Crossing the Equator 5: Natural Writers

There are a large number of intelligent, well-intended people who “might write a novel” someday. Spoiler alert: they won’t.

I’m not trashing them. The world needs more readers, much more than it needs more writers. The reason why most of those people will never “write their novel” is that they’re not weird enough. They’re doctors who read beach books. They’re professors who read a sci-fi book every now and then. There’s nothing wrong with that. I wish they had more time to read and bought more books, because writers don’t make enough money, but I’m not here to criticize them. A world in which everyone had the inclination to be a writer wouldn’t work. The job isn’t for everyone. At 33 years old, I’ve got a good sense of what I can and cannot do. It’s not a stretch to say that I’ll never put my hands inside a man’s chest and manipulate an intact heart, an innocent human life on the line. I’m very glad people exist who can do that job. I’m happy to have them make more money than I do. It just isn’t me, who will do that, unless something bizarre happens like an apocalypse that demands for me to fill the role.

Natural writers

I’m going to talk about natural writers. It’s a term that I invented, although it’s a statistical certainty that it’s been coined somewhere else with a different definition.

First of all, it’s not really about natural talent in any form that would pop up in school. The general intelligence (“IQ”) necessary is significant but not astronomical. If I had to guess, I’d put it around the 95th percentile: IQ 125 to 130. More can help or hurt. Higher intelligence can make the research and self-editing aspects of writing go by faster. On the other hand, many highly intelligent people have no aesthetic sense or, worse yet, have the “four-wheel drive” problem of getting stuck in more inaccessible places. The ability to write great literature may be rare, and the inclination certainly is, but that’s not because of an IQ-related barrier.

One in twenty-five people might have the raw intelligence necessary to be a good writer, but I’d guess that one person in about a thousand has the necessary skills. The skills are hard to learn.

First, you have to read and write millions of words. Also, you have to read the whole quality spectrum, from excellent canonical work down to Internet forum comments. If you want to be able to write dialogue, you need to have ear for how people talk at differing levels of education and in various emotional states. None of us speak with perfect grammar and some are worse than others.

Further, to be able to write something interesting, you have to read and learn all kinds of random stuff– literature, history, philosophy, science– that most people (including, to my surprise upon becoming an adult, most expensively-educated people) stop caring about once they stop getting graded on it. You don’t need to know more words than the average reader– you can do a hell of a lot with the 10,000-or-so most common words– but you have know them deeper than most people do. You have to know how to communicate complex ideas efficiently, but also when not to transmit complexity at all. If your novel has someone eating a sausage, you have to when and when not to write about how it was made.

Rarest yet is the inclination to be a writer. On this topic, there’s a joke programmers have, and there’s a picture here:

HER DIARY:

Tonight, I thought my husband was acting weird. […] I thought he was upset at the fact that I was a bit late, but he made no comment on it. Conversation wasn’t flowing, so I suggested that we go somewhere quiet so we could talk. He agreed, but he didn’t say much. I asked him what was wrong; He said, ‘Nothing’. […] He just sat there quietly, and watched TV. […] I still felt that he was distracted, and his thoughts were somewhere else. He fell asleep – I cried. I don’t know what to do. I’m almost sure that his thoughts are with someone else. My life is a disaster.

HIS DIARY:

My code is broken, can’t figure out why.

To make it clear, I don’t advocate alienating one’s bed partner. That’s bad. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s no excuse for being an asshole. That said, the reality of being a creative person is that we’re not accessible on demand. This is why we hate open-plan offices, which emphasize availability at the expense of productivity. When we’re mentally or emotionally all in, it’s hard to turn our minds off. I’ve watched every episode of Silicon Valley this season, but at about 40 percent comprehension because so much of my mind is on Farisa’s Courage.

Every writer will see where I’m going. One could replace “My code is broken” with “Chapter 6 needs to be rewritten” or “I’m not sure I have Erika’s motivation worked out” or (never listen to this voice) “a ‘real writer’ would slash this to pieces”. Among natural writers, we’ve all been there. We’ve all been out to dinner and thinking about how we’re going to resolve a plot issue or flesh out a character.

That said, a percentage of commercially successful writers are not natural writers. There are some who clearly are– Stephen King comes to mind. He’s a writer. A few of them don’t enjoy writing. I’d never name people, but it’s been confessed to me. They make a lot of money doing it, and they’ll keep writing as long as that’s the case, but they’re not the sorts of oddballs who’d be tweaking manuscripts at 9:30 on a Saturday night. They write because it pays, and because (at least in commercial terms) they’re good at it. Some hate it, some tolerate it, and some enjoy it– but not to the extent of a compulsive natural writer. You don’t have to be a natural writer to find commercial success as a writer, but I don’t know why you’d try. The odds and effort, even with talent and inclination, are worse than in business. Natural writers, on the other hand, loathe the corporate world– truth-seekers don’t like jobs that require defending lies– and often find themselves without other options.

There’s a Boomer misconception that to be good at something, you have to love it in the way that natural writers love writing. It’s not true. We all know that there are people who love to write, but will never be good at it no matter what they do. On the same token, there are those who can write engaging stories but don’t enjoy doing it. They might love reading, and discussing their books, and having written, but the slightly-masochistic act of forcing their brains to come out with thousands of words of coherent prose per day is something they put up with, because it pays– in some cases, very well. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, in a world where so many people go to jobs they hate for less than $50,000 per year, there are others who’ll do jobs they don’t enjoy for more.

The truth is that there are a lot of people who want to “be a writer”– and who have an unrealistic sense of what that means– but very few who actually want to write.

Legacy, Talent, and 45 degrees

I’m focusing on the natural writer, but the more general concept here is of the natural artist. Writing has a special place, and I’ll explore it, but the arts in general attract provocateurs. Why is that? What’s the connection between creating aesthetically pleasing objects and wanting to troll people? It isn’t at all obvious that one should exist. It does, though. I’ve met some brilliant writers and artists, and they’re almost all weird.

I have a theory that most of human politics and economic struggles can be expressed in terms of Legacy versus Talent.

In the abstract, most economic commodities aren’t very different. If you have $15 in your bank account but a Manhattan penthouse, you’re a millionaire. If you have a low income and net worth but your family can set you up with a high-paying corporate job, you’re a rich person. We don’t about the differences then between silver and oil and paper cash and electronic wealth. There are two abstract commodities that really matter: Legacy and Talent. The exchange rate between the two is a fundamental indicator of a society’s state. When Legacy trades high against Talent, social mobility is low and aristocracy sets in. When Talent trades high, skilled people can do very well on their abilities alone.

Legacy includes wealth, social relationships including the formal ones called “jobs”, credentials, and interpersonal connections. It’s the stuff that some people got and some people didn’t– for reasons that feel random and unfair, and are mostly related to the mischievous conduct of previous generations. Some people got lucky, and some got fucked over. Chances are, most of my readers are not in the “fucked over” category, although it often feels that way, subjectively. I’ll get to that.

Talent here includes natural abilities, skills, and the inclination to work hard. Again, some people were born with a lot of it and some people got screwed. It’s hard to make the case that possessing Talent conveys any sort of moral virtue. I’d love to be able to make that case, because there’d be personal benefit in it, but there are plenty of capable people who are also terrible.

As social forces, Legacy and Talent are always at odds. One is the past trying to preserve its longevity, and the other is the future pounding against the walls of an egg.

Here’s where it gets political, and perhaps controversial. People can, approximately speaking, be ranked for where they stand in each. Sally might not conceive of herself as “94th-percentile Talent” and “33rd-percentile Legacy”, but she knows that she’s smarter than her workplace assumes her to be. If she’s young, she may see upward mobility in the school system. If she’s old, she’ll probably get bitter because she feels like she’s surrounded by relative idiots.

In reality, Legacy and Talent ranks don’t exist in an exact form, but most people have some sense of where they stand. Plot Talent on the vertical (Y) axis and Legacy on the horiztonal (X) axis, and then draw the Y = X line, at a 45-degree angle to the axes.

You can often predict peoples’ political biases according to where they are in relation to that line. “Left-siders” have more Talent than Legacy. They want transformation. They’ll challenge existing systems. They’re not happy with the role that society has given them. “Right-siders” have more Legacy than Talent. They support the status quo. That does not mean that they’ll be economic conservatives. In fact, in an authoritarian leftist society, they’d be loyal communists.

Do people know where they stand? What about the Dunning-Kruger Effect? To be honest, I think that people are close enough to knowing for the errors to cancel out. Yes, plenty of people think that they’re smarter than they actually are, and that might create a left-sider bias. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who think their houses, diplomas, and social connections– all forms of Legacy– are worth more than they really are. Individuals may get their positions wrong all the time but, on balance, I think the errors cancel out.

On that 45-degree line, you have self-described “moderates” who are suspicious of left-siders and right-siders both. They complain about the (right-sider) coal miner wearing a “MAGA” hat who doesn’t really deserve that six-figure job he has because his grandfather was in the union. They also complain about “entitled” left-sider Millennials who don’t enjoy being slotted into subordinate roles of the corporate hierarchy.

Natural artists are constitutional left-siders. They’ll reject any role, high or low, that society tries to put them in. Even if it puts them at the pinnacle, they often hate the idea that there is a top, not to mention the moral compromises that come with being and staying there. It’s not about social rankings for them, and it’s definitely not about money. It’s about creative control and life on their own terms.

Not all talented artists are natural artists. You see this when a promising young artist or writer turns into a hack after becoming famous and being invited into the Manhattan elite. There are intelligent people among our society’s corporate elite, but curiosity is frowned upon and if you spend too much time around them, you’ll end up as anti-intellectual as they are. For all their claims of sophistication, the people in the upper echelons are provincial and allergic to novelty unless it fits a narrow script.

For an example in the technology business, look at Paul Graham. He wrote transformative (if silly and hyperbolic) essays when he was young, but he hasn’t had an interesting idea in more than 10 years. Why? Well, most people turn back into rubes when they get the power or wealth they crave.

Text

What is it, in this exposition, that’s particular to writers? In particular, I’m talking about novelists more than screenwriters, but screenwriters more than visual artists. There’s a spectrum in human creative work between the cryptic and the ostensible (both terms that I’ll define in a minute) and I intend to explore it. What’s special about text? I contend that on the spectrum between the ultimately cryptic and the supremely ostensible, text has a privileged position.

Visual and auditory arts, as experienced by the average person, are ostensible. I’m not a painter, and I’m not aware of the dialogue between different pieces of art, but I can tell a beautiful painting from an ugly one. Now, that ugly one might be brilliant in a way that my rube mind– I believe I am a natural writer, but I’m still a rube in most ways, like anyone else– can’t comprehend. I don’t know. I do know that I like Beethoven and Mozart. I don’t always know why I like them, and I can’t defend the sophistication of my tastes, but I do.

Computer programming, on the other hand, is very cryptic. I’m a good programmer. Actually, that’s an understatement, but let’s start there. I can post twenty lines of “great code” and it’ll mean nothing to the average person. In fact, it’ll mean nothing to the average programmer. (In fact, it doesn’t mean much, because the difference between beautiful and ugly code doesn’t matter on twenty-line toy examples.) What I mean to say is that most people (including users of software that I write) will have to take it on faith (or not, because I really have no say in what they think of me) that I’m a good programmer for now, because I can’t show it in 20 lines of code. To tell a good programmer from a bad ones, you need thousands of lines of code and to look very closely at it.

Prose writing lives between those extremes. It’s possible to make writing more ostensible by overusing emphasis and Gratuitous Capitalization, but good writers often avoid that. Our tool is text. We’ll sometime use italics. You can use them to inflect dialogue and give it a different meaning (e.g. “I didn’t ask you to come” means “I asked someone to come, but not you”). You can use them for internal monologue. You have to use them for book titles. You shouldn’t use them all the time. Text, preferably unadorned and linear, is our tool. We try to do as much with it as we can.

A visual picture is sub-linear in terms of the expectation of a reader’s effort as a function of how much is presented. A painting might have had hundreds of hours of effort put into it, but the goal is for the average viewer to think, “Yeah, that looks nice.” The clouds and the mountains and the tiny details matter, but no one expects the viewer to check out every one. That probably has something to do with ostensibility: you can show “100 times more painting” (whatever that means) and the viewer doesn’t have to do 100 times more work.

On the other hand, software is super-linear. A 100-line program is more than twice as complex as a 50-line program. Actually, the 100-line program has the potential to be way more than twice as complex. There are problems where the amount of effort required to understand a computational object grows more than exponentially as a function of its size and complexity. (It gets worse than that, in fact.) Reasoning about arbitrary software code is mathematically impossible.

The cryptic nature of code is a source of pain for programmers, because it denies us the chance to prove ourselves without demanding additional work of those who might evaluate what we produce. Programmers’ immediate bosses rarely know who their best programmers are. Opinions of peers and clients carry some signal, but the only way to judge a programmer is to read the work, and the super-linear scaling of software system complexity makes that extremely difficult. Many of the complaints of programmers about their industry come from being introverts an industry where observable final quality (e.g. website performance, lack of errors) is objective, but where the quality question around a specific artifact is so hard to evaluate that, in practice, it’s never done at an individual level. Therefore, personal attribution of responsibility for (often, brutally objective) events comes down to social skills. Programmers hate that. The cryptic nature of what we do doesn’t make us geniuses and wizards. It puts us at a social disadvantage.

What about text? Is a novel sub-linear or super-linear? Or is it exactly linear?

Readers want and expect to expend linear effort. It’s quite possible to shove more-than-linear effort into prose, by creating layers of context that require looking back and even forward through the text. It’s not what they want, though, because they want to forget that they’re reading text at all.

In return, they want above-linear payoff in exchange for their efforts. If a 100,000-word novel doesn’t deliver more than twice as much enjoyment as a 50,000-word novel, it’s too long. Now, I won’t pretend that reading enjoyment or literary complexity can be quantified mathematically. I doubt that they can. My strongest suggestion is that text endures because it demands linear effort as a function of what’s presented. Text presents a challenge. How can a writer using a flat medium create pictures out of nothing?

After all, that’s what we as writers do. We make things called settings, characters, and plots out of thin air. Formally, they don’t exist. You can’t point to page 179 in Crime and Punishment and say “that’s where the plot is”. We create images out of some 30,000-ish symbols called “words”. We don’t always understand how they form. “Forks and knives” is different from “knives and forks”, even though both phrases denote the same thing.

Let’s get specific: In October, a girl sits under the orange tree. Most people have an image in mind already. How old is the girl? She could be six or sixteen or every twenty-six (we’ll side-step the political correctness issue around calling an adult woman a “girl”). What about the orange tree? I never said that the leaves were orange. A reader from Massachusetts assumes that based on the cue, “October”. A reader in a tropical climate might think that she’s sitting under a fruit tree. If that detail doesn’t matter, I’ve done my job. I don’t need the reader to picture the same mountain or bar or tree that I have. If the detail matters (her age probably matters) then I’ve under-described. Efficiency matters too, though. If we already know that the setting is Massachusetts, it might be better to say “orange tree” than “tree with orange leaves”. Or maybe not. It probably depends on the implied third person, the girl.

The visual artist might present as much detail (a few megabytes) as the novelist. However, the painter has no illusion of a viewer who’ll look at every brush stroke, or recognize that a new pigment was invented, or understand the brilliance behind a new shadowing technique. If no one likes the painting enough to give it a second glance, that’s on the artist. On the other hand, a computer program at a few megabytes may possibly beyond our comprehension. Most real-world software systems can only be understood by running them and seeing what happens. (Billions of dollars are bet on such systems every day. Scared? You should be.) I’ve reviewed lots of source code, command several hundreds of dollars per hour to do that work, and I’m arguably worth it; and even my abilities are pedestrian. A one-character change can make the difference between a running program and a catastrophic failure and, when it comes to reasoning about what a piece of code will actually do, we’re all out of our depth.

Text is linear. The act of reading is linear, unless we expect readers to continually look back for context, and that’s not being a very kind writer. Complexities emerge from this flat array of symbols. Characters and plots and settings and philosophies that wouldn’t otherwise exist (and, from first principles, don’t exist) emerge, almost magically. We paint pictures with words, sometimes few of them. This is hard to to do well. It takes a lifetime to get sort-of decent at it, and there are a lot of ways to mess it up. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example: “John went downstairs after getting out of bed and waking up.” Logically, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not an incorrect sentence, but its reverse chronology is jarring to the reader. It doesn’t paint an image, because its order of presentation goes the wrong way. It reminds the reader that she’s reading writing– most likely, an amateur’s writing.

The linearity of text is a major reason why great writers are averse to, for example, overusing emphasis. The need to draw in a not-yet-committed reader with a “hook” in the first chapters, we accept with some grudge. However, we’re not going to highlight words like one weird trick, because we expect the reader to give every word the respect that it deserves. We’ll use emphasis for semantic benefit and structure, but the novelist doesn’t care much about the enjoyment of the skimmer.

All together

I’ve covered a lot of territory, so far. Some people are ill-adjusted, cranky, and creative enough to be natural artists. Similarly, a larger tension exists within our society around what should be the exchange rate between Legacy and Talent. In practice, extreme left-siders and right-siders are viewed with suspicion, and natural artists are constitutional left-siders who will reject any role that society tries to shoehorn them into. Natural artists and writers and philosophers, like Buddha, are just as likely to walk away from a throne as a cubicle.

There’s a sociological element to the struggle of the artist or writer, of course. How creative work is evaluated has a lot to do with the social status of the person who created it. Every creative person finds this infuriating, but it’s not going to change. In software, the effect of this is huge. Not only are software artifacts difficult to evaluate for work quality, but people have to get approval for their projects before any finished work exists. Socioeconomic status doesn’t matter that much, because intra-office political status dominates, but it projects a similar injustice that dominates the character of the entire industry. Just getting a company to use the right programming language for a project can be a herculean battle that ages a person five years in a month.

Writers aren’t as bad off as programmers in this regard, but are worse off than visual artists. Musical or visual talent is obvious in a way that literary talent isn’t. You can size up a painting quickly, but you have to actually read a novel (a 3- to 24-hour investment) to know if it’s any good. Sometimes, it’s not obvious whether the writer did a good job until the whole thing has been read.

Now, here’s the paradoxical and frustrating thing for a writer: it’s almost impossible to get a blind read. If you’re seen as a nobody, you can be immensely talented and still struggle to get an open-minded read. Literary agents aren’t exactly looking for new talent to “discover”. They’re booked. You might hear back in 9 months if the agent’s intern flagged your manuscript as worth a serious read. So, if you have low social status, you work will be prematurely rejected. It doesn’t get better if you have high social status. You get an audience, and you get easy publication, but nothing prevents you from embarrassing yourself. You’ll get, from most people, the same superficial read that you’d get as a nobody, but you’ll be prematurely accepted. (You may get some resentful lashing-out, but that’s another form of acceptance.) Impostor syndrome doesn’t go away in high-status, famous people. It gets worse as they realize that they can say or publish anything and have it called brilliant.

Visual artists know that their job is done or not done in the first few seconds. If the painting looks bad, it doesn’t matter if the brushwork is brilliant. Computer programmers accept that, with high likelihood, no one will ever trudge through their code to understand the details, because the point of software is not the code but what it does when a machine runs it. The important feedback is usually automatic: does the code run, does it run fast, and does it get the right answer? A writer, though? Writers have to wait for an audience. And they want impartial, honest audiences that are blind to their social status. For that reason, writers especially will live outside of, and at odds with, whatever socioeconomic topography the human world wishes to inflict.

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