Let’s talk about creative processes above and beyond spaced repetition and reference list-making. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to go down in the annals of spaced repetition as not just another sarcastic know-it-all but a sarcastic know-it-all who actually created something beautiful other than his autobiography and spaced repetition deck.
The first rule is never pollute your main reference lists with ideas relevant only to a particular creative project. You may fill out and add to a version of those lists created a la copy and paste, but never adulterate your main, home base reference lists, as tempting as it may be. The fill-in and add-concrete-details-to copies are very useful near the beginning of a creative project. Each abstract item on your list, be it a rhetorical term, figure of speech, trope, or even vocabulary word has the potential to infuse a part of your work with value.
Another thing you can do with fill-in-and-add-concrete-details-to copies of your original reference lists is use them to analyze other people’s works. You could go through a novel for example and with your epic list in hand, keep track of two things.
1) The frequency of usage of different tropes, figures, etc. How often?
2) The flow and “how” or higher order of usage of these things. This is stuff like, how are such elements used independently and in tandem?
By asking such questions, you can essentially create a deductive blueprint that helps you come to a greater understanding of other creative works, which will in turn socially inform your own endeavors.
This is where you will reap the benefits of drawing your education from diverse resources as opposed to one specific source. Some works will resist analysis by certain ideas or types of rhetoric, so the more ideas you have at your disposal the more you can potentially understand.
I’m going to completely depart from this discussion and talk about something else right now. The following is a personal thesis based on an idea that to my knowledge originated within the works of The Handsome Blogger, His Majesty, Khatzumoto.
Don’t ask me for a page number, but out of deference we’ll call this Khatzumoto’s Law of Exposure Count: the believability or verisimilitude of any idea or thought is rooted and based for humans in how often they have been exposed to it. This obviously applies to propaganda, but it goes far, far deeper than that. The deepest of the deep.
The argument here, if we are being realistic, is not that humans are entirely incapable of logical deduction. That’s just stupid. The point is that humans are not infallible, and this a cognitive keystone.
I say cognitive keystone instead of key cognitive weakness for a reason. Calling this element of our psychology a weakness is too narrow an appellation. This determinant of our thinking patterns is manipulable, so within the ambit of human social interaction it is a potential weakness (think fast food commercials on cartoon channels), but not a necessary one. You may use this to your benefit!
In case you haven’t guessed at this point, one of the things I am hinting at is spaced repetition.
But there are more uses, and that is what I am getting at. The main theme of this whole, macrologic rant on rhetoric and words and ideas is, let’s be honest, vanity. You, we, I are, am interested in influencing other human beings with our words and ideas — and there is a hazy boundary, to be sure — and we have so far awkwardly circumvented one of the most important parts: humor.
More importantly, that pleasurable emotion behind humor. We want to experience it and aspire to cause others to experience it. A strange breed we are. We love this feeling so much that we even want our pets to experience it. Anyone who owns a fairly frisky feline knows what I am saying!
And how shall we service our non-serious emotions without an understanding of their nature? Many do so in ignorance, but methinks it will please the audience if we pontificate a smidgen of meta-insight. Wallace Chafe, a respected, academic linguist sheds light on the subject in his book, The Importance of Not Being Earnest. His thesis revolves around an emotion that gushes forth in circumstances appropriately termed believable, or even persuasive, illogicality. Something that is 100% insane may not provoke so much as a giggle, but if such an insane idea bares even a slight modicum of semblance with rational human thought, it may trigger an eruption of euphoria and cacophony in all those within earshot. Khatzumoto’s Law is applicable here because, especially for verbal humor, a major determinant of “semblance with rational human thought” seems to be exposure count, which really makes you wonder how our culture of mass media has affected our senses of humor.
It is not just this emotion. You need other types of emotional euphoria and activity. World building in the context of fictional literature is a noble task, but so often people populate their fictional worlds with everything but the emotions that people so want to experience. Trust in your reader’s empathy, that they will be able to connect with the feelings of your characters and narrators.
This is the great thing about rhetoric and tropes. Many rhetorical devices describe and give a name to prototypical circumstances that are familiar to most human beings regardless of native language. These circumstances often reliably elicit a similar kind of feeling, emotion, sentiment in people, and so a catalog of rhetorical terms and tropes is as much a listing of certain situations, circumstances, and behaviors as it is a listing of human emotions.
