October 2019: making it up and writing it down

And it was only when I was making it into a book that I realised the real meaning of the story. That’s the way it happens with me: I never start with a theme and make up a story to exemplify it – I start with colours and noises and atmospheres, and gradually characters and incidents emerge and join together, and finally, last of all, come the theme and the meaning.

Philip Pullman – Dæmon Voices

I put most of my writing effort this month into getting out two blog posts based on previous newsletter writing – one on cognitive decoupling and banana phones, and one on Brian Cantwell Smith’s idea of the middle distance. So I haven’t left much time to write the newsletter, and it’ll have to be relatively short and low effort.

I’m going to talk about a few things I’ve noticed in Daemon Voices, Philip Pullman’s collection of essays on storytelling, which I’m currently reading on the bus on the way to work. (I got this after reading his new book, The Secret Commonwealth, which I’d highly recommend if you liked the original His Dark Materials series).

Before that I’m going to do some housekeeping/navel-gazing about the newsletter format, so skip that if you don’t care. tl;dr I might move to posting it straight on my blog instead.

Newsletter format

I’m trying to decide whether to move the format of the newsletter away from the current ultra-low-tech method of just emailing everyone each month. There are a couple of problems I see with the current method:

  • It’s hard to unsubscribe. You have to directly email me and say ‘I don’t want this thing any more’, which you might feel bad about doing. (Please don’t! But I know that just saying that probably doesn’t work.)
  • It’s really easy to accidentally paste everyone’s emails into the To field instead of the Bcc one, and now you all have everyone else’s emails. Which is not what you signed up for. I mucked up once early on (sorry), and I’ve been much more careful since, but maybe I’ll muck up again.

Using something like Mailchimp would prevent the Bcc problem, and would automatically come with an easy way of unsubscribing. On the other hand there are some things I really like about the current format:

  • It feels much more informal. Even a chatty Mailchimp newsletter has a kind of corporate or magaziney look and feel to it which I don’t much like. The current newsletter just looks like a normal email about stuff I’m interested in, which is exactly what I’m going for. 
  • It’s easy to reply to. Maybe a Mailchimp newsletter has a link at the bottom with the author’s address, but do many people bother to click on it? With a normal email you just click ‘reply’. And people actually do this 🙂

There’s another advantage that was salient when I started, but I don’t care about so much now:

  • It’s hard to subscribe: you have to email me and ask, rather than just clicking a button. That was a feature rather than a bug initially, as I was nervous about the format and didn’t want a big audience. I still don’t want a very big audience, but I’m much less bothered now if more than ten people read it.

The option I’m considering is to just publish a blog post every month (in a separate section of the site, under the Newsletters tab). I’ve already posted the pre-2019 newsletters there, so I could just start doing that every month. That has the added advantage that comments that go to everyone and not just me are possible, which might be good. I’d also be happy to send an email out each month to anyone who likes that format, as it’s not much extra effort to do both and I like getting direct replies that way.

Let me know if you have any thoughts! Maybe there’s some other option I haven’t thought of. I’ll keep to the email format for the next newsletter and will probably make the change for the one after that.

Daemon Voices

As I said at the beginning, I haven’t left myself enough time for this one. I wanted to flesh out my brief comment on Twitter here about the alethiometer, but that turns out to open on to a big  subject that Pullman had a lot to say about, and I can’t do it justice in a few hours of writing. Instead I’m going to focus on one early essay in the book, ‘Making It Up and Writing It Down’, where he talks about his process for coming up with ideas in the context of the His Dark Materials trilogy. (This necessarily spoils some plot points of the books. Maybe don’t read if you care about that? It won’t spoil anything in the more recent books, La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth.)

This contains a lot of the themes that he goes back to again and again in later essays. Fair warning if you’re going to buy this book: the essays are very repetitive, as they are based on talks he gave over a 20 year period on similar topics. You get many different versions of his thoughts on the narrator and ‘where to put the camera’, his idea of stories as paths through phase space, the distinguishing features of a folk tale. I actually really like this, because you get to see the same thing again and again from multiple perspectives. Most writers linearise more than I personally like – if someone is interesting I just want to wander through their favourite topics for a while to see if I can learn to see what they’re seeing, and repetition is helpful for that.

