Brains Don’t Do Random, by Eric Witchey

Ripples

Brains Don’t Do Random

Eric Witchey

Every year over Halloween weekend, I go to a group of cabins in the mountains on the banks of the Mackenzie River here in Oregon. There, a little over a dozen writers and I settle in on Friday night and write scary stories. We set the goal of starting Friday night and having at least one story ready to read out loud on Saturday night. Most years, pretty much every writer gets a first draft of at least one story. Some of the more practiced and prolific writers will produce as many as three in a twenty-four-hour period.

Every year, someone finds out about this event and tells me I’m lying. “Nobody can write a short story that fast.” My response is pretty simple. I say, “Okay.” Then, I go about my business.

Every year, someone else who finds out about it says, “How can they do that?” There’s a hell of difference between the first person and the second. For the second person, I settle in and answer as best I can.

As near as I can tell, there are 4 components to being able to write 1 to 3 short story first drafts in 24 hours. The people who show up at Ghost Story Weekend have all four. If they don’t and they show up again, they generally have all four by the third year of attendance. Here they are:

  1. You have to believe it’s possible. See it happen, and you start to believe.
  2. You have to have internalized a sense of what makes a story. This is easy. If you grew up in a family that uses language, you automatically internalized a sense of story by the time you were three years old.
  3. You have to abandon the concept of making it good or getting it right. This is easy if you’re still four. It’s harder if you’re an adult; however, it can be practiced.
  4. You have to train yourself to produce in order to discover possibilities. See 3 for caveats.

The next step of talking to a writer who asked the second question usually involves them wanting to know how to practice 3 and 4. That’s a hard question to answer since no two writers are quite the same, but brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns. Where no pattern exists, the brain will create one. Anybody who has looked at the night sky and said, “Look! There’s Orion!” has acknowledged this ancient and wondrous phenomenon of the human brain.

So, back to number 2. The brain knows what a story looks like. The brain knows you want to make a story. Now, you can plan a story. In fact, I often do. I’m not in any way suggesting that you should or should not. What I’m trying to convey is how 15-17 writers can, and often do, produce 1-3 completed short fiction drafts each in 24 hours. We are not talking good, though some are quite good. We are talking fun, finished, and shared. See number 3

Where was I? Oh, yes. The brain knows what a story looks like, and the brain will create a pattern even when no actual pattern exists. So, the real trick is telling the brain you are going to create story so that it starts trying to create story patterns out of the stuff around you. There’s a bit of a ritual to this. You can make your own ritual. I have one I use every day, which I will share shortly. However, the ritual for Ghost Story Weekend is kinda like this:

  • Decide to go.
  • Sign up to go.
  • Participate in the meal planning.
  • Start paying attention to ghost stories and all things Halloween.
  • Show up, have communal dinner, laugh, talk stories, write like hell, talk more stories, walk, more communal food, get anxious about the Saturday deadline, write like hell, print it out no matter how bad you think it is, and run to the reading.

I know. That’s doesn’t sound like much of a ritual. No arcane symbols were drawn (probably). No goats were slaughtered (certainly). No virginity was lost. (as far as I know). Still, the brain experiences all this as intention. Ritual establishes intention. The brain is internalizing these things as a set of instructions to get its shit together and start building ghostly stories in order to be able to create, produce, and deliver in a community where the tribe agrees this behavior is a good, proper, and rewarded. Human brains respond to tribal values. They get this stuff. They love a good fire and a little shaman tale-telling. Even more, they love to tell the tale.

Okay, but how do you practice at home to get the brain to play this game on demand. For me, it’s been about getting up every morning and doing some speed writing. I pick a writing concept I want to practice and three random topics from a long list I’ve built up over the years. The topics don’t have to be from a list. They can be anything. The first time I did this, it was a dirty coffee cup, a newspaper article I had just read, and a picture of a submarine. In the example below, the number came from rolling ten-sided dice. I go to that number in my list and use that topic. Here are the topics from this morning:

Concept: Push Pop (a.k.a., moving in and out of backstory in this case); 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Next, I check my watch or start a timer. I’m going to write as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. In that fifteen minutes of, literally, non-stop key bashing, I will try to execute the concept and touch all three random elements.

