Tarot and the Craft of Writing

By Cynthia Ray

The Tarot is a symbolical, archetypical, pictorial description of the way things work.  It is both personal and universal.  The Tarot also outlines the ins and outs of creating and writing a story, the experience of writing, and the required tools and competencies. There are 21 major trump and here I will briefly illustrate their connection to the creative process of the writer.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 001 The Fool #0

0.  Writing a novel is a path that only a fool would begin, and only a fool could     complete.  The Fool is an androgynous figure setting out on the journey of creating a story and carries a bag of past experience to draw from. The dog represents the companion muse who will accompany this Fool on his/her journey, but the Fool has their attention upon the higher goal, not paying attention to the whopping big cliff s/he is about to step off of.  Here we go!

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 002 The Magician #1

  1. To begin anything, and especially a novel, one must have desire and will.  Almost like magic, what one chooses to focus on and put attention upon, fueled by desire, is that which grows, represented by the Magicians garden of roses and lilies.  Bringing focused attention and concentration to bear on the task is the gift of the Magician.  The writers’ tools sit upon the table.  The wand is will, the cup is imagination, the sword is action, while the coin represents the final form.   It will take a strong will, fueled by imagination to take the necessary actions to bring ideas into a completed story that is perfect and beautifully formed.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 013 High Priestess #2

  1. The High Priestess is the door to the great subconscious, both the personal and the collective, universal subconscious that Jung speaks of, from which all ideas and inspirations arise. The water from her gown flows through all the cards, ever present, and informs, shapes and nourishes every word that pours from the writers’ pen.  The moons that crown her hair stand for the waxing and waning and rhythm of the creative process.  Expect ups and downs.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 016 The Empress #3

  1. The pregnant Empress is the writers’ wonderful, weird, creative Imagination. She takes the tiny seeds planted by the Magician and brings forth a riot of form and ideas in her wild garden.  The mind of the writer produces many various and sundry ideas for the novel, many complex characters with which to people it, and revels in the pure audacity of the potential and possibilities.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 017 The Emperor #4

  1. The Emperor stand for reason, order and form. Here the writer begins to organize potential plots into an outline, and even writers who are outline adverse, must conceive of an orderly progression of the story that will lead to a satisfactory conclusion.  The Emperor is associated with vision and sight, and every writer needs a coherent vision and line of sight to where the story is going, and how to get there.  The Emperor is a visionary map maker.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 018 The Teacher #5

  1. The Teacher is the writers own inner voice. The key to this step is finding and listening to that voice.  Critique groups are helpful and necessary, advice from the well-known authors and craft books are a good foundation, and practice and study all lend themselves to mastery of the craft of writing, but the only true guide is the writers own unique VOICE that must come through the story, told in his or her own unique way.  The path to finding that voice is trial and error and ever-vigilant practice of listening.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 019 The Lovers #6

  1. The letter Zain associated with this card means sword, and here the writer must begin the process of cutting away anything that does not lead the story forward. This cutting away requires a willingness to remove, without regret, whatever does not serve the higher purpose of the story.  The Lovers also stand for discrimination, which is related to the sense of smell.  The writer must sniff out the true core and essential elements of the story, versus the “fluff’, sometimes referred to as the writers’ “darlings”, that must be jettisoned.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 020 The Chariot #7

  1. The Chariot stands for Victory, and the conquest of illusion. The war a writer wages is an inner struggle, wrestling with inner demons and voices that tell the writer they are not good enough, that the story is valueless, and to surrender, to give up. The Charioteer is our inner Self, who hold the reins of mind and emotions and leads us over a rough and difficult road to triumph over those illusions-a victory that allows the writer to continue on the quest, tapping into the desire and will.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 021 Strength #8

  1. Strength of Purpose. This lion is not a docile, submissive force, but a wild and powerful energy that must be tamed and harnessed, and its power is the writers’ potential creativity.  This creativity must be channeled through the application of consistent, habitual effort.  Just as the physical body builds strength by the habit of daily exercise, consistent patterns and writing practices are required to produce meaningful results.  A strong writer is a consistent writer.  This process is represented by the many leaves and roses draped around the neck of the lion.  The infinity symbol shows that the work of writing is accomplished hour by hour, day by day, month by month, although ideas and inspirations arise outside of time.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 022 The Hermit #9.jpg

