Every time one man says to another, "Tell us plainly what you mean," he is assuming the infallibility of language: that is to say, he is assuming that there is a perfect scheme of verbal expression for all the internal moods and meanings of men. Whenever a man says to another, "Prove your case; defend your faith," he is assuming the infallibility of language: that is to say, he is assuming that a man has a word for every reality in earth, or heaven, or hell. He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colors of an autumn forest."
Showing What Can't Be Shown
I've been thinking a lot about tone.
How 9/10 when I switch off the T.V. or put down a book it's because the tone didn't set well with me. Or I didn't get the tone at all.
And I mean tone in all three senses:
1. Tone - quality of sound
2. Tone - attitude of place
3. Tone - harmony of color
I think most of our frustration as artists comes from not being able to nail down the tone of our original idea. It really is less about our technical skills, playing with language or paints, and more about our ability to strike that quality of sound, convey that attitude of place, manage that harmony of color. Tone.
A genuine tone is worth a thousand words.
I think the art of nailing tone is the art of showing what can't be shown. It's saying what can't be said. Reciprocating feelings that we thought were only ours--and when we feel alone in our most deeply felt experiences, that's not solitude or quirkiness or individuality, but loneliness.
We need art and must make it because it alleviates loneliness--because it is an entire place in which we may not physically live but our souls certainly do. Because art, if its tonally rich, will also ring true. And because the right tone, grim or ethereal or paunchy, will at the very least be harmonious.
The Barnstone Method of Looking at Art
Now, I don't care what your discipline is, or if you only consider yourself a hobbyist or dabbler or whatever. If you're into finger paint or write poems for your eyes only, if you fire clay pots on the weekends and jot off fan-fiction every now and then, if you make your money from graphic design or spend half the year giving lectures on the legitimacy of video games.
You should take art classes.
And whether you actually care about picking up a pencil to draw or not, you owe it to yourself to watch the currently free Barnstone Studios Drawing Systems 1. (Use the code: STAYsafeDRAW). It's basically a master-course in the relationships of art: the relationship between Western and Asian and African art, the relationships in works themselves, how artists reveal their relationship to the world with how they render their subjects.
Learning how to see/view is learning how to notice and develop relationships with the outside world. No matter your medium, it's one skill you can improve that will improve you all around.
The sad thing about the art world today is that you have to call it the Art World. Art's no longer a part of the world at large; it's segregated itself behind tastemakers and price tags. In Michaeangelo's day, art was commissioned by cities and popes and families. The Greeks used art as philosophy. Temples weren't totalitarian gymnasiums with the obligatory decorative banner and bouquet of fake flowers--they were expressions of the impossible and mysterious. Art was everyday.
How many mural artists do you know of today? Why do large works of art only show up in the same dozen or so places, all of them major cities? Today there's no natural cross-section between art and everyday living.
Myron Barnstone, a burly Air Force veteran who was the toast of Paris in the 1960s and subsequently burned or locked up most of his artwork during his long teaching career, is a great example of someone who takes art seriously while also treating his students seriously. There's no high-brow or low-brow here. There's no room for that. For his entire life, art was an uncompromising and enthusiastic work. Not a hobby. Not even just a vocation. A way of looking at the world. He didn't think it belonged to a select few; after all, everybody's got eyeballs.
The Alphabet of Art
According to Barnstone, the language of art is so blessedly limited that you'll only find five "mocks" used throughout it.
Myron Barnstone found these five mocks: the dot, the vertical line, the horizontal line, the diagonal, and the arch.
Of these five, only two are actually found in nature. The dot and the arch. There are no straight lines in nature.
Straight lines are an abstract that humans have used since before the Egyptians. They come in three flavors: horizontal, vertical, and diagonal. Any piece of art will be dominated by one of three types of straight lines.
In a piece that is dominantly horizontal, a calm and quiet mood is established.
In a piece that is dominantly diagonal, action is strongly implied. The first word that came to Barnstone's mind was phallic. This is masculine, charging with a lance and all that.
In a piece that is dominantly vertical, order is the order of the day. This is balanced, not as active as a diagonal piece or as stable as a horizontal piece. Christ in his glory is both vulnerable and authoritative. Whereas diagonal pieces dominate with action, vertical pieces can dominate with stillness.
"Portrait Mode" is another way of thinking of vertical since 99% of portraits are vertical.
Beyond the 5 Mocks, there is not much else to art. You start combining dots and lines and arches and you get squares, rectangles, triangles, all the 2D shapes we've come to recognize. You apply light and shadow and you get value. You combine these and you get 3D shapes: cubes, pyramids, boxes, cylinders, cones. And if you take all as a whole, you get the gestalt.
The Long Road to Gestalt
This essay went through so many titles, and I'm still not sure what I was trying to say. I think I want paint in my verse and play in my paint and poetry in my game design--and that, most of all, I don't end up artless in the process. You know, someone who turns their nose up at the everyday without realizing that there is beauty all around. That to me is artless, because it's turning a blind eye. If art is ever about judgement, anyhow, its about judging ourselves and not others.
So perhaps I should leave it off here, or get back to this idea some day, or make a joke--if I knew jokes.
At the very least, I hope somebody new learns to appreciate Myron today!
Until next time.
In Excelsis Deo.
There are three types of relationships an author has with their reader: a relationship built on trust, a relationship built on indulgence, or a relationship which ultimately feels one-sided (a relationship wherein the reader is simply confused about if the author actually cares about them or the story at all).
