Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Friday, 13 July 2012

Writers and intuition (part one)


Lingering is essential—loitering as Whitman calls it—for allowing the paradoxical complexities to be fully entertained and given voice. – Jorie Graham[i]

in·tu·i·tion Noun/ˌint(y)o͞oˈiSHən/

1. The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.
2. A thing that one knows or considers likely from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning.

Go with your gut. Ever been told that or proffered that advice? I suppose ‘do what feels right’ would be synonymous but, like all synonyms, it’s not quite right. The same goes for someone saying they have a hunch about something. When I talk about writing on my blog and in my comments I like to present myself as a rational person; I’m keen to demystify terms like ‘inspiration’ and ‘muse’. Let’s not pick over the bones, I am an intellectual and by that I’m not suggesting that I’m cleverer than all of you but I am someone who values intellect:

in·tel·lect Noun/ˈintlˌekt/

1. The faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively, esp. with regard to abstract or academic matters.
2. The understanding or mental powers of a particular person: "her education, intellect and talent"

At times this puts me at a distinct disadvantage, especially when it comes to reading poetry, certain styles of poetry anyway. I want to understand the poems, I want them to mean something; I want to get them.

When I talk about my time at school I usually say that I wasn’t much of a swot. I say I used to learn by osmosis. Although there is some truth in that statement – I never had to cram for exams like some of my classmates – I did study, but I never found studying especially hard: I read, I understood. I was a quick study and that’s been the story for most of my life. I pick up things quickly. And a lot of the time I clearly intuit.

CTRLWe all use intuition every day. The Internet is probably one of the main places too. No one reads or even thinks to look for a set of instructions before ‘operating’ a new web page or blog; no, we just dive on in there and work it out while we’re using it and good design makes that job easy. If I open a new computer program that I’ve never seen before and there is a pull down menu with things like Edit and View in it there are certain things I’ll take for granted, e.g. that the cut, copy and paste functions with be in the Edit menu and that the shortcut keys will be CTRL-X, -C and -V. There’s no reason why they should be but why make things hard for new users?

Is this really an example of intuition though? I’m not sure that it is. I still think I’m reasoning but I’m doing it so damn fast that it doesn’t feel like it. What I'm making is an educated guess based on previous experience. I remember visiting a website a while back which had been set up in such a way that you never needed to click your mouse to move around it. That went against everything I had been used to for the previous fifteen years and it was, if I’m being honest, a disconcerting experience. Intuition is something we’re all born with but it is something we refine over the years: practice makes perfect, as they say.

Your body ticks away quite nicely, day in and day out, monitoring itself and telling you when you need to intervene and do things for it that it can’t do itself, like get up and stretch your legs and maybe make a light snack. I’ve always viewed writing as something my body asks me to do for the good of my health. Thoughts pop into my head and I feel better once I’ve done something with them. Most of the time, especially with the poems, very little conscious thought goes into the first draft. The words get dumped on a page and that’s that. How do I know what to say? Half the time I just write down the first thing that comes into my head and not much more needs to be said. I tidy up the grammar, add in a conjunction or take out an adjective or something and I’m done.

People like to compare brains to computers. We say that brains are like computers whereas really we’ve got it back to front – computers are poor imitations of brains – but we all get the idea of background processing and the fact is our brains are at it constantly. I can’t imagine just how much work my brain is doing right now but I know it’s doing a heckuva lot more than typing these letters.

We all complain about lack of time. I, personally, get so frustrated by how little I feel I get done but I suspect I’m actually doing far more than I realise. And I’m not just talking about monitoring my blood sugar levels or ensuring that I’m sufficiently hydrated. All the stuff I watched on TV yesterday and read and wrote and talked about is all milling around in my noggin still looking for homes, making connections, filing itself away for future use.

bc_milligan_tnI’ve talked about how I started writing Milligan and Murphy before but it’s as good an example as any. Carrie and I were living in the Gorbals in Glasgow at the time. We were both working but I, as was my habit, started at an ungodly hour in the morning – I was always in the office by 7am. Anyway this morning I was walking across the St Andrew’s Suspension Bridge and the following sentence came into my head out of nowhere: “Milligan and Murphy were brothers.” The rest, as they say, is history. Of course it never came out of nowhere. The names Milligan (Spike especially) and Murphy (novel by Samuel Beckett) are well known to me but I’d never tried to connect the two on a conscious level before then and I’m not sure that was what I was even doing – it’s only thinking about it after the fact that I’m wondering where that sentence might have come from – but the fact is, once you have a good look at it, there are more commonalities between the two than one might have thought at first. But then my brain never said “Milligan and Beckett are brothers,” so who knows?