I start pounding keys in my attempt to touch each random thing while executing the concept. I don’t force the concept or the items. I just keep them loosely in mind while I let myself move into the mental space of allowing free association to flow through my hands. If typing is too slow, do this longhand. If you are going to use dictation as your dominant mode of composition, dictate. The goal isn’t to get it right or do it well. The purpose is to internalize patterns (concepts) while seeking to strengthen your flow state connection from brain/heart to your mode of composition.

In terms of Ghost Story Weekend, the concept would be Ghost Story.

The random topics can’t be tolerated by the brain. The brain needs a pattern, so it will almost automatically create one. Because of that, and no matter how impossible it seems, the mind will occasionally deliver the beginnings of an actual story. The more often you do this kind of thing, the more often it will deliver a story start. You don’t need to look for it or try to make it happen. When it does happen, you’ll know. You’ll be pounding away and have no thought in your mind of actually writing a story. Then, suddenly, you’ll go, “Huh. That’s a story. It just needs X, Y, or Z, and it’s a story. I’ll be damned.”

Of course, about then, the fifteen-minute timer will go off. You’ll think, “Shit. I was just getting rolling.”

So, you turn off the timer and keep rolling. I never place a limit on how much time I spend. I am always willing to continue beyond the fifteen-minute exercise. However, I do require at least the fifteen minutes.

Note: If you try this, keep in mind that it is very important to go as fast as you physically can. I tell people, and I mean it quite literally, if you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write. I can’t believe that asshole wants me to do this stupid exercise…” Keep writing like that until something shows up or until the timer goes off. Over time, it gets easier. That’s the point.

Now, this ritual I have translates nicely into Ghost Story Weekend. At this point in my life and development as a writer, I get about three story starts per seven sessions. I get about one I really like per seven sessions. Add the ritual of intention that goes with attending Ghost Story Weekend, and the number of starts per seven sessions goes up. Normally, I need maybe three random topic sessions to find the first story I’ll draft at Ghost Story Weekend. Once I have one, others seem to come more easily, which I think is because my anxiety about getting the first one is gone. I can relax into the fun of the experience.

How do the other writers do it? I’m honestly not sure, but I think the combination of ritual, tribal values, and the brain’s innate need to find or create pattern is a part of the process for every writer in attendance.

The bad news is that this year’s event has been sold out since July. The good news is that the people who make this event happen have many other events coming up. Check out http://www.wordcrafters.org.

Here’s this morning’s warm up draft from the random topics above. When my time ran out, I couldn’t quite see a story, but I could see that the map, the compass, the cold, the idea of a planned life–all of these could be used to support a theme about a good life being built from the moments in which we are truly lost. We’ll see. I saved it. I always do. You never know when the brain will wake you up at 3 a.m. and demand that you complete the pattern it came up with while you were trying to sleep.

Concept: Push Pop; 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Sixteen miles was eight more than I had intended. The truck welcomed me a little after sunset, and the late winter freeze of falling night washed through the valley and my skin. Even before I reached the truck, my body betrayed my fear, relief, and nascent hypothermia. Still, my ego made me look around to see who else might have parked in the sno-park—who might see the late day cross-country skier returning to the safety of his truck and wonder what he had been doing out in the back country so late into the afternoon that another half hour would have seen him returning to the shelter of park, truck, and warmth in a racing skin in temperatures nearing 0.

I knew it was stupid. Part of me even knew it was cold, hunger, and dehydration, but pride kills people, and I was a person. Nobody saw me clatter over the plow piled snow ridge and the edge of the lot. Nobody saw me fall, strip off my skis, and hobble to the rear of my truck, and nobody saw me drop my ass onto the bumper of the truck even before I made an attempt to get my car keys from my fanny pack.

A vague, self-observing part of me laughed at my vanity. Another, less vague voice, smiled in relief.

Hubris? Pride? Narcissism?

Hypothermia. I started to shake in earnest, and I knew I needed to get my keys, get into the truck, start it, and crank up the heat before I would be able to put my gear away.

The fanny pack didn’t cooperate. Twisting it around to the front was a gymnastic workout. Finding the zipper took hours. Gripping it was like using frozen sausages as tweezers to pick up a contact lens.

