the six million dollar writer

A friend who reads the newsletter recommended Geeta Dayal’s entry in the 33 1/3 series on Brian Eno’s Another Green World. I didn’t know the album, but Dayal’s book, he wrote, is “not just about the recording but about Eno’s approach to creativity.”

According to Dayal, Eno was heavily influenced by cybernetic theory. If you were a fan of The Six Million Dollar Man, you might think the term “cybernetics” has something to do with bionic limbs, slow-motion running, and Bigfoot. In fact, it refers—broadly speaking—to the study of systems, communications, and control. Dayal explains:

Cybernetic systems were used to model practically every phenomenon, with varying degrees of success—factories, societies, machines, ecosystems, brains—and Eno became a big fan of linking its powerful toolset of concepts to the studio environment, and to music composition.

(Does it apply to prose? I guess have to finally read Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics. Imagine my disappointment when I bought that book only to discover it doesn’t mention bionic limbs, slow-motion running, or Bigfoot.)

Instead of composing music note by note in the traditional way, Eno experimented with approaching a group of musicians as a cybernetic system. He’d give them a set of rules and then set them loose to generate new material within those constraints. Eno wasn’t alone in the idea of using an algorithmic approach to generating music, of course. He was influenced not only by cybernetic theory but by John Cage, Steve Reich, and others in the 1960s and 1970s musical avant-garde doing just this. But Eno wanted to make music that was not only cutting-edge but “sensual.” For him, the experimental music of the time was important, but from an academic standpoint only: “You’re glad someone’s done it but you don’t necessarily want to listen to it.”

With this in mind, it’s pretty clear that the theory of cybernetics pervades Eno’s creative philosophy, all the way up to his generative music iPhone app. Even his iconic Oblique Strategies decks represent a set of randomized instructions you can give yourself while working on a creative project.

In a sense, I take a cybernetic approach to my own writing. (Although not for this newsletter, of course. That would imply a degree of thought and preparation that clearly isn’t present.) Rather than simply charge ahead into a large project as I once did, I’ve learned to map out the territory, carve it up into manageable chunks, and then approach each chunk as a set of instructions created by someone else for me to follow. To follow blindly, in that I can put the book out of my mind and focus only on executing the piece at hand like the mindless killer cyborg I am. Through my outlining process, I’m programming my future self with a series of discrete writing tasks, leaving him free to get the words down without getting derailed. Writing a book is impossible. Writing a subsubsection is just, well, painful. Like trying to violate Directive 4.

If you’re interested in programming yourself, try Gingko. It’s a web-based tree outliner that presents your writing as a series of cards in a column. You put an overarching concept in each card: a paragraph summarizing one particular chapter of a book, for example. Then you branch that top-level card into one or more dependent cards as you expand on its concepts. Once you’ve finished elaborating on each parent card into a series of subcards and subsubcards, you can export the whole outline to a Word document.

Ultimately, all of this is a way of becoming a more systematic writer. Bringing out your inner cyborg. Maybe Flaubert didn’t go far enough. To be more violent and original in your work, be more regular and orderly in how you approach doing it.

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