on enjoying the aftertaste

We’re off on vacation for a week, so just a brief insight for you this afternoon. Then you can go back to your high-end haircuts and green tea matcha lattes. (No week is complete without the New York Times Sunday Routine.)

A week into my freshman year of college, I made the impulse decision to forego a career in chemistry and major in theater instead. (Kids: this is the kind of thing that happens in college. Watch out.)

What I didn’t realize was that the full name of the major was “theater and dance.” What I couldn’t have realized was that, when they said “dance,” they actually meant “movement.” Like this. “Students, I want you to pulse in and pulse out…” That sort of thing. Frying pan to the fire, in other words.

Dave was not happy. I’ve grown to love that stuff, but it had to be chiseled into me. Boy, did they have to chisel.

At the end of one semester, our not-dance professor tasked us with putting together a ten-minute final piece from scratch. Ten minutes? That wasn’t going to be nearly enough for me. I had things to say! I had resentments to unfurl! How else would everyone know that I was not interested in all this pulsing? So my friend and I put together a twenty-minute parody of everything that frustrated me about the major. It had a soundtrack, but instead of the expected Brian Eno and Philip Glass it featured the likes of Queen and the Beach Boys. All the stops were pulled, I tell you.

At my end-of-semester review, I walked in to get my beatdown, and it came. Not for the reasons I expected, though. My professor didn’t say a thing about my bad attitude, the (not all that clever) parody, or even the fact that we messed up most of our music cues: “Look, that bit where you were surfing was some of the best physicality you’ve displayed all year. [Ed. note: Yes, she actually complimented the surfing part.] But don’t you see that, by the time you were finished, no one could even remember the other pieces?”

This was not intended as a compliment. Her point was that, by putting on an overly long, ridiculous extravaganza of jokes and posturing right after a series of short, thoughtful movement pieces, I’d flushed everyone’s lingering aesthetic impressions down the toilet. If a tree falls in the forest and you follow it up with a fart joke, did the tree even make a sound?

This lesson stuck with me. It made me extraordinarily conscious of the aesthetic “aftertaste,” that layering of impressions and sensations that stay with you after experiencing a work of art. I still remember the solo walk I took after watching Memento for the first time. That movie shunted me into a different headspace altogether. I’m grateful to this day that I had the opportunity to walk home along the Hudson River afterward and really bask in it. Grateful that a little message didn’t pop up over the end credits telling me that my queued episode of Real Housewives of Potomac would start playing in ten seconds.

If you experience a masterpiece of film and immediately switch over to some loud pop garbage on Netflix, you’re essentially killing off all those beautiful little neurological buds forming in your brain. Twenty years ago, you’d have the walk home from the concert hall, theater, or cineplex to let those impressions settle in. Today, we watch and listen to our masterpieces and our loud pop garbage on the same devices, one right after the other. If you’ve never deliberately created the space to digest a work of art before, it’s possible you’ve never really fully appreciated that piece. You may not even realize what you’ve been missing.

I learned a lot in college, but this lesson stands above the others. When I read or watch or hear something special, or even experience a truly special conversation, I do my best to give it space and let it linger in my mind. I get quiet and let the work and all its associations filter through me. I let the work breathe.

Then, and only then, do I switch over to some loud pop garbage.

the light that burns twice as bright

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the one thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

I’m about halfway through re-reading this. I’d forgotten how British it is. I’d remembered it dimly as straightforward Arthurian legend—Disney adapted The Sword in the Stone from the first part of it—but it’s actually more anachronism than chronism. Funny, fierce, odd, tragic.

Three-quarters of the quirky contemporary references must have gone completely over my head when I first read it at eleven or twelve. At the time, I just blasted through paragraphs of stuff I didn’t understand to get to the action. My son does the same thing now when he reads. It’s amazing how easily kids are able to extract story from all the messy and confusing bits surrounding it. Today, I’m getting maybe half of White’s embellishments on Le Morte D’Arthur—I’m not caught up on 1950s English cricketers or politicians, for example.

Anyway, I share the quote because I find it reassuring. I just turned forty and it’s coloring my thinking. While my ability to work with words relies on a set of practiced skills I consciously employ, the larger part of what I do each day feels subconcious, cognitive, instinctive. The Muse. The thing that’s either there or it ain’t and there’s nothing I can do but show up and hope.

