2022-01-22 JMikolay thread: writing well without getting stuck

Justin Mikolay 💻 (@jmikolay): The ultimate career hack:

Writing well without getting stuck

Here's a theory of creativity that will instantly make you a better writer:

When people say, “writing is thinking,” 99% don’t mean it literally.

They mean it figuratively: writing clarifies thinking by helping put ideas in order.

But they were right the first time: writing doesn’t clarify thinking; writing IS thinking.

Writing and conscious thinking are one and the same thing.

When you write, you’re not “putting your thoughts in writing” or “conveying your ideas.”

Your thoughts are the writing itself.

This practical reality – that thinking is not distinct from writing – isn’t academic or semantic.

It’s a law of creative work: for writers, artists, engineers, scholars, and entrepreneurs.

Realizing writing and conscious thinking are the same is like discovering space isn’t distinct from matter.

i.e. the “gravitational field is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself"

It’s a gigantic simplification of the world.

It’s possible to go through your professional life without learning this reality, but once you do, you’ll never face a blank page again.

Humans are exceptionally gifted at conjuring and divining signs and images in our heads, but we don't “see” our ideas until we express them in language.

We can only see them we crystallize and materialize them in symbols, and express them on the page.

Your mind is making “sense” of this sentence – but the sentence itself is the idea: the pixels representing language to your eyes, not the “idea” you’re thinking about in your head.

David Deutsch put it beautifully: Sometimes astronomers are “inspecting pixels on a screen or ink on paper.” “These things are physically very unlike stars…but when astronomers look at them, they see stars.”

We “see” ideas the same way.

In 1973, historian Charles Weiner interviewed Richard Feynman in his office and called his notebooks a “record of his day-to-day work.”

“No!” Feyman said, “I actually did the work on the paper.”

“Well,” said Weiner, “The work was done in your head but the record of it is still here.”

“No, it’s not a record, not really, it’s working. You have to work on paper and this is the paper. OK?”

To Feyman, his notebooks weren’t a record of his creative process – they WERE his creative process.

In his mind, his work and thinking were the same, and he made no distinction between the two.

“Language is the substance of thought,” as E.O. Wilson put it.

That’s why Feyman was so adamant: the substance of his thought wasn’t in his head, it was in his notebooks.

This is a massive simplification of the writing and creative process, because it frees you from having to “think” about anything.

All you must do is play with language outside your head – the words and symbols you see in front of you.

People in creative work get their ideas out of their heads by constantly taking notes and harvesting ideas.

When you write, you're taking notes in your own words and writing WITH them, not FROM your head, even as you continue to play with signs and images IN your head.

Your sentences ARE your thinking.

When you’re writing and in flow, you’re not “coming up with” ideas, you’re playing with ideas that are already there – and those ideas are pulling still more ideas from your head like apples fall to the earth: by gravity.

This is a huge creative relief.

Your task is to let the ideas in your head “free-fall” out – and toward the ideas on the page.

The work is a field of your own making, the substance with mass.

Put another way:

“Notes...do not make contemporary physics or other kinds of intellectual endeavor easier, they make it possible. The mind is reliant upon external scaffolding.” -Levy

To paraphrase @soenke_ahrens, writing doesn't follow creative work, it's the medium of it.

When you're concentrating ideas outside your head (and letting “gravity” do the rest), the only way to get stuck is to stop taking notes in your own words.

When you have enough ideas in one place, you can’t help yourself from writing; it just takes care of itself.

Our best ideas arise in our unconscious mind, but in the words of John Cleese, “creative ideas don't arrive in the form of words, in neatly typed little sentences.”

“Because they come from your unconscious, they speak the language of the unconscious," which we can't translate.

None of the above transcends the mystery of language and creativity.

We do “think” outside of language, of course, but only in our subconscious and unconscious minds (on the level of “paralinguistic movement, the reflexes of our nervous system, and the processing our senses”).

We think on deeper levels too.

Einstein said, “The words or the language...do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are signs and images which can be "voluntarily" reproduced and combined.”

“Combinatory play,” Einstein said, “seems to be the essential feature in productive thought—before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.

The trick, then, is to summon and divine language from unconscious combinatory play.

And then, like Feynman, to work and think on the page and in our notebooks.

To “see” and rearrange our existing ideas, and combine them with others.

Having shared why taking notes is the motor of the writing, thinking, and creative process, I'll leave you with two famous passages proving there's more to life than writing and language:

"The river was cut by the world’s great flood...and runs over rocks from the basement of time. 

On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words...and some of the words are theirs. 

I am haunted by waters.” 

-Norman Maclean

To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

-William Wordsworth


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