A friend emailed me this photo. I typed in to reply, “This photo warms m...” and some gmail robot, energized by 1s and 0s, not a drop of emotion in his system, completed my sentence, “warms my heart.”
THE BASTARD DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A HEART. How the hell could he, COULD IT feel the same as me towards these elephants snuggling together, dozing the afternoon away?
In George Orwell’s pamphlet Politics and English Language, Orwell called these “ready-made phrases”, a phrase which countless others have said. It’s pre-packaged language that we utter without adding our own creativity to it. Nothing uniquely us lives within these phrases. The words are predictable and cliche and lack heart.
Ready-made phrases are parasites to good writing.
In the 21st century, as we compose an email, we see these phrases appear in real-time. And tragically, we’re encouraged to use them. Simply hit tab and AI will write the sentence for you. You’ll save a microsecond! And you’ll save all that brain power! The beauty of optimization.
How many other emails of mine could’ve been written by AI? “Sounds good”, “Hope you’re well”, “Just checking in,” HECK, just yesterday I wrote “All that glitters isn’t gold.” Omg, this isn’t me.
Screw this! I scream and push my chair away from my desk. This robot cannot express how I feel. I declare, “When something warms — or breaks or angers or you name the damn emotion — warms my heart like these elephants do, I vow to write it in a way that only I can! I will find my unique voice behind these phrases!”
But I’m unsure where to find my voice. If it’s not the tab key...
I grab a paperclip and pop off the tab key from my keyboard. Underneath I see arm hairs and cookie crumbs and dust mites. I tilt the keyboard up, flip it over and tap the crumbs out. My voice isn’t there. I swipe them onto the floor. And after I take a sip of coffee and vacuum my floor and tap a few more crumbs out and vacuum again, my eyes land back on the elephants.
What do they inspire? I close my eyes.
Behind my eye-lids, I pause, until an asteroid appears followed by a famished lion, then bright, green nickelodeon goo pouring on some white man. My eyes snap open. Images! Images are authentically me. Yet, pfff, these have nothing to do with the photo. Where do I find images related to this photo?
What matters to me?
When I first saw this photo, I looked at it without patience and I responded before I saw anything that mattered to me. All I saw was a pack, a family of elephants. Seven elephants. Dead. Maybe tranquilized. Actually they’re sleeping. They’re cuddling. It's a nice photo, warming, I thought. And so I wrote —
“This photo warms my heart.” (Response Version 1)
All of that feels like I’m tapping crumbs out onto the desk. There’s nothing of substance. What specifically in this photo moves me? What arrests my attention?
The foot of the upper left elephant resting against his companion's back. I dearly miss that feeling, resting my foot against a lover's leg while asleep.
“Ugh, the elephant’s foot resting against his companion’s back warms my heart.” (Response Version 2)
Although this feels closer to my voice, still something about it feels inauthentic. But this revealed a passage, a passage into my imagination!
Behind this foot, I feel a lot of emotion. E-motion, energy in motion. My imagination stirs. What does this foot remind me of? What memories are swirling about behind this door? What emotions? And what actions are these emotions wanting me to take?
I’m going to go where these parasites cannot survive. To rewrite this email response into something only I can say. I will go deeper into my imagination than I’ve ever gone before.
I look and see the elephant’s foot again, and I step through the door, by closing my eyes, into the land of emotions and desires and memories... a dream world.
Why does it matter? What memories arise?
Behind my eyelids, I vaguely see my ex-girlfriend and I, laying in our California king bed in Mexico.
We are enduring a three-month long stint in the relationship. She struggles to love me for fear of being hurt, I struggle to love her for fear of hurting her. After a conversation about our future, our unknown future, we fall asleep, opposite sides of the bed, an ocean of blankets separating our backs. In the middle of the night, I wake up. We had faced each other. My ankle rests on her leg. I feel the prickles of her unshaven leg, from weeks of her feeling too lethargic to care for herself. I eased back into dreams.