The quality of relationship is dependent on this skill: knowing how to set up and take down a scene.
When I first started writing, I was made to believe that a paragraph dedicated to a character's description was just a girlish or adolescent urge to play dress-up. I was warned against doing this; to instead let the readers’ imagination take over. I was quoted the worst three words you'll ever hear at your next writer's workshop: "sHow, DON't teLl." Leave things to the reader's imagination--you'll establish trust and rapport that way, they said.
An imagination is a sandbox. I could choose to give my imagination supreme freedom by never picking up a book and simply imagining a "story" from beginning to end, skipping to the parts I like best, swapping in characters from my real life to play their puppet roles in my fantasies.
These are not stories, however; these are daydreams. And they are ultimately dissatisfying, being made for light flights of fancy and not actual food-for-the-soul. Daydreams are also, as a rule, exhausting. They have as much depth as a Calgon commercial; a 20-second blip that fulfills a momentary desire or advertises a perceived need and is lost when the next fleeting desire arises or something of actual substance takes its place. Not having any limits or structure makes daydreams only marginally better than the dreams we have at night, which are rarely cohesive (when they are, we're mostly desperate to know why--did their sudden clarity mean something? Always, always, we are looking for meaning).
Imagination by itself can conduct very little meaning.
One opens a book so they can do more than dream.
Recently, however, it has become very difficult for me to get a first impression on any of the major players, be they World Setting, Atmosphere, Tone, Theme, or Protagonist. Especially in science fiction and fantasy, there's a tendency to whiz-bang a bunch of colorful character names and snappy dialog in the first impression. In literary prose, it's making sure the assonance and alliteration are just right, and the author always appears eager to courageously judge the status quo (just forget about the courage to be normal). In fact, a good bit of this has to do with the lack of courage to be normal. Oh, except when it comes to the protagonist. The protagonist is Joe Schmoe, remember? The protagonist is just a stand-in for the reader.
Well, yes. That's always been the case.
However, nobody's ever mistaken Frodo for Odysseus, or Elizabeth Bennett for Anne Elliot, or Superman for Batman.
We identify with any hero placed in the terrifying role or protagonist, because we know the terrifying role of protagonist. It won't matter if the character is a hero or a heroine, the first-born or the youngest of seven, a redhead or a balding monk--not when it comes to a reader being able to recognize the basic story of humanity in the protagonist.
This does not mean we don't care about the particulars. For example, when we think of Mr. Holmes, we think of two things almost immediately: his deductive reasoning and his costume. Scarcely will you see one without the other; when you don't have the deerstalker, you get an exaggeration of the first trait, which is why BBC's modern Sherlock is even more condescending in his displays of intelligence. Forget the fact that the deerstalker isn't even canonical--it's the fact that, based on the description of Holmes, we can surmise he would be the type of person to wear a deerstalker.
Just like Sherlock, or other everyday people for that matter, a protagonist is made of more than one defining aspect. While it's their actions we'll be most keenly aware of and interested in, readers are inherently less interested in the actions of a blank slate.
Here’s the other thing: we humans like looking at other humans. It’s immensely comforting, when we allow ourselves to be free to do so. And we don’t often get to do it with a level of depth that actually garners trust, curiosity, reciprocity, etc. In a culture obsessed with crime reports and exaggerated definitions of Freudian terms, we treat human personalities like circuses and peepshows: oh poor tragic Diana, oh boorish orangey Trump, oh sick twisted hunky Ted Bundy. No wonder more and more people are depressed and anxious; we can’t just look at a human being anymore and not see some angle of entertainment or neurosis.
Well, fiction has always been another word for balm. One remedy for the inability to see other beings is describing other fictional beings that we can more easily feel through and intuit from. Intuition: that's where reader participation comes in. It’s in making assumptions and developing a feel for a character based on the 20% we’re given; don’t worry, we’ll make up for the remaining 80%.
Character description makes me warm up to that character, thus to that world, and thus to that particular story.
It’s one reason why I have a much easier time following stories from, say, the Victorian and Edwardian eras. They were less cautious about detail, giving us an intimate view of a person’s face, clothing, psyche—because they knew even these verbose descriptions were just a scratch at the surface of a personality.
Case in point, here are two examples from G.K. Chesterton’s detective short story, “The Salad of Colonel Cray”:
The introduction of this character is also helped by Chesterton's fine syntax; the ‘solidified into a figure that was, indeed, rather unusually solid’ at once reveals something about Major Putnam’s physique, while Chesterton’s sense of humor about it adds lightness to his character, and, gives the reader a physical description that is also entertaining to read. Notice how he goes on to describe Putnam’s physical features and even clothing, but not every single thing about him. The main character, the eyes through whom we are seeing Major Putnam, is viewing this man for the first time as well. This being a detective story, any details of personality or quirk or color are also important. But almost every story is a detective story, answering a question with an uncertain outcome: a romance explores the “how” and “if” two people will get together, a drama explores the mystery of the human personality, etc. So this is not to say that this level of detail is only appropriate in a detective story.
Further, I included the short exchange between our protagonist, Father Brown, and the Major, because dialogue too reveals the character, and I was absolutely in love with the line 'with his good-humoured gooseberry eyes.'
