder is ‘hot SQUEAK cross SQUEAL buns’, will the recorder be used the way it could be?
And I have to blame the way schools teach it for that. I know you can only do so much in a class of 25+ children, but please, play a recording of someone playing something impressive well at least once so the kids know what’s possible, and suggest to students who are disappointed to stop that there are other places where they could learn more outside of school. If I hadn’t run into the recorder in the SCA, I probably wouldn’t be playing or teaching it now.
Weather is a topic to ever fall back on, fifth humpday or not. Reliably & comfortably accommodates lotsa chattering business. Whether straight or wrapped in metaphor—well why, you decide 🙂
Dear JMG, thank you for this! Something I have consistently admired about you is how much you have encouraged your audience to write. It’s advice that I took some years ago, and have now well over a million words on my own blog. Basically, I decided to make a mash-up of my youthful infatuation with the Beatniks and write stream of consciousness essays with hardly any editing, but on mostly occult topics, in the spirit of discursive meditation. To my surprise, now I have quite a number of people who read my work, and tell me that they enjoy it and that reading what I write makes their lives better.
Having now written 1,355 essays on my blog at last count, I can attest that the process has changed me profoundly — I can now think much faster on the fly, am more articulate in my speech, have far greater clarity, and far more self-honesty. So as a spiritual practice at least I have found writing daily profoundly rewarding.
Basically, I want to join you in the comment sections here in encouraging other people who are so inclined to write as a daily practice, if only as a hobby! For me, writing has been a wholesome hobby that has really had a good effect on my life and others claim it has had a good effect on them too. It has cost me practically nothing and bettered me at least as much as any other practice I have ever done.
Luckily for me, my parents were educators and taught me to read with phonics before I got to school. Here’s an interesting tale of what phonics can do:
My dad was the principal of probably the poorest, lowest-performing school in a poor, low-performing parish in rural Louisiana. The black population in the school was probably over half, which was considered a disadvantage to academic standing.
He saw that the reading books didn’t use phonics, which he knew from his own experience as a kid, and from teaching my brother and I, was a mistake. He only got funding every few years for new books, and those stars hadn’t aligned, so he just tightened the belt on the budget and used discretionary funds to buy new reading textbooks that taught phonics. In a year, his unteachable students were blowing the rest of the parish out of the water in test scores. The superintendent demanded to know what he did, and he fessed up.
The man had the sense to adopt those texts for the whole parish, and in another year it went from the bottom half of the state in reading to #1 on the standardized tests. I’m not sure if they still use phonics, as that was some time ago, but even by public education’s questionable metrics of standardized testing, phonics allowed poor rural black kids to outperform big city white kids in reading in no time flat.
On writing programs:
I loved writing as a kid and so majored in English with a CW concentration, then got an MFA. I had fun and actually did learn a lot of useful things. But as you said, there are a lot of unhelpful if not harmful practices, too.
The feedback process is one of them. I got thicker skin, but good editors—which is what you need for feedback—are hard to find, and good writers don’t necessarily qualify. Most of it was useless line notes on a scene out of context, or even outline feedback. A few people were genuinely helpful. If you know and trust the reader, it can be great, but good luck finding that person.
Another unhelpful thing, synchronistically, was the outlining and beat sheet process they required. I just happened to publish an essay about that on my own blog this very morning, which anyone interested can find linked through my profile. Personally, I found it mechanical and stifling to have to write out every major point of the story, sometimes in great detail, before ever getting to sit down and write a scene. It makes for a very tight blockbuster rehash, and may help some, but not me. I also got tired of every story having to fit Joseph Campbell’s model.
The short of it is that I do still use loose outlining in certain situations (like the arc of a single scene), but I never let it get in the way of a good story heading elsewhere, and I prefer the scenes to drive the story (not the outline drive the scenes) and settle into whatever structure they find.
Hey JMG, another fine post that is definitely an accurate analysis of how the motives of corporate America and profits has stunted the education of many of us. I recall using the SRA books in grade school in the late 1960s which allowed students to progress through increasing different color based lessons, and allowed me to zoom to the higher end colors in 2nd grade without being “held back” to other students’ pace. Ironically enough, I think silver, gold and copper were the highest colors. By the time I was in college 10 years later, the creative writing class I took was very structured and covered many of the bad aspects you’re describing. It was anything but a positive and encouraging experience.
The “factory” of writing started by Edward Stratemeyer did bring us Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, which many kids (and adults) still enjoy, but probably contributed to the formulaic approach to the art of writing. This of course just results in stunting the growth of the really talented writers, and exceptional ones like Raymond Chandler are few and far between….
Thanks, JMG. This was decidedly helpful, as was also your earlier post in this autumn’s series, regarding the commercial rapacity of book publishers.
When I lived in Canada, I made the acquaintance of the mathematician and writer John Mighton, who acquired a PhD in the topology or topology-like pure-maths subject which is “knot theory”. Dr Mighton also won a Governor Generals Medal for stage-drama writing. He has a thesis about maths paralleling your thesis about authorship, namely that the education system, intent on dumbing the majority down, portrays maths as the proper preserve of a tiny, specially talented elite. He defends this thesis (this indictment of the school system) in several places, among them his book _The Myth of Ability: Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child_.
I would like to add, perhaps at the risk of attracting some slight criticism from you, that when it comes to writing non-fiction, then outlining helps. I personally advocate planning non-fiction to the point at which fully half the invested time goes into the outlining (with the other half, then, being used to convert the outline into the polished sentences and the flowing sequence of paragraphs). I call my favoured type of outline a “logic blueprint”. I explain these ideas at some length, with a case study from my days in Canada – the logic blueprint, and then the 1990s finished piece, duly sold to that eminent organ of Nova Scotian public opinion which is the _Truro Daily News_, circulation conceivably 5,000 or 8,000 – at http://www.metascientia.com/PNNN____lit/PNNN____logic_blueprints.html . Well, we all do what we can. You sell a lot, and back in those days in Canada I managed to sell a little.
Tom = Toomas,
now at edge of Tartu Observatory dark-sky campus, in Estonia,
and now blogging at toomaskarmo[dot]blogspot[dot]ca
PS: Thanks for remarks on diction, including the use of dictionaries! In spirit of irreverence, I want to remark that the diction of Hemingway is fun: ((SPECIMEN)) Short words are good. Why? Well, tough guys like short words. They use short words a lot. They find short words pack a big punch. Yup. ((/SPECIMEN))
Excellent and inspiring post. Thank you.
I vote for an essay on the slump in digital advertising revenue. It’s only tangentially related to the big themes of this blog, but it is something I imagine you would have interesting thoughts on.
Here are some data in support of our host’s take on our present-day schooling, with which I fully agree.
My wife’s great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Randall Jordan, a farmer in a small town (Newfield) in rural Maine during the early 19th century, was indentured in his ‘teens to another farmer. One of the terms of his indenture was two (IIRC) years of schooling in the one-room school of his town. He actually got just ten months of the promised two years.
In those ten months he learned to read and write (and a bit of arithmetic). He read and wrote avidly for the rest of his life, buying books and blank paper at the local general store. His library of heavily-read books has come down to us. It included translations from Greek and Latin by Alexander Pope, Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, solid scholarly books on the history of religions, an good elementary textbook of astronomy with its accompanying atlas of star maps, and a great many other things. These are books which almost all of the students I taught at my Ivy-league university would have found tough going, despite their having had 12 years of modern American schooling.
The man also wrote enjoyable, humorous (at times slightly bawdy) verse, which he bound up into handwritten volumes of his own making, and also compiled a detailed handwritten chronicle of his own life, The Book of Benjamin, from his birth almost to the day of his death.
His father had died when he was very young, and his mother before he was 10. (It was he who actually first discovered his mother lying dead on the floor of their kitchen.) So he and his siblings were taken in by a relative in the same village. Since this sort of event in a child’s life was not at all rare in rural Maine in the early 1800s, he seems not to have felt singled out by an unduly harsh fate, or even particularly traumatized by what had happened; many of his age-mates, boys and girls alike, were having similar experiences every year.
(Nowadays it would be rare for a child to have similar experiences, and such a child would likely be assigned years of therapy by the school system. I’m not saying that such a level of support might not be needed nowadays. However, I suppose that the very usualness of such experiences back then would have lessened their impact of any individual child.)
In a nutshell, this is what the village one-room school could do for a boy in the early 1800s–assuming, of course, that the boy was interested in what the school had to offer him, whether for the sheer pleasure of reading and writing, or simply to develop some skills that would help him get by in life.
And as a fall-back, there was always simple farm-work by which a boy could earn his bed and board.
So, when our own children came along, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I saw to it that each of them learned to read English well before they started school. I schooled them in the usual ways of pronouncing each letter and letter-combination in English, and together we applied that knowledge to reading the small “Peanuts” books that were being published at the time. By the time they entered kindergarten, they could each read pretty much anything they were interested in reading. I figured that would be enough to innoculate them against the school system they would need to endure for the reast of their childhood. And it actually was enough. (Our older boy didn’t even bother to finish college, since he had already taught himself what he needed to know to for a career in computing by the time he was able to take classes in that field: the classes that were offered at my university were too elementary and boring for him. It was very much the right decision for him.)
“When you’re writing, there’s one absolute, ironclad, essential rule: never edit while you’re writing.”
The professor in my technical writing class said that back in the ’80s. Get the words on the paper now, fix it later. The other bit of good advice was that sometimes it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it must be done by Thursday, it’s up to you to know difference.
Engineers had to take technical writing, I’m not sure how that differs from creative writing in details. Certainly some of the proposals I’ve seen qualified as creative fiction.
As to that rule, I sort of break that. I’ll write until the moment of inspiration runs out, then backtrack to where I started and edit through to where I stopped by which time inspiration has returned.
As for phonics, that failed with both me and my daughter. We both read by pattern recognition for lack of a better term. Form and from confused her for a year, elephant she learned the first time she saw it. As you said, different people learn in different ways at different times.
On to next week’s topic, the uproar at the moment is the latest crypto currency scandal. Money sent to Ukraine ends up in crypto ends up back in U.S. and donated to Democratic Party, then the company goes bust 2 days after the election. There has to be a dying empire thrashing about angle there.
At the age of 12 or 13 I was at the overall bottom in my year out of about 100 kids. My teachers and parents had no clue what to do with me because it wasn’t like I was completely stupid, it was just that I wasn’t academic in any way. As far as I was concerned, most teachers spoke an alien language that I was unfamiliar with. Nevertheless, the one thing I was reasonably good at – because I enjoyed it – was English and writing. And the only reason for this was because I was a voracious reader! Okay, so it was mostly junk sci-fi and fantasy adventures, but I could consume a book a day – sometimes two.
I left the school system with poor results, and staggered into a third-rate university to study a subject I wasn’t interested in. This led to wrong career choices, and by age 24 I was disillusioned enough to jack it in and go to Australia to work on a fruit farm. It was there, one night in my tent somewhere in the middle of a ten-thousand-acre pear orchard, that I had my epiphany.
The catalyst came in the form of a book in my backpack. It was the most poorly written, typo-filled, execrable piece of formulaic trash fiction I’d ever had the misfortune to run my eyes over. Every page had me gasping in astonishment at how dire it was. But I was in a tent in the middle of nowhere and it was all I had to read – after all, there are not many libraries or bookshops in the back of beyond. The plot, as I remember it, involved a group of people who could breathe underwater. They rode bicycles across the floor of the Atlantic to save Earth from an asteroid, or something. It was even more dreadful than it sounds, but I thought “If this guy can sell such tosh and get away with it then I’m going to give it a go.”
Ever since then I’ve been involved in writing in some way or another. Be it working in journalism, editing, writing books and blogs or doing copywriting, it’s been the art and skill of selecting and arranging words to fire off into people’s minds that has been how I’ve earned my living. Who’d have thought? So, thanks, Piers Anthony, I owe you one (to be fair, maybe some of his later books were better and I caught one of his early efforts).
And thanks also to you too, JMG, for your advice about setting up a small publishing venture in your last post on writing. This really struck a chord with me and I’m at the research stage of looking into how this could work … once I slip free of my corporate shackles (soon!).
Incidentally, aside from the advice offered here by our esteemed host, I cannot recommend enough Stephen King’s book “On Writing”. It’s one of those books I’ve had to buy at least three times because I keep lending it out and not getting it back. Ray Bradbury’s “Zen in the Art of Writing” is also worth your time.
Thanks very much for this wonderful post, as usual. As someone who teaches college students how to write (interoffice memos, basically, but still), I need to go over my approach and make sure I’ve weeded out the unhelpful stuff. I do at least teach “write a crappy first draft, edit later”.
As for a Fifth Wednesday topic, I’d appreciate anything magic/occult/esoteric related, but for the sake of specificity, maybe an update on where you are with your various long-term research projects and how they have changed your understanding of the world? The two that come immediately to mind are your ongoing work on the temple/grail tradition and the American internal-alchemy stuff with the “Tibetan” Five Rites and so forth, but mostly I’m just interested in a longer-form/more reflective look at how your occult/magical thinking is developing than separate responses to Magic Monday posts, so if anyone else has a more specific ask that gets more traction, consider my vote going there, please.
To be fair to creative writing programs, Wallace Stegner seemingly ran a good one in the ’50s, helping such writers as Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey and Ken Kesey find their feet. ‘Tis also a good reminder that ‘literary’ aspirations and enjoyability used not to be mutually excusive concepts.
“Every human being without exception has the capacity for magnificence.”
I don’t disagree with you, but at the same time behind every successful writer there must be sewer cleaners, grocery shelf stockers, paper mill workers, printing press operators, and book binders.
To the extent that we wish to create a society in which every person is able and encouraged to achieve magnificence, we must find a way to either make the odious and tedious jobs more fulfilling, or find a way to spread that labor across the whole population (e.g. through mandatory community service in young adulthood). Otherwise the best we can do is create a world in which some people pursue magnificence and the rest – whether by conditioning or circumstance or lack of ambition – are effectively servants “lurching through prearranged functions”.
A while back there was the ten thousand hours idea getting a lot of traction. It mainly consisted of the claim that if you spent ten thousand hours at any pursuit that you would master it. Clearly that isn’t the case or almost all middle aged drivers would be flawless in their control of automobiles.
Your point about reflection and further research as a matter of course is likely the secret ingredients that the previous claim failed to identify. After completing a project asking: are you happy with the result, how could it have been better, what would you do differently next time?
It is hard to imagine a world where reflection and contemplation is standard practice and not the rarity it is nowadays.
I’ve been playing guitar for 40 years and like to think I’m reasonably competent at it. It’s funny how often people say to me, I would love to play guitar. To which I always reply, well why don’t you. They always answer something like, I have no musical talent. To which I reply playing music is a craft, like woodwork, you learn it by constant repetition.
When I was only a few months playing and still doubted my ability to master it, I expressed those doubts to a work colleague who had already mastered it. He asked me, if you’re listening to a song you know well, at the start of each verse can you start singing at the right moment. I said yes, well he said then you can play music, after that it’s just work.
Having been at many big Irish weddings down the years, I have observed a few people who cannot dance, maybe one percent. No matter the rhythm or tempo of the music their dancing is always the same. They no doubt have other abilities but will never be competent musicians. So many others will never try because as JMG says they have convinced themselves they lack the necessary talent.
Thanks for your comments on education. So true. I’m seeing this happen in real time with my kids in public school. My 9 year old is way ahead in reading/writing. She writes and illustrates elaborate teen level stories. But she struggles a bit in math. My 12 year old is the opposite. He has a hard time with reading comprehension, but is beyond ready for algebra. He taught himself how to code and 3d model. Nothing I did. They’re just pursuing what comes to them naturally.
Public schools can’t deal with this so it’s lowest common denominator, which demoralizes all students equally. The predominant sentiment from my kids about school is “boring”. And of course, there’s the political aspect in public school. As a mile example, my son had an assignment on why Lizzo playing James Madision’s crystal flute was “significant.” It’s a leading question with only one right answer. Public school always had a left lean fair enough, but now the “other side” isn’t even presented to be mocked. It’s just ignored and narratives are presented to be celebrated.
We looked into home schooling but the time commitment just didn’t seem financially practical. Ditto for Catholic. So now we’re looking at charter schools. We might have to move to get the education we want for our kids. It’s stressful but I’m happy that the factory education system is breaking down, albeit slowly.
I recommend mythcreants.com to any aspiring fantasy/scifi fiction writers. They have tons of articles on a variety of topics, and tend to poke fun at writing advice of the ‘experts.’ While they lean left (I tend to just skip any of their “social justice” articles), they have some wonderful deconstructions of passages in books (both good and bad) and I’ve found their advice to be helpful in figuring out why I like certain authors and characters, which has helped me develop my own meager writing.
Bradley… Many ages ago, I learned to separate the person from the job they do. A nasty piece of work can still do a good job, and the nicest person in the world may be useless. Most people can’t do this and so very amenable, but incompetent people find work. I also understand why one might not want to work with someone who isn’t pleasant to work with, it can be a strain. I believe it is also a symptom of the Marxist psychosis of our world that nowadays, only paragons of virtue are allowed to exist in public, which is probably another factor in why so many people are not finding work in the mainstream economy.
Now, I crave your indulgence, I’ll present this vignette as related to the topic at hand because you are ultimately talking about the modern economy in general and here is one other example of how academicism and scientism waste money and siphon away otherwise creative minds into blind alleys where they do nothing useful for their entire careers.
A few days ago, on the subway train, while re-reading “After Progress”, chapter 5, wherein we look at the vast expenditures on the mirage of Fusion Power as an illustration of the waste of resources on pointless exploration by the Clerisy in our world which worships progress, I chanced to look up and right there in front of me was a poster for…
..are you sitting down?
…volunteers for a study on Birch-tree allergy.
I don’t know how many suffer from this affliction (I do know there are very few birch trees around the city) or how many thousands of dollars are being lavished on this, but I’ll just leave it there. ’nuff said.
I’ve been writing fairly consistently for the past few months, usually as a type of daily journal where more often then not it is a recap of the day or what is left of it. Maybe I’ll add some musings based on things I’ve read or just encountered throughout the day.
Sometimes, there is an explosion of thoughts that is very rewarding to transcribe, or as your about to fall asleep a spark of inspiration comes for an interesting concept.
I’m still in the early days but hope with more practice to better at following through and overcoming the feeling of what I’ve written is terrible.
I second the vote for something about Yeats for 5th Wednesday.
Thanks for this post. I couldn’t agree with you more. This reminds me a lot of a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson about changing educational paradigms. The most important thing about children is not their date of manufacture! I know from personal experience that people learn things differently at different ages and in lots of different ways. The 1960s paradigm for teaching arithmetic and maths in schools (even “good” schools) almost scuppered my entire education. Luckily, I ended up attended a state university that took the science part of a liberal arts and science degree seriously. (Why was I at that university? Simple. Because I didn’t have the maths scores to go to the one I really wanted to attend.) Which is where I discovered that I’m not mathematically stupid; I just wasn’t ready to learn the topic du jour at age 8, plus I had teachers who weren’t willing or were unable to waste time engaging with me (could being a little girl in 1962 have had something to do with it… hmmm — but that’s another issue). At university, I taught myself trigonometry, with the help of an excellent textbook which had answers in the back, and the next semester I had a really good TA who nursed the whole “maths for dummies” class (oh, yes it was called that) through basic calculus. Mathematics are still challenging, but you bet I can handle anything I need to use regularly.
These days in my spare time I am an embroiderer and a weaver, and I absolutely hold to the idea of doing whatever it is that you want to improve upon every single day. Tommye McClure Scanlin, a fabulous weaver from Georgia, says, “weave every damn day”. And she’s right. There is, by the way, quite a bit of maths when it comes to designing a weave structure, estimating amounts of fibre and warping a loom. Who knew?
In my day job, I’m an editor of reference books and academic monographs. Believe me, I’ve read some awful text. But the thing is, the ideas are there. Often very interesting and exciting ideas. But no one has ever told many of these authors that writing takes practice — they think because they are “smart” that it’ll all come naturally and if it doesn’t, they sure aren’t going to be seen to work on it because then they are afraid that their peers will think they are stupid. Which is rubbish, of course. Didn’t someone say something like “the harder I practice, the luckier I get”?
So true. I’m a software engineer by trade. It’s so hard to describe writing code to outsiders, but fundamentally it’s writing instructions for computers. Because computers are dumb machines, you have to write in a simplified language. Because the language is limited, there’s a infinite ways to put these building blocks (if…then, for…of) together, hence it’s a kind of creative writing, and every engineer has a different recognizable style that can be called “elegant” or “brute force” or what have you.
Give the same task to ten engineers and the code could be quite different under the hood. Estimates are educated guesses at best. You have patterns in your toolbelt, but you just don’t know until you’re in the thick of it. Every situation is unique because software is malleable. It’s not a bridge or an airplane.
D. #25 – Unless I’m mistaken John Irving, in his autobiography, also mentions a college writing class that he took which Kurt Vonnegut himself was teaching. That one seemed to be pretty good also, but higher education was I’m sure quite a bit different even as recently as Irving’s time. Of course, a Kilgore Trout-led creative writing class certainly would be the exception, not the rule, in any time in history.
JMG – I’d also love to read something about Yeats along with previous commenter Jacques.
In a bit, I will be talking on writing. I will wend my way to there.
I think that “the getting” marijuana to be legal, therefore creating infrastructure of increasing numbers of people spending their daylight hours impaired, leads to people not giving a flying F about much of anything, including their kids’ schooling.
• Legalizing marijuana.√
• Parents too permanently stoned/drunk to notice that their kids are not learning to read, write, and ‘rithmetic. √
• People (and, in time, their kids) too stoned and uneducated to do anything other than strike out violently, in a world they don’t understand, nor have virtually no chance to do things to better one’s circumstances.
• Americans have a disease. I will call it the “Do-For Disease.” Americans cannot “do for themselves,” so their only choice is to batter others into “doing for them,” as a servant. The problem is, finding others to “do for them” is decreasing by the minute. No-one wants to be a servant. If one doesn’t do it for oneself, it doesn’t get done. One must learn to do for oneself. Or one does without, a skill in itself. √
I am 70 (school 1963 ± 7 years). I never learned how to write an essay. It was so long ago, I don’t have insight into how that happened. I am not the only one who never learned how to write an essay. Knowing how to write an essay is super, super, super crucial in just about everything in life. I will go so far to say that knowing, or not knowing, how to write an essay makes or breaks a person, their future, and their descendants’ futures. √
I, now, only know how to write an essay because I taught myself about ten years ago, at age 60. Around that time, I discovered that there are almost NO classes/courses for ADULTS to learn how to write an essay. I had to scrounge to find help, including books. At the time, I thought the no-help was strange, but now I am thinking that there are people out there consciously trying to destroy resources for adults to learn essay-writing. It is such that I am thinking that maybe it is time that people teach EACH OTHER how to write an essay. √
• What was most hard was seeing that I had to start at rockbottom in learning things I never mastered 60 years ago. I felt ashamed, borderline humiliated, of searching for help on how to write an essay. There was NOTHIN’. For me, I had to knock it back to learning, get this, how to write good sentences. √
• High on marijuana, people sit around and do nothing. √
• Or they pass the hat begging for bus fare to Washington DC, and tear down the Capitol building complex instead. √
Immigrants to the USA have it good because they get to learn, free of charge, and with virtually no humiliation involved, how to write an essay as part of English-as-a-second-language,— with no stigma attached whatsoever. People brought up in the USA school system have no such luxury.
One way or another, teach our ADULT selves, ADULT neighbors, ADULT friends, ADULT communities, how to write an essay, in complete neutrality — in other words, absolutely no shaming, guilt-trips, humiliation, &tc. at anyplace or anytime they need to learn how to read or write.
Fifteen years ago, I would have been hard-put to write “this essay,” with a beginning, middle, and end, where it at least makes some sense. I said, “Why can’t I write worth two cents?” I felt a lack, but a lack I was bound and determined “to fix.”
I royally screw up “tone” — I didn’t learn THAT in school either — I have difficulty being neutral.
JMG, I agree with you that everyone CAN write.
Where I diverge is that the existing adult population does not know how to write an essay, and most don’t realize that they cannot do it, and most don’t perceive that it has a lot to do on how well they get on in life. (Instead, they blame others.)
Knowing how to write an essay as an adult is a pretty high bar. When a person learns how to write an essay, (s)he can branch out to more luxurious categories of writing, like fiction. Knock it back to not knowing how to write a good sentence. Knock it back to not knowing grammar. Knock it back to not knowing how to spell. &tc. In other words, per person, knock it far enough back and fill the holes (of not knowing). Each of us walks around with tons of holes —cobwebs—, or like holes in socks, but when one divulges (tells someone) that (s)he suffers from a hole/cobweb, others shame that adult for it. How does one uncover that they have a particular hole/cobweb if not by speaking about the issue neutrally with someone else? If one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know, how can (s)he ever get to a point of knowing it?
The older students in the one-room schoolhouse (of old) played an absolutely necessary role in helping younger kids figure things out, AND we need that same function applied to English-speaking adults in the USA today — I don’t know, maybe informal neighborhood remedial education. Or something. My experience ten years ago was that essay-writing for an adult was very spotty. And there is a huge shaming factor, which I don’t think has changed.
Ten years ago, I found it arduous to find someone, anyone — some class, some course — who taught intricacies of how to write essays to adults, and be able (and willing) to knock it back to fill unexpected holes of knowledge.
The election we just had, I was sad that the town I live in people were ignorant enough to have never heard of the benefits of present-day one-room schoolhouses. One-room schoolhouses is not a thing — yet. The educators said they need another five-million dollars to continue to teach the town’s children. And the townspeople fell for it by voting in a major property tax increase. Bunch of suckers. Personally, I don’t think local kids will see any of the money applied to them — it will line administrators’ pockets.
The “educators” are unaware that kids a hundred or two hundred years ago got better educations than nowadays in even the best and most expensive school districts.
When will the price-gouging of plain-old citizens stop? When will the educational system(s) collapse? Not soon enough for me. Push has not yet come to shove.
Thanks for listening.
Dane County, Wisconsin, USA
I think I was an exceptionally fortunate child. I actually loved school, did well, and no one ever told me I couldn’t write. In fact, some teachers told me that I wrote well. I liked writing and wrote stories in my free time. But i also loved ballet, and eventually that was what I pursued. It was far more difficult for me than writing but I was able to have a career teaching ballet in a university. I’m (semi) retired from that, and now I seem to be taking up writing. I’ve also continued to teach adult ballet classes on my own. In the last three years I’ve had two articles published in a good journal, with another one that has been accepted for the spring issue. And I have just finished writing my first actual book (non-fiction). I have enjoyed every minute of writing it (and now doing the editing/proofreading). What worries me is figuring out how to submit my book to a publisher, and which publisher. I am looking at small press publishers, and they all seem to have different methods for submitting manuscripts, and most seem rather discouraging. I do NOT want to self publish. I took your advice JMG, and went to two local bookstores to see if I could find books somewhat like mine and find out who published them. I found about 8 different publishers, but only one looked even slightly likely to take my book. It’s also hard for a beginner like me to figure out who is actually an independent publisher and who is an off-shoot of a large publisher and what that might mean to someone like me. I feel fairly confident that my writing is good; I have had a lot of positive responses from people who have read my writing over the years, but the publishing part….eeek!
As a suggestion for next week. I’m enjoying the Brother Cadfael books you recommended somewhere. So I’d like to hear more chatter about enjoyable books and movies!
Meower68 #8, have you read the novel The Pheonix Project? It’s supposed to do the same thing for IT that The Goal did for manufacturing. If you’re from the same school of management I am it’s got some absolute howlers in it, but I still really enjoyed it and learned a lot about IT, which I previously knew little about.
MarkL #26, I was just reading a management article from the 70s employers trying to introduce job enrichment and being suprised a lot of people prefered truly brainless work. And I recognised some of that in myself. If something is truly challenging and engaging, great. But I also enjoy work where I can turn my mind off and go into a state of zen-like calm. For example I can happily spend all day carrying tubs of rubble and dumping them in a skip. Any attempt to add bits to it wouldn’t be satisfying, they’d only be an annoying imposition that would stop me relaxing.
Misty Friday #27, there’s also finer details to the 10,000 hours claim. Top level athletes probably have done about that much, but not all in the same sport (with a few exceptions). If I remember rightly it was something like 6000 hours playing multiple sports and becoming all-round athletes, then 4000 hours specialising in the sport they ultimately chose. The misunderstanding that it had to be all in one sport fused with the Protestant work ethic and funnelled many children into expensive training programmes – only to burn out at 16, instead of peaking at 28.
Please get into topic of how estrogen-imitating chemicals in child-bearing-age females’ uteruses – – pesticides and industrial chemicals — are changing our very DNA by creating feminine males and females with endometriosis and males, not only human, with less than half the sperm counts they has in the 70’s and dropping 1-2 percent per year…etc…..this topic isn’t well-covered because people don’t want to know. When was the last time you heard a young man with a deep voice?
Thank you for this inspiring essay! I loved it. Especially “Every human being without exception has the capacity for magnificence.” I want to get that framed.
