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Louis L’Amour and Writing for Life from Life

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My new dead friend teaches on knowing

I do not read westerns, typically.

But Mrs. Kirkistan, with her eclectic tastes, put L’Amour’s autobiography into my [sweaty] hand. Education of a Wandering Man is a revelation.

Two things right away:

  1. L’Amour was an autodidact like few others. He had little formal education—he quit school at 15 to travel. His real education started with knocking about as merchant marine, going to war, wrangling cattle, going hungry between jobs, boxing—and reading. Especially reading. L’Amour’s hunger to know is infectious.
  2. L’Amour’s hard-knocks education contributed to his readable writing. That’s my hypothesis: life experience makes for more readable writing. And vice versa.

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L’Amour’s life (1908-1988) seems a rebuke to the supposed schism between “academic” and “practical.” If you read Education of a Wandering Man (and I hope you will) you will find an articulate man who read widely and used very approachable language to package his thoughts. But it wasn’t just easy-to-read language that was his genius; it was the layering of language into a story. L’Amour is a storyteller who is hard to resist.

His is not academic writing, of course. But it is thoughtful writing—especially when you find out what he was reading when he wrote. His simple stories start to go deep.

In his autobiography L’Amour named the books that had been influential for him. There are scores of them—73-120 books per year, from 1930 to 1937—and he named them one by one. But these are not the books listed on a college syllabus (though some are, to be sure). From Voltaire to Nietzsche to Schopenhauer to Mann to O’Neill to Joseph Conrad And lots and lots of fiction These are the books that piqued his interest as he lived his life. And that is how his autobiography is organized: the books he read while he was living this or that particular chapter. Reading about the West as he worked on cattle ranches Reading Nietzsche and Schopenhauer as he boxed. Reading ancient myths and stories as he sailed. Reading about the West later as he wrote frontier stories. (I may be off in the details about when he read what—there were so many mentions and so many chapters in the guy’s life).

 

Education Not a Given

One thing that stands out is the focus of his education. It was not to acquire a degree. It was to move forward with what he was intended to do—as best he understood.

Stay with me here: L’Amour read to see how stories worked.

Yes, he got lost in books. Yes, he loved learning. But his learning was always aimed at assembling an image of how the world worked. He was of a time when many readers were doing the same thing, because education was not as available as it is today. But there were books.

Here’s the point: L’Amour told stories, and all his philosophical thinking about life is bound up in the stories. He is not pedantic (at least in this book), but thoughts about life roll out of the characters in the stories. This is a revelation because much of our education (and my education) are all about pedantics: laying lesson out in neat arguments. One could memorize these arguments. In fact, you have to memorize them because they slip away the moment you turn your eyes. That’s because they are not moored in the emotion of real life.

L’Amour, on the other hand, had stories pop out of him of all sort of real (ish) people doing real things in life because of their underlying beliefs.

 

Oral and Writing Should Talk

The big revelation that L’Amour gave me was that precisely because he was educated by stories and for stories (he had to captivate audiences again and again in the different chapters of his life), his writing fit quite naturally into an oral rhythm. No big words. No long sentences. Ideas were easy to remember because he wrote them with stories, and we remember what that philosophy looks like without the pedantics.

Because of L’Amour’s example, and because of my own failures (plus a few minor successes) with communicating and expressing detail, I’m starting to move toward copy that can be said. I’ve always advised copywriting students to read their sentences aloud to see if they make sense. In the end, it’s quite possible that what we hear and what we gather from what we hear, is the standard for engaging another person, as well as the standard for knowing anything.

Knowing seems to pass through our mouths, in particular.

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You and Joe and Industry 4.0

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Can we grow the ways we talk together?

Some say Industry 4.0 will be about Cyber-Physical systems, the Internet of Things and the Internet of Services. But I cannot help but wonder if, along the way, some genius with a high EQ will also find ways to bring out the best in people and unearth fresh ways for us to work together.

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As hierarchy gives way to connecting mission with ideas and tasks, as people learn to bring their whole selves to work (emotion + logic + ethics + spirit—because they are rewarded for it), as people exercise agency and autonomy and ownership at work—things will look different.

Buber: Come on, folks: It’s “I/Thou” not “You are my tool.”

Buber: Come on, folks: It’s “I/Thou” not “You are my tool.”

