Practical Theory. Deconstruction, Translation, Reconstruction, and learning how to dissect a scene: why everything you were taught about grammar in school is wrong.
As someone who has taught themselves how to be an artist and a writer, and by taught themselves I'm referring specifically to an informal education rather then a formal one, I've never so much as attended a workshop or even taken a class on how to write. Now that may come as a shock to some people since some of the things I'll be discussing later on will be enough to make their head explode but I've always felt it important to preface any story that involves absurd or outrageous statements like the one in the title heading with the warning that everything I know about art comes from either experimentation, research, having experienced it directly or is based on observable phenomena. Not to put too fine a point on it but for a writer, literary credentials don't amount to all that much as in order to actually write, all you have to do is to keep putting one word down one after another until poof, suddenly you have a story. Well, that's what I did anyway, it wasn't a very good story and every time I think about my first attempt at writing my eye gets this little twitch and well, as anyone who writes long enough will tell you, in the beginning, everything you do is going to suck, but if you write long enough, one day you'll be able to look back at your own work and say, wow, I really used to suck! Okay, happy fun fun affirmations aside, the phenomena that's being expressed when we look back and see the progress that's being made can best be described as intangible efforts, tangible results. You see, or rather what people don't see, is that the development process that's occuring inside our minds can only be measured in either units of time, days, months, years, or in terms of milestones such as reaching the sublimation point or achieving predetermined personal goals. You see progress isn't something that happens while we're watching for it because the normalizing effect that occurs when we observe something for a prolonged period of time prevents us from being able to recognize and assess the change in states that happens whenever information density crosses the conceptual threshold. This is also the reason why we say a watched pot never boils. Not because it shifts our awareness of time to the moment when the water temperature reaches the boiling point, but because in order to view the change in physical states unaided means waiting until the agitation of water molecules crosses the threshold where the nature of such motion becomes visible to the naked eye. Crap, did I just give an academic dissertation on watching water boil? Next thing you know I'll be talking about the Leidenfrost effect, and no, no, I need to get back on topic. Its bad enough I go off on tangents like this but if I start going down that rabbit hole I'm never going to stop so that's enough about tangential learning, let's get back to the topic at hand shall we? When I first started out teaching myself how to write I tried to read books on the subject, I listened to various podcasts about the process and roamed through many authors websites in search tips, tricks, words of wisdom, and just generally good advice that any author worth their salt would want to know. And while sometimes the results of all that searching has proved fruitful, more often then not it left me wondering what the hell these people were even talking about. (In case you haven't noticed yet, I'm not very fond of the idea of telling people how to do something without telling them why it works the way it does first.) Most of the information that I was able to find involved outdated aphorisms like, never use a dollar word when a perfectly good ten-cent word can be found. If you know who I'm quoting, good for you, if you mention their name to me . . . there's that twitch again. A good artist borrows, a great artists steals and my personal nomination for most overused quote that can go sob quietly in a corner, show, don't tell. Seriously, I could go into great detail about why those three words cause my brain to begin to froth but suffice to say the problem can be summarized as, if I don't tell you what's happening in the story, then how in the bloody hell are you going to know what's going on?
Ahem. A moment while I compose myself, and also I think that paragraph was starting to reach Hemmingway levels of sentence length. That's a joke by the way, because, you know, the man loved his semi-colons and . . . its not funny if I have to explain it is it?
Oh well . . . by the way if you go over the syntax structure I've been using so far you'll notice that I've been making grammar my bitch for a while now. Not only have I been stressing tenses but the fact that I was able to keep a topic running while throwing in multiple predicates in singular sentences proves that not only am I writing at an ungodly professional level, I'm also a master wordsmith. Throw up the horns! Anybody? Okay, I admit it, I am now officially a word nerd.
I think I want that on a t-shirt . . .
