Critical Thinking and the Noogie Man

photo of head bust print artwork

Photo by meo on Pexels.com

Eric Witchey

Recently, I went to a mixed company party where someone I barely knew actually gave me a noogie. Mind you, I’m a 60 year-old man. He wrapped a beer-fed arm around my neck, rubbed his knuckles on my balding skull, and playfully said, “There’s always at least one liberal egghead at these things.”

I refrained from ripping his balls off and feeding them to him because I actually like the hosts. That, and he was easily 20 years younger than me and outweighed me by at least 100 pounds.

Earlier that day, I had started reading an article about critical thinking. At the party, the concept came up in conversation. Being a communication consultant and writer, I felt very comfortable describing the content of as much of the article as I had read. This, apparently, made my new, large, personal boundary-challenged BFF uncomfortable enough to need to engage in some simian, physical dominance behavior.

Later on, awake at about 2am and staring at the ceiling of my Eric cave, I started thinking about what most people experience when their eyes pass over the phrase “critical thinking.”

My, perhaps ungracious, conclusion is that the phrase triggers a vaguely, barely recognizable in the mental background noise of their minds, self-affirmation of the belief that they are critical thinkers. They reinterpret the phrase to mean something like, smart people like me. It is a fleeting ghost of a thought that is barely recognized, if it is recognized at all. By the time it might be recognized, the eyes and mind are already on to the end of the sentence and the next sentence.

In the context of teaching, I have often wondered how to successfully demonstrate both the processes of and the value of critical thinking. Sadly, my success has been limited. It is a very hard thing to teach because learning it requires a proactive self-doubt combined with a desire to learn and, possibly, change.

Critical thinking, for a person who actually engages in it as a habit, looks something like this when they encounter a new phrase like—oh, let’s say, “critical thinking.”

What does that really mean? What does critical mean? Does it mean important? Of paramount importance? Necessary to survival? Does it mean analytical—to analyze, deconstruct, evaluate? Does it mean to attack—to minimize, to negate, to reduce to component insignificance?

Thinking. Hm… Present participle of “to think.” Could it be a progressive form instead of a participial form? Does it mean to engage in ongoing thought? Is the participial form a nominalization that means “the class of thoughts associated with the adjective critical?” If a noun prior to “critical” is the modified term, does it mean the modified preceding noun has thought capacity engaged in an ongoing process? Maybe it means that the preceding noun has capacity and the phrase is intended as a compound adjective in which the hyphen has been unintentionally dropped?

Interesting that I could generate so many speculations about such a ubiquitous phrase. I’ll run a search on the phrase in order to test the denotative and usage history against my own experience, assumptions, and speculations.

From Criticalthinking.org:

#1: A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

#2: Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.   People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically.    They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked.  They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies.   They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers – concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess, and improve thinking. . . .

From Wikipedia:

Critical thinking is clear, reasoned thinking involving critique. Its details vary amongst those who define it. According to Beyer (1995), critical thinking means making clear, reasoned judgments. During the process of critical thinking, ideas should be reasoned and well thought out/judged.[1] The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking[2] defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.’[3]

From Daniel T. Willingham and The Federation of American Teachers:

In layperson’s terms, critical thinking consists of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth… (The article goes on to describe types of, studies in attempts to teach it, and problems in pedagogy).

From Dictionary.com:

disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.

Okay, enough fiddling about with online sources that may or may not be subject to editorial scrutiny, peer-review, and general tests of accuracy and veracity. To my own bookshelves for real answers.

I think I’ll sample my very favorite dictionary, a big fat library edition of the 1947 Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. This book is the hernia-generating monster that, when I was a kid at Saturday morning story time readings, was chained to a pedestal inside the library front doors—as it should be.

Nothing. No entry.

I wonder why I had to wade through so many words that began with ‘co’ on the way to ‘cr?’ Well, that’s not relevant to the question I’m researching. Refocus.

Next on my shelf.

From the 1983 Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Deluxe Second Edition:

Nothing. No entry.

I would have thought that the Universal Unabridged Dictionary would be fatter than the merely International Dictionary, but it’s not. Maybe we lost a lot of words between 47 and 83. Not relevant. Still, I had to wade through a lot of words that began with ‘co’ on the way to ‘cr.’ I’ll figure out the root history to ‘co’ words another day. Refocus on the question at hand.

Okay, really, seriously! Enough fiddling about. Pull the definitive source from the shelf and torture my aging eyes with micrographic print.

From the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary Vol. A-O, 1981. 21st printing. This is the dictionary that was never chained to anything because in full-print size, it spans 14 massive volumes. In micrographic print, which requires a magnifying glass to read no matter how young your eyes are, it is only two fat books made up of very thin paper. Herein, I shall find the complete history of the use of the phrase, “critical thinking:”

Not! Nothing. No entry.

So, the phrase is not treated as a word prior to 1983. Further research could tell me when it began to be treated as a single concept in phrasal form. Not now. Instead, maybe I’ll do a little bit of work to better understand the two words, “critical” and “thinking.” That’s the next logical step if my goal is to understand use in context rather than use over time.

Unfortunately, the OED micrographic print went on for a column and a half with denotative uses of “critical.” I can’t put that kind of time in on wading through lists of meanings in order to find deep understanding of something I’m not being paid to chase—at least not today.

Paid to chase. Hm? Is that why we don’t think? Are we all just chasing our next banana? No. Don’t go there. Not now.

Maybe I’ll write a blog entry about the semantics of denotative combinatorics some other time. I’ll match up each definition of critical with each definition of thinking to create all the possible matches as an exercise in possibilities.

Or not. Focus. Right now, I have to get to other things.

This is the point at which a habitual critical thinker might break out of the rapture of research. At this point, they have ceased critical thinking. They fall back on untested personal experience and speculation.

