The first time he read it, he said, the book seemed perfectly clear. Why did people make such a fuss? Moved to reread it, he found Conrad’s tale increasingly elusive, more complicated. Richer. However it happens, the appeal of the books we return to is often, at least in part, a fascination with what we can’t quite reach.
This notion of the elusive, Turchi goes on to argue, is essential to the alchemy of storytelling. Turning to pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on flow — that state of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger — Turchi explores the role of challenge in the “flow channel” of narrative.
He cites game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell’s book The Art of Game Design, which identifies the four elements necessary to put a game player (and, by extension, a reader) into a fruitful “flow state”:
The last one, Turchi argues, is of especially delicate balance. He quotes Schell:
If we start to think we can’t achieve [the goal], we feel frustrated, and our minds start seeking an activity more likely to be rewarding. On the other hand, if the challenge is too easy, we feel bored, and again, our minds start seeking more rewarding activities.
Turchi considers this tricky balance against the great trickster that is time:
Simply establishing a constant state of challenge turns out not to be effective for long. Instead, the ideal situation, flow-channel-wise, is to keep the game player or reader moving within a tolerable range of new challenge and acquired skill — or, as Csikszentmihalyi puts it, between anxiety and boredom.
A child might be challenged by playing tic-tac-toe, for instance; but once someone learns how to win or force a draw every time, the game holds less interest. Books of sudoku and crossword puzzles are often labeled easy, medium, or hard because few people will pay for a book of puzzles they can’t do, and not many more will spend time with puzzles that are too simple. With a game like chess, new players might have trouble remembering how the different pieces move; after that, the level of difficulty changes with the opponents they play.
A similar mechanism is at work in the game of narrative:
This cycle of satisfaction and frustration is familiar to every writer. We write sentences or drafts that disappoint us, and we feel frustrated. But then a sentence or paragraph or image delights us, and that success encourages us to continue. If we never felt pleasure from anything we wrote, we’d stop; but if we were completely satisfied, if we didn’t feel the urge to move beyond what we have accomplished or to take on a new challenge, we’d lose interest.
This is essentially what Zadie Smith captured in the last of her ten rules of writing: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.” Except the sadness is simultaneously a stimulant for the satisfaction, for both reader and writer. Turchi captures this elegantly:
Most serious poetry and fiction is unlike a game in that it doesn’t intend to become increasingly difficult, but it is like a game in that we want the reader to be engaged and to experience some combination of intrigue, delight, challenge, surprise, provocation, and satisfaction. The ideal reading experience might be comparable to that flow state. The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.
Returning to Schell’s theories of game design, Turchi relates the basic paradigm to writing:
It isn’t enough for the story to be somewhere in between too hard and too easy; ideally, the story will provide the reader an ongoing series of challenges and satisfactions.
He illustrates the interplay between challenge and satisfaction with a befitting metaphor:
If, on a hike, all we care about is convenient travel — the physical equivalent of reading a kitchen appliance manual — we’re happy to have big stepping stones, close together, and a quietly flowing stream. But if we’re looking for an interesting experience, if the stream is quiet, the stepping stones can be smaller or farther apart. If the stream is wide and the water is rushing by, we want the security of flat, broad stones. Eventually, some of us will seek out greater adventures — a deep, rushing stream and small, uneven stones that are a long, uncertain stride apart — but if that experience goes on too long, we’re likely to grow exhausted (or fall and be swept to our death; happily, such a dire fate is unlikely when we tackle Absalom! Absalom or Ulysses).
To keep her readers in that vitalizing flow state, Turchi argues, a great writer ought to deliberately move them “between stages of frustration and satisfaction, of tension and release.”
“Truth always rests with the minority … because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”
A century earlier, the great Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855), celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher and an active proponent of the benefits of keeping a diary, contemplated this eternal tension between the individual and the crowd. Writing in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library) — the same fantastic window into his inner world that gave us Kierkegaard’s prescient insight on the psychology of online trolling and bullying — he considers how our incapacity for quiet contemplation cuts us off from our true self and instead causes us to adopt by passive absorption the ideals of others.
