On Writing: Or How I Write

The Quotes 🍄

My method is to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity 👻
~ George Bernard Shaw 

Ed Hobbs: You’ve got a gift, Roy… But it’s not enough—you’ve got to develop yourself. If you rely too much on your own gift… Then… You’ll fail 🏀
~The Natural (a movie starring Robert Redford) 

Oh—once in your life you find someone,
Who will turn your world around,
Bring you up when you’re feelin’ down

~ Bryan Adams (Lyrics from Heaven

I do everything in my power to make my writing not look like writing 👍
~ Elmore Leonard, in David Geherin, Elmore Leonard (New York: Continuum, 1989), p 310

Preamble 🙌

I’ll be back 👊
~Terminator (the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from which comes the immortal catchphrase above, one that will forever remain associated with Ahnold)

As we near the scene, a feisty dialog is taking place—between the blogger and his “esteemed” readers—and we think twice about what to do about what’s going on. We finally decide, gulp, to jump right into the fray ⛏

  • Reader: “Oh. My. God.”
  • Reader: “He. Is. Back.”
  • Reader: “He’s actually doing it: We thought Akram was only joking when he had said in the previous essay—yeah, you know the one, that trashy, obtuse, blithering mess of an essay called “On Writing: Or Why I Write”