They read the comma and the next word and consider them as limiting variables in revisions of and reductions to the above possibilities and their relevance to a developing understanding of the possible intent of the author and to personal interpretation of their written effort.

I…

Oops. I mean, they. They do this because a part of me… I… they… them still feels the pain of Homo Neoneanderthalensis knuckles on my balding head.

Crap. Okay, I’m outed.

Reading smart stuff written by smart people makes me feel better.

Take that, Noogie Man!

Hm… Is imaginary revenge a result of critcal thinking? As my father used to say, “No matter where you go and no matter what you do, the monkey is still a monkey.” Interesting that my father used the second person, singluar pronoun. Until this moment, I have always universalized it and excluded myself.

Exhausted, I settled down and finished reading the article that had started all the trouble.

Critical thinking is treated in this culture as a symptom of some underlying disorder: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Asperger’s Spectrum Disorder, Autism, or Antisocial Personality Disorder. As a culture, we treat people who demonstrate passionate curiosity and who actually focus on seeking diverse or nuanced understanding as if they are broken. We dismiss actual, credentialed experts as too educated to be useful, and we use ad hominem attacks to socially shun the curious by undermining the credibility of any non-credentialed, non-academic who engages in critical thinking. We place value on the presentation of confident, socially dominant behavior as knowledge rather than on the processes of productive, egalitarian exploration through conversation. Smart people learn to be quiet at mixed social gatherings because they are statistically much more likely to meet with shunning, sarcastic attacks like, “I didn’t know you had a Ph.D. in bullshit,” “You must have swallowed a fucking dictionary before you showed up,” “You always did think you were better than the rest of us,” and, my personal favorite, “How about those (insert sportsball team here),” than they are to meet a non-combative conversationalist.

The same person, engaged in conversation with others while travelling in educationally developed nations like Denmark, Sweden, France, Norway, and Finland is greeted with statements like, “You aren’t like most Americans I’ve met,” “I can tell you didn’t go to an American school,” “What a pleasure to meet an American who can talk about more than TV, sports, and their children,” and, my personal favorite, “You are the first American I’ve met who didn’t need to win the conversation.”

Can I claim understanding and objectivity in my thinking if, for me, the article amounted to cherry-picking? So, I have failed as both a critical thinker and as a good American. My research was not pure. My curiosity was not open to all possibilities. In the end, I just wanted to win against the Noogie Man. I am Homo Neoneanderthalensis. Sadly, Noogie Man will never read this, so I have only succeeded in giving air noogies to mind shadows in the comfort of my own home.

-End-

Surprise and The Ah-Ha Moment

Surprise and The Ah-Ha Moment

Eric Witchey

An article I once read described one of the major categories of procrastination as “threshold procrastination.” Translating that concept into writer speak, a writer has to have a deadline and get close enough to it that adrenaline (fear) drives them beyond a certain threshold before they can perform. Since I juggle multiple kinds of writing, one way or another I’m pretty much always near or on the wrong side of one deadline or another. Worrying is a state of being. Adrenaline is a pain in the ass. Still, it works for me.

However, another experience I suspect is closely related is the clarity that comes from sudden, short-term notice of a new project.

A long time ago, I had a great uncle who was known to be “a little psychic.” The family stories I heard about him had me curious as hell. He was old when I was 16, but he still worked at his tool and die company in Wauconda, Ill. My mother had taken me to dinner at his house. Another relative, a sort of uncle from that same generation, was an administrator at a hospital in Chicago. Keep in mind that his was in the early 70s, and miniaturization in medical equipment was happening in real time. Personal computers were about to be invented for the first time. Phones still lived on little tables in hallways.

Uncle Red, the administrator, had been helping out at Uncle George’s house while his wife and George’s wife, Ruth, fixed a pot roast. Red had been mowing the lawn in a small orchard behind the house. The little riding lawn tractor hit a rabbit rut and jarred him pretty hard. A while later, he realized he had lost a hearing aid out in the lawn somewhere.

It wouldn’t be a big deal now. You’d just order a new one on the internet, take it to a tech for tuning, and Bob’s your uncle. Except Red and George were my uncles, and Red had a miniaturized prototype hearing aid that was worth 10k in 1974 dollars.

We, meaning myself, my Mom, Red, Ruth, and Red’s wife, whose name I can’t remember but who may have been Betty and will be so named hereinafter, spent over an hour on hands and knees searching the orchard for that irreplaceable hearing aid.

We didn’t find it.

Ruth decided we should all clean up for dinner. She said, and I will never forget how strange it sounded to me at the time, “When George gets home, I’ll ask him to find it.”

To my surprise, everyone seemed just fine with that.

Maybe a half hour later, George did come home. Ruth met him at the door. Here’s another bit of nostalgia for folks my age. Back then, there were still “business men” who carried umbrellas, wore long coats, and sported actual fedoras. They were a dying breed, but George was one of them. To make what seems now to be both cliché and a perpetuation of patriarchy worse, Ruth took his hat, his coat, and his bumbershoot. Then, she kissed him on the cheek, got right in his face, locked eyes, and said, “Red lost his hearing aid out back. Can you find it?”

George reared back a bit in surprise, but he recovered quickly, glanced at the back of the house, paused like a man trying to peer through fog, then replied, “Yes.”

Okay, this sounds nuts, but I swear this is exactly what happened.

George then walked through the house, into the back yard, into the orchard. A few minutes later—very few minutes later—he came back in and handed Uncle Red the hearing aid.