The character’s movement (’solidified into something unusually solid’, 'came out of his house in a hurry’) adds to his character description while leaving the story with a sense of momentum, the imperfect details (bald-headed, apoplectic, puzzled, a halo by no means appropriate) combined with more positive details (good-humored, innocent grin) create intrigue and contrast. It already hints at the character’s personality, but that’s all: it hints. We know as much as the main character knows, and that’s important.
Now, on for a more psychological portrait—this one expanding on the main character, Father Brown. In general, the main character will be given a more in-depth, inner-world treatment than other characters. In a romance, where there are technically two main characters, this will also expand to the love interest. But even so, the main protagonist, be it any genre, is the most important to understand: they are at once the lens, the cinematography, the tone; they are what colors the story, no matter how distant the author chooses to keep them from us.
Ah, Chesterton slays me.
He’s using the situation at hand (Father Brown is performing some early morning duties as a priest when he hears what he thinks, but isn’t sure, to be a gunshot) to not only move the story forward, but reveal important bits of information and hint at future characters (the Major named Putnam, the Maltese cook), as well as draw a fascinating portrait of a man who cannot be summed up as simply “a nosy priest” or “a fastidious clergyman” or “an old man.” And Chesterton does all of this in one paragraph.
What's more, Father Brown is the protagonist of a series of short stories. Chesterton probably wrote these stories with the intention that a reader's first introduction to Father Brown could very well be the second or twelfth or thirty-third entry in the series. So he highlights an aspect of Father Brown's character; in fact, summarizes the core of his belief system so succinctly, that both the first-time and the returning reader are rewarded and enlightened and very little ground gets retread.
Notice too how the character description starts with an inner world description and, by the end of the paragraph, has moved this analysis into an action. Pick up any book on the craft of writing and you'll figure out one of the cardinal rules is that a scene starts in one mood and ends in another; we go from inaction to action, from triumph to loss, from question to answer. These scenes can be as long as a chapter or as short as sentence; or somewhere in-between, like this here paragraph.
Illustrating Brown's character also justifies the action he takes next. Father Brown would never stray from his duties on a lark; but his is a "free mind" (the reader is invited to ponder over what this means) and has already started working on the curiosity at hand; so the two men combine, and Father Brown logically goes to investigate because it is true to both halves of himself 1) gunshots being serious, it is his serious duty as a priest to investigate, and 2) being a free thinker, his curiosity will not rest till he gets to the bottom of this mystery
. Chesterton's "detour" is at once reflective and active.
Chesterton could have simply written: 'Father Brown went in at the garden gate, making for the front door.'
Perhaps that's a choice Hemingway would have made. Perhaps that's a choice you would have made.
But Chesterton is telling us this in two voices. His, and the protagonist's. Father Brown really is two men: he's revealed in Father Brown's voice, and he's revealed in Chesterton's voice. Like a matryoshka, our characters and our stories hide themselves in layers, informed by the author, who in turn informs the character's personality, which informs their actions, which informs the story, which informs the theme, which informs something too deep for words, which are woven back into the cyclical nature of the story by audience interpretation, who interact with all levels of this story, sometimes erroneously putting too much emphasis on any one of these factors. Stories, the good ones, are as much full-bodied orchestras as they are living tapestries: why unravel the author's sexuality or the historic context or the the theme or the style, as though one string were what made up a whole tapestry or one note which chiefly made up a symphony?
If stories are genuine, if they are true, they will, going back to that orchestra analogy, possess this multi-tonal quality: the voice of the character and the author may not always be as one, but they will resonate to the same key. The characters will not be author stand-ins (here is another cardinal sin of bad character descriptions, usually taking the face of a Mary Sue/Gary Stu), but the story will not be bereft of an author either. You can't have one without the other.
The examples above aren't meant be taken as the Golden Standard. This is the Golden Standard for G.K. Chesterton. Part of the hard work of the author is finding, maintaining, and polishing their own Golden Standard.
Before we move on to the opposite of the Golden Standard, let's look at a more spare way of introducing characters. Having dropped Hemingway's name often enough in this entry already, let's use him as our example. Is he the antithesis of what we've been exploring here, or does the argument hold water no matter the authorial voice?
Before, we said that the skill needed to establish a quality relationship with the reader is the skill of being able to set up and take down a scene.
That sounds more like something for plays than for ho-hum prose, but it's all connected.
Look at the examples of stagecraft below. All are from different productions of the same play, Tennessee Williams'
The Glass Menagerie:
Our narrator Tom introducing us to his past, and thus to the play's real narrative. In the first, his homelessness is apparent and his recollection of his family home is piecemeal and dreamy. In the second, Tom's a more clean-cut outsider and his family's apartment is more fully-furbished flashback than it is a mindscape.
Different interpretations of the main playing space--the entire narrative takes place in the family living room. It ranges from a realistic set-up, to a slightly realistic set-up dominated by colors representing the character's emotions, to almost purely abstract, taking the title of the play to an extreme.
The pivotal scene. Laura and her would-be suitor Jim have a heart-to-heart about Laura's glass menagerie. In the first, all is warm and romantic. In the second, the contrast of red and blue suggest all sorts of complicated feelings--and the picture in the background is obviously not real, but a symbol of--what? In the last, it's a 50/50 mix of this approach. A fully realized set-up, warm in the front, with the blue uncertainty of the world dominating the space behind them and weighing on their shoulders, threatening to overtake the fragile peace. Appropriately, this is the scene where Laura's dreams are shattered, and no matter how the scenes are dressed, every iteration of this play will have two things: warm candlelight and a cold collection of glass.