This essay really resonated with me. Anecdotally, public school and the accompanying social propaganda hurt my confidence in writing, but it absolutely destroyed my love of reading. Despite my parents’ best efforts to get me into reading as a kid, I eventually decided that I didn’t enjoy it because the way we were forced to read prescribed books and extract the “correct” meaning from them and distill it into five-paragraph essays was absolutely excruciating. It wasn’t until I was twenty-six that I made the decision to give reading another shot and discovered entirely new categories of books that I love.
Also, I recommend John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of American Education to anyone who wants a 400-page explanation of how public education in America evolved to prevent students from reaching their full potential. I thought it was a little long and tangential, but overall very interesting (and also rage inducing).
Thanks again. Looking forward to the next in the series!
Hi JMG, thanks, great stuff, especially by someone with a kid of 1, who I am forced to send to public school one day.
As a self-taught programmer, hung-over academization from my (related field) degree took me a few years to cast off, and it fealt so delisciously freeing. I am so very effective now, compared to some of the schooled people I’ve worked with recently. Theirs is the “right” way of doing it – of course. Good heavens.
I’d love to hear you talk about how one might craft an education for ones child – in spite of all the noise. I know you don’t have any, but still.
I really enjoyed the Illichian tone of this text. The idea of unschooling oneself is very exciting, although daunting. Looking forward for the next piece.
I wonder to what extent belief helps or hampers us, generationally. Your ancestor, like most others in his day, probably had a great many skills and did a lot of things for himself–for example, home building and maintenance, food processing, sewing, tool repair, etc. Now, most of us are accustomed to running to an adult to handle all those things. A primer in reading and writing and a belief that all you need to do anything is a few basic instructions and a lot of experimentation might be better than 12 years of schooling and the belief that we have to rely on experts to do anything right.
Another skill that follows the same principles you outlined is language-learning. I took years of French, from elementary through college, and never once could speak it fluently. I assumed I was just bad at languages, like 95 percent of my classmates in the same boat.
Recently, I discovered the Comprehensible Input method developed by Stephen Krashen and Marvin Brown, which mimics the way children learn languages. It turns out I was just really bored, and that the way they teach languages in school creates a lot of problems. While endless conjugation tables and vocabulary drilling might be useful for learning dead languages like Latin and Greek (which may be where the habit came from), that isn’t how children learn. A native speaker can use grammar fluently without ever knowing the names or functions of the categories he uses.
This method involves simply listening to native speakers at a level of input you can mostly understand. I’ve put 300 hours into the Dreaming Spanish platform, which uses the method to teach Spanish, and I’m already much better at Spanish than years of classes made me at French. It seems to follow a simple pattern of hours of input, with predictable milestones, rather than resulting in vast ability spreads based on talent.
It was an eye-opener to finally realize that maybe, just maybe, I CAN learn a foreign language. I’ve got a long ways to go, but the obvious results are heartening. I’m also revisiting French by reading Levi in both languages during our book club.
Teachers: I had a few good ones, and I really lucked out with them. One was a long term substitute teacher who in the fourth or fifth grade allowed me to read to the class my horror stories which were copies of the plots of films like Friday the 13th, but the people getting killed were my classmates. They all really liked. That must have been in the late 80s. I don’t know if that would fly today… I hated it when he moved on.
…then in the 7th grade there was a writer who was my English teacher. He got me into an afterschool weekend writing thing two years in a row, and I met a cool punker there… to bad her parents sent her into one of those “troubled teen” type institutions, from whence I never heard from her again. The weird thing about this guy was he wanted those he “took under his wing” to play racketball with him, and then the mandatory shower… luckily nothing happened in that weird shower situation at the local YMCA. But so many others I’d talked to had the same thing… it makes me wonder.
Then in highschool, because I became a poor student, I didn’t get into advanced english, but I did participate in his literary magazine, and the twice-a-year poetry readings he put on at the school. And last two years took his creative writing class, which did help me. But he was a good one…
The weird thing in highschool was how when I did well the first two years in biology, and physical science, they put me in advanced chemistry, despite the fact that I was in remedial math.
Despite the catholic damage, I think going to catholic school for the last six of my twelve was better… or I might have dropped like my older sisters. They’ve done fine, in the long run, but with the other things that were part of my fate path in highschool, dropping out might have gotten me further on a darker road, and I’m glad that didn’t happen.
Thanks also for the space to ramble and reminisce.
My mom and her family were big readers, and I followed suit, and that was one of the biggest thing that’s helped me along my way.
@Darkest Yorkshire: One of my old coworkers at the library used to talk to me about cosmism, iirc. This guy was a real character. He was a lifelong shelver, and lived in the stacks. He was a huge reader on the history of different religions. He would talk about Cosmism. If I’m remembering it right, he would talk about how they incorporated ideas from Christianity with technological things such as life extension, and the physical resurrection of the dead. I never looked into it further… and if I remember right, also, William S. Burroughs had some things to say about it. It’s been awhile, but that would be interesting…
@pygmycory: Stockhausen had a thing he liked to say about the musicians he worked with, because his piece involved scored elements as well as improvisation or intuitive music. He said the improvisers and jazz types needed to learn how to play a specific score, while classically trained musicians needed to be instructed in improvisation. He often had a real hard time getting the people whod been through formal classical music schools to be open to improvising. It seems to me both are valuable…
…and as for people who aren’t talented making music… many of those formed some of my favorite bands. I’m really glad Steven Jones didn’t let “not being a guitarist” stop him from going on with the Sex Pistols, for instance. There are many others in this vein. Garage bands saved rock and roll…
@Violet: many of us really like your fiction as well. And many people like a good book of collected essays… I love the beats myself… let it rip!
@Dudley: keep on keeping on! (I wonder how many of those people secretly read books by Dan Brown, Janet Evanovich, and James Patterson, etc?)
It is possible to get a job as a professional writer without much practice writing or editing. Look for a software technical writing job. You will be publishing unintentionally bad science fiction in short order.
Don’t get a job as a technical writer to learn to write. Meower68 observes, “Coding is NOT a predictable, rote, assembly line process: it’s a creative process.” True. In technical writing, the part that involves matching software with use cases is a creative process. The part that involves writing is a predictable, rote, assembly line process. Siliconguy, it’s mostly the opposite of creative writing.
Both coding and technical writing pay better than flipping burgers—until the software industry eventually dwindles. Coding and tech writing both consume your thoughts while you’re working, but you probably won’t ruminate on your documentation after work any more than you’d ruminate on the burgers you flipped. Coding can consume your thoughts even while you’re asleep.
How about a blog post the one thing we can do to help our self’s in this turbulent time – cook a meal with basic foodstuffs ?
You know, that resonated deeply within me. I once read the quote of some master chef who was asked what it takes to become a good cook. He said 60 percent is the quality of the ingredients. 35% is practice. Only 5% may be talent. And that’s basically true. So much of what you have written can be applied almost verbatim. Cook every day. If it’s a small dish that’s ready in 5 minutes, fine. Don’t be afraid of cooking something that’s thoroughly underwhelming, it happens now and then. But if you don’t freak out about it, you can learn from your failures. If you try a lot of recipes, you’ll get a feeling what gives a meal an Asian character or a German or British or whatever. At some point you won’t even need any recipes anymore. And so on.
And that you are taught that you cannot cook is true as well. And it’s just as much a lie as that you can’t write. But somebody needs to purchase the garbage that occupies most of the supermarket shelves, of course.
Such considerations give me a very ambivalent feeling. It’s a source of joy to see what you (and everybody) can achieve, how simple it is and how much liberation it can bring. But at the same time, it makes me cry to see where we as a society are standing, how much is denied to the individual and how much we are denying to ourselves consciously or unconsciously. At some times it is hard to bear and I am wondering if this can ever lead to anything good. Who am I to judge what my fellow humans need, I keep saying to myself but then who am I to ignore what I see? I don’t know.
Greetings & many, many thanks for being a constant source of inspiration!
Could you please suggest a recorder that would be good for a young child as well as book or training course?
@Mark L (#26):
This is not true at all! I have known a surprising number of tradesmen and menial workers whom I regarded as really magnificent people, true masters of their gtradses and of the craft of being human.
Two of them made their living by climbing giant trees and removing rotten or deseased branches before they could fall and smash a house or yard. (One of them once remarked to me, apropos of a branch that suddenly fell and just missed wrecking our house and killing one or both of us, “Those very large old trees often fall considerately.” Wow!
Another was a master locksmith who kept up-to-date in his trade well into his nineties. He had learned his trade from his father, and had passed it on to his sons.
Another was the janitor in my academic building for a number of years. He was from Cape Verde, and his native languages were Portuguese and the creole of his birthplace. His English was poor, and he worked two or more menial jobs to support himself and a son who could not work. In what spare time he had, he would read Renaissance-era Portuguese mystics for his own delight and profit. He was in his middle eighties when I knew him, but officially the university thought that he was around 60. We had some excellent conversations about mystical experience despite the language barriers.
I could multiply examples, but these four are the ones who come to mind today.
I agree wholeheartedly with the depiction of schools presented here. I’ve been a high school teacher for 11 years in public and private schools. The narrative from the top is compliance. What’s being missed by the elites hoping for a fresh crop of mindless workers to fill mindless corporate positions is that the prison guards have lost control and are covering it up through grade inflation to keep their pensions and steadily declining pay (in real terms). Sure, teachers still expect compliance especially the older crowd. Younger teachers (myself included at time) will pretend to differentiate instruction or even give the illusion of choice. But many teachers have simply given up or inadvertently bargained with students to cope with the madness. I suspect that mostly today’s students are learning the simple idea that if the masses don’t play the game the game ends. That is, if we all check out together we win. The elites in this country either missed the memo because they sat in the front row or they went to different schools entirely. My guess is this failed school environment is a microcosm of the changes taking place in the economy as a whole.
For the 5th Wednesday my vote is something about Going Galt or drifting away from the empire to join the barbarians. Probably overdone but I’m sure our host would have some twists up his sleeve. After all there is no more new frontier to run to so maybe this time will be different?
For the fifth Wednesday of the month, I nominate a post on the long-term meaning of the recent 2022 U$$A mid-term elections. I don’t necessarily mean a blow-by-blow analysis (unless appropriate). After all, I think just about anyone with two neurons firing knows the thing was blatantly stolen.
Rather, I hope for a discussion about what this all means going forward, and how future events are likely to lay out in the wake of this train-wreck of a $selection.
Another essay with more practical tips on writing than I got in my 4 years of high school!
There is a specialty branch of writing known as ‘copywriting’ that concerns itself with generating terse phrases that make you want to buy stuff, ie., writing advertising or commercials. To me, this is a lot like the dark art of thaumaturgy– What effect does advertising-writing have on creative writing, or vice versa?
For the 5th Weds–
“How do I know I am not crazy already?”
We seem to be living in a world driven by ‘Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.’ I would like you to lay out a mental toolkit that will allow the user to detect when one is enveloped inside a Popular Delusion, so as to escape the Madness of Crowds before the other lemmings carry one over the cliffs.
David BTL, glad to hear it. You might, now that it’s finished, give one of your finished novels a hard look and see if it could use revision; that’s one helpful way to learn. (Your vote has been tabulated.)
Yorkshire, I’ve read about those but never met anyone who went through them. (Your vote has been tabulated too.)
Pyrrhus, that’s why he’s so productive. I do the same thing: I do some revisions on a manuscript while it’s in process, mostly for the sake of continuity, then set it aside for a while and work on something else. Then I go back to it and all the mistakes are easy to find and correct.
Stephen, does that bother you?
Clever Name, I know a lot of talented people who got that treatment. It’s especially common for teachers to treat gifted kids that way — I suspect, for what it’s worth, that a lot of people went into teaching because they convinced themselves they couldn’t hack what they actually wanted to do, and took it out on the kids who weren’t able to hide their talent. My suggestion? Do some writing, just for yourself at first. Get comfortable again with the process of putting your thoughts on paper. Then see if you can find a publisher interested in your niche, because niche publishing is a thriving field these days — print-on-demand technology has made it affordable to launch small publishing firms for even the most outré tastes.
Maxine, I’m delighted that you went ahead and took up the cello. There are many doors that can open if only you give them a good solid push!
Jacques, so tabulated.
Meower68, yep. And I bet we get a lot of really, really shoddy code out of the process.
Dudley, that’s exactly the sort of academicism I was talking about; I’m glad you made it out with your talent not wholly crushed! One thing I found useful was to write a novel that included the kind of academic crap I got in university, not in a writing program but more generally; I disguised it by making the story about music, but the spirit was exactly the same.
Pygmycory, exactly. Exactly.
Engleberg, so tabulated.
Justin, nah, you don’t get three votes. Pick one!
Bruce, thanks for this. I hope you’ve reclaimed your love of art and writing from the machine!
Pygmycory, agreed. Give children the chance to learn to play recorders when they’re ready for it, and it’s a great instrument.
Daiva, so tabulated.
Violet, many thanks for this.
Kyle, that kind of thing has happened over, and over, and over again. Such experiments get shut down because the point of today’s schooling is to churn out interchangeable parts, not to help children learn to read well. As for outlining, I don’t recommend it at all — it gets in the way of the exploration that is at the heart of the writing process, which is probably why it’s so heavily recommended.
Drhooves, I also got SRA in one of the schools I went to, but it was a waste of time for me because I was already reading at an adult level by then. As for the factory approach, there are ways to use a formula to help your writing; I’ll get to those in an upcoming post.
Toomas, I’m not at all surprised that math has been subjected to the same sort of process. As for outlines, why, if they work for you, by all means.
Adam, you’re welcome and thank you. (Your vote’s been tabulated.)
Robert, thanks for this! That’s a great example of what contemporary schooling is meant to prevent.
Siliconguy, alternating bursts of writing and editing also work for some people. As for phonics, it doesn’t surprise me that some people need a different approach. Nothing works for everybody; phonics seems to work best for most children, but there should always be other options available for those with different learning style.
Jason, thanks for a fine story! I have to admit that it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a novel by Piers Anthony credited with anything worthwhile — as far as I can tell, the man’s incapable of putting three words in a line without turning them into tripe — but that just adds to the piquance of the tale. 😉
Jeff, both of those subjects of research have turned into forthcoming books — the Grail research will be published next month as The Ceremony of the Grail, and the work on the Five Untibetan Rites will be published next year as The Secret of the Five Rites. That said, I’ve tabulated your vote, and I admit the thought of trying to find common ground between those two themes is at least amusing!
D., and of course that’s just it. In the 1950s and before, literary writers were still expected to be able to write competently, and their success was not dependent on how many potential readers they drove away. (The same is true of modern art and of modern art music.)
Mark, of course. One way to create a society in which boring jobs are less boring is to encourage as many people as possible to pursue their capacities for magnificence, so that labor shortages in the dull jobs will force an improvement in conditions…
Misty, ten thousand hours alone won’t do it. You have to learn from your mistakes and successes, and also learn from other people’s mistakes and successes.
Kevin, thanks for this. I’m one of the one per cent who can’t dance; in my case it’s a very specific condition, akin to tone deafness but oriented toward physical movement. Most people don’t have that, and as you say, they don’t try because they’ve been told that only special people have talent.
Brian, at least your kids know they can come to you and say that school is boring, and you’ll listen! I hope you can get them out of the public school dungeon into something better.
Trubrujah, hmm! Thanks for this.
Renaissance, yep. The buses here in Rhode Island are routinely festooned with ads for equally, er, productive studies at Brown University. The phrase “study factory” comes to mind…
Ynu(etc.), good. If it’s terrible, by the way, let it be terrible. Wallow in the terribleness of it. Have fun with it. Then, once you stop stressing out about it, you can start playing with it and have even more fun.
Sgage, so tabulated!
Serindë, many thanks for this. I really do need to address the delusion that if you’re just smart enough, you don’t have to work at writing!
Si Memoria, so tabulated.
Northwind, fair enough. That’s a serious matter. What will you do about it?
Lydia, I’ll be getting to submissions in a future post, but the basics are simple enough. First, any publisher that will take a manuscript from you, rather than from an agent, is worth considering. Second, if you take a good look at the publisher’s website, if it’s part of a big corporation they’ll say somewhere “a division of Corporate Press” or what have you. Third, yes, the process of submitting a manuscript is an emotional as well as a practical challenge; I’m sure you faced plenty of those in ballet. Rise to the challenge, and after a couple of times it’ll be easy. Just do exactly what the submission requirements ask you to do — no more, no less, word for word exact. Publishers use that to filter out people who can’t be bothered to pay attention.
Thinking, so noted, but if that one wins it’ll be books, not movies — I haven’t watched a movie in twenty years.
Nancy, so tabulated.
Telestosaturnas, thanks for this. Yes, that’s an important part of the maleducation the schools give — people who love to read are dangerous, since you never know what they might figure out!
Jakob, I’ve never had the opportunity to raise a child and I’m not at all sure what I could suggest, but so tabulated.
P30, glad to hear it.
Kyle, hmm! This is very good to hear. Drilling in conjugations and declensions isn’t even a good way to learn Latin, for what it’s worth. Do you know how the Romans taught their own language to kids, during the Empire? By using the Aeneid as the textbook. They’d have the kids recite a section in unison, then talk about the grammar and prosody. So the kids were getting reading practice, and they were also being taught the language of a literary masterpiece as a starting point for their own use of poetry and prose.
Justin, interesting. I had some decent teachers and some awful ones, but the structure of the institution kept the experience of schooling from being anything but misery for me.
Mark, thanks for this!
Nachtgurke, that’s an excellent point. I suspect most activities follow the same rule.
Nick, fascinating. I’ve tabulated your vote.
Michael, and yours as well.
Emmanuel, that’s a fascinating point. Your vote’s in the hopper!
Wonderful critique of public schooling! The application for the college I eventually attended (St. John’s) included the prompt: “Evaluate your education to date.” I responded that I had just wasted 12 years of my life in a publicly funded day care facility and that I had had a few exceptional, inspiring teachers but that they succeeded despite the bureaucracy.
Like many of the commentariat above, a voracious curiosity and weekly access to the public library in town was the real source of my education. I happened to be quite good at taking tests (I considered them ‘games’) and succeeded in the public school system, not because I had acquired useful skills and knowledge, but because of the ‘bell curve’ and a natural competitiveness that public schooling honed to a wicked edge. Needless to say, I was not a popular kid on the playground.
In retrospect it seems to me that there was and is an upside down ratio of abstract learning to physical hands-on learning in the vast majority of modern education systems, whether public or private. Most children really need to run around and learn to use their bodies before trying to learn abstract concepts. Very few children can sit still and concentrate for an hour straight, let alone all day with a couple of short ‘recesses’. No wonder children hate school!
In reference to writing as taught in public schools, I would add that every single English class I was subjected to was both incomprehensible and unutterably boring. Despite the damage sustained, I eventually learned to write by reading widely and by writing on my own. Precisely your recommended course of study and maybe the only one that actually works!
5th Wednesday suggestion: I would love to hear your thoughts on libraries, specifically in regard to a storehouse of knowledge for the future. For example: the public library where I live now is a beautiful, light filled building with stacks and stacks of novels and a few small of rows of non-fiction, most of it utterly useless in terms of surviving, let alone thriving, in an age of contraction and collapse. How do we, as a community, prioritize investing in resource books for the future, when those books don’t get checked out very often in the present? Do you see a role for private collections in preserving useful information and knowledge for whatever cultures emerge on the far side of the coming Dark Age? I believe you touched on this topic in Retrotopia but I would appreciate an expansion of your thoughts.
Hi JMG and all – coincidently, I just got done spending several months reading through Raymond Chandler’s collection of published works. I read several of his novels when I was a teenager (a looong time ago) and decided to reread his books again. His stories are just as good as I remembered. I swear though, I believe that Chandler intentionally slips a line in every story that, if you are paying attention, makes you say “wait, what? where did that come from, out of the blue? Some character or name or clue that just suddenly pops up from out of nowhere. Rather mystifying that his editor didn’t catch these bits, or maybe it was his private joke on the reader?
This has got me thinking about my own work in leatherworking and shoemaking. I’ve just finished several years of dedicated wandering and just settled down in a place again.
Aside: getting out to other places, even just another town or a different state, is wonderful practice in listening to other people’s perspectives and experience. Folks will tell strangers the truth about their feelings and impressions, there’s nothing to lose. Having polite disagreement, neither swallowing your own perspective nor rising to anger and name-calling, is also a valuable skill that can be learned!
Ahem. Your advice about practicing every day is particularly on-point. I find myself resistant to sitting down and making the mental switch to working with my hands, but once I get started its easy to go past my planned time.
I’d add another piece of advice: make it easy to practice. When, in my case, my leather, tools, and workspace are all tucked away, it’s another barrier to getting started. I dream of a bigger space where I can have a dedicated work table, but just keeping my current tools, project bits and a portable workspace in an accessible corner makes it *feel* easier — and I have a visual reminder of what I’m working on.
For 5th week, I’d love to hear a take on current events that says nothing of Ukraine, the border, inflation, or the recent elections.
Ok, ok, ok. Just one. I get it!
I guess I’ll go with the first, how limitations are useful for poetry.
As for school, it was still rather miserable. Friends, reading in class, and the few good teachers were what got me through is all! I’m still glad I did it just for the experience of “finishing something.” Other than that, well, a lot headache and heartache.
I am still surprised by how one person can get so completely fracked if they follow conventional wisdom. The head of our Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe, has spent the last two years assuring nervous Australians that of course they can borrow giant sums of cash, of course interest rates will stay low for years, everything will be fine! Now the same man has added 3% to everyone’s mortgage interest rate in six months flat, and many people who believed him the first time will be ruined.
Gordon White wrote here in the essay that kind of cracked my head open about the idea that it’s not a conspiracy to destroy the ‘lower orders’, it’s just collective self-interest:
Spend every penny you earn! Borrow more when you run out! Define yourself by what you own! When the advice from our ‘betters’ is such poison, it’s hard not to believe that they hate us. But they don’t really think about us at all.
Hello JMG and friends!
This was an inspiring read, providing much perspective.
I’m a young man looking to deepen my understanding of the art of education and transmission, as well as of the functional elements that humans have to account for to engage learning effectively.
Can anyone (JMG specially, since I appreciate your insights) provide this thread with resources to books by educators, historians, anthropologists… with novel and non-industrial views on EDUCATION?
Also, worthwhile books about the history of education!!
Justin Patrick Moore #46, immortality and space travel (of the techno-occult variety) were both big for the Cosmists. Richard Stites’ Revolutionary Dreams is an almost complete compendium of Soviet futurism, with the exception of science. For that, Nikolai Krementsov’s Revolutionary Experiments is all about rejuvination, suspended animation, immortality, and sex changes. The remarkable thing was in the real-life research, how much it looked like they were getting close to something. But then the only scientist who really understood what they were doing died at the worst possible time. I’ve also pre-ordered Krementsov’s next book The Art and Science of Making the New Man in Early 20th Century Russia.
@Darkest Yorkshire, I went to one in Canada. It was not independent, as it was funded by the public school system, but it was an alternative school aimed at taking the kids who were not being well-served by normal schools. There were no grades, and you went to the classes that interested you (or in some cases, what your parents insisted on) with little to no attention paid to age. Classes were usually small to very small, and a fair number were taught by parent volunteers. This expanded the range of course offerings.
It wasn’t the greatest for math and science, and I wound up with some holes in my math education despite being quite determined that I would actually learn math. It was good for the humanities – it managed to spark an interest in history I simply didn’t have before due to one specific really good teacher. Good for creative writing and art. Okay/bit iffy for English. Not great for music. Any music classes were done by parents, and that only happened sometimes.
There was a lot of voting, and your vote as a student had actual meaning, as it determined things like a) most of the school rules that weren’t safety rules, and b) who would be ajudicating infractions of said rules. There was a lot of opportunity to get hands-on experience in a working democracy, administration, legislation, and the judiciary, if you were interested. It did have a tendency to reinvent the wheel and be a bit disorganized. I learned a lot there.
It also had a much wider tolerance of what was considered ‘normal’, and I stopped getting bullied when I shifted to that school. That was probably the single biggest benefit for me, though there were others.
You’re absolutely right, IMHO. My wife’s great-great-grandfather almost certainly could put his hand to any task that came his way. Pretty much everyone in rural Maine in the early 1800s had to be able to do that just to survive. There were very few specialists in anything closer that a few days rough travel over dirt roads. His grandson and great-grandson (my wife’s grandfather and father) were much the same sort of people, as were my own father and my grandfathers.
When I was a ‘teen myself, in the 1950s, anyone could quit the school system altogether once they turned 16. Some did just that, and made lives for themselves anyway. Relatively few (more girls than boys, if I remember rightly) of my schoolmates went on to college.
@ JMG – I’ve done my share of writing for fifteen minutes in bed, before I go to sleep. That works just fine, but what I’ve found really amps up the creativity for some reason is classical music. For some reason, nineteenth century composers playing in the background just helps the words flow for me.
Do you have an aid beyond the straight discipline to write every day, that helps you?
>That is, if we all check out together we win.
We all win something, that’s for sure. It does make one wonder if it would be cheaper just to send everyone home and just cut welfare checks.
>The elites in this country either missed the memo because they sat in the front row or they went to different schools
They did. I’m almost certain that being a teacher at a private school, one geared towards getting all its students into the Ivy Leagues, they have different marching orders from their bosses and their students are differently motivated.
One anecdote – my mother disliked the one room school she attended as a child because she thought she ended up spending all her time taking care of the younger kids.
One future possibility – there could be a combination of the one room school and the current preference by corporations for two pizza teams (6-8 people on a project) in which the local kids pull themselves together (or are pulled together by an institution) to do projects to build their portfolio for employment. Yes, an institution for creating current white collar employees, rather than assembly line employees.
One vote for Yeats.
A reallly inspiring piece, thanks. It makes me remember that I have a journal to retake writing (following your advices in dreamwidth blog).
For the the fifth wednesday post, I suggest to continue your small hobby about the history of war for this XXI century, in light of the what we are seeing in the current Ukr-Rus War (I would call it World Weird War III given how strange it seems and how war is changing).
How my heart SINGS at this post! JMG I thank my gods so many times that you exist. For so long now, everything I have learned from you has made a positive difference in my life. And here we go again! I thank you very much for all that you do.
>You need to write every single day
If you want to learn how to fly, you need to get out and fly. If you want to learn how to weld, you need to get a lot of scrap metal and sputter all over the place. I’m sensing a pattern here. I think Joel Spolsky called it Fire and Motion, lemme see if I can find a link.
>What would you like to hear me chatter about?
The internet loves cats. You have a cat. Talk about your cat. Or, you can go into the esoteric reasons why the internet loves cats so much. I don’t think anyone has grappled with the occult reasons for internet cat obsession, not a pawprint or hairball in sight.
I don’t think I process English quite how others do. Obviously I know the alphabet and how letters work, but I see each word as its own symbol – presumably what reading Japanese and Chinese is like. I suspect a lot of fluent readers see it like this, but there’s an element that makes it more extreme for me. Writing or typing, I can spell extremely well. However trying to spell out loud is nearly impossible for me. To do it at all I have to spell out the word in the air with my finger, in order to ‘see’ the letters.
I seem to be in a ‘recommending things’ mood today, so here goes:
If you want to read about autodidact culture, Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes is an amazing book.
If you want to look into the concept of gifted children, these websites, and some of the links from them, were a ‘Truman Show moment’ for me. As in “Have these people been watching me all my life?”:
https://www.stephanietolan.com/nonfiction.htm (especially ‘An Open Letter’)
https://crushingtallpoppies.com/ (where you’ll also occassionally see me raving in the comments)
I so appreciate your writing! I could not agree more. When my kids were little I was inclined towards homeschooling. But it still seemed very fringe and would generate a lot of family pushback, so I thought we could always try school and see how it goes.
When my son was 5 we tried a sweet little preschool 2 mornings per week. But it was super stressful for him. The social interactions required were just more than he was ready for and he spent his days there sitting in the office of the head of the school, who was a kind and caring person who helped him feel calm. After a few weeks of that we embarked on homeschooling. He loved it! First, when I pulled him out of the school he let me know how he felt by singing “you are my mama, my only mama, you make me happy when I feel sad,” to the tune of “you are my sunshine.” And then the joy started to pour out of him. He started writing. First by dictating to me, and later writing himself. He has boxes of stories now. He learned how to read and write in his own time, he was closer to 7 or 8. We followed a loose waldorf curriculum with lots of unschooling and following his lead. He learned all about animals, biomes, maps, classification of animals. We went to the zoo once a week, we took nature walks, we hung out in the library. He arranged and rearranged his animal book, choosing different ways of organizing. he learned more at 7 than I remember ever learning in elementary school. My daughter followed his lead and homeschooling left them feeling inspired and capable.
By 4th grade he was ready for school so we enrolled them both in a Waldorf School , which they love. He writes less now as he is busy with other things. But I think homeschooling gave them a start and a foundation of feeling confident and capable. My daughter writes less than he does, but at 11 is an amazing artist. If you are able to homeschool in the early years I would recommend it, it was amazing for us all.
Thanks again for creating this space and for sharing your writing with us!
yeah, that’s about my read on the situation. Two different skillsets emphasized by different genres of music, and wouldn’t it be nice if we all learned both?