All the adults present thanked him. Otherwise, they treated it like the most normal thing in the world. Dinner was served. We are talking left hand in the lap formal family protestant-folks dinner, too. Afterward, Mom, Ruth, and Betty “cleaned up.” Red left to do some hospital thing he had to do, and I found myself alone with George in, and I kid you not, “the library.” And yes, the library was actually what you are imagining. It was a personal library. The walls were books. The furniture was leather. The liquor cabinet wasn’t inside a globe of the ancient world, but such a thing would have been quite happy in that room.

So, young upstart me is sitting there with the scotch-in-hand spooky uncle trying to figure out how to ask him about what happened, and he up and says, “I have to be surprised.”

I say, “If you can do that, you could make a lot of money.”

He chuckles and sips scotch.

“Can you do that any time you want?”

Again, he says, “I have to be surprised.”

“Can you bend spoons?” It was a thing then.

He says, “Ruth knows me. She knows I can’t think about it or it doesn’t work. She surprised me with the question. I saw the spot in the yard.”

Now, I did ask him a lot of other stupid 16 year-old questions. He was kind. He was patient. He answered them all. None of the answers fit my worldview, so I left that experience pretty sure it had been an elaborate conspiracy among relatives I barely knew to convince the kid of secret powers.

Except it never came up again. I wasn’t the butt of any jokes. There was no follow-through—no payoff. Nothing.

Years went by. I went to college. I went to grad school. I went to life. Other strange things happened here and there, but I let it all slide over me. It’s all good. Right?

Except that sometimes I’m reminded of that dinner party and the hearing aide in the strangest ways.

As always, I seek patterns in the creation of story. I seek patterns in the stories and in the process of creating them. I look for ways to describe the patterns of process and form so that other people can shorten their learning curves, reduce the amount of personal trial and error. I’ve had some success serving the writing the community in this way. Most of the time, that involves rigorous application of experimentation and application of linguistic knowledge and personal experience.

Then, I’m surprised.

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out how to further shorten the development curve for writers who are struggling to put scenes together. The dramatic scene is, after all, the building block of all stories. I won’t explain that here. I’ll just say that building a solid, functional scene requires the writer to keep a lot of balls in the air. Normally, I teach people how many balls, the patterns in the air, the colors of the balls, and how to add a running chainsaw.

Okay, metaphorically speaking.

This week, Willamette Writers emailed me and asked me if I could take on a presentation slot in their calendar next week. The original speaker couldn’t make it. I said yes. I hung up the phone–the cell phone. With perfect clarity, I suddenly saw the path to the result I wanted.

An Uncle George psychic surprise? Mere Jungian synchronicity? Perhaps a deadline whose threshold for adrenaline had already passed?

I don’t know.

I do know that several teaching and writing techniques suddenly resolved into a seminar I’ll be teaching at Old Church in Portland, Oregon the evening of October 2nd. If the path is true and the hearing aide is where I have seen it, we’ll delve into character psychology and connect to setting and scene structure in a counter-intuitive way that will make writing and learning to write scenes faster and easier for most people. It will also allow revision that increases the emotional punch of the scenes. The talk will be called, “Because, Because and the Six-Layered Scene.”

Thank you, Uncle George. I may not be psychic, but, because of my experiences with you, I am open to those magical moments when a catalyst triggers the subconscious to deliver a result.

For more information on the event at Old Church, here’s the link:

https://willamettewriters.org/event/portland-monthly-meeting/2018-10-02/ 

Here’s the description:

Because, Because and The Power of Six-Layered Scenes

Join us on October 2nd, doors open at 6:30PM, at the Old Church in downtown Portland. to hear speaker and award-winning author Eric Witchey. Witchey will present this short adaptation of material from his Fiction Fluency Seminars. The evening will include an interactive demonstration of use of the “because, because” technique to uncover character psychology and emotional states before writing a scene. Discovered character attributes will then support creation of a six-layered scene that includes three simultaneous levels of conflict and three emotion-supporting layers of setting. Participants will walk away with a step-by-step understanding of the techniques demonstrated. Once understood, these techniques can be used for analysis and revision of existing scenes or for creation of new scenes.

About Eric Witchey

Eric Witchey is a writer, seminar teacher, course developer, process analyst, communication consultant, and conference speaker. He has made a living as a freelance writer and communication consultant for over a quarter century. In addition to many contracted and ghost non-fiction titles, he has sold a number of novels and more than 140 stories. His stories have appeared in 12 genres and on five continents. He has received awards or recognition from New Century Writers, Writers of the Future, Writer’s Digest, Independent Publisher Book Awards, International Book Awards, The Eric Hoffer Prose Award Program, Short Story America, the Irish Aeon Awards, and other organizations. His How-to articles have appeared in The Writer Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, and other print and online magazines.

See you at this month’s Willamette Writer’s Portland meeting!

State of the Art

State of the Art

by Eric Witchey

Packing up to head off to the Willamette Writers Conference to teach a Masters Class and generally engage in the literary debauchery that goes along with a conference, I am struck by the fact that I’ve been doing conferences for a very long time. Some of the beginning writers I met at conferences a quarter of a century ago have become New York Times best selling authors. Some of the writers I met so long ago are dead. Teenage students I first met at speaking gigs twenty years ago now have families and solid careers. Others have left the world in search of brighter days in Elysian Fields.

In short, things change. They also stay the same.

Since I first realized I was a writer, I have known that the only sustainable motivation for writing is love. Writers have to love sitting in the chair and arranging the little black squiggles in rows until they feel right. If they don’t love that process and all the little puzzle-solving moments that go with it, eventually they will become frustrated, angry, and resentful of lost time and life.

Fiction writers have to love stories. I mean that on a profound level. Arranging the squiggles is enough for most non-fiction work; however, it is not enough for fiction writers. A fiction writer has to be deeply, obsessively in love with the idea of creating the illusion of life in the mind and heart of another person. They have to love to experience the illusion created by other writers, and they have to love creating that illusion.