When I reopen my eyes, on my computer screen in front of me, I see the elephants and this resting foot. I see them differently.
“Ugh, the elephant’s foot resting against his companion’s prickly back warms my heart.”
It warms my heart! NO. That’s the cliche, that’s the enemy to my unique voice. Instead —
“Just think, probably days before this journey, he and his companion were having marital problems, she bickering about him not returning before sundown, out philandering with other cows, while he would return to their tree and to drown her out by drinking copious amounts of dirty water. Yet they stuck together, embarking on a long journey. Together, they laid.” (Response Version 3)
A smile had lifted onto my face. How fun.
I close my eyes again, returning to where I see my girlfriend’s prickly leg. A swirl of emotion barrels right into me.
What does it make you feel and want to do?
Seeing her prickly leg, I feel love and care. I want to wake her up and tell her I'm sorry and how I miss falling asleep together. I want to grab her hand and run us outside, run us barefoot across the dirtied street, to the beach where we watch the sunrise over the calming ocean. And while we give thanks to papa sol for rising again, I want to protect us from the coolness of the night by wrapping a blanket around us.
Yet I also feel anger towards her, why do we let ourselves fall asleep back to back? I like when we face each other and reach across the blankets to hold hands. I want that.
I reopen my eyes. The photo has changed again. I also, as the father elephant, feel anger at my companion. Why do we ever sleep standing up?
“Here’s a story. Once upon a time there was a family of elephants. Every day, they slept standing up, like every other elephant in the history of the world. One day they migrated across the country, hundreds of kilometers. Because of that, out of pure exhaustion, they slept laying down. The father felt in a position of care and protection and from this day forward, decided his family would always sleep laying down. And eventually ALL elephants evolved to sleep laying down.” (Response Version 4)
That’s my raw experience!
From behind my eyelids, exists another form of auto-fill, one of images. Instead of pre-package phrases, emergent-images. Instead of cliches, raw sensations. Instead of reacting and rushing, we pause and wait. Instead of computer-generated artificial-intelligence, biological-generated natural-intelligence!
Coming out of my dream world, I proudly state, “I am ready to write a new email response!”
In the gmail browser, I delete, “This photo warms my heart,” and I type —
“Oh wow! Do you think this family will ever sleep standing up again? I just see the elephant’s foot resting against his companion’s prickly back and think he’ll never want it any other way. I wouldn’t.” (Response Version 5)
I smile rereading that response. It could not be auto-filled by any AI in the world. Even in hundreds of years!
And I’m sure, I feel it, I found my unique voice.
When we pause and wait for our imagination to ignite, we burn every parasite that’s near. And in the ash, we’re left with writing that is more us. Writing in our voice. I don’t have to worry about saying something unique, because how I say it will be unique. Writing that I’ll feel proud of and want to share. Hey, look, this is me! I wrote this.
Hey, dear reader.
New writers feel they are rephrasing and repeating information that's already out there. But it’s less about the information and it’s more about these ready-made phrases. Instead of entering their imagination, they write the first thing that comes to mind, pre-package and automated language.
Instead of looking for something unique in the world, look for what's unique in you.
I still have A LOT to say, but I’m no longer mad at my AI counterpart. I now feel pity for him. After I’m done here, he’ll have no one to vicariously live through.
Two practical ways to use imagination while writing
1. Line Editing A Shitty First Draft
Write fast, then go back and edit in visuals.
Here’s a draft paragraph I wrote for my newsletter which lacks fresh imagery —
“A decade of my life was spent gaining money from people who had gambling problems. They bet against me. And they lost. They lost money which could have been spent improving their life.”
The last sentence lacks emotional punch. I feel sad writing it but not reading it. How could I add visuals to make the reader feel that sad?
I want to show how they are losing money and how that affects their lives. “Improving their life” is the first phrase that came to me. It’s pre-packaged. To imagine the effects of their life, I linger on three different topics, (1) education, (2) food, (3) gifts for a spouse — I hold these in my mind, until a specific image emerges.