Nowadays my Muse is vocal and reliable. A steady writing habit helps. Over time, of course, the old engine will sputter and grind to a halt. I may not outlast that part of me altogether, but I have to accept that my powers of invention will fade with my overall cognitive capacity. As Merlyn points out above, however, even as my natural spark ebbs away over the decades, I should, barring unforeseen medical conditions, continue to be able to learn even after my talent goes. It helps, knowing that. It’s always been more about the reading than the writing for me.

How long will I still be able to work at a level I can accept? It puts me in mind of the proverbial judo sensei whose muscles have atrophied with age but whose mastery of technique allows her to throw people half as old and twice as large. You get more efficient with experience. I can only hope that the effort I invest in technique offsets the loss—gradual, but already apparent—of short-term memory and other concrete cognitive strengths.

Every time I have to spend an extra moment searching for a unique way to convey something, I can’t help but, you know, um…

We recently watched Come Inside My Mind, the new HBO documentary about the life and career of Robin Williams. Truthfully, I never enjoyed Williams’s standup. Watching him in that context made me nervous, like watching a high-wire act in a second-rate carnival where you aren’t completely sure things won’t end in tragedy. Clearly, he felt compelled to stay on the edge, wandering away on wild riffs and then, with amazing frequency—but not always—landing. He always felt the need to test his spark, to make sure the fire was still burning. Though Williams trained at Julliard and possessed technique in spades, he didn’t want to rely on it.

One moment from the documentary sticks with me: In 2001, a subdued Williams appears on Inside the Actors Studio. This is well into Williams’s later period, the decline that began in 1998 with movies like Patch Adams and What Dreams May Come, right after his last clear artistic triumph in Good Will Hunting.

On stage, host James Lipton essentially challenges him, wondering out loud whether he’s still able to work his improvisatory magic at will. Visibly gathering himself, Williams lurches into an extended riff in the grand old style. It’s forced, but still remarkably sharp. You can see the pleasure in his face when he sticks the landing and the audience applauds.

That the magic hours are limited, that one’s talent burns for only so long in life: this is what makes all vital artistic output so precious. All the more reason to get your butt in the chair and prepare to gather what arrives regularly. What comes today won’t wait until tomorrow.

welcome to the forge

If you’re a regular Maven Game reader—have you received your official pin yet?—you’ll know that I don’t hold much truck with writing advice from other writers.

(Why anyone would “hold truck” with anyone else is anyone’s guess—and I wouldn’t hold truck with anyone who guessed!)

No, I prefer cross-pollination. For ideas and inspiration, I turn to other creative fields, from software development to oil painting. So you can imagine my joy when I stumbled on Forged in Fire, History Channel’s bladesmithing competition series. “Hulu’s got 5 seasons of this queued up? Goodbye world!”

The show pits four bladesmiths of varying experience against each other in a test of high-stakes craftsmanship. To start, they’re asked to forge a knife on-set using the provided equipment. They’re given three hours to make the blade; the judges eliminate the weakest contender. Then the three left standing are given another three hours to craft the handle and address any outstanding issues with the blade. (Drafting and revision—see the similarities?)

The judges test the three completed knives for strength and sharpness by hacking at stuff—I guess that’s the developmental editing stage—and one more contestant is eliminated. Finally, the two remaining bladesmiths are sent back to their home forges and given five days to craft a full-scale weapon of war: rapier, Crusader sword, kris, etc. The forger of the finest blade wins $10,000.

Now it’s possible this description alone was enough to send you scrambling for a Hulu subscription and an IV bag to stay hydrated. For the rest of you, I’ve forged some takeaways.

The competitors come in all shapes and sizes: fat, old, white guys predominate, sure, but it’s actually a pretty diverse mix, relative to my expectations about bladesmiths. Not knowing anything about blacksmithing myself, what’s most interesting about the craft is how uncertain it can be.

This is partly by design. Rarely are the smiths given a standard chunk of high-quality, forge-ready steel. There’s a twist: Forge a knife out of these ball bearings. Forge a knife from various bits of metal we found in a junkyard. Forge a knife from giant coils of railway iron. Etc.

Even when given the raw material in a relatively typical form, however, it’s amazing how often people with ten or even twenty years of full-time experience will underheat the metal or quench too soon or commit one of dozens of other common mistakes that soften the blade or sabotage its sharpness. One of the judges is an official master smith and he spots these errors the moment they happen. But I have a feeling that, if he were down there forging, he’d be making them, too.

It’s clear that three hours to forge a knife isn’t much. But even when the smiths are given five days in their home forges to create a larger weapon, the process goes awry with astonishing frequency. Many of these smiths claim to have forged hundreds or even thousands of knives for their customers. And yet perfection is nowhere to be found. For each smith, creation is a messy and unpredictable process.