Now, at this point it would be very easy to drop into a diatribe about how many aspiring writers I meet who don’t actually read. I won’t bother. They are self-limiting creatures, and my righteous indignation will neither help them nor stop them from making their mistakes. Some might even learn that they need to read, and that might lead to love of reading and better creations. It does happen.

I could also drop into a riff on the limitations of the desire for fame or money, but I’d only be presenting a straw man. If you want a riff on artistic purity of heart and mind as necessary to creative health of artist and culture, I recommend looking up and reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s take on the damage of commodity thinking in the arts. Once again, the people who focus on money and fame will either limit themselves or succeed and discover a level of unhappiness the universal heart of all things has created just for them.

Instead, I want to focus on a moment in time.

Way back when, I had a degree in English and an MA that included Theoretical Linguistics, Computer Science, Literature, and training as a writing teacher. I’d been working in high-tech for a while, and I had sold my first short story to a national market. The world was a bright and shiny place filled with potential, but the mail brought rejection after rejection. It was depressing. Hadn’t I studied for years? Hadn’t I gone into debt learning everything I could about stories and writing and language?

Shouldn’t there be money? Shouldn’t there be fame?

Instead, there was only time in the seat arranging the squiggles and drinking lots of coffee.

Eventually, I had to admit that I knew Jack Shit. In fact, Jack and I were way too close. I took him to parties with me and presented him to others with pride as if just knowing him should launch me into social circles where international celebrities of letters chatted casually about the death of existential literature and the advent of post-modern, hysterical Jungian fantasy literature.

Me and Jack! Oh, the places we went.

As with all co-dependent relationships, the day came when I looked at Jack and my dreams of fame and fortune and realized they were tools I used to avoid facing my own fear—my own deep heart. As long as I had Jack and my fame and fortune fantasies, I could go anywhere and pretend I was full of knowledge and potential.

Well, let me tell you something. Combine Jack with potential, and you’ve got a recipe for spiritual, emotional, and literary bankruptcy.

So, I sought out a teacher I had heard good things about. I went to a week-long seminar. For two days, I hated him. He was a no bullshit, blue-collar work ethic, nuts-and-bolts writer who had no tolerance for the mysticism of talent.

Oh, I hated him.

I hated him because he didn’t see how much Jack had taught me and how much potential I had. What an asshole!

Patiently, I explained that I had degrees and had sold a story.

He laughed.

I fumed, but I did the exercises to prove Jack and potential were alive and well and living in me.

By the third day, I knew Jack was dead.

By the fourth day, I understood that potential was pointless.

That was the day I stopped being an aspiring writer and became an actual writer.

Writer is the agentive form of the infinitive to write. It is a verb manifest as person. Writer is a doing and being, and it only happens in the moment between heartbeats and breaths. Right now, I am a writer. Right now, I am solving the puzzle of this essay. Right now, I am arranging the little black squiggles. Right now, I am learning and moving toward new tools of craft that allow me to create compelling illusions in the hearts and minds of readers.

What is the point of being in the writing? Of being a writer?

Yesterday, I got an Amazon review that embodies the point. It isn’t fame. It isn’t fortune. It is a parent who left five stars and said that their 12 year-old boy loved my book and said he wanted to read more stories set in that world.

No award I have won for my fiction has ever validated the million moments of creation as much as that one review.

I still know Jack. I might still have potential. Sometimes, I even think about fame and fortune.

The interesting thing a quarter century after meeting that teacher and as I approach the conference Masters Class I’ll be teaching is that I know beyond doubt that in the moments between heartbeats and breaths when I am a truly a writer, Jack is dead, there is no such thing as potential, and the only validation of my skill that matters is one 12 year-old boy.

That is the state of art.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R2DT873QY1F7OU/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B0763B3JVQ

What Did You Win, Eric?

 

Littlest Death: An Afterlife Fantasy (a.k.a., Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel):
Winner: Independent Publishers Awards Silver Medal for Fantasy.
Winner: International Book Awards for Visionary Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Fantasy Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Best New Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Cross-Genre Fiction

What Did You Win, Eric?
by Eric Witchey

Last time I posted in this blog space, I talked about award sickness because one of my novels had just won the Silver Medal for Fantasy Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Since then, that same novel has won First Honors in the Visionary Fiction category from the International Book Awards. It also won finalist (top five) positions in several other categories, including Fantasy Fiction. At the same time, another novel of mine won First Honors in the Fantasy Fiction category from the International Book Awards. Yet another book won a Finalist position for both cover design and short fiction. The books are, respectively, Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel from ShadowSpinners Press, Bull’s Labyrinth from IFD Publishing, and Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure from IFD Publishing.

Note: Thanks are in order here for Alan M. Clark for his cover designs for both Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure and Bull’s Labyrinth.

Has my good problem, Award Sickness, gotten worse? Yes. Yes, it has. Thank you for asking. On top of that, I now have another good problem. I now have conversations that go sort of like this:

“Congratulations! What kind of stuff did you win?”

“Uh. Um.” Eric looks down and shuffles his feet.

“Really,” they say. “Cash, like the Pulitzer or the Nobel?”

“Uh. No. It’s not like that.” Eric waves his hands as if to push the assailant away and avoid embarrassment.

“Well, what then?”

“Stickers?” It sounds so tiny and pointless to Eric, so he adds, “I won some really cool stickers to put on my books. And a certificate!”

“That’s it?”

“A silver medal on a ribbon. I won that, too.” He doesn’t want to say he could wear that heavy bit of kitsch around his neck if he wanted to shout to the world that he is the worst kind of self-impressed language geek.

This kind of conversation confuses non-writers who often think recognition of excellence means income or fame. Having won quite a few awards for my writing, I can say with some confidence that awards rarely translate into income or fame. Sometimes, but rarely. This absence of fame and fortune even confuses some writers, so it’s time to come clean on the whole award thing.