Okay, so while my initial experiences in the search for professional mentorship left me swearing off looking at other people's ideas on how to become a writer except in all but the most desperate of circumstances, it did illustrate to me a concept that only becomes apparent once you get into the business of writing books of instruction. The concept of rarified air. Which if you've ever climbed a mountain you'll know is what happens to the oxygen level in the atmosphere when you start climbing to higher and higher elevations. And for those too lazy to google it, let me just say that not only is the air getting thinner, its also getting harder to breathe, so not only does your body and lungs have to acclimate to the change in environmental pressure its best to be prepared so bring your own supply of oxygen with you. Now the way that rarefied air expresses itself in art however is that when you're first starting out information is plentiful and abundant. Its also damn useless and bloody redundant because it has no scarcity value and much of it is being passed off as the same thing everyone else is trying to sell you just with a different packaging. This can be seen evidenced by the fact that every book that contains the words How to Draw in the title bear a striking resemblance to each other. I have several of them beside me right now and you know what? They all say the same thing just with different graphical layouts! Still, if they didn't make such good paperweights I probably would never have bought them in the first place.
Am I experiencing buyer's remorse? Nawwww . . .
Anyway because information about how to get started as an artist is so widely available and easily accessable, not absorbing a ton of it through sheer osmosis is almost entirely impossible. This could be part of the reason why everybody thinks they can become an artist. Not only because in order to sell people on the concept that they too can become an artist in only thirty days, all it takes is practice, you have to back end the information in such a way as that when people realize it takes more then practice, perserverence and a can do attitude you've already got their money and are well insulated from any and all forms of repercussion. Art books are notoriously difficult to return by the way, they also have this curious habit of immediately losing ninety-nine percent of their market value once you've finish reading them so there is that. Still, my point is that the more valuable information is, the harder it becomes to find, and the more rarefied a technique is, the higher up the payscale you're going to have to go in order to acquire it. This of course presents a problem for those who are financially challenged and live in places where the resources they need to make it as artists aren't readily available.
As a quick aside, the investments that are involved in acquiring the skills required in order to become artists in the first place has more to do with M.E.E.T* then it does pure finances since while if you have enough cash readily available you can buy as many of the answers as you'd like.
Anyway, as I was saying, as someone who lived in an area where the idea of being an artist let alone someone of the intellectual persuasion was met with scorn, derision, and more often then not looks of abject horror whenever you went and said something that people didn't have the capacity to understand let alone the reasoning skills to follow, I had to develop techniques of my own that would allow me to covertly acquire as much of the information as I needed. Or in other words, I learned how to dissect a scene. Yes, as gruesome as that sounds its really no different from taking apart a car engine and then putting it all back together again. Not only does it help you to understand what all of the parts are, what they're for and what they do, it helps you develop an awareness of how things are being made and how to put them together in new and interesting ways. The one thing I would warn people about before they attempt to learn how to do this is that it will ruin almost all fiction for you forever. Seriously, a lot of people can't be in a room with me and leave a book lying around or stream any television show because I have a tendency to start telling them how its going to end or who the murderer is. Mystery and suspense shows are especially formulaic as the first suspect is always wrong, the killer is never caught until the last fifteen minutes, and since there's a limited amount of screen time the character in question always has to be placed in position where they can be seen by the audience. Now the reason I don't read as many novels as I used to is because my record for actually resolving the entire plot of a book stands at fifteen pages of a seven hundred page novel. Yeah, and that was when I was first starting out. Needless to say it taught me a lot about what not to do while writing, but more importantly it showed me that writers are at their best when they act like magicians. Never reveal your secrets, never perform the same trick twice, and for the love of all that's good and holy learn the art of misdirection. Nowadays when I want to read something I just stick to webcomics and manga, its much harder to predict what's going to happen when an author has the freedom to make things up as they go along, rather then force themselves to conform to the imposed industry standards of novel length and structure. Which for those who don't already know is between sixty-thousand and seventy-thousand for a standard sized paper back novel. To say I've developed this technique to the point of weaponized math would not be far from the mark, its almost scary how much modern ideas about literature are informed and defined by the mediums we use to store and transport information but that will be a topic for another day. Right now I'm just trying to bring to your awareness the fact that there are recognizable patterns that we can use to build a foundation on which to write that go beyond literary theory, syntax structure, and the tenets of lexicography. Most notably comparative linguistics and L2 theory but in order to begin understanding why writers pick the words that they do, you first have to understand how to simplify the process of converting images, sensations, experiences, and visions into meaningful text.