The morning had been so pleasant—so full of joy and promise. A new home. A new job. My first outing in a new set of mountains. This was it—what I had worked so hard for, for so long. I had entered the world of productive white-collar citizens, and I was enjoying the benefits. I could afford the truck after seven years of bicycle only living. I could afford new skis after hand-me-downs from racers and always being five to ten years behind competitive equipment. I had new toys and a new skin instead of my coach’s high school skin.

The morning air was clear, crisp, and green wax cold. For me, it was perfect. Blue skies and squabbling scrub jays welcomed me to the Northwest forest. My trail book and maps were in order, and I had plotted my route—a short four miles, a shakedown route. An easy ski on a beautiful day.

No.

My hands shaking, the zipper finally gave. Digging in the pouch gave me a moment of panic. The keys weren’t there. If I had lost them on the trail, I was going to have to hike out to the main road and hope for the kindness of strangers.

Wax fell from the pouch. My compass. The emergency blanket that would have been my coffin if I had not lucked out and been directed toward the car by a couple back-country campers. I’ll never forget the concern and condescension on their faces—especially hers. I wished I had met her under different circumstances. He wasn’t worthy. He was a dick, and he would treat her like shit. Anybody who would tell a lost, cold man in the mountains that he was stupid didn’t deserve the kindness of a woman who shared her water and pointed out position on a map.

The keys fell out. Painfully, I groped in the snow for them. They couldn’t have gone far. The lot was paved.

Finally, my sausage fingers retrieved them. I managed to open the truck, settle in, start it up. A little afraid to look, I made myself check the gas gauge.

It was fine.

I had survived, and I would go home, but I would not tell the tale. Not ever. Not to anyone.

The first mile had been glorious. My body sang with the joy of stretching out my stride, finding my lungs and my heart rhythms, letting the winter song of roaring silence wash over me and sooth away the anxieties and frustrations of a week of dealing with code while surrounded by executive liars and bean counters who had no idea what went into the magic we did at our workstations.

The quarter mile sigh released all my memories of the week into the mountain air in one long, frosty misty cloud that I left behind.

I found my rhythm, and I knew I could keep it for an hour, which would bring me back to the truck around 11. I’d be back in town by 1. Shit, shower, and shave, and I’d meet Liss for an early dinner and a film. In the back of my mind, she was the next piece of my puzzle of life. I could already feel her next to me, my companion, my mate in life and all the struggles of building family and future. The vision was forming, and the trail ahead was clear.

-Stopped Here-

 

Auditory Imagery

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by Cheryl Owen Wilson

I’ve just returned from my first ever vacation in Italy.  I woke this morning in Eugene, Oregon, and missed terribly the sound of church bells ringing.  They rang, in every city on the hour, and in some on the half hour, during my stay in this colorful country.  My favorites were in the small town of Cinque Terre-Monterosso, where I heard not only the usual bong, bong, etc., but the delicate tinkle of chimes as well.  Forever more when I hear church bells ringing, an image of vibrantly colored homes looking as though carved from the very cliff sides where they cling along the Ligurian Sea, will appear in my mind.

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As writers we are instructed to make certain we utilize the five senses in our stories.  Our characters must see, taste, smell, touch and hear.  For the purpose of my blog today, I’m going to focus on one sense—sound.

Ambient sounds permeate our daily lives.  Yet, can you remember the first sound you heard this morning (that was not your alarm going off)?   I asked this question randomly, and found most couldn’t recall the first sound of their day.  However, when I asked them to describe the sounds of their last vacation they easily responded: Ocean waves, birds chirping, children’s laughter, music, etc.  They then, without provocation, proceeded to describe a scene related to each sound.

There is a term for this in writer’s lingo: auditory imagery.   It is when a writer uses sound to invoke an image in their readers minds.  The result being their reader will both hear and see in equal measure.

What are the ambient sounds present in your story’s world?  Is falling rain hitting the tiled roof of a villa utilized to invoke a sense of calm and peace?   Or does the rain incite dread given the tiles are loose causing rain to leak through on to a valuable work of art?   Do birds chirping arouse in your reader a vision of a Disney movie, or a scene from the 1963 movie, The Birds?