Here’s what I won.

On a purely material level, I won stickers, a medal, and several certificates.

On a marketing level, I won the right to have Littlest Death presented to an international audience at the New York Book Expo and at the Library Book Expo in New York. Also on a marketing level, Littlest Death press releases went out to 800 various media, blog, and vlog outlets for consideration for exposure. Oh, and I can put stickers on the covers that appear as part of the presentation and advertising on places like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and GoodReads.

Yay! Of course, I have no idea what that means in terms of sales. I won’t know for months, and possibly years, to come.

From my personal perspective, I won validation for the Afterlife Fantasy genre, which is embodied by Littlest Death. I had been thinking about writing an Afterlife Fantasy for some time, but I probably would never have done it because it would not have fit into any existing marketing category served by the octopus imprints of the big five publishers. A book like Littlest Death would have made the rounds of the imprints for several years. I’d have received the usual “loved this but not quite right for us” rejection letters. Instead, it came out from a small press that isn’t quite so risk averse.

Most important from my perspective, I won validation for the creative process that resulted in Littlest Death.

When I teach, I often say that craft tools should be based on the underlying linguistic and cognitive principles that govern the reader’s internalization of emotion from story. The test of a principle-based tool is pretty simple. It must be all of the following:

  1. Useful as a descriptive tool for finished, text-based story.
  2. Useful as an analysis tool and solution predictor for revision of text-based story.
  3. Useful as a design tool for the production of text-based story.

To that end, I have spent about 25 years obsessively characterizing and recording tools that fit the above criteria into a personal catalog. I use these tools constantly, and I teach them to others. However, prior to writing Littlest Death, there were a few tools in my box that I believed fit the criteria but that I had never actually tested on the design level. I had only used them as diagnostic and revision tools.

I used the opportunity to write my Afterlife Fantasy to test the design power of the untested tools. Specifically, the tools I often used in revision and description but had not really applied during story design were:

  • Irreconcilable Self as a control for character psychological and sociological development.
  • Vertical Story Analysis as a design tool to support manifestation of Dramatic Premise (Lajos Egri) and Character Arc prior to composition.

I’m not going to explain these tools here. Sorry. It would take too long. I’m just saying that these tools have been in my box for a while, and I have used them to revise many stories that went on to sell. In fact, I used them to revise Bull’s Labyrinth, which won the International Book Award for Fantasy Fiction. I also used them to revise some, but not all by any means, of the stories in Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure. I had just never used them up front before initial composition, so I felt a little bit like a fraud when I taught them because I had only proven to myself that they worked on two of the three levels of proof for “tool” that I require.

Once Littlest Death went into print and I started getting emails from people who cried tears of joy while reading, I felt pretty good about having demonstrated the tools’ usefulness in design. Once Littlest Death won two awards and several finalist slots in competition against many thousands of other novels, I started thinking it might be worth considering a few more such experiments in design.

What did I win?

I won validation of knowledge, confidence in that knowledge, and the confidence that sharing that knowledge with others will be useful to them.

Success Sickness, by Eric Witchey

FNTCVR

Fantasy Silver Medal, 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards

 

Success Sickness

Eric Witchey

Last weekend, I supported a local mini-conference here in Salem, Oregon. The conference made use of the Parallel Play program psychologist Brian Nierstadt helped me create sixteen years ago. Parallel Play has been the subject of other articles and will be again. For now, I want to focus on the fact that the conference was all about production and overcoming obstacles.

Aside: Special thanks to Chris Patchell and Debbie Moller, who did the bulk of the work to create the very successful, sold-out weekend. Special thanks to Willamette Writers: Orit Ofri, Kate Ristau, and Summer Bird. Also, thanks to the other professionals who donated their time to help the local community of writers: Rachel Barton, Erica Bauermeister, Elizabeth Engstrom, Devon Monk, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Waverly Fitzgerald, and Natalie Serber. My deepest apologies if I’ve missed anyone.

Now, it happens that on the Wednesday before the conference one of my novels received recognition from the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Awards (IPPYs). Littlest Death, cover show above and available in print or ebook on Amazon from Shadow Spinners Press (grin),  received the silver medal in the Fantasy category.

Result? I can’t write.

This is not a new experience. I know I’ll get past it, but I thought I’d take a second to write about this particular form of writer’s block because of the inspiring mini-lectures I was honored to listen to over the weekend. However, before I really get going, I want to point out that this is sort of a violation of certain social mores. In our culture, we accept that people can talk about the struggles, problems, obstacles, and especially the solutions encountered while striving to achieve our dreams. The gods know, I have done plenty of that both verbally and in writing over the years. We are much less accepting of people exploring the struggles, problems, obstacles, and solutions that appear because we achieve the things we strive for. Nobody wants to hear about how annoyed you are about the misleading Engine Warning light in your new Rolls Royce, but everybody wants know how you managed to, and by extension how they can, get a Rolls Royce.

So, at the risk of social shunning, I offer these insights into a problem I hope everyone has already overcome or gets the chance to overcome.

First, I’ll point out that there are two types of success sickness. They are “Anticipatory success sickness” and “recent success sickness.” They pretty much work the same way, and the treatment is pretty much the same, too.

Here’s how success sickness, which I sometimes erroneously call award sickness, works.

  1. The writer either anticipates or has received some new success—any new success. It can be as simple as a compliment from a teacher, a friend, or someone in the family.
  2. The writer sits down to write.
  3. The writer starts wondering either what they should write to succeed or what they did when they wrote the material that succeeded.
  4. The writer can’t figure it out, so they scrub the bathroom floor instead of writing.
  5. Repeat 2-5 until suicidal or new floor tile is required in the bathroom.