Then you’ve got the folk musicians who often can’t read music but can pick stuff up by ear really well… my Dad could read music due to some classical training, but not well. His lack of skill at reading music hampered him when trying to learn new folk music without someone to learn it from, which resulted in him asking teenage me to play some new jigs out of a book for him so he could hear what they were supposed to sound like. Which I could and did do.
I really think reading music is a good idea, even if you’re in a genre that doesn’t emphasize it. It will come in handy at some point.
Thank you for the clear and excellent advice. I’m going to try it.
Yes, Yeats on the 5th Wed. Other than that, no politics please! So tired of the constant noise!
how old is the child you’re thinking of? It makes a big difference in how you teach them. If they aren’t reading (words, not music) yet, it’s often best not to start by teaching how to read music. I know that some approaches do a lot with singing and rhythm with very young kids, rather than starting with an instrument straight away. For kids old enough to read but not old enough to be put off with cutesy drawings, you might try the Windsongs series. It moves fairly slowly, and there are a lot of books, but they are inexpensive and easily available. For slightly older kids, you might consider Recorder: Best in Class, Comprehensive Recorder method by Bruce Pearson. Do you have a teacher, or are going to be learning along with them and figuring it out as you go? Or will they be teaching themselves?
If you are also learning, and want a recommendation for a book for yourself, Hugh Orr’s Basic Recorder Technique is thorough and has great photos of hand position that can help you avoid bad habits. But is isn’t suitable for a young child due to the giant blocks of text and the strong emphasis on renaissance music the child isn’t going to recognize.
For a recorder, go with a baroque fingered plastic soprano. Wood is harder to take care of, and easier to damage. The good wooden recorders are also much more expensive than a decent plastic recorder, and the cheap wooden recorders often have poor intonation.
If your child likes pretty colors, the YRS-20B comes in several bright transparent plastic colors, is under $10 US, and plays in-tune and freely. The YRS-24B is ivory-colored, under $10 US and also plays well though the tone is a little thin. If you’re able to spend a bit more money, the YRS 402B soprano has a much nicer tone and is one of the most common plastic recorders among the adults in the recorder ensemble course I’m currently taking. They’re about $37US last I checked. I have the alto version, which I play constantly. All of these are made by Yamaha. Any recorder made by them is usually decent. Aulos also makes good recorders.
The reason I say baroque fingering rather than german is because this is the standard recorder fingering. It is more in-tune, especially on F#, and if your child gets serious about the recorder, they will probably switch to baroque fingered recorders anyway. Most good quality recorders are of the baroque fingering, and the nicer the recorder, the more true this is. It makes sense to start out on baroque in the first place. You can switch, I started on german. It was mildly annoying, but not a big problem.
The one place you might want to start out with a german fingered recorder is if your child will taking recorder classes at school and everyone else is using the german finger. Having to play a different fingering for F from everyone else and your teacher when you’re just starting out is confusing.
Good luck with the recorder to you and the child.
@ Justin, thank you so much for the kind words! I have published one collection of essays from my blog titled _The Star and the Labyrinth_. I’ll note, too, that I spent a lot of time editing the essays that I selected for the book — 40 hours to be exact, I logged them. I self-published the book through lulu, and will include a link to it on the off chance you or anyone else were to want to pick up a copy: https://www.lulu.com/shop/violet-bertelsen/the-star-and-the-labyrinth/paperback/product-m94mpq.html?page=1&pageSize=4
In the spirit of advertising, a number of people who read it told me that they like it a lot 😉
Thank you for these posts, JMG, and the wider reflections that arise from it. I don’t know what my reading level was when I entered school, or exactly how I learned (was phonics involved at all?) but I was reading “Alice in Wonderland” on my own by first grade, thanks to my oldest brother reading it to me repeatedly. That and the whole “Pooh” series and doubtless whatever it amused him to expose me to. My school was NOT amused by my premature skill!
It wasn’t until I was in my 60’s that I began to understand what was involved in learning a skill or a subject. I was very quick, usually, to figure out what my school required of me and often did just that and no more, so as to be free to enjoy whatever I really wanted to do. Which was usually to read science fiction and, later, fantasy and science fiction. Almost anything that told a story was fine by me, even if it was not sci-fi. I even read the Theosophists for fun, including Mme. Blavatsky’s near-impenetrable works. My family was a bit open-minded on that front. I couldn’t bear the “good” writing we were being required to read in school. Some of it might actually have been good, but the way they approached it took all the joy out of reading it. “The Scarlet Letter” comes to mind.
No one taught me that, as one of the bloggers here mentioned, talent is only about 5% of learning a craft or a skill or an art. The rest is slogging through a great deal in private, and also being humble enough to let someone teach you (i.e., guitar). I thought that, because I could retain large chunks of symphonies in my memory and replay them in my mind’s ear during long walks to and from school, that I should be able teach myself how to do things musical without any real process being involved. I never could figure out why I never got very far with my attempts. If only I had had the insight to realize that even Mozart had lessons from his father Leopold! And he practiced! Of course, it also pays to have wise relations and family friends. I had a few kind ones, but if there were any wise ones, they were kept away from me as far as possible. Mentors and personal instruction make such a big difference. If only to clue you in to the idea of working at a thing to get better at it…
And of course there is the whole “let’s suppress talent and competition” program. It was most blatant when I made the mistake of taking art classes. I loved doing representational drawing and paintings. Wrong! Wrongthink! Successfully nipped that enterprise in the bud…
I understand why so many commenters are saddened by the waste of lives and talent in our current day. Me too. But I am heartened to think that with the collapse (however slowly) of the status quo come opportunities for people to grow, like weeds, in the cracks that open up. And they will. They do.
My vote for the fifth Wednesday would be for a topic exploring poetry in general. Why it’s important, how to read it. Even what to read. What you might notice on first, 2nd and later readings. Nuts and bolts. I had one good English teacher (thank heaven for that one!) but arrogant brat that I was, I didn’t pay attention to the lessons he tried to teach us on that topic. I probably still am an arrogant brat, but at 73, it’s been softened up a little bit by…life.
@Darkest Yorkshire #2:
My children are attending a democratic school. Democratic schools are certainly not perfect and not without conflict, but they are the best thing there is for most children, in my opinion. They can be hard work, both for the children themselves as well as their parents: the group dynamics, learning to take responsibility, governing the school, actually being invested in ones education and development, it takes time and effort, it really does. And trust, it takes a lot of trust of the parent, and letting go of the security that the normal school system promises: that of a uniform and solid education. That is a false promise, but it is still a tempting illusion. However, I am convinced that democratic schools tend to help the children flourish, and develop in their own way and in their own pace, just as our host is putting forward in this blog post. Some of the lessons learned on democratic schools can be quite harsh: if you don’t put in effort, you won’t get any result, and if you behave badly towards others, you will be judged and there will be consequences. However, such lessons are better learned young, and in an environment that will help to adjust for the better, rather than later in life.
It is my hope that schools like these will help to nourish democracy in our society, by creating adults that are used to produce, rather than just consume, democracy.
Maybe I’m just sentimental, but whatever magic Tolkien put into that paragraph about the barrow downs and the mountains massing beyond the horizon, is powerful. I always get emotional when I read it. I don’t know the origins of that style of diction, but whatever it is, it’s powerful
Ken, all this sounds very similar to my experience, right down to learning how to game tests! Your vote has been tabulated.
Dana, Chandler was an exceedingly well educated man who wrote faux-lowbrow fiction, and yes, he loved to slip such things into his stories. His editors probably missed them completely. I’m thinking especially of a short piece he did for one of the pulp magazines titled “The King in Yellow,” complete with several little nods to the Robert W. Chambers stories about that eldritch personage.
Shoemaker, glad to hear the same rules work with your craft! I’ve added your vote.
Justin, I’m already planning on that theme for the first December post, so you get a second choice.
Kfish, that’s a great example of what I’m talking about. If you follow the advice the talking heads of the status quo tell you, you will end up getting shafted, and not in an enjoyable way. 😉
German, I’m going to throw that one to the commentariat, as I don’t have a lot of sources to hand. Anyone else?
Ben, I like to write. I enjoy the process of shaping words and putting them on paper. It’s not a matter of discipline; I hurry through other chores because, once those are done with, I get to write.
Drew, interesting. I’ve added your vote to the list.
Fragile, and yours as well.
Miow, I’m glad to hear this.
Other Owen, er, I don’t have a cat. My wife and I used to, but that was a long time ago. As for why the internet is crazy about cats, hmm. I’ve added that to the list.
Yorkshire, have you tried journaling about the problem with spelling aloud? Some people I know who have problems of that kind have unprocessed emotions from miserable childhood experiences getting in the way.
Tamar, I’m delighted to hear this.
Walter, thank you. That’s the best praise I could hope for.
Marlene13, so noted and tabulated. I haven’t generally kept track of anti-votes, but a case could be made. Does anyone else have a subject they really don’t want to hear me chatter about?
Clarke, it’s a familiar story, if an ugly one. I’ve added your vote to the list.
Peter, it’s a brilliantly written passage. Long ago, aspiring writers used to collect passages of particular beauty in notebooks — that’s what the word “anthology” used to mean — to study them and see what they had to teach about writing. That would go in a place of honor in my notebook…
I am currently holding myself to a schedule of updating my Substack every week, alternating blog posts and podcasts. This works for now, and I hope to increase the tempo with the blog posts in due course, but I’m taking it step by step.
These days I almost exclusively write non-fiction, which I enjoy, but I have always been deeply engaged with the art of storytelling. I read a lot of Jorge Luis Borges while at university, and kind of got carried away with trying to emulate his schtick. It’s become a particular genre of novel, all of its own – the Borges fans who attempt to write the full-length novel that Borges never did.
Anyway, I tried writing something like that. It was a book that was never going to get written – mercifully. But here’s where it gets relevant to this week’s post – I made the mistake of taking a draft of those opening pages to a writer’s group, and it damaged my confidence so badly that I stopped writing for years. It wasn’t even like they were completely savage in their critiques, but trying to act on their advice was totally counter-productive. I hadn’t managed to finish a story for a few years prior, so I was already dealing with some blocks, but after that, I just stopped even trying.
I realised, as I read this week’s post, that one of the most problematic bits of advice that I received was to attempt to plot the story out before writing it. Well, that is pretty solid advice for many writers I’m sure, and might work for me one day, but what happens if you can’t actually think of anything to put into the plot? The answer, I found, is just another excuse for procrastination…
I’m still working through the blockage I have about storytelling, but now I have something to journal about that I think might just shift some things along, and it’s all thanks to reading this article. Thank you, JMG! To use a phrase my Dad is fond of, you truly are a gentleman and a scholar.
I’ll put my vote in for something focused on Yeats and/or Blake
Northwind Grandma @ 37, I think the main reason for legalizing cannabis sativa is that illegal plantations were contaminating public lands in the western states. There was high use of toxic chemicals as well as armed guards. Out West, public lands are taken very seriously, indeed. Folks got tired of being shot at when they went hunting and fishing. The Feds were doing nothing so Western state govts. decided to legalize the product.
As for the “”Do-For Disease”, my experience has been that those of us who do grow gardens, mow our own lawns, etc. experience a lot of hostility from those around us–but my cousin/son/friend/etc. neeeds the job.
I would like an essay on Greek mythology, for two reasons. One is that some years back, JMG mentioned the ecological content of those myths. Another is that young pagans are professing devotion to various of the Greek (and Norse) deities.
I wrote this at the very end of the last cycle and don’t know if you saw it.
@ Ben #201.
You’re asking for a beta reader. They’re not developmental editors but they read like a reader would.
A beta reader should look for ABCD and make notes about what they notice.
Is your story Awesome, Boring, Confusing, or Dumb?
Those are things you want to know!
Some beta readers are outstanding and others are … not so good.
I reward my beta readers with a mention in the acknowledgements, a trade paperback copy of the book, a cloth marketing bag (which I sew myself), and a satin and lace bookmark (which I sew myself).
Beta readers do it for love so you want to take care of them.
I could beta read your novella except I don’t read horror.
It is REALLY IMPORTANT that your beta readers be familiar with your genre so they know the tropes and understand why you do what you do.
That is, if a reader complains in your romance novel that the hero and heroine fell in love “too quick” because “that’s not like real life”, then they don’t understand romance tropes.
I suggest you ask around in your writing groups, in person and online, and at the bookstore, for someone who reads horror and magic enthusiastically.
Ask them to read your novella for ABCD and you’ll get a better novel in the end.
I found it ironic that our education system has been perverted over the last century ( or so) to create human feedstock for the routinized industrial enterprise, but now the desire of people to engage in these activities is falling away. Once we had a population trained for mindless work the corporations did their best to convert everything from food service to building supplies to delivery to the same model. But now people are running away from this as fast as they can. The question is how long will this change take to collapse the current school system, which no longer has any purpose ( even a bad one). It seems we will have a Thelma and Louise race to the bottom of the canyon between the k-12 school system and the higher ed system.
My vote for the fifth Wednesday post is the various impacts on mental health that the end of the belief in progress could cause, the psychological pitfalls people may fall into, and ways in which people can escape from them.
“When you’re writing, there’s one absolute, ironclad, essential rule: never edit while you’re writing. Brain researchers have found that the part of your brain that creates and the part of your brain that edits interfere with each other; if you try to use both at the same time, they both jam up. That’s called writer’s block.”
Anyone who’s programmed computers for a living may (or should) have come across a similar concept:
“The real problem is that programmers have spent far too much time worrying about efficiency in the wrong places and at the wrong times; premature optimization is the root of all evil (or at least most of it) in programming.” Donald Knuth, The Art of Computer Programming.
Coding and optimizing are (or should be) two separate steps. The first is the creative bit. The second is the art of judicious refinement once the creative bit is in place.
Edgar Cayce had about six years of education in a one-room (later two-room) schoolhouse in rural Kentucky, where everybody knew each other. It sounds awful–there’s a famous episode where he was beaten for being unable to learn his spelling lesson. He was probably neurally atypical, and was certainly considered weird. It’s hard to get a sense of how educated he actually was as an adult, since so much of what we have from him was cleaned up by his secretary, but he was obviously intelligent. Much of his education came from the Bible and church.
Darkest Yorkshire (no. 2): Oh, I’ve read this! (I’m a Roerich fan.) I’ll add my vote to yours. Have you heard of this guy?
pygmycory (no. 14): I met a girl in college. I asked her major. She said “recorder.” My reaction–a predictable mixture of mirth and disbelief–must have been visible. I got nowhere with her. Sorry for incurring your wrath, recorder gods!
Si Memoria Ministrat (no. 36): David Sedaris writes about teaching creative writing for a junior college somewhere. He had no idea what to do. He ended up having the class watch soap operas in class every day, and writing papers on what they thought would happen. There were complaints.
Hi John Michael,
The red glow from the setting sun glinted off now tarnished steel. A pure colour. Blood and gore disfigured the clean lines of the weapon, and made a handy staff to lean upon. Much dark work had taken place, and the coming night would cloak the awful deeds. Quiet was the mood. To one side, an eye flickered. Little escaped attention. Steel clad leather boots trod upon hewn corpses. The eye, attached to the skull so near to the earth was dealt a crushing blow, before flickering out. Our champion claimed the day, and the English teachers colloquy of 2022 was dealt a fatal blow. 😉
Man, I hated English classes. Like seriously loathed them, and otherwise I was an A-grade student. They’d tell me to write a creative essay, I’d write something creative, and then they’d mark me poorly because I clearly hadn’t written what they wanted. But then neither did they offer hints as to what they wanted. It was a bind. I often hear the echo’s of John Cleese as the Monty Python Roman Centurion giving Brian a lesson in the proper usage of the Latin language: “No it doesn’t!” Funny stuff. And the teachers made me read drivel like ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. I hated that book with a passion and the character nauseated me with the continual self absorbed whinging. Fortunately, I was a voracious reader, and libraries are a treasure trove for children of poor households way beyond measure.
And whilst I’m on a giant rant. MZB! Far freakin’ out dude! Did you know that ‘The Mists of Avalon’ was the very first Arthurian tale I’d read? Arthur appeared effeminate and Merlin was ineffectual and down right wishy-washy. The story offended my sensibilities. Fortunately my faith in the power of Arthur and Merlin was restored after reading Jack Whyte’s astounding and gritty Arthurian saga. Loved every minute and every word when in that epic world.
Oh, and as a general observation of which you may not be aware. Writing in the business world has gone down several notches of late. That’s bad, but what is worse is that reading comprehension has also dropped. Oh my, the things I have to deal with. And interestingly, what would fill the gap: Emoting. Yes, we really are heading back to the historic norms when it relates to literacy. It has to be a deliberate policy to achieve such poor outcomes, and books from earlier days display a much higher command of the English language. I’m frankly in awe of the use of the language, and realise what a steep climb it is from here to there, and how far we’ve fallen in these enlightened days.
Pam Houston, in Deep Creek, talks about many things, but in one chapter she paints a portrait of the UC Davis environmental literature department that is absolutely monstrous. Houston has her qualms about the situation, but I don’t think she realizes how bad it looks to someone outside of the ivory tower.
Hollow cynicism has replaced belief in anything actual. Students engage in “distance reading,” rather than actual reading, using computers to churn through a body of literature to extract data. They don’t really go outside anymore, but reason that the natural world is lost and all that’s left is to write postmodern discourses about lawns and depictions of nature in video games.
What is this but an environment that’s been fine-tuned to crush people’s souls? What can it possibly do but spread despair and culture-death?
I probably shouldn’t extrapolate from this passage to literature departments across the U.S., but I do. I don’t think I will mourn much when the universities bite the dust.
For 5th Wednesday I vote for throat simging.
I vote for William Blake. Thanks!
Thanks a lot for this series on writing! I’d like to throw in my vote for a post on W.B. Yeats, particularly if it touches on his book A Vision.
telestosaturnus #42 wrote “Despite my parents’ best efforts to get me into reading as a kid, I eventually decided that I didn’t enjoy it because the way we were forced to read prescribed books and extract the “correct” meaning from them and distill it into five-paragraph essays was absolutely excruciating.”
I want to add the annoying habit publishers of popular fiction have of tacking on all these Questions for Discussion, presumably for book clubs, at the end. They seem harmless enough, but I can’t read them without getting the very feeling he describes: that I’m expected to extract the “correct” meaning from them and distill them in easy terms. In short, they make the nonexistent fur on my back stand up.
Ok so since I have been little, 14 maybe ( I am 46 now) I have wanted to be a science fiction writer. Science fiction, hard science fiction because everything else wasn’t rigorous enough and not fantasy. I realized early they were all trying badly to be Tolkien and failing. However I have NEVER been able to thing of a story. Like Never (sorry for the capitals I know that is internet for yelling and yelling is not polite but this is one of about three major disappointment in my life). How can you think of a story? Seriously how? It has never worked for me
Judging by the photos of the authors (males, anyways) it seems the most essential characteristic of a successful writer is a pipe, at least for those promo photos. Who knows, maybe MZB also smoked a pipe?
P.S. for a good fictional treatment of the two forms of education contrasted, get Project Gutenberg’s “Understood Betsy.” The author uses a storytelling style, which to adults feels a little like being talked down to, but then it was written for kids Betsy’s age. See how much or how little has changed in the past 106 years!
I love this series.
For my money, Robert Louis Stevenson is a master of diction. I read Treasure Island with my son as part of homeschooling and we both loved it. He has amazing sentence construction that sometimes sounds erudite when two gentlemen are speaking to one another, and sometimes sounds punchy in action scenes with criminal pirates cursing and doing murder.
I wish more schools just turned kids loose with great literature rather than using dreary textbooks.
For the fifth Wednesday, I would really like to hear the full post-length story of what happened with the Egyptian elite’s use and abuse of magic. You have referred to this a couple of times in the context of perverting magical practices to achieve eternal life and it sounds like quite a tale.
Of the different skills I could develop to magnificence, writing is far from a top priority. Even among the verbal skills I far far prefer oratory use of language, my sense of humor loves to play with shifts of accent, tone, pitch, cadence, and so such to convey subtle details and meanings. Blotches of color on a screen, that don’t even wiggle, are a right proper straight jacket to me. But, I owe to Greer credit for the fact that as a writer I think I have attained my once delusions of mediocrity. Discounting all the wasted trees of my education, and idle little jots and notes, and only counting what I have written by my own will the majority of my writing exists in the comments to Greer’s various blogs over the last decade. There was a while where I was dropping chunky comments most weeks, though less so in recent years.
These comments have been the most educational vvenue to write in, because there’s no grammor policing (maybe occasionally if genuine undrestanding is severly obstructued, but not as a rule). Sometimes a comment gets lost in the thread with little notice, but maybe a half dozen times I’vve made a comment that really seemed to gobsmack a good number of commententors. In the over whelming majority of cases my most impactful posts, judged on the replies it provoke, have been off the cuff, barely edited into ledgeable english, and passionate rambles.
Not to say that’s how folks ought write, but I’ve learned that there is a fun way of writing that I can pull off in a way that gets done what I like.
These posts have been inspiring me, not to become a writer or to work on some novel, but to pursue something a little higher on my list. To be a novice math weirdo. I’m not going to detail the whole project I’m working on other than to say it involves a finishing few thousand math problems I’ve been working on, in brief bursts of interest, over the last year and a half. If all goes well I should be able to make a little belt of cloth with some most interesting mathematical relations embedded in it that will allow one to solve rather complex math problems. I have some notions what to do if I finish the object I’m working on, but there’s at least 40 man hours more hard number crunching before I can focus on that step.
Each of these posts though prompt a few sessions grinding away at the project.
@ JMG – My vote for the upcoming 5th Wednesday’s post is something about Yeats. (About time!)
And as far as an anti-vote is concerned, nothing on politics, or Ukraine, or inflation, or ‘the economy’ in general, or most/all of the MSM topics du jour, for that matter, especially given the way that said topics are packaged to the exclusion or everything else (oh dear – now I’m reminded of the sweets offered by the witch in the Narnia chronicles…). While I’m quite sure you and the readership here would offer different, thoughtful and refreshing perspectives on said topics, I do need a break from all that.
@ Clever Name (#5) – LOL! You reminded of my son who did (and still does) well in writing. When he was about 12 or 13 (early 1990s), he scared his teachers by writing some very dark stories. They were concerned about this, I suppose because of some sort of media frenzy or current education theory. The teachers even wanted to hold my son back a year (which I emphatically opposed – his grades were great but they were that bad either!) The stories were just darn good stories, typical of the interests of his age group, perhaps reflecting symbolically on the scary world that he was growing up in. I wasn’t concerned about him being ‘troubled’. Yeah, dysfunctional family, but, no, not that kind of dysfunctional. Yeesh.
Kyle (no. 45): I know of two kids who picked up Japanese by playing video games. So why don’t we teach languages this way generally? (shrugs) Yes, the Duolingo app is game-ified but it’s designed more as a vehicle for ads.
Jeff Russell (no. 24: What are the “the ‘Tibetan’ Five Rites”? The five preliminary practices (prostrations and so on)?
@German #61, I’d recommend The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto. Maybe his other books, too, but that’s the one I read. It’s a little long and tangential, but there’s some really interesting stuff in there.
You had me at Chandler! I’m 3/4 through his works, and my mind and will is at war with itself. I don’t want to keep going. But I need to keep going! I hope I have many years left, and unfortunately, he’s not putting out any more work. I need to make the remaining unread 1/4 last 😉 I got to Chandler later in life, but good god, that man has a way with words. You could tell he loved LA. When I see the bits of landscape and leftover city from his era, I hear them wrapped in his descriptions. That passage you pulled was one that had stuck with me. It’s one of the best descriptions of the lived experience of rain in SoCal. I don’t think there is another person in history who loved words and a place more than he has. Some may tie, but no one exceeds.
Like you say, the broad technique you’ve laid out applies to any creative endeavor, but I can confirm that the exact same ideas apply to drawing and painting. I love finding principles that apply across disciplines. When I hit those, I feel like I’ve hit bedrock, to the extent anything in human experience can be considered bedrock. Thanks for this post!
maxinerogers (#6), I understand your situation completely. I hated primary school, partly because most of it was in French — not my best language, even today — but partly because I always had to obey orders to the letter. You’re not allowed to read ahead in the book; you have to stay on the same page as everyone else. You can only circle one of the four answers, even if all four are applicable, and if you do otherwise, the teacher implies you’re too stupid to understand what’s expected of you. If your health teacher tells you that mushrooms are “special vegetables”, as mine did, you sit down and shut up instead of talking back. The reason I enjoyed later parts of high school and college more was because they dialed back the control-freak tendencies and gave us back our freedom of education.
JMG, if you’re looking for ideas for a fifth Wednesday post, my suggestion would be to analyze what makes initiatives for change in society succeed or fail. I know that you’ve done something similar in an older Archdruid Report post, but with the Just Stop Oil protesters getting their fifteen minutes of fame by throwing soup on paintings, I think it could be timely to bring up some less ineffectual suggestions for those who want to meaningfully change their lifestyles or the actions of their local communities.
For the fifth Wednesday I vote Mr. Goldstein’s “How do I know I am not crazy”.
The picture you chose of the brain made me instantly think of the intestines.
They both process stuff so perhaps that’s why they have a similar appearance.
Sympathetic magic? I’m not sure if I’m using that correctly.
Solid tips on how to learn writing, but I completely disagree with the idea that there is no such thing as talent. In fact, it’s a ludicrous idea. As someone who has assessed over 400 fiction manuscripts I can categorically state that there are talented writers (5 of those 400), and writers who are extremely competent (80 odd) but lack imagination and that extra spark that brings the story and characters to life on the page. The others hadn’t written enough to reveal potential talent and shouldn’t have submitted. Most of the self published books on Amazon are first draft that have been spell checked. It’s no wonder they don’t sell. If talent didn’t exist, anyone could be an actor with enough practice, and that’s clearly a ridiculous idea too. The camera loves certain people because they have a spark, charisma, vulnerability, a wild combination of attributes that can’t be learnt. I think you do people a disservice by pointing them at fiction and saying “You can do it. ” You can certainly try, because it’s only in the writing that you discover whether you have talent or not. And BTW genre fiction isn’t easy. The strict guidelines make it very difficult to come up with originality while satisfying the genre requirements.
@Kyle (#17) I don’t have an MFA but I’ve been in a lot of critique groups. A few comments:
When someone doesn’t like your piece, their feedback is close to useless. If you work at it, you can figure out what set them off and correct it; it’s often something simple or even trivial.
You know something is working when no one has any comments. They’ve accepted the fictional world and the characters, and they are willing to follow you. But getting to that point is the art I’m still trying to master.
For each book my group read, there was often one person who got it, and everyone else didn’t. So I listened politely to the comments of everyone, but really listened to the person who got it.
You can get thirty minutes of feedback, and only a sentence stays with you, but it’s a really important sentence, and it guides your writing for a few weeks.
My best advice for critique groups comes from Neil Gaiman: tell me what isn’t working, but don’t tell me how to fix it; I’ll figure that out myself. But almost no one follows that advice, myself included. Reading is such an emotionally engaging process that, when it is going wrong, it infuriates the reader. I keep trying to reach Gaiman’s zen detachment
about the jobs we need doing and creative work. I dont find these incompatible. I think that more people, most people, all people should persue one or more creative pursuits, writing , oral communication, singing, playing an instrument, painting, clay, handcrafts, etc… I dont think we should expect to nesc. earn any or all our money from this, but still strive for excellence in the things we have chosen to work on, and share it with others where appropriate. People are too shy about this, this weeks example is writing, and so ways to publish small to share it. If we improve enough in our music, we should go ahead and play, people enjoy music. My adult son generally wont play for any type of audience, he will play for me and his partner and siblings. But it is so nice to hear live music. In a way he is correct though, when he plays for family, we all join in and sing, in my case poorly, so it is a group endeavor, and I guess his experience with his peers is that they do not join in, and he tells me “that he is not a trained seal to perform on cue” which is valid. But if the other young folk werent so shy about joining in, they would all have more fun.
We should have more people playing live music just for family, friends or for tips at local places, etc… and get out of the habit that only professionals should be playing. On the other hand, I see lots of entitled self proclaimed professional artists and musicians locally that lament the foolish public that do not appreciate their work… no one owes anyone a living. Go do something that people need for money, trash collecting, farming, construction, and do your art too for the reasons that you want to do that type of art/music/writing. Maybe others will appreciate it, maybe they wont. Idealy, I think it owuld be nice if people could spend less weekly hours on the jobs to serve society/economy ( earn money) and then also have more time for schooling their own children and creative and homemaking pursuits
Luke, writing groups are responsible for stifling more potential writers than anything else I can think of. In far too many cases, the members of such a group aren’t your friends, they’re your competition, and they’ll stomp your writing into the mud in order to climb over it to promote their own. Creativity cannot be crowdsourced! Remember that you can use journaling as a way to ease into fiction — do some dialogues and some descriptive passages, just for fun, and see where they lead you.
Kerry, duly tabulated.
Mary, likewise tabulated. Votes here get counted right away. 😉
Clay, to my mind the falling away of interest in participation in the machine is one of the most hopeful signs there is. As the factory model implodes, people can get to work coming up with their own ways to run their lives and produce and exchange goods and services! The implosion of the school industry is just one part of that, though it’s also a welcome one.
