Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 23rd, 2013

The power of serial expertise

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Samuel Butler

I’ve forgotten almost everything I learned in college. Despite having majored in classical languages, I hesitate before translating the simplest Latin tag, and I don’t think I could sight-read a line of Homer or Plato. I took countless courses on subjects that have since disappeared completely down the memory hole: I couldn’t tell you more than a handful of facts about the English Revolution, practical astronomy, or the Peloponnesian War. Since graduation, I’ve also absorbed and forgotten an enormous amount of information that I’ve acquired professionally, in my reading, or online. Over time, I’ve realized that when it comes to retaining knowledge, I can only echo Samuel Butler’s words: “In art, never try to find out anything, or try to learn anything, until the not knowing it has come to be a nuisance to you for some time. Then you will remember it, but not otherwise. Let knowledge importune you before you will hear it. Our schools and universities go on the precisely opposite system.”

Because there’s another category of knowledge that has turned out to be more lasting. I can talk for hours—or at least minutes—on end about such esoterica as the late works of Marcel Duchamp, the Dyatlov Pass incident, and the history of the mythical kingdom of Shambhala. I remember more than anyone needs to know about such unlikely topics as lake eruptions, Pendred syndrome and its relationship to iodine deficiency, autocannibalism among octopuses, the use of erysipelas infection to fight cancer, transcranial magnetic stimulation as a treatment for schizophrenia, and the logistics of moving a beached whale. These are the areas I’ve wandered into, without any existing interest in the subject, while writing my novels and short stories. In each case, I was driven into an unexpected topic by the evolution of a plot I wanted to write, and if I’ve retained the result longer than I have most other things, it’s because it importuned me, as Butler would say, to listen to it.

Ben Yagoda

In the past, I’ve taken a page from the Sherlock Holmes stories by describing a writer’s education as “accurate, but unsystematic.”  The author Ben Yagoda takes another stab at it in today’s New York Times, where he dissects—literally and figuratively—the familiar adage to write what you know. He notes that this piece of advice, if taken at face value, would only allow writers to treat subjects that they’re already passionate about, and he suggests another approach:

Fortunately, this conundrum has an escape clause: you can actually acquire knowledge. In journalism this is called “reporting,” and in nonfiction, “research.” I don’t write fiction, but I’d think that a rigorous combination of observation, reflection and directed imagination would have a similar result. In all cases, the idea is to investigate the subject till you can write about it with complete confidence and authority. Being a serial expert is actually one of the cool things about the very enterprise of writing: You learn ’em and leave ’em.

Well, I do write fiction, and I can personally confirm the power of “observation, reflection and directed imagination.” As I’ve noted before, becoming a serial expert is a big part of the reason I wanted to be a writer in the first place: it’s an excuse to explore the world, indulge my curiosity, and poke my nose into subjects I never would have encountered otherwise. And it’s even better than Yagoda implies. In some cases, when you plunge into a new world for the space of a story, you do learn ’em and leave ’em—but sometimes you find that they’ve invisibly become a part of you. There’s no better way to instill knowledge in your own mind than to use it as the basis for constructing the lives of imaginary men and women who find such matters critically important. These characters or their concerns may rarely appear in your thoughts once you’ve set aside the story, but they’re still there, and they have a way of bubbling up at surprising moments. And although it may not be practical in every case, I’ve found that if you really want to learn something, you should write a novel about it.

Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2013 at 9:01 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2013 at 7:30 am

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