- Education — I see books. Then I see a father, working a menial job, which books could be his way out. I see a father, under candle light, wife asleep next to him, reading a book which will unfetter him from his menial job. I see a father, reading a passage in a book that motivates him to start his own business, unfettering him from a menial job.
Version 1: They lost money which could have been spent improving their life.
Version 2: They lost money which was for education or food or gifts.
Version 3: They lost money which was for a book that contains a passage which rescues him from his menial job or for epsom salts for his wife so she can relax after a stressful day or for a lunchbox with an extra sandwich.
With a few iterations, a bland sentence becomes a heartache. Instead of telling the reader how to feel, we show them. That’s the power of the imagination!
Patiently look until you see. It’s a skill.
2. Write slow! While writing, look for opportunities to ignite the imagination.
A friend told me he can’t run the zoom call. I could say, Okay. But I feel an opportunity for me to take the steering wheel. So I respond, Okay, I’ll take the wheel.
I pause to wonder, what type of wheel am I grabbing? A boat? A car? A bus. When we started these zoom-calls a team of people showed up, all eager to be around the writing coach. So I picture him a driving football bus. Yet lately it’s often just me and him. Our bus has shrunk, into a short one. I’m the only student left. He picks me up and is patient and kind to my grade school level reading and writing.
I write, Okay, I’ll take the wheel, albeit lonely driving a big bus by myself.
The images informed my words.
“When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning.” — George Orwell
Writing doesn’t need to be a process that we CRUSH and SLAY. It can be a meditation, one where we pause and wait for images to bubble up and animate before we reach out and capture them.
Here are some questions that rest on my desk —
- Looking patiently, what do you see? What sentences are meaningful? What image is underneath the sentence?
- Why are they meaningful? What do they remind you of? What memories arise?
- How does it make you feel? What do those feelings make you want to do?
Orwell says, "A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself [...]”
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
Dec 8, 2021
Notebook (notes from the essay)
Take the Reader on a Journey
A few months ago, my friend Simon Silverstein shared this quote with me —
"When we say we like the style of certain writers, what we mean is that we like their personality as they express it on paper. Given a choice between two traveling companions—and a writer is someone who asks us to travel with him—we usually choose the one who we think will make an effort to brighten the trip." - On Writing Well by William Zinsser
While Simone gave me feedback on this essay, she said that I’m taking her on a journey, but what exactly is that? In the end are you circumventing AI? It seems this experience in gmail took you down a path. I want to know
All of a sudden all the ideas and the conceptual things I was trying to do with the essay disappeared, and I saw the journey I wanted to go on. I was angry. Fuck this AI who thinks he knows how I feel. And I wanted to go deeper into my imagination than ever before.
This question of what journey am I taking the reader on destroyed all the pre-packaged language and concepts and I just say where I wanted to go.
Stare at your fish. Notice what speaks to you.
I first heard about this idea of looking at an object from Jordan Peterson. He recommend to buy a piece of art that speaks to you and look at it daily for decades. As time passes, you find new meaning. More recently David Perell told the story of looking at your fish. Here’s the original source of the story. David McCullough wrote —
It’s the test that Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, gave every new student. He would take an odorous old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student and say, Look at your fish. Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, he would ask the student what he’d seen. Not very much, they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: Look at your fish. This could go on for days. The student would be encouraged to draw the fish but could use no tools for the examination, just hands and eyes. Samuel Scudder, who later became a famous entomologist and expert on grasshoppers, left us the best account of the “ordeal with the fish.” After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before. Then Scudder had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased. So Scudder naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, Look at your fish.
What I did with the elephants was equalivent to staring at my fish.
In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp talks about finding ideas. She says narrow in your vision until something inspires you.
