1 Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else.
2 Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – except for yourself perhaps, sometime in the future.
3 Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
4 Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
5 Unless you are writing something very post-modernist – self-conscious, self-reflexive and “provocative” – be alert for possibilities of using plain familiar words in place of polysyllabic “big” words.
6 Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
7 Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.
from The Guardian
Collaboration is all the rage. Everyone’s talking about its importance and searching for ways to do it more effectively—not only within organisations but across government, education, and industry sectors.
Recent insight into neuroscience tells us that the brain is a social organ. In a concise YouTube video, Louis Cozolino, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Pepperdine University, says that the human brain evolved to connect with other brains and that we create an internal model of the experience of those we come into contact with. Good managers intuitively understand this. They concentrate on team-building and foster collaborative workplaces. In fact, many offices are now designed without walls as vast open areas so that employees may interact freely. The ‘team’ is now centre-stage in many organisational structures. More and more, disparate and far-flung groups are asked to communicate, cooperate, work together better.
As much as the Western world values individuality, there has been a huge shift in recent decades away from what an individual might accomplish in isolation towards what groups of talented people might accomplish by pooling their knowledge, talents, insights and energy. This shift makes perfect sense in an increasingly hyperkinetic world that relies on faster, smarter technologies.
It’s worth considering, however, that we may have overshot the mark. There are times, in spite of the brain being a social organ, when collaboration is distinctly brain-unfriendly.
Emotions are contagious
Because we create an internal model of the experience of those we encounter, teams can be hijacked by negative members, affecting productivity and morale. In an article for HBR Tony Schwartz, says the emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, and especially so for leaders. Negative emotions spread like wildfire and they’re highly toxic.
But there is something subtler at play. People are drawn to outgoing, dynamic personalities. The one who speaks the most is generally seen to be most intelligent. According to Susan Cain in an interview for Scientific American, we’re such social animals, we instinctively mimic others’ opinions, often without realizing we’re doing it. The result is that if we are always working in groups or with groups in mind, certain types will dominate and quieter voices will be less likely to be heard.
Introvert v Extrovert
While the world is becoming more extroverted, the ratio of introverts to extroverts remains relatively steady, about one in four. These different personality types perform best in opposite circumstances and environments. According to many of the studies Cain cites in her book, introverted personalities are feeling increasingly stressed in a workplaces that are becoming less suitable to their working styles.
The greater the emphasis is on collaboration, the more likely the contributions of these workers, many of whom work best alone, will be overlooked—or perhaps not be generated in the first place.
Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a real need for dynamic leaders who can take a good idea and hit the ground running. But without that good idea in the first place, there is nothing to innovate. We know from neuroscience that creativity requires periods of quiet reflection.
Offices without borders
The current focus on collaboration, adaptation, and innovation has brought about fundamental changes to the way the office looks. The rigid ‘cube farm’ of the 1990s has lost its foothold to flexible offices that encourage employees to move freely within the space.
There is a downside, however. Proximity to our colleagues makes it easier to have a spontaneous micro-meeting, but it also means we have to sit through their deconstruction of the latest television hit or their shouting matches with teenage children over the phone.
Peter Wilson, the chairman and national president of the Australian Human Resources Institute, says:
There is no doubt the ‘jam the most number of people into a square metre’ approach, which was the style in the 1990s and a good part of the early millennium, has gone. It was associated with quite significant morale and productivity drops. The new wave of innovation is about activities for workers such as socialising, eating and locating themselves in all manner of different environments while they work.
The activity-based workplace is an environment with a range of different zones that support collaborative tasks and work that needs to be more contemplative, something that aligns with what we’re learning about the brain.
This new workplace design relies on cutting-edge technology to tie it all together. But creating a shiny, high-tech environment doesn’t necessarily foster better ideas or enhance collaboration.
A study undertaken by Ann Majchrzak at USC demonstrates the relationship of the physical work environment to work process. Her three-year research effort revealed that companies that reengineered their business processes, making workers more interdependent, and then supported these work processes with open, collaborative environments realized productivity increases up to a whopping 440%.
With statistics like this, many organisations have jumped on the bandwagon only to discover that placing workers in these fancy open environments does not mean they will collaborate. The key to achieving positive results is actually found in attending to work process first and then ensuring that the physical environment and the work process complement rather than compete with each other.
Employers are still in the experimentation phase as to whether these new trends will actually work in the office.
Cain is doubtful. She draws on research to argue that the modern office has been designed exclusively for extroverted characters who thrive on the atmosphere. In contrast, open-plan office design has been a productivity disaster for quieter employees.
“If solitude is an important key to creativity, we might all want to develop a taste for it,” she argues in Quiet.
“You think we’d want to teach our kids to work independently. That we’d want to give employees plenty of privacy and autonomy. Yet increasingly we do just the opposite.”