Lamenting the tendency to take our values from the “very loud talk” of the crowd rather than by “each individual going alone into his secret closet to commune quietly with himself” — something he had come to consider the root of our unhappiness — he writes:
One can very well eat lettuce before its heart has been formed; still, the delicate crispness of the heart and its lovely frizz are something altogether different from the leaves. It is the same in the world of the spirit. Being too busy has this result: that an individual very, very rarely is permitted to form a heart; on the other hand, the thinker, the poet, or the religious personality who actually has formed his heart, will never be popular, not because he is difficult, but because it demands quiet and prolonged working with oneself and intimate knowledge of oneself as well as a certain isolation.
A year later, in 1847, Kierkegaard revisits the question of the individual and the crowd:
The evolution of the world tends to show the absolute importance of the category of the individual apart from the crowd… But as yet we have not come very far concretely, though it is recognized in abstracto. That explains why it still impresses people as prideful and overweening arrogance to speak of the separate individual, whereas this precisely is truly human: each and every one is an individual.
And yet, Kierkegaard argues, most of us find it too daunting to live as individuals and instead opt for the consolations of the crowd:
Most people become quite afraid when each is expected to be a separate individual. Thus the matter turns and revolves upon itself. One moment a man is supposed to be arrogant, setting forth this view of the individual, and the next, when the individual is about to carry it out in practice, the idea is found to be much too big, too overwhelming for him.
Conformity becomes our hedge against this overwhelming idea:
Of course it is more secure to have a solid position in life, some official appointment which does not demand nearly as much of one… Most people lead far too sheltered lives, and for that reason they get to know [the divine] so little. They have permanent positions, they never put in their utmost effort…
Another year later, he returns to the subject and argues that the real arrogance is not in living up to our individuality but in denying it, and in effect denying the individuality of others:
Each human being has infinite reality, and it is pride and arrogance in a person not to honor his fellow-man…. It is a paralogism that one thousand human beings are worth more than one… The central point about being human is that the unit “1” is the highest; “1000” counts for less.
Two years later, in 1850, Kierkegaard makes a poignant case for the vital role of the minority as an antidote to the chronic groupthink of the majority:
Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole [mass] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority.
In regard to Truth, this troublesome monster, the majority, the public, etc., fares in the same way as we say of someone who is traveling to regain his health: he is always one station behind.
Two centuries before Zadie Smith wrote about the privilege of self-actualization, Kierkegaard is keenly aware of the class element in this interplay between minority and majority, between the individual and the crowd:
I want people to sit up and take notice, to prevent them from idling away and wasting their lives. Aristocrats take it for granted that a lot of people will always go to waste. But they keep silent about it; they live sheltered lives pretending that all these many, many people simply do not exist. That is what is ungodly about the superior status of the aristocrats; in order to be comfortable themselves they do not even call attention to anything.
Vowing not to be like the aristocrats himself, he — a self-described “complete composite of dialectics” — offers his own solution:
I will call the attention of the crowd to their own ruination. And if they don’t want to see it willingly, I shall make them see it by fair means or foul. Please understand me — or, at least, do not misunderstand me. I do not intend to beat them… I will force them to beat me. Thus I actually compel them. For if they begin to beat me, they will probably pay attention; and if they kill me, they most definitely will pay attention, and I shall have won an absolute victory.
Kierkegaard’s rationale behind this strategy is rather humanistic in considering what it takes to awaken the individual human spirit from the trance of the crowd:
[Individuals] are not so corrupt that they actually wish to do evil, but they are blinded, and don’t really know what they are doing. It is all a matter of baiting them for decisive action… A crowd triumphs if one cedes the way, steps aside, so that it never comes to realize what it is doing. A crowd has no essential viewpoint; therefore if it happens to kill a man it is eo ipso halted; it pays heed and comes to its senses.
He later adds:
Nobody wants to be this strenuous thing: an individual; it demands an effort. But everywhere services are readily offered through the phony substitute: a few! Let us get together and be a gathering, then we can probably manage. Therein lies mankind’s deepest demoralization.
