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Building a blueprint for a better brain by tinkering with the code.
August 3rd, 2022
This post is dedicated to Dr. Emily Balcetis, connect with her on Twitter: @EBalcetis
The process of writing and creating Tinkered Thinking has lead to a great number of things I never expected. Certainly the discovery that occurs with writing has yielded far more than I expected from my own feeble mind, but there are also things about the structure of Tinkered Thinking and the basic premise I outlined at the beginning that has generated things I never expected.
Before Tinkered Thinking it was a dream of mine to write a book of fiction. I was very much on that path and working quite diligently toward it (perhaps too diligently) when I experienced a debilitating intellectual shift. I gave up fiction writing and started teaching myself how to code. But after a number of months I simply missed writing as an activity. I’ve always loved playing with words, swapping them out, rearranging them and marveling at the lyrical magic that can be achieved. So many discoveries in writing are much like picking up a scrambled Rubik’s cube and turning it over and finding one side completely finished, and then turning it over again and finding that the whole thing is somehow solved. Substance seems to arise out of nowhere with words. And it’s been a perennial curiosity: where are all these words? They certainly aren’t on the page. That’s just text. And it doesn’t exist in the air, that’s just sound waves. I suppose they exist in the mind, but what a cop out that feels like: it’s not much different from the hard problem of consciousness; it’s a bit like asking: where is the person in someone’s brain? There isn’t a neuroscientist on the planet that can’t honestly do anything other than answer the question with a shrug.
In a similar way, certain things emerged from the project of Tinkered Thinking that still have me scratching my head. The Lucilius Parables, Volume I, for example. There was never a plan to write a book. There was just a curious challenge to see if I could write a different short, impromptu essay every day. And when the official “launch” (it had no official launch, it was just me trying to meet a deadline with regards to coding the darn thing), it seemed that 7 days of whimsical non-fiction was perhaps… well I feared it would get a bit tedious. And so I came up with the idea of doing a short story once a week. Once a week? In my prior life as fiction writer, I would spend whole days on single sentences and paragraphs often took weeks. One short story a week was ambitious in a completely novel way that honestly gave me a bit of trepidation. But my debilitating intellectual shift had also equipped me with just the right flavor and quantity of nihilism to say hell with it, and just run with the idea.
It wasn’t until a year later I realized I had quite a pile of stories - and a surprising number of them weren’t half bad. It was only then that I dumped them all into a new word document to see what the word count was, and lo and behold, I realized only then that I had a book.
Who accidentally writes a book?
The question sounds absurd, and the answer is mundane to an equally ridiculous degree: someone who is more focused on just writing everyday - that’s who.
Turns out there’s a nice bit of research around this phenomenon. Dr. Emily Balcetis has studied motivation, particularly with regards to visual perception, and she’s discovered that performance increases when a person’s focus is more narrow and specific. This occurs, for example, when a sprinter is focusing on a tiny patch of clothing on the runner in front of them.
But it also happens in a less visual/physical sense. Focusing on writing everyday is far more narrow than trying to focus on writing a book. One is a massive, somewhat incomprehensible task. The other is very relatable, and therefore doable: sitting down for a few minutes to write TODAY, is not horribly difficult. And when this is repeated for enough days in a row, a book simply emerges at some point - by design or by accident.
The moral of the story is that giant projects only proceed by the small next step that we can feasibly concentrate on. In fact, it’s best to try and forget about the finished product as much as possible.
PS. For the record, there is a second volume of Lucilius Parables that will be released shortly, and a third volume is also already written...by accident, of course.
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