As she terms it, the “new groupthink” places a burdensome emphasis on teamwork, nearly all of the time. In her estimation, up to 70 per cent of employees in the US spend their working day in open-plan offices of some description. The question is: Just what does this mean for creativity?
The creative process
In a recent article on innovation and the importance of collaboration, Phillip Micallef, the former executive chairman of MCA and former CEO of Malta Enterprise, makes the case for innovation being an increasingly “collaborative pursuit that runs across firms, countries and sectors”. He argues further that
successful innovation occurs through an “innovative system”, linking together the ideas, technology, finance and production networks needed to successfully develop new ideas and methods and then bring them to scale in a particular industry sector. [It] thrives through cross-cutting networks, where ideas can spread rapidly and be tested in practice by many users.
Micallef makes a distinction between two areas of innovation that go hand-in-hand. He argues that innovation is often equated with investing more in research to create knowledge, but that true innovation requires the application of that knowledge in new ways that create value. While he is absolutely correct in noting the importance of new knowledge, placing the emphasis on its application—the easy part—comes at the expense of new and innovative ideas being generated in the first place.
Cain’s work supports the importance of solitude to creativity. Writing for The New York Times, Cain states that “research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic.”She offers an explanation for these findings: Introverts are comfortable working alone—and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. She sites an observation by psychologist Hans Eysenck who claimed that introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”
Architects know that triangles make a structure sound. Good managers know that knowledge management and knowledge transformation require three key components. As Harold Jarche, an expert in innovation, states in a recent article, there are three types of specialists none of whom can succeed in isolation:
- The true genius: “a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation.” By themselves they are misunderstood.
- A thought leader: “a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad.” By themselves they are unsatisfied.
- The integrator: “a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people.” By themselves they are ignored.
Jarche argues that a diversity of talents is necessary for true innovation. If one side of the ‘talent triangle’ is missing, the strength of the idea will not be best supported—indeed, the idea may never originate at all.
Acknowledging that different personality types have different roles to play and allowing each the appropriate environment to utilise their talents is critical for true innovation. There are times when we can and should collaborate productively and times when we should be wise enough to leave each other alone.
This article first appeared in June 2013 in Brainwaves for Leaders.
What makes for good writing? There are a thousand ways to go about answering this question. One might offer examples—Shakespeare, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. These are writers who have produced good writing. But listing them doesn’t get at why they are good. And it offers no help to the writer who is wondering how to produce something striking, original, and moving.
A better approach is to turn the question around: What are the things that if they are missing make a piece of writing not good? Three essential elements jump out right away: practice, trust, and judgment.
In a recent interview, the Australian writer, Helen Garner said:
“…you’ve got to practice every day. It’s like practicing an instrument if you’re a musician or keeping your tools sharpened. After many years of daily practice… you actually build up a competence.”
Cormac McCarthy said something similar but more laconically: “If you’re going to be a writer, then writing is what you have to do.”
These successful writers are on to something. Daily writing is the place to innovate, experiment, try on other voices. It’s daily exercise, like jogging, swimming laps or working out at a gym. It keeps you fit, trim, well-trained.
Be disciplined: set a goal—one hour, so many words—and do it everyday. A lack of daily practice will show in a piece of writing.
If practice is like daily exercise, trust works as the metabolic centre of the writing process. It’s what fuels good writing.
This element is about having a good relationship with your creative self. It works in several ways:
- Knowing when to listen – Certain ideas and themes resonate for a reason. It’s because you have something to say.
- Believing in the inner work – If the time is not right, forcing it won’t come to any good. There is a really important purpose to writer’s block, and this should be listened to.
- Drawing from the well – Having a notebook on hand to jot ideas down as they occur is one method. Some writers never do this, however. They test the value of an idea by letting it surface over and over.
- Communicating honestly – Find your voice; be authentic. Write what you know. Find a way to put yourself and your experiences into the story.
Attempting to control the process, writing prematurely or in the wrong genre, and being inauthentic in any way will show in the quality of the writing.
Everyone’s heard the saying: One part inspiration, ten parts perspiration. Inspiration comes from trusting in the writing process; judgment is the ‘ten parts perspiration’. It’s the conscious grind, bringing the intellect to bear on each and every aspect of the process.
If practice is what keeps one in shape as a writer, and trust is the inner work—the metabolic system—of writing, judgment is involved with the actual performance. It’s the ‘big game’, where a writer gets to apply training, draw from the well of creativity, and produce a fine piece of writing. It requires rigour, energy, stamina: How many drafts are needed to get it right? How much reshaping? How much editing?
Hemingway said: “The mark of a good book is how much good writing you cut out of it.” Stephen King said: “Be prepared to murder your darlings”.