MawKernewek, your vote has been counted.
Asdf, hmm! Interesting. I didn’t realize that the same rule applied there as well.
Bei, he did indeed. Quite a few of the leading figures in American occultism had that kind of education.
Chris, ha! I trust the ravens gorged their fill. Yeah, I had the same issue with English classes, and with The Whinger Gone Awry. As for The Mists of Avalon, MZB cheerfully admitted that she plotted that by spending a year or so going to every Neopagan event in northern California, asking people what they thought the Arthurian legends were really about, and taking copious notes. She was into writing as a way of making money, and did a lot of market research.
Cliff, you can certainly extrapolate from that example to every other university literature program I’ve ever had personal contact with…
Moo Foo, Random, and Jbucks, duly tabulated.
Will O, nobody ever taught you that? Your teachers should be flogged. Okay, fire up your imagination and away we go. Every story consists of a character who faces a situation and does something about it. In hard SF, the situation is by definition based on some scientific or technological idea. So what you have to do is choose your scientific or technological gizmo, find a character who is affected by it in some very important way, and then explain what the character does about it. Does that seem too abstract? Take your ten favorite hard SF novels and analyze them that way. Let’s take Larry Niven’s Ringworld as a classic example. The technological thing is the Ringworld itself. The character is Louis Wu. He’s hired by Nessus the puppeteer to investigate the Ringworld — and there’s your story. How does he get there? Who does he go with? What happens to him when he gets there? Those are the details that make the story.
Now do the same kind of analysis with each of your ten favorite hard SF novels. Then do it to ten more. Then choose a couple that really, truly suck, and compare the sucky plots to the good ones. Now — and here’s the place where most people panic — come up with your own scientific or technological idea. Choose a character who will be affected by it, and sketch out some ideas for what he or she or it will do. Then come up with nine other completely different characters who will be affected by it, and one by one, sketch out what they would do about it. The reason you do this is that your first ideas are probably clichés from books you’ve read. By character #6 or #7, you’ll be more likely to come up with something original. Now do some others, and try writing a short story or two — and away you go.
Philip, funny. It was a standard affectation of mid-20th century male authors.
Patricia M, hmm! Thanks for this.
Samurai_47, Stevenson was brilliant with diction. You’re right that just letting kids loose with great literature is a better idea, but that wouldn’t leave teachers much to do! I’ve added your vote to the list.
Ray, in that case choose your own path and go with it.
PatriciaT, duly tabulated.
Murmuration, let me whisper these words of comfort: they’re even better the second time through. I can read Chandler over and over again, and enjoy every reread. Have you tried Dashiell Hammet yet?
Ethan and Nati, duly tabulated.
Teresa, the resemblance has been noted!
Louise, you’re confusing lack of training and practice with lack of talent. I’ve assessed far more manuscripts than 400 — I worked for a while as an outside reader for a midsized publisher, ran a small magazine for several years, and have edited a good many anthologies — and I’ve found consistently that writers whose work badly needed help had never been taught how to learn how to write, and develop their own voice and style. With writing as with acting, there are some people who are naturally gifted but there are many more who can become capable and enjoyable if only they’re helped to learn how to learn. The myth of talent is an ideology used to convince most people they can’t compete, so they don’t compete with those who have been selected by the corporate system for its own purposes.
Nor did I say genre fiction is easy; I’ve written quite a bit of it, you know. I quoted a successful author of genre fiction who said that anyone who can write a literate English sentence can succeed in it. Of course it takes hard work; anything worthwhile does. That doesn’t mean that it’s restricted to the special few!
Atmospheric, no argument there.
My mother is a writer and received virtually no monetary compensation for it. She is a poet, and the commercial market for poetry is basically zero. She was just compelled to do it, up at 5am typing away. She freely admits, “some of it was done it a hurry”. Well yes, there were kids to raise and bills to be paid!
She paid the bills by working as an editor and proofreader, mostly, but had not that been available she would have done some other job. She has received a lot of accolades for her work, but there was never any expectation that she would get paid for it. She has published 14 books of poetry, some nonfiction, and one novel.
She is not bitter and never advocated for societal reorganization to facilitate her writing. She just did it. A lot of it is quite idiosyncratic and it doesn’t resemble anyone else’s poetry. To paraphrase our host, “she wrote what she liked to write, the way she liked to write it.”
Suggestions for first, early instruments ?
I like pentatonic for my children, I had a good sized wooden Marimba, pentatonic tuning. Then later they started first on wooden pentatonic recorders. The fun thing with these is that you cant hit a bad note, you can play the notes in an order you make up, make up a rythm, improvise. I have alot of fun with a pentatonic recorder, even though I can read music and used to play saxaphone ( a regular recorder has very very similar fingering to a saxaphone, so I can play basic recorder music). You can have fun making things up if you cant play piano by just using the black keys. Anyway, no one is cringing when your toddler has a rubber mallet on a wooden pentatonic marimba, it has a nice pleasant sound, they just have to be old enough not to use it as a step stool and use nothing on the keys except the mallet you provide, if they are old enough for that, you can leave it out and they can make music and will get pleasant feedback from everyone else around and so have a good first music experience.
I see no reason why people who have gained a high level of skill in an art or craft shouldn’t make money from it. All that practice is hard work, and lessons, materials, instruments etc cost money. You do have to have sufficient skill, and you have to produce something that people are willing to pay for, though. Otherwise no money.
JMG, thank you for this series of posts. I’ve long thought that our species would be better called homo narrator rather than homo sapiens, as while there’s no real evidence that we’re wise, we sure do love telling stories, especially about ourselves.
This blog (or the old one, I don’t remember) caused me to read Steppenwolf – which was a big wet slap in the face for someone who was on track to become another Harry Haller.
Therefore, my vote for the fifth Wednesday post is an essay about a fiction book you think your commentariat, on average, might benefit from reading.
I second daiva’s vote for weather as a topic for the 5th Wednesday.
Remember those long, very rainy after Labor Day, very mild temp autumns when you lived in Washington? We’ve had one brief rain episode of a few days. Nothing but blue skies do I see, and that’s a very bad thing. Lows in the mid 20s.
The pastures usually die off in the summer heat and dryness, then bounce back and regrow with the fall rain, before it gets too cold for growth. This year we had one rain and it immediately got too cold for grass growth. The farmers are already halfway through their winter hay, because the pastures never regrew.
So yeah, climate weirding is much on my mind.
Moo Foo Bay (no. 92): I’m a fan too! David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir… Paul Pena and Kongar-ool Ondar… Anna-Maria Hefele… My neighbors must wonder what I’m doing in the shower, though.
(Opera buffs know sygyt as the “fourth voice,” and kyrgyra as basso profundo.)
What a great post. I long ago learned that my unconscious or creative mind did not care if it wrote their or there or piece or peace, or any other form of correct English, and often I had to edit, decode or decipher what I had written in the same way I decoded the dyslexic writings of my son.
I am now 70 and don’t care what anyone thinks except that is not true I do not have the benefit of Asperger’s, if it is a benefit, I am still too heavily influenced by others and therefore I insulate myself from them and avoid what they think.
But there is a price to pay for that, for one thing I have not published as much as I should, but I have written it. On the other hand, if it has any value, then maybe it will remain after I am gone, or perhaps be biodegradable and disappear. I try to write for my self what I like, what is true for me. If it benefits others some day then that would be an added benefit, but I cannot predict that, my ego would like it, but it is not necessary, writing, understanding what has meaning, sifting experience, has benefitted me.
Well [long loud string of undruidly words]. No I was never taught nor did I figure out there was some kind of process or technique to coming up with a story. Right now I can’t decide if I should be really mad at never being taught that or be really relieved to learn the trick. Yet thank you JMG I appreciate learning that a lot. I have work to do.
Two unrelated things first. How did education work in urban 19 century America? There wasn’t one room school houses in Manhattan were there?
Second my vote for the fifth Wednesday is what is the proper care, Education and upbringing of an elite that works as opposed to our current high ups
I had an experience very similar to that 19th century school in first grade: five children distributed over four grades. It wasn’t bad, though I had learned reading before entering school, so can’t tell how much I really learned there. Then home schooling, and only from fifth grade onwards regular schooling. I must say I didn’t find the bits of public German school that I went through quite as stifling as you describe and certainly not as brain-dead. In fact, I prefer traditional teacher-at-the-front, when it’s well planned, to group work, though I recognize some people thrive with that. In the last grades it got better since there were opportunities for actual discussion during class. In any case, I kept writing fantastical stories all through school and only stopped in university when I felt less of an urge to express myself through stories.
I felt like protecting my daughter from the big, anonymous school, but she actually loved the multitudes of children mulling through the hallways and running in the courtyard. It does get more boring for her with every passing year, but good teachers make a lot of a difference. In fact, her best teacher was quite able to recreate that fluid ambiance in a normal public school in second grade: children had the freedom to choose in which order and at which speed they wanted to do maths, writing and reading exercises.
Loosely connected to the theme of uniformity: On our way to school, we walk through a short street probably built around 80 years ago. All houses are of brick; all have two storeys; all have four entrance doors next to each other; and all have some kind of porches. Still, not a single house in the street is the same as any other one (I have made all pairwise comparisons!). The patterns of the coloured bricks, the shape of the doors, of the pillars that support the porches, of the balustrades – each house has its individual combination of these elements. The architects or owners must have taken special care to avoid sameness.
Further up the hill, former church grounds were transformed into a condominium with video surveillance, probably less than 20 years ago. Detached (rather small) single family homes following a recipe for high end customers: natural stone, bay windows and so on. The funny thing is that all houses in the condominium are exactly the same, down to the last stone. So much for bespoke individuality! It reminds me of a commentary Lula made on his public housing program: “You can’t make them all the same. Imagine if you come home drunk at 3 am and don’t know which house is yours.”
Ah, yes. MZB. Who once had a magazine named after herself. To which an aspiring young writer submitted her first (and last) attempt at having one of her science fiction short stories published. And the young writer received her first (and last) rejection letter: a standard, form printed rejection letter, with one personal sentence hand written by the great Bradley herself: “To suspend one’s disbelief does not mean to hang it by the neck until dead.”
All of that young writer’s Darkover books found their way to the dumpster that very afternoon.
If I may I’d like to share a writing exercise I came up with about five years ago that I found extremely helpful. What I did was this: I wrote every single day as fast as I could on any theme that crossed my mind. My goal was to create a word document with over 100,000 words and to write it without any editing whatsoever. After many weeks I had a word document of over 100,000 words, and then I did the most gratifying thing — I deleted that word document, and applied what I had learned in creating it to writing on essays that I care about for their own sake.
The exercise I found very, very helpful on allowing thoughts to flow. By focusing on creating something without attachment to the fruits of the end product I was able to really focus entirely on the flow of thoughts without the constraints of quality or criticism that an end product done for its own sake. By writing over 100,000 words I demonstrated to myself that I could write as many words that would fill a good sized book. This exercise is basically a variation of the second step you describe in your essay.
I’m not sure if anyone else has ever done this precise exercise or if it would help anyone else as much as it helped me bust through some of the blockages that prevented the free play of my creative flow. After doing this, I spend some weeks regularly composing sonnets to focus more on the more formal aspects of writing, and these helped too in manner antithetical to the free writing exercise.
Thank you for this series JMG. It’s very inspirational with a heathy dose of utility across the full range of human endeavor. I had the benefit of attending an “alternative high school” because for the life of me I could not embrace the system being shoved down my throat in the “normal” system. Through much trial and error I was able to make my way to an interesting life. One that has been successful in a rather, shall we say, non-traditional way that I wouldn’t trade all the widgets in China for.
Excellent essay. You really enlightened me when it comes to our so-called educational system. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot I about how I regret not making certain career choices when I was younger, which (maybe) would have led to a happier life for me. I now see that those choices were deliberately withheld from me for one reason or another.
When I was child, I was told that I didn’t have the math skills to become an architect or a pilot (two things I thought about doing for a living). In my adulthood I created the blueprints for the remodeling of my house and got my pilot’s license. As a child I was also told that I couldn’t make a living as an artist. As an adult I spent much of my career as a professional photographer. As a child, I was told that I didn’t have the intelligence to become a doctor. In my later adulthood, I have fired most of my doctors and now learn how to- and treat my own health issues. And when I was in high school, I had lackluster SAT scores; yet I was able to graduate near the top of my class in college.
In college I took a career aptitude test; it determined that I should become a piano tuner. This was in spite of my having an unusually high number of interests, aptitudes, and skills. What a joke those stupid tests are!
I majored in English in college and for years after was too traumatized to write. I never felt like my writing would be good enough. It didn’t help that my dad was the editor-in-chief of an encyclopedia — I felt like I would never know what he knew about writing and editing, so I shied away from any occupations that focused on writing or editing. If I’d applied to become an associate editor somewhere I would have felt like a fraud. So after college graduation I felt completely useless and thought that the only job I was suited for was assembly line work, which is what I ended up doing for a while.
It wasn’t until later in life that I felt comfortable writing again, and I have to credit the PC for that. In my college days, back when computers were still room-sized mainframe IBMs with tape spools and punch cards, I hand-wrote multiple drafts of my college papers, completely re-writing each new draft, as improvements would formulate each time I read the latest draft. It never occurred to me to cut and paste — no one had ever taught me that! (My high school did a horrible job preparing me for college writing.) I didn’t type my rough drafts, either, because the typewriter I owned required a cartridge-enclosed ribbon instead of a sensible, normal ribbon, and the cartridges could only be used one time and were very expensive. I conserved the use of my typewriter because of the cost of the cartridges and because I was afraid of running out of cartridges on a Sunday, when the stores were closed (as they were in those days) the day before the paper was due. So I hand-wrote the drafts. This really made me hate writing. And my professors made me fear it. But when the PC came out, that changed my attitude towards writing.
I’m the kind of writer who edits as he writes; but I do so in two phases. As I’m writing, I very often think of a better way to write a sentence just after I’ve written it, so I fix it then and there. Then I go back later and do an overall edit.
5th Wed Vote: WB Yeats, please!
On the last day of school, I’d nip the next year’s textbooks and learn them over the summer. If the teachers were nice, they’d let me sit in the back and read quietly while everyone else took a year to learn the materials. If they were not nice, I had to sit and pretend to listen, but my diligent note-taking was actually fanfiction.
Homeschooling in my case would have been much worse. You have to have a healthy and happy home, with sane parents.
JMG, keep whispering then! That’s good to hear. I’ll look forward to a second and third pass.
Yes, I read Big Sleep and when I finished, I picked up Maltese Falcon, just to see how they compared. I haven’t finished Falcon yet. I put it down and picked up the full set of Marlowe’s adventures in one go. Falcon wasn’t bad, but Chandler just resonates so much closer to my frequency. His style so unusual and enjoyable. And those similes! I really can’t think of an author I enjoy reading more.
A fun quote of his about learning technique:
“To learn (American) I had to study and analyze it. As a result, when I use slang, colloquialism, snide talk or any kind of offbeat language, I do it deliberately. And when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will STAY split!”
Justin, I’ve referenced Steppenwolf and Hesse’s other fiction fairly often, so it could be either blog. Your vote has been counted!
Mother B, so counted. I have a post on that in the works anyway, for what it’s worth.
Ryan, and that’s another perfectly valid way to handle writing, of course.
Will O, delighted to hear it. In urban early 19th century America you had a mix of schools. The most widespread at the primary level were “dame schools,” which were not that different from the one-room schoolhouse — a literate and numerate spinster or widow would have children come to her home five or six days a week and get a basic education. There were also boarding schools for the children of the well-to-do, and many churches had schools of their own. Secondary schools were equally varied, and often for-profit enterprises: someone with a college degree would open a school, hire a few assistants, and start teaching. There wasn’t much regulation, but competition was brisk enough that the general level of education was considerably higher than it is today. (Your vote has been counted.)
Aldarion, keep in mind that I didn’t attend German schools — for all I know they might be much better. The story about uniformity is a keeper — thank you.
O.E.P., if you want to be a professional writer you need to be able to take criticism without taking it personally. I got considerably worse critiques than you did — and looking back on the stories that got rejected, I now freely admit that the criticism was not overstated.
Violet, thanks for this. It strikes me as a good exercise!
Gawain, glad to hear it. I’d like to see more alternatives available.
Lacking, there are teachers who should be flogged, and educational systems that should be burnt to the ground and have the ruins surrounded with cow skulls on poles as a warning to future generations. You seem to have gotten even more of those than usual.
CS2, oh, granted. Homeschooling isn’t for everyone. Your vote has been counted!
Murmuration, yeah, that’s classic Chandler. Hammett’s got a different style; in some ways it comes across better in his pulp stories — though Chandler was no slouch when it came to short fiction, either.
Thanks for all the info about recorders. My daughter is just turning two, so I’m guessing I’ll need to wait awhile to start music practice with her.
very fascinating post. Thank you.
I guess unlike the majority of suggestions, I would ,5th Friday or sometime, be interested to hear your opinion on the US midterm elections and any other world developments you find pertinent.
I use the ideas of Stephen Krashen a lot, both for myself (various languages) and for my ESL class. But I seem to remember that he isn’t a fan of phonics.
The way I got my kids reading was a bit unusual. When I would find out a big new Hollywood movie was coming out, of an older book, the deal was this:
You read the book and finish it before the movie comes out. I will keep you out of school on opening day, and we’ll make a whole day of it. The movie (including popcorn) around noon, then thrift store shopping for something fun, then McDonald’s.
For my older boys it was the first Lord of the Rings movie. They read the Fellowship of the Rings for it. For my youngest it was Prince Caspian, and she was only six so I was a little more lenient. As long as she could describe the storyline of the one chapter each night, that was good enough.
Then after the movie we would discuss how the movie was different from the book. All three of my kids were amazed to see how Hollywood messes around with the story. Even the six year old. Those cutting-school-with-Mom days are some cherished memories.
The cutting-school-for-a-movie bribe worked well to get them their first experience of reading something ‘chunky’ voluntarily. It was totally up to them if they wanted to do it or not. If they did, the pace was agreed ahead of time to be a chapter a night, a half chapter if it was unusually long. I read it along with them, as in, I had my own copy with the older boys, and we discussed the chapter together after reading time each night, so I could check their comprehension. With the six year old, we snuggled on the couch together while I had her read it aloud to me, so I could help her with unfamiliar words. Same discussion after.
All three of the kids started reading more of their own volition as long as I kept the library visits up. After the book-movie experience, they all found the school library less than satisfying. So the bribe motivated the discovery that there are books that are interesting to read. Also the kids themselves reported that the movie-book linkage helped them with the ‘movie in your mind’ visualization process for books they read after that.
offtopic due to very recent developments noted in the mediaverse, am quite concerned about the “A.I.” image generation explosion, animation automation etc. in terms of shall we say ‘fairytale’ ‘mirror’ implications
John, I don’t know if this was a US innovation, but there are apparently two approaches being labeled phonics: so-called synthetic phonics for blended phonemes, and “analytic phonics” for what is apparently whole-word by another name.
Imagine the too-plausible prevarication when parents struggle to get “phonics” used in public school instruction, and the reply becomes “Oh, yes, we are definitely teaching phonics.”
Gosh I feel like commenting a lot today.
When my daughter finally got the chance to take band in middle school, I knew it would be her only chance at music lessons, which I simply couldn’t afford otherwise. I also knew the only instrument I could both afford and handle hearing the practice, was the flute. So the flute it was. I got two off craigslist, a beater and a better one for her to ‘graduate’ to later.
To try to get her off to a good start, I made flash cards of the music notes. I gave her a very kindergarten-level explanation of the music staff and musical notation, and then we went right into flash cards, for 5 or 10 minutes each evening starting about two weeks before the class started, until she could identify them right off.
Then once class started, I had her teach *me*, each day at practice time. The best way to learn is to teach, they say. She loved it, being teacher to Mom. We kept it up until we ran into a note my arthritic hands had trouble with. I’m not sure after all these years but I think it was C, you had to do something odd with your thumb that made it very hard for me. So then I had to stop (I have yet to find a musical instrument I can play without pain), but by then she was well launched. Eventually the teacher chose her for ‘honor band’.
This was just an ordinary public middle school, but I felt like I hit on a way to maximize on the opportunity.
There is something quite satisfying about typing on my new-to-me 1956 Smith-Corona manual typewriter. Several weeks ago I got this notion in my head that having a typewriter would be useful, and the more I looked into the matter, the more appealing it seemed to me. There are so many beautiful old machines available right now, there’s no point in buying new overpriced, imported plastic typewriters. I offer a suggestion for anyone looking on that big auction site, however, and that is to watch the listings for a week or two and notice how many of them end with zero bids. In other words, don’t pay too much! There are good deals to be had if you’re patient enough to watch and wait.
The point really hit home just now when I read how the part of the brain that does the editing often conflicts with the part that does the creating, and there is no easy way to edit on an old typewriter. It is truly a different mental process than writing on a computer. For example, the time it took to write this comment was mostly spent editing it!
Playing typewriter keys that give such immediate feedback visually on paper is akin to hearing musical notes as you press the keys on a piano.
Does anyone else have a subject they really don’t want to hear me chatter about?
Not bothered by the use of “gallimaufry.” Just thought it was funny. I guess it’s part of your diction. Fine by me.
Mr. Greer, your essay was a painful one for me to read. As far as I can remember, I have never aspired to be a writer or artist, yet I know somewhere my joy for excelling in something was killed. Let this be a catalyst to surmount this challenge. (I notice the simultaneous editing I engage in 😀 )
For the 5th Wednesday: I second the motion for no direct politics. But I have come to know our host enough, to know that a post about “evaluating wartime sources of current news, a history lesson: what does and what does not work” is a possibility.
maxinerogers #6, the smell of my primary school, the one time I revisited it, was pencil shavings. But I talk of an era when we learned to write with dipping pens, and desks had inkwells the class monitor had to fill each day.
I wonder if the major benefit of the one-room school might be that older children help the younger children, and by doing so help themselves. Because when trying to explain something to someone, you very quickly learn that your grasp of the subject is not as firm as it seemed in your own mind, and you often can’t answer some quite simple and obvious questions, thus forcing you to go back and get a good grounding in the subject..
“Thus it may not be an accident that the entire way in which writing is taught in American schools is set up to make children hate and fear the act of putting down their thoughts in words on paper. Every time a child picks up a pencil or a pen to trudge through one more writing assignment, the threat of a bad grade hovers over every word.”
It’s the same thing here in Spain. My nephew says that reading books is boring, but writing them must be a torture. He imagines writers are an extended version of children suffering when they are compelled to make a written composition…He prefers of course, videogames (ahem), than writing.
My strategy as a writer has been to just write and not get bogged down in how I’m supposed to write. I have trouble finding audiences I can connect to sometimes, but I never let that get me down. All of my literature classes had me convinced I was too dense to understand the deeper meanings of the classics (having a completely different cultural environment at home from my peers didn’t help), but I never let that get me down either. My writer’s block stems from persistent bouts of brain fog after getting a disastrous implant a few years back, and then moving into an environment that exacerbates it, plus being plum too busy since then. I’ve been trying with no success to gain access to an environment that facilitates creativity, with no luck. I sometimes think the gods intend me to do other work for the time being, but I often feel like I’m trapped in a bottle with no way for my creativity to escape.
Perhaps what I should do is meditate on your “15 minutes a day” and see if I can somehow swing it. I’m enjoying your series on this subject very much!
As a topic for the 5th Wednesday, I like Ethan L’s idea of what makes initiatives succeed or fail. I reckon lots of people are thinking hard about that after last week’s election.
@Si Memoria Ministrat #36
Yes, being taught by the likes of Kurt Vonnegut must be a rare thing in any age. Being taught by Kilgore Trout would count as being positively unique!
This does raise an interesting point, though. Since exceptional teachers are by definition rather thin on the ground, any functional educational system would have to enable even mediocre educators to perform well.
Before retirement, my father taught at higher education level (nothing fancy) for over thirty years. He observed first hand how the constantly fluctuating field of academic fashion and process had a devastating effect on his journeyman colleagues (and his own will to live).
Regards the current state of high end literature. I read a while back of an author getting snubbed by his fellow literary conference attendees, all because he had the gall to sell well and make a living off his work!
My experience of what JMG has described: I had a friend, he died in 2016, he put out a picture book in 1979. I thought it was very good. He published it at his own expense, and distributed it to bookstores. The bookstores sold it but never gave him his share. It was a book, I am simplifying –about more or less evolved TV’s. People were walking about with these TV’s, in their hands, they were staring at them everywhere. And when you looked at their head, it too was a TV. Is that not our modern mobile phone? I think it was very prescient in a Cassandra sort of way. But after a review in Books in Canada, he never created another book again.
Books in Canada, August/September 1980: “And finally from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s Have a Look, by Peter Sobotkiewich (Iconographics, 34 pages, unpriced paper), Sobotkiewich is a cartoonist who has inflicted upon an unsuspecting public a series of visual statements “dedicated to the baby boom.” The paper could have been better used making disposable diapers.”
First of all the drawings weren’t cartoons. And secondly, why would any reviewer be so cruel? It was not necessary, no one was in danger. But I think JMG gave the answer to the why that I never could figure out.
T.S. Elliot had a very similar review for his poem the Wasteland. But he kept on writing.
Charles Powell (From the Guardian Archive.)
Fri 21 Oct 2022 05.30 BST
The Waste Land. By TS Eliot. Richmond; Hogarth Press. Pp 35. 4s,6d,net
This poem is 430 lines, with a page of notes to every three pages of text, is not for theordinary reader. He will make nothing of it. Its five sections, called successively The Burial of the Dead, A Game of Chess, and so on, for all they signify to him, might as well be called “Tom Thumb at the Giant’s Causeway” or the “The Devil among the Bailiffs,” and so on. The thing is a mad medley. It has a plan, because its author says so;and presumably it has some meaning because he speaks of its symbolism; but meaning, plan, and intention alike are massed behind a smokescreen of anthropological and literary erudition, and only the pundit, the pedant, or the clairvoyant will be in the least aware of them.
I am a writer, but similar to my artist friend in many respects, and that is why I have felt the need to insulate myself, or I too would have stopped.
I have another friend, Quebecois, he is a sculptor/painter, there were the three of us, the writer, the artist and the sculptor, we were all friends. He had worked for the CBC and quit at 24 or 25. He never worried about becoming famous or even noticed. He bought a one room school house and made it into his house and studio. Whereas me and my artist friend had terrible parents, I think he was blessed in a past life. I met his mother once, when he was in his forties, and she was so so happy to see him, and absolutely adored him. He was pleased though in his way he pretended not to notice, and though she did not live far away, he rarely visited. I think that was his independence. He could not let her influence him, too much, much as they loved each other. He is still painting, still sculpting. People offer to buy. He always says, “No. I created it for myself.”
Perhaps the three of us were or are a little too fragile.
For next post, I’d like to learn about practical ways of not being carried away by the social tsunami that is happening right now.
I sense some sort of… waiting… for something onerous. People is not their usual way. Fear is in the horizon. Less parties, less participation, less involvement. We are setting ourselves into ‘saving’ mode, in the economical sense. Maybe it’s the constant Ucrania-Russia talk in the news, maybe it’s the exorbitant price of just everything. Even the dumbest people are getting now that we are in trouble.
But their answer to the problems is anything but useful: there’s more aggressiveness, no one’s caring about doing their work, everyone keeps to themselves.
I see all that, and I try to not be carried away with the current, without fighting it, lest it makes me crumble too. But it’s dreary.
Maybe a list of practical skills and knowledges to survive this maelstrom, with a few examples of how we can put them to practice?
@JMG: I guess I’ll be throwing my hat in the ring for Yeats, since the other topic is already on the menu for a future post. Thanks in advance for that!
@Violet: Thank you for the link to your essay book. I’ll definitely be getting a copy when my book budget is active again. Right now our funds are going into some house repairs. Those darn squirrels chewed a hole straight through one of our box gutters, and we have some guys working on that and doing a little painting on our house. In the meantime, before I pick up a copy of my own, I’m going to request the library order a copy. They’ve bought most of my suggestions for purchases in the past, including the Weird of Hali series, among other things, and a book by Theresa of Hershey. They buy quite a few titles from small publishers and self published authors.
On a related note here is a hint: The end of the year is a good time to suggest purchases to public libraries if they have a place on their website to do so. At least in my case, they have to spend the rest of their alloted budget before the end of the year, and things they may have held off on before, get bought now. & materials selections departments may spring for books that weren’t on their own radar.
Dear JMG & community, I don’t know if you have been following this at all. But when you read and listen to some of these bitcoin strategists, they utter things very similar to the WEF. They talk about cooperation in the Global community. The need to transform humanity into beeing cooperative rather than compeating. This sound to me to be yet another attempt at correcting human behaviour, to get us to the utopia on the far side of the hill, if we just drag ourselves through the desert. A new relegious belief…?
Some obscure material on democratic schools. There’s a pamphlet by Chanie Rosenberg (first name pronounced ‘honey’) called Education Under Capitalism and Socialism that is generally the same criticism of education as above, but includes intriguing tales of the alternative education experiments of the 1970s, and times of revolution when students and radical teachers took over the schools and ran them themselves. It’s not online but an earlier pamphlet I haven’t read yet, Education and Revolution is: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/rosenberg/1972/xx/education.html.