I first encountered success sickness after selling my first short story in 1987. I didn’t sell another story until 1997.

Well, that sucked.

Then, I won a slot at Writers of the Future and a place in the top ten from New Century Writers. New Century was a big deal then because Ray Bradbury was involved. Now, sadly, both Ray and New Century are gone. About the same time as the above two awards, I sold my first short story to a national slick magazine.

All good, right? I figured I was off to the races—a made man in the fiction family.

Then, number 2, I sat down to write and…NOTHING…3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5…

Well, that sucked.

After about six months of cleaning the bathroom and chatting with my new phone friends from the suicide hot line, I realized that I was in the loop of trying to recreate the success without understanding that the success had been created by not trying to create the success. In short, I had just been practicing my craft when I wrote the stories that won the awards and sold.

Sure, I wanted to sell stories and win awards, but I hadn’t been working on each story with the idea that I would do certain things in order to sell the story or in order to win an award. I had just worked on each story to make it the best story I could make it. I had practiced craft without regard for outcome.

That realization led to the idea that I needed to just work on stories and stop thinking about the successes, which of course is like telling yourself to not think about the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sigh… Well, that sucked.

Once the tile in the bathroom had been replaced and I had tattooed the suicide hotline number on the inside of my wrist, I decided I needed to figure out how to trick myself into not paying attention to what I may or may not have done to contribute to the success I wanted to repeat.

My solution was to practice craft in a way that made it impossible to write a story that would sell. If I knew it couldn’t sell, then I couldn’t expect anything from it other than experience and words through the fingers.

Clever monkey.

So, I went back to the basic concept of practicing craft. I went back to my personal simplest form of practicing craft. I picked random topics to bind together into silly stories. That way, it would be impossible to believe I was creating saleable, award-winning material. Then, I picked a craft concept to practice. I called what I was doing my morning warmup, and I sat down every morning to a speed writing session in which I attempted to execute the craft concept I had selected while also incorporating the stupid random topics.

No pressure. No bathroom. No hot line. Just silliness and practice.

We are talking seriously random, here: My orange coffee mug; Mrs. McPharon’s black gravel driveway; The stinging fur on a caterpillar I found on Hogue’s barn. These are things from my desk and my childhood—totally unrelated. The concept to practice was, conversely, serious. It might be any of a thousand things, but it is always specific—something like “deliver implied intentions through indirect dialog.”

Five to fifteen minutes of speed writing attempting the concept and including the random topics was all I had to do. I started with one minute based on the belief that I can always sit down to do one minute. In a week or so, it became five. Later, and to this day twenty years later, it is fifteen.

Way back then, it took about six months before I stopped second-guessing every word and my writing became about the story on the table again. And, oddly, once I forgot to worry about how I had done what I had done, I did it again.

Well, that didn’t suck.

Except, then, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, and…

And begin again. New tile. Reacquainted with the hot line people. And back to five minutes and random topics at speed.

About six weeks passed, and I forgot to worry about how I did what I did, so I did it again.

… and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3, 4, 5, …

You get the idea.

Fast forward to 2018 Silver Medal in Fantasy IPPY award, and 2, 3, 4, 5, and 3,4,5, and…

And back to five minutes of speed writing at the mini-conference. I did manage to put in several hours of productivity at the conference, but my stupid brain kept returning to what I had done to make Littlest Death an award-winning story.

Well, that sucks.

I’m hoping it will only take me a week or so to get to the point where I forget to worry about how I did what I did so I that can do it again. However, since I’m hoping that will happen, it will probably take longer since I now also have to forget to hope that I’ll forget to worry about how I did what I did before I can do it again.

Silly monkey.

The moral to this whole convoluted story is that sitting down to write something silly for one minute will lead to five will lead to fifteen will lead to an inevitable focus on the story at hand instead of what it might do once it’s finished because of what other stories have done in the past.

I will point out at this point that many of the stories I have sold were born during my warmup and became the story at hand. It turns out that choosing random topics to make it impossible to write a story is nearly impossible because the brain can, if given the freedom to do so, make a story out of pretty much anything. Sadly, that adds a whole new layer to this insanity of not thinking about what you did while you are doing what you are doing now so that you can repeat what you did. I think that’s another article.

Success sickness is the mind attaching itself to what was and what will be instead of resting in what is. Playful experimentation will bring the mind back to the here and now in which all successes are born.

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

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Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir

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Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir, by Eric Witchey

Something new for my blog this time. Instead of waxing dreary on some topic of my own choosing, I’m answering a question from a person who took a class from me at the Write on the Sound Conference in Edmonds, Washington. The last time I was there, I taught a class that included a brief discussion of a concept I first presented in an article for The Writer Magazine in October of 2011. The concept is the Irreconcilable Self (I.S.).

The writer, a memoirist, dropped me a line last week. The question has two parts. The first part is whether the I.S. the writer is working with is precise enough. The second question is more of a presupposition about whether the I.S. tool can be used in memoire. Also, note that the writer used Wallace Stegner’s book, Angle of Repose, as a reference point. It has been a long time since I read it, so my examples from memory may or may not fit the experience of people who have read it more recently. I did not go back and check the book to verify my memory, which is a swiss cheese muddle of too many stories that often blend together.

The Question:

I’m presuming that the I.S. can apply to a memoir ‘character’ since I’m treating myself as the character? Good. So then, my opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity.

My questions — is that SPECIFIC enough?? Or is it too linked to place and time? Do I need more soul-searching to really get at stronger conflicting notions here? I am conflicted in the idolization of country living vs the reality and want to expose that a little more via my experience, but also have notions and real experiences of longing for that country living.