  1. Writing is a solitary activity, and often feels like a solitary climb up a steep mountain. The writer must take time, and create space, to withdraw from the world and write. The Hermit stands alone on a dark mountain, showing the way, and represents all the writers that have gone before, accomplished a work, and all the wonderful stories that shine their light into the world.  The stories that inspired the writer to add to the treasures that we turn to when we are lost, when we are grieving, when we are curious.  The Hermit is also the writer her/himself at the end of every chapter, looking forward, looking back.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 003 Wheel of Fortune #10

  1. The Wheel of Fortune is movement, rotation, involution and evolution. In this stage, the writer is  fully engaged  in the story as it evolves and changes and emerges from the mind of the writer.  The novel is on its way to manifesting through its many phases.  There are re-writes, and re-thinking of plot lines, and characters motivations.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 004 Justice #11

  1. All the mistakes of plotting, character development, writing style will show up her to be judged and elements either found wanting, directed back for another spin of the wheel, or shown to be worthy.  Another meaning of this card is action, and for each action there is always an equal reaction – it is cause and effect.  Either the actions and descriptions and responses of the characters work or they don’t. Here the writer weighs her story on the scales, looking for wholeness in the way all of the parts fit together, assuring that the story is balanced, and that it draws the reader into its heart, and evokes response.  There is no punishment or damnation this analytical weighing of the story and its parts.  It is time once again to use the sword of discernment that we first took up in the Lovers card, only at a higher level.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 005 Suspended Man #12

  1. The state associated with the Hanged Man or Suspended Man is Silence. All previous ways of thinking are suspended in this quietness as we pause and leave judgement behind.  In this suspension of judgement and everything the writer thought about the book before, there is clarity.  Clarity of the deeper themes, purposes and connections that lift the writer up out of the words on the pages in order to see, feel, and know the soul of the book.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 006 Transition #13

  1. The real meaning of Transition (Death) is change, motion and transformation. The end of one cycle is the beginning of another.  The revelations, new connections and ideas that were revealed in the suspended state lead the writer to further transformation of the book.  It might mean that the writer rearranges major parts of the novel, or even starts over but is ultimately able to bring their story to completion.  With a completed first draft in hand, the writer has indeed accomplished much, which has brought him/her to bare bones of themselves, poured out into the chapters.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 007 Temperance #14.jpg

  1. Metal is tempered with fire and water, to make it stronger. Here, testing and trials prove the worth of the writers’ words and insights bring further refinements.  There are many ways to test the and temper the book; beta readers, critique groups and the necessary and helpful editor.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 008 The Deceiver #15

  1. The Deceiver (Devil) is a form of self-doubt, and the inner voices which bedevil the writer with half-truths, deceptions and lies. The same inner demons and illusions were faced earlier, but they return as the writer begins to receive feedback from editors and readers.  If the writer turns their attention and locus outward, instead of following their own inner compass they will find themselves lost and unable to move forward.  The figures in the card have chains around their necks, but when they choose to, they can simply lift them off and walk away from their self-imposed bondage.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 009 The Tower #16

  1. The flash of lightening that strikes the Tower comes from the Hermits Lantern, bringing inspiration that topple old ideas and concepts. The toppled figures are also the inner demons of the previous card, which are vanquished by the flash of truth and dispelling of illusion. The card is associated with Awakening and exciting intelligence.  The writer experiences the excitement of discovering a hidden theme, or a new way of expressing an idea, the discovery of a vein to mine in the book that was previously hidden, and heady freedom from the chains of the past.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 010 The Star #17

  1. The Star is linked with Meditation and Revelation. At this point, after many iterations, the writer is working on a final draft of their book.  The book is part of the writer’s consciousness and both the conscious and subconscious are working on it day and night.  Even when the writer is not writing, the work continues to percolate, and in the rest, the in-between times, even in sleep, gifts of insight are given.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 011 The Moon #18

  1. The Moon represents Organization. Organization has been at play all along as the story unfolded, but now the final changes to the book are made. The Moon also represents rhythm and cycles, and the ups and downs that are always at play in the writing process.   The final version of the book is nearly complete.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 012 The Sun #19

