butt out or beware the mighty zeus

Writer and woodworker Jim Dillon wrote to me after last week’s essay:


Jim has been reading the Maven Game long enough to know how to capture my attention: emphatic compliments in ALL CAPS.

My work (writing, making a video, building a piece of furniture) flows most copiously when I can put myself in the mindset of (respectively) “taking dictation,” “cutting out the obviously not needed stuff,” or “making the mark on the wood and cutting to the mark with a saw.” My writing is like taking dictation because most of what I do is essentially process narration: “First you get the wood ready, then you cut the joints, then you put the cabinet together.” But because of ego I often sit there thinking about the work of the best woodworking writers ever, and comparing the sentence in my head against their best work, instead of just writing down the next step.

All writing should feel like taking dictation. Get out of your head so your head can work while you type.

In The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (which I honestly cannot believe I’ve never mentioned here previously because, wow, that book), psychologist Julian Jaynes proposes that consciousness is a relatively recent development. Prior to a few thousand years ago, according to Jaynes, human minds were divided into two halves: doer and thinker. The “unconscious” doer would robotically obey instructions from the thinker, usually perceived by the doer as a separate, divine entity. This is why, Jaynes says, the characters in The Iliad never reflect or exhibit any self-awareness in the text. The gods tell them what to do and they do it.

(I’m not trying to convince you of the book’s thesis. Jaynes spent 500 pages making his point and people still aren’t convinced. So give me a break with my 100 words.)

Whether or not the book is correct, it’s right. The breakdown of the bicameral mind is the worst thing that ever happened to writers. It tricked us into thinking we have a role to play in our writing. We don’t. The creative part of the brain is a separate entity, supernatural and fearsome. If you told me that mine was a grouchy old dude who hurls the occasion lightning bolt, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

Let Zeus run the show or he’ll give the order to release the kraken. (The kraken is a metaphor here, although for what, I’m not sure.)

Anyway, Jim had one more story to share with regard to being your own worst critic. As a craftsperson, you’ve got a craftsperson’s eye:

Years ago, my ex and I took our car to a body shop to replace a quarter panel after the car was hit in a parking lot. The body man was a friend of a friend, and he had seen some of my woodworking. Nice guy, told us the work would take two weeks and then finished it in a week (underpromise and overperform!). I went to pick up the car and he was on the phone. He covered the mouthpiece with his hand and said “JIM! WAIT TIL I GET OFF THE PHONE!” and went back to his call. Of course I walked straight to the car and inspected the fender he had replaced. I was APPALLED. The thing looked like the surface of the moon! It wasn’t shiny and new-looking at all! I sensed him walk up behind me and turned to face him, simultaneously inhaling to launch the complaint, and he put his hand on my shoulder and said “Jim, come look at the left front fender.”

That took the wind out of me, so I let him lead me to it. “Check it out.” So I looked at the left front fender and it was EVEN WORSE. The body man said “That’s what the factory finish looks like. I told you not to look because I know you have The Eye. In your line of work you have to see the flaws, and you automatically focus closer and closer until you see them.” I burst out laughing. So cool! It was like he had done a magic trick inside my head! He very generously spent the next half hour answering my questions about spraying finishes, something I was then dabbling in with kitchen cabinets, and it turned into one of the most valuable teaching sessions I ever had. But that lesson about The Eye has stayed with me. Some have it, some decidedly do not. It’s not a good vs evil thing, just a thing.

If you have The Eye, you’re going to need to close it firmly whenever you’re blinded by the faults in your own writing. It is, indeed, doing a kind of magic trick inside your own head. Ironically, closing the Eye is the only way out of Zeus’s labyrinth.

(Again, the labyrinth is a metaphor. Maybe it’s writer’s block. Or maybe the kraken is writer’s block and the labyrinth is anxiety. You know what, before I write anything else, I’m going to order a stack of books on Greek mythology off Amazon so I can get these metaphors sorted out…)

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