I find this form of using sound to be fascinating, and challenging.  How do you find the perfect “sound” in order to illicit the image desired?  As a writer, you know it’s by beginning the eternal, time sucking search for said word.  For you must have the exact sound to match the image you are trying to invoke.  Since there is a word for everything, of course there is a word for this search: onomatopoeia.

Now for an exercise in the use of auditory imagery.  Should I have used gong, instead of bong, when trying to invoke in you, the image of an ancient bell tower in Italy?  For those of you who are not writers, you now have a better understanding of why we as writers, are randomly described as crazy as loons, or have bats in our belfry.  Try that on for auditory imagery.  Go on, google the sound of a loon, and let your mind see and hear hundreds of bat wings flapping in a bell tower or better yet, someone’s mind.

As some of you are aware, I’m also a painter. Italy provided me with a rare opportunity to view art from Dali, to Picasso.  However, Kandinsky was my favorite.  As an artist Kandinsky used the sound of music as a muse (which some of us writer’s do as well).  So, I thought it befitting to include his quote in this blog.

“Form itself, even if completely abstract … has its own inner sound.”
― Wassily Kandinsky

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Every single word, in every single story is used to invoke an image.  Sound is but one way to accomplish that end.  In my stories I have the many sounds coming from swampy marshes to invoke the spine-chilling images I wish my readers to see.  What are the sounds you use?

 

How to Get Rich Selling a Novel to a Major Publisher, 2000 vs. 2019

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Prologue: I wrote this as a joke among friends in January. This week, I posted the original version as a thread on Facebook. Sadly, it was taken seriously. I’ve been full-time freelance since 1990. I have had wonderful experiences with editors, agents, publishers, and other writers. I’ve also had horrible experiences that include having work stolen, pirated, and used in ways I did not authorize and from which I did not profit. Buy me a scotch at a conference, and I’ll tell you horror stories. However, I will also require you to listen to the glorious moments that I have been privileged to experience. I know of no profession or job that does not include both good and bad experiences. Writing, more than most jobs, is a lifestyle profession. Please don’t take this seriously. Little bits are true. Other bits feel true to some people. However, that little bit of truth and feeling are mixed with lies and myths to create the following.

How to Get Rich Selling a Novel to a Major Publisher, 2000 vs. 2019

by Eric Witchey

2000:

  1. Learn the Craft.
  2. Write a good book.
  3. Get an agent.
  4. Sell the book.
  5. Go to signings and parties.
  6. Write another good book.

2019:

  1. Be really lucky, or….
  2. Establish financial support and freedom to pursue craft: husband, wife, trust fund, inheritance, poverty lifestyle, Patreon, GoFundMe, hut on a third-world beach, a diamond heist, etc.
  3. Choose a currently very popular genre. Base the choice on what you like to watch on TV.
  4. Read a few popular books in that genre so you can pretend to have read a lot.
  5. Learn enough of the language of craft any way you can to sound like you understand it when you are interviewed for webcasts or by Oprah.
  6. Establish credentials that prove you learned the craft: A couple honorary internet Ph.Ds or a six-week, low-residency MFA are good enough. In a pinch, Microsoft Certifications can be used. You can also purchase reviews, purchase awards, and pay someone to campaign for awards for you.
  7. Spend a few thousand dollars attending a conference and buying people drinks where editors and agents can be met and slowly befriended while you repeat this exercise 20 times a year to demonstrates that you have number 2 firmly in hand and can travel the country and world promoting and hand-selling the books a publisher might buy.
  8. Establish platform: Build, buy, or steal a mailing list of over 50k people, create or hire out author sites on all social media systems. Don’t worry. You don’t have to use them. You just have to have them so the marketing team can nod sagely and say that you have platform.
  9. Establish more platform: Create or hire out a successful YouTube channel, generate endless self-promoted appearances, hire a click farm to manipulate search engine hits on your name to exceed 500k, participate in lots of blogs and vlogs talking about you and your life as a famous writer.
  10. Write, or hire someone to write in your name, a book or series of books that: can be compared to two, but no more than three, extremely successful books or series so that marketing people can begin to believe they won’t have to work if they allow your book to be purchased by the publisher. However, be careful that your book or series is just different enough so that they have to change the cover art, blurbs, and press releases they used for the books you compared yours to. You can’t be too careful with marketing people.
  11. Get a famous author with film industry connections, say George R. R. Martin, to pitch your book or series to Netflix, HBO, or the Syfy Channel.
  12. Get an offer.
  13. Show the unsigned film offer to a publisher.
  14. Get an offer.
  15. Show the unsigned book offer to an agent.
  16. Sign with the agent.
  17. Let the agent sell the book to the publisher, which will require a new contract that gives the agent a higher percentage of all derivative products.
  18. Agent says, ” It’s a good contract. You don’t want to be considered hard to work with. Don’t overthink. Just sign.”
  19. Let the agent’s film agent negotiate the contract for the film, which will require you to reduce your up-front and take points on net while the agent’s agent and the agent lock in a percentage of points on gross for themselves.
  20. Agents all say, ” It’s good. You don’t want to be considered hard to work with. Don’t overthink. Just sign.”
  21. Go online and vaguebook about what might happen soon.
  22. Read the marketing instructions the publisher publicist assigned to your book has sent you. Realize it will be expensive to fly to go to signings and interviews in places like the independent bookstore in Brillton, North Dakota, pop. 1700. Note that the marketeers have committed to nothing except sending you the list.
  23. Ask for money for promotion. Marketing people say, “This is standard for our first time writers.” Agent says, “The money will come. Stay focused.”
  24. Take out a loan against your advance.
  25. Remain upbeat and plucky. Dutifully start the prescribed prepromotion for the book, but carefully adhere to contractual constraints and only hint at the pub date and possible film. Wouldn’t want to sour the deal or be considered hard to work with.
  26. Continue prepromotion for one to five years before you can announce the pub date and the film deal.
  27. Finally announce a publication date range that is intended to match the film release.
  28. Come up with an idea about merchandising. Publisher loves it. Realize that all merchandising revenue is owned by the publisher. It’s a good contract. Don’t overthink it.
  29. Politics and infighting end the film production.
  30. Production company declares bankruptcy.
  31. Agent says they can’t help.
  32. Agent’s film agent won’t return calls or emails.
  33. Hire an entertainment lawyer.
  34. Receive bill from lawyer for lots of phone calls, prework on lawsuit, and the final meeting in which you are told you are a creditor and won’t get paid.
  35. Publisher blames the story. They drop you just after you have delivered the second book, which you wrote in hotel rooms, vans, back alleys, and bookstores while promoting the first book and film. They cancel publication and demand the advance back.
  36. Agent blames the story. The second book, which you personally fought to get back from the publisher, “isn’t right for them at this time.” They drop you and tell you that you have to pay the advance back but won’t get their percentage back because they did their job and get paid for the work they did.
  37. Bookstores remainders your first book. Your name is forever associated with losses on their computer ordering systems. Even if you had another book, they wouldn’t order it because your name is on the cover and the last one lost money. However, they got paid for the books they sold and didn’t have to pay a dime for the books they didn’t sell. There’s that.
  38. You realize that you are the only one who does not get paid for the work you did.
  39. But wait. A huge company bought the assets of the defunct production company. The project is resurrected. The film is made. Hooray!
  40. You celebrate with a banquet for your sister and both your patient, supportive friends. The brewpub has never had it so good.
  41. The film burns bright in pre-release focus viewings. A novelization of the film goes to your former publisher. It tops out the NYT Bestseller List. Everyone gets paid except you because you were only a creditor to the first production company.
  42. Your accountant sends you a bill and a P&L that shows your net profit for the entire process is: -250k.
  43. The lawyer puts a lien on your house.
  44. Return to 1.

Happy National Poetry Month

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I’m a writer not a poet, an artist, but not a poet. Yet, I have shared several of my poems in past blog posts. For me, poetry serves as a shorthand expression of creativity that I do not spend a great deal of time obsessing over.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I do take poetry most seriously. From Henry David Thoreau, to Sylvia Plath, to Maya Angelou, their lyrical words have healed my broken psyche, made me feel I wasn’t alone in the world, and allowed me to see humankind, and Mother Nature, through new eyes.

