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Thursday, April 21, 2011

How to Write a Masterpiece

Do miracles survive after they have been scientifically explained? Can intuition still guide our choices after we understand the subconscious factors at work? Or do rational explanations for such things mean they never really existed in the first place?

If these seem like strange questions to ask at the outset of a column about writing novels, think about it this way: it is the goal of all great literature to speak of truths beyond words, but is it even possible to learn how to use words to write of things beyond words? Or does the act of learning such a mystery somehow destroy the mystery?

To answer this question we must consider how the greatest thinkers come to know the things they know. Most of modern thought falls into one of two camps when it comes to understanding how original ideas appear within the mind. These two ways of knowing can be loosely defined as the scientific and the existential.

One of the fathers of the scientific method, the philosopher Rene Descartes, believed the path to knowledge lies in the systematic abandonment of preconceived ideas, questioning and discarding everything which cannot be rigorously proven beyond all doubt, until one arrives finally at a bedrock of indisputable fact. In the end, Descartes learned the only thing he could not doubt was his own existence, so he famously said, “I think, therefore I am.”

Today, many atheists place great faith in the fact that divine existence can’t be proven by the scientific method Descartes helped to establish. Ironically, Descartes himself would not agree. He was a Christian, who went on to build a logical case for God by beginning with perhaps the most basic scientific observation of them all: “I am.”

Still, any serious novelist will sense something missing in the scientific method of knowing. Just as thirst and lust prove water and sex exist, so from the earliest cave paintings until now the human need for art proves that something lies in wait for us beyond the realm of cause and effect and logical progression. Replying to Descartes’ famous words, a novelist in pursuit of the ineffable might well say, “I write, therefore God is.”

In response to this basic flaw in the scientific method, another philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, was among the first to propose the existentialist model of knowing. The Danish philosopher famously coined the term “leap to faith” (usually misquoted as “leap of faith”). He insisted there are gaps in knowledge which cannot be bridged by human logic alone. When standing at the edge of such a gap, Kierkegaard believed one must trust pure intuition.

Like Descartes, Kierkegaard was a Christian. As such, he pointed to Abraham, who was commanded to sacrifice his son by a God who forbids human sacrifice. No systematic case could be made for Abraham’s participation in such a paradox. Only a “leap to faith” independent of rational explanations could account for it. But in spite of this lack of logic, in the end Abraham arrived at indisputable knowledge of the divine.

Unlike Descartes’ scientific method, Kierkegaard’s philosophy allows for the possibility of knowing the unknowable, a solution certain to appeal to novelists. Still, it’s not enough. Kierkegaard’s existentialism leads to risky territory. What if we leap only to find nothing there? After all, human intuition is very often wrong. Many an author who writes by the seat of the pants has arrived at an illogical cul-de-sac from which there is no escape.

To understand how these two ways of thinking influence writing, think first of novels which conform to every literary rule and contain nothing whatsoever factually mistaken. Using something akin to Descartes’ scientific method, they build their characters and plots point by point without a rational misstep, yet for all their technical perfection they lack the organic spontaneity of a great work of art, and leave us feeling only superficially engaged, distant and uninterested.

Following something more like Kierkegaard’s approach, the plots and characters of other novels flow naturally from the author’s stream of consciousness, every syllable an artistically inspired choice, yet the story somehow lacks a basis in reality which leaves us bored and subtly annoyed at the author’s self-indulgence.

It seems neither Descartes nor Kierkegaard will do alone. Neither science, nor intuition. What we need, somehow, is both. To write of truths which transcend words, we need a way to leap instinctively into the unknowable without landing in the midst of nothing.

"A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. That means it is not reached by conscious logical conclusions. But, thinking it through afterwards, you can always discover the reasons which have led you unconsciously to your guess and you will find a logical way to justify it. Intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience." (Albert Einstein)

In studying this quote, especially the last sentence, one might assume Einstein believed “intellectual experience” is more important than intuition. One might assume Einstein pursued the secrets of the universe only in terms of coldly scientific methodology. But in another place he also said:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

Clearly, Einstein and Kierkegaard had much in common, but as the consummate scientist Einstein also owed much to Descartes. No mere scientist could have made the leap to faith it took to think as Einstein did about time and space. No mere artist could have found a way to explain such thoughts to others. Somehow, Einstein knew with a kind of knowing that included both pure intuition and pure logic.