This article is about free schools in Liverpool in the 70s: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29518319 (free school meant something very different back then than it means now. Tate Hausman wrote wrote what I remember being a very interesting history of free schools in America, but it’s not online. I’ve prodded him in the hope of getting it back available. If I remember right it had good stuff on how urban free schools were formed by black radicals, rural ones by white hippies, and the relation between them. There’s also a dissertation by Dani Biancolli on free schools, which I can’t link to because it’s one of those things that downloads straight onto your computer, but if you search it should be easy to find. Also on my to-read pile.
Looking on my education bookshelf, for learning manual skills I have:
The Instructor, the Man, and the Job by Charles Allen
Training Within Industry by Donald Dinero
Toyota Talent by Jeffery Liker and David Meier
Training at the Speed of Life by Ken Murray
Build a Bette Athlete by Michael Yessis
Secrets of Russian Sports Fitness and Training by Michael Yessis (this one is basically a book-length version of Ivan Drago’s training montage from Rocky IV. 🙂
About the 5th Wednesday post, please count my vote for „the Egyptian elite’s use and abuse of magic“.
I wish I had read this post’s comments 35 years ago. The examples of criticism that people are sharing here are indeed worse than the old she-dog’s one-liner. Perhaps I will sort through some of the notebooks I have filled and hidden over the decades and find if there are any gems to polish and make another attempt (or two or three) at getting published. I’ve even written stuff when JMG announced his anthologies, just never thought any of it was worth sending in. But after reading what was published, I think perhaps I might have had a chance. (Some of) my stuff is at least as good as (some of) the stories that made it in.
Bei Dawei #89, I hadn’t heard of Daniil Andreyev, but reading his story that’s even more lost novels of the era. In The New Age of Russia there’s two of them https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/id/64f39b61-3e43-40f1-a397-389eb65ed847/1003383.pdf (repeated here so you don’t have to scroll up looking for it). Nikolai Belotvesov wrote a multi-volume autobiographical novel Michael that was supposed to be the complete inside story on Bolshevik occultism (p61). But then destroyed it when he realised how many people it could get in trouble. I may have never wanter to read a book more in my life. Then while more modern and not lost, just not in English so I can’t read it, is Ilya Masodov’s The Devils (p313-21). Seriously, they dangle an armoured train powered by an actual beating heart in front of me and then I can’t read the rest of it??!!
Chris at Fernglade Farm #90, I had a similar reaction to Catcher in the Rye, and found it claustrophobic – despite the expanse of New York that Holden Caulfield manages to roam over, often seemingly for no reason. At least it was better than The Tin Drum. After owning the novel for nearly twenty years I finally got around to finishing it, and spent the entire book wanting to strangle that little s**t.
It seems that based on track record it is better for your writing career to leave college and become a technical writer for a time than to stay in any kind of graduate writing program. The two famous writers that pop in to my head that took this route ( Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon) certainly dwarf the graduates of creative writing programs. But perhaps it just comes down to the opportunity to practice writing on a consistent daily basis with the need to hit deadlines and please a certain audience that is important.
I have a novel just about ready to send to a publisher, a kind of apocalyptic farce. I’m not sure where to look for independent publishers. Any advice in that regard?
Writing skills are not the only thing that our industrial education system has decided to dump. It’s basic business skills as well. I wanted to give a shout-out (or a second one, if it’s been mentioned) to a book that every author should have in their library, and that is “Career Indie Author” by Ecosophia commenters Bill and Teresa Peschel.
This is an amazing resource that covers all the rest of what it takes to be a successful writer if successful means actually making money at it.
And more than just writers too. As John has said many times, surviving in a collapsing world is going to require us to take charge of our own economic health. One way to do that is to develop side hustles that bring in income outside of the established monied economy.
I have a further review of the book over on the Green Wizard’s site here:
“Book Review: “Career Indie Author” by Bill and Teresa Peschel
I know you don’t have any experience with them, but I’ll ask the commentariat what they think of the grammar programs out now.
I’ve been using Grammarly for my submissions at an online writing community I publish on and have mixed feelings about its use. The community has a group of volunteer editors who gatekeep the submissions. It’s supposed to be because they want to have an above-average quality in their stories, so they check for things like punctuation and spelling but for a few editors it strays into the editing of style and story content.
I found that using Grammarly to just correct my punctuation, spelling, and a tendency of using overly long run-on sentences does help polish my stories. In the few instances that I’ve had editors give me their “suggestions” on altering my story line, I’ve been firmly negative to the change. They haven’t pushed it so I’m ok with having a second set of eyes on the story.
I wondered if others have any opinions.
Renaissance Man #31: I do not suffer from a birch tree allergy and have never heard of an individual being allergic to birch trees. BUT I will tell you that my wife has an allergy to Eastern Red Cedar and basically anything in the Juniperus genus. Sitting in a room with cedar paneled walls for too long has led to asthma type issues and she can’t drink gin lest she vomit. She also got severely sick to her stomach eating salmon cooked on cedar planks.
Also bizarrely, my grandfather had a severe allergy to sycamore trees — I forget exactly how they affected him, but he couldn’t touch them at all or be around them too long.
Both are utterly bizarre and not the sorts of thing you’d ever hear of, but given that I have two people in my immediate family with unusual reactions to various trees most people would consider harmless — people researching allergic reactions to birch trees doesn’t sound too unusual (and I personally wish more people would research tree allergies…they’re more common than you think)
“Synthetic phonics”? From the description you link to, it no more counts as phonics than a TV dinner counts as a home-cooked meal made from scratch.
@all, especially those with young children:
Some of the most fascinating courses I took as an undergraduate were in anthropological linguistics, taught in one case by Harvey Pitkin and in the other by the amazingly broad scholar, Dell H. Hymes. Anyway, by the time we had our own children and I had decided to teach them to read before they entered school, I already had some idea of what was involved in learning to move from letters to sounds in one’s own native language.
So I went looking for a compact solid explanation of the spelling-to-sound system of English. Clearly there was a system to it, and it was not excessively complex. And I found that system laid out clearly in two small books.
One was a recently published pamphlet by the linguist Robert A. Hall, Sound and Spelling in English (Chilton Books, 1961). In less than 40 pages Hall gave a very thorough and simple — and accurate! — account of the complete system. He did use the terminology of linguistics, which he explained and which I already knew.
The other was an ancient classic, Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book, then available in several facsimile reprints of various editions from the early 1800s. In a half-dozen pages at the beginning, Webster sketched out the entire system of English spelling in a few compact tables.
Both books can easily be found and downloaded for free from the web nowadays. Hall’s pamphlet was copyrighted in 1961, but apparently the copyright was never renewed, so it is probably in the public domain by now. Webster’s book, of course, has been in the public domain for close to two centuries.
These two resources are not aimed at children, but at teachers of chidren.
1. Never ever write for the Federal Government. They will destroy whatever talent or rules you may have about writing. People in the government are fond of stacked adjectives and strange ideas such as “real-world experience” (as opposed to what? fantasy-world experience). They also write in the passive tense. Which is why Medicare brochures are so dense and unreadable.
I remember having to write “the Chinese oolong tea price was essentially slightly somewhat unchanged a little from last month.” Gerblaugh. (translation: the price of the tea in China remained the same.)
2. About writing schools. Stephen Kuusisto who wrote “Planet of the Blind” and other books on being blind has a blog about his experiences with them. They liked his writing until they met him with his guide dog. Then they told him that they couldn’t teach him. He blogs about how obtuse and closed-minded colleges are to those they have to spend money on.
3. I write because of my brain injury. I write daily for an hour of free writing. I free write for a few drafts, and then winnow it down to a readable draft. I edit after I write three more drafts. It helps my thinking process. I do the whole thing in longhand with a pencil on lined paper. It helps the connections in the brain to develop. I blog so that I have an outlet for my writing.
Pet peeve: People who blog without editing what they write.
Second pet peeve: people who write memoirs thinking that their lives are interesting to the rest of us.
Fifth Wednesday: memes and how they start and continue. Such as the cat videos or democracy dies in darkness or whatever.
On outlining… a few people such as @Kyle, @toomskarmoo have mentioned outlining. For whatever its worth, I agree with both. For fiction, it can hinder. For nonfiction, it could help. But I think there needs to be room to still explore as research on a topic opens new avenues, for nonfiction. So a kind of basic outline to give structure to the form, but allowing wiggle room for new to emerge within it.
Rudy Rucker, who published one of my short stories to first appear alongside pros, has been an influence on me with his works, and his A Writer’s Toolkit. It is here for others who might find it helpful.
One of the things he does is keep a detailed notes document alongside the text he is working on. I found this to work better than an outline. I can write notes in a notebook or a .docx etc. and then use that as needed.
Also I like the idea of notecards touted by some writers like Umberto Eco in his “How to Write a Thesis”. Some of the material there I’ve found to be good to hopefully help me organize some of my research for future nonfiction books. I have written one so far, and as I’ve been revising it to send off soon, I realized I needed to organize my references & bib notes better. So hopefully as I write my next non-fiction pieces, the process of having references & other info organized as I work will may make the other phases go more smooth.
I’m still figuring out what works for me…
but in general, having some kind of sketches I keep in a notebook, that I don’t have strictly adhere to, has been what I’ve done so far.
More recently, for fiction, some of the ideas of Michael Moorcock on writing fiction have been much more useful to me.
What I like from Moorcock are some of his ideas about precomposition, which has led me to the Lester Dent formula, which I’ve been trying to keep in the back of my mind. (But I imagine we might get to that in the genre / formula iteration of this series.)
& again, one thing I try not to do, is stick to any of these “rules” or advice to a T, but just try stuff, take what works, and leave the rest.
Anyway writing seems to be both a cursive and recursive practice.
@Atmospheric river: I agree with your point about people doing creative things in their families and communities. I grew up with family members playing country/rock music in the basement or in the living room on my moms side, when everyone was together. Especially things like Thanksgiving. Some of them played in bars, like my grandpa. Others like my great aunt would do stuff like special music for church (she went to the same church as us and I remember her doing spanish style guitar music). Whenever they were together the instruments came out.
Some of the great acts that have made a living doing it, one way or another were families. (I quite like the Poppy Family… ) Lots of people in modern rock bands have been husbands & wives, brothers & sisters, etc. So I think for those who really want to make a life of it, they can make a living doing what they love. But a lot of that skill can be encouraged by helping people to start where they are.
I think the same can be true of storytelling and poetry. The main point, I think, is we can entertain each other, w/o having to get force fed entertainment from big media & corporate overlords.
Speaking of memes for the fifth Wednesday : why is there so much ink being written about Harry and Megan? I guess the writers needed practice and income.
Thank you for this. The best ‘writer’s group’ I attended – some time after being burned in my first experience – involved almost no writing, and consisted of three friends sitting in a cafe drinking warm beverages and making dirty and/or surreal jokes with each other!
I would like to put in a vote for a post on WB Yeats.
@Bei Dawei: David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir… they make some really good overtone music, don’t they? I haven’t listened to them in a long time. I may have to cue it up again.
Stephen, so noted and counted (in a timely manner, too!)
Mother Balance, hmm! Good to hear. I’ve recorded your anti-vote.
eHu, perhaps you’d like to bring that up in next week’s open post.
JVP, no surprises there. So many parents realize that their children are being artificially held back that the schools are doing all kinds of protective camouflage.
Keno, delighted to hear this! You’re right about the way the typewriter discourages editing on the fly, btw, and that may have more to do than anyone quite realizes with the astounding explosion of good writing in the century or so from 1870 to 1970.
Stephen, yes, it’s part of my diction! My challenge was simply because some people who make comments like yours (though of course not all) are trying to troll, and I like to mess with them.
Mohsin, may it be a catalyst indeed!
Marko, so noted and tabulated.
Martin, that’s an important part of it. Having older kids help teach younger kids was called the monitorial system or the Bell-Lancaster method; it was well-organized and commonly practiced over much of the world, precisely because of the learning benefits of teaching something to someone else. It was ousted in the US by the efforts of Horace Mann and his followers, who idolized the Prussian government’s system of regimented public schools with children divided by age into fixed classes and lots of rote drills.
Chuaquin, that’s really sad.
Patricia O, give it a try! I’ve tabulated your vote.
D., that’s quite common. The literary elite, like their equivalents in the arts and music, aren’t capable of writing anything that anyone outside their own little airtight bubbles would want to bother with, and so they make a virtue out of necessity and insist that anyone who succeeds where they fail must be an awful person or something.
Castle, thanks for these! I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this, but Edmund Wilson, once the most influential critic in the English language, reviewed J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and produced what many people consider the 20th century’s masterpiece of nasty, unfair, and inaccurate criticism: “Ooh, Those Awful Orcs”. (I link to John C. Wright’s posting-and-criticism of it because The Nation, where it was originally published, has apparently seen fit to disappear it.)
Abraham, so noted and tabulated. I’ve written several books on that theme already, of course, but a review may be in order.
Justin, so noted and entered into the count. In the meantime, warm up your sonnet-writing skills.
Martin, maybe you can bring this up in next week’s open post, where we can discuss it at length.
Milkyway, so noted.
OEP, I definitely encourage you to pick up where you left off. Also, though I know this may not be a welcome suggestion, take a look at the story that got rejected and try to understand why it got the reaction it did. Back in the 1970s, when I first started trying to get into print in SF and fantasy magazines, the usual acronym for that problem was “DNC” — “does not convince” — and it meant that something in a story’s premise, plot, or resolution was too implausible for the reader to swallow. If you can set aside your feelings and analyze the story to see what didn’t work for that particular reader, you can take that into account while working up new plots.
Clay, that’s a good point. Most of the great writers of science fiction’s golden age clawed their way up through the pulps, which required a similar sort of discipline.
William, sure. Go to your favorite bookstore or go online and find as many publishers as you can that have published books of a very broadly similar type — say, fiction with a farcical element, or fiction oriented toward apocalypses. Then look each publisher up online, find their submission requirements, and pay exact attention to every detail. That’s how I’ve always done it, and it seems to work.
David, thanks for this.
Robert, thanks for this! I’m sorry to find that Hall’s book doesn’t appear to be freely downloadable on archive.org these days but Webster’s is another matter: it’s here. I doubt there was a one-room schoolhouse in North America that wasn’t stocked with it.
Neptunesdolphins, I have somewhere a wry manual on writing circulated inside the CIA in the 1960s, I think it was, that makes fun of the standard government gobbledygook of the period. Of course things haven’t improved since then. I’ve tabulated your vote, too.
Justin, interesting. Every time I’ve tried to outline, either I’ve thrown out the outline by the time I got to page 10 or the project has died of dry rot, but of course your mileage may vary. I’ll certainly check out Rucker’s toolkit.
Luke, that sounds like a good group! I’ve noted down your vote.
“People in the government are fond of stacked adjectives and strange ideas such as “real-world experience” (as opposed to what? fantasy-world experience). They also write in the passive tense.”
Fantasy-world experience is close, they mean as opposed to the academic world, or more commonly referred to as ivory tower expectations.
And passive voice, that brings back memories. The English department was all about eliminating passive voice by any and all means, the Engineering department demanded passive voice exclusively, the research is what matters, not the person. If you must admit a person was involved then it must be completely irrelevant who that person is.
I wonder how that disagreement was resolved, or if it was.
Three separate copies (two editions) of Hall’s book are available complete from the Hathi Trust:
You can only download entire books at a single go if you have access through “a participating edition.” However, anyone can download any number of single pages as PDFs from a book one at a time. Later one might choose to combine them into a single complete file.
Since Hathi Trust is extremely careful about copyrights, the fact that they have put the whole booklet up for downloading seems to confirm that its copyright has been allowed to lapse. So I will now upload a PDF of it that I have to archive.org for easier access.
Oh, I am well aware you didn’t go to German schools! What I meant to say is this: your remarks seem to apply to any public school system in the world where children of homogeneous age group are placed together in classes. As you commented above, the American system was originally copied from the Prussian one. I fully believe that the Prussian system was meant to induce obedience in children and that it was rather successful at this task. I also find it possible that average education in the USA was better in the 19th century than now.
However, from my personal experience with German schools in the late 20th century, and my daughter’s experience with Canadian schools now, I don’t think all current public school systems are as bad as you make the current American public school system to be. In fact, a number of countries have public school systems that seem to be better than the German and Canadian ones.
That is why I wonder if there are additional factors that contribute to the decline of the American public school system over the last century, not only the basic idea of placing children of homogeneous age in one class.
I would wait at least a couple of years before starting recorder for a couple of reasons. One is that her hands are likely are not be big enough for a soprano recorder. There are smaller recorders, but I wouldn’t stick tiny shrill sopranino or garklein recorders in the hands of a two year old. They will drive you mad. An even bigger reason is that as a wind instrument, recorder requires the ability to coordinate breathing, fingers and your tongue, and I suspect a lot of two year olds would find that a struggle and not fun. There’s also the fact that most recorder books are geared to children old enough to read.
But you don’t have to wait to start playing with music. Someone upthread had some good suggestions for musical toys for toddlers. I’d also add that lots of babies and toddlers love to shake and hit things, so quiet precussion instruments that won’t drive you mad, like egg shakers, maracas etc may be a hit. Also glockenspiels, though those can be a bit more annoying to adult listeners. And sing to her, and get her to sing along. That is a great, fun, easy way to start. And dance or clap. A lot of small kids will dance at the drop of a hat, and it’s a great way to feel the rhythm of the music.
I think that with a very young child, the important thing is just to get them involved in music in some way and having fun with it. Not a specific skill set or learning a specific instrument. They’ll find that challenge easier later, and an early love for music and a feel for it is a major place both the motivation to practice and that elusive thing called ‘talent’ will come from.
Hey JMG, if you don’t outline your nonfiction either, do you have a system for keeping track of references? Just curious… I’m sure I’ll figure out what works for me in time.
For fiction, one thing that worked for me that I got from you was putting the ending in there, which you have mentioned doing. I have a novellette / novella this year that I wrote where I did that, and I’ve got most of the beginning. There is still a middle bit I need to work on, and for that I think I need to use active imagination which you also mentioned: going into dialog with the characters for 15 min or so in your mind to learn more. I think that might help fill in some of the missing scenes, and further help during revision. But at least I know a big chunk of the beginning and middle are done, also with an ending. Now its filling in time.
So thank you for that!
Again, thanks for these heartening posts, and thanks to everyone here for all the comments.
The main things I like from Rucker’s toolkit are his ideas of gnarl, transrealism, and rubbing power chords (tropes) up against each other.
His concept of Gnarl he adapted from Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science: “Processes that are structured in interesting ways but are nonetheless unpredictable. Here we think of a vine, or a waterfall, or the startling yet computable digits of pi, or the flow of your thoughts.”
Transrealism: “A transreal story is strongly based on some real situation in the author’s own life.
The idea is to build up the characters on the basis of yourself and the other people you
know—possibly merging people or reassembling parts of personalities. You take some issue
that concerns you and think of some classic SF or fantasy riff that in some way represents this
concern. Then you dial it up and put in a twist at the end if possible.”
Transrealism came from the influence of the beats on Rucker. But he wanted to apply the way they wrote about real people etc. and put it into genre fic.
Power Chords: “There’s a core of classic SF ideas that I think of as “power chords” — the equivalent of heavy musical riffs that people instantly respond to. A more formal word would be
“tropes”. SF is a subset of literature, which has its own tropes, such as the unwed mother, the
cruel father, the buried treasure, the midnight phone call, and so forth. Some examples of SF power chords are: Blaster guns, spaceships, time machines, aliens, telepathy, flying saucers, warped space, faster-than-light travel, holograms, immersive virtual reality, robots, teleportation, endless shrinking, levitation, antigravity, generation starships, ecodisaster, blowing up Earth, pleasure-center zappers, mind viruses, the attack of the giant ants, and the fourth dimension.
When a writer uses an SF power chord, there is an implicit understanding with the
informed readers that this is indeed familiar ground. And it’s expected the writer will do
something fresh with the trope. ‘Make it new,’ as Ezra Pound said.”
Power Chords could also be applied to deindustrial fiction… or mashup power chords from different genres.
There’s some other good stuff in there.
I really enjoyed the one Creative Writing course I took. I considered majoring in it, but I feared it would not look employable on a resume. And then I went for English Literature instead, so not sure how much better that was. I could go on about how Literature programs leach the joy out of reading, but that is another topic for another day.
One thing I noticed about the Creative Writing program, then and now, is the instructors had not been widely published. You know, academic journals and small poetry collections, but no novels on the shelf down at Barnes & Noble. When I was in college, I wanted to be a novelist when I grew up, so I wanted to learn from them.
Thank you for this post. It was very inspirational and useful.
My mom taught me to read when I was four, and almost since then I’ve never really doubted my ability to write. The question was always ‘can I make a good living at it?’
I’ve recently been applying the concepts of ‘study what others do’ and ‘practice daily’ to guitar. It works – in two weeks I’m scheduled to debut live with a local bar band.
Thank you once again, John, for your well-thought and well-written analysis of one of the most prominent and most damaging problems with modern education. I am now convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the structure, ideals, and practices of the public school system is where Gene Roddenberry’s team found their inspiration to create the Borg.
Institutional conditioning has reached new levels of dysfunction. Potentially this issue will only get heavier for the next few decades as we move forward. The personalities graduating from elementary and high school have high rates of mental health challenges. I would want to add that screen induced mental health problems have perhaps thrown a wrench into the traditional education infrastructures goal to churn out factory workers. I’m not sure what they are churning out now… education seems to be centered around teaching equity and compliance while validating dependence on screens. Schools also function as a day care routine for unsuccessful students: ensuring they wont get into trouble and allow parents to go work. Albeit some students that are looking to become professionals in the infrastructure of our society will still be successful in some degree perhaps If they can tolerate slogging through it all.
I have been advocating for students interested in art to find whatever job they can tolerate and focus on their craft on weekends and evenings. Whatever low rent/no rent situation they find themselves in after school is over I guess is a kind of a mandatory lifestyle choice.
This article is a confidence booster and kind of a template; how to begin edging effects of conditioning out of considerations around personal potential.
I vote for an analysis/article on the benefits and blowback that may have come from John Dee’s workings. The workings that were rumored to set stage for the British Empire… if this is at all possible to fit in an article.
My vote is for poetry in general, though any particular poet would also be of interest.
Murmuration, The Maltese Falcon is a classic, great American movie. No film adaption of a Chandler novel comes close, although The Big Sleep wasn’t bad. I am of the opinion that second rate (that is, second rate IMO) novels can make great movies. Think of Ivanhoe, as well as Maltese Falcon. I think, my opinion only, that both Hammett and Agatha Christie wrote very good movie scripts. Apologies to Christie fans, but I find her books unreadable. OTOH, I love the BBC adaptations.
Thanks for the shout-out for Career Indie Author!
We’re very proud of it.
I do use story outlines for novella length and longer stories, but they’re fractal. I’ll write a brief, vague overview at the beginning, and then write the first few chapters. Edit them. Write a more detailed overview several chapters out as well and make changes to the orginal outline of the whole thing to reflect changes in direction and the clearer idea I now have of the story. Write the next few chapters. Edit them. Repeat process as needed until I get to the end of the story.
This is something I’ve developed by trial and error over many years of writing mostly fanfiction. Does it work? Often.
Sometimes I still don’t finish long stories. I’m currently heading for 60 thousand words into one. It’s almost finished, but I’m having a bit of writer’s block aided and abetted by the fact I’m way more interested in music right now and just can’t find the motivation to figure out what I need to do to sort out the ending.
This is one of the very few places I can say this.
I don’t want this to sound like an apology for the modern, industrial school system because it’s not.
But their mission has grown and changed over the last few generations.
My father, Lyle, (1934 – 2022) grew up in North Dakota and went to a one-room school house.
The family didn’t have the money to send him to high school, so they didn’t. They sent his siblings, because (I think) they thought Lyle was capable of learning on his own, which he did. He asked and the answer was NO.
At that time, you didn’t need a high school diploma to get a job, marry, and support a family.
Now, you do.
Also at that time, the kids who REALLY didn’t belong in school for mental or behavioral issues DIDN’T GO. Those discipline problems got kicked out.
Now, EVERYONE has to attend the public school system unless the parents home-school or go private.
My kids are out of school now but I vividly remember seeing the parade of wheelchairs, heavy-duty medical life-support, even kids on gurneys being wheeled in and out of our local high school at certain times of the day.
What do you do with these special needs kids? You can’t ignore them but the public school system didn’t have to accept them when I was a lass. I don’t know what they did, back then.
There are also the discipline problems, who all by themselves need one instructor per kid.
When my best friend’s daughter was in 4th grade (over 10 years ago), the teacher had a code phrase: “bear party”. When she said “bear party”, that was a signal for the entire class to file out into the hallway while the teacher and the dedicated aide subdued the problem boy until he was under control again or help arrived.
What do you do with a kid like that? And while you’re handling that kid, I guarantee that the rest of the class — even those capable and willing! — don’t learn a darned thing.
I remember my student teaching days in 1982 (Art Education). I met kids who’d already been failed by their families and the school. I remember the teacher I was assigned to BEGGING the parents to come into class to talk about their kid.
I believe that one reason private and charter schools can do better than the public schools is they can expel the discipline problems.
School is often the worst possible place for many kids.
But what do you do when you insist that everyone needs to be educated the same way, in the same industrial system, spending as little $$ as possible (because it’s all wasted on admin)?
We made this predicament, but we don’t manage it well at all.
Lacking Clever User Name 125
Thank you for sharing your comment‼️I kid you not by saying that you are an inspiration.✨Besides JMG’s magnificent writing✒️, it is comments like yours that motivate me to read all the comments (of a subject I can relate to) over the course of a week. I love reading the first-person, actually lived, stories — they are priceless. The “this is what happened” and how one dealt with it — recountings from people of all ages from many places in the world. These comments help me say sane during the week — in these times of falling apart.
In my opinion, inch by inch, sentence by sentence, these personal anecdotes and stories make a difference. One doesn’t know who will benefit in reading any one them. I am unable to change the vast majority of what I hear in/see on the news, but I can ruminate about what a person wrote here — I let it percolate, and I don’t flip out (((as much)))🙏. These stories help make sense of a world that “went wild and crazy” before we all were born (inheritance), heading up to the present-day’s unsound, hack decisions.
I thank everyone who has shared their perspectives and experiences‼️And thank you, JMG, for being head writer✍️.
Dane County, Wisconsin, USA
Regarding the 5th Wednesday
I would like to hear your assessment of the United States mid-term elections. I was expecting Republicans to get wholloped (landslide), OR Democrats to get wholloped (landslide). Incredibly, both parties did abysmally bad/horrible/disgusting. And in that badness (50% vs. 50%), it gives both parties two years to change their ways by getting rid of nut-jobs and extremists and radicals.
I was pleasantly surprised, and relieved, that both parties got trounced on where things are 50% vs. 50%.
If you would be so kind, please dedicate a post on the mid-term elections before the end of December — I am all ears.
Dane County, Wisconsin, USA
I’ll second Will O. for the fifth Wednesday post.
How do you properly form and educate a society’s elite class so they don’t screw up as royally as our current betters?
A harsh price for failure?
A strong sense of duty and noblesse obliege?
Being status-seeking monkeys, we’ll always have a hierarchy so how do we make it a better, more functional one?
JMG, the part of your post about the different educational system we formerly had really hit me. My public school education was a 13-year nightmare, really an experience of being in prison, between the intense boredom, the regimented schedule, and the daily harassment by my peers. Now I see why it was that way.
I learned to read, write, spell, and punctuate simply by reading good writing, by seeing it done well and consistently. Now I see writers who have been taught by teachers who cannot spell or punctuate, and I see a serious degradation in the quality of writing that I read in numerous contexts.
So, one point I would like to add to a discussion of writing is that details matter. Yes, spelling and punctuation matter. If anyone thinks it’s cramping your style to pause and think about those things, then ask yourself if you care whether readers will understand you. My understanding is that amateurs write for themselves and professionals write for an audience. Readers don’t know what’s in your head. They only know what they actually see on the page. Make sure it’s there, and it’s what you actually wanted to say.
Maybe nobody needs to hear this, but it’s = it is. Always.
I don’t have a vote for the fifth Wednesday post. I generally enjoy whatever you choose, JMG.
Every writer has a different writing style and has to teach himself what it is.
I know writers who write detailed outlines.
I know writers who write completely into the dark and are just as surprised as anyone else by what happens to their characters.
I know writers who write snippets and scenes and bits and pieces, all completely out of order, and then stitch them together into a coherent plot.
As for me, I have a general outline (a few sentences long) and I know where I’ll end up.
When I write, I write everything in the order in which it happens. When I reach the end, I stop.
I do a lot of back and forth editing as I go because I write long, convoluted plots so I have to fix things.
I always work with spellcheck on, because misspellings make my head hurt.
James Patterson has advice online about writing genre fiction. It seems reasonable. But one thing I recall from an interview he said something like: When you decide you want to start getting novels published, write a book: sweat and die over it, take a year, whatever, write a book.
Then stick it in a cupboard somewhere and forget it. Then go write another book. The second, is the one you send out.
I think he would also agree with a lot of your advice.