When I do take my own poetry seriously is when I’m using it to see/understand more clearly—and in less time—the “underlying message” behind the story banging against the walls of my brain insisting on a way out.   Those short clipped sentences have proven to be a most useful tool in the honeymoon phase of writing a short story, or novel.

To date, my relationship with poetry has been a secluded, solitary association. But to my surprise, I’ve recently discovered another use for this impactful form of expression.

Do you like playing games?

Many of my writing friends use games, role-playing games, dice games, tarot card games; the list goes on and on. They utilize these games to allow the fates to determine the story they will tell. I personally have never done this, but….

In a small bookstore on the Oregon coast I stumbled upon a poetry word game. It was one of those, hair standing up on the back of my neck moments. I felt this game literally calling out to me from its hidden, dusty shelf.

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It was as though this game was made specifically for me—“A Game of Color and Wordplay!”

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Color and Wordplay!

For those who’ve not read my past blog posts, as stated above I’m also an artist. But this game didn’t just catch me with its title. No, it gave this extrovert writer the added bonus of being, either a solitary game, or a game to be enjoyed with others.

There are several ways in the “How to Play” rules. The first time I played this game, I had the good fortune of being on a weekend retreat with three of my adult daughters, a nine-year old grandson, and a sixteen-year old granddaughter.

There was admittedly, hesitation, from my offspring at my request to play this particular game. But some time later, after many stories magically appeared through randomly picked colored tiles etched with whispered words, they were hooked.

The rules we played by were quite simple:

  • Stock your palette with a dozen paint chips.
  • Draw a Prompt
  • Make your Poem
  • Show & Tell
  • The “judge” declares the winner who then receives the Prompt card.

The final winner is the player who collects the most prompts, but we didn’t play to win. We played for the fun, creative story reflected as each palette was revealed.

Here are a few of the stories created along with the prompt, and paint chips:

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Once Upon a Time

There was a dragon fly,

who lived in an herb garden.

He found a looking glass.

When he looked through it, he saw an emerald.

The Sunshine hit it,

giving him a new zest for life.

 

Once Upon a Time

In outerspace,

on the red planet.

A bluebird lived,

in a cedar chest,

made of driftwood.

 

In a parallel universe

 

In a Parallel Universe

A fairy mustard seed,

woke in the shadow of midnight,

by a babbling brook,

and her lover, Supernova.

As she sat next to him eating nectar,

she blushed like a pink pearl.

 

In a Parallel Universe

An iron gate opened

To a genie in a lamp playing a saxophone solo

It created a pyramid, tree house of bone.

The result—a total eclipse of night.

 

 

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Heartbreak

We began with a lightening bolt.

It created the bright fire of our love.

But through boundary waters we slipped,

separating us for an eternity in Outer Space.

 

Heartbreak

Revenge,

                  Blazing Sun,

                                    Bullseye,

                                                Easy Peasy,

                                                            BlackWidow.

 

So in this month of poetry, I encourage you, if you’ve never written poetry or used it as a creative outlet please give it a try. Paint Chip Poetry can get you started.

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I can’t wait to open the box on this wordplay game again.   With its never-ending source of creative story on paint colored chips, it waits for its players to imagine new worlds, new stories revealed.

What tools do you use to spark your creative muse?

The Cyclic Deteriorating Fallacy of Personal Experience

Funny turtle flying on hang-gliderPhoto Source: Be_Low, iStockPhoto

The Cyclic Deteriorating Fallacy of Personal Experience

Eric Witchey

In memory of Maj. R. David Witchey, who fell from the sky and forgot to get up.

We have all done something that worked really well then discovered that the next time we tried it, we failed miserably.

As a child growing up in a small town, I dreamed of learning to hang glide. Once I was out of the house, I bought myself lessons. At the time, I lived in Idaho. Hang gliding was everything I hoped it would be. The instructor was sharp, and I knew I was in good hands. We flew tandem until he felt I had a handle on the “kite.” Then, I had to go through a sequence of practice and validation under supervision until I could be certified to fly solo. That process started on a short hill that allowed me to just get my feet off the ground but not go high enough to be dangerous. I demonstrated straight flight and landings before I graduated to a higher hill. On that hill, I had to show I could manage a launch, a left turn, a right turn, and return to center and a landing. Check. The next hill was higher and dropped off a lot faster. I don’t remember what I was supposed to learn there, but it was the last stop before I could take a kite out unsupervised.