Returning to his first quote above, we can see how he did it. Read that first quote again as if it is a kind of loop in which the final thought feeds back up to the beginning.

New ideas first appear as if from out of nowhere, then looking back on it we find they were the logical result of other ideas which had already come before, but those prior ideas also appeared as if from out of nowhere, until looking back on them we found they too were the logical result of other ideas . . . and so on and on and on. Each intuitive “leap to faith” fuels fresh ideas which stand the test of scientific method and join the growing pantheon of knowledge, which in turn fuels new intuitive leaps, which lead to more ideas, which lead to more knowledge, which leads to new intuitive leaps.

Philosophers call this model “tacit knowledge.” The concept was first proposed by a scientist-turned-philosopher named Michael Polanyi, who befriended Einstein and exchanged letters with him off and on for over 20 years. (I learned about Polanyi from my friend, Dr. Jeff Tacklind.) Polanyi believed there is a way to know what we do not know.

His basic idea is that intuition and intellect are not two different ways of thinking, but rather two halves of a single process, which can work synergistically to produce great advances in objectively verifiable knowledge if we will only step back and allow the process to unfold.

This brings us to the first of two important facts about the greatest novelists in the world. For most of them it is not Descartes’ way or Kierkegaard’s way, but both, together, in cooperation.

Even once a novelist understands this concept it remains difficult to hold those two halves of the thought process in mental balance. Most of us focus too completely on the scientific or on the existentialist side of the process. We thereby become mired in uninspired thinking on the one hand, or else unreasonable thinking on the other. Our writing may be technically proficient, but we see no truth beyond the words, or else we glimpse deep truth but fail to speak it well. So how did Einstein manage to avoid this trap?

With the help of music, as it turns out.

Few people realize Einstein was a lifelong musician, a good violinist, passionately devoted to the classics. According to his son, Hans Albert, he turned to his music, “Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work . . . [and] that would usually resolve all his difficulties."

We find a clue to how music helped Einstein overcome logical problems in something he once said about Mozart, who was his favorite composer. According to the great physicist, Mozart’s music “was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master."

This is a very important observation for a novelist, because it is just as true that Einstein’s famous Special Theory of Relativity was also “ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered.” And if E=mc2 and “The Marriage of Figaro” were both always there, waiting for someone to apply the tacit way of knowing to discover them, might the same be true of a great story?

In other words, what if we thought of writing not as a creative act, but as a process of discovery? This is the second clue to how a masterpiece is written, a way of thinking common to the greatest novelists.

There are scientifically verifiable realities which support this approach. Harmonics, for example, is the fundamental basis for the pleasure we receive from music, but harmonics was not created by musicians. It has always existed. It’s present when a winter wind blows hard through naked branches. It’s present when frogs croak by the riverside and crickets chirp in the grass. Harmonics is the purity of certain waves of sound which have existed as long as the universe, awaiting discovery by musicians such as Mozart. (Thanks to another friend, Rev. Brad Coleman, for pointing this out to me.)

Similarly, the Golden Mean, also known as the Golden Ratio, or Divine Ratio, is a shape defined by a specific set of proportions—a ratio of width to height—known to produce a sense of pleasure and harmony in human observers. The Golden Mean is found in the measurements of the Parthenon’s facade for example, arguably one of the most widely imitated and pleasantly proportioned buildings in existence. It’s found in the Great Pyramids and the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral. Leonardo da Vinci used it to compose his famous paintings of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. It has been used (consciously and subconsciously) in works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, and countless others.

But as with harmonics (and E=mc2) the ancient Egyptians and Greeks didn’t invent this ratio. They only discovered it. The Golden Mean already existed in the pattern of a sunflower’s seeds spiraling from the center as it unfolds, in the way a nautilus shell grows, and even in the whirling shape of galaxies. Like the number Pi, the decimals of the Golden Ratio seem to have no end. As a great physicist once said of a great musician’s work, the Golden Mean was ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered.