  1. The Sun shines it light upon the writer here. The intelligence associated with the Sun is Collective intelligence, which mean to bring together, to combine to unify and synthesize. It brings all the lessons of all the cards together in this final form. The writer experiences joy and satisfaction as the book is brought to conclusion.  There should be dancing.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 014 Judgement #20.jpg

  1. Judgement implies completion, termination. Here the final edits are made in preparation for publication and all is made ready for the books release into the world.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 015 The World #21.jpg

  1. Publication! At last the book enters the World as a published book!  The letter of this card means signature, and the story and its unique signature takes its place among all of the stories that have been told, to enter the mind and hearts of mankind.  There may be tours and promotions and blogs, but eventually the journey begins again as the writer sets pen to the next volume.

 

For those interested in delving into the deeper meanings of the Tarot, you may be interested in my ongoing virtual classes on the topic.  Find out more here:

This website is also a great resource for exploring more about the Tarot.

 

When Your Novels Sucks And You Stick it in a Drawer

By Lisa Alber

I happened to see this question posted on Facebook recently:

For those of you who have novel manuscripts that you put away because they weren’t working (i.e. they sucked), what were the problems that you noticed in those drafts?

Normally, I don’t go in for pseudo-survey conversational gambits like this. My interest that day might have had something to do with the drawer novel that I periodically pull out and then shove back in the drawer. It might also have had something to do with my work-in-progress, which almost landed in the same drawer a dozen times last year.

Interestingly, most of the responses fell into the following categories:

  • Not enough plot: Lack of forward momentum. Episodic scenes with protagonists on the road to nowhere. (Thank you, Talking Heads.) Conflict and goals and obstacles and stakes apparently sidelined.
  • Passive protagonist (often linked to plotlessness): Characters with not enough to do. Too much rumination and thinking, not enough movement. Reactive rather than proactive.
  • Too much plot: Bigger plot than you know what to do with. Situation so complex you can’t write your way out of it. Too many subplots.
  • You don’t know but it’s off: No matter what you do, it doesn’t feel right. (This one’s a toughy.)

The responses got me thinking about my drawer novel and my novel in progress.

My drawer novel is a case of too much plot and my inability to let some of it go. I know! I drive myself nuts sometimes. I’ve noodled every which way with the parallel plot line (I love a good parallel plot line), but it’s too much. The entire thing’s gotta be re-jiggered into one storyline … Next time. Or maybe never. Maybe that was my practice novel … (but I can’t quite let it go!)

My work-in-progress also contains a parallel plot line — heh — but I’m more skilled than I was when I wrote the drawer novel. Nevertheless, something was off.

Head. Wall. Ouch. Repeat.

I was suffering from a case of I-don’t-know-but-it’s-off. My solution was to think bigger picture: voice and perspective. I engaged in a thought experiment in which I imagined the story from some other character’s point of view, and imagined it told in first person instead of third (or vice versa). In my case, this was enough to rock my world and a-ha myself out of my stuckness.

Whew! Massive rewrite, to be sure, however, at long last I’m back to having fun with the story. Which, it seems to me, is the ultimate barometer. If, no matter what you do, you keep not having fun with a novel, let it go.

The last pattern I noticed in the Facebook responses was that the bullish attitudes about manuscript problems tended to come from the more experienced writers; these were problems they’d yet to solve, that was all. Most stories are salvageable, but it may take a few (or more, probably more) years of craft experience to learn the art of the salvage.

Oh, and don’t forget your friendly neighborhood beta readers and brainstorming partners. They save me all the time.

A Murder of Writers or a Writing Community?

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A Murder of Writers or a Writing Community?

Eric Witchey

Over the 29 years I have made a living as a freelance writer and communication consultant, I have experienced many different writing communities. I’ve worked among supportive and professional technical writers, and I have worked among corporate liars and thieves. I have seen students make it onto the NYT best-seller lists, and I have seen amazing, powerful fiction writers driven to their knees by the grinding, marketing-driven publishing industry. I have seen egoists in positions of power destroy the momentum of career paths, and I have seen agents steal from writers. Most important, I have been lucky to know some amazing, accomplished writers who give generously of themselves and constantly remind me that the lifestyle of a writer is a path of exploration, self-discovery, heart, mind, and imagination. That path is not the same thing as the business that is writing.