Maybe these geniuses, with the ginormous EQs, will help us understand what happens as we form ever more confining boxes around employees. Maybe they’ll show us that using metrics that note every eyebrow twitch and hand movement, metrics that reward those movements that fit the company goals, those metrics actually measure the wrong things and defeat innovation before it is even begun. Maybe these geniuses will notice that our levers of control over employees also inhibit the very thing we most need to move forward.

I imagine stepping into the office of one of these high EQ geniuses and glancing at the portrait of Martin Buber on the wall—their patron saint of collaboration. I imagine being lectured by these geniuses on strategies around deep listening and meetings that matter and how to disagree with each other productively and how they aggressively eradicate authority-rhetoric & boss speak because it is so demotivating to be reminded that someone owns you. And it is also, by the way, not true.

Let industry 4.0 grow to include people.

Please.

 

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Dumb sketches: Kirk Livingston

Is it Better to Sound Smart or to Communicate?

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Please stop me before I commit an act of literature.

We had this discussion in class. A literature student was talking about how writing for social media was different than, say, literature. Popular writing—so our discussion went—is aimed at a different audience (here we picked our way around classist terms), and is not as, well, interesting, as literature. All her other classes required a compacting of ideas into sentences that grew rather long. Sentences that required a fair amount of attention. Sentences that required grappling with theologically heavy terms, or the whimsy of philosophers who felt compelled to make up words for their new ideas. Or writers who committed acts of literature in the most tortured fashion.

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I maintain that writing for social media requires that we let go of jargon and the complex sentences that shout “College!” or “Graduate School!” At our best, our writing is nearly transparent: leading right into the topic without stopping to say “Look at me.” Does that mean we use dumbed down ideas and language? I’ve said no to this several times. Erasing our jargon so smart people from different disciplines can understand us is not the same as dumbing down. And, in fact, when we do the work of translating our tribe’s jargon into regular English, we are poised to find a certain elegance and cadence that sounds more human, more fresh and less like the forced and predictable tribal language.

Respecting the reader is central to this project of communication—this bridge-building activity. If you think the reader is an arse, that comes through in your word choice. If you think the reader cannot be trusted, that shows. If you think the reader is intelligent and can handle the topic in words any human would understand, your reader will know.

One irony of the discussion is that many of the writers we celebrate as having written literature were themselves seeking for the simplest way to say things. Countless writers talk about kill your darlings and omit needless words and how nearly anyone can write to confuse. But the real artist takes a meaningful notion and makes it clear to someone else. And this: we are more likely to say something memorable and possibly even elegant the farther we get from our tribe’s insider language.

Will you commit an act of communication today?

 

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Go Find Yourself

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Are you hiding in plain sight?

Are you already doing who you are?

That question barely makes sense.

Still, I like it because it combines process with self-identity and hints at motivation. To answer that question all you have to do is look at how you spend your day—and with whom—to begin to sort your priorities.

Matthew Crawford’s book The World Beyond Your Head: On becoming an individual in an age of distraction (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) is not a quick read. But it is a satisfying text because he pulls back the draperies hiding some daily mysteries we live without thinking.

For instance, I found out I am an artist. Of sorts.

For instance, I found out I am an artist. Of sorts.

Like work.

Mr. Crawford, the philosopher/motorcycle mechanic dismantles the notion of work and rebuilds it around the cylinders of service and ability and passion. (Wait—only three cylinders? What sort of wimpy metaphor is that? Don’t blame Mr. Crawford—that’s just my take on it and I’m only ¾ of the way through the book.)

Mr. Crawford notes that we must submit to a discipline—this is important—to become useful and adept at that discipline. Sort of like knowing the rules well so that you can break them well:

  • Mechanics must know the fundamentals of engines to work on them.
  • Writers must know how to speel, and the must know a grammar, to right. Otherwise, misunderstood. Are they?

Mr. Crawford’s take on authority is powerfully counterintuitive: we submit to the authority of a discipline so we can work within the logic and expectations and outcomes of that discipline. Along the way, after practicing that discipline for a time, it turns out we come to understand life through the tools and foci that discipline affords.

This notion of authority is counterintuitive because we Americans like to speak ill of authority every chance we get. I may be chief among the ill-speakers. That needs to change (though, of course, speak truth to power, and so on).

Here’s the point: looking back over the disciplines we’ve come to use every day is a key to how we understand the world and how we process life. Some people understand life through their writing. Some people process life through their woodworking. Some through watercolor or costume design or clipping topiaries.