Intuition is not instinct which is an inborn pattern of behaviour that is characteristic of a species. My cockatiel is a little fluffy ball of instinct: he’s hard-wired to react in certain ways to just about everything. That doesn’t mean he’s incapable of learning but his instincts are never far below the surface ready to kick in. There is no reasoning with him. The bird perceives things but does he conceive them?

con·ceive Verb kuhclip_image002n-seev, -ceived, -ceiv·ing.

1. to form (a notion, opinion, purpose, etc.): He conceived the project while he was on vacation.
2. to form a notion or idea of; imagine.
3. to hold as an opinion; think; believe: I can't conceive that it would be of any use.

I don’t know. I don’t think so. He sees my finger in terms of function: it’s a beak or a branch; he steps on it, tries to attack it or lowers his head so it can preen him. He identifies the object by means of his senses but I don’t think he thinks too much about it. In the foreword to the book Intuition: the Inside Story: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Jeremy Hayward, of the Naropa Institute, writes:

Intuition, the direct experience of things as they are. Elephants do it, fleas do it, birds do it, bees do it: why should not human beings do it? When we experience the world directly, beyond the filter of conception, we live that world. We are in the world and the world is in us. We can love the world, and the world can love us. When we experience a world preprogrammed by our conceptual conditioning, we merely exist, as if in a dead world. And we destroy all life.

That sounds plausible but I’m not sure.

I’m big on knowledge. Facts, figures – love ‘em. But once we drop the -ledge then we’re in completely different territory. I know my wife. I’ve never studied here. If you sat me down and made me take an exam on her I’d do terrible – I know she likes ships and miniature things but I couldn’t tell you the colour of her eyes or what she majored in at college although I know she took German and French but preferred German). But still I know my wife. I know when she’s not herself even if I can’t remember all the things she has wrong with her (and there are a few).

I’m also good with words. Words are my thing. I like putting things into words; meanings and the like. What I don’t like is when I can’t put things into words. I fret about stuff like that. Those are the things I end up writing novels about. The poems are easy: I think about something, find the words to express that thought and voilà there’s the poem, but the thing I’ve noticed about many of my poems is that they don’t really say what I’m trying to say in the most succinct way. I tend to pussyfoot around the subject; come at it from weird angles. I expect people to get my poems but when I ask most people what they’re about they usually have difficulty expressing the thoughts contained within the poem in any other words than those contained in the poem. I have the same problem. I get many poems but when I start to try and talk about the poems I lose any facility I have with words.

Writers tend to have this chip on their shoulders; most writers. They think that the ultimate form of expression is achieved when you transform things into words but when you think about it what has more power, the word ‘love’ or the sensation of love? How do you know you’re in love? I still don’t. I assume I’m in love. There are no words that fully express how I feel about my wife. I’ve written poems for her but they’re really quite inadequate things. Here’s an inadequate example:

Broken Things

I don't know
how clocks work

or time works
or hearts work.

I know that
broken things

shouldn't work
but I know

that we work
though not how.

broken_bio_clock_cSome things don't
need a how

or a why.

(for Carrie)

Monday, 17 December 2007

I don’t know why my wife and I get on. I can provide a list, a not insubstantial list, why we shouldn’t get on; why we should be at loggerheads most of the day but not everything in life is reasonable and, as I point out in Milligan and Murphy, looking for reasons for unreasonable things is just pure folly. The bottom line is that there will be a reason or more likely a set of reasons why I love my wife and it will be possible to express those reasons in words, but I suspect that it will take so many words to accurately convey those reasons that it would make the explanation so confusing as to render it effectively meaningless. I just know. In the same way I just knew as a kid that I hated cabbage I just know.