Teresa from Hershey,
in the realm of different strokes for different folks, I tend to treat spellcheck with a grain of salt, and/or ignore it in the rough draft when writing fiction because I’m writing fantasy or science fiction and it flags all my person or place names, and every invented word. Still very useful when looking for issues with normal words… though I have lost track the number of fanfic writers I’ve had to tell that spellcheck doesn’t catch homophones, wrong words, or most bad grammar so they still need to proofread their work and edit before posting.
That seems to be a bit better understood now than when I started out. The usual problems now are a) English is not their first language, b) They never learned how to use proper grammar, or c) They don’t care about spelling or grammar. This last often goes with not caring about other things, like plot, characterization, the laws of nature and basic plausibility etc. B is fixable with work, as is A, and they often respond to constructive criticism. C… unless they start to care about writing better, it isn’t going to improve much and badgering them just annoys them. Best to take myself elsewhere.
thank you for another excellent post. Like many of your readers I am consciously working on escape from unappealing choices of small cogs in corporate machine / underemployment-precariat that world seems to offer in every (un-)stable industrial economy and your writing was impulse to imagine different life. We all can do something more interesting.
Regarding the 5th Wednesday: As for a Fifth Wednesday topic.. I’d vote for anything and everything esoteric related.
“Does anyone else have a subject they really don’t want to hear me chatter about?”
Stephen Taylor said, anything with the word ‘gallimaufry’ in it…
Mary, yes, there are so many good movies and shows that mine the private eye/noir genre. Maltese Falcon for sure. Did you ever see Chandlers Hollywood cameo? He was an extra in Double Indemnity 🙂
LA Confidential was excellent too, and Chinatown of course. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang really had fun playing with the genre. HBO recently put out a reboot of Perry Mason, which was killer! (pun fully intended) The first season of True Detective was so good. So much vibe and voodoo (which of course reminds me of the 90s noir/voodoo detective pc game Gabriel Knight). Casablanca isn’t really private eye, but it’s quintessential noir, and one of my favorites. And while branching out, Batman Animated was a fantastic noir cartoon. And who could forget Roger Rabbit? Maybe Bladerunner belongs here too? And noir-adjacent, my own personal guilty pleasure, Rocketeer.
I read a copy of Ten Little Indians before it was returned to being called And Then There Were None, as a kid. I loved it then. Are you saying to let it be and keep a warm memory?
Here’s the link to Hall’s book Sound and Spelling in English now available on archive.org:
(Also, I have no idea why I typed “through a participating edition” instead of “through a participating instituition” in my earlier comment on the Hathi Trust.)
@Bei Dawei #102 re: “Tibetan” Five Rites
As I’m sure our host could explain in a lot more depth than me, it’s a set of 5 calisthenic exercises purported to have various physical and spiritual benefits. They were popularized in a short book called “The Eye of Revelation” by Peter Kelder (https://templodoyoga.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/the_eye_of_revelation_by_peter_kelder_edited_by_c_witt.pdf). JMG is about to publish a book that goes into them and their (American) history in some depth, I gather. It seems they were just labeled “Tibetan” because that was a sufficiently remote and mystical land to 1939 Americans to lend some gravitas to the book’s claims about health, strength, and virility.
I’ve been doing them as my daily exercise more-or-less consistently for some months now, though I had to step down the number of repetitions I’m doing to stay consistent after the recent birth of my second daughter. I’ve found they’ve been pretty helpful with flexibility, extremely helpful with core strength, and seemingly pretty helpful with energy levels. If you’re looking for a pretty robust workout that you can complete fairly quickly and with zero equipment (except a yoga mat is nice to have if you can swing it), I recommend giving it a shot. Just take the book’s advice to start slow and work your way up gradually, even if you’re otherwise in pretty good shape – I rushed things on my first try and ended up with some weird discomforts that I did not have when I picked it up again and went more gradually.
I’m not surprised. Do you recall what Krashen recommends for learning to read?
Phonics gives you a shot, but it’s prescriptive on pronunciation, which isn’t standard. A southerner and a yankee say that vowel very differently. I would imagine he does something that involves following along with whole words while someone reads aloud, or something else that’s very organic. I’d be curious to find out.
Justin Patrick Moore
Interesting. When I say that I use outlines to some degree, what they amount to is something more like notes to self.
In nonfiction, disorganized bullet notes of comments I want to make sure I don’t forget to mention, or questions directed at myself to get me to consider what I mean by something, or where I stand. Never structure.
In fiction, I literally write Forces at Work and then list bullet points of recent events, or past foreshadowing, conflicts, anything interesting that weaves its way through the story. I will do this for each character, and keep running notes on what they’ve done or experienced so far that may yet influence them or bite them, and also for external forces in the world. Then I glance at these notes, notice how certain characters or events seem destined for collision as friends, foes, or something else, and use that.
Often, I find interesting plots I never would have thought of. Bob lied about something in chapter 2, Frank would have seen Bob’s report, now Frank is engaged in a related task, so he treats Bob’s lie as truth, and consequences follow. Each of these would be separate elements that I never predicted would come together until I noticed them in my notes.
Again, not structural outlining so much as tracing the flow of past story elements, occasionally noting future possibilities without committing to them.
JMG – thanks for this. I wonder how the late industrial/capitalist style education has influenced mental and social ills, beyond educational weakness. At least in our location, the schools provide substantial remedial care for a multitude of chronic illness and basic neglect. Quality and even basic appropriateness seems variable.
My vote is for mental illness, and practical responses with mental resilience building. Suicides keep rising, and most families have members who are struggling. I appreciate your writing on this, and with both mental/social illness and decline accelerating, an update would be helpful. School shootings and paint-ruined museum pieces do not contribute, so glad you highlight effective means of muddling through.
Robert, many thanks for this.
Aldarion, duly noted. Of course dividing children into classes by age isn’t the only problem with US schools — it eliminates a very helpful source of learning, but it was only one of the many steps that turned what was once among the best education systems in the world to one of the worst.
Justin, I enter references as I use them. When working on a nonfiction project, I’m constantly searching for new sources of information, and very often a manuscript of mine that’s half finished is a mass of disconnected sections and half-chapters, each of which has its own footnotes in place, and a stack of books I still have to read in order to fill in the gaps! Back in the day I used placeholder footnote markers — C1 for the first footnote in chapter 3, for example — and then replaced those with sequential numbers when I was ready to hammer the whole thing into shape. Now my word processing program does that for me.
Christopher, that’s one of the secrets of university writing programs: the people who teach them are very rarely successful writers, so they can’t necessarily teach you how to become a successful writer!
Karalan, excellent! Have a great time.
Old Steve, I never watched any of the Star Trek franchise other than the original series, but wasn’t the Borg at least minimally competent?
Ian, hmm! An interesting proposal; I’ve added it to the list.
Aldarion, so noted; I plan on covering some of that in the first December post, but we’ll see.
Teresa, of course that’s also a major factor.
Northwind and Teresa, so tabulated.
KMF, that’s a very important point. If you want to get published, in particular, being exact with spelling and punctuation is important. Many publishers have a simple rule to sort through manuscripts: if they find X number of spelling or punctuation mistakes in the first Y pages of the manuscript, it goes straight into the reject bin. They figure that if you can’t be bothered to check your work for mistakes, the chance that the manuscript will be any good is too small to worry about — and they think this way from long, long experience.
Teresa, fair enough!
Russell1200, George Scithers, who was editor in chief of Asimov’s when that was one of the best SF magazines in the genre, used to say something similar. He said that every beginning writer has half a million words of bad prose stuck inside them. The only way to get past those to the good stuff was to write them out on paper. In an upcoming post I’ll be discussing why the cult of spontaneity has been responsible for so much dismally bad writing, and expand on Scithers’ advice.
Changeling, you’re welcome. It’s getting to the point that staying inside the corporate system is a guarantee for failure and worse. Time to get out!
Grover, I’ll add that to the gallimaufry of other unwelcome topics. 😉
Robert, got it and thank you!
Jeff (and Bei), that’s correct. The Five Rites are no more Tibetan than they are Martian; they were invented in the United States sometime between 1909 and 1939, probably close to the latter date, drawing on a certain current of Western esoteric spirituality. It was very fashionable to use chatter about the Mystic East as raw material for sales pitches in those days; for example, if you went into any hoodoo shop in the country in 1939, you’d find bottles of potions labeled Hindu (or, more likely, Hindoo) Grass Oil and Chinese Wash, which had precisely nothing to do with India or China.
Fun detail: George Adamski, who became famous from 1949 on as the first successful UFO contactee and claimed to receive all kinds of mystic wisdom from Venusian space travelers, earlier headed an occult lodge out of Los Angeles called the Royal Order of Tibet. It had no more to do with Tibet than it did with royalty. I haven’t yet scored a set of the teachings, though I’m looking; what I’ve heard, though, is that they were pretty good.
Gardener, oh, granted, the way that the schools have been turned into a dumping ground for kids who need specialized care and aren’t getting it hasn’t helped matters at all. I’ve added your vote to the list.
@ pygmycory #187
I write science-fiction romance so I’ve got plenty of words my spellcheck flags.
I add them to my custom dictionary, solving the problem.
It’s especially handy when I’ve got a proper name that I don’t often use and can’t remember how to spell.
When I add a name or made-up word to my custom dictionary, I also add it to my style-sheet.
A style-sheet lists all proper names, characters and their relationships, place names and how they’re organized, and anything else you want to remember or you want Editor to know so they don’t have to keep asking.
When a novel becomes a series, you’ll need a Style Bible, listing everything. The style bible remembers for you.
I’ll go with Will O and Theresa from Hershey;
How to form and educate society’s elites so they’re not total incompetents.
As an aside, I think having alternatives for the commoners to adopt helps to focus the elites attention on reality. In the USA in the 1930’s, for example, lots of alternatives to the status quo were known. Many of the alternatives would have left the elites dead or way down the heap.
As it happens, I’ve been going through a pile of writing assignments stretching back to Junior High in the early 1980s. Much of it is not fit for consumption and ending up in the burn pile. There are assignments, like “write a different ending for the Lord of the Flies”, various adventure stories (many derived from my obsessions of the times: airplanes and Dungeons and Dragons) and absolutely incomprehensible research papers. A few gems shine through; strange science-fiction-y stories, with good dialogue, decent descriptions and offbeat topics (such as the man who wakes up and finds one of his legs is missing). All this ends (for good or ill) as soon as my writing turns “serious” as a history graduate student in the mid 1990s. Academia fairly decimated my writing ability, or serious interest in cultivating it. Self editing during the process is to blame, but mostly I think it was trying to please the professors that did it. Your post, though, has me thinking I might be able to salvage something. A long slog to windward, to be sure, but now I’m not out to please anyone but myself. Thanks!
I re-vote/upvote what Emmanuel #54 voted for
My main memory of school was just being bored ,I remember being sent to the “slow” kids math tutoring center ,and day dreaming the entire time of flying my model rockets ….all the subjects till the end of 12th grade where just boring ,I learned mainly how to watch a clock ,if they could have at least have told me well math can be used for rocketry or aviation I might have tried,even community college was the same ,I wanted to be a photographer and transfer but just gave up and pursued welding instead and only there was I finally learning useful things .
@ Justin, thank you so much for requesting your library buy a copy of my book! I am genuinely touched.
Dear JMG, if I may, since you discuss magnificence in your post, I’m curious how one discerns where one’s capacities for magnificence are? In my own case, I’m genuinely not sure in the same sense that I am not really sure who I am in a deep way or what I am doing with my life. Is it typical that one has to work through a lot of personal garbage before one can get to magnificence? Basically I lack clarity and want to live more magnificently but am not sure how to best further that, and am curious your general thoughts on how people might approach this question.
I know it isn’t generally used anymore, but exactly when did phonics get dumped by the establishment? I had phonics by 2nd grade (wayyyyy back when) and loved it.
Since “factory schools” were reportedly an outcome of the regimentation necessary for Henry Ford’s assembly lines and WWI, it appears we’re well over a century into this experiment and the results are dismal. It’s a credit that anyone gets out of the system these days with any sense about them. Of course, everything failing around us shows how badly our populace is UN-educated.
I’ve never really understood the concept of ‘phonics’ beyond the gist that letters tend to produce certain sounds. That was all I needed to get up to speed with English, and then Dutch, all before the age of 6 or 7.
Stephen Krashen has/had as one of his principles the idea that you need comprehensible input to acquire a language. He invented the term ‘i+1’ to pseudo-scientifically refer to sentences only a little beyond your level of understanding. He recently modified ‘comprehensible input’ to ‘compelling input’. The trick is to locate suitable material for yourself. He doesn’t offer much help there – although he did put out a paper that analyzed the improvement in English of a group of Korean women who read the Sweet Valley High series of books!
One interesting thing that ties into the theme of this blogpost is that Stephen Krashen recommends writing not really to learn a language but as a means to become smarter, as it trains you to think/express yourself more clearly.
That’s something I dearly require.
Thanks to John Michael Greer for allowing me to participate, therefore, in his one-room school!
Given the unfolding energy crisis in Europe, maybe a discussion of the role of firewood in society and its ecological impacts would be an interesting topic.
Murmuration #190, I never played Gabriel Knight but I remember the name. Some other great noir games were Kingpin (like the Mel Gibson film Payback, but grimier), and the first two Max Payne games (that combined gritty brutality with John Woo and Matrix-style shootouts). And while I hated every film version of Blade Runner, it was the best detective game I ever played. Also thinking of John Woo films, Hard Target was a thing of beauty – a perfect balance between Hong Kong and Hollywood.
There’s parts of common writing advice I disagree with. Stuff like Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat tell you to show the protagonist’s normal life, then something happens and how they deal with it shows character development. My theory is if your characters have unusual and interesting enough lives to begin with, that’s not necessary. You can write what to them is a normal day where nothing particularly out of the ordinary happens, but it’s so unfamiliar to the audience they’re hooked. The two stories I wrote, ‘Human-Derived Product’ and ‘Postmodern Latifundia’, were both done that way – partly in defiance of the supposed rules of writing.
One way to get inspiration for a story is to find a cliche you think is overused and find an alternative. Like how so many detective novels start with the discovery of a body. Why can’t it be something else? How about finding an abandoned chemical tanker lorry full of extremely dangerous and very valuable chemicals. It’s clearly not eco-mafia dumping – it’s worth a fortune and nobody would throw it away. So where did it come from? Why is it here? What happened to the driver?
Another trick if you have several story ideas, but none of them seem substantial enough, is to fold some of them together. I saw this in action with the anime Macross Plus: The Movie (90s VHS version, the more recent DVD release was re-edited and I don’t know how much). The creator said it started as three ideas: one about two test pilots, another about three former best friends who now hate each other, and the last about an AI-enhanced virtual reality pop star. They combined really well. The three friends were two test pilots and the operator of the AI system. It had a narrative density unlike anything else – nearly every scene advancing multiple plot threads.
Re studying examples of bad writing: I can recommend as an extreme example, John Jacob Astor’s “A Journey in Other Worlds” (1894). Only the strong thematic interest it arouses, as an indicator of what might have been believed at that time about conditions on the worlds of the Solar System, enabled me to read any of it. Combine that with the dullness of a prose style which has fewer contours than the surface of a neutron star… and you get a memorably forgetful experience, if you get what I mean.
That was an an excellent post. My daughter left her state school in June and joined a Steiner school in August in year 6. The difference is astonishing, with the school championing individual creativity rather than crushing it. Her art skills in particular are developing a style of their own.
Regarding topics, how about; the role of the ego, on the path to spiritual enlightenment or realisation as Manly P Hall prefers to call it.
Hi John Michael and Darkest Yorkshire,
Yes, poor little Holden needed a drubbing from Sailor Steve Costigan. That’ll learn him! 🙂 And yes, that was it, the aimless nature of the story sent me to distraction. Surely it is not much to ask for a beginning, middle and an end, and some sort of conclusion. I’ll share a little secret with you two about this book. I truly wanted for Holden to be drafted. I know it’s awful, but that’s why it is a secret. Anyway, I kind of figured that he would have been enlisted as a junior officer of poor competence before – well, who knows how this happened – he got fragged. Look, there would have been no other way, the safety of the rest of the company was at stake, and nobody saw anything.
Hi John Michael,
I must say, that I really enjoyed the addition of the ravens. A delightful touch. 🙂 I imagined the scene, put the thoughts to words. Then cleaned the words up, cutting out unnecessary words and leaving some things unexplained. But the caw of the ravens as they tore at soft dead flesh. Just adds something.
Credit where credit is due, MZB knew what she was doing as a money making process. There’s little point having artistic integrity and starving to death. And it is surprising what just talking with people will reveal.
Art does have to speak to people, and we’ve had our share of poets too, who have done quite nicely and earned their living. Waltzing Matilda is a classic, and worthy of note.
However, not to disparage such folks, but if that is what Neopagan’s in northern California would like to think about one of the great characters and epochs of our history, they ain’t my people.
I’d be interested to hear of your thoughts in relation to the gentle art of failure?
Could I please change my vote to “How to form and educate society’s elites so they’re not total incompetents”?
My vote for the 5th Wednesday post topic is for reincarnation, especially supposed past lifes remembered by children. Are they hard evidences for reincarnation, or not?
I hope not being late for my vote being tabulated…Thank you JMG.
“Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess; it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.”
Tolkien suprises the reader (out of eyesight into a guess), and you recognize/see what he means. That surprise/recognition is … magic in writing.
@Hadashi (#204) wrote:
“I’ve never really understood the concept of ‘phonics’ beyond the gist that letters tend to produce certain sounds.”
That’s basically all there is to it. The rest is gobblety-gook and schooling jargon
In English, by and large, the units of spelling include not just the 26 letters of the alphabet, but a few dozen standard letter combinations (such as “th,” “sh” and “ch” and “tch,” “ee,” “ea,” “oo”). Each of these units has, by and large, just one or two standard pronunciations. Once an English-speaking child knows how to spot these units and what each unit’s common pronunciations are (in which context), he can sound out the possibilities for any word he encounters. Most of these possibilities will not be real English words, and can be discarded. When more than one possibility actually is a real English word (for example, “lead” or “read”), context will almost always suffice to show the thoughtful child which possibility is the correct one in the sentence he is reading at the moment.
Of course, there are a fair number of English words that are not spelled according to this system, such as “of,” “people” and all the words with a “gh” in them. These several hundred words have to be learned individually by the child. But they are the exceptions, not the norm, to the general system. G. B. Shaw, and others who famously mocked Emglish spelling, focused on these several hundred exceptions in their ignorant and humorous attempts to discredit the whole of the system.
The excellence of Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book is that its author understood this system and thoroughly drilled the child in it, using a small book’s worth of well-designed exercises before proceeding to actual texts that the child was supposed to be able to read. (Of course, the readings themselves are badly dated now.)
I feel compelled to comment before even getting to the end of this post, because you struck a chord with me….
What you’re saying about American public schools helps explain a part of my journey of self-discovery that always baffled me. When I got out of high school, I hated writing. I didn’t think of myself as a bad writer, I just hated writing. I doubt I could have even told you why! I just knew I was excited to major in engineering in college because I would never have to write again!
Then, by the time I got out of college, in no small part due to the college itself, I hated engineering and I found myself more interested in writing. I was confused to say the least! I chalked it up to not knowing much about myself. That is of course true, but to think that being ignorant of my own strengths and weaknesses was by design gives me the shivers!
First it was technical writing, which is a natural step from engineering. As my career went on, I sought out jobs that would allow me more of a chance to write.
At this point in my life I have settled back to a balance point. I don’t have any desire to write novels, but I do enjoy writing letters, memos, and reports. I seek out those opportunities as part of the day to day communication needed for my job or involvement in my local community.
I enjoy writing about what interests me. As pathetic as this may sound, I even feel I have improved my writing ability simply by trying to express myself clearly when writing comments on this blog. So I thank for you for that opportunity!
Can you recommend any phonics workbooks (such as the old one you posted a photo of)? Something that those of us who are attempting homeschooling might want to purchase, if we can find a copy?
My vote for the 5th Wednesday topic is an ‘occult critique of ideology’—something you mentioned in passing a couple months back and has stuck in my mind.
@JMG (#111) and @Chris (#90, #211):
I certainly agree that MZB did an excellent job of supporting herself and her family by her writing. She had an excellent sense of what made for good and readable writing. In my younger years I read every book that she published over her own name, and found many nuggets of wisdom in them. And I still have a complete file of her Fantasy Magazine on my bookshelves. She was also a very knowledgeable occultist, as her columns in the East Village Other show.
I have heard that MZB used that one epigrammatic handwrtten line of hers on quite a number of her rejection letters to aspiring writers. I don’t think you were singled out by her for an exceptionally harsh reply. It seems that she strongly felt the best lessons were learned in the school or hard knocks, not in any sort of nurturing school. (For whatever it may be worth, she didn’t have much nurturing herself as a child, growing up on an isolated farm in upstate New York, nor all that much formal schooling.)
What veritable gallimaufry of excellent and useful tips in this discussion.
I like it. Into my chest of treasures it goes.
My vote for a 5th Wed topic is Quiet Quitting. The reasons, manifestations, ethics, etc. I know nobody else has suggested it so it is unlikely to win. Whichever way it goes, I wonder whether the prolific and admirable Violet(cadabra) would consider a post on the topic? I really enjoy her posts and highly recommend her blog over on Dreamwidth. Something for everyone can be found there.
@Teresa from Hershey (I always smell chocolate when I spot your name here): the style sheet you mention: is this a separate document? Or is it a function in Word? I’m thinking of the Styles function but that is for formatting, no? I ordered Career Indie Author yesterday, really looking forward to getting my mitts on it. Thank you to the High Green Wizard for the recommendation.
I don’t remember how I learned to read. Probably my mother taught me. But I do remember that by 6 April 1952, a month before my fourth birthday, I could already read the newspaper posters on the lampposts with the day’s headlines as we drove by.
The date sticks in my mind because that day the posters featured an unusually long word that I definitely could not read. The best I could manage was “tercentry”. It was actually “tercentenary”, the 300th anniversary of the day Jan van Riebeeck waded ashore at the site of the future Cape Town and the European occupation of southern Africa began. In those days a public holiday, nowadays passed over in embarrassed silence.
Out of interest, I just did a search for MZB books in our library system, because I have never read any of her books and wanted to have a look. A total of 8, yes eight books are held in all of England, and several of those are translations of The Mists of Avalon.
Her work must have been culled from the shelves, even the virtual shelves.
I think this is such a shame. Unpersoning a person is one thing, destroying art (even if it is not Art), is another.
Strangely, I’ve been reminiscing about Macross Plus recently. This after not thinking about the film for probably 25 years or so. I even tracked down the old VHS trailer.
Though I’m not convinced, there is certainly enough research and study on the topic that one can easily make a strong case for the existence of reincarnation.
You should check out the work of Dr. James Matlock.
I’m only just now seeing the Next Generation series for the first time, having recently purchased a DVD boxed set of all seven seasons. I like a good movie once in a while, but I really don’t care for television – too much trash.
The Borg are not just minimally competent, they’re downright invincible – except for one fatal weakness: individual Borg drones are complete zombies, relying entirely on the ‘hive mind’ of the collective to do all their thinking for them. Get their communication mixed up so a few of them misinterpret the central directives, and then the whole hive explodes. My observation about them is that if you follow the ideals and objectives of modern education (and computer programming, and automotive design, and safety legislation, along with many other things including any technology marketed with the adjective ‘smart’) through to their final stupidity, this nightmarish world of zero-freedom/zero-imagination/zero-individuality is where you inevitably end up. Surely there are ways to be better than that, no?
Thank you for these great posts in your series on writing/publishing. Very eye-opening and inspiring. It is baffling and yet understandable as to how much government (gubernar in Latin: to govern–as in the governor/rudder of a boat and mente: the minds of the people; to steer the mind of the people) the corporations (rooted in the word corpse) really want to limit us and how they are constantly directing and reinforcing us to self hate and limit our own true power and spark.
Check out Stephen Harrod Buhner’s amazing book on writing titled “Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life”. Although non-fiction is in the subtitle of the book, it is also applicable to fiction. It is interesting that he considers that non-fiction can be an art even though much of it is usually dry, reductionist and dead. Buhner is a very eloquent writer who has 20 or so books under his belt. Some of the things he gets into in this book are: golden threads (following them and being touched by them), hidden baggage, cliched thinking, the imaginal realm, writing as intentional dreaming, the secret kinesis of things, aisthesis, writing as spirit channeled through the writer, the importance of feeling, inhabiting the word, and writing as something larger than yourself.
Cugel, so noted and tabulated.
Tad, it’s a familiar story and an ugly one. By all means get to work salvaging your talent!
Hadashi, so noted.
Gus, oh dear gods, yes. School for me was thirteen years of utter boredom interspersed with misery from being bullied, by teachers as well as students. It was an altogether wretched experience.
Violet, those are three versions of the same question. Who am I? How should I live my life? What gifts can I give to the world? I wish there were easy answers; as far as I know, there aren’t, and for many of us it’s a long slow process figuring out.
TJ, if I recall correctly, it was a gradual process, beginning with some school districts in the 1960s and finishing up the last holdouts in the 1980s. What happened was that education departments in universities adopted the new model, taught it to students, and as those became teachers it spread.
Zeroinput, so noted.
Yorkshire, that sort of formulaic advice — “show the character’s normal life and then make a change” — deserves to go into the burn barrel. There are many ways to write a story and that’s only one of them. Your approach in those two stories was another, and worked very well. As for clichés, yes, exactly. Mysteries didn’t always center on murders, back in the day; Sherlock Holmes investigated a lot of other crimes, including kidnapping and blackmail, and the best of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries has a campaign of malicious mischief at its center. Now? It’s all corpses, all the time, and that’s gotten dull. I’ve decided in advance that my series of occult detective novels now under way will never include a murder — there are plenty of other crimes that can be involved, some of them far more interesting.
Robert G, ha! I know a challenge when I see one. Project Gutenberg has it available for free download here. Interminable interplanetary tedium, here I come… 😉
Averagejoe, I’m delighted to hear about your daughter; the Waldorf system’s focus on individual talents and abilities is one of its many good points. I’ve tabulated your vote.
Chris, okay, that’s both funny and very, very true. What is it about sniveling, self-absorbed main characters in undeservedly famous mid-20th century American fiction? (Cough, cough, Portnoy’s Complaint cough, cough!) Holden Caulfield bored the bejesus out of me, and yeah, he would have been a prime target for fragging. Maybe the ravens would like to feast on him too. As for The Mists of Avalon and its portrayal of Arthurian legend, well, yes. I loathed it — but then I cut my teeth on Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset and the first two volumes of Mary Stewart’s Merlin series. Your vote has been added, btw.
Justin, what did you originally vote for? There are 219 comments already…
Chuaquin, nope, you’re in plenty of time, and your vote has been counted.
Linda, exactly. In his best moments, Tolkien uses prose to put the reader right there in the scene, straining to see that faint guess in the far distance.
Blue Sun, I don’t happen to know of any that are out of copyright and freely downloadable. Anyone else? I’ve added in your vote.
Robert M, I read a lot of MZB’s fiction, though not all of it, and I also took a writing workshop from her at the University of Washington many years ago. She was a very capable teacher and passed on some things that helped me get published. The fact that she made a steaming mess of her personal life and her children’s lives doesn’t erase that.
Miow, duly noted!
Martin, I dimly remember stumbling through some of my early books and having to ask my mother what sound some letter or other made. “Tercentenary” would have given me a run for my money!
Miow, that’s standard these days. Woke purges of literature are becoming very common. You might see if you can find any of her work via the used book trade.
Old Steve, of course there are better ways, but those whose sole way of dealing with the world is to try to control it can’t conceive of them.
Louis, I hadn’t heard that Buhner had written a writing book! That’s good to hear; he’s a fine writer.
Oops, sorry – my original comment was #115 and it was a vote for a post about a work of fiction that you think people would benefit from reading.
A long time ago, or perhaps only a little while back, you gave me some writing advice that amounted to a rough draft of this series of posts on writing. I’d just like to say, thank you. After running into the dreary hangers on of the writing industry (like a manuscript reviewer looking to up my Motivation-Reaction Unit count) I lost hope that a square peg like me could fit in the round hole of the publishing industry. But your advice put things into perspective and I realized that just like almost everything else in the modern world, writing has gatekeepers too. So, again, thank you for the advice. Now back to writing for me!
I always hated English class. I didn’t start to enjoy reading until I was practically out of college. One of the first books I enjoyed was Michael Ende’s “Neverending Story”. It was a gift from my uncle when I was in grade school. When I was in college I found Momo, and started reading similar fantasy. Then I discovered science fiction, and spent a lot of time wandering through known space.
A few years ago you convinced me to broaden my experience with reading. I just finished “North and South”. I felt the ending was muddled, but the story was otherwise engaging.
I had wanted to watch No Country for Old Men, but the beginning made me turn it off. Yesterday I discovered that the movie is based on a book, so I’ve started reading that.
I would like to learn more about how people who don’t think like me, think.
Thanks for the inspiration.
@ Miow #218
The air really does smell like chocolate in Hershey. It matches our Kiss-shaped lamp posts (two kinds: wrapped and unwrapped).
