Sunday, February 22, 2015

the fear of useful transformation...

Norwegian author Jan Kjærstad wrote about the fearful power of fiction:
”We know hardly anything about our strength and possibilities. Sometimes I see man as a creature all folded up. We walk upright, but we have not managed to raise thought. Mentally speaking we are cripples …. I further imagine that books, fiction is just about the best tool for making us unfold …. And that is precisely why I am worried; why am I not hunting in a more determined way those books which will make me rise, which will make me grow a few centimeters? Because I no longer wish to be changed? I admit it: because I am afraid”.
How many books can you read that leave you essentially unchanged? There is a danger in this blog, in that if you do nothing from what is offered in it, you may feel in some ways impotent and diminished. If Mr. Kjærstad or others think that reading may lead to a fearful transformation, they might try making things for awhile instead. The change will offer less and even more to be afraid of. One might worry, "Am I to become a tradesman because of this?" Don't despair. Your first efforts will not bring your whole life to such a point of risk. You would have to actually get good at something first, and by that time you will have discovered that what you've done is something noble that makes you of greater real value to others, easing your transition into a more meaningful life.

As a writer in my small town, I am seldom thought of as a writer. Folks are surprised to learn that I've written books and I am never invited to participate in the situations that writers put themselves in to promote their work. It's because I write about how-to-do real stuff. I've thought of presenting the following at a local writer's night, if I were ever invited to present at such things.
The How-to of How-to (and a bit of why-to thrown in for good measure)

We all know that life in the 21st century is busy. There are so many choices of entertainment and distraction that it is hard to get any work done. And of course there's the Internet. It's a powerful tool that provides a sense that the whole world is right at our fingertips. But when we go off-line, the same drippy faucet is dripping its drip, the deck is in dire need of refinishing, and there are countless other things that need fixing or making or are just about to break. Gotta either hire a handyman or become one.

There are great writers that we all know and love who have the power to whisp us away through time and space, distracting us from our concerns, and placing our consciousness outside our own bodies, into the lives of fictional characters far removed from the real situations of our own lives. We welcome diversion from our own drippy faucets. Those are the writers who get the big bucks… the ones who entertain and distract. Their words carry us into feeling states from which we ultimately reawaken to lives unchanged.

How-to writers are a bit different. We write about small things that empower others to cope, to fix, and to make. We inspire readers to get up, put down their books and remotes, head for their basements, garages and backyard sheds with eyes, hands and imaginations directed toward improvement, change, betterment and growth.

How-to really has to do with the hands, and here are three very important things that I’ve noticed. The first is that the use of the hands makes us smarter. This is an idea proven by modern research as well as it being observed by scientists and educators as long as there have been science and education. You can even test it for yourself but (warning) it requires actually doing something tactile, and of real substance.

Secondly, the use of the hands makes us feel better. You all remember Cinderella, the wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters, and you may recall in the Disney version, Cinderella sang joyously in the garden and kitchen as she served her unappreciative and demanding family. The simple untold story is that this is what happens when you are aligned through your hands with the creative and expressive bounty of the universe. Neurohormones triggered by engagement in creative activities bring forth a sense of joy. That joy is noticed by others. It may make them jealous, as was the case with the step-sisters. Or, it may make them suspicious you're on drugs.

You noticed that in the Disney version of the Cinderella story, there were magical things happening with fairy godmothers, pumpkins, mice and the like. We often use magical beings as a means through which to depict inexplicable phenomenon. The most important part of the Cinderella story is not something that is told in the story, but it's something you can discover for yourself, and I'm not just making this up. Check out Kelly Lambert's theory of "effort driven rewards," and you will find that joy arises from the simple tasks we might be twisted toward believing are beneath our dignity or beneath our intelligence... While the stepmother and stepsisters were poisoned by self-importance, and crippled by the evil clenched tightly within their idle hands, Cinderella worked opennly with her hands and expressed joy within herself and to those around her.

Here in Eureka Springs we live in a community of artists and craftsmen, and each and every one will tell you that they feel better when they are engaged in their work. But you won’t have to take their word for it. This is something you can test for yourself in the garden or in the kitchen, without loading up on new tools, and without even having a wood shop.

