My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Mailbox: Not Writing and Intelligence

Does ONLY writing "count" as writing. Can a character be smarter than the author who writes them?  

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And I simply adore standing in the no-man's-land between two warring writers.] 

Lou asks: 

[I'm] curious what Chris Brecheen, of Writing About Writing fame thinks of Greta's thesis. [The article Lou is referencing is, “Planning to write is not writing”: Like Hell It Isn’t by Greta Christina.]

My reply: 

I laughed at the "fame" comment.  "Fame." (Can you practically see me doing the scare quotes with my fingers?) Can you hear my eyes rolling through your monitor.

I've been reading and enjoying Greta Christina for a long time now, so I was a little surprised to see her go the hyperbole route with a Willow Rosenberg-caliber flaying instead of exploring the nuance. Generally, I consider sacrificing coherence for head-in-ass jokes about old-guard writers to be more my shtick than hers. I'm also pretty sure Christina knew she was being overly scrupulous about Doctorow's intentions to bring up the pauses in writing or the few seconds before or after one is actually physically writing. Building an EVEN BIGGER ROBOT might work when Mecha-Godzilla stomps into town, but it's probably not the best way to respond to pedantry.

This whole thing could have been avoided if someone had simply
remembered that right before this I also said "For me, merely....."
And yes, Doctorow was being a bit pedantic in that quote.

However....maybe that quote strikes a nerve with Christina. If you show me that "What the Author Meant" meme, I'm likely to break a bottle and rage-shiv my own flunkies, so I certainly have some sympathy with how annoying it can be when a concept is doing the electric slide on one's last nerve. Besides, Doctorow is a big boy. He can take it.

What? You guys don't have flunkies?

Also Christina is absolutely right, so that kind of matters. Also Doctorow is right, so that kind of matters too.

Quotes can be slippery out of context. I mean we kind of know that on an intellectual level, but if we ever actually got it as a culture, modern political campaigns would collapse and force politicians to discuss real issues instead of snipe at the "other's" sound bites. (Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria.) Plus it's not like an author is given a list of their own quotes by the folks over at Quotopia and asked to choose which ones they would like to see go out into the world with their name on them. Probably Doctorow said (or wrote) a lot of things that day, but what has gone meme-viral is only that one particular contextless sentence.

That has a lot less to do with Doctorow's head-to-butt positioning and more to do with the folks within whom the quote has resonated. I'm guessing a lot of people recognized themselves in that quote in some way or another and it proliferated because of that. Or a seriously huge butt-load of people are trying to passive-aggressively call out their pretentious writer friends.

I couldn't actually find the context, so it's possible it was in a treatise called: Only Writing is Actually Writing, You Assholes. (If that's the case, I may owe someone an apology.) But the only thing I found on the Internet is about a zillion pages of the quote itself. Around page four or five of Google, I gave up.

I suspect most writers who write about the process of writing have said something similar at one point or another. You can absolutely find an almost identical sentiment on this blog in some article about how aspiring writers find very creative ways to say they are writing and not ever actually write. I can be pretty strident about the fact that a writer must Earn their ER.  If someone cherry picked a quotation from one of those articles, they might have the impression that I agree with Doctorow. And of course you can do the opposite as well. I wrote a whole magnum opus (which is entirely too long for internet attention spans and needs to be revised very badly) about all the parts of writing that aren't actually writing. Clearly any number of quotes from there could appear to be antithetical to Doctorow.

See, check this out: I can even make it look like Christina said basically the same thing if I quote her out of context.

At some point, you have to sit down and do the “typing out words” part of writing: if you never ever get to that, then no, all the planning and thinking in the world doesn’t really count as writing.     
–Greta Christina 

Keep in mind, also, that writers tend to give very different advice to hopeful, aspiring writers than they do to other successful writers who have already worked out their own processes. Doctorow's readers (and students) who are also would-be writers are legion, and most of them probably want to know how to reproduce his success. If Christina dealt with dozens of sincere, young, hopeful students each week with NO publishing credits at all (even blogs or zines) who had never really finished a major writing project and wanted her advice on how to really, for real "make it," she might be dispensing similar advice.