Remember this when you’re struggling for a big idea. You’re much better off scratching for a small one. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes an experience he had teaching rhetoric to college students in Bozeman, Montana. One girl, a serious and disciplined student often described by her teachers as lacking creativity, wanted to write a five-hundred-word essay about the United States. Pirsig opined that this was rather broad, and suggested that she narrow it to the town of Bozeman. When the paper came due, she arrived empty-handed and very upset, explaining that she’d tried but that she couldn’t think of anything to say. Pirsig next advised that she narrow it further to the main street of Bozeman. Again, she came in without an essay and in obvious distress. This time, he told her angrily, “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.” Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide. She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five-thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana. “I sat in the hamburger stand across the street,” she said, “and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop.”
She says, “A man grabbing a woman above the elbow is an idea.”
Say you see an interesting man walks with two dogs. Something about his look grabbed your attention. You watch him, notice he is well dressed and happy and above average good looking. You shrug all that off and keep watching, until a story emerges... a story about him emerges after you observe the leash wrapped around his hand three times. Suddenly you see the man, standing in his closet, without one piece of clothing with color, only shades. You see him walk into Chipotle where he recognizes all the workers and yet doesn't know any of their names. When other dogs or people approach his dog, the leash gets wrapped one more time around his wrist.
Jordan Peterson says when we look out into the world, we don't see a place-of-things, we see a forum-for-action. When I look at a chair, I don't see "a chair", I see "something to sit on". And yet if we tried to describe a chair in writing, the first words that comes out are, “chair,” “comfortable,” “green”, and so on.
But if I looked and lingered until I saw an image, I eventually see a chair that’s a perfect surface for sitting cross-legged and mediating. We move past the pre-package thoughts, into the experience of the object.
When writing, those are the images we are waiting for, images of interaction.
The 3rd Eye
My initial draft of this essay focused on this concept, on how to notice our world. I found it fascinating that the eye and our mind’s eye work in the same manner.
When we are imagining say a shark in a boat, the scene comes alive when we narrow in on something specific. I had this dream a few nights ago where this shark jumped into the boat and was on my lap. But it didn’t animate until I noticed these foot long teeth coming out of his mouth and they rested against the back of my forearm. That’s when I saw the slime and felt the salt water on them.
Next time we’re struggling imagining something, narrow it down. Find something specific that animates itself.
A Time to Tell: When to Tell, When to Show
While we write, we don’t want to show every line. Showing requires more words. If we showed everything, our writing would be unreadable, likely worse than if we told everything. I think of fiction books where the author who every dialogue tag uses a word like babbles or expressed and exclaims, instead of a simple said. If the way a character says something ISN’T meaningful, then just say said.
Here’s a general rule — the more meaningful a sentence and moment, the more we want to show.
We are taking the reader on an emotional journey. If we want to hit them with an emotional punch, the writing has to be more uniquely us, coming from our emotion.
Matter Definition (Jordan Peterson)
The word matter is an interesting one. One definition is a physical substance, something solid that occupies space. A second definition is be of importance, to have significance.
Jordan Peterson argues for something to matter to us, it must be matter. He says, "TK_quote about we look out into the world and we see tools and obstacles." What will help us move forward, what must we avoid? Everything else out in the world we completely neglect.
“We approach everything asking one question: Given my agenda, will this help me, or will it hurt me? If the answer is neither, it’s white noise.” - Lisa Cron
What we perceive (what matters, what has matter) depends on our agenda
My all-time favorite psychology experiment is a test from Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, called the [[Gorilla Experiment]]. Six students bounce two basketballs back in forth in a circle. Your job (your agenda) is to count the passes. At the end of the minute, the video prompts you, how many bounces? You reply, then it asks, did you see the gorilla walk through the middle? 30% of people don't see the gorilla. Their motivations to count the passes are so strong that they are blind to it walking through.
Another one of my favorites for how our motivations shape what we see in the world is a Tony Robbins exercise. Try it: For the next 15 seconds, look around the room for anything blue. Then, do the same with red. Our motivations, such as "find all blue objects", dictate what we literally see in the world.
When we are motivated to see the color red, the rest of the world doesn’t matter and sequentially doesn't have matter. Our eyes skip right past it.
