Archive for October, 2007

“All it takes is some grains of faith,
A few kilowatts of sweat and grace.”

– Ray Wylie Hubbard

One of the most persistent myths among wannabe writers is that they need to be inspired to write. However, professional writers know better. For them, inspiration is less a form of divine grace than a habit of mind. And, in some ways, it’s less important that the sweat of regular, disciplined work.

Oh, most professionals know the joy of being in what computer developers call “The Zone,” that trance-like state where you can see the whole of your current project laid out before you and can seemingly do no wrong. It’s a heady feeling, and probably explains why Isaac Asimov, when asked if he would rather write or make love, pointed out that he could write for twelve hours a day.

But here’s the secret: Work you do while inspired isn’t always flawless, or even better than what you write when the words come slowly. Sometimes, it’s complete junk. It just feels easier. Later on, you may even have trouble telling what you wrote while inspired from what you wrote while sweating every syllable.

That’s the main reason why most professional writers don’t worry about inspiration, or wait for it. Often, of course, they have no time to do so; for most of us, a deadline is the surest cure for writer’s block around. But, more importantly, it’s not reliable, and professionals soon learn from experience that it’s also over-rated.

Instead of striking a pose and waiting for the Muse – that favorite pastime of wannabes more in love with the image of the author than with writing – professionals soon learn to cultivate a state of mind where they are always watching for potential material. Writers of fiction are looking for plot elements and characterizations, or maybe the odd turn of phrase. Non-fiction writers like me are always looking for subjects that they can turn into articles. After a while, the search becomes automatic, a little piece of you that sits back and observes while the rest of you interacts with the world. Some writers even go so far as to keep a notebook or PDA at hand for jotting down notes, although many prefer to keep notes mentally.

(Personally, I think that mental notes make for richer material, since they can make new connections with the rest of the contents with your brain, while written notes just sit there lifelessly, but that’s just me. You might be different).

Once you have the habit of looking for material, you will rarely have trouble finding something to write about. For instance, I can almost always find four or five topics that relate to free software with an hour or so of thinking and browsing the Internet. Give me a free afternoon, and I can find enough topics to fill my quota for the month. As the American fantasist Fritz Leiber once wrote, “It’s part of my entire adjustment to life, to view things from the perspective of gathering story material.”

This approach to inspiration is one of the key differences between amateurs and professionals, but it’s not the only one. Just as importantly, writers write. It’s only amateurs who spend their time waiting for inspiration, or talking about what they plan to write. True writers sit down regularly – usually, daily – and write. They may be in different moods or states of health from day to day, and they may write more one day than another, but they write.

Why? Partly because Asimov’s joke is true: even if you don’t want to go as far as he did, writing is more fun than almost anything else. But, just as importantly, writing is like any skill or activity from singing to playing a sport: it’s easiest with practice. The more you write, the less effort it is. When you’re in practice as a writer, you no sooner have an idea than you start seeing seeing what points you can make about it and the gaps in it that you need to fill – to say nothing of the structure that you need to express it. Sometimes, how you develop an idea may change dramatically as you work with it, but, if you’re in practice, then you can usually see the possibilities early on.

Just as a trained runner often needs less warmup than a Sunday jogger, so a professional writer finds the act of writing easier. That, really, is the reward of disciplined work – although if you’ve never written regularly and long enough to experience it, you’ll have to take my word for it.

Of course, sweat also comes in with revision and editing. Possibly the best advice I’ve ever heard from a writer is Robert Graves’ comment that a writer’s best friend is the wastebasket. Many pieces of writing are made by careful editing or destroyed by its lack.

But editing, in my experience, is a far less desperate an activity than writing itself. By the time you get to editing, you know you have something to build on and improve. Compared to writing the first draft, editing is not nearly as harrowing – it’s usually just a matter of putting in the work. Editing is more an analytical process than a creative one, so in general it’s less mysterious than writing and easier to learn, even though it’s no less important.

These comments will seem obvious to most working professionals. However, I am equally sure that wannabe writers will read them, nod solemnly – and then go right back to their old habits of waiting for inspiration.

But if you’re ready to write seriously, then maybe they will reassure you that you’re doing the right thing. The romantic myths about writing are lovely, but they’re not a substitute for pragmatism and hard work. They no more make a successful writer than the myths about personal romance make for a successful marriage.

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I’m about halfway through 1421: The Year that China Discovered the World, and finding it heavy going. The problem isn’t the writing so much as the way that author Gavin Menzies develops his argument, piling speculation on speculation, leaping to conclusions and drawing everything into his main theory until alarms sound in my head and I become irritated by the obsessional nature of his ideas.

Menzies starts with the known facts that a massive fleet set off from China in 1421, and that, while it was away, a reaction against exploration and trade occured in China, putting an end to such voyages and suppressing all their discoveries. From there, however, he quickly expands into conjecture, imagining a giant flotilla of ships that, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, divided into three separate fleets.

