“When am I ever going to use this in real life?”
Remember asking that in sophomore Algebra? Here’s the best-kept secret in education: this inevitable question pokes a hole not only in algebra but also in every other subject. Through that hole, a light leaks in from a land much deeper and higher: from a place where people live a life of learning.
In real life, we taste the fruits of any particular lesson — formal or informal — only to the degree that we’ve learned to let the fruit of lessons in general blossom in our lives. If your mind has not bloomed broad enough to make room for the fruit of self-taught revelations, revelations that appear with frequency and depth enough to cause major and regular changes in your habits, I hereby apologize: our education system failed you. It chose to make you a specialist before liberating your mind. It chose to give you a subject to study but neglected to teach you the art of study as an end in itself, an end that shows up everywhere regardless of where and when and to what you subject it.
In short, our education system chose to introduce you to a mass of short-term teachers before introducing you to the only teacher you’re stuck with:
But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
In this blog and through my social media feeds, you’ll get connected to fabulous articles and books by my colleagues and friends and mentors (dead and living) on the principles and techniques professional authors-in-progress wield to their advantage. My colleagues, friends, and mentors are right — in practice, you must jump into these tools and assets of the trademasters as if they were, collectively, a trebuchet sling and let them catapult you into success and, more importantly, the joy of daily discipline. We will be subjecting our habit of a life of learning to the subjects of their work.
But had I my druthers, I would have you read this article prior to reading any of theirs. Not because mine is best — I may well be the most junior writer you’ll encounter among them. No, I simply believe without the capacity to study, without a robust autodidacticism in your life, it matters little what subject you approach.
My friends, colleagues, and mentors will teach you the subject through books like On Writing and In Defense of Poesy. But at present it falls upon me to argue something like the converse — or, in musical terms, the pre-verse. I defer to Father Kurt Vonnegut who said in his interview with The Paris Review:
“Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”
He spoke as a scientist whose science had informed all that he wrote and as a youngest child whose humor infected everything he touched and, later, as a sad nostalgic soul who had survived the bombing of Dresden, whose happy tears played accompaniment to whose own sad chuckle’s melody. He spoke from life and its great learning, experiential and formal.
Autodidacticism of the kind Vonnegut and other self-taught masters employ… well it ventures far beyond the borders of facts, anecdotes, and metaphors from other disciplines that you merely add into the lives of your characters. Autodidacticism authorizes you into a new jurisdiction entirely, a jurisdiction where you may extradite yourself from the jurisdiction of writing into the jurisdiction of parallel disciplines that will make your whole career better, brighter, more robust. Football linebackers learn ballet. Tech billionaires learn tax code alongside python and ruby. You must learn to learn. And if you already know how, as many of you do, you must increase it tenfold: learn to learn even more efficiently.
Literature certainly never disappeared up Vonnegut’s asshole, so to speak. He taught himself the craft so fully that his is easily the best Art of Fiction interview. How exactly Vonnegut chose to teach himself the craft, we may never know, but there lays a clear path forward for us if we hope to try:
The monks who made the renaissance broke their early education system into seven parts, three and four, trivium and quadrivium. The quadrivium were subjects: math and the application of math in music, geometry and the application of geometry in astronomy. If you flourished in these, your master might call you to follow him on into philosophy or theology or law.
But before these subjects — the same “subjects” we offer our kindergarteners and high schoolers alike long before the “life of learning” faculty of their brain has bloomed — before The Four came The Three: The Trivium. The Trivium taught you to care. The Trivium taught you how to fabricate new ways to use any and every subject “in real life.” If the “subjects” were transitive (direct objects of the verb “to study” such as “to study math” or “to study poetry”) then The Three were intransitive, self-referential, meta subjects, as it were, that helped the mind to bloom.