The problem of many aspiring writers is that they don't actually write. They tool, they tinker, they tweak, they outline, they character sketch, they think, they contemplate, they ponder, they plan, they research to levels of detail that couldn't possibly be useful in their story, they network, they brand themselves, they work on their Tumblr feed, and they talk–oh god do they ever talk–to everyone and anyone who will listen to them, they talk about what they are going to write.

What they do not ever seem to get around to, however, is actually sitting down and writing.

On the other hand, Christina is absolutely right. Writing isn't only writing, and any writer knows that. Doctorow is also well known for the driving in the fog quote about writing ("Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.") so he obviously doesn't plot out his stories; however, that doesn't mean that everyone could or should write in the same way. A lot of writers–particularly old-guard white, male writers–have a pretty bad case of "It works for me, so it must be 'correct.'"

When writers talk about "writing," they are talking about a larger diaspora of action than merely physically writing. If I said I were a fisherman, I might consider going and digging worms up to be part of my job, and count as "fishing," even though I didn't have a rod and reel in my hand and bait in the water. In the same way, writers may consider everything from reading to self-promotion, to staring out the window and imagining the character-driven reactions to the latest plot twist to be writing. And for an expository writer (like Christina) the need to organize one's thoughts prior to actually writing is even greater. In fact, I spend about three weeks of my 98 and 98A class teaching my students how not to just sit down and write off the cuff without pre-writing first.

"Don't just start writing!" I say. "Writing is a process," I say. "You need to do pre-writing!" I say. But do they listen? Oh hell no they don't.

So is Doctorow or Christina right?


Really, it doesn't matter what I think. I'm not the person who can judge if not writing is really working for a particular writer or not. (Maybe if I watched them for a month or two...) A writer should do whatever works. But a writer should also be brutally, horrifically, unerringly honest with themselves about whether or not something is actually working or is an affectation.

If thinking about writing and outlining and all that stuff leads to productive sessions when the fingers finally reach the keys, obviously a writer should do it. If a writer is kidding themselves that they are writing by doing everything in the world other than writing, this quote may be serendipitously timed advice, and perhaps a well-needed wake up call.

But really, if the worst thing that happens is that someone spends a lifetime calling themselves a writer and never manages to do anything but outline their book fifty times and tell all their friends about what they're going to write, how does that really affect me? I might not even point it out until/unless they asked me what they were doing wrong.

In the final analysis, it seems to me that Christina actually does understand the context in which Doctorow was almost certainly speaking when he punched out this particular word-baby because she articulates it perfectly in the second half of her article:

"And yes, it’s easy to procrastinate by telling yourself things like, “I’m writing in my head,” or by doing every possible thing even vaguely related to writing that isn’t the “typing out words” part. (It’s one of the things that’s so dangerous about Facebook and Twitter: if you’re a writer, going onto Facebook and Twitter do qualify as work, since it’s part of publicity and promotion.) At some point, you have to sit down and do the “typing out words” part of writing: if you never ever get to that, then no, all the planning and thinking in the world doesn’t really count as writing."
Given that this disclaimer is about a quarter of the word count of the entire article, and that it exactly articulates one of the most endemic and ubiquitous problems within the community of aspiring writers, I suspect that Doctorow and Christina agree on much more than they don't (about this, at least), and really the worst thing the opening salvo of this article can be said to suffer from is a mild case of not giving an established writer the benefit of the doubt.

Not that I would know anything about that or anything.

LeeAnn asks: 

I recently had a conversation with someone where we discussed if it would be possible to write a character that would be believably more intelligent than the writer. Sherlock Holmes is a character of incredible talent and intelligence, and Doyle was also very widely knowledgeable and accepted as very smart as well. Thoughts?

My reply:

Boy I hope so, LeeAnn, because I'm not very smart, and it would be a travesty for all my characters to be doomed to be no smarter than I. (Seriously, if I'm not predicting the "twists" in Lost, I'm really not that clever.) Fortunately for me, when it comes to writing, it's actually possible for the writer to be believably more intelligent than the writer actually is–not to mention one of their characters.