You make a style sheet however you want to. It can be as simple as a sheet of notebook paper next to your work station with your character’s names on it.
Or, it can be a separate, multi-page document on your word processor in the same file that your novel’s chapters are.
I always arrange my style-sheets (see? I need one already because does style-sheet get a hyphen or not?) in Word in two columns in alphabetical order. Each novel gets a style sheet specific to that novel so the character names are correct. I write chapter by chapter. Each chapter is a new document. The folder collects all the chapters, including a separate table of contents, character descriptions (if I’ve done any) and the style sheet for that novel.
A bigger folder collects all the folders for the novels in a series PLUS a master style-sheet that includes EVERYTHING in the series.
As an example:
Style Sheet for Escape to HighTower
Aguillero (a demesne)
Airik (daimyo of Shelleen)
Albion (Kynunan DelFino; Lannie’s dad)
Anju (town clerk)
Armstrong (a demesne)
Avery (Orlov; Fredo’s wife)
Barsoom (the capital of Mars)
Barsoom Bugle (newspaper)
Blue Sun (always capitalize)
Borden (daimyo of HighTower)
Charlton (DelFino; Lannie’s brother)
Chee (Shondra’s maiden name)
Chez Gramscee (restaurant)
Chong (a demesne)
Choudhury (a demesne)
Conclave (Four Hundred governing body)
Constance (DelFino; Lannie’s mom)
Consuelo (Lannie’s middle name)
Cook (DelFino household)
Coppertail (Fen’s gelding)
Daur (a demesne)
Dawud (HighTower Hand)
Deengar (a demesne)
DelFino (a demesne)
This is in two columns in my document. I’ll list a character by first name and by last name so I can see family affiliations. I make any important notes in parenthesis. For example: Coppertail (Fen’s gelding).
A style sheet can be as complicated as you want. It’s a memory aid so you get spellings and relationships correct. Editors LOVE style sheets because then they don’t have to make one of their own from scratch and they’ve got a starting point for odd words such as mil-rats or free-city that have specific meanings in my world.
Re: phonics workbooks. Any recommendations for good titles would be appreciated. They don’t have to be out of copyright and freely downloadable.
Thank you for a timely insight into the failings of the education system. I was blessed by growing up in a house full, to the point of having a library room, of books. I read everything I could, and have had a fascinating working life as a result. I have been able to adapt to technology, see its limitations, and grab opportunities others were afraid to touch because I never saw the need for a “credential from an approved source”. It is interesting that every introduction of new technology is followed by a gradual movement to enforce credentials for its operators. Perhaps being a farm child had a part in that, farmers get to be builders, plumbers, mechanics, gardeners, arbourists, vets, and soil scientists, often all in the same day. You see that being done and think it is normal.
You are entirely correct, modern education is simply a factory turning out a very inferior product. As a newly minted grandparent that is something that concerns me deeply.
As for the bonus subject to be addressed, anything you have to say about the rise of the global south against the declining “west” would be most welcome.
@JMG – MZB’s issues, which made a steaming mess of her personal life, are reflected in her fiction, though. First, her view of “the overworld” as being formless and gray throughout. As I think you told me once, when I mentioned that, apparently the lower astral was as far as she could go. Second, on my umpteenth reread of her Renunciates trilogy, I finally realized that old Camilla in Thendara House and City of Sorcery was her Mary Sue character. And, of course, the sour notes hit by how many of her characters got cross (her word), as if walking around in a state of constant, or at least ready, irritation.
Finally, of her two most successful former disciples, Diana Paxson seems to be comfortable in her own skin, while Mercedes Lackey gives me the impression of her skin never quite fitting her, if you know what I mean. (I’ve had both sensations, the latter when dealing in unfamiliar social situations, or even very familiar ones, and have made the former, one of my goals.)
However, Lackey’s earlier work is still good, even the My Little Pony series – note, the motto of Valdemar is “There is no One True Way.” Which makes it unique among so many fictional cultures, many of them, neighbors of her Valdemar.) She’s writing dreck now, with very sloppy research, and linguistics* to make one wince, but I understand that DAW has her under the gun and in a no-win situation.
*”An oxen? Facepalm. She was always confused on plurals in other languages, though. (No, Lackey, no! If the animals in a herd are “oudrakhi,” one of them would be “An oudrakh.” Though she did a good job on that tale otherwise.)
And, yes, people, try the used bookstores for her works, I don’t think censorship was why a lot of them vanished off the shelves, just that their day is past. I mean, who reads Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai series today, either?
This one’s really doing something to my head. Thanks for this. The future feels a little brighter somehow. Whether I ever publish anything or not, I’ll bet you dollars to donuts this series kindles a fire under some folks who probably should. And since we’re about to re-subscribe to New Maps and Into the Ruins, I’m hoping to read some of it there. You’re right, the system doesn’t teach us to be free-thinkers. Quite the contrary! I get in trouble all the time for thinking unapproved thoughts. Crickets…or derisive sniggering.. however “trouble” translates.
In fact, I often wonder if the freakiest looking people I run into aren’t the most mentally-monocultured as well, just looking for a way to be different. I’m special!! I just know I am! I’m not like them! Can’t you see that?? (Or maybe I just sound like a Gen X curmudgeon…)
BTW, my 14 y.o. daughter recently completed a 700-page story; she and her friend are editing and trimming now, and then she plans to publish it online as a serial, maybe a hard copy trilogy if that goes well. The girl’s a dynamo! Every day, between 4 and 6PM, you do not bother her. That’s writing time.
She’s been listening to me read these posts out loud, and is all ears.
Old Steve says:
November 18, 2022 at 1:17 pm
“The Borg are not just minimally competent, they’re downright invincible – except for one fatal weakness: individual Borg drones are complete zombies, relying entirely on the ‘hive mind’ of the collective to do all their thinking for them. Get their communication mixed up so a few of them misinterpret the central directives, and then the whole hive explodes.”
A wonderful thought Old Steve. I believe you are right. In their strength lies the seed of their weakness. Doesn’t mean we won’t suffer. I believe most will. My sadness and prayers are for the children. I believe Dr John Day has a pretty complete take on what is going on and why at his ‘World-War 3’ post here http://www.johndayblog.com/2022/11/world-3-war.html
Old Den – Turning 64 on 11/18/1958 and not feeling to bad about it:)
I’m always interested to hear more about reincarnation, so I’ll put my vote there. What do you think about it for animals, especially loved pets who have seemed half-human during their lifetimes?
JMG, I got a “nonce verification failed” message TWICE with this post. If it made it through, you may disregard this duplicate (oddly enough, cached, though the majority had also been saved in my habitual “select all/save-before-submitting” move):
It seems schools are good at teaching learned helplessness – students are helpless to help themselves while incarcerated, due to the culture of authority. Do you think this is a function of making school mandatory?
Re: 5th Wed. Mostly I have been keen on whatever you decided or readers voted for you to write about, but lately, I’ve been thinking Yeats would have something relevant to our current era to say. And since Yeats has been a longtime contender for your coveted 5th Wednesday attention, but hasn’t yet made it to the top, I’d like to vote for him as your subject matter.
And off topic, but I have to agree with Robert – our big ash tree lost two huge limbs in two windstorms last year before we could get the arborist in, and both were placed on the ground with extreme care and precision between our house, fence (and thus the neighbor’s house and swimming pool), shed, and walkway where we had been walking (in one case) about 20 minutes earlier. We thanked our tree profusely for its attention to detail.
5th Wednessday? I would like to hear what you have to say about cryptocurrency and the tertiary economy
Justin, no prob — I’ve changed your vote over.
StarNinja, I’m delighted to hear this! Gatekeepers only have the power we give them; as Tolkien used to say when approaching an intersection in his car, “Charge ’em and they’ll scatter!” (True story. I’m not quite sure how he and his family survived his driving.)
Piper, huzzah! My wife’s a serious Elizabeth Gaskell fan, and she was delighted to hear that you’ve read North and South — one of her favorite 19th century novels.
Blue Sun, again, I’ll have to toss that out to the commentariat — I haven’t used a phonic book since I was three or so, and don’t remember the titles. (I can tell you that I really liked Dr. Seuss in those days and my favorite book to listen to at bedtime was Over In The Meadow, but that’s about all I recall about my early reading habits…)
Eagle Eye, we didn’t have a library room when I was growing up but there were plenty of books, and that probably played a large role in making me unfit for a life as a corporate serf! I’ve tallied your vote.
Patricia M, I’m anything but a Mercedes Lackey fan — I read two of her novels, one Valdemar and one Diana Tregarde, and didn’t like them at all — but she needs to get a decent contract lawyer and extract herself from DAW’s clutches. That’s really unfortunate.
Grover, ding! We have a winner. Dion Fortune makes a wry comment in one of her books about the pretentious faux occultists who paraded around London in her time in funny clothes and ornate jewelry, and advises students of occultism to run the other way as fast as possible. The same rule applies in most aspects of life. Those who are busy pretending to be special are usually too busy to be much of anything more useful. I’m delighted to hear about your daughter; she’s succeeded at the first task of learning to be a writer — getting comfortable with writing in volume — and now it’s simply a matter of learning from practice and reading, choosing a genre or two, and starting her career.
Lydia, so noted!
Temporaryreality, odd. This was the only copy that got through. I’ve tabulated your vote — Yeats is far ahead of anything else at this point, for what it’s worth.
Linda, so noted.
that’s a real shame. I was very fond of the Darkover series as a teenager and in my early twenties. I haven’t read them in a while, and there are things I have issues with in them, but I still think of them fondly.
Please add my enthusiastic vote for Yeats. I want to thank the commenter who posted a link to Yeat’s poem ‘Lapis Lazuli’. Despite hunting through the comments for the last month, I couldn’t find the name to thank you personally. The poem captured my imagination. I will be memorizing it. I have the first stanza memorized, and next, I’m working on the last one. Because of this imagery:
“Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.”
Oh my, so crisp.
And a heartfelt thanks to all the commenters who add to the breadth and sanity of this space JMG has nurtured.
Regarding the discussion of education, I realize that, for me, memories are colored by the awkwardness and angst of puberty, and my own struggles. It does seem that our collective memories are affected by that. I’m not sure I know anyone who had a wonderful childhood. I was lucky to have immigrant parents from the Old World, for whom English was their 3rd language. They had us reading very early on before kindergarten, and we were voracious readers.
I was also fortunate to have the best public education Las Vegas gambling taxes could pay for in the 60’s and 70’s. Those of us labeled gifted had excellent teachers and were given some rigorous classes that kept us mostly engaged. And yet as I grew up and read and learned more, I found there were serious gaps in the warp and weft of my learning. I got away with very little Greek and Roman mythology, and knew so little of the rest of the non-Western world. And I sure don’t remember reading any Yeats. That was fine initially, since I went into the sciences, and I have made big strides in learning more about the rest of the world, history, cultures, religion. Still a bit hazy on the Greco-Roman mythologies.
My wife and Mercedes Lackey have a very good friend in common, so we were able to open a channel of communication between her and a group of undergraduate fans (including the teaching assistant that year for my course on the history of magic) who wanted to invite her to come to our university and give a talk (for a handsome honorarium, of course). That was not quite twenty years ago, if memory serves me accurately.
So Lackey came and gave an interesting talk about her books, which was very enthusiastically received by her large audience. Afterwards, just the four of us (including my TA) spent a very comfortable evening together over a slow dinner and talked about very many things, not just writing or magic.
I am probably not betraying any confidence to say that I came away from that delightful evening with the impression that Lackey writes mostly because it provides her with a good income, while her real interests have lain elsewhere for a very long time.* Nor does she seem to regard this as a deep dark secret; I have read autobiographical pieces by her where she talks about these other interests of hers.
So whatever contract she has with DAW may actually be one that suites her own purposes very well, in that gives her a quite good income from an acceptable number of hours of what she considers relatively light and easy work. Not every writer writes fiction for the pure love of writing.
(* Lackey’s own interests are adjacent to the scientific field — animal behavior — in which our common friend has made an academic career for herself. Lackey also donates a good part of her surplus income to support work in that field — to which work, IIRC, she also donated the entire honorarium that she received for her talk at my university.)
Oops, one thing that got lost when my post was eaten was a link to Hall’s Sound and Spelling pamphlet. I haven’t figured out how to download more than just one page at a time, but at least it’s viewable online: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b4320386&view=1up&seq=1
JMG 55 > Northwind, fair enough. That’s a serious matter. What will you do about it?
Thanks for asking.
Do something? Nothing,— at 70, I am too old to do more than observe. Whichever way education goes is younguns’ domain.
Dane County, Wisconsin, USA
Temporyreality #235, I get ‘nonce verification failed’ if, after turning the laptop on, I restore the previous day’s session of the browser but don’t refresh the page, so it presumably registers as outdated. Reloading the webpage before posting prevents the problem.
@ Louis Laframbois #223: this week’s discussion is hitting my purse hard, here I go buying another book recommended!
The author seems to be a true Renaissance Man, publishing on a range of topics that ommenters to this and our host’s Dreamwidth blog will find highly interesting. Here’s his blurb:
“Stephen Harrod Buhner is the author of Herbal Antivirals, Herbal Antibiotics (now in its second edition), and 17 other works including Herbs for Hepatitis C and the Liver, Sacred Plant Medicine, The Lost Language of Plants, The Secret Teachings of Plants, and Ensouling Language. He speaks internationally on herbal medicine, emerging diseases, complex interrelationships in ecosystems, Gaian dynamics, and musical/sound patterns in plant and ecosystem functioning. He is a tireless advocate for the citizen scientist, the amateur naturalist, and community herbalists everywhere.”
“Laframbois”: real or just a really cool pen name?
Darkest Yorkshire and others upstream: are you talking about an anime resulting from the series Robotech? How I loved that series growing up in rural South Africa. I tried to escape into imagined worlds as much as I could, mostly through books, but this series also did the trick. I wrote little further scenarios for all the plots (didn’t know about the existence of fanfic in 1980s boondocks South Africa). The weekly episode was broadcast every Friday afternoon, best end to the school week ever.
Teresa, thank you, this is very helpful! And oh my word, as a chocoholic I would probably grow as round as, well, a Hershey’s Kiss just by osmosis around your parts…
“Secondary schools were equally varied, and often for-profit enterprises.”
My own husband went to one of these here in the 1970’s, before the local vocational school (offering the full Irish secondary formal schooling, but with a strong vocational component), that my sons went to, had been established.
This one was known as “Master O’Rourke’s” and classes were held in Master O’Rourke’s house. My husband learned many things, and enjoyed learning Latin and English, and paid partly in cash and partly in garden work in the late afternoons. At age 15 he found that the logarithm book, with its tiny writing, defeated him, because using the oil lamps back on the farm, where they still had no electric light, it was impossible to get his homework done. Also, at 15, the local fishing port still had lots of jobs available for willing lads.
He will often recount Master O’Rourke’s political/economic teaching that: “you have two choices… (pointing south) you can go to Dublin (ie to college), or (pointing north, local fishing port-wise) you can go to the gombeen man (ie to toil in a factory, or on a boat crew, and enrich your boss).”
My husband “went to the gombeen man” and became the best and fastest hand filleter in the town, as well as running his farm. But he has always had great affection for his years with Master O’Rourke, and, in his own way is a well-read auto-didact, always interesting and knowledgeable in conversation.
Regarding the advice about daily practice: it’s a lot more important than it looks. One would think that practice three times per week would produce results half as good as six times per week. But six times per week produces progress and skill exponentially better than three times per week, which is barely enough to maintain one’s skill level where it is.
(Now to get back up there, alas. I’m sure it’s only a coincidence that six is also significantly harder than three …)
Hi John Michael,
Hey, Scithers’ advice, mate, it sounds to me like hard work to me. 😉
Thanks for mentioning those two Arthurian stories. I’m generally fending off bombardments of book referrals, but of late it has been quiet on that front and I let my guard down. Two books in quick succession, mate, that’s like a Sailor Steve knock out one-two punch. 🙂 I’m reeling, and may soon hit the mat to await the count if I’m even conscious. Far out, I enjoyed Robert E Howard’s writing. Even when he was being serious, you could tell he was enjoying creating those stories.
I’m reading Jane Eyre at the moment, and that’s my kind of romance story. There’s a bit of darkness to that story.
Back on topic though (I do so enjoy a cheeky digression), is there a Will to imagination?
Thank you for recommending “Understood Bettsy.” I am finding it a delight to read in the evening. The writing is superb and the writer a very insightful person.
OT: 2 cogent straws in the wind – yes, Blankenhorn has something cogent to say this time! And Kaiser always does
Dear JMG, I am on my third day of writing at least 15 minutes per day, and I must say it’s becoming fun. Slowly, with hiccups , I am starting to stutter in to a flow . So thank you, truly.
Also, do you simultaneously write and edit when you reply to our comments? 🙂
@ Theresa #85 – I’ve had two people beta read the novella already. Neither of them has a background in the occult, so I was wanting someone to beta read it for with anwith an eye towards that aspect of the novella.
@ JMG – I enjoy writing too! I was curious if you have any habit or routine that really helps get you in the headspace for it. For instance, I find having 19th century classical music on in the background really gets my creative gears turning.
@Blue Sun #216 re: Phonics Books
“Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons” by Siegfried Engelmann and Phyllis Haddox is the book we used with our first daughter and plan to use with the second in a few years, and we found it pretty effective. It gives *very* explicit instructions on what to say and it breaks the reading into individual sub-skills to learn. It also makes use of specialized orthography (way of writing) to teach less-obvious sounds like “sh” and “ch” and silent letters, and then phases them out by the end. After the 100 lessons (designed for 1 per day), it has recommendations for how to introduce new books, along with some titles that are good to start with (this list was compiled in the mid to late 80s, and so might be missing some more recent titles that would work, but includes a lot of classics that are still easy to find like Dr. Seuss and Eric Carle).
The book is aimed at kids aged 4-5 by design, but includes some helpful guidance on going before or after that. Our daughter is extremely verbal and started asking about reading a lot around 3.25 years old, so we got started then – she was able to understand the work, but sometimes found the focus needed hard to do, and might have done a bit better waiting a few months or longer. The books says lessons ought to take 15-30 minutes, but for us it often took more like 45-60, which again, I take as an indication we might have been a bit too eager.
Whatever you end up using, I hope it works well for you and your children, and good luck!
About MZB and others,
I thought of something in which authors become blacklisted for messy private lives or for messy public pronouncements like J.K. Rowling.
I have problems with this since it seems that a person has to be politically in agreement various publishers or readers before they are read. However, if that is the case, then why don’t people boycott Dickens or Hemmingway (or have they)?
That seems to be a major hurdle in publishing is that politics and messiness interfere with what is being written. Gatekeeping I suppose is alive and well.
I was pondering Patheos Pagan, where the bloggers all seemed to have orthodox left political leanings. I guess people of different minds such as conservative cannot not be published on that platform.
Maybe that dovetails into wokeism and the current state of affairs (which I believe is a suggested topic for the fifth Wednesday).
i vote for you to talk about the realities/cons of an underground currency system not tethered to the gov’t for backing. i know you’ve talked about orders, clubs, and insurances through them, but i’m needing help on how to THINK outside of all “this.” and reality.
we’ve not so much time for screwing up as much as we’d need to.
i don’t know what an alternative system would LOOK like, besides trading with neighbors locally. that’s fantastical for many of us (i live in the wet spot of mordor where no one makes anything anymore; just orders it to show up). you could say “move” but rent control has us here so it’s a twisted “gift,” and i’ll do what i can wherever i am to remain forever ungovernable, but this currency issue IS The Issue that stumps us all who’re here.
i’m working firmly on the aesthetics of our little underground of THREE (i’m counting Temporary Reality along with James) and have no idea how money could work.
i’m particularly worried as they’re looking to restrict international travel and things are moving quite quickly and there is little general pushback.
(yeah/we’re so on our own)
p.s. this week’s post is like a huge love in. i love watching people awaken to their own selves their own talents and long-forgotten dreams! look what happened, y’all. this is epic Lover Stuff.
It just went up on archive.org
Miow #244, I hadn’t heard of Robotech but according to Wikipedia it’s even more of a collage. Macross Plus was three story ideas put together. Robotech was three serparate anime series with similar animation styles (including an early Macross one) stitched together and given original dialogue. Around about ten years old the cartoon I loved was Vicky the Viking. It was the first enthusiastically positive depiction of a gifted child I’d ever seen. Then part way through they changed it and it wasn’t good anymore. Around the same time, my Friday after school viewing was a game show called Fun House. With that, the format stayed the same but they ended up changing the day it was on (Tuesday or Wednesday I think), and it just didn’t feel right watching it as anything but the end of week ritual.
I too loved Robotech while growing up in (not so rural) South Africa. It sure beat Liewe Heksie or the test pattern. As far as I know, it was an adaption and amalgamation for the US market of a few Japanese shows, including Macross. Maybe someone will correct me If I’m wrong.
The Japanese sure do take producing children’s culture seriously. As opposed to using it as a vehicle for flogging merchandise and or morality.
Arid, that’s one of his many splendid poems. I’m glad you had a good education; many of us didn’t.
Robert, fair enough. I’ve just heard way too many stories about incautious authors getting trapped in bad contracts and not realizing that they had options.
Northwind, 70 is too old only if you decide it is. You could easily have another decade of life or more — and there’s a whale of a lot that can be accomplished by one person in a decade, especially if they’ve got a pension and don’t have to set aside a lot of time to earning a living. Me, I’m 60, and have zero interest in sitting on the sidelines any time sooner than I have to — which will most likely happen when they pull the keyboard out from under my cold stiff fingers.
Scotlyn, thanks for this! That’s a lovely story, and very typical.
Kfish, indeed it is. Anything that matters needs to be practiced often.
Chris, ha! You talk about falling onto the mat and then come out swinging with a question like that. Whose imagination? That tells you whose will. Will is never separate from imagination — you will something because you can imagine it — and imagination is never separate from will — you imagine something because your will either chooses to imagine it or consents to the image.
Patricia M, thanks for this.
Mohsin, you’re most welcome and I’m delighted to hear it. No, I type my first draft responses onto an open Notepad document, review them, and then copy and paste into the comment field.
Ben, nope. I love to write, so sitting down at the keyboard is all the encouragement I need.
Neptunesdolphins, exactly. It’s all a matter of gatekeeping on the part of tinpot censors and wannabee Goebbelses.
Erika, I’ve entered your vote on the list. You’re right about the love-in, of course — I may just do more posts like this, because it’s great to see so many people realize they’ve been conned into giving up their own creativity, and then start to reclaim it.
Writers’ being trapped by bad contracts is definitely a thing! I, too, have heard stories …
@Northwind Grandma (#242):
I’m 80, and I’m still actively writing (just not fiction). I enjoy the process very much, and have no plans to stop ever. (I may have as many as 20 productive years before me. My mother lived to the age of 106½, and both my wife and I come from very long-lived stock.)
Growing up, there was no TV in my country. Radio was big — local serials and BBC productions like My Word and My Music. What a pleasure to hear truly witty and erudite individuals having fun.
Being a bit of a loner I read a great deal. Horatio Hornblower, Biggles, James Bond, Jack Reacher and Rebus were my heroes. I devoured science fiction until I started wondering why no one seemed to have an actual job — they were all set in a socialist world, and I became disenchanted. I probably read more non-fiction than fiction. Biographies, science, modern history particularly WWII, ecology, and anything else that looked interesting.
I have tried writing, but I when I reread what I’ve written it is such shale I get discouraged and stop. I also tried screenwriting, thinking that a 100-page screenplay is less effort than a novel, but that is a specialised field probably even more difficult to crack than straight prose.
Jeff Russell (no. 192) and JMG (no. 195), thanks! This does sound familiar–from this blog, I mean, not from anything Tibetan. Here’s a YouTube intro to actual Tibetan yoga (including postural yoga, which is rare):
Darkest Yorkshire (no. 257), a couple of years ago I came across an ad for a “Vicky the Viking” themed amusement park here in Taiwan. I had never heard of the character, but thought it was a cute name, and was surprised to learn that Vicky was a boy.
Silly Brain, while reading about the FTX debacle this blog must have been in my head because the author of my technical writing book popped out.
Technical Writing: Process and Product, by Charles R Stratton. There are still used copies about.
The other writing I used book was the Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
One thing I really underestimated when I was in high-school is the sheer amount of writing I was going to do as an adult.
Join the Navy and one of the first things you learn is how to keep a log. Then reports of various types. Then back to college for more writing. Mining? Writing. Refining silicon, writing, proposals, quarterly reports, incident reports, test summaries, lab reports, etc, etc.
You would think with all that practice that I could type faster than 35 WPM, but no, any faster and the letters end up in random order.
Hi John Michael,
A move worthy of Sailor Steve! 🙂 Always was he knocked down, but never did he lose the fight. Hehe!
Interesting indeed. So are you suggesting that stomping down hard upon imagination is a grab for power and control?
@Arid Otter: the link to Lapis Lazuli was indirect, through Prof. Kaiser’s blog, and you would have to thank whoever linked to that blog (Patricia ?). He dedicated a whole blog post to that poem, and I read it, too, though I can’t yet say it has really touched me. Maybe JMG’s possible future post on Yeats will open some door there!
Robert, indeed it is. I had to use a contract breaker — i.e., an unpublishable manuscript — to extract myself from one publisher, and I have another one handy if I ever need it.
Martin, why not try nonfiction? 80% or so of the books published every year are nonfiction, while 80% or so of new writers only think of writing fiction; I’m sure you can do the math…
Bei, thanks for this. There’s been quite a bit of discussion of actual Tibetan yoga in the circles that are researching the Five Rites; that’s one of the things that allowed me to be certain that the Rites are no more Tibetan than french fries are French.
Chris, why, yes, that is indeed what I’m suggesting…
Bei Dawei #263, Vicky’s voice actor was also a woman so I spent a few episodes thinking Vicky was a girl. Until – because it’s a Swedish show – you get to see him naked. The show would have worked fine though if Vicky had been a girl. Even more egregious was Steamboy. Why they thought it was a good idea to have a New Zealand woman voice a Lancashire lad escapes me.
Can the writing practice you recommended be combined with discursive meditation? I mean, if I pick up a theme (let’s say, the tomato), and decide to explore the different aspects of it, can I write while doing so? Like you said, one should write for at least 15 minutes daily; so, can writing about a particular subject and exploring it from all possible angles, while staying on-topic, be a helpful idea? Or do you recommend that discursive meditation and the writing practice be kept separate?
Hi John Michael,
Oh! I’m lost for words. What a sad story indeed.
I see. Do they really think that they can do a better job of managing the future challenges? Is this why so much mischief is originating from that sector of society, and over such a long period of time? No need to answer those two questions for history suggests that failure awaits them. A declining society cannot pay for such as those anyway.
You once told me that the risk of the mage is that they will end up getting trapped in the spells of their own making. I see that risk playing out. It is not a path of wisdom.
Louis Laframboise and Miow,
I kid you not, I had just been asking my wife where our copy of “Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers,” by one Stephen Harrod Buhner, was just before you started posting about him! Love Buhner. His “Herbal Antivirals” gave us the knowledge we needed to fight COVID, without concerning ourselves about any of the…”official responses.”
Delightful series, JMG. I can hardly wait for more!
I most appreciate your point that just about anybody can be a writer. I am reminded of a sentence written by Rene Guenon in one of his books on medieval life (which I read in my late teens and it has stuck with me ever since): in modern times an artist is considered to be a special kind of person, but in medieval society every person was a special kind of artist. I have believed that sentence for my whole life, and it has pained me greatly to see how modern industrial society has successfully hobbled the natural artistic instinct that is part and parcel of being human — in all except those who are so hard-wired as artists that they are compelled to either create or die.
For me, creative writing is a natural, intuitive process. Even though I studied English literature in university I stayed clear of creative writing classes because I did not want to contaminate my natural instincts with intellectual crud. For me it was intuitive because as a child I had no siblings to play with but my father had a huge private library, and so books became my best friends and playmates. I just naturally soaked in all the rules of writing and applied them.
Your advice on analyzing text from a writer’s perspective is sound, though I rarely do it myself. Certainly worth a try: there’s always room for improvement!
Oh – and a thousand thanks for your efforts over the years to inspire and encourage your readers to write short stories with the opportunity of getting them published. It certainly got me off my butt!
@JMG re: “Not editing as you write” for poetry
Apologies for not asking this earlier in the cycle, but I’ve been noodling around with writing some poetry this weekend, and it struck me that the advice to “just get it out and edit later” is harder to apply when you are following strict poetic conventions (Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter, in my case).
Any thoughts on how not to let the editing brain get in the way of the composing brain when it comes to writing poetry besides “practice!”?
@violet: no problem about asking the library to pick up a copy.
@JMG: Thanks for sharing a bit about your nonfiction process.
Again, looking forward to learning more as we go along.
I’m also taking in quite a lot from the comments. Thanks to everyone who has contributed… with writing (advice) I definitely take a magpie approach.
P.s.: Also, on common books… I found one where I’d been copying songs and poems that I love into it, and I’ve decided I’ll copy and add paragraphs of prose that strike me as well. The act of physically copying, will, I think, help embed all the words deeper.