While plays have the different advantage of being visual media, the thing about setting up and taking down scenes applies across the board. The reason I bring them up is that, in this case, the stagecraft is an appropriate analogy to the authorial voice. As long as there is a solid narrative and a few anchors, and as long as the scenes are set up and then taken down, what is conveyed in-between (by pale strokes or bold, fully-realized details) is all a matter of set design. Important set design, to be sure--each of the productions above, for example, bring out different aspects of Williams' story in different dosages. Some productions will be more palatable to some than to others, but even if you don't like the play itself, you can't deny that the story, scene by scene, simply works.
Let's talk about anchors.
If I were taking a pleasure cruise around the Adriatic Sea, you know what I would vastly appreciate? An anchor. Yes, I want to go and sail and see, but if I don't have the security of an anchor, I'll always be vaguely anxious on the journey. The anchor allows the journey. Stories need anchors, too.
In the case of The Glass Menagerie, the very title is the anchor and must, by necessity, be featured as a prop in the play. But there are others, too, notably Laura's candles. No matter how abstract, these two anchors will be present in every iteration of Williams' play.
In the Father Brown stories, Father Brown himself is the anchor. But so is the landscape, and so is the tone.
If prose and protagonist are stripped to bare essentials, a reader still needs an anchor.
Now, here's the part where we finally get to Hemingway.
Here are two things that a more Spartan voice like Hemingway does:
Here's an example of him establishing all of these things in one paragraph from his short story, "Indian Camp":
The smoke. That's what I remember after this paragraph. I can smell it. It anchors me to the spot. This woman is more fully realized, at the moment, than the main characters (the young boy Nick, and the relatives we know so little about, the boy's father and his Uncle George). All I can think of is that the men went out of range to smoke, not to keep the smoke out of range, but to keep out of range of the noise. Her husband obviously would have joined them, if he hadn't cut his foot.
Hemingway doesn't tell us how to feel about this, but he does, at the same time. "The room smelled very bad."
Illumination and Silence:
Words Never Spoken Are The Ones Worth Hearing
There's a fine line between well-decorated and kitschy.
If you over-explain a thing, or oversell a thing, it's always rings false. It doesn't matter how down-to-earth a person claims to be (in fact, the more down-to-earth, the better a person is at seeing through someone's bravado), a human being is an intuitive creature. First impressions are disproportionately powerful for a reason--once someone draws a conclusion about a person or a character or a work in general, the impression tends to stick. If there's an impression of salesman slickness, it'll be hard to wash out.
For example, there are two types of writing, one in ads and one in fiction, that are really one and the same and always make me cringe: the mouth-watering sell.
Those descriptions on menus that try to make you salivate over the watercress and gouda burger or, alternatively, the blackened chicken Cajun gumbo? I always feel a little less dignified after having read them, like I was being seduced by twelve different greasy contenders. I mean, I know what I want. I want a Reuben, thanks, you don't have to sell me a sexier Reuben, I like Reuben just the way he is.
It's worse with character introductions that come from the same vein: you know, the broody guy with rock-hard abs or the ingenue with pliant breasts and supple...something or another. This pretty much screams--have a visceral reaction! Purely physical descriptions that are obviously aimed at one thing--titillation. The reader as a Peeping Tom.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't a high-brow crack at the poor plebeian public; The Washington Post already has a corner on that market. Sexuality, the senses, blood and poetry and guts and good looks: all of that belongs in fiction, because all of that is human.
But selling me a character like you'd sell me a hamburger simply feels undignified to me. Dignity isn't about class, it's about common ground. Don't treat me like a salivating customer, treat me like a partner in this telling. The Oral Tradition of Yesteryear didn't rely on one storyteller alone, but the input of those around the fire. In that case, let my imagination take over. Give me the particulars and I'll give you my particulars. Tell me our man's got a broken nose and I'll imagine which way it's tipped; tell me our lady's got dark hair and I'll give her the reddish sheen in the sun.
Since we've touched on framing scenes already, and touched on the topic of titillation, I want to point out that there's still absolutely nothing wrong with innuendo.
Innuendo, like authorial voice, is all about the quality of light: the colors chosen, the amount of, the intensity of. Innuendo as illumination. Innuendo is also, like authorial voice, as much about the silence kept.
In fact, innuendo is most powerful because of how its framed (the scene is set up and taken down, even if it's nothing but a fade-to-black) and because the words not spoken are the ones worth hearing.
If you've ever listened to Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire," you've probably listened to at least fifteen times in a row. Here's a song at once intensely private, like it says it all, and yet it's all too short. Or is it? The very length of the song supports its message: its the question that's immortal, the answer that's finite. It's not to say that stories with happy and/or definitive endings are sub-par, but that the details are not what is ultimately satisfying. The innuendo of "I'm On Fire" is in the same category as the ending of all classic stories, "And They Lived Happily Ever After." How? Doing what? Does it matter?
The innuendo is even more potent in the official music video:
Nothing happens, and that's what's so moving.
More than that, though. It's about wanting to connect with somebody. And you feel that, even without seeing the Woman's face or knowing the character's names.
A story works if it connects with the reader. Even if its a repulsive story; it the story talks of inhumanity but treats the reader as human, it's alright. Even if it's a sad story, and especially if its a joyful story (which can't help but being equal parts sadness and happiness).