I'm glad you brought up Doyle and Holmes because that's a great example of the tricks a writer has at their disposal to make a character smarter. Doyle may have been no intellectual slouch, but he went to his death bed believing that the Cottingly fairies were real and that they would open the door to the legitimacy of other psychic phenomenon. He was nowhere near as rational, reasonable, or skeptical as Holmes is supposed to be. Holmes (as he is portrayed) would make Doyle look like a semi-sentient slug by comparison. But they make for an excellent example of the misdirection and illusions a writer can use to make a character seem highly intelligent.

Just chillaxing. With some fairies. You believe me, right?
  • A writer has infinite time. Ever been in a conversation and an hour later you think "I should have said THAT"? Well, a writer doesn't have to kick themselves and try to shoehorn it into the next conversation. They can go back and actually write "that" in. It's amazing how smart you can seem when you have all the time in the world to ponder each decision or turn of phrase. Editing can make a genius out of anyone!
  • A writer has research. This is kind of a specific variant of infinite time. Today, with Google, this is even easier, but it is still possible to have a character be able to pluck tons of esoteric knowledge right off the top of their head because the writer has the ability to go do as much research as it takes. Of course my character knows about string theory! (~spend an afternoon studying multi-dimensional physics~)
  • A writer can reverse engineer a problem and make it look like the character figured it out. In life we have problems and we are forced to come up with the solutions. A writer can work backwards–designing the solution first, and then giving their character an unerring ability to solve it. ("How ever did you know these random symptoms were leprosy Dr. House?" "Because my writer opened the medical book to "leprosy" and picked out all the rarest symptoms.")
  • A writer has more than just themselves. A writer can literally walk over to their really smart friend (or their friend who knows more about some subject) and say, "Hey what do you think? Is this right?" A character who can have the benefit of five or six different peoples' expertise and judgement is going to seem wicked smart.
  • A writer can just say what a character knows. Doyle didn't have to learn about every kind of tobacco to have Holmes be an expert on them. He just had Homes look at the ash and insta-identify where it came from.
  • A writer is usually pretty savvy in the ways that can be written about. Writers do generally have an advantage when they are writing smart characters. There are a lot of ways to be "smart." Interpersonal, spatial, body/kinesthetic, musical.... And a writer can simply declare these to be so. ("His violin playing made my heart soar!") The only types of intelligence that really come through in writing–also the ones most favored by contemporary cultures as general "intelligence"–are logical/mathematical and linguistic intelligence. Writers tend to have higher levels of these due to self-selection bias. It's the people who love books and reading who most often become writers. So they're at an advantage to make a character appear smart in the ways that have to be written out.
  • A writer can make their character be right. Holmes made a lot of deductive leaps that were, frankly put, really stretching it. But somehow he was always right. If he had been in the real world, eventually someone would have said "No, that suntan is not from my days in the military; it's from the fact that I work outside/spent yesterday at the beach/tan easily," or something. But simply by making the character always be right, you can increase the appearance of intelligence. Holmes solves a number of cases by "contemplating the facts" and we never know what his actual thought process is. We just see him smoke a pipe (or two if it's a tough case) and then he suddenly has an idea for how to crack it.
  • A writer can make the other characters less competent. Ever notice how Inspector Lestrade is just a fucking terrible detective? Or how about the fact that a medical doctor can't get a single deduction right....ever? (Seriously, please don't let that Dr. Watson guy do my appendectomy.) You probably don't notice because it's so much FUN watching Holmes turn around and explain what's really going on. But if you really go back and look hard, you'll see that's one of the smoke and mirror illusions that Doyle is pulling off. He brings everyone down a little bit to make Holmes seem smarter.
So yes, it's very possible to make a character seem smarter than the writer. And it's a good thing too.


  1. A writer can also make the other characters more relatable so that the reader comes to the same the conclusion as the other characters, believing"their" conclusion to be right, and making the Holmes character's correct deduction appear even more intensely to be genius.

  2. Looks like it was part of an interview... http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/03/05/specials/doctorow-mag85.html

    ''The presumption of writing,'' he says, ''is that you can speak for other people, that you can live lives through your work that you have not lived, and that you can do that adequately and justly. Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go. If you do it right, you're coming up out of yourself in a way that's not entirely governable by your intellect. That's why the most important lesson I've learned is that planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.''

    1. Great find! Thank you!

      Looks like my "joke" wasn't too far off actually.