Clearly, bladesmithing, like writing, is an art as well as a craft. This is a powerful reminder for me. None of us really feel like we write enough. I certainly harbor the sense that if I had another ten years of intensive writing practice and training under my belt, I’d have the whole thing down to muscle memory by now. I’d just open Microsoft Word and churn out excellence.

Nah. You can write and publish thousands of pieces and still botch the next one. That’s OK. That’s art. Your whole sense of self as a writer and a human being does not, despite what your brain always tells you, hinge on the next thing you write. It’ll be a piece, master or otherwise. Quench it, sharpen it, throw another lump of steel in the forge.

Another thing: the home forges range from full-scale manufacturing enterprises down to a big pot over some coals in a backyard. I can see no apparent correlation between the quality and capacity of the forge and the axe or warhammer or Crusader sword that comes out of it. Ingenuity wins out. Another good reminder not to obsess about your working space or your tools. Nor to get hung up on obstacles. The winners just keep solving things, like the guy who jury-rigged his forge with a satellite dish to finish the job. That guy was not going to take no for answer. Neither should you.

It’s natural while watching any such competition to pick winners, then watch to see if your predictions play out. For me, they usually haven’t. Whether it’s traditional Japanese smithing garb or a big 19th-century leather apron or a hipster beard or a trucker cap, the best smiths don’t look like the best smiths. Winning comes down to psychology. And in that arena, some themes emerge.

For example, it’s clear to anyone watching that the most effective strategy to win Forged in Fire is to listen to the instructions, follow the instructions, and make a knife. Beyond the length and the occasional design element like a serrated edge, you’re free to make the simplest knife possible. The judges may appreciate aesthetic touches like an ivory handle or an animal-head hilt, but they don’t take that into account in the ranking.

And yet: something about going on the show renders the “obvious” strategy invisible. Everyone feels obliged not only to win but to show off while they’re at it. Is it because people are watching at home? One supremely confident dude decided right off the bat to make two knives at the same time, just to have “options.” Everyone else is panicking about forging one knife in three hours. He’s worried he’ll have too much extra time on his hands.

“He’s either really good,” I decided, “or terrible.”

An hour in, the guy’s exhausted. So he abandons one blade and still makes a mess of the other one. All the distraction, you know? He’s so flustered, in fact, that he quenches without gloves on, burning both hands. Grimacing, pain and wounded pride written across his face, he assures the judges the burns are no big deal.

(I have a scribbled note from that episode: “Dave: stop trying to forge two knives at once!”)

Examples of this mentality abound. One smith painstakingly hand-stitches a leather wrap for an axe that ends up making it impossible to swing properly. Often, in their eagerness to create some weird knife variant that will wow exactly none of the judges—”They’ll never expect me to craft a Kukri/Kris hybrid!”—they neglect the actual requirements of the challenge, forging a blade five inches too long or one lacking the requisite serration.

I’ll reiterate: they only have one or two requirements to meet. And yet they whiff them more often than you’d believe.

It brings to mind all the slush submissions I used to wade through as an acquiring editor. No matter how clearly you state the requirements on your website, you’re still going to get poetry submissions at your nonfiction book publishing imprint. Swept up in our creative egoism, “instructions” and “rules” fade into the background. We’re too busy admiring our future selves.

Who wins Forged in Fire? Not the big talkers. Not the ones in traditional smithing garb or spouting pithy truims. Usually, it’s the schlubby ones who come in with a bag of tools, a ton of humility, and a willingness to make the next piece without any fuss.

on noticing and the fallacy of obviousness

Let’s get the spoiler alert out of the way.

You know that visual attention experiment? The one where you’re told to count the number of times the people in the white shirts pass a basketball back and forth?

You almost certainly do, if you’re a typical Maven Game reader, but just in case, don’t read any further and go take it now.

Did you take it?

Are we all the on same page here?

You know, about the twist?

OK, I think I’ve created enough of a buffer zone. I want to talk about the gorilla.

The gorilla effect is real. A little while back, Stephen Shapiro—author, magic fan, and all-around good dude—gave me a ticket to Derren Brown’s new show, Secret. At the top of the evening, Derren warned us that a man in a gorilla suit would wander on-stage at some point and that we, the audience, wouldn’t notice it.

This was a small theater, by the way. 199 seats. And yet, the gorilla got past us. Twice.