Viduraawakened, good! Yes, you can do this, and in fact that’s where discursive meditation came from. In ancient times, Greeks and Romans who followed the Stoic and Neoplatonist philosophies used to write little essays as part of their spiritual practices — not for publication, just break out the wax tablets (the usual writing surface of the time) and work out your thoughts on some philosophic theme. (If I understand correctly, those philosophies were fairly close to Jnana Yoga in some ways.) Over time that evolved into thinking things out rather than writing them out — but you can still go back to the original method with good results. The French historian Pierre Hadot wrote a useful book, Philosophy as a Way of Life, which discusses this in some detail.
Chris, good. Very good. Yes, exactly, and it’s not a path of wisdom — it’s a path of self-inflicted failure. More on this in forthcoming posts.
Ron, Guenon was of course quite correct. The word “art” and its equivalents in other languages meant “art” and “craft” equally — anyone who had any kind of skill doing something was an artist. “Science” in those days, similarly, meant any body of organized knowledge; theology was considered a science, for example. The drastic narrowing-down of acceptable arts and sciences to the tiny handful that are considered to qualify today played a large role in creating the bleak desolation of contemporary life.
Jeff, well, I don’t know what will work for you, but my poetic process starts with scraps of language and image, which I write down all anyhow. Then it’s a matter of repeating them aloud or silently and listening to the rhythm and pattern of the language. New bits pop up while I’m doing that, and I write them down. Then I scribble down a first draft, leaving blank spaces where I don’t yet have complete lines (or any lines at all), and from there my process isn’t quite writing or editing in the usual sense — it’s much more like filling in the blanks in a crossword puzzle, where I’ll try one word or phrase after another to see if it fits. That continues through repeated revisions until it reads just the way I want it.
Justin, I recommend it! Copying and memorizing are both good ways to learn at a deeper level.
I, too, vote for Yeats. He’s been sitting on the backburner for a good long time.
Regarding the 5th Wednesday, Steiner comes up here now and then. I’d vote for a Rudolf Steiner post. As I read some of his stuff, I’m seeing plenty of commonality between his and Max Heindel’s views.
I think you can be accused of holding two ideas in your head at once. This is highly unacceptable as it impedes propaganda based control techniques. (1) Some children are much more able to do certain things than others (at similar ages) and (2) the “talent” cliche story of the chosen few who will solve our problems is a very poor reflection of reality.
Right now, I see a lot of silly rhetoric implying that anyone who thinks children should be assisted in finding out what they are good at (and what they are not good at) should be suppressed as opposed to inclusion for all. In fact, we all really need high standards against which to measure ourselves, not to find those with magic talent, but to find which skills we should amplify, which deficiencies we should remedy, and which things we should let others do. But it isn’t the talented few who are the solution to our problems. It is finding an effective role for the bulk of humanity to contribute and earn a living that gives them dignity. Only by an education that is individualized enough to reveal and amplify individual strengths and address individual weaknesses can we hope to have a future where the large bulk of humanity feels they have an ownership stake in society wide human thriving.
Reading your post and it makes me wonder if much of our current predicaments and drama is the “well-schooled/teacher’s pets” vs. “the school as one of worst experiences of life”. We seem to have a solid layer of society who very quickly line up behind credentialed experts and proudly repeat the latest expert opinion (much like they are in a classroom and eagerly raising their hand to give the correct answer first). But the majority of people just want to be left alone and do their own thing. Of course they can’t just be left alone, similar to a classroom where if one is seen daydreaming or doodling, they are shamed or punished in front of the others.
Many people try to put their school years behind them and move on in life, but I really think public school has embedded habits of thinking in people they don’t even see. It’s like the air they breathe after at least 12 years of the training.
JMG “Contract Breaker unpublishable manuscript???” In response to Roberta comment. I would love to hear more about what is in this piece of writing you view as the nuclear option to extract yourself from a bad publisher….. what’s it about what’s in it? What are the nuances of using it?? Mutually assured destruction?
My vote for the extra week is post using the One Ring as an example of how some power is too great for mortals to have and how the religion of Progress pretty much is in a perpetual quest for the metaphorical One Ring. Some power is just too great for one man to have……
JMG, for the fifth Wednesday, I would be curious to hear your take about where we stand after the (official) results of the 2020 election and the 2022 midterms.
Darkest Yorkshire, (#71)
There is at least a theory that a fluent reader of an alphabetical language reads entire words exactly the way that your describe. That is probably why one can invert letters within a word and it still be readable for what it is.
It does sound though that you arrived at the fluency through a path different from the majority of alphabetical language readers, though similar to that followed by readers of Chinese and Japanese.
I read somewhere about an experiment in which they taught dyslexic children to read English using Chinese characters. (For example, they would teach them the Chinese character that means dog and which would be read as gou in Chinese or inu or ken in Japanese, but teach them to pronounce it “dog”.) Those children learned to read that way.
I suspect that in some writing systems that leave out the vowels, such as Hebrew and Arabic, the words probably function somewhat like Chinese characters.
I too have to see a word, even if only in my mind’s eye, in order to spell it correctly, but if I do see it, my spelling is excellent. I would guess that that is not unusual.
Ron, duly tabulated.
Phutatorius, that’s no accident. Heindel studied with Steiner, and also with Steiner’s teacher Alois Mailander, before settling in the US and opening his Rosicrucian Fellowship here. I’ve tabulated your vote.
Ganv, good! Exactly; it’s crucial to be able to entertain several thoughts at once, and see what kind of fun they get up to after a couple of drinks. It is true that some children are better than others at certain things, at certain ages or in general; it is also true that this doesn’t mean that some special people have all the talent and everyone else has none at all. This comment of yours in particular —
“Only by an education that is individualized enough to reveal and amplify individual strengths and address individual weaknesses can we hope to have a future where the large bulk of humanity feels they have an ownership stake in society wide human thriving.”
— should be brutally burnt into the backsides of the entire education profession with a white-hot branding iron, one rump at a time.
Denis, that’s a fascinating possibility. If I had the funding I’d do a study.
Austin, oh, it depends on the publisher. Every publisher has something it won’t publish no matter what. I’m not going to go into details, because I still have the manuscript and might have to use it for similar reasons someday. The reason for using a contract breaker is that many book contracts give the publisher first dibs in whatever your next manuscript might be, and makes it very difficult for you to turn down even a bad offer. So you send them a manuscript they’d rather strip naked and crap in public than publish, and while they’re figuring out how to say “no!” loudly enough, you place a different manuscript with someone else. That’s how my book The Druidry Handbook becoming my first title with Weiser, when my previous publisher always insisted on such a clause in their contracts.
Jessica, duly tabulated.
I have a few things relevant to this brilliant essay of yours, but I will dole it out bit by bit.
Firstly, it just so happens that there is a style or genre of writing that so far is largely confined to certain French academic circles, but could potentially be useful for more interesting popular writing, called Oulipo.
It’s essentially an attempt to experiment with writing literature using various odd and often mathematical rules and constraints, one of their most famous techniques is to get a sentence and look up any noun in the dictionary, then replace it with a word 5 or 7 entries ahead.
(For example “the opposite of one bad identification is usually antagonistic.”)
Italo Calvino once wrote a novel whose plot was inspired by the “random” draw of a tarot deck, and another Oulipo author wrote an entire novel without the letter “E”, which the English translation successfully fulfilled as well. I have been reading a compilation of Oulipo literature published by Penguin called “The book of Oulipo” which you mat be interested in.
Also, since I was a transhumanist in my youth, I vote for cosmism.
If anybody needs an unpublishable ms to get out of a book contract, I think I can help you out.
@blue sun My daughter went to a waldorf school and they introduce reading and writing after the age of 6. I was concerned that the alphabet story based teaching was not translating to good reading skill even at the age of 7.
The kids were so sharp that they could recite an entire story written on the board just from memory :-). They realized they had a problem when the teacher got a doubt and asked them to read the story in reverse!
We used this book at home to fill the gap and it got the job done in a couple of months.
The drastic narrowing-down of acceptable arts and sciences to the tiny handful that are considered to qualify today played a large role in creating the bleak desolation of contemporary life.
I just finished reading Marie-Louise von Franz’s essay on inferior types in the book Jung’s Typology, and to make a long story short, she writes toward the end of the essay of the usefulness of active imagination as a tool for the individual to become psychologically whole. Specifically active imagination as a creative process in some sort of artistic medium, whether that be writing, painting, music or what have you.
The implications strike me as big: unless I misunderstand something in that book, art-making in this system seems like an almost necessary way for any person, regardless of talent and with practice, to heal (i.e. become whole).
No wonder then that the modern view that art can only be done by special people is so harmful: not only are people discouraged from the gifts of creativity for their own sake, but they are then prevented from the possibility of self-healing.
(Thanks to Violet for the book recommendation, I found out about it on your blog!)
Denis #280, for years I managed to be in both those categories at the same time. Also it is a truth rarely acknowledged that teacher’s pets end up with pet teachers. 🙂
Jessica #282, another another detail is that trying to read joined-up writing is agony to me. It’s a crime against the signal to noise ratio.
I happened by a Barnes & Noble over the weekend and, by the look of it, an era of growth of independent publishing (and hopefully bookstores) may be near.
First, one of the two entrances was broken and a sloppy, handwritten note directed people to another entrance. The bathroom was partially out of order. There was a leak in the roof and a garbage can was sitting between two aisles collecting water. I did see some employees talking about it but it didn’t look new.
For books? The section where they buy and resell used books was almost empty, as if there was no employee buying anymore. The outlet/gift section was almost empty as if they couldn’t get stock shipped to them. In years past, this was full of Christmas gifts, now it is just stocked with what appears they couldn’t sell last Christmas.
On the main display floor with all the newly printed books, it took me a minute to catch on because they had created a pattern of shelves that hid the fact that about half the shelves that were previously there were missing. Whole sections were gone and chairs placed to cover the emptiness. Oddly, cookbooks was the biggest section remaining followed by 2023 calendars.
I was shocked at the level of collapse on display. And considering this should be peak sales season, I can’t believe they’ll be open much longer in our town.
In my message from earlier today, I should probably have said ‘individuate’ rather than ‘heal’. But then again, individuation seems to be partly about healing, as in ‘making whole’, in a broad sense. Still learning about all this!
Also, von Franz is fairly specific about certain art forms, but I wonder if the same effect can occur is active imagination, in the looser sense of the term, can be applied to things like sport or gardening or what have you.
On writing in school: I used to get A’s on anything I wrote, until one teacher gave me a D and gave my paper back to me covered in corrections. I was stunned, but went up after class and asked her about it. She said something to the effect that my former teachers did me no favors by letting me get by with work I could do a lot better on. Then she sat me down and explained the corrections.
I have been grateful to her ever since. I still got corrections much later, doing everything up to 400-level work in college courses, for errors in footnote formatting, but they were minor errors. However –
I tried writing for a – I think it was a minor magazine, possibly a travel zine – and simply could not write what was wanted. And in fiction, I can’t plot for the life of me, because, first, even if I could figure out what a character wanted, I couldn’t see how s/he could get it done. This was a reflection of my own learned helplessness in what I later learned was alien environments. “Like a fresh-water fish swimming in salt water,” was my judgment on the most corporate, where I was working as an agency-sent temp, and even the best of the jobs, the university mailroom, was “like a fresh-water fish swimming in brackish water.”
My best work was done in fanfic – to wit, finding holes in the author’s work and filling them in. Or reconciling contradictions. For what that’s worth. Note: never try that on an author who thinks any of her characters or groups thereof are Pure Gallant & Noble, when the description of the way their women were considered and treated made me realize they were essentially left to govern themselves most of the year, and took it from there. The author was the age of my parents and took an enormous dislike to my – still a teenager – heroine coping with her situation. Okay, it was a pot of message, but still…. title of novel on request; it’s probably still available on the used book market. It’s still bringing in a trickle of royalties. In the $15/quarter range.
>So you send them a manuscript they’d rather strip naked and crap in public than publish
4chang sings? Welcome to 4chan writes.
I’m sure we’d all be interested in broad terms what sort of plot ideas that make them, um, crap in public over.
>Northwind, 70 is too old only if you decide it is.
Do you know at what age Col Sanders founded KFC?
Thanks for the suggestion and the encouragement. It makes it less daunting to hear your experience!
Readsalot@289 Our mid-atlantic Barnes and Noble seems to be doing well, with competent staff. They are stocked, though mostly with mainstream stuff. Granted, a third of the previous book area now sells toys and junk. I am grateful to have an alternative to Amazon, when smaller stores and libraries do not have what I am seeking, and gladly pay modestly more there than going with the giant. IMO, it is worth paying the price for the option of browsing and actually seeing books before purchase, and I sometimes find new authors or book types to try.
@KC Thanks for the recommendation
JMG 259 & Robert Mathiesen 261
Hello JMG and Robert,
Thank you. Perhaps your words will sit well over the winter🧤. You have prompted me to wedge in one hour a day of reading on a subject that makes my heart sing.
I am in love with dressmaking folk clothing, old-style and recent. I study🕵🏼plain-folk women’s garments of my ancestral lands of northern Europe over the past thousand years. (Yes, I am aware of Society of Creative Anachronism.) I read every historical dressmaking, wardrobe, and “fashion” book I can get my hands on. But I do let the project get set onto the back-burner, and onto-the-back-burner-of-the-back-burner🧑🏼🍳⏳, &tc.
I am interested in clothes using fabrics made on a loom,— “pirate shirt” is my starting point. I am talking about clothes that a farmer’s wife would wear. Bits and pieces of my sewing studio are here and there. I use modern, electrical sewing machines. I collect sewing patterns.
Someday, there will be no Gore-Tex, Spandex, polyester, or rayon.
I an aware of the women’s clothing market in the USA (not other places) — it is in a pitiful state. “How clothing now comes about” cannot last — the market is hugely out of balance. We have to wear something, but what⁉️What will be AVAILABLE? What do we WANT to wear? Will women have much CHOICE? Will we make our own clothes? Will sewing patterns exist? What skills and processes do we need to save? (denim👖; twill) One day, a garment will have value.
I keep questions of what women will wear (during the decline we are in) open to the universe. I am like a vacuum cleaner, raking in info on the subject.
I just started reading book “Shoddy: From Devil’s Dust to the Renaissance of Rags” by Hanna Rose Shell, my one hour for today.
So, thank you.
Dane County, Wisconsin, USA
JMG, thanks. Your advice seems spot on–except if I might, i’d like to suggest there is another aspect that may also cause “writer’s block”.
It stems, essentially, from the fact that while words run in a line, thoughts themselves tend to be tree-shaped: they love to branch.
In my experience, actually producing words–just sheer verbiage–is seldom the limiting step. Nor is editing terribly daunting, in the sense of just tidying up awkward language or cutting stuff that doesn’t need to be there.
What really drives me up the wall, sometimes to the point that I can’t stand to look at a manuscript anymore, is when new ideas keep intruding in the middle of writing. Afraid to forget the neat new idea, I halt and make a note, which rapidly sprouts into its own paragraph… or two… or three…
I’ll work this in somewhere, I think to myself.
What I end up with is perhaps 5,000 words in 28 fragments, each dealing with some interesting relevant aspect of the general story or subject at hand, but with no definitive order or interconnection.
Now is when the fun begins. I must somehow weave all these gnarled little tree twigs, forks and branches into a nice, flowing, well-argued linear ribbon.
Let us call this process, somewhat distinct from both writing and editing, “linearization”. It is the art of packaging inherently branched thoughts into a line.
For me, linearization is nightmare fuel. The feeling is like doing a jigsaw puzzle, except at least with a jigsaw puzzle you have two full dimensions in which to work things out, as opposed to the paltry 1D space of language.
Forward, backward, forward. Where does everything go? How many segues between sections do I now have to write? I rarely feel quite sure.
Among great writers, I know Nietzsche at least made the best of his non-linear tendency by writing in punchy little subsections, then collating these into whole volumes. But overall, it seems very difficult to be a serious writer without having solved this problem.
If only when I wrote, everything came out in a steady, orderly form right from the pen, like most people! Instead, every time I sit down to write, I keep getting unstuck in time.
What to do? (Making outlines, the standard approach to tree-like thought, tends to only aggravate the problem for me, as the outline itself soon begins to spread and branch like a sequoia.)
I’ve been reading the Chinese Classics, and Japanese Light Novels, it’s really shaken up what a story can be in my head. I know someone who has worked for the establishment first as a journalist and now as a teacher, he’s never seen a PMC/Leftest position he doesn’t swallow hook line and sinker.
Anyway his brain broke seeing the styles used in Asia, it seems they break all the current rules. Especially as you can have stories in Asian media without a conflict and hundreds of main characters and secondary characters that are secondary in all but name.
Hello JMG and fellow commenters,
I would like to shine a light on some issues regarding education. State involvement in education started here (Germany) after the catastrophic defeat of Prussia by Napoleon. Some ministers realized that Prussia lost because the French Army was better prepared when it came to tactics and supply. The contemporary Prussian Army was well disciplined but could not react to new situations.
One remedy for that was the development of mission type tactics. Instead of giving precise orders what to do, leaders of a unit were given a broad directive (“conquer that hill over there”). However, this new tactic made it necessary to restructure the army and the educational system as a whole. You had to have someone to make a decision to conquer that hill, somebody to figure out how to do it and finally men to conquer that hill.
This is why the educational system was developed that sorted people into three groups:
a) Soldiers who could follow simple instructions: Those were educated in an six year school, where they learned to read and write and to do basic arithmetic.
b) Sergeants who had to figure out themselves how to achieve specific tasks. Those were educated in a 10 year school, where they were taught more in depth, besides reading and calculating. Besides the military it served as an education for being a clerk and what not.
c) The officer group was taught in a 13 year school. They had the best education, they learned aths, languages, music and all the rest. They were expected to go to university and then become scholars, engineers, priests and all the rest of the prestigious jobs available.
On a side note, the compulsory education for all children was adopted for a simple reason: Many new recruits were not suitable for army service because they were already deformed. They had worked in a trade or on a farm from an early age on which then lead to severe deformations later for a large number of them.
If you look at history, you will find many examples fo this tripartite system at work. In a factory you have largely three groups of people
a) The experts
b) The foremen and clerks
c) The workers.
J.L.Mc12, yes, I’m familiar with Oulipo. It strikes me as an interesting source of exercises, though not one that I find useful. I’ve tabulated your vote.
Bei, nah, there’s a difference between merely unpublishable and what’s needed for a proper contract breaker!
Jbucks, my take is that the Jungians are a bit too narrow in their focus, since the active imagination can be put to work in many, many different contexts. A good inventor requires at least as vivid and active an imagination as a poet or playwright, and so does a good cook. (“If I put carrots in it — hmm. Yes, that would taste really good.”) That said, you’re right that the development of imagination in some form is essential to becoming a whole human being, and our society fights tooth and nail to keep people from doing that.
Readsalot, thanks for the data points. The whole “big box” approach to retail was only viable in an era of ultracheap credit and total neglect of the monopoly laws. Now that credit is tight and monopolies are starting to land in the legal trouble they so richly deserve, the big box empire is falling apart.
Jbucks, yes, exactly!
Patricia M, working in someone else’s world has advantages — I suppose a case could be made that The Weird of Hali is fanfic, for that matter! I don’t suppose you’re interested in trying again, but plotting really isn’t that hard; I may cover that in a future post.
Other Owen, oh, it’s not necessarily a matter of plotting. In my case it was a nonfiction publisher, and I simply found a topic they wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. Figure out their prejudices and aim something squarely at that target. (For example, The King in Orange would have gotten me out of any contract offered by a publisher on the leftward end of things.)
Northwind, glad to hear it. I’ve known people whose age got up into three digits, and they were still healthy, lively, active, and enjoyed life. Their secret was that they never said, “Oh, I’m too old to do anything.”
Sevensec, that’s your mind trying to distract you from the process of writing, and it’s clearly good at that task. The next time you come up with a neat idea, ignore it and keep writing what you’ve chosen to write. Do the same thing with every other neat idea that surfaces while you’re working. “It is by will alone that the mind moves…” This is a skill one learns in meditation, btw.
James, can you recommend some sources and examples in English? That sounds fun.
Collapse aware, thanks for this. Of course, being Prussians, they couldn’t simply rework their system of military training so that everyone was able to take initiative. A friend of mine knew a US Navy petty officer — equivalent to a sergeant — who served aboard a destroyer escort in one of the battles of the Pacific war. His ship got hit hard by enemy fire, the bridge was blown to bits, the shells just kept coming, and he ended up as the senior “officer” on board. He proceeded to take command and keep fighting, and got the ship through the battle unsunk while severely messing over several larger Japanese vessels and playing a small but noticeable part in winning the battle for the US. More hierarchical societies can’t handle that; I’m not sure the US military can handle that any more, for that matter — but it won a lot of wars. Abandoning a Prussian-style hierarchy and returning to a system that allows individual petty officers to win battles on occasion is a lot of what I’m talking about here.
JMG, I had an interesting experience last night. I have been trying to find a small press publisher who might be interested in publishing a book like mine. I followed your suggestion to find some books similar to mine in a bookstore, and see who published them, but I didn’t find much of help there. So I just started looking for various publishers who do non-fiction. (My book is an innovative approach to exercise that allows for creating your own individualized program, having an opportunity to add expression in movement and to actively integrate body and mind. I looked at dozens of websites but couldn’t find even one who I thought would have any interest in my book. But while I was making dinner I suddenly thought about cookbooks, and how I had seen zero references to cookbooks in my search. Someone must publish cookbooks, I thought. So I searched for cookbook small publishers, and found quite a few. I noticed that all of those publishers were also interested in health and wellness, fitness and how-to books. Aha! I found my place! And I have already found a few small press publishers that sound perfect for my book. I’m glad I cooked that dinner…..
JMG, I’d be interested in a plotting lesson (JMG style!) as that’s where many of my stories fall apart (similar to Patricia’s my characters, mine probably share my own flaws and “we all fall down.”)
Northwind Grandma – yes please, keep learning and saving that info. Erika and I are thinking along similar lines (though I’m a complete novice). Historical clothing is providing my inspiration (and I love the renaissance historical clothing is going through these days – Victoriana/Edwardian attire, cottagecore, and creators like “Little Women Atelier” are very hot right now – would that LWA offered patterns!).
One of my writing issues is that my brain often rushes ahead of my fingers – whether I’m trying to do the free writing morning pages or something more structured. For the more structured I can walk it back, but lose momentum in the back and forth of what I was thinking versus what I capture – any suggestions for how to do better with that? Thanks, Drew
Dear John Michael Greer.
Thank you for this. I’m an author myself and a long-time writing workshop teacher, so I might quibble with this or that thing that you’ve said here— but my quibbles are busy playing with the pugs.
The main thing is, I warmly second your encouragement for those who feel the urge to write. I have always felt that the best stories come from the heart— and it really is as simple as that. I would add that my favorite writing also has what Garcia Lorca called “duende,” a shimmering velvet energy beyond words, a touch dark, a twist, a charm. It is something otherworldly.
What I would say to a young writer, or to an older person coming back to writing: the only gatekeeper with any real power is yourself. “Literary success” is but one of many sociological games to play (or not play) that might or, more probably, might not mean spit in the years to come. The longer I’m in it, and it’s been over 30 years now, much about “the literary scene” seems to me a Potemkin Village—I would even say, a fantasy mainly on the astral, and with gaping holes blasted though what were once some of the choicest neighborhoods. Post-2020, the more so. But if we live in “interesting times,” as the curse goes, for writers these can also be glorious times. Your work exemplifies this, and it is an inspiration to me.
If I may be so bold as to mention, on my blog I offer a batch of posts on reading as a writer that writerly readers might find of use, most recently:
John Steinbeck’s use of “Wigged Out” Exaggeration in TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY
And there are several more posts on reading as a writer on the “workshop” page in the blog’s archive.
What would this reader like to hear you chatter about, as you ask? My vote goes to Blake or Yeats.
re: Corporate Chain Bookstores
The last time I was in one (and if you’ve been in one of them, you’ve been in them all), I noticed like some of the others here that they seemed to be more interested in selling toys, than selling books. But I managed to find something I thought might be OK to read anyway.
What made me put down the book, make me go “nope” and walk out the door was the 20 questions the clerk was asking the person ahead of me trying to make a purchase at the register. You know the questions, what’s your shoe size, your blood type, your sexual orientation, your phone number, your email address, with all the back and forth about how that phone number doesn’t come up in our system, would you like to sign up now, it’s free.
Really put me off going into any corporate bookstore again, it did. Because I was next. No, I do not want to sign up, I don’t want to join, here’s my money, give me a receipt and change and stop wasting my time.
Maybe there’s room for a business model that involves money for stuff, out the door with no questions asked in a variety of things and one of those includes books? Than again maybe not. Maybe bookstores go away? Or the only place left is Big Slimy River?
Even though I am writing from another country, I also noticed that there is something wrong going on with the educational system…
I have a daughter with noticeable writing talent, I`ll relay to her the valuable advices from this article.
Some thoughts/questions on the failure to truly educate students in the U.S. public school ‘system’:
1) Asking thoughtful (unauthorized) questions appears to be a no-no. My son liked to asked questions, thoughtful questions; this curiosity was considered to be an “authority issue”. Anyone else run into that?
2) Experimental approaches that worked well in the classroom (in my child’s case the experiment combined 3 grades in one classroom, with positive outcomes) seem to be doomed to be never repeated and deliberately forgotten. Same modest budget, so money wasn’t the issue. Anyone else get that impression?
Lydia, excellent! Specialty publishers are important for an independent writer — the presses that publish occult nonfiction, for example, aren’t necessarily easy to find unless you know the field. I wouldn’t have thought of cookbook publishers as a place to send a manuscript on exercise, either, but now that you mention it, it makes sense.
Temporaryreality, I’ll certainly consider it.
Drew, it takes practice — lots of practice. There may be another way but I don’t know it.
CM, thanks for this — and for the links. I hope your quibbles and pugs play together well.
Other Owen, I think there’s definitely a place for that. As the impending real estate crash hits, and drives commercial rents down, it’ll be interesting to see what new bookstores emerge from the smoking rubble.
Stawy, glad to hear it!
PatriciaT, yes on both counts. Inquiry and experimentation don’t help browbeat kids into trudging through mindless routines to get them ready for lives as corporate serfs, so neither of them will be acceptable to the system.
John Michael Greer,
Sure! First for books check out the classics Outlaws of the Marsh (with over 100 main characters), Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Story of the Stone also called Dream of the Red Chamber (an interesting story as it shows the main pair BEFORE they are incarnated on Earth).
A more modern example might be How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom. It follows the current trend of someone from modern Japan being summoned to another world, only instead of being some uber hero he uses his skillset at administration to modernize the Kingdom, that is sewage system, highways and the like. Being in a world of magic changes a lot of things. I recommend it because while there is a threat in the form of an invading horde of monsters it’s largely in the background (‘m on book eight and only now are we seeing the Demon Lord’s armies make an appearance and even then the focus of the novel is one of the main characters reconciling with her brother) and most books focus on the relationships between characters.
Also look up the Manga Yotsuba&! Which just follows the day to day life of a Kindergarten girl.
And some links
Story Without Conflict: https://stilleatingoranges.tumblr.com/post/25153960313/the-significance-of-plot-without-conflict#:~:text=For%20countless%20centuries%2C%20Chinese%20and,structure%20is%20known%20as%20kishōtenketsu.
Kishotenketsu Exploring the Four Act Story Structure. https://artofnarrative.com/2020/07/08/kishotenketsu-exploring-the-four-act-story-structure/
Kishōtenketsu for Beginners – An Introduction to Four Act Story Structure: https://mythicscribes.com/plot/kishotenketsu/
Here’s a list of books that use it, as it appears to be by the establishment you can bet they are trying to guide the reader to “safe” reads https://bookriot.com/kishotenketsu/
I’m still exploring this world but it is well gatekept. Constant scandals of translators inserting woke politics every chance they get.
In my mid-thirties I decided to overcome my inhibition when singing. True to my form I found an expert, then auditioned and launched into lessons. The most memorable thing he told me came in the first session. He said that the percentage of people who are actually “tone-deaf” is minuscule; that in fact when the human ear hears a tone, the listener’s vocal cords automatically respond by adjusting, tuning if you will, to echo that same note. Most of my lessons were centered on our working to unknot all of the impediments, the scolding and belittling, that had been laid in since childhood, getting out of the way of a natural and, yes, joyful noise. Was what he told me the truth? I don’t give a hoot. Have I become an uninhibited, clear-toned singer? Rarely. But it was liberating at the time and a lesson that applied to many other endeavors, including writing.
To Keno #136 on manual typewriters: Amen. I have some marvelous decades-old traveler’s models, and I’d be better writing on one right now! I find the delete key is a formidable enemy to lively writing.
My own best tools nowadays are a clear question, a pad of paper, a ball-point pen, a stop watch, and a resolve to honor its limit. Some of the older among us will remember the same set from blue-book days in college. I vividly recall my discovering in those pressured moments that I might just have a sudden clear view and say something new to me. This technique was reintroduced to me at virtual gunpoint by my partner after reading some particularly leaden writing of mine.
I was inspired by Ian Duncombe to post an abridged version of my Flesh of Your Future review on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/62075959-the-flesh-of-your-future-sticks-between-my-teeth.
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