It’s a good idea to read your work out loud. Wherever you stumble, make a change. I heard a story about a writer who holds herself to account in the following way: Before she submits any piece of writing, she performs a ritual. She goes into the bathroom, takes off her clothes, stands before the mirror and reads it out loud. Asked why she does this, she says: because if I’m there naked in front of the mirror, I can’t hide and I can’t lie.
The more one practices, the more one trusts in the process and the more one exercises experienced judgment, the better the writing will be. It’s a simple approach that will lead to honest, living prose.
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1. They take souvenirs of Important Evenings for their “mother.” This is like taking leftovers home for the “dog.” Of course, some mothers do get the souvenirs and some dogs do get the scraps. However, it is not likely.
2. If they find a copy of Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, they buy it. It is as if they’ve found a baby on the front step. They peek inside, examine the dog-earing, the marginal scribbles. Or perhaps it’s a clean copy, which carries its own kind of sadness. In either case, they embrace it, though they already have multiple copies. Those are irrelevant to the one they would be abandoning if they left the book behind. This is a hostess gift you can give any fiction writer, guaranteed to delight her even though she already has it. Regifting becomes an act of spreading civilization.
3. It makes the writer’s day if he or she can include the opinions of a truly stupid character or text in the story, punctuating those announcements with exclamation points, which are the icing on the cake. This situation is to be found in novels, too, but novelists are less likely to be immensely flattered if you have noticed their needle in the haystack(!). For particularly adept and judicious uses of the exclamation point, see the works of Joy Williams and Deborah Eisenberg.
4. Without these things, many contemporary American short stories would grind to a halt: fluorescent lights; refrigerators; mantels. They are its gods, or false gods. In that it is difficult to know Him, these stand-ins are often misspelled.
5. Poets go to bed earliest, followed by short story writers, then novelists. The habits of playwrights are unknown.
6. Writers are very particular about their writing materials. Even if they work on a computer, they edit with a particular pen (in my case, a pen imprinted “Bob Adelman”); they have legal pads about which they are very particular—size, color—and other things on their desk that they almost never need: scissors; Scotch tape. Few cut up their manuscripts and crawl around the floor anymore, refitting the paragraphs or rearranging chapters, because they can “cut” and “paste” on the computer. As a rule, writers keep either a very clean desktop or a messy one. To some extent, this has to do with whether they’re sentimental.
7. Writers wear atrocious clothes when writing. So terrible that I have been asked, by the UPS man, “Are you all right?” An example: stretched-out pajama bottoms imprinted with cowboys on bucking broncos, paired with my husband’s red thermal undershirt (no guilt; he wouldn’t even wear such a thing in Alaska) and a vest leaking tufts of down, with a broken zipper and a rhinestone pin in the shape of pouting lips. Furry socks with embossed Minnie Mouse faces (the eyes having deteriorated in the wash) that clash with all of the above.
The hero’s journey is often set up as a mythological adventure that also serves as a rite of passage for the hero. There are three main parts of the journey: departure—initiation—return. Within these three parts there are a variety of stages a hero might pass through, though not all stages will be present in every story.
Birth Normally, unusual—sometimes quite fabulous—circumstances surround the conception, birth and childhood of the hero.
The Call to Adventure The hero lives in an ordinary world. The drama begins when he receives a call that will lead into the unknown. The hero is called to adventure by some external event or messenger and may respond to the call willingly or may be forced to accept it with suspicion and reluctance.
This first stage of the mythological journey – which we have designated the “call to adventure” – signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight. (Campbell)
Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or ‘culture,’ the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. (Campbell)
Supernatural Aid Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide, often possessing magical powers, appears. More often than not, this supernatural mentor will present the hero with one or more talismans or artifacts that will aid them later in their quest.
Crossing the Threshold Upon reaching the threshold of adventure, the hero must undergo some sort of ordeal in order to pass from the everyday world into the field of adventure. This trial may be as painless as entering a dark cave or much more frightening and violent. The important feature is the contrast between the familiar world of light, where the limits of the world are known, and the dark and dangerous realm of adventure where the rules and limits are not known.
Belly of the Whale The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero’s known world and self. By entering this stage, the person shows willingness to undergo a metamorphosis.
The Road of Trials On the road of trials, the period of initiation begins. The hero travels through the dream-like world of adventure where he must undergo a series of tests in order to begin the transformation. These trials are often violent encounters with monsters, sorcerers, warriors, or forces of nature. Each successful test further proves the hero’s ability and advances the journey toward its climax. Often the person fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in threes.
Meeting with the ‘Goddess’ This is the point when the hero experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely. This person possesses knowledge and wisdom that will help the hero to complete the transformation.