Floating Heads and Purple Prose
Of course a reader doesn’t want or need to know everything the character is feeling, or thinking, or wearing. It’s descriptions that attempt to box characters in to a clothing style or cliche that are the real reason for the overbearing rule of “Don’t Reveal the Protagonist’s [Hair Color, Etc.] or Else.”
The problem with sparse or hit-the-ground-running writing arises from characters taking actions before the author has fully realized at least one other aspect of their story: the atmosphere, or the world setting, or the character's relationship to the world or the other characters.
But regardless of style, character descriptions should serve to place the character and the reader in the world, not floating around with a bunch of talking heads.
At the very least, the Floating Head Syndrome is a sure way to get me to not care.
You know, the Floating Head Syndrome, a cold open with two characters talking and dropping names and events like we're supposed to care. This works on an economic level, I mean, I know about these types of stories because they've gotten published. They were accepted out of a sea of submissions and people wanted to pay for them. They work for somebody. There's less concern here with what works at the moment, however, and what works in the grand scheme of things. We can spend our whole life studying the tenets of story, but they're older than we are and have lifetimes to teach us and we can only give it one lifetime. Sounds lofty? Of course. But stories are universal--I mean that literally. This Universe is a Story; science can't explain why it doesn't have an ending. Stories are as common as air and earth, so I'm not trying to speak in an Ivory Tower kind of way about it. It's as much a craft as carpentry or auto mechanics or the Japanese tea ceremony. It takes lofty expectations and elbow grease.
The opposite problem of the Floating Head Syndrome is the Purple Prose Problem.
Now that we've borrowed from plays and music, I say we agree to be democratic beggars and also borrow from film. If innuendo is an example of good cinematography, then Purple Prose is an example of bad cinematography.
As usual, Wikipedia sums it up pretty darn well:
"In literary criticism, purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. When it is limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work.... Purple prose is criticized for desaturating the meaning in an author's text by overusing melodramatic and fanciful descriptions."
I like that--the desaturating. Or, oversaturating, as in the example above. In this case, the subject matter and the composition is just fine--but all the "extra touches" simply drown the piece.
In general, people are more afraid of writing purple prose than they are of writing what's known as beige prose or blue prose. Beige prose is taking Spartan prose to an extreme; going for boring even when your characters find themselves in dazzling situations. Blue prose is what most screenplays are troubled with nowadays: the character with the vocabulary of a 14-year-old who just discovered the thrill of four-lettered words.
The result of purple, beige, and blue prose is all the same: an overwhelming blandness.
And none of that garners the relationship we started talking about way at the beginning: trust between the author and the reader.
In the end, though, I discovered that the words themselves are just anchors for the real story: the Story that is told in sighs too deep for words.
In Excelsis Deo.
Unfinished creativity is living with a cloud over your head.
Why You Can And Should Pursue More Than One Passion
I ran into a bit of a funk this past week. Bit of an expected funk—you’re a few steps into your journey, and you know this is unpaved road so you’re expecting a few bumps. But expecting and experiencing are two different hings. What is this feeling of having left something undone, even as you’re in the middle of getting stuff done?
For anybody who has stopped and started multiple projects, you’ll know the feeling.
For anybody who has ever felt passionately about more than one thing (and who hasn’t?), you’ll know the feeling.
So I was in the middle of my first practicum assignment for my Ultralearning project, when I kept running into a Block. We talk about writer’s Block, about the general creative Block, and we argue about the Block—does it exist, is it just laziness, or amateur hour, or an excuse?
Well, it’s certainly a hurdle. And if you haven’t trained for hurdles, you end up with halted progress and at least one bruise.
So there I was, vision suddenly clouded, ego bruised, frustrated at my inability to keep my fingers on the keyboard. My eyes felt clammy, my chest cold, utterly dissatisfied with whatever progress I slogged through. Even switching to a video game for a little while, even closing my eyes for five minutes, even having dinner, even restlessly organizing my wallet, taking the dog out, placing a phone call—absolutely nothing could shake this feeling that something was wrong, life was blue, creativity was lonely. Something was missing.
Like almost all epiphanies, it shone a light while I was tossing and turning that night:
I was stifling my instinct to write.
Whoah! I just started a super ambitious project. I needed to be focused, clear, get to Cal Newport’s lauded “deep work” state. I couldn’t go traipsing off again, spending an afternoon working on a short story, to only haphazardly switch back to coding the following day, then back again, never reaching a milestone in either pursuit. Right?
And besides, didn’t writing this blog count? What about journaling? What about just writing again in the future?
But it wasn’t so much the act of writing that was missing. It was the finished product. All my life I’d chosen one clear vocation: I was a writer, I was going to be a writer, my writing was going to be read. And here I was, pursuing a new goal, not necessarily giving up the old goal, and the ghost of what-was-not wouldn’t unhaunt me.
(It really does feel like that—like you’re being haunted. Maybe just the silly bed sheet variety; which is why thoughts of clarity often arrive under the comfort of a blanket).
How could I pursue this new undertaking when I hadn’t kept other promises to myself? When I had very little psychological foundation, the small wins, that I could rest on, look back on, take inspiration from? It was like going straight into a triathlon without the muscles, or with the scantest training possible.
What I’m trying to say is: can’t do one without the other. I have to produce writing and I have to produce progress in game development.
That’s what I set to find out this past week.