The Answer:

Hi, again, Writer X:

First, I’ll be teaching an 8 hour seminar on this subject in Eugene, OR in May. I have a couple of memoirists already signed up. You don’t have to sign up for all six classes. You can just take this one alone, but I would recommend this one and the one in June for a full sense of how I.S. works in conjunction with other story elements. The people at WordCrafters can help with accommodations. The classes are set up so people can drive or fly in on Saturday and drive or fly out on Sunday. Anyway, here’s the link.

https://wordcraftersineugene.org/fiction-fluency-2018/ff-seminars/

Second, I always welcome “one-off” emails, but I can’t always answer them. Also, I’ll only answer one or two before I send you a contract to set up a formal relationship as a sort of piano teacher of words. Too many people think of me as a private encyclopedia of writing techniques if I let them, and I do have to fulfill my own obligations in life.

So, no worries. I’m especially happy to hear from people who have read my stories and taken one or more of my classes.

Interesting that you mention The Angle of Repose. Not many writers who contact me have read it. Stegner is brilliant. Before I talk about that, I’ll talk a bit about Irreconcilable Self.

When I teach I.S., especially in a short form venue like a conference (60 to 90 minutes, total), I teach it as a binary form to get the idea across. It can be more complex. The form I teach has two parts and relies on “I believe” statements in juxtaposition—something like this:

“I believe Romantic idealism is the only truth in this world.” Vs. “I believe deeply in personal honor and family honor and pride.”

This would be Romeo.

Notice that I have already put in more than one thing in the second “I believe” statement. The juxtaposition of these deeply held, untested beliefs is what’s important. The beliefs are deep and often, but not always, unconscious. They are, however, untested. The only way the character is able to believe both things at the same time is that the beliefs have not been tested in his or her life.

That’s the short version of I.S.

Now, Stegner. Keep in mind that Stegner is telling several stories. Lyman is narrating. He’s telling both his story and the story of Susan. Susan’s story includes the story of Oliver and Frank. Each of these major characters has an I.S. that generally functions beneath their consciousness and either drives or allows them to act in the ways they do. Each character has their beliefs tested. Lyman’s is tested by the telling of the story and the revelations that come because of that. His I.S. is something like, “I believe I am a good man from good stock” vs. “I believe the world and my family owe me for their betrayals.” His I.S. is tested by revelations and experience. He abandons the second belief, modifies the first one, and reconciles his experience into, “My choices create the love around me.”

Okay, I’m making this up on the fly, so don’t expect “correct” summary descriptions of a novel I read a long time ago. I’m just trying to give an example that might be useful for you.

Frank can’t reconcile his beliefs. He kills himself. That’s, more-or-less, the definition of tragedy. I’d say his belief was something like, “I believe I’m a good and loyal friend” vs. “I believe I love Susan beyond life itself.” Yeah, that doesn’t work out for him. If memory serves, he kills himself.

Oliver is something like, “I believe I’m an honorable, educated, man worthy of love and loyalty” vs. “I believe one more shovel full of dirt and I’ll strike it rich and save everyone around me.” Or, maybe, “I believe I’m a good husband and hard worker” vs. “I believe my worth is determined by the success of my next project.” I’d have to go back and reread it to do better.

Now, Susan, who is probably the most interesting character in the whole nested story mess, appears to be dragged through events, but she really isn’t. She’s just more subtle. Her I.S. is something like, “I believe in the trendy, romantic idealization of love and the West” vs. “I believe in family values and am a good wife and mother.”

The end position for a character who has resolved their I.S. (transformed) is one of the following:

  1. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs and die (Frank). I might also argue that Oliver ends up in this position, but he dies emotionally and spiritually.
  2. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs, but they find a new belief on which to base life choices and actions (Lyman).
  3. Experiences force the character to reject one belief and embrace the other (Susan).
  4. Experiences force the character to find a way to reconcile the two beliefs and live on in harmony with both (Nobody in that story).

Okay, on to memoir.

The chief problem I see when memoirists approach the use of fiction techniques in telling their stories is that they have difficulty stepping back to examine themselves for the underlying psychological, philosophical, and sociological understanding that fiction writers apply when working with made up characters. Finding your own I.S. is like trying to grab your shoelaces and lift yourself up so you can reach a book on the highest shelf. Even if you succeed in violating the laws of physics, you can’t let go of your shoelaces to reach for the book.

The various successful memoirists I have worked with have had to do extensive work in separating themselves from the character who represents them in the story. It’s much harder than making someone up from scratch, but the techniques are the same. For Memoirists, the trick is to do a lot of work figuring out what the core significance of the experience was both for the writer and for the reader. Sometimes, a very clear statement of the experiencing character’s main transformation will allow you to work backward into the land of unconsidered beliefs. Sometimes, deciding to assign an I.S. and then attempting to cause the story to conform to that I.S. will result in either success or failures that provide insights into what was really going on deeper down during the experience.

Regardless, one of the tasks the memoirist must always remember is that no matter what they think the experience meant to them, the end result is only useful if the reading experience means something to the reader. Those two positions are not in any way connected except through craft. Sometimes, they are two completely different meaning results.

I haven’t read your story, and I don’t know enough about it to name the I.S. for you. Frankly, that’s probably a bad idea anyway. However, I can say that once you know it, it is only one of three core control structures I teach. The other two are “arc” and “premise.”

That said, here’s how you described your I.S.: “opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity

The description you provided could be translated into I.S. form like this:

I.S.: “I believe I will only be whole if I am a known, respected member of a small, rural community.” Vs. “I believe only the anonymity of city life will let me fully express who I am.”