But Kierkegaard’s most poignant point arrives shortly before his death, in 1854, when he addresses with prescient precision our modern anxiety about being alone, stressing its absolute vitality in living up to our individual potential:
The yardstick for a human being is: how long and to what degree he can bear to be alone, devoid of understanding with others.
A man who can bear being alone during a whole life-time, and alone in decisions of eternal significance, is farthest removed from the infant and the society-person who represent the animal-definition of being human.
I will dispose of the first myth as quickly as possible. The “secret” is skill. If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.
Some of the secretiveness of many artists about their techniques, recipes, etc., may be taken as a warning to the unskilled: What works for me isn’t going to work for you unless you’ve worked for it.
My talent and inclination for writing stories and keeping house were strong from the start, and my gift for and interest in music and sewing were weak; so that I doubt that I would ever have been a good seamstress or pianist, no matter how hard I worked. But nothing I know about how I learned to do the things I am good at doing leads me to believe that there are “secrets” to the piano or the sewing machine or any art I’m no good at. There is just the obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.
She then turns to the second central fallacy of the origin-of-ideas question, namely the notion of the “idea” itself:
The more I think about the word “idea,” the less idea I have what it means. … I think this is a kind of shorthand use of “idea” to stand for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down. The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time. It is extremely difficult to talk about, because we have very little terminology for such processes.
I would say that as a general rule, though an external event may trigger it, this inceptive state or story-beginning phase does not come from anywhere outside the mind that can be pointed to; it arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted. I don’t believe that a writer “gets” (takes into the head) an “idea” (some sort of mental object) “from” somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.
Mystical as the process may be, Le Guin goes on to outline its “five principal elements,” which must “work in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce great writing:
The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.
All these kinds of patterning — sound, syntax, images, ideas, feelings — have to work together; and they all have to be there in some degree. The inception of the work, that mysterious stage, is perhaps their coming together: when in the author’s mind a feeling begins to connect itself to an image that will express it, and that image leads to an idea, until now half-formed, that begins to find words for itself, and the words lead to other words that make new images, perhaps of people, characters of a story, who are doing things that express the underlying feelings and ideas that are now resonating with each other.
If any of these processes get scanted badly or left out, in the conception stage, in the writing stage, or in the revising stage, the result will be a weak or failed story. Failure often allows us to analyze what success triumphantly hides from us.
In a sentiment that Rebecca Solnit would come to second decades later in reflecting on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, Le Guin deploys one of her characteristically animated metaphors that can’t help but put a smile on the soul:
Beginners’ failures are often the result of trying to work with strong feelings and ideas without having found the images to embody them, or without even knowing how to find the words and string them together. Ignorance of English vocabulary and grammar is a considerable liability to a writer of English. The best cure for it is, I believe, reading. People who learned to talk at two or so and have been practicing talking ever since feel with some justification that they know their language; but what they know is their spoken language, and if they read little, or read schlock, and haven’t written much, their writing is going to be pretty much what their talking was when they were two.
She returns to the vital balance of those five elements:
There is a relationship, a reciprocity between the words and the images, ideas, and emotions evoked by those words: the stronger that relationship, the stronger the work. To believe that you can achieve meaning or feeling without coherent, integrated patterning of the sounds, the rhythms, the sentence structures, the images, is like believing you can go for a walk without bones.
Le Guin considers the epicenter of that relationship — of the elements, of reader and writer:
Imagery takes place in “the imagination,” which I take to be the meeting place of the thinking mind with the sensing body… In the imagination we can share a capacity for experience and an understanding of truth far greater than our own. The great writers share their souls with us — “literally.”
The intellect cannot do the work of the imagination; the emotions cannot do the work of the imagination; and neither of them can do anything much in fiction without the imagination.
Where the writer and the reader collaborate to make the work of fiction is perhaps, above all, in the imagination. In the joint creation of the fictive world.