There is a link between who we are and what we do.

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Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

September 11, 2015 at 9:41 am

Gadamer: A Tormented Relationship to Writing

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The Best Writing Sounds Nothing Like Writing

Good writing is where you remember nothing about grappling with words but are instead transported with images and ideas that appeared in your brainpan. Effortlessly—or so it seems.

This kind of effortless reading is exceptionally rare with philosophers, who are well-known for obfuscation in their pursuit of parsing detail and cleaving difference from sameness. And yet Donatella Di Cesare, the biographer of philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, claims Gadamer’s writing style is “lucid” with “striking prose.”

We’ll see about that.

The lucid philosopher is the exceeding rare philosopher.

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I’ve just picked up Gadamer: A Philosophical Portrait by Donatella Di Cesare (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2007). In the introduction Di Cesare shared about her process:

There is a further difficulty that a monograph on Gadamer should not avoid, and that is his tormented relationship to writing. In order to get around his Socratic resistance to writing, he preferred the form of the lecture, the talk, or the debate. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost everything he wrote is based in dialogue.

She goes on to say Gadamer is “always careful to interrogate everyday language and to avoid rigid terminology,” so I am eager to see how his prose ends up as lucid and striking rather than simply tedious.

What piqued my curiosity was Gadamer’s alleged privileging of oral over written. It seems his inquiry was largely based in discussion, between people, rather than one man alone with a sheet of 20# bond and a pen. Again: I’m just at the beginning of reading Gadamer. I’ve got his big Truth and Method on order, but I know from my own writing that dialogue and conversation have a pull that abstract philosophizing rarely reaches.

The best writing sounds like a conversation with an interesting friend. I’m eager to see if Gadamer achieves that.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

When Truth Sounds Like a Lie

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And the lie that turns out true

Let’s make up a new term: the “aspirational lie.”

The aspirational lie is that thing that falls from your mouth before you can stop it.

  • It is not quite true—that’s why you almost didn’t say it.
  • But it is not quite false—something about it is true. Which is why you did say it.

That happened to me when talking to a writing class of business students. My professor friend let me come in and chat about freelance copywriting. She wanted her MBA students to see some different shades to how work gets done. In the course of our discussion we talked about how one prepares to write and about how one does the work.

I told one truth that sounded like a lie.

And I told a lie that turned out to be true.

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The Truth That Sounded Like a Lie

The truth that sounded like a lie was that I make a bunch of stuff up for my clients. “How so?” wondered the class. It’s like this: the writer’s work is to think forward and then tell the story of how all the parts fit together. Whether writing a white paper, a journal article, an advertising campaign or refreshing a brand, writers do what writers have always done: make stuff up. They grab bits and pieces of facts and directions and fit them into a coherent whole. As they move forward, they gradually replace false with true and so learn as they go.

That is the creative process.

You fill up your head with facts and premonitions and assumptions. Many are true, some are false. But the process itself—and the subsequent reviews reveal what it is true. Writing is very much a process of trying things on for size and then using them or discarding them. And sometimes we used facts “for position only,” as a stand-in for the real, true fact on our way to building the honest, coherent whole.

 

The Aspirational Lie

We also talked about backgrounds and how one prepares to write. I explained how degrees in philosophy and theology are an asset to business writing. Yes: I was making that up on the spot. But not really, because I have believed that for some time, though had never quite put it in those words. Pulling from disparate backgrounds is a way out of the narrow ruts we find ourselves in. Those divergent backgrounds help to connect the dots in new and occasionally excellent ways. Which is also why we do ourselves a favor when we break from our homogeneous clubs from time to time.

Comedy writers do this all the time. I just finished Mike Sacks excellent Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers (NY: Penguin Books, 2014), and was amazed all over again at the widely different life experiences comedy writers bought to their work.

The more I’ve thought about the aspirational lie that philosophy and theology contribute to story-telling, the more convinced I am it is true. That’s because I find myself lining up facts and story bits and characters and timelines according the rhythms and disciplines I was steeped in during school. In philosophy it was the standing back and observing with a disinterested eye. In theology it was the finding and unraveling and rethreading of complicated arguments—plus a “this-is-part-of-a-much-larger-story” component.

Our studies, our reading, our life experience—all these help line up the ways we hear things and the ways we connect the dots. Our best stories are unified and coherent because of this.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

The Work Itself

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What does it tell you?

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Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

December 19, 2014 at 9:33 am

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