Yeah, without going too far into the mystic, otherworldly, spiritual and otherwise weird psychic telemetry that's involved in composing a story, because once I start talking about how the philosophy, psychology and phenomena that are going on at the highest spheres of human thought are accessed and explored not only is what I'm currently writing going to become incredibly existential, it's going to sound like complete and total gibberish to anyone who doesn't have an entire alphabet after their name. So let me first mention that as an auto-didact and neurodiverse individual many of the principles that are involved in the process that I use while writing stem from my research into anthroposophy. (A shout out to Harald Hoerwick for introducing me to the concept, and hey if you know what I'm alluding to with that reference, intertextuality for the win.) Which can be described in an overly complicated nutshell, as a branch of philosophy that postulates the existence of a world that is accessable through intellectual and spiritual inner development wherin we can experience things that can be rationally verified independent of our physical senses. And I'm more then willing to bet I just butchered that description horribly so if you want to know more about it, either learn to read german, or stick with Jung. After all, Jungian philosophy doesn't leave you questioning the nature of reality or make you ask questions like is the story I'm telling myself real? Is what I'm experiencing actually happening or is it all just my imagination? Or my personal favorite, am I walking through the ruins of a forgotten world, where the ghosts still linger, and their stories echo in the minds of those so tranced out they can't help but listen?
For the record I've never used mind altering substances while writing but I've studied a lot of the works of artists who did and hoo boy, DeCartes would've had a field day with those guys.
Anyway, there are two things we need to be aware of when we sit down to write, well, there are a lot of things to be aware of but I'm going to start with the basics and go from there. The first is that you must never surrender your sense of self to the story, you can control where it goes and what happens provided you know how to ask yourself the right questions, just do not, and I will repeat this, do not put yourself or anyone you know into the story. Not only does it make it exponentially harder to separate yourself from a work but in the worst case scenario it can take you into places you won't be able to find your way out of. Artists tend to have a tenuous enough grasp on reality as it is and it doesn't do anyone any good to go courting madness by unravelling their mind at the seems. The second thing to be aware of is mental representations and guided visualizations can be touched and felt provided one knows how to attune their senses properly. Do not induce a trance state through the use of hypnosis! That's my only warning and I'm sticking to it. Now providing that one is calmly centered in the open state, focus on holding the images that make up the story in your mind. At first trying to grasp them will feel as evanescent as a soap bubble and just as difficult, but if you can imagine a butterfly alighting on your hand then you can begin to strengthen the essential connection to the sensation that will serve as the emotional anchor that grounds the story in mundane reality. See, I told you it would start to sound like total gibberish. I've been doing this for years and even to me it sounds more then a little weird.
Now, assuming you've begun by asking a question, for me personally I use a simple if this, what this type of scenario, then the story should begin revealing itself to you. If you wait for inspiration to happen though . . . don't do that. Inspiration is a terrible thing that artists have absolutely no control over and when it happens, usually causes us to see and experience things we would otherwise have been happy to ignore. Revelation is a much more stable reaction because the artist can guide it freely and it typically doesn't involve being exposed to things most people in society would consider to be monstrous.