Sure, Derren was up to all kinds of distracting show business at each point, but still, this was fifteen feet in front of my face and I had no clue.

So the gorilla effect is real and it’s powerful. But maybe we’re taking the wrong lesson—that people are “blind to the obvious”—from it.

At Aeon, Teppo Felin, a professor at the University of Oxford’s business school, writes:

Imagine you were asked to watch the clip again, but this time without receiving any instructions. After watching the clip, imagine you were then asked to report what you observed. You might report that you saw two teams passing a basketball. You are very likely to have observed the gorilla. But having noticed these things, you are unlikely to have simultaneously recorded any number of other things. The clip features a large number of other obvious things that one could potentially pay attention to and report: the total number of basketball passes, the overall gender or racial composition of the individuals passing the ball, the number of steps taken by the participants…

In short, the list of obvious things in the gorilla clip is extremely long. And that’s the problem: we might call it the fallacy of obviousness. There’s a fallacy of obviousness because all kinds of things are readily evident in the clip. But missing any one of these things isn’t a basis for saying that humans are blind. The experiment is set up in such a way that people miss the gorilla because they are distracted by counting basketball passes. Preoccupied with the task of counting, missing the gorilla is hardly surprising. In retrospect, the gorilla is prominent and obvious.

This gets at so many interesting things for me that I could devote multiple weeks of the Maven Game to the power of noticing and the “fallacy of obviousness.”

For one, it brings to mind Richard Wiseman’s experiment demonstrating that people who think of themselves as lucky are much more likely to notice opportunities than the rest of us.

For another, it points toward why goals are so powerful even though they almost never feel like they’re working at the time.

When we set effective goals, we give our brains new marching orders. As a result, they get busy noticing different types of things, things relevant to our goals. This transforms our behavior and our results—but all below the level of our conscious awareness.

Felin continues:

Obviousness depends on what is deemed to be relevant for a particular question or task at hand. Rather than passively accounting for or recording everything directly in front of us, humans—and other organisms for that matter—instead actively look for things. The implication…is that mind-to-world processes drive perception rather than world-to-mind processes. The gorilla experiment itself can be reinterpreted to support this view of perception, showing that what we see depends on our expectations and questions—what we are looking for, what question we are trying to answer.

The fallacy is the idea that we all see the world “as it is,” noticing the “obvious” stuff most easily and noticing the “subtle” stuff less. Not true.

In reality, our mindset determines what we notice. Since I’ve been writing the Maven Game, my brain has increasingly tuned into things—ideas, articles, books—that fall under the rubric of the newsletter. If I were writing a newsletter about gorillas, I would start noticing all the gorilla stuff that goes on around me. It’s there. In fact, it’s obvious—to the writer of a gorilla newsletter.

This goes back to my belief that, one way or the other, you can’t really rush a book. Once you decide you’re going to write on a subject, your brain enters a different mode. You see the world differently—you see a different world—because you’re tuned in to what’s relevant to your book. Writing a book literally changes the world you experience.

What could be more valuable? And why would you rush through it?

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A short coda: I think I’ve talked about the idea in this essay before, in one form or another. I often get that sense when I hit send on a Maven Game, though I usually don’t skim the archives to confirm that sense of déjà vu.

Even though each Maven Game essay is written as its own thing, I can’t help but circle around the same few ideas over and over, filtering for the same stuff in the world because the same stuff interests me in the context of this newsletter.

Since the Maven Game is built up in chronologically ordered installments, this means that the ideas don’t accrete in any higher-order way, as they might were I using another set of constraints: A pop-up book. A magazine. A screenplay.

It goes back to what I wrote last week, about how we fall into the default settings, like reverse-chronological order for blogs, even if they aren’t ideal for the work at hand. Maven Game reader Jim Dillon nailed it for me in his response to my essay:

I still have a blog, but it’s been occurring to me that since my field of expertise (woodworking) is relatively static in terms of its raw materials, technology, and output, I cycle through a relatively small number of topics . . . but in an evolving way. Trips around a mountain in a slowly ascending corkscrew, yielding repeats of the same view with a slightly different perspective each time.

So reverse chronological is a huge impediment to sharing my stuff with my audience the way I experience it, and the way I’d like them to see it (whether through my eyes or theirs). And that’s just the most obvious way the template-driven world wide web frustrates me.

So the Maven Game, too, is a “slowly ascending corkscrew.” I’m not sure how I feel about that, but it’s accurate. Should it take another form? I’m not sure, but for now I’ll continue with the default settings.