I think what happens a lot of time, and not just with poetry, is that we ‘blink’ and miss our brains sorting out what’s in front of us:

In judgemental decision making, the response to the need for a decision is usually rapid, too rapid to allow for an orderly sequential analysis of the situation, and the decision maker cannot usually give a veridical account of either the process by which the decision was made or the grounds for judging it correct.[ii]

Of course when we rush we often make mistakes and that’s the thing about intuition, it cannot be relied upon like reasoning. I can be right and it can be right even when reasoning says it’s wrong. There’s no guarantee that it’s right but it shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed lightly.

No one ever reading my poetry would think of me as a spontaneous kind of guy. Nothing like Ginsberg, for example:

Buddhism taught him to eschew rationality in favour of ''ordinary'' or ''spontaneous'' mind, the vast sea of consciousness upon which our concepts and categories, anxieties and prohibitions, float like so much junk. Hence Ginsberg's compositional method, the moment-by-moment transcription of thoughts and images as they passed across his mind. (The thousand-odd lines of ‘Kaddish;' poured forth in one 40-hour session.) ''First thought, best thought'' was his governing principle…[iii]

I could never write a thousand lines of poetry no matter how many hours you gave me but I still think that there is common ground between how Ginsberg approached his poetry and the way I tackle mine. Some poets talk about inspiration and tend to overly mysticise the process. And I don’t like mysteries. But it is a mystery where the line “Milligan and Murphy were brothers” came from. I don’t believe some external force was at play – it was my brain that came up with the line all on its own, it just did it while I was busy doing other things like making my breakfast or getting my sandwiches ready for lunch; perhaps I’d been working on the idea all night in my sleep. The bottom line is that I don’t know. I don’t need to know and I’m not even sure that I care that much because there’s no way I can influence the process. All I can do with my conscious mind is make the most of those opportunities when my subconscious gives them to me.

I haven’t started my next book yet. I’m not waiting on inspiration to strike, at least that’s not how I’d put it, but I am waiting for an idea to bubble to the surface, a nagging idea that won’t go away, something my subconscious needs my help with. The old view, circa Freud’s time, was that our unconscious mind is quite primitive, animalistic even.

According to the modern perspective [though] Freud’s view of the unconscious was far too limited. […] The mind operates most efficiently by relegating a good deal of high-level sophisticated thinking to the unconscious, just as a modern jumbo jetliner is able to fly on automatic pilot with little or no input from the human, “conscious” pilot.[iv]


Timothy O. Wilson [above] offers one suggestion with his concept of the adaptive unconscious. Wilson states that every one of us gathers, sorts, and stores information, and even uses this information to make decisions without our conscious awareness. This process can happen within a split second. Wilson calls the mechanism that we are using to do this our adaptive unconscious and theorizes that it is established in people at a young age. Wilson’s book, Strangers to Ourselves, presents lots of research on how people know and evaluate quickly based on this nonconscious process. Wilson suggests that there may be a relationship between the adaptive unconscious and intuitive processes. Is the adaptive unconscious a source of our intuitive knowing?[v]

I don’t know about any of this. It’s way above my pay grade. But what I do know is that primitive people tend to mysticise things they don’t understand and certainly as far as understanding how our brains work we’re still wallowing in the mud. I have always resisted the idea of a muse, the personification of inspiration, but maybe the reality is we are our all own muses, we just don’t realise it.



[i] ‘Nothing Mystical About It: An Interview with Jorie Graham Interviewed by Hila Ratzabi’, Lumina, the literary magazine of the Graduate Writing Program of Sarah Lawrence College

[ii] Herbert A Simon, ‘Making Management Decisions: the Role of Intuition and Emotion’, The Academy of Management Executive (1987-1989), Vol. 1, No. 1, Feb., 1987, p.57

[iii] William Deresiewicz, ‘First Thought, Best Thought’, The New York Times, 8 April 2001

[iv] Timothy D. Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, p.6

[v] Intuition: The knowledge of your heart, Life Science Foundation


Tim Love said...