With a self-effacing wink at her profession and the odd creative rituals of her ilk, Le Guin considers the writer’s eternal tussle with his or her consciousness of, and often self-consciousness about, the audience — an audience that, today, is exponentially more able and willing to make its presence and opinion known via likes, tweets, and other innocuously named, spiritually toxic Pavlovian mechanisms:
Writers are egotists. All artists are. They can’t be altruists and get their work done. And writers love to whine about the Solitude of the Author’s Life, and lock themselves into cork-lined rooms or droop around in bars in order to whine better. But although most writing is done in solitude, I believe that it is done, like all the arts, for an audience. That is to say, with an audience. All the arts are performance arts, only some of them are sneakier about it than others.
But her most piercing point — one she would come to echo three decades later in her National Book Award acceptance speech — is a monumental disclaimer:
I beg you please to attend carefully now to what I am not saying. I am not saying that you should think about your audience when you write. I am not saying that the writing writer should have in mind, “Who will read this? Who will buy it? Who am I aiming this at?” — as if it were a gun. No.
While planning a work, the writer may and often must think about readers: particularly if it’s something like a story for children, where you need to know whether your reader is likely to be a five-year-old or a ten-year old.* Considerations of who will or might read the piece are appropriate and sometimes actively useful in planning it, thinking about it, thinking it out, inviting images. But once you start writing, it is fatal to think about anything but the writing. True work is done for the sake of doing it. What is to be done with it afterwards is another matter, another job. A story rises from the springs of creation, from the pure will to be; it tells itself; it takes its own course, finds its own way, its own words; and the writer’s job is to be its medium.
And yet the reader, Le Guin argues, is an essential piece of the telling of the story. The writer’s work should extend an invitation for collaboration to the reader:
The writer cannot do it alone. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it alive: a live thing, a story.
It comes down to collaboration, or sharing the gift: the writer tries to get the reader working with the text in the effort to keep the whole story all going along in one piece in the right direction (which is my general notion of a good piece of fiction).
In this effort, writers need all the help they can get. Even under the most skilled control, the words will never fully embody the vision. Even with the most sympathetic reader, the truth will falter and grow partial. Writers have to get used to launching something beautiful and watching it crash and burn. They also have to learn when to let go control, when the work takes off on its own and flies, farther than they ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew. All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.
“The present task of the constructive pacifist is to call attention away from the catchwords which so easily in wartime become the substitute for both facts and ideas back to realities.”
By Maria Popova
Philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey (October 20, 1859–June 1, 1952) is one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. His enduring insight on the true purpose of education and the art of reflection and fruitful curiosity resonates today with growing relevance amid our struggle to cultivate wisdom in the age of information. But nowhere was Dewey more prescient than in his reflections on conflict, war, and what is required of us if we are to live up to our hopes for a peaceful world — reflections urgently relevant today, as we face a swelling tide of violence along the vast spectrum from bullying to beheadings.
On July 28, 1917 — exactly 67 years before I was born, and exactly three years after the start of World War I — The New Republic published a poignant piece by Dewey titled “The Future of Pacifism.” The essay is now included in Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America (public library) — that fantastic “intellectual biography” of contemporary thought marking the 100th anniversary of The New Republic, which also gave us George Orwell on the four questions a great writer must ask herself. Dewey’s perceptive insight may well have been written about modern attitudes toward war — particularly America’s — and his impassioned case for peace reminds us that conflict is not merely something inflicted between governments but something in which we all, as individuals, are implicit in the small, seemingly imperceptible choices we make daily, the macro-beliefs we subscribe to in our private lives and the micro-actions we take in public.
There is no paradox in the fact that the American people is profoundly pacifist and yet highly impatient of the present activities of many professed or professional pacifists.
He considers “the failure of the pacifist propaganda to determine finally the course of a nation which was converted to pacifism in advance”:
It takes two to make peace as well as to make war; or, as the present situation abundantly testifies, a much larger number than two.