The first day on that hill was glorious. Idaho clear blue skies, a stiff breeze but not a wind. The breeze came in toward the hill and hit the wall and rose in an updraft. I was about to feel my first lift into a soaring situation.

I launched. The updraft took me up like a dandelion puff blown by a child. I was a bird! God, it was wonderful! Ah. I remember now. I was supposed to show I could turn and follow the ridge line, turn away and follow it again, then make my way to the landing zone. So, I did. I pulled the control bar in a bit to bring my nose down and get some speed to make my turn. I followed the ridge a little, turned away, the followed it again. I had to keep pulling the bar in to keep from being swept upward, and part of me wanted to just let the kite go higher to feel the sheer joy of it. Since I was being trained, I followed the program. I landed safely. It was one of the more triumphant moments of my life up to that moment. Hey, I was only 19.

A week later, I returned to the same hill. The weather was a bit different, but not much. The kite was the same. The program was the same. If I did the flight successfully two more times, I’d be on my own.

So, I strapped in, lifted the kite, and launched.

For some reason, I started to sink immediately. Instinct made me push the bar out to lift the nose and gain altitude. Instead, I stalled. The kite twisted on its center and did a wing over. I plummeted toward the hill face.

The keel, the point, of the hang glider hit hard rock. The kite crumpled. My harness yanked at my chest. My helmet hit something and bounced off. Then, silence. Dead silence. Not even the sound of a breeze in the grass, and at that moment I understood what I had done wrong. The weather was a little different. I expected the updraft. No breeze. No updraft. When I started to sink, I pushed for altitude that my mind and body told me should be there.

Physics is a bitch. Gravity always wins.

My instructor clambered down the slope to me at great personal risk. I climbed out of the wreckage. He grabbed my shoulders and yelled, “Are you all right? Are you all right?”

I looked at the mess I had made and said, “I broke the kite.”

He said, “Fuck the kite! Are you all right?”

Did I say that I had a good instructor? I had just destroyed his training rig and split his helmet almost in two. Remember the helmet bounce? Completely destroyed the helmet. His concern was for my well being. I did not have to pay a dime for his equipment. Good man. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember he was a lineman for the phone company in Idaho. In case the universe ever brings him to these words, THANK YOU!

Now, here’s the thing. I had a powerful, good experience. The emotional impact was huge. The joy was very high. I wanted that experience again. I wanted it a lot. My mind and body remembered every detail of that experience and did everything right to have that experience again. However, conditions had changed. Failure was inevitable.

The cyclic deteriorating fallacy of personal experience works like this. We seek a result. Let’s say we send a hundred stories out to magazines and one of them wins an award and pulls a big cash prize. Three more sell. The rest garner rejections.

It’s only natural to look very closely at the one that won the prize and money to see what we did that we should do again. We would probably look at the other two as well.

Suppose we discover that each story had an unrequited love element, a female protagonist with red hair, and a mountain resort.

So, we write more stories with unrequited love, female redheads, and mountain resorts because we think, “Yeah. We’ve got it dialed in.”

So, we send out a hundred stories, but we only sell one.

Well, that one should have the best details for allowing us to sell more since we already did the love, femred, and mountain bit. The analysis shows that the story didn’t just happen on a mountain resort. It happened during ski season at the mountain resort.

So, now we write stories that have love, femreds, winter ski resorts.

And we don’t sell any.

In the same way that physics is a bitch, underlying principles of story are a bitch. Trial-and-error is biased in favor of the cyclic deteriorating fallacy of personal experience. In the same way making all the same moves in the hang glider resulted in a crash, isolating the apparent patterns of success from successive successful stories will result in a crash.

Unless…

We are very clear that the analysis and subsequent attempts to create results must include expansive experimentation based on principles rather than emotional impressions of success or failure. I call that playful experimentation (a.k.a., practice).