One of these fleets, he suggests, sailed into Antarctica to take sightings to aid navigation in the southern hemisphere, then returned home via the west side of Australia. Another travelled up South America, crossed the Pacific, returned to travel down the west coast of North and Central America, then explored New Zealand and Australia’s east coast. The third headed north to the Atlantic, circumnavigated Greenland, and returned home around the northern coast of Asia. On the way, these fleets supposedly mapped the coastlines they were passing, and left traces in the form of observation platforms, wrecks, animals, and small colonies.

The only trouble is, absolutely no record of these journeys exist. We know that the fleet sailed, and was charged with exploration, but that is all. At best, Menzies is forced to argue from such second or third hand evidence as European maps that show coastlines before any European had reached them. At worst, he argues from currents and winds that the ships must have taken the courses he suggests. Never mind that some elements, such as the circumnaviations of Greenland and Asia are wildly implausible, or that none of these voyages ever steered towards Europe, which was at least vaguely known to the Chinese of the time.

Moreover, all this travelling is supposed to have occurred in two or three years. Given that Magellan and Drake’s circumnavigations took about three or four years, it is just barely possible that the Chinese fleets could have managed their own in the time alloted, but, when you consider the difficulty of keeping hundreds of vessels together and the slowness of charting coastlines, the time scale becomes unworkable – even for a straightforward circumnavigation, let alone the endless criss-crossings and detours that Menzies suggests. These are all difficulties that Menzies, for all his repeated claims of unique expertise because of his service in the British navy, utterly fails to take into account.

Yet, despite these difficulties, Menzie plows on. His method is to suggest a movement, then to find evidence that might suggest a Chinese presence in the place he suggests. An old map, a burial marker, an account of a strange wreck – it doesn’t matter. Anything that can be made to support his ideas, sometimes with a little twisting, is pressed into service. Alternative explanations don’t matter, not even the possibility that the signs of Chinese influence might have come at some other time. He never argues from the evidence; rather, he finds the evidence to fit his theory, then shoehorns it into place without any regard for other possibilities.

Very quickly, the tone becomes reminiscent of books like Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?, in which everything everywhere is explained in terms of a single all-embracing, far-fetched theory. Menzies’ theory may be more reasonable than von Däniken’s, but only barely. It still has the same stink of monomania lingering about it – unsurprisingly, since Menzies has apparently spent over fifteen years on it.

Menzies’ theory may have the benefit of introducing North Americans and Europeans to the glories of Chinese culture. One of the few things that he is right about is that, in the fifteenth century, the Chinese were probably the most advanced civilization in the world, and that’s a fact that few people seem to realize today.

Yet I find myself wishing that he would have cast his book in the form of a novel rather than as an apparently serious attempt at speculation. If he had, then he might have performed the same service without leaving the unhealthy air of obsession about his work.

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The Courage of the Early Morning is the name of the biography of World War I flying ace Billy Bishop that was written by his son. It refers to the characteristics needed to get up in the dark and cold and risk your life after too little sleep. It’s also a phrase that I like to apply to going out for a morning run in the damp and darkness of fall and winter.

Admittedly, I am not facing planes that are waiting with machine guns to knock me down, although in the dark, cars and half-awake drivers aren’t a bad substitute sometimes. Still, I like to think there’s the same sense of going against the inclinations of comfort in order to do something difficult. And, if I’m honest, there’s also a sense of perverse satisfaction in believing that I’m the sort of person who wouldn’t make a completely hedonistic choice.

This bit of self-dramatization (because that’s what it is) dates back to my days of playing soccer and rugby when I was growing up. When going to practice or play and hearing someone voice a variation of “Sooner you than me,” I used to like to think that I was tough enough not to let bad weather discourage me. Of course, in reality, I had all the toughness of boiled spinach, but adolescents do need some shred of self-assurance to cling to. And, rather than admit myself a hypocrite, after the first tackle that left me sliding through the mud, I soon found myself taking a grim satisfaction in my ability to adapt to a condition that others still shied away from. It was a good way to score, too, because those who weren’t muddy themselves would often avoid me as someone who was slightly crazed.

Something of that same insanity persists in me to this day. When I leave the warmth of the bed and stumble outside into the wet and cold of autumn, I reflect that hundreds of people around me wouldn’t consider doing what I am, and then I don’t feel so miserable. Except on the coldest days of the year, the satisfaction lingers enough for me to fall into a rhythm and to warm myself with the exertion, so that the misery I’ve walled away disappears.

I suppose that something of the same train of thought drives people who take up dangerous sports or take chances. By comparision, my courage of the early morning is a very minor strain of the attitude at best. But middle-age, I find, needs its illusions as much as adolescence, and if it gets me out the door each morning, this is one to which I’ll cling.

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