Decline of Language: Classic Movies v Hollywood today’s movies
Last night I watched Mortal Kombat. Albeit it entertaining for its graphics and re-living my childhood, it was really bad, filled with meaningless scenes and cliched language. I got thinking about the use of language used in modern day Hollywood films compared to black and white classic movies. Orwell's decline of language is on full display, I bet. I will research this.
A to C, DONT REACT in conversations. ACT
Conversations can flow in two ways. The first: I say something about an island, you say something about sand, I say something about small rocks, you about palm trees, and so on. The conversation remains in the same context. The second, we jump contexts, island, sand, then hourglass, grim reaper, A Christmas Carol, and so on.
What way of conversing are we bound to learn more about each other?
The upright Citizens Brigade calls this A to C. "When you 'go A to C', you have moved beyond saying the obvious or the expected."
Another example: Beatles, John, Paul, George, Ringo.
You break beyond the obvious when you see that obvious thought arise, say after someone says sand, you think rock, but what if you just heard rock by itself — now we jump to Rolling Stones.
In improv this is used for generating specific and interesting information for a scene.
I see this same idea play out in conversations. When someone asks how the movie was, "It was great" is my reaction. Here would be a culturally ingrained response. The popcorn was great, the movie felt Game-of-Thronish, amazing visuals throughout. How many other people in the world after watching Dune responded the same way?
Let's get under that ready-made language into your experience.
Movie ⇒ great ⇒ 'popcorn', butter, buttery-fingers.
"The movie was great, I had the butteriest popcorn, that coated my fingers. I went to grab my sparkling water and it damn near slipped out of my fingers." NOW we have an image. I see YOU sitting in the movie theater enjoying the movie.
Defining Our Language
For two years, while writing a novel, I worked with a Story Coach who guided me through the story creation process. After I would write 35 pages of character backstory, scenes, and plot ideas, we would discuss them.
My coach had a radar for general, meaningless language so that every time she read my work and came across vague language, alarm bells when off. Here's me defining my language with my protagonist —
Emily enjoys when her boyfriend Josh comes to her yoga class, because as the instructor (rather than as his girlfriend), she pressures him to do things outside his comfort zone."Comfort Zone" is general. I can't see it. (And it's crucial for me to see how Em interacts with Josh.)Josh doesn't like yoga 'woo-woo', strange breathe exercises like inhaling with one nostril plugged and exhaling through the other, switching the plug. Or like chanting AUM at the beginning of close. Every time he feels pressure to join in and participate yet he thinks, "not this bullshit again. look at these weirdos."Em likes nudging him into that space, because she herself finds value in these eastern practices.Sentence rewritten with these visuals — Emily enjoys when her boyfriend Josh comes to her yoga class, because as the instructor (rather than as his girlfriend), she nudges him to participate in strange eastern exercises, such as chanting AUM, even though he thinks, "not this bullshit again."
This essay, in a way, is me trying to define what "Ready-Made Phrases" or "Pre-Packaged Phrases" means to me. How can I make that visual, so that I can see my writing through that lens and thus write more specifically and visually going forward?
Character Writing Exercise
Take a sentence you've written and for every word, ask can you see it?
Example Sentence: Emily enjoys when her boyfriend Josh comes to her yoga class, because as the instructor (rather than as his girlfriend), she pressures him to do things outside his comfort zone.
- Emily "enjoys" when... How does she enjoy that? What do you see in your mind's eye? I see her standing taller than she does at home with him. Approaching Josh with more assertiveness, cupping his shoulders and pulling them back without the fragileness she falls into when they're laying on the couch together.
- "boyfriend" ...
- "pressures" (verbs are often big). Ohm..
This is extreme. Could even make "Emily" more visual by describing her. In reality, however, we only want to keep the visuals that serve the point of the sentence.
[this is a nice final point. This doesn't mean pile in images for every sentence.]
Here the point is Emily enjoys Josh in her classes because unlike at home, she's able to pressure him outside his comfort zone. What images best serve that?
But it's a nice exercise because it shows you the possibilities.