Playful Experimentation Based on Principles

One of my favorite quotes about success comes from the German flying ace Manfred Von Richthofen. “Success flourishes only in perseverance — ceaseless, restless perseverance.” For me, the perseverance part is not so difficult. I’m more-or-less built for it. Adding the ceaseless, restless part is the important bit to me. The ceaseless, restless bit means that I must constantly test my world and my boundaries. I suppose that’s why I have never really settled into a genre. Instead, I have bent genres and searched for how one informs another. I have assumed, sometimes incorrectly, that each genre has its own tricks and techniques to teach me. I have assumed that experimentation across genres would bring me insights and techniques that could not be had as long as I returned to the same hill where I had success and attempted to fly in exactly the same way as when I had that success.

To beat the fallacy of cyclic deteriorating personal experience, apply the principle of unsupervised play.

In fact, to keep writing from getting stale, I recommend many of the techniques used by children. In another essay, I describe the parallel play process, which in turn came from the restless, ceaseless experimentation with words and tales and forms and processes.

Playful experimentation requires several things adults are often in short supply of. First, it requires the ability to completely divorce oneself from any sense of risk. That is, the story a writer is playing with must not be under deadline. It must not be part of an expectation of material or pride success. It must not be for this magazine, that anthology, to that publisher. Playful experimentation requires the worry-free mindset of a child exploring a newly discovered, vacant field. The writer must be able dash there, and there, and over there while also pausing to pick up a stick to slash at weeds or turn into the spear of Ajax or into a rifle or crutch.

Second, it requires a sense of whimsy combined with a desire to understand. To approach writing as a thing of rigid process is not playful. To get to a space of discovery, the writer must be willing to do things that seem stupid in the moment but then, unexpectedly, force the subconscious to step in to create a pattern that becomes the discovery.

Third, it requires an idea of what can be done. Forcing the hang glider to go up without an updraft does not work. The principles of aerodynamics and gravity do not allow it. So, seeking out the principles that govern the reader’s internalization of experiences triggered by the words on the page is critical to creating combinations of playfulness that reveal new ideas and effects.

For example, most writers know that stories generally create emotional changes in characters by stressing those characters through conflict. It is a universal principle of stories. Some writers I know argue that without it, the text is not a story and falls to the category of mere personal essay or memoir. I would argue that few personal essays or memoirs are not stories. I would also argue that most, if not all, powerful personal essays and memoirs revolve around some core conflict.

I digress. Taking the underlying principle of conflict, one approach to ceaseless, restless experimentation is to employ the principle in an experiment of randomness. Pick a handful of silly things and try to employ the principle of conflict while connecting the silly things.

Personally, I often pick a principle, roll a set of ten-sided dice several times to come up with three or more random, four-digit numbers, then find those numbers on a long list of observations, objects, insights, and thoughts that I keep. I put those randomly selected elements at the top of a page then write as fast as I can in an effort to execute the principle. The randomness of the objects forces the subconscious to attempt to create a pattern connection between the objects. The chosen principle forces a construct that will either succeed or break. Either way, something is gained from the effort. Sometimes, seeing a failure unfold reveals new patterns, new methods of allowing the reader to see or feel the moment on the page. Sometimes, seeing the experiment succeed within the structure of the principle results in new understanding and skill in the execution of the principle.

Worst case for the above experiment is that the writer has fun and the brain is given a set of patterns (principles) to which it becomes tuned and to which it begins to, or continues to, adapt.

The important piece from the above is not the process. The important piece is that principle combined with play is a type of practice that keeps writing fresh and keeps the writer on a path of discovery that deadline-driven work, paid-for work, pride-driven work cannot provide. Mindfulness of underlying principles combined with playful experimentation results in discovery.

Had I considered the principle of aerodynamics and approached the day with a less rigid focus on succeeding with the defined exercise, I might have had more fun and been more inclined to discover what I could do on that day and in the days to come.

A week later, I did go back and fly again. I did it because I had decided to quit flying because I could not trust my ADHD brain to focus on all the conditions that allow a person to fly safely. Going back one more time was my way of proving to myself I was not quitting out of fear. Rather, I wanted to quit to stay alive.

-End-

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-

Critical Thinking and the Noogie Man

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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-