Rational Intuition and Other Paradoxes of Writing
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Rational Intuition and Other Paradoxes of Writing
Workshop Diary 9
Translator: Austin Wagner
When I’m in a bad mood I take personality tests. Not only is answering the questions a distraction all by itself, you also have a guaranteed reward at the end: a report on just how incredible, loveable, and special you are. It’s a game both safe and secure – no personality test will ever tell you you’re an asshole. They all see you as the most one-of-a-kind. Sure, it’s hard to stand by any assertions of uniqueness when every 9th or 16th or nth person gets the exact same description, but hey, that’s why it’s a guilty pleasure.
Every few years I take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and I’m consistently an Architect. The system measures four different traits, which leads to sixteen possible types. The Architect is an INTJ – Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging – and even though it says the prettiest things to entice me, I can’t shake the feeling that this category is a one big walking contradiction. Dreamy and rational. Led by intuition, but thinking in systems and seeking logical connections. And idealist and pessimistic cynic at the same time.
Thanks for the info, I guess?
I don’t treat these tests as serious sources of self-enlightenment, they’re obviously not capable of fully characterizing someone – scientific critics have studied them a great deal – but all the same, these ridiculous contractions are spot on in my case.
I sometimes think this is the root of all my problems. In life, maybe, but in writing, definitely.
You can write intuitively, let the story grow all on its own without any sort of plan. Follow emotions, impressions, wait with bated breath to see where the text goes next. Or you can set out with a detailed plan, draw up an outline, craft the composition in advance, know what the final sentence will be before the first one is even done. But to do both of these together is quite the challenge. It’s not possible to fly blindly but with a blueprint for safety. Even I can’t condone an internal contradiction of such proportions.
Ever since I started writing, I’ve been trying to find the happy balance of the two, the place which works for me – and here’s a big caveat with flashing lights and whirring sirens: the ideal blend is different for everyone, and that’s just fine. If I imagine the two types as the end points on either side of a number line, with a slider I can drag back and forth depending on what I need more of at any given moment, intuition or planning, I don’t think I’ve written any two stories using the same configuration. I don’t have any recipe to follow, which is why knowing how to start a new novel is so damn hard.
Should I make a plan? But what if I overplan, and it kills the spark which led me to start the story in the first place? If I know too much, I often get bored by my own writing. It’s like hearing a joke when you already know the punchline. For my short story Black Monitor, for example, I had to have a plan, since it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story where the reader decides where to go after each short chapter. For that one I had to map out the entire decision tree in advance, where things can branch off, how many endings there should be, where the key points are that every reader has to reach, and what information goes where. Working all of this out was an absolute blast – I brought my rational side to the forefront, I needed systematic thinking and logical decision-making. But when I sat down to actually write the story, it felt like the fat lady had already sung and left the stage. All I had to do was follow the blueprint. The exciting part of the work was already done.
Or should I let my intuition guide me into the thicket, let the whole thing be a journey of discovery with the risk that I might have to throw it all out in the end? I tried my hand at this too. In my short novel Freedom of Contract, I planned almost nothing in advance, often not knowing anything beyond what was happening in the current scene. I was discovering the story just like a reader would. The whole novel came from a single image: a man that rain doesn’t touch. And it was the constant stream of why questions which made the story. In this case it was my intuition I handed the reins too, I let my subconscious piece the events together, I didn’t let my rational self anywhere near the text until I started the self-editing process. Now this was exciting – the discovery more so than the writing – but the possibility that the whole thing would fall apart, that I might have to start over from scratch, was constantly hovering overhead. Though that’s the case with almost all of my novels.
But more often than not, I try to use a mixture of the two. I follow my intuition – which is necessary for me to be interested in the story – and once I’ve finished a few chapters, I stop and look everything over, a sort of reverse planning to see if everything’s okay. I let my intuitive side take the wheel and try to ignore the rationalist wailing from the back seat: you don’t know what you’re doing, watch the road! I only let that side take over when we really do need a jerk of the wheel to keep us from crashing into a ditch. If I strike the right tempo then we can go on, there’s a healthy rhythm to the work. But if not, it’s one flat tire after another, a choking motor, the intuitive and rational parts chiding one another like fighting siblings: no, it’s your fault!
Recently I’ve been consciously experimenting, which is why I let the two stories mentioned above tip so decisively to one side or the other. I know now that I can trust my intuition, that I can build up a story arc unconsciously, the themes will intersect and mesh, I don’t need to forcibly control everything. And I also know that if I put in the effort, I am able to follow an outline, albeit a bit grudgingly. I’ve also gotten wise to the pitfalls: if my editor poses rational questions about how the background world operates while I’m still in the intuitive phase, there’s no hope I’ll have an answer. And when I start analytically picking apart a finished text and looking under the hood to see if the system really does work, I can’t let myself tamper with decisions driven by emotion, the ones that just felt right when I came up with them. I need to hand over the wheel at the right moment, and everyone needs to stay in their own lane.
A few months ago at the Szeged book launch for The Theses of Lies, Szilveszter Veszprémi asked me whether writing is “magic” or “science.” Bursts of intuition or a logically built system. At the time I said something along the lines of, “it’s science, but it should appear so effortless that the reader thinks it’s magic.” But the truth is that I only wish this is how it worked. Then I would have a surefire, reproducible method I can whip out when needed, something rational. The part of me griping from the backseat would calm down. But I can’t deny that there’s just as much intuition in writing – which doesn’t mean technical knowledge and practice doesn’t matter, just that you reach for them unconsciously, you hand over the reins – and ever since I came to terms with that, I can more confidently make use of both of them.
After all, writing is first and foremost risk-taking. Especially if I want it to be exciting.
Or as the personality tests would say: make your personality traits work with one another, not against one another. Even if they don’t lead to conscious decisions, dare to trust in yourself.