I once read in the book Impro by Keith Johnstone and a commentary on that text on the online learning community LessWrong that people are constantly in a battle of sorts with one another over self-esteem or status. People are constantly trying to raise and lower each other’s self-esteem, and of course we all want to feel some sort of esteem pertaining to ourselves. In many ways, a catalog of rhetorical devices and figures of speech is like a catalog of different ways to engage with and participate in this endemic, human struggle over esteem.
Socrates said you must be both knowledgeable about your subject and benevolent. I like to think this has to do with the similarity between the words author and authoritative, the latter of which means having the weight of authority; peremptory and dictatorial. The reason why writing with a good style is hard is because, as the author, you have pretty much unchecked power over your reader’s perceptions, whether you like it or not. Since you’re a dictator no matter your natural disposition, it pays to think things through thoroughly and craft your benevolence.
Consider for a moment the mathematics of imagination for the purposes of art and storytelling. Let us use the example of a fictional, well-written series that takes on average 40 hours for the average adult reader to complete. We have already spoken of a novel as a set of instructions for someone’s imagination, and that concept will aid us here.
Compare the arbitrary 40 hour figure with a rough estimate of how many hours of raw imagining you have put into your own work. On top of that, consider the fact that not every second, minute, hour of raw imagination directly translates into a second, minute, hour of experience for a reader, especially if you yourself are not one of the muses. On the contrary, it is likely that the final 40 hour figure is a small percentage of the original amount of raw imagination that was required to provide that experience for a reader. And since this isn’t an exact science, who could really pinpoint the exact conversion rate? Maybe it’s 1 part experience to every 4 parts raw imagination, or maybe it’s more like 1 part experience to every 100 parts raw imagination.
Clearly, I am not a math teacher; the goal isn’t to get you to start taking such inane calculations literally. This line of thinking is just a tool to help you understand why your own story might suck, a suspicion with which many (myself included!) are beset in the early stages of a creative endeavor. The exciting thing about spaced repetition is that it has the potential to fuel both the imagination and writing parts of the creative process.
There is an abundance of material on how to write, but understandably little has been written about how to imagine. This is a fundamental faculty and tool of the human mind. If you think you don’t know how to, then that means you’ve just forgotten. The commonly expressed difficulty of putting the breaks on the wandering mind for the purposes of meditation is evidence of this. Sit quietly, alone, and try to escape your initial state of mind or circumstances with whatever psychological flights available.
Populate your imagination with people, places, emotions, and more. If you take a look at the task of creating a work of art that allows people feelings of pleasure and escape from the earlier expressed mathematical perspective, it is likely that the form of your imagining doesn’t matter so much as the quantity. You often hear creative writers speak of world-building, but few are probably willing to spend several hundred or even thousand hours in a world entirely of their imagination. If you look at it like that, it seems like your goal isn’t to keep trying to imagine something wonderful so much as trying to imagine something that you don’t get sick of.
A word on the actual practice of writing. Let us imagine that a random person in the street found your writings or audio recordings (I have affectionately – some would say pathologically – dubbed my unedited ones “The Author Files”) or notes whether or not they were edited and before you ever intentionally showed them to other people. What would be your reaction if that person started to disseminate your texts? In various places on the web; Facebook? Reddit? Torrents? Quoting it all over Twitter? Random blogs? If they mailed copies to your parents, grandparents, in-laws, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, your boss, even to your favorite writers that you respect most, naming you as the author, how would you feel? What if it ended up being quoted in court or during some kind of political campaign – how would you feel? This line of thinking is the ultimate way to test whether you are ready to release your text into the wild.
Someone said (there’s that damn amnesia again!) books aren’t completed by their authors, but gotten sick of and abandoned. I’d like to extend that metaphor… writing ages like wine before you start giving it away to people. At first you might be excited but it still probably sucks. Then it gets better, and if you’ve got the patience to wait a good while, eventually it’ll taste really good. Of course, you don’t want to hang onto it so long that it grows stale.
I took my work, cut it down into this bite-sized, abridged version, and have decided to make it freely available in various places o’er the Interwebz. Permit me to be blunt: I worked really hard on the full version, and it
will soon be is available in sundry formats in various places including Amazon, Smashwords, and Udemy. Especially since a lot of good stuff got cut out in order to make this abridged version possible, I urge you to give the full version your serious consideration.