The single most destructive phenomenon to community among writers that I see is comparison. Whether it is comparison of self to other or other to self, the result is an implied false competition between people who could, and should, find common ground for cooperation.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m not saying that hard work and dedication are not important. I’m not saying we should give endlessly to one another without setting personal boundaries. I’m saying that the vision of success one person has should be different than the vision of success anyone else has.

In our culture, if you use the word success in casual company, visions of being high in the hierarchy of a discipline come to mind. Often, that hierarchy is defined by position, by power, by financial wealth, and by material acquisition.

For some people, material things are part of their vision of success for themselves. That’s not a problem unless they judge others based on what they have or don’t have. For example, I have one life-loving friend who gets excited when she buys something for herself with money earned by writing. It has always been fun to see her excitement and amazement that in her life she is able to do that. For her, that is success. Her success isn’t measured by more than others or volume. It is measured by a bill paid or a television purchased using money she earned with her imagination and skill.

Another friend of mine considers it amazing when he adds a rejection slip to his “collection.” Certainly, he wants more financial freedom for his writing, but I never get the sense that financial freedom means more money or freedom than others or respect for him based on the money he earns. For him, money is always about being able to write more stories.

I draw inspiration from people like these two. I look at my own place in the neurodiversity of the world of writers, and I think in terms of what I can do with what I have. Today, I wrote a new short story. That’s my success. Forty years ago, I couldn’t have remained focused long enough to do that.

Often, when I teach, I discover that the people I work with have diverse definitions of success, but they talk about success as if it is the same for everyone. Writers come into classes or meet with other writers, and they talk about how many stories are in the mail, how many sales they have, where they are with review numbers, where they are on various lists, or what awards they have won. Some talk about numbers of stories sold. Hell, I have a standardized script I recite when people ask me questions about what I write. However, success is rarely about the things that writers talk about or use as metrics for comparison. Success, that feeling of personal satisfaction, comes from a deeper, more personal place.

Here’s an example of how casually we writers can treat each other poorly. About fifteen years ago, I had won some awards and published a number of stories in various genres. While attending a seminar taught by my friend Bruce Holland Rogers, I partnered with a young woman for an exercise. We collaborated on a short piece. She wrote a line. I wrote a line. She wrote a line. I wrote a line. You get the idea.

She wrote about flowers and pastoral settings. I introduced bees, a horse, and a wounded rider. We went back and forth. Eventually, she said, “Why do you do that?”

“What?” I seriously didn’t know what she was asking.

“Make the scene ugly.”

Confused, I went back over what we had written, and I realized that I had been attempting to bring conflict onto the page quickly because we had so little room to work. She had been attempting to create a pastoral, poetic moment of beautiful language.

Was I wrong? Of course not.

Was she wrong? Of course not.

“I’m introducing conflict,” I said.

“What kind of fiction do you write?”

Now, any writer who has been a writer for any length of time knows that this question is always hammer-locked, round-chambered, loaded. So, I recited my script, “I have sold science fiction, fantasy, horror, literary, romance….” People who know me know this patter. In the moment, it was preemptive self defense.

When I was done, she said, “Oh. You’re only a commercial writer.”

That word, “only,” is a short blade to the gut.

I pulled out my broadsword. “Yes. I sell what I write.”

Ha! Take that!

Okay, now how sad is that whole exchange?

Both of us were only looking for respect for what we spend so much of our lives doing. Both of us managed to put the other one down. Neither of us got the respect that would have satisfied some aspect of our criteria for personal success. She looked down her nose at me because I’m “only” a commercial writer, despite my literary sales. I shot back just as much venom in my barbed, “Yes, I sell…” We didn’t succeed in building a story, nor did we succeed on any other front.

We could have. She could have talked to me about what I was trying to do. I could have talked to her about what she was trying to do. We could have learned technique from one another. We could have shared hopes and plans. I might have known an editor who would like what she wrote. She might have known a reader who might like what I wrote.

Instead, we tried to impose our visions of success on one another. We tried to force respect rather than develop understanding.