Without a blooming mind, without a liberated mind, you will use none of your subjects in real life. In short, it takes a life of learning to know how to apply something you learn to life. Likely out of desperation for survival, many of the older minds reading this have bloomed to some degree and learned to apply ARC welding or chemistry out of stubbornness to find the long way around into the realm of a steady income, the kind of learning first employed by “factory lecterns” where you sat in a “lecture” on how to screw a particular nut into a particular bolt. But again, that’s a survival-style learning, certainly not the thing of a civil and liberated society. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of you still learn through a fog. We need The Three:
Logic teaches you to think for yourself. Rhetoric teaches you to speak for yourself. Grammar teaches you how to record those thoughts and speeches in a coherent way. Taken together, they should you how language itself works because language is the basis of all learning and reason. My best friend once said that the number one qualification for The President of the United States is reading comprehension and this right here is why. No discipline — law, medicine, theology, auto mechanics, modular mathematics — can exist without a clear verbal syntax, a clean rational dialect that builds upon itself, and concise terms that define one another.
I could go on about this for ages, but let’s just say that learning Greek or Latin grammar will teaches you the real building blocks of English, that learning Logic will teach you how to string two thoughts together in ways that actually make sense rather than in ways that attack the character of your opponents, and that learning Rhetoric will teach you how to use those tools moment-by-moment to persuade others and show them your own empathy for their good points and poetry.
If you haven’t internalized these tools, you might want to read the article The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers or The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric — Understanding the Nature and Function of Language by Dr. Miriam Joseph.
Let’s assume you know Trivium in your heart of hearts. Let’s assume you’ve taken the time to understand how logic works and can string together a coherent thought from start to finish — you think for yourself, clearly and articulately without straying into fallacious territory. Let’s say you have a working understanding of how language really works and can incarnate your own thoughts clearly on paper — you can, in other words, know exactly what you want to say and say exactly that. Let’s even say you know how to then take that writing and defend it, orally, before your peers despite your fear of the stage. You’ve bloomed. You thrive.
In that case, watch out: you might catch my sickness.
My sickness, my craving, my yearning forces me to further my education by way of every field I touch. I can’t help myself — I can’t help but buy the books and seek the experiences I believe will push my mind and heart to brighter and higher and deeper ends. I’m speaking to writers for the rest of this article, but you can get creative with your own applications. If you catch this sickness like me, then:
Doing online typing lessons in order to increase your words-per-minute will not be below you. I heard a lesson from a well-known, well-respected New York Times bestselling author near the end of 2015 in which the author admitted to writing only twenty-five-words per minute. The difference between twenty-five words per minute and fifty words per minute is the difference between one novel per year and two, or two novels and four.
Books that push you — old books, trade books, books on subjects that terrify you — will be hills to conquer rather than villains to shirk from. You cannot learn the way of the enemy without suffering time in his camp. The king cannot know the limits of his sword without spending time with the smith and so on.
No question and no interviewee will intimidate you. Ignorance isn’t a dirty word. We’re all ignorant of more than we know. Therefore there are no stupid questions, only questions that are more ignorant than other questions. The small questions lay foundations for the big questions — that’s why we don’t let freshman into 501 classes. No shortcut exists: either ask questions to mitigate your ignorance or fear questions stay the fool. Early on, I started this series called Sitting at the Feet of in which I interviewed people who had spent a significant amount of time in subjects foreign to me — risk assessment, miraculous healing, stock analysis, film criticism, medieval philosophy. The more I interview, the more I learn. That learning emerges in my work, both the fiction and the business of fiction. I’ve taken many calculated risks (and avoided stupid risks) because of that insurance executive. I’ve used the lessons from the miraculous healer for several scenes in my fantasy in which I describe magic.
Here are some other lessons I’ve learned:
Extreme frugality will enable you to live off of your writing income way sooner. Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawke said, “There have always been two ways to be rich: by accumulating vast sums or by needing very little.” Granted, there remains a high concentration of already successful or retired citizens attending your average writing conference, people who long ago attained financial independence. And granted, there are also many stay-at-home moms whose husbands still work among us. In that case, making money off of your work shouldn’t matter to you. But let’s say you’re neither. Let’s say your household’s income rests on your shoulders. The easiest way to get writing income to operate in the black ASAP is to learn drastic expenditure reduction (financial defense) long before you ever make a dime (financial offense). You’ll have to cut back on habits, wear your shoes until they’re holey, essentially…
use it up,
wear it out,
make it do
or do without.
This is the behavior of all first-generation millionaires. (The Millionaire Mind, Dr. Thomas J. Stanley)
Small projects between big creative projects will create margin for your mind and add up quickly. Leverage them en masse to create the illusion of yet another “big project.” Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warnings did this. (Abe Mohler, stone carver, who carves fetuses from scrap bits of stone left behind his great marble statues).