Pursuing More Than One Passion: The Triathlon Approach
I started thinking about triathletes. They pursued more than one sport and then combined everything into one super project, one super test: the triathlon. Swimming, biking, running. Sure, you can lump them all under “sports,” “competition,” “endurance,” but if you ever compare a pure runner to a pure swimmer you’ll notice pretty big differences between their physiques, schedules, even their temperaments. And there’s a special amalgamation when it comes to triathletes. They’re like Renaissance Athletes.
So, if we can learn from any group on how to pursue more than one passion, we have at least two models to pick and choose from.
Renaissance men, like Leonardo Da Vinci, show us clear examples of pursuing multiple passions, often to the point of mastery. My two projects—game development (which is already a combo of several sub-fields, from coding to art) and creative writing—are decidedly creatively bent passions.
So Renaissance men, OK, yeah, that’s a given. But what can athletes teach artists? Athletes train themselves in procedures, in muscle memory, for physical activity—that’s completely different from the more conceptual skills like those involved in programming and story development.
But there had to be overlapping principles—bottom lines of success, universal rules. So I set out to find them.
When triathletes sign up for a triathlon, they don’t immediately set out the following day and attempt a mock triathlon.
They break down their tasks, apply it to a schedule, and do things one day at a time.
And then when they get to completing those daily tasks, they condition their bodies by starting with where they’re at and not (immediately) where they’d like to be. Conditioning.
What does conditioning look like for an artist? I can’t speak for everyone—some of you may be here because you’re interested in what I find works for writing and some may only be interested in the game dev side of that. But let’s take one extreme example, for writing this time. Ray Bradbury once gave this advice to beginning writers: write one story a week. His logic? It’s nearly impossible to write 52 bad stories in the course of a year.
That is an example of a condition to meet—an exercise schedule, if you would. You write throughout the week and finish one story by the end. Rinse and repeat the following week, etc.
Now, add to that another passion that we want to pursue. In my case, it’s computer science (with an emphasis on game development).
The toughest part here may simply be sticking to a schedule for pursuing these passions. I’ve been guilty of writing up a schedule that slots me to focus on programming for two hours in the morning followed by two hours of writing later in the day. But then I wake up in the morning and I’m in the mood for writing instead. And the whole day turns into an attempt at writing, because I want to “take advantage” of my inspiration. So that creates a pattern of unreliable scheduling and chasing the muse.
How could I condition myself to work on an isolated subject at one time and another subject later? And do this every day, regardless of the inspiration or lack of external pressure to continue doing so?
An athlete breaks down their muscles into groups, and exactly which days they will be worked on and which days they will be allowed to rest. Can the same be applied to mental exertion as does physical exertion? I think so. But I wanted something concrete. The danger with conceptual activities is that it’s easy for everything to remain a concept. So many “how-tos” for artists and writers on the internet are usually filled with generic advice rather than concrete guidelines. “Follow your passion,” “put butt in seat,” “set a word count goal,” “learn by doing.” How does one do?
I thought about it. I read about it. And here’s what I came up with.
Here are the areas that artists of all stripes can condition:
A) Focus: “The ability to make timely progress on cognitively demanding tasks and produce more results in less time.”
Case in Point: Stephen King writes 2,000 words every morning. On a bad day, it might spill into the afternoon, but he’s honed his schedule and craft to a point where he usually meets his daily goal before lunch. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, came to this conclusion: "Three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all that it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives."
How To Practice:
Game Development - If you don't currently have a project you're working on, or continually find yourself more in Google/blank stare mode, you're not getting a Get Out of Jail Free card. Instead, you can always find time to hone your ability to code and code at length by completing code challenges, on sites such as CoderByte, Codewars, Codefights, or Codingame. (Reviews of these forthcoming).
Writing - Ah, this one is so simple it hurts. And, unfortunately, there's no guaranteed results. Flannery O'Connor, for instance, would do this every day for two hours, and some days she said she didn't get out a word. And that's what this suggestion is: settle down for an allotted time each day with the intention to write. You may not actually get anything good--but the important part is to sit down the whole time and deal with whatever pops up, whether than be genius, drivel, boredom, or the flow state.
B) Intuition: “Solve any problem by finding the underlying pattern, not fiddling with the particulars."
Case in Point: Swiss educational reformer (and one of Albert Einstein's early influences), Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi once said, “Visual understanding is the essential and only true means of teaching how to judge things correctly." Basically, thinking in images is preferential to thinking in words or numbers. We first learn through images and sensations, only later learning symbols for these things--the written word, the Arabic numerals.
One common factor among geniuses, from Albert Einstein to Richard P. Feynman, wasn't that they were memory machines, human calculators, or mysterious magicians. They developed their intuitive senses. Yes, it's something they were born with. But we're all born with intuition, and we all can choose to practice our intuition.
How To Practice:
Game Development - There's a popular term in coding that comes straight from science fiction: Robert A. Heinlein's "grok." Transported from Heinlein's novel to the Oxford English dictionary, to grok is to "understand intuitively or by empathy, to establish rapport with, to enjoy with".
Well, there's actually quite a few programming/computer science books centered around the idea of "grokking" subjects, such as algorithms and the like. And they do so through pictures and real world examples. I suggest starting with Grokking Algorithms--it's even available in an audible version (which I have--and I'll tell you if it's worth it without the pictures).