Is my material vision of success a new car? No. My car is 27 years old. I love it. I’ll cry when it dies. My material vision of success does, however, include the newish computer and monitor I’m using to write these words. Is my heart’s vision of success the NYT list? No. I get much more excited about a fan letter or my sister calling me up to tell me about the deep-heart crying one of my stories caused. Is my success about how high I can go in the imaginary pantheon of the gods of writing? No. My personal vision is more about how far I’ve come from the day my high school guidance counselor told me I had good eye-hand coordination and would make a good factory worker but shouldn’t bother with college applications. My success is about years of therapy, diagnostics, and learning to live in my own skin in order to begin to be able to tap the emotions that let me tell a story that people will read. I get excited about my distance from my starting point much more than I get excited about the apparent altitude others perceive.

In a room full of 100 writers, I know one thing. Not even one of them is neurotypical in terms of how our culture measures such things. They all sit alone in back rooms and coffee shops and basements putting little black squiggles in a row until they feel right, and they all hope that someone will pick up those little black squiggles and use them to trigger an imagined experience that is rich, powerful, and meaningful.

I’m sorry to tell you this if you are a writer, but that’s just not normal.

However, it is glorious. It is worthy of respect and honor. It is necessary to the culture and the future.

Your success may be one sentence a day—today. It might be calming down enough to sit at the table or adding an extra hundred words to your daily word count. Your success might be buying a microwave with writing money, or it might be to free up enough time this year to finish a novel. Your success might be hitting the Times list, but equally powerful and important to the individual, it might be getting out of a town that expects you to make tail pipes for the rest of your life when your deepest heart knows you were meant to tell stories.

Whatever your vision of your success, I salute it. May the new year, and every day of it, bring you close to your success. May the people around you respect you for your vision of your success. Most of all, may all the writers who believe community is possible remember that we are not a murder of writers. We are a community of diverse hearts, minds, and imaginations—a writing community.

-End-

2018’s End and 2019’s Beginning In Poem By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Working on my latest painting (see below) allowed me to complete my annual year end poem, The Spirit of Christmas.  The process of creating the painting gave me a sense of peace, renewal, and an overwhelming wish to stop time so I could live in its otherworldly glow.  So dear readers, my wish for you in the coming year, are those same things–peace, renewal and an abundance of time to stand in nature’s glow.

The Spirit of Christmas

Our Christmas tree is once again frosted with fine strands of tinsel glowing, bright, and white.

And when Grandson Max frosted his own tree this year, a next generational tradition, took flight.

Yes, the Spirit of Christmas has us in its thrall, a time of year, when its magical essence, captures us, big, or small.

From the smell of earthy pine filling the air, to the mouth watering scent, of the sweet confections, we prepare.

It is one of my favorite times of year.

One where even opponents, can raise a sparkling glass together, in good cheer.

But before the year of 2018 sounds it final note,

let us look back on some of the highlights, worthy of a quote.

Wasn’t the world’s faith in miracles restored with unerring belief?

When from a flooded cave, emerged 12 boys, and in unison our worry fled, like a thief.

And we must give thanks to Nobel Prize winners’, Dr.’s Honjo, and Allison.

For through their immunotherapy research, our fight against cancer, will yet, be won.

Now to the House we must go, as it sports a new vibe, a fresh coat of paint if you will,

when a palette of all sexes, and shades of color, reclaimed a part of the, infamous Hill.

And have you ever seen the phrase, “never say never” played out in real life?

Well in April, North and South Korea’s leaders actually met to discuss, their decade long strife.

A new addition is forthcoming in England’s royal bloodline, perhaps, even something new.

For what will the Queen say, if the bundle in the baby blanket, is of a decidedly, darker hue?

Here ye, here ye, we have a new “word of the year” Dictionary.com, has proclaimed.

“Misinformation” is the winner as the guilty, continue, to not be named.

Then there is Oregon’s youth, and their legal action over climate change.

Let us hope for a swift, suitable, resolution in this life altering exchange.

On a lighter note, if you’re Barbara Streisand, and for your beloved dog Samantha, death calls,

you simply have her cloned, and release a new album titled, Walls.

Now we must not forget, those who this year, have gone beyond the veil,

even as their art, spirit, and legacy will eternally prevail.