Temptation This stage is about those temptations that may lead the hero to abandon or stray from the quest. Although Campbell refers to the tempter as a woman, temptation does not necessarily have to be represented this way. ‘Woman’ is merely a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life, since the hero-knight of old legends was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey.
The seeker of the life beyond life must press beyond (the woman), surpass the temptations of her call, and soar to the immaculate ether beyond. (Campbell)
Atonement In this step, the person must confront and be initiated by the force that holds the ultimate power in his or her life. In many myths and stories, this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. All the previous steps have been moving in to this place, all that follow will move out from it. Although this step is most frequently symbolized by an encounter with a male entity, it does not have to be a male; just someone or something with incredible power.
Apotheosis The hero or a stand-in for the hero is exalted to a higher rank, through a physical or metaphorical death, moving to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.
The Ultimate Boon In this stage, the hero achieves the goal of the quest. This is the critical moment in the hero’s journey in which there is often a final battle with a monster, wizard, or warrior, which facilitates the particular resolution of the adventure. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the Holy Grail.
Refusal of the Return Having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to bestow the boon onto his fellow man.
The Flight After accomplishing the mission, the hero must return to the threshold of adventure and prepare for a return to the everyday world. Sometimes the hero must escape with the boon, if it is something that the gods have been jealously guarding. It can be just as adventurous and dangerous returning from the journey as it was to go on it
Rescue from Without Just as the hero may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, oftentimes he or she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience.
Crossing of the Return Threshold The return usually takes the form of an awakening, rebirth, resurrection, or a simple emergence from a cave or forest. Sometimes the hero is pulled out of the adventure world by a force from the daylight world. The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world. This is usually extremely difficult.
Master of Two Worlds This step is usually represented by a transcendental hero like Jesus or Buddha. For a human hero, it may mean achieving a balance between the material and spiritual. The person has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds.
Freedom to Live Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the moment, neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past.
1 Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
2 Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.
3 Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.
4 If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.
5 Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
6 First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?
7 Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.
8 Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.
9 If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.
10 Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.
From The Guardian.
1 The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
2 Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
3 Never use the word “then” as a conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.
4 Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
5 When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
6 The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more auto biographical story than “The Metamorphosis”.
7 You see more sitting still than chasing after.
8 It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
9 Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
10 You have to love before you can be relentless.
From The Guardian.
An Era of Inclusion With the advances in feminist and civil rights issues in the middle of the last century, it also seemed natural to question tradition in other areas, including approaches to the study of literature. Why should the field be dominated by works written largely by dead white males? What about works by women? Minorities? Those still living?
With the best of intentions, educators and literary critics opened the field. The effect has been two-fold. First, literary studies have become more about ideology than about art. This development has led the literary critic Harold Bloom to identify what he bitingly calls the School of Resentment (which includes Feminists, Marxists, New Historicists, and Deconstructionists, among others). Students of literature can no longer study novels, plays and poetry without also studying the writings of these theorists.
The second effect has been that the playing field has been levelled in terms of aesthetic form. If there is value in studying Shakespeare, the argument goes, why not the Broadway musical? Why should Wordsworth’s lyric poems be privileged over Madonna’s hits?
It’s easy to see where this leads. All texts are suddenly equal. Milton, reality TV, text messages, the Coen brother’s films, George Eliot’s novels, ad jingles, YouTube, and Borges are worthy of the same degree of attention. Bloom calls this “the Balkanization of literary studies”. While he remains largely disapproving, the fact is that this development has led to much stimulating debate and the inclusion of formerly marginalised writers in the academic syllabus.
Entering into a Dialogue For writers, however, not studying the canon can create problems. In order to write well, a writer must read widely and critically. It is also important to read the full spectrum of good writing, which explains why many writers are returning to the literary canon, approaching it with new eyes and using it as a guide in their own creative work. Just as a skilled writer needs to know grammatical rules in order to break them, knowing the literature that has come before helps a writer extend, remake, engage with or cast off the ideas and themes most pertinent to a particular culture.
What is the Western Canon? First used to refer to the collection of books received as genuine Holy Scriptures, the word ‘canon’ is now commonly defined as the recognised body of works that are representative of a culture. According to Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, experts on literature and culture, to be included in the canon a book must satisfy the following criteria:
- It must have contemporary significance;
- It must be inexhaustible, something that is able to be read again and again;
- It must be relevant to great ideas and issues.
Bloom asserts that “a canon does not exist to free its readers from anxiety” and that it does not necessarily “baptize us into culture”; rather, it gives our cultural anxieties “form and coherence”.
In the appendix of his book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Bloom offers a list of works he considers canonical. Adler and Van Doren present a similar list in their work How to Read a Book. Publishers of Everyman’s Library and Penguin Classics have their versions.
It’s well worth a look at which books have made these lists, both for the pleasure they afford readers and the example they provide to writers.