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” (Michelangelo)

So this is how it works; this is what the greatest philosopher/theologians and scientists have in common with the greatest novelists: they all realize truth is not created; it already exists on levels beyond words. They seek the pre-existing truth like bold explorers on a voyage of discovery. They seek it through intuitive “leaps to faith” within their hearts, or spirits, or subconscious minds, which function in an awe-inspiring place beyond rules and preconceptions. Then, when part of the truth is discovered, they press into it further, using technical skills gained through countless hours of pragmatic study and hard-won experience, and in so doing, they stake it out and point to it in ways they can grasp logically. Then the great ones set out after truth again, seeking yet another intuitive leap ahead, springing on from the territory only just discovered.

Thus the existential and the scientific methods come together in all great masterpieces of human thought, including novels. Thus what is not known is known. Thus the unwritable is written. And thus are miracles explained, yet they remain miraculous.

Athol Dickson's novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher's Weekly) and Flannery O'Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.


  1. This is genius. Seriously, genius. "I write, therefore God is." I feel like this is one of those things that I've felt but not known how to express. Thanks for expressing it for me :)

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  2. Athol,
    Thank you for this piece-- it is thought-provoking and important on so many levels. The quotes you use are also resonant. And on faith-- "the unwritable is written." Excellent. Thank you!
    -Jennifer King

  3. Wow, you write about how to pen masterpieces while writing one yourself. Ha. Great stuff. I'm going to reread this later when my brain has kicked into full gear. I might even post a quote or two above the old computer for inspiration. Thanks for putting so much time and effort into your posts here. You're a generous soul (not to mention talented and brilliant :)

  4. These truths are blessing upon blessing, gift upon gift. Thank you!

  5. What a great way to start my Thursday morning. Thank you for this.

  6. And yet another great author describes this discovery: "Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ." (Ephesians 3:8,9 - The Apostle Paul)

    Piercing truths, Athol. They penetrate the fog of the mundane with excellence.

  7. Dang, I was hoping not to have to use my brain today ... I used it yesterday.

    Every one of your posts stretches me in new ways, Athol. So glad to have them.

  8. Thought provoking is always the norm when reading anything you have to say. Thanks for the post.

    Unlike you, I am no engineer. So when one of the many military pilots in our church gave me two books about The Golden Ratio I tried to not sound too dense discussing it with them later.

    One thing I could discuss, however, is what you have nailed here. It is magical realism, a term I know you love. Einstein once said, "There are three men who fully understand the mathematics of relativity and I am not one of them." He discovered a truth that constantly left him in wonder of its complexity.

    What an art it is to write with absolute discipline and yet leave one filled with wonder when the book is closed.

  9. Thanks, everyone, for your comments on this column.

    I wish there had been space to write a few more words about what "tacit knowing" looks like in the midst of brainstorming a new story, because while I've dealt with the subject on a mostly theoretical level here, it is something that has practical applications for a novelist. Maybe that's a topic for next month, depending on where my intuition leads. :)

    In the meantime, it might be a useful exercise for you to think about how you go about coming up with a story. Do you have a process for that? If so, does it leave space for intuitive leaps? If not, if you lean mostly on sudden inspiration, how can you add structure to your thinking in order to assure your leaps of intuition land in useful places?

    Anyone can learn craftsmanship. We're dealing here with a much more difficult part of writing novels: how to give birth to a truly original and fascinating story in the first place. If you have a plan for how to do that, you can duplicate it story after story. If you have no such plan, you’re at the mercy of pure chance.

  10. Athol, you make my head spin. LOL I really enjoyed chewing on this piece. It's thought provoking, it stretched me, and now I have to figure out how to digest it. :)

    I think the answer is somewhere between plan it and let it happen.

    I think. Therefore, I need to think some more. ;)

  11. Personally, I've always thought just believing in god is enough. Don't need anyone to prove god exists. and I am not sure science can do it and I am not even sure it needs to. Religion is all about faith, science is all about finding new facts that change or challenge existing theories.

    As for writing - writing is an art and involves elements of both.

  12. Personally, I've always thought just believing in god is enough. Don't need anyone to prove god exists. and I am not sure science can do it and I am not even sure it needs to. Religion is all about faith, science is all about finding new facts that change or challenge existing theories.

    As for writing - writing is an art and involves elements of both.

  13. This makes sence. You know, not only on deeper levels but also in a straightforward way :-)



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