Here’s to Ms. Aretha Franklin the Queen of Soul, who will forevermore,

with the greatest of “RESPECT”, be on the “Highway to Heaven” tour.

And let us not forget Oregon’s own David Ogden Stiers, who with his snobbish, balderdash, gave us fits of laughter through his iconic role as Major Winchester, in the TV series, Mash.

And how will superheroes blossom in the imaginations of future generations,

without Mr. Stan Lee to cast them in such vivid, story illustrations?

Now to the stars we must gaze looking toward an illusive black hole.

For this is where Mr. Stephen Hawking, has set up camp, in this, his final role.

Dear friends, I know there are many more for whom we should bid a final farewell.

And there is also an over abundance of life altering quotes, yet to tell.

But alas, I must end this annual poem of mine,

as I attempt to once again capture the final stanzas’ in rhyme.

We are each and every one of us, hurtling through space on this big, blue ball.

Would it not be easier if we took on the mantra of the musketeers? “All for one, and one for all.”

For in reality, it is within each and every one of our own, hand’s grasp,

to reach across the aisle, and simply ask,

“Help me to understand, let us work together, to make the lives of future generations, that, much, better.”

Night Dreams, Original Art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Night Dreams copy

 

 

Just Read!

By Cynthia Ray

Last week on the Shadowspinners blog, Elizabeth Engstrom said, “What’s better than receiving a good book for Christmas? Nothing. Seriously. There’s nothing better.”

reading2=

Only one thing could be better than receiving a book, and that is reading the book.  It is not the book itself, but the story contained therein that is the true gift.  READING.  I can open my kindle app  or pull out a paperback,anytime, anywhere,  and immediately be immersed in other worlds and other times.

People that love to read always find time to indulge in this activity.  While idling in line at the post office, or in the dentists waiting room, in the bathroom, on the beach, and every night before sleep, during coffee and lunch breaks, sitting on the bus, or in a lawn chair in the backyard-weeding be damned!

My love affiar with reading began as a child–books transported me into other worlds. I read the same stories over and over. Books like Heidi, Black Beauty, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, and all the volumes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Anderson. The characters were my friends and I loved them.

I live with messy piles of books around my bed, and shelves crammed with eclectic volumes on a wide range of topics  For a while, I co-owned a small bookstore in a small town called “The Passport”.  Books are a passport to a thousand places, and do not require a reservation, or any outlay of cash.  Emily Dickensen felt the same way and says it well:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry—
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll—
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.

This week, I am in the middle of moving, and in the midst of boxes, things to do, and the general chaos of dismantling my life in one place and re-creating it in another.  My hard cover books and paperbacks are packed up and ready to be opened and loved like the old friends they are, but I still take time to read—not a day goes by that I do not read.  I sit down in a corner with my kindle and away I go, to whatever world or story the author has crafted for me.

Reading is entertainment and pleasure. Reading is transformatave, dangerous and radical. Reading can be frightening. Reading hurts.  Reading is life.

reading

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-

Paper Clip by John Burridge

Today on ShadowSpinners we welcome John Burridge, who brings us a tale of mystery, inspiration, and not-so-ordinary objects.

I linger outside the supermarket where I sometimes write.  The hot sky is the color of ash, as if someone has smeared the remains of a BBQ pit across heaven.  The breeze makes it seem like the grey smudge above hides rain, but the forecast is for heat and an insulating inversion.  I’m tempted to make this a drinking night–the day’s been frustrating–but I opt to try to write instead.  A cold blast of air-conditioning hits my face as I walk inside.  

I stalk through the aisles, try to find something that will inspire me to write, purchase some healthy-ish snacks, then head upstairs.  The table I normally write at in the supermarket’s mezzanine is occupied by an older lady with the props of homelessness:  an over-burdened cart, which might have been an IV rack in a past life, its thick grey wheels signaling that it’s possibly from a hospital or nursing home, with full, plastic rival-market shopping bags hanging from it.

I cast about the mezzanine and end up at another table; like all the others, it’s a cool, dark, and highly polished sheet of marble or artisanal concrete, flecked with mica glinting like stars.

