I Began as an Artist but Ended as an Engineer

by | Apr 25, 2021 | Thoughts on Writing | 0 comments

I have often been asked, ‘Why don’t you have a blog on your website as do other writers?’ Well, not often. Okay. Never. Still, there is a good reason to do so. I have written four nonfiction works – three published and one now in press. Another novel is now in preparation. Goodricke’s Time, my first, demanded a different approach than did the writing of non-fiction and this is what I wish to share here. When writing a novel you are writing for a different reader experience than that of non-fiction, sometimes referred to as ‘expository prose’. Non-fiction intends to convey knowledge, while a novel – imaginative literature – attempts to communicate an atmosphere and an experience itself, one that that the reader can have or share only by reading.

A glut of advice on how we should write, or not write, exists online and in print. This material is a double-edged sword. Some of it may improve your writing while keeping you from discovering a distinctive style. For example, I have seen online the ‘four things’ that made Hemingway’s writing so successful. He was, for example, the master of the short sentence. But the author of that advice appears not have known that Hemingway once said that he wished he had written Moby Dick and there are some long sentences there! The point is, Melville had his style. Hemingway had his. You should have yours. Therefore, in the blog posts that follow, I only here share my thoughts, my experiences about writing. They are nowhere intended as ‘tips on how to be a better writer’.

The first thing I learned was it was better for me to begin as an artist and end as an engineer. Before writing a single word, I acquired books and DVDs about ‘how to write sentences’ or ‘the strategy of fiction writing’, not to mention ‘writer’s groups’. You get the idea. My original inent was to apply some of this ‘advice to writers’ as I wrote. Barbara Tuchman  spent eight hours crafting the opening paragraph of Guns of August to lure you into her narrative clutch. I would do the same!

However,I soon learned that using this approach meant I would never finish. Crafting every other sentence set my writing speed to ‘slow’. I had been inveigled by Mark Twain’s insight that ‘the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug’. I wanted that right word! Each sentence had to be perfect, but a search for that ‘right word’ was like writing on molasses. What was important was simply to write. Lightning bugs could always be exterminated later. The point was don’t create stylistic conundrums that needlessly reduce the intuitive flow of thought to a trickle. This resulted in windy and wordy sentences, but at least my thoughts were on the page where they belonged.

Note that I used the term ‘intuitive flow’ of writing, sometimes referred to as ‘stream of consciousness’. One critic of the overuse or reliance on the use of intuition advises that when you ‘actually start writing, you’ll want it to be a process where you are consciously considering  the impact every word you type has on the reader’s perception’. This may work for some, but I feel it a nitpick style that bogs you down. You can always go back and edit and consider that ‘impact of every word’. The point is that you will have something worthwhile to edit. This, then, was beginning with the mind of an artist.

A full discussion of intuition, what it is and how it operates, is a bit beyond the scope of any blog. Moreover, intuition is mostly understood by its achievements and less by precisely how it works. It is difficult to therefore provide a roadmap on how to write using your intuition. For me it meant sensing a character’s mood or how the atmosphere of a scene should feel. I ‘intuited’ the spirit of a setting.  Putting this into words allows the reader to  complete the circle as it were, allowing them to have that same experieence. Others also contend that intuition can clash with the writing process because it is the expression of non-conscious biases that may produce inauthentic behavior in your characters. I think this misunderstands the role of intuition in all art and perhaps may also be a bit too much Psychology 101.

This is not meant to dismiss the opposite side of the coin from intuition; intellect. Writing uses both intuition and intellect and these are complexly related through perception and thinking. In my view, intuition is what happens when we directly apprehend meaning from a scent in the air, the lie of a cat or shadows across a room. It is a property of perception. Such perceptions are nowhere separate from thinking, they have a share in every cognitive act as does the intellect. Its insights might be considered as a gift from nowhere, a type of supernatural inspiration that some consider therefore less valid. But to me they are critical to the creative act in painting, in music and in writing. It was later for me during the editing process that the intellect began to gain the upper hand when I wrote as an engineer.

Engineers think preemptively and see whole systems. A systems-level thinking process would consider how its elements are best inked in sequence, and in function—and under what conditions they work and do not work. For me this approach was best applied only after the first draft was complete to learn whether it worked as a ‘system’. Others advise the creating of this system through the use of a synopsis of each chapter on index cards and arranged on a cork board, virtual or real. This technique is more effective, in my view, in writing non-fiction. But if you sit down to write a novel to ‘learn what happens next’, then this approach has less value and may even take you down a wrong path. And if I did not know exactly from the outset how the novel would ultimately unfold, how could I fill these cards out? They can be filled out once the first draft is complete, the approach I took. There was nothing stopping me at that point to see whether the novel worked as a ‘system’. In my case, it did not. I inserted a new second chapter and swapped two other chapters around. This is what is meant by ending as an engineer.

There is, of course, more to it than this such as research, editing or defining characters, (more about these in future blogs). I found that writing a novel to be a process of continual refinement. My approach was to first get the bloody thing written, then learn whether it worked as a system. And only then could I begin to fine-tune each sentence by finding  that ‘right word.’