Do keep in mind that at story open the character rarely knows they believe both things. Given the above I.S., I can certainly see how a story that demonstrates this conflict of values and transformation of a person could be told. I can’t, however, really speak to how your character and your character context will manifest these belief systems on the dialectic, tactical, conflict set, scene, sequence, or movement dramatic levels. I think that’s where you’re getting stuck. You have an I.S., but the translation of it into increments of stress and change caused by experience isn’t taking your story “from-to” in a way that feels both true and satisfying to you on the I.S. level. For that kind of analysis, I’d also need the premise, arc, and a synoptic outline that captures emotional change resulting from the conflict for each dramatic scene.

I don’t have time or space to do a full exposition of these ideas here, but I can say that by using the control concepts of arc, premise, and I.S., it is possible to analyze the story along the conceptual boundaries readers use to internalize emotions while reading. Subconsciously, readers look for moments of emotional change. In fact, physiologically, they respond to those moments before they have time to think about them. The speed of emotional response overriding the speed of cognitive response is one of the things that keeps readers in the story. Being able to name the I.S., being able to see how each moment of the story either stresses the character’s belief system or confirms it (which is another kind of stress since things will get worse because of confirmations), being able to incrementally move the stress levels toward a personal, emotional/psychological crisis in which the character experiences one of the reconciliation results described above, and being able to deliver the emotional power of that moment of transformation to the reader in a context that allows the reader to FEEL its value to them is, at core, what all story telling is about.

I’m sorry I can’t provide more insight than this. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep and…

Best of luck and skill to you.

Eric

 

Reader Experience of Character

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The Instructor during A Relaxed Fiction Fluency Seminar Moment (Source: MK Martin.)

Reader Experience of Character; by Eric Witchey

First, an apology. I’ve been very busy working on consulting work and preparing a couple of classes, so I’m late on my volunteer, shared blogging commitment. Mea Culpa. To rectify that, I’m offering a few thoughts from the first class of a six month series I’ll be doing for WordCrafters in Eugene. A link to the class appears at the end of this little essay. The classes can be taken as stand-alone classes or as a coherent series at a discount. Regardless, they will be fun and applicable to both long and short form fiction.

Now, on to a few character concepts to consider. This is, essentially, the introduction to the first class and an invitation to join us.

Begin:

Character exists in the mind/heart of the reader. Given the same text, no two readers have exactly the same character in their mind/heart. Reader perception of character is made of up of 1/3 literal text, 1/3 implication, and 1/3 projection. Once the reader has internalized an understanding of the interaction of the thirds, the writer violates the reader’s perceptions at great risk of losing the reader. I’m not saying it can’t be done to good effect. I’m saying it is rare, risky, and should only be done intentionally or if the writer believes they are a god of luck.

Figure 1 shows the components that the reader combines to create their experience of character/story: Text, Implication, and Projection.

VennImpProjTextFigure 1: The Reader Creates Character in Their Mind/Heart through Interaction of Three Mechanisms

While the reader derives their perception of character from the above mechanisms, the internalized construct that is the imagined character in their minds can be described as a different three part construct.

Thanks go out to James N. Frey for first introducing me to this consideration of character aspects.

From text, implication, and projection, the reader builds up an aggregation of beliefs about the character’s psychology, sociology, and physiology. Each of these is equal in weight in terms of interaction with one another and impact on the reader’s experience of the character.

Even though the text may not present them as equal by offering each equal real estate, the mind/heart of the reader will create the missing bits as needed (up to a point).

Figure 2 shows the components that the reader combines to create their sense of character: Psychology, Sociology, and Physiology.

VennSocPsychPysThemFigure 2: The Reader Internalizes Three Character Components, which Are Inseparable from Story Thematics

Now, what I have said so far is pretty straight forward, albeit a little abstract. Even so, most writers can begin to see how they might build a catalog of physical character traits, how they might build up a backstory for each character, and how they might set both the backstory and the foreground story in a sociological milieu they have created. All good, and these are certainly things we will explore.

However, this is where it gets interesting and where many writers run into trouble, especially if they imagine story progressively in the same order readers read stories.

For a fully satisfying read, the reader’s perception of character must be loaded with elements that are either resonant with or in contrast to the thematics of the story. The nature of characters cannot be separated from the dramatics and thematics of the story. In a very real sense, character IS story.

One definition of story I’m very fond of is: Story is the demonstration of successful personal and social change as a result of stress.

In Figure 2, the three-part overlap at the center is labelled “thematics.” The reader’s perception of characters is critical in their eventual understanding of the themes of the story. If the characters are built with sufficient skill, the reader’s perception of them will be inseparable from the reader’s perception of the themes the story demonstrates.

The themes being demonstrated, or even just touched upon, by aspects of character may be explicit or implicit in the text, which is another way of saying the actual, literal textual representation of character may present or imply themes. Additionally, the reader will project their own life experience into the story and onto the character. Note that I said “will” and not “might.” No reader can divorce themselves completely from personal experience, and the writer must manage the reader’s projections by being very specific and appropriately vague. That last bit gets a lot of writing instructors a bit up in my face. It flies in the face of the “concrete details” and “show, don’t tell” adages. However, any selling fiction writer will likely agree that knowing how to let the reader’s imagination create a story is intertwined with knowing what words to put on the page and what words to leave off.

The first two classes in the six month series will explore the above theoretical interactions by practicing hands-on techniques for developing and managing characters in emotionally compelling fiction. The first class will focus primarily on how the reader builds their understanding of character, and hence story and theme, from what the character says and does. The second class will focus primarily on how the reader builds their understanding of character from the more subtle influences of the character’s social and psychological history as presented or implied in decision making and setting experience. Both classes will explore techniques for managing the reader’s contribution to character and story.

Here’s the link to the series. I hope we fill the room with highly creative, motivated writers who challenge the limits of techniques we play with. That is when the classes really sing for everyone involved.

https://wordcraftersineugene.org/ff_witchey/

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

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