Cargo Cults and why Novelists are people who finish books
Would you like to know what the most chilling aspect of working in a computer science department is?
Computer science departments have a tendency to forgive their great figures certain oddities of behaviour. Sometimes this is because they genuinely have missed the cues and I have no problem with that. Some of them just enjoy being unpleasant, and I can understand that even while I deplore it.
The chilling problem is that people around these figures have a terrible tendency to assume that the more unpleasant a person is to deal with - the greater the intellectual calibre must be.
When I was an undergraduate we had lecturers who were astonishingly bad at teaching; instead of demanding that we be given the basic respect of the department, we thought to ourselves ‘wow he must be a really brilliant man’. We were working on the reasonable grounds that if he wasn’t employed for his teaching he must have been employed for his research. (In all cases it turns out that there is no such correlation - I have literally never seen a case where quality of teaching had ever had anything to do with a position being filled).
The bit that upsets me is when I see the cargo culting. I see bright research students arrive: they are polite and friendly, nice and social. Indeed, the ones that work with decent supervisors stay that way.
However, the ones that work with other supervisors clearly have the thought ‘this person a brilliant scientist and also an awful human being. I want to be like them!’. Except that brilliant is hard to emulate and awful is easy, so you end up with with research students turning feral; picking up all the nasty habits for none of the good ones. Unfortunately for them, dickishness does not actually confer intellectual greatness except in their own minds.
So that’s upsetting. And avoiding this sort of thing is one of the minor goals of White Water Writers.
The White Water Writers project regularly attracts people who have talent but who have let their idea of ‘an author’ get in their way. They’ve been convinced that an author must be angry, angsty even. That writing is about ritually cursing your own work and ripping it up again. Inevitably they find themselves tending towards this strange cultural identity of ‘tortured writer’.
One of the things I find I say a lot when I’m running a writing camp is this:
‘Novelists are people who finish books’ (with full credit to Chris Watkins, from whom I first heard the phrase)
Not people who had an great idea, not people who really wanted to be a writer, but people who finish books. Not curse books. Not talk about books, but who finish them.
To their credit, one of the things that happens around day three of a writing project is that the crew start to see the words mount up and they let go of the other things they thought mattered. They lose all of the pretensions and they write better because of it. I think that is one of the best things that the project teaches people.
For those that can’t get to a White Water Writers camp I recommend having a read through Daily Rituals. It’s a lovely little book that chronicles the working habits of a massive range of creative people. And the major theme running through it is how little pretension there is: we have such wonderful examples as Anthony Trollope:
If he completed a novel before his three hours were up, Trollope would take out a fresh sheet of paper and immediately begin the next one.
…which is the most refreshing change from ‘angst writing’ that I’ve seen. Beethoven is another excellent example:
Beethoven rose at dawn and wasted little time getting down to work. His breakfast was coffee, which he prepared himself with great care—he determined that there should be sixty beans per cup, and he often counted them out one by one for a precise dose. Then he sat at his desk and worked until 2:00 or 3:00, taking the occasional break to walk
Auden rose shortly after 6:00 A.M., made himself coffee, and settled down to work quickly, perhaps after taking a first pass at the crossword. His mind was sharpest from 7:00 until 11:30 A.M., and he rarely failed to take advantage of these hours. (He was dismissive of night owls: “Only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night; no honest artist does.”
It’s quite clear from reading the book that everyone we think of as a ‘great author’ had the sensible approach to writing of ‘sit down, stop complaining, and write’.
There are, of course, exceptions:
Toulouse-Lautrec did his best creative work at night, sketching at cabarets or setting up his easel in brothels.
…and we shall also draw a bit of a veil over the number of the great artists who were clearly serious alcoholics or addicted to drugs.
I particularly like Mozart -
My hair is always done by six o’clock in the morning and by seven I am fully dressed. I then compose until nine.
I love firstly that it’s such a good example of someone carving out a slice of their day to do what they love, but also that it sets one to wonder what was he wearing that he took an hour to get dressed every day?