Measure twice, cut once. It’s a whole lot easier to have a plan for your book and fill it in than to pants it. Pantsing your book will force you to create an outline after the first draft which means come revision time, you will need to create the equivalent of a second first draft. Great writers have gone this way, but why waste your precious time? Despite all of Shakespeare’s prolificacy, he will give us no more plays (from home construction with Steve Schaubert).
Reinvest your profits. You made $10 off of your first short story sale? Congratulations. Now reinvest that money in a class or a tool or a book on the craft or taking an hour off of work in order to make more time for writing — anything that exponentially magnifies your capacity for more and better work. Einstein said the most powerful force in the universe is exponential interest. (Ten Ways to Get Rich, Warren Buffet).
Collaborate to delegate. Collaboration is how artists delegate. Every minute a competent coworker who shares your vision works on your project, you get to spent that minute doing something else. Key words here are (1) competent and (2) share your vision. Such a person will become an avatar, another body to magnify your output. In other words, it’s more important to get the right people working with you rather than a bunch of random people working with you on the right project. (Good to Great, Jim Collins).
Cite your sources and give credit where credit is due. This will bear three fruits in your career: First, humility and deference — the only armor the truly famous have left. Second, credibility. Third, your original sources and potential future sources will want to share more with you (Homiletics, Mark Scott and Damien Spikereit).
Sweet ain’t sweet without the bitter and the thick ain’t eatable without an acid. If you’re ever cooking and think “something’s missing,” nine times out of ten it’s acid. The same is true of a novel — nine times out of ten, you need to introduce something that will disintegrate stability in order to make a unified blend (Rhulman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto by Michael Ruhlman).
Get out all the water and mold now or it’ll show in years to come and bring down the house. That plot point that bugs you for some unknown reason? That sentence that sticks out from the rest because it’s a little too good? That ending that still doesn’t quite satisfy? If you leave those it’s likely that in years to come, the story will age poorly and eventually crumple under the burden of time (mold remediation, Heath Schaubert).
Go hard and work your ass off. Granted, everyone needs a day off once a week to thrive — a day for to encounter one’s own being rather than to do (The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel & This Day, Wendell Berryiu) — but those other six days? Revel in your work. In my experience, 99% of would-be writers don’t need to learn how to write well, but rather how to work hard. Work hard and the technique will follow. Work hard and publishing credits will coalesce slowly together until, suddenly, they’ve combined into a long list. Work harder than your peers and people will eventually want to work with you — publishers, agents, other artists — because they know your work is both quality and on time. In fact, I dare you to work harder than me. I am convinced that if several New York Times bestselling authors lost their capacity for a living wage through writing and found themselves bankrupted overnight, many would not be able to get back on their feet. The ones I’m thinking of have admitted this in interviews: they never held a job until writing, which, as jobs go, is a fickle mistress. Only the strivers can keep up with her. Look, I’m here to help and encourage, but I won’t coddle you: if you’re weary of running on the beach with other men, how will you compete in the hill country running with horses? If you can’t learn how to work with difficult people in Everytown, USA where you still have the privacy of anonymity and the security of no one giving a damn about your work, do you really think you’ll be able to compete in New York when your name is in print everywhere? Because if any modicum of public success is your goal and you’re going at this preciously, they will eat you alive. The Knight never announces that he is a knight, he simply behaves as one. Dumb luck or a t-shirt with a witty saying about how you’re a writer will not carry you through. Neither will some cute gadget. Your work ethic will — and in times of crises, those who have practiced hard will make it and the others will stumble and fall (Running with Horses, Terry Bowland).
Strive for the striver’s life, live a life of learning, and you’ll wake up one day and find out that, in a weird and roundabout way, you’ve learned how to become a successful and respected author from all of these unrelated disciplines. Sure, as an author you’re obviously always in-progress. But armed with a thriving mind and a learner’s appetite that uses everything they encounter in real life, you’ll be ready to study this subject called “creative writing.”
Those other articles and books my friends and colleagues and mentors write?
They’ll take care of the rest.
cover image from A Health Blog