The subtitle of this book is ‘Notes on Storytelling’. Not ‘Notes on Writing’. Pullman talks a bit about the ‘writing it down’ side of writing, but he’s much more interested in the ‘making it up’ side:

I realised some time ago that I belong at the vulgar end of the literary spectrum. I suppose it would be nice if you could send back your talents and ask for a different set, but you can’t do that. You’re stuck with the dæmon you’ve got, as Lyra learns. However, I’m reconciled to my limitations, because much as I enjoy the writing-down part, and hard as I try to do it as well as I can, I do find that the making-up part is where my heart lies.

This focus on coming up with ideas means that it’s closer in spirit to something like Keith Johnstone’s Impro (this book is excellent btw – good reviews here and here if you don’t know it) than it is to traditional literary criticism. But I noticed even more striking parallels with Donald Schöns’s The Reflective Practitioner (I wrote about this one a while ago). Particularly the way he talks about discovering the main themes of the books as he writes them. First he comes up with the idea of dæmons:

I didn’t actually think of dæmons at first. My first dozen or so attempts to write this opening chapter failed, because at that stage Lyra didn’t have a dæmon; I didn’t know that dæmons existed. She went into the Retiring Room at Jordan College on her own, and the story didn’t work, because there was a sort of dynamic missing, and I wasn’t sure what it was until the dæmon turned up.

This idea is rich enough to develop in multiple ways, starting from ‘picturesque details’ and only later inspiring important parts of the plot:

Witches’ dæmons can leave them and wander far away, while still maintaining close mental and emotional contact. I didn’t know how, or why; it was just a sort of picturesque detail that made the witches different and strange. When – again, much later – I thought about how I was going to bring Lyra and Pantalaimon together again, I remembered this, and retrospectively invented a sort of initiation that young witches undergo, when they have to go into the wilderness, to a place where dæmons can’t enter, and they suffer the torments of separation voluntarily. But unlike severance, this results – after the suffering – in the witchy, witch-like power of being apart while still united; and I could grant this witch-like power to Lyra and to Will, as a sort of compensation for the suffering of having to leave their dæmons behind on the shores of the world of the dead. That’s the value of leaving a lot of loose ends in a long narrative: when you get to the end it’s very handy to have some lying around to tie up a bit of the story neatly.

And then it deepens again, to provide the theme of the whole series:

I didn’t realise what it could be about until after I’d discovered dæmons, which happened in the way I described just now. But more especially it was when I found that children’s dæmons change and adults’ dæmons don’t; and I think that that idea and the theme must have leaped towards each other like a spark and a stream of gas. I don’t really know which came first, but they took fire when they came together.

I think I can now articulate why Schön’s ‘conversation with the materials’ idea struck me as deeper than the standard tech industry idea of iterating on a basic MVP, which it superficially resembles. Yes, there’s iteration and improvement. But there also needs to be recognition of when your starting materials are generative enough to support worthwhile iteration in the first place. In the Quist/Petra example in The Reflective Practitioner, we see this happening when the architecture student Petra recognises that the bottom left design is ‘more significant’ than the top right one, and can interact more interestingly with the complicated topography of the site:

Quist is then able to help her elaborate it, but this only works because the initial idea is rich enough to support elaboration.

With the dæmon idea, Pullman had unearthed something extraordinarily rich, and he had the ability to recognise that and see what it did once he started working with it. Maybe ‘unfolded’ is a better word than ‘iterated’: in his words

It takes you by surprise, and opens up new possibilities, and forces you to come up with solutions you wouldn’t have had to think of otherwise.

Next month

I don’t know. I want to do some physics again. Not sure I really have the time, but it’s worth a go. Alternatively I could write up the shitpost-to-scholarship thing as a blog post.