I set up my tablet, plug in headphones against the inevitable wailing children, cell-phone-using psychiatry patients, and estranged roommates.  I type–hoping that this time the words will flow like a spring in an oasis; like the aurora borealis at midnight; like a pod of dolphins dancing among the waves; like lover’s kisses along the nape, around the hollow of the neck, and over those places loved best.

Instead, I write ten or so lines of bad Oscar Wilde pastiche and maybe three lines about the Prince of Lyres standing over splinters of his instrument in front of the still locked gates of the underworld.  Gee, thanks, subconscious.  Tell me something I don’t already know.

Then the children, their mothers, the cell-phone users, and irked roommates parade by my foreign workspace–each one stomping the floor in just the right place to make my borrowed workspace tremble.  This would never happen at my regular table, which is not on the path to the market’s restrooms.

The old woman–pushing her cart before her–joins the parade, makes for the elevator, and exits the mezzanine.

By this time, I’m thinking this isn’t going to be a good writing night and I should just go meet up with my ex-critique group for a drink–but, it’s still early, and, actually, I should be saving my money.  A math tutoring session at the next table over decides me that if I’m going to not-write doggerel, I may as well do it in a better setting.  Besides, an attendant with antiseptic spray and cleaning rag has swooped over the vacated tables.  I scoop up snacks, pack, tablet, and keyboard, and I walk–headphones still on–to my regular spot.

I get to the table and there in the dark-sky-and-mica-star center of it is a paperclip.  Which slaps me back in time.  Weeks ago last June, at an elder-stateswoman-writer’s memorial, someone told a story about paperclips.  A few days before the writer died, the story-teller (an atheist) and the writer were joking around about supposed afterlives and randomly came up with the word “paperclip” as the message the writer would send as proof if she found herself in heaven.  The day after, the story-teller, in a moment of synchronicity, inexplicably found two paperclips–which he presented to the memorial gathering–linked, in his pocket.

I pick up this singleton paperclip.  It’s steel or some other silvery metal, with little grooves worked into the loops for extra gripping friction.

What meaning does one assign a paperclip–which may have been left behind by an elderly and possibly homeless woman when she left, pushing her belongings and errands out into the hot evening with a setting sun hidden by smoke and ash?

Paperclips hold pages together–paper planes which touch but do not connect.  Maybe the paperclip says, “Hold together;” but hold what?  There’s nothing currently in it more substantial than thought.

I rotate the paperclip in my fingers.  It’s not perfectly flat.  The inner loop of metal is pulled up slightly from the outer loop.  At one point it held together something–a manuscript? a prescription and receipt? a photo and resume?–but holding whatever together has warped it.

I put it down next to my keyboard and stare at it as I type.

Is the shade of a great writer leaving me a paperclip as a sign of encouragement?  Or, is it a reward for sitting with butt in chair and fingers on keyboard instead of slouching against a tavern table with a margarita in my hand?  Or, is it a challenge–write the story this empty paperclip will have to hold together?  Or, is it a message–the writer connects meanings to the actions in the text?  Yeah, right.  “Don’t lose the day job,” would be a more likely message, and I imagine she’d have better uses for manifesting paperclips, like leaving them for her family or people she’d known much longer than our two years’ acquaintance.  Or her agent.

I write all this while staring at the paperclip.  It’s getting late.  Maybe tonight I’ll dream about paperclips.  Maybe I’ll make a shirt that says, “My writer friend went to heaven and all I got was this paperclip.”  Maybe I’ll write a fantasy story about a magician who makes a talisman of paperclips linked together into a necklace:  every paperclip a star, every star a soul, every soul a story.

***

John Burridge writes short stories in the high fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary urban fantasy genres.  His work explores familial relationships, choice, and identity.  A native Oregonian, John lives with his husband, son, and two requisite cats (one fluffy and grey, the other sleek and black).

John is an alumni of the Eugene Wordos, a professional writer’s critique group.  He was an active member from 2001 to 2017, and he chaired or co-chaired their meetings from 2003 onward.

His first professional sale was to Writers of the Future.  Since then, he has garnered a few other sales and many, many rejection slips.  You can read more about him and his publishing history at https://johnburridge.blogspot.com/p/bio-writing-credits.html.