Writing: miracle or just another cognitive task?

I read a great article on research into cognition and performance today. The part that resonated for me was at the top of page 2, the paragraph that ends with this conclusion:

“A highly skilled writer can simultaneously be a writer, editor, and audience.”

I have had better and worse success with this in different forms of writing. My most complete writing was in journalism, particularly for radio. It took a while, but I was able to get all three of those going simultaneously. The fact that journalism is deadline-driven, and has specific styles and standards, greatly facilitated development of that skill.

In poetry, I focus on writer/editor; the audience is either going to get it or not get it. Poetry assumes work on the part of the reader (at least in my image of the poetry zeitgeist), and thus the audience can be assumed to be ready to work out obscure meanings and connections. Not that I don’t pander as well; but I usually do so for reasons inherent to the poem, not the audience. (Yeah, strange concept; it’s not unlike comic relief, but at an intellectual level.)

Fiction is where I struggle the most with getting all three in the right balance – and I believe they do have to be in balance in order to write fiction that will sell. With poetry being my ‘main mode’ (I’m now learning), I’ve noticed that there is very little market for writer/editor-intensive fiction that expects the audience to work hard for meaning. Come to think of it, there is also a very small market for poetry. Hmm…

I have been working on my fiction for the last 6-8 months on the assumption that I’m strong on the writing and editing fronts, and can relax and just use the skills I have in those areas. What I have to find a way to do is to let the audience in. So far, I’ve felt that the commitment required to make that change isn’t going to happen right away, largely because of day-job commitments–largely because I really love my day job.

I had a different concept of that third leg before I read this article; ‘audience’ makes things clearer, and that’s how I’m going to think about it from now on. But when I do write, I focus now on letting the audience in.

As for the classifications, I’m a combination Mozartian (I build things in my head, but very quickly) and Beethovian (I then write them down like an obsessed madman to see how what I’ve been building looks as a _story_). Most of the time, I’m a pantser; but I also value editing and pondering and reconsidering and never assume (now, used to always) that I got it ‘right’ the first time. A pantser is great at mining ore; but then I have to refine that ore (figure out what the hell I was thinking – I’ve found that getting to the emotional base of a section of writing is enormously empowering), and finally, when I have the pure ‘stuff’ of story, I have to shape it the way one shapes jewelry out of wires and lumps of pure metal. (That works fantastically well for poetry, but might limit me to 2/3rds of a work of fiction in my lifetime.)

But here is what I think is really important: It doesn’t matter in the slightest where you start or currently are on this continuum of balancing the strengths of your mental skills you use for writing. What is important is that you challenge yourself as hard as you dare to strengthen the weak or scared parts. No, wait; do not take that literally. Do not challenge yourself as hard as you dare. Do more than that. Challenge yourself in ways that scare you to death. Never cheat on the writing lessons. Buy time only by taking giant steps. Never hold your breath when you jump into a story; assume you can fly and get on with it.

Writing is a miracle, but don’t respect that; make it ordinary. All your years of experience, every terror and every delight must inform every word. If you don’t break a sweat, if you don’t experience exhilaration now and then–do what you make your characters do every day: face up to the risks. Otherwise, the nails that pin you to the task–genre requirements, the deep puzzle of a single adjective, the character in chapter 2 who wanted to go in a different direction, deadlines, bad reviews–will rip you apart and then there is no miracle.

I have a particular viewpoint on what turns a wannabe into a writer. It’s based on participating in the Writers Exercises section of the Books and Writers Forum. During the last year, we graduated a number of folks who had at some point been wannabes, but who at some other point had become fierce writers demanding miracles of themselves. The stuff I wrote above is one man’s view of how you move from one to other; everyone has to find their own path. But you could do worse than just jump. Label yourself however you must, but label yourself for what you want to be as a writer, not wherever you happen to be for the next 10 minutes. <g>

Yeah, OK, I’m a cheerleader. (But this is how I talk to my inner writer.) Let yourself be cheered.

2 thoughts on “Writing: miracle or just another cognitive task?

  1. Love it – I’m definitely cheered! I was pleasantly surprised to see one of your discourses today. Was thinking it read like a blog post, and what do you know. [g]

    I refer to myself as a Mozartian, sure, but I’m excited that it doesn’t have to always be that way. More than anything else, I fear stagnation, and I wonder if this is what drives other writers to seek improvement and growth too. I’m sure that ruminating over my work will always be normal for me, but will I be more footloose (keyboard-loose?) in five, ten, fifteen years, if I keep trying? I dunno, but I want to find out!

    Just because I claim to be a Mozartian doesn’t mean I don’t bust out a Beethoven once in a while. Every few scenes I write, I’ll try the “by-seat-of-thy-pantaloons” approach. (“Am I any better at this yet? Let’s see…”) I got a bit over a thousand words that way a week or so ago, which is high by my standards; usually I get flustered with it far sooner than that. Clearly, the seat of my pantaloons is pretty underdeveloped. [g] But I’ll keep trying.

    And sir, the words “Challenge yourself in ways that scare you to death.” as well as “Never cheat on the writing lessons.” might just end up on my wall, to join the family of other like-minded quotes that keep me company while I write. [g]

    I definitely agree about your assessment of pantsers vs. plotters – pantsers *are* great at mining ore. That’s what I admire about them. The HP reinforced that idea for me…but pantsing is *so* far out of my comfort zone. (That’s the joy of it, though, isn’t it?)

    Great post.


  2. Thanks. I posted it first on Compuserve, but it felt like a blog post so I put it here as well with some minor changes. I have the good fortune to have been writing, in one form or another, for about 45 years, give or take a few either way. I’ve gotten to do it professionally, and I got pushed so hard by that whole deadline thing that it forced me to stretch. A great deal. I remember that my first 1:30 (a minute thirty) radio piece took me seven hours to write. I could tell that it wasn’t up to snuff, and I kept pushing and learning and pushing and learning until it sounded right to me. I now know it takes that kind of determination to succeed. It’s not just time; it’s not just effort; it’s getting bloody indignant when it’s not what you want it to be and making one of those miracles happen. Even if it takes all night.


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