Third, working with your hands puts you in touch with the vast expanse of history and human culture. Can you imagine what a visitor to a museum would think if they had never had a chance to make anything? Would they look at the real Mona Lisa and marvel at brush strokes made by Da Vinci's human hand? If they’ve never held a brush, have only engaged the world through a mouse and keyboard, will they have the power in their own souls to connect with the vast human legacy that only clicks-in when there is texture, the warmth of the human touch, and a sense of one’s own power to create?

How-to writers carry a great deal of power in our own hands. We, more than most, know the small wonders of our own creativity. We, more than most know the forces and means inherent in the human soul to improve the reality of the day to day and the here and now. So, I want to point out the value of who we are and what we really do. We empower. In the face of a consumer culture with the masses driven to consume we inform and instruct: how-to, why-to, encouraging others to build and make better. Perhaps some of us may feel compelled by the unrelenting lure of fantasy to write the great novel instead, but perhaps we should remember there is no more important calling for today’s age than that of the how-to writer.

So, how to get started?

Being a how-to writer is very much like being any other kind of writer except for two very important things. First is that you have to have some level of non-literary skill and direct experience in what you are writing about. You don’t have to be the very best in the world at something, but you do need to know the processes well enough to explain things clearly. Unlike the fiction writer who just makes stuff up to challenge your readers' willing suspension of disbelief, what you write will be tested in the hands of those who follow your instructions step-by step.

Secondly, The how-to author is required to be completely honest. Other writers, of both fiction and non-fiction have the pleasure of making stuff up or distorting information to twist the readers opinions to their own perspective. But the lying how-to author gets himself and his or her readers in a peck of trouble and won’t last long in the market place.

The first thing the prospective how-to writer must do is begin watching and taking note of his or her own life. Every good writer uses personal experience to frame what he or she wants to share with others. This is like having an editor, except the editor is in your own head. And the editor will begin asking questions. Is this interesting? What story does it tell? And a good internal editor leads you into exploring more and more options in the ways through which things can be done.

I had an important realization that everything I do is narrative. In my case, I use a chisel to cut wood. The wood records the motions of the hand and arm, the shape and size of the chisel, the quality of its cutting edge and the amount of force applied. Once you come to the awareness that you, in everything you do, use a variety of tools and materials to tell the story your own life, then you find that it is easy to transition from narration in wood or whatever other material you've chosen, to documenting your work in photographs or video, and in written word.

Adding your own editorial component, you then ask, “Is what I do of compelling interest?” If you come up with the answer, “No.” Then it is time to make adjustments in what you make or even in how you live your life. In the selection of what to write about, ask, "Is there anything particularly interesting about this process." If the answer is yes, then gather the materials and tools and begin work.

Sometimes I’ll clear a project first with an editor from one of the magazines I work with before I begin. I take photos of each and every step, and for me, the photography is crucial for keeping my narrative in order and reminding me of each step as I am writing so that nothing is overlooked. I use a digital camera on a tripod and use the self-timer to control the shutter. For very best lighting, I have the studio well lit with daylight fluorescent bulbs, so that wherever I am shooting, I don’t have to bother setting up lights or use the harsh glare of flash.

When the project is finished, I’m left with the finished object and take beauty shots of it that can be used either for the first page of the chapter, or the opening page of an article. Then I go through my photos and put them in step-by-step order, selecting the ones that best illustrate the processes used. When I’ve finished organizing the photos I write the main text and photo captions, and create a materials list and scrap art that will give the illustrator all the necessary information required to do drawings.

So how to get really started? Where can you test and develop your how-to writing skills? Fortunately these days, you don’t have to be discovered by a national magazine. There are on-line newsgroups and forums where you can share your tips and processes and practice your writing skills.
Even if you are a fiction writer, getting grounded in the making of real stuff, can make sense. Just think of the Cinderella Story told above. Another Scandinavian writer, Vilhelm Moberg, had begun reading by stripping the layers of newspaper from his walls to follow a serial once printed and buried there. Following years of successful writing, he drowned himself in his backyard lake during a period of writer's block and depression. Had he just a knife and some encouragement to whittle, he might have lasted to better days. Instead, he wrote a note indicating the time of day, and telling his wife he could no longer cope.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Well said! If it wasn't for how-to writers the rest of us would have to learn all sorts of things from scratch.