Writing - Writing itself is an intuitive process, but what better way to hone your intuition than absorbing the work of countless artists before us? It is easier to write stories when you're in the habit of digesting them. Read outside your genre or preferred medium--try plays and poetry, science fiction and literary. Try telling your stories through images--or, better yet, illustrate them outright. Read your stories out loud, not just in your head. Write backwards. Do anything to flip the script and think from a different angle. It might feel like a lot of sideways fuss when you'd rather be plowing a path straight to the end of a particular project, but the whole point of conditioning is starting with where you're at (and we've got some weaknesses to work on, y'all) and working deep, before we're able to execute quickly and intuitively at a later date. This is time well spent.
C) Overworking the Problem: “Practice something more than necessary and it’ll stick around for good.”
Case in Point: Students who take higher-level math courses score better in lower-level math refresher courses because the higher-level courses force them to use lower-level concepts to a point that goes beyond earning a grade or getting the gist. They have to know how it applies in more than just isolated situations, but how the concept of them builds into more complex problems.
How To Practice:
Game Development - Choose a difficult concept. Watch the same video, read the same paragraph every day for X time. Keep watching/reading every day, even if you feel like you understand it. Build the same project over and over if you have to. Do something often enough till you're sick of it.
Writing - This one applies to your editing process, usually reserved for the very end of a project, but BOY IS IT GOOD. When you finish a story, take out a fresh page and start re-writing it. You can go word for word if you want, but you'll often find yourself intuitively editing as you go along. But you're in the mechanical flow of writing as well, so you're working at multiple levels. You're not limited to your own stories either. Practice by copying established short stories, pretend you're role playing as George R.R. Martin or Jane Austen. Whatever. It's a psychological release as well as a practical exercise, and you'll be surprised by what you learn.
D) Memorizing Core Patterns: “Roses are red, violets are blue, certain things are a given, cite the facts and you’re through.”
Case in Point: Some things you just gotta know. The trick is to filter out what's fluff and keep what's essential. Richard P. Feynman memorized basic logarithmic calculations to make seemingly impossible calculations in ten seconds or less. He didn't actually calculate that fast; he just memorized more laborious outcomes to simplify future problems. It's like memorizing multiplication tables, or mnemonic songs that help you get through the periodic table, or the simple fact that Kyoto is the capitol of Japan.
How To Practice:
Game Development - Algorithms. Data Structures. Conditionals. Design Patterns. Exposure, exposure, exposure. This one is just going to take time.
Writing - Yes, that dreaded word: analyze. Actually, I used to hate writing exercises, isolated paragraphs and dialogue exercises and half-full notebooks. Ugh. I just wanted to write what was already in my head. But when you come to enough dead-ends and head-scratchers, you start wishing for just about anything that will keep you keep writing and start to demystify why you struggle in some areas when you're doing so strongly in others. And sometimes that means not writing at all, or doing one of those dreaded writing exercises. This is a writing exercise that doesn't involve writing: analyzing your favorite short stories (you could attempt novels, but you might be here longer).
Break down your favorite short stories into the Hero’s Journey, use word count to find out how long each section is before breaking, cite any specific authorial flourishes (Catherynne M. Valente’s weirdpunk terminology, Hemingway’s bare prose and lack of background story, Lovecraft’s use of mannered verbosity broken up by alien mania, Diana Wynne Jones’ chatty style over top structures dense in magical systems and literary allusions, how C.S. Lewis wrote for children vs. how he wrote for adults, etc). Do this for at least one story.
II. Overlapping and Tangential Skills
Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how and what we’ll do when pursuing more than one passion project--pursue, not dabble. We’re not finger painting on Saturdays and writing an essay here and there. We want to make masterful progress in more than one discipline, and we want to be smart about it.
The reality is—we only have so much time in a day, and large chunks of that are occupied by commuting, sleeping, eating, socializing, working. When we only have small chunks of time, how can we make that time count, especially when we’re tracking more than one subject of interest?
I experienced some lull during work on Friday when I came up with some small things I could reasonably perform when I wasn’t needed at another task and waiting on customers. Using scrap pieces of paper, I started working on puzzles designed to help sharpen my problem-solving skills. In V. Anton Spraul’s Think Like A Programmer, he dedicates the first two chapters to riddles and conceptual puzzles. It’s not enough to be able to figure out certain set problems and textbook exercises, or to copy and paste common coding solutions--you'll be smarter in the long run if you build the mental habits that allow you to break down “puzzles” and put them in order.
Problem-solving, in the form of riddles and puzzles, is an example of a tangential skill. In this case, it specifically applies to my aim of being able to program the ideas I have in my head. Tangential refers to something that is slightly connected to the main topic of interest. Coming up with the correct answer to the Sphinx riddle didn’t make Oedipus a programmer, for example, but an aspiring programmer working through different kinds of problems—those posed by the Sphinx, by a chess board, by a Sudoku puzzle—are practicing the same mental muscles needed when programming new solutions, in addition to teaching their brains patterns of logic. It can’t replace actual coding, but when coding is a no-go, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Now, overlapping skills. These are the skills that apply to more than one area of study. What are the overlapping skills one can practice if they want to become a better programmer/game developer/creative writer?
Triathletes are working on tangential and overlapping skills all the time. Bicycling strengthens their leg muscles, which helps them endure longer swims, which strengthens their lungs, which helps with the whole running bit, etc., etc.
But what about our subjects?