What follows from this, providing that you're using your imagination in a meaningful way, I wouldn't know as I can't see whether its working or not, which is the part of what makes learning to do things like externalizing all the possible and potential energies as a physical manifestation of our inner vision so damnably difficult to talk about without coming off as a complete and total ponce, is that the image you see in your mind can be deconstructed into words. Yes, words, like the one's I'm writing right now, which if you think about is me once again utilizing one of the many psychological principles in art to seriously mess with your head. Cue the maniacal laughter because art at its best really is nothing more then a series of hypnotic suggestions thrown together with the power of persuasion and and a healthy dose of how the hell did he just do that? Long, complicated and incredibly verbose explanation made short, in order to understand an idea, we must first be willing to entertain it. Which means that not only are we letting it past all of our mental defenses, we're also willing to accept the possibility that it might be true, either because we want it to be true, or because we fear it might be true. In terms of writing a story, this trope invokes the suspension of disbelief, the willingness to believe, and the cost of entry. Which are all intermediate to advanced level principles that require us to develop our presence of mind first.
Boy I'm just full of all kinds of weird tidbits of information today, good thing that in order to understand how things like this work you don't have to think too hard or I'd be out of a job! Truthfully though, I've been secretly avoiding repeating the same words and sounds in my sentences by stretching my considerable vocabulary to its utmost. Also, I really enjoy using alliteration whenever and wherever possible, so see if you can spot how many times I just managed to pull it off.
Back to what I was saying, after we deconstruct the images we see in our minds into words, we can then begin translating them into sentences, phrases, paragraph, all manner of literary devices that you know what, I just simplified ten years of research into a three step process, let's see if I can explain it using nothing but metaphor!
Putting together a story is like trying to assemble a puzzle only you pull the pieces out of thin air and not once do you ever get to look at the front of the box . . . man.
No, no, that would really be showing off and I think I've done enough of that already. Anyway, the purpose of learning to translate our thoughts, feelings and impressions into words is so that when others do read them, they effectively reconstruct our original ideas inside their own minds and thus do all of the heavy lifting for us because not only is the reader the final collaborator they're the one's who get to pick the color of the drapes. You can describe them as red, or in my case a rich burgandy color with a softly shimmering hue, but what exactly that looks like to another person we'll never really know. It's one of the more interesting paradoxes about art and goes a long way to explaining why to so many people an adaptation is never quite as good as the original source material, but I've digressed enough for one day.
Deconstruction, translation, and reconstruction, is meant as a means of contextualizing the process of taking an idea that exists in our minds and recontextualizing it through the use of a physical medium. Which in turn allows us to manipulate it more easily then if we were to simply try and reconsruct it solely through the use of memory, which by the way is the place where imagination, visualization and representative symbology happen to overlap. Food for thought that one. Also its part of a heuristic process that allows us to simplify the information involved so we can more easily digest it.
Man, constantly changing the tone, voice, and cadence of my sentences just to illustrate how many examples there are of grammar being used in really interesting and technical ways is starting to wear me out. Cause if someone was to dissect how this document was written, it would reveal a lot about how our personality tends to direct our development as artists. Also most schools don't typically start teaching proper grammar until you get into college, K to Twelve only cares about whether or not you understand punctuation, which is just one of the reasons why I went out of my way to showcase so many of the differences between reading something aloud, and reading it in your head. Not needing to stop and draw breathe really allows you make use of the different types of pauses.
So in closing, avoid absolute statements whenever possible, they only ever give people in the comments section something to argue about.
Oh, one last thing before you all go, I just wrote thirty-eight hundred words in a single eight hour sitting with full editing and I haven't even started tripping the light fantastic yet. Damn, I miss having conversations with the office furniture. That lamp really had some bright ideas.
19 August 2016 at 10:40:43 MDT
Practical Theory, an artist's guide to understanding the hidden world of art, is a blog in which I'll be discussing all the weird, strange and semi-mystical things I've encountered while researching the emergent principles inherent in the transdisciplinary nature of art. So if you've ever wondered why art works the way it does, or if your just a fan of seeing if words can be weaponized in a way that can make people's head explode, check it out!