  2. Anonymous11:54 AM

    I have been following your blog now for a while but I may have to stop because you see I am a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and (gasp) a reader who has been transported and changed forever by books.

    I am no genius, believe me, just a hard, hard working schmo who tries her best and sweats blood to tell the truth in all of her stories, even the fiction ones. I work hard to research all my facts so that I only print the truth - both in fact and in fiction.

    Not everyone has access to a woodshop, and there certainly wasn't one where I grew up. So I learned through fiction: Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells - these were a few of the greats who sent me on my way and I am no the worse for it. I have room in my world for all sorts: an open mind helps.

    Doug, you seem of late to have a real problem with readers and writers and while I agree with you whole-heartedly about how important it is to get them started young with their hands, IT ISN'T THE ONLY WAY. Reading opens worlds that cannot even be dreamed of by young minds, and what is so wrong with that? When that is all that is taught, yes, that is an evil to be eradicated. But cannot both be taught, hand in hand as it were? Shouldn't children still listen to Charlotte's Web and be sad when she dies, but happy again when her girls, Joy, Nellie and Aranea stay? And who among us hasn't cried over Old Yeller? Besides, kids don’t read anymore. They text, tweet, twitter, Facebook, email and such – couldn’t tell you the last time I saw a kid with a book and I know for a fact it is a real problem the publishing industry is facing.

    You sound like someone didn't invite you somewhere and you are upset over it. I get that. But please do not blame all writers for the short-sightedness of a few. I freely admit I am not as smart as you and you often baffle me with your talk of 'sloyd', but I hang in there, I read and I learn. Please don't throw me out to dry because I came up a different way than you did.

    I cannot craft things due to severe arthritis and typing is often a chore but it is a blessing too as it works muscles, ligaments and tendons that would otherwise atrophy. So your blog has had a different effect on me than you may have intended: it has made me want to be better at what I do. I craft with my hands, my heart and with my mind just as you do, only words on a paper are my final achievement. You make me want to be a more honest writer; to cut down to the bone of me and display it for my readers to see the truth of things, both in my fiction and in my nonfiction. Writers do not always lie.

  3. I think you have taken what I've written and jumped to extremes. For instance I never said that writers always lie. And certainly words can be the recipient of an artisan's attention in the same way that a craftsman might shape wood or hone a fine piece of steel. Poets will talk about their work as though it is craftsmanship.

    My point has been that just because writing involves step-by-step and how-to, it has traditionally been thought of as less importance than literature. Because the words are directed toward functional and tactile responses from the reader, bringing real change rather than simply a state of change in the emotions, might allow some to consider how-to instructional writing as being of value greater than has been previously allowed, so I ask my readers to simply question this.

    I have said many times in the blog, that reading here should bring my readers to question the status quo. My purpose is not to lead us all into a state of comfort about how we live our lives, but rather, to encourage us all to engage in change that I describe as Make, fix and create.

    You have said that I have spoken against writers of fiction. I have not. I did note that they are often the ones who make the big bucks. But to read and become a better writer as a result makes sublime sense. Or to practice writing of any kind with an eye and hand toward sharing something meaningful with others, regardless of the type of writing it is, makes perfect sense. And if these are the things you do, all I can say is thanks.

    Thanks also for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  4. Anonymous8:11 PM

    Hi Doug - my name is actually Sharon D and I live in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. I hate posting anonymously, but I couldn't figure out how to do it any other way, sorry. Thank-you for your response. Perhaps I did give you a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, but when I read the blog on the 23rd as well, it seemed you were on a tear against fiction and non-fiction authors and especially reading as a vehicle of inner and lasting change. I am glad you are not. I am new to the blog and consequently cannot know what all the prior postings say. You do make me want to be better at what I do.

  5. Sharon, thank you for introducing yourself. My blog posts are rather wide ranging, as it appears to me that the hands literally touch everything. I hope I have not discouraged you from reading deep. And I hope you will feel free to comment again if I seem to be getting out of line. I am one of those writers who learned that good editors can be a writer's best friend, as we all need feedback on what we write. And it is so much better to get feedback than to suspect we are launching text into the void.