Well, working on a short story has very little impact on my finishing a coding project. Unfortunately, I cannot reasonably complete both at once. This is precisely what I struggled with this past week.
However, a small win in one category provides confidence in another.
Writing, in general, is a skill promoted to top-tier importance in almost any field you are looking into. A film director said that once--forget the camera and the acting connections, just write a dozen screenplays. If I could quote the guy, I would.
And you know what skill you can't teach a computer? How to write like a human being.
But, to be more concrete, I came up with the following lists below (please feel free to comment with more--I could always use fresh ideas):
III. Small Wins
We touched on "small wins" a few paragraphs ago. I was watching Joyce Carol Oates' Masterclass on short fiction writing when she talked about the importance of writers working on short fiction--because completing something (and short stories are easier to complete than novels) gives a "very necessary psychological boost" to a writer. Hey, completing writing for the day feels great, but completing an entire complex idea, a short story, is even better.
Again, we can find examples of this in the world of sports. Athletes train to beat their own records--it's not the same as racing or even winning the triathlon, but it's a smaller goal that they set out to complete on the journey to the bigger goal.
It's not enough to just have one big goal. Along the way, we need to set realistically small goals so we can realistically attain small wins. It's those boosts of glucose we need to keep running the good race.
IV. Exhaustion and Rest
Working a muscle to exhaustion is the first step in strengthening it in the long run. And the second step is to rest it.
We talked earlier about overworking problems to get the concept behind it at an instinctual level. Renowned physicist Richard P. Feynman created a natural intuition for physics and problem-solving by doing more work than was expected of him at almost any given math problem. Essentially, he went through the act of "discovering" and "inventing" the solution to the problem rather than relying solely on existing solutions and common proofs. This took longer, but the results lasted pretty much forever.
Though failures and setbacks often feel more annoying than rewarding, it's when I've failed to get a piece of code to work or a story to launch that I learned the most about the process behind it. Don't get me wrong, I still yearn for shortcuts--when you've got a lot of interesting problems and ideas queued up, you're impatient to get started on them all. But slowly I've learned that going deep on initial problems builds up a library that is in increasingly easy access.
For example, most of us are pretty good at typing because we use computers all day long; back in the day, only typists could claim such exclusionary value. Typing is an example of a "problem" we've overworked.
Children are also naturals at overworking problems. They'll ask a million questions on one subject that we long ago tucked away as "obvious," so we no longer think deeply about it. The first five years of our life, however, are an example of extraordinary cognitive expansion. And it just comes from relentlessly observing and asking questions and tracking down answers.
Above I've already listed a few ways to overwork some problems within game development and writing; we can start there. Add to this an exhaustive write-up of all the questions you want to ask. The more curious we are, the more motivated we are to get to the bottom of things.
The Perfect Plan vs. The Actual Execution
There’s actually a pretty strong scientific case to only master one thing at a time. More accurately, to build one new habit at a time.
There’s a lot of conscious effort at the beginning. Already facing down old habits, resistance, time changes.
In light of this, I think it’s just as important to learn how to mentally deal with failure.
Here are four principles:
1. You Still Have One PRIMARY Pursuit (RE: You Will Make More Progress In One Area Than Another)
Don't think of perfect percentages or a neatly sliced pie. The reality is you can't parcel out your time evenly, and in order to feel any real sense of progress you're going to have to prioritize. There's only room for one at the top. For me, I'm not sure if that will be writing or game development right now. Game development has the most room to grow and go, but the small wins are found within writing, as it's a skill I already possess and the resources needed are extremely simple: pen and paper or a simple word processor will do. Figure this out organically.
2. Focus On The Three Most Important Tasks (Day, Week, Month Editions)
Don't kill yourself with an ambitious to-do list. Every day, give yourself the Top 3 Tasks. Anything beyond them is a bonus. This can be extended to the week and the month, saving you precious mental space to focus on the tasks at hand instead of constantly bringing back up a list of disparate errands to remember and evaluate.
3. Don’t Hold Yourself To Hardcore Deadlines Till You’re Halfway Through
Reiterating this point from Blog #4. This is productivity guru Scott Young's advice--when you start a difficult project, don't hold yourself to any deadlines till you're 1/3 to 1/2 way through. Because it's nearly impossible to set realistic goals when you're still a novice.
4. Any Progress Is Still Progress
Fr. Mike Schmitz has a great video about dealing with setbacks and going off your chosen path, and much of the advice is universal--particularly his point about any resistance to a bad habit and an effort in a good habit counting toward the end goal. You're on a diet and you waited two hours before eating a donut? Most people assume they are diet failures at this point; Fr. Mike's point is that those two hours of resisting made you stronger for the next go-around. So don't underestimate the fact that you are facing numerous battles and may not win them all--not only are you battling to understand, you are battling to get your butt into seat, you are battling to get out of bed, you are battling to read just one more word, or concentrate for one more minute. And all of these efforts count, even if you don't hit your goal. Any progress is still progress.
1. Make A Simple Visual UI in Visual Studio
1. Write 3 morning pages every morning
2. Break down three short stories, each from different authors, and compare them, using the writing example above under “Memorize Core Patterns.”
Bonus: Take one of the stories you picked to analyze and copy it word for word. Enjoy the process of getting inside the words and watching the story literally build before your eyes.
In Excelsis Deo.
K.W. writes novels, short stories, the occasional ode, game scripts, and (with actual evidence!), this here blog.