No one ever reading my poetry would think of me as a spontaneous kind of guy - One can fake spontaneity both on the page and in conversation. There's a posh term for it. You pretend that an idea's just come to you, or that you've initially forgotten the technical term for something. It makes you seem humble and inspired. Readers and voters like it. Aporia?

Ken Armstrong said...

I like this post. It's beautifully honest while still being a little overly-self-effacing. It's a pitch I admire and aspire to.

I started writing a new theatre play today. It's been bubbling for a long while and I've deliberately put off writing down any words about it to see if the pressure cooker would continue to soften the meat a little more. I think it has. We'll see.

Jim Murdoch said...

Actually, Tim, my poetry is my most spontaneous writing. Often poems appear almost fully formed and all I need do is arrange them on the page. They are my least thought about writing. The prose gets read and reread and edited and read again then pruned to within an inch of its life. Not so the poetry. I am a bit protective of the purity of my poetry. I fully accept that more people will read my prose but I still think of my prose as that something-else-I-do-when-I’m-not-writing-poetry. If I never wrote another word of fictional prose it wouldn’t bother me as long as the poetry never dried up. When a long prose project keeps me tied up for years I’m always conscious that the creative energies that I’m focusing on prose are distracting me from the poetry and that is something I regret.

And, Ken. Overly-self-effacing? Not sure what the right degree of self-effacement ought to be. There must be a formula. Glad to see you’re being creative at the moment. I am a great believer in the “pressure cooker” as you call it. The temptation always is there to open the lid to see if it’s ready but when is the right time? Since I’ve had a clear head post-aspartame I’ve been writing again but it’s all been poetry which is fine. As I said to Tim above I would be content if I wrote nothing else and yet I can’t help feeling guilty about not at least trying to get back into my next novel mainly because I think it’s something people expect of me; I’m a novelist ergo I should be working on a novel. The thing is I don’t like to call myself a novelist. I prefer the term ‘writer’. Even ‘author’ feels pretentious.

I actually wrote this post back in September—I really am taking longer and longer to post these damn things—so the bit about not having started a new project isn’t right but although I have words on paper I don’t really feel that I’ve committed to the thing. I need to let it stew a little longer. This is where I wish I was more of a storyteller. But then the grass is always greener…

Kirk said...

I think too many writers on the Internet try to get by on intuition alone. Or, to put it this way, they confuse that first draft with intuition. But why can't the second, third, or fourth draft be similarly intuitive? Why can't the editing, the re-reading what you've written, be intuitive?

Want to write by intuition alone? Then go to some antique store and buy yourself a manuel typrewriter. True, it's a pain in the ass if you want to change something, what with having to pull out the damn piece of paper and start all over again. But, if your writing is all based on intuition, why SHOULD you want to change anything?

Word processors and computers, with their ease of rewriting and editing, frees us from relying soley on intuition. At least the limited view of intuition that so many of us seem to have.

Jim Murdoch said...

For me, Kirk, intuition is just one of the tools I have at my disposal. It leads me in certain directions but that’s all. I need to use all my other skills to make my way once I’m pointing in the right direction. And that’s fine. Intuition is like an outline, like grabbing my pencil and making a handful of seemingly arbitrary marks on a sheet of paper (because nothing creative is every completely arbitrary) and then looking at it an thinking: Hmm, I wonder what I could make of that? It looks a bit like a face. If I just drawn a line there, and there and… What do you know! It was a face. I feel the same about inspiration. Inspiration tosses good ideas at us but it doesn’t do anything with them. That’s not its function. It pitches; we do the hitting. Or missing. And you’re right when you say that we never turn off our intuition. It can jump to attention at any point in our writing and say, “No, not that way. This way.” That’s why I spend so much time editing, grafting good ideas in where I can, ideas that I wish I’d had when I wrote that first draft but does it really matter when they come as long as they do?

Art Durkee said...

As Alan Watts once said, "The word 'water' can't get you wet."

Jim Murdoch said...

I suppose, Art, that all depends on what he meant by 'wet'.

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