Wednesday, July 4, 2018


"We have to understand, that the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation.  The hand is more important that the eye.  We are not one of those contemplative civilizations of the Far East or the Middle Ages, that believe that the world has only to be seen and thought about, and who practiced no science.  We are active, and indeed we know in the evolution of man, that it is the hand that drives the suspirate evolution of the brain.  We find tools made by man before he became man ... even in pre-history, man already made tools that had an edge finer than they need have.  The hand is the cutting edge of the mind.  Civilization is not a collection of finished artifacts. It is the elaboration of processes.  In the end, the march of man is the refinement of the hand in action."
Jacob Bronowski, the Ascent of Man, Episode 3

Hand with Reflecting Sphere, by M.C. Escher
I strongly encourage the reader to watch the video contained in the link, despite it being aired in 1974 and despite the certain grandiose and dated presentation.  Bronawski passed away within a year of recording the series and, I have long felt, the world was lucky to have gained the insight of one of the brightest minds of the mid-20th century before it was too late.

I hadn't seen the third episode in some years before stumbling over it last night ... and as I listened to the conclusion of the episode, quoted above, I realized a connection it made with my recent post about worldbuilding, in which I encouraged the reader to make worlds based on what the reader knows, and for the reader to set out to know more than the reader does.

Let me add to that.

Take a moment and look at your hands.  Spread them, flex them; examine the curved, concave shape of the outstretched hand, in the way that it naturally wants to wrap itself around a sphere, or smooth a rough object, or twist a stem from a branch, or any of the hundreds of complex actions that can be managed with the balance of your fingers and your palm.  Then look about you at the hundreds, even thousands of objects in the room, and forget for a moment that we make these things by machine now ... remember that first, we made everything by hand, and that the machines we make duplicate that action, rather than run contrary to it.

If you have experienced raising a baby, you will remember that the baby learns almost everything by the grasp of its hand.  The clutching of the fingers comes into play almost immediately, as a newborn will grasp your fingers to know you even before it can clearly see.  For a long time, the hand is the only complex action a baby can take, as it examines everything that comes in reach of its grip.  This is not accidental; the pattern of a baby knowing things by touch establishes the mechanical means by which the brain processes its world; what Bronowski calls the suspirate evolution, the "breathing" evolution.  This means that in order to think at your highest measure, you must DO as well as think; you must apply your hands to a task, while you think; and in that manner, your thinking will clarify, and you will be able to create on levels you cannot, by thinking, fully understand.

For example, this post.  Like many posts that I write, I think of a few sentences to start the post, and some hint of the idea I wish to form ... but very rarely do I have the whole post in my mind at the moment that I start.  Yet once I do start, once my hands begin to move over the keyboard, my body and mind reach a state of mutual lucidity ... and I begin to realize sentences I would never have conceived without first starting to write.  The post takes shape as I write it, and comes together to a conclusion with both action and thought bonding together to form the final product.

I have done it thousands of times; and most times, when I look back at the post, and see what I have written, it does not seem that it was I that wrote it.  It seems to have taken form of its own accord; what the Greeks called the "muse" taking possession of me.  But the muse is my taking advantage of the learning process that I gained in my infancy, when I recognized my mother but did not understand anything about my mother, and when I gripped the bottle in my hand to assure my sustenance without understanding anything about needing sustenance.

That sentence I've just written came unbidden to me, as if an alien planted it into my fingers as I wrote it.

As a writer, I've come to trust this instinct.  I've come to place my faith in it, knowing that if I begin a post, even if I know nothing at all about what I will write, that somehow I will begin to write something that will be of importance.  And now I want you, the reader, to trust that instinct, in you.

I hear and see, again and again, that individuals do not know how to make a world for their RPGs.  They ask, what is the best way, and how do I make it believable, and how much do I need to build before I can play?  And I see the question, when do I stop worldbuilding and start writing?

If you're not doing both at the same time, you're not doing either.

Yes, create a world that you know, that you feel confident that you can walk through as long as you must for the sake of the players, or the readers if you're writing a book ... but create.  Draw, scribble notes, scratch directions out on paper, make maps if you must, create names for things and make connections between living things, objects and places in your world, as continuously as you are able.  Get out of your head.  Your head just wants to ask the meaning of what you're doing, and that's no good for you.  You have to get into your hands, or get into action.  You have to DO.  Make sense of what you've done after you've done it.

To that I'll add the crystalline rule of all writing, all art-making, all purposeful design of any kind, whether it is your game world, your place of living or your sand castle.  Once you're done making it, remake it.  Then remake it again.  And again.  And again.

Writing, as they say, is editing.  No work of art is ever finished, it is abandoned.  But before it is abandoned, it is built up, then torn apart to see how your hands and your mind put it together, then built again.  And again.  With each iteration, there is more to see, more to deconstruct, more to learn from what you've done, more mistakes to be found and corrected, more ideas to implement, more ways to attempt the project and more you have to discover about what you can do when you stop thinking with your contemplative brain and start thinking with your brain as it breathes life.

"And from that one intake of fire,
All creatures still warmly suspire."
Robert Frost, Sitting by a Bush in Broad Sunlight


Jomo Rising said...

I'm the type of writer who has A in mind, a part of the story eventually leading to B, but I do not know before I start writing how to get from A to B. That comes out during the process of writing. Now, being the type of guy who thinks on his feet to write an interesting story, I wonder if that makes me a better player than a DM?

Alexis Smolensk said...

It makes you normal.

Jomo Rising said...

I am never sure of that with all my fellow writers who outline everything.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Try not to place too much importance on personal methods of effort. Some will see outlining as the logical method because they were taught to do that in school. Others will see brainstorming as the logical method because of experiences they had with inventiveness. Still others will employ a rush in and do it strategy, because it happens to work for them. It doesn't matter how we "do" it ... as long as it is action we're taking.

I applaud any active method. I mean only to counsel against waiting, contemplating and overthinking.

Fuzzy Skinner said...

I know exactly what you mean about writing seeming to emerge from somewhere or something else. Once my hands "get into gear" sufficiently that I'm writing whole words rather than individual letters - and then whole sentences - I can get a lot of work accomplished, even if it isn't perfect. (I originally wrote "a lot of work done"... but as you point out, it's never really "done", is it?)

As terrible as that high-school English composition class was, at least it forced me to write very quickly and automatically - a skill that would serve me well in college. But (as you've also pointed out in older posts), it's much more difficult to write fiction this way.