Lamenting the misguided belief that that pacifism is merely a form of “futile gesturing,” Dewey admonishes against the prevalent perception that those who don’t support the war must be pro-enemy at heart. (Nearly a century later, a certain American president would repeatedly suggest that not supporting the war in Iraq — a war his administration started — was not only pro-enemy but also anti-American.) Dewey points to the pioneering American social worker, peace activist, and suffragist Jane Addams as the finest example of doing the pacifist position justice:
She earnestly protests against the idea that the pacifist position was negative or laissez-faire. She holds that the popular impression that pacifism meant abstinence and just keeping out of trouble is wrong; that it stood for a positive international polity in which this country should be the leader of the nations of the world “into a wider life of coordinated activity”; she insists that the growth of nations under modern conditions involves of necessity international complications which admit “of adequate treatment only through an international agency not yet created.” In short, the pacifists “urge upon the United States not indifference to moral issues and to the fate of liberty and democracy, but a strenuous endeavor to lead all nations of the earth into an organized international life.”
That intelligent pacifism stands for this end, and that the more intelligent among the pacifists, like Miss Addams, saw the situation in this fashion needs not be doubted.
And yet Dewey, never one to oversimplify the complexity of things, is far from advocating for “the very elementary attitude that if no nation ever allowed itself to be drawn into war, no matter how great the provocation, wars would cease to be.” Such preventative methods, he argues, are a matter of “treating symptoms and ignoring the disease.” He writes:
All this seems to concern the past of pacifism rather than its future. But it indicates, by elimination, what that future must be if it is to be a prosperous one. It lies in furthering whatever will bring into existence those new agencies of international control whose absence has made the efforts of pacifists idle gestures in the air… To go on protesting against war in general and this war in particular, to direct effort to stopping the war rather than to determining the terms upon which it shall be stopped, is to repeat the earlier tactics after their ineffectualness has been revealed. Failure to recognize the immense impetus to reorganization afforded by this war; failure to recognize the closeness and extent of true international combinations which it necessitates, is a stupidity equaled only by the militarist’s conception of war as a noble blessing in disguise.
To put an end to war and violence, Dewey argues, is not a matter of passive and theoretical protest. (One can only imagine what he would have made of today’s epidemic of online petitions.) It is a matter of acting, here and now:
I have little patience with those who are so anxious to save their influence for some important crisis that they never risk its use in any present emergency.
More than that, our individual responsibility is to use whatever “influence” we have — whatever reach, whatever voice, whatever share of the cultural conversation — in dispelling the propaganda of war:
The present task of the constructive pacifist is to call attention away from the catchwords which so easily in wartime become the substitute for both facts and ideas back to realities.
This task of wedging a stick in the myth-making machinery of war propaganda is undoubtedly of greater — graver, even — importance today. But while the machinery of the media may have become manyfold more industrious since Dewey’s day and a merciless economic driver of commercial culture, it also pays to remember that in many ways, we — you and I and all the unique private individuals of whom the faceless public of citizenry is composed — are the media today. As Sally Kohn elegantly put it, “clicking is a public act” — what is being written determines what we read and what we come to believe, but today more than ever, what we read also very much determines what is being written. We are no longer the passive consumers of those catchwords of which Dewey admonishes but also their propagators, their perpetrators. Seen in this light, Dewey’s closing remarks ring with extraordinary poignancy:
One might, I think, go over, one by one, the phrases which are now urged to the front as defining the objects of war at the terms of peace and show that the interests of pacifism are bound up with securing the organs by which economic energies shall be articulated. We have an inherited political system which sits like a straitjacket on them since they came into being after the political system took on shape. These forces cannot be suppressed. They are the moving, the controlling, forces of the modern world. The question of peace or war is whether they are to continue to work furtively, blindly, and by those tricks of manipulation which have constituted the game of international diplomacy, or whether they are to be frankly recognized and the political system accommodated to them… Too many influential personages are pure romanticists. They are expressing ideals which no longer have anything to do with the facts. This stereotyped political romanticism gives the pacifists their chance for revenge. Their idealism has but to undergo a course in the severe realism of those economic forces which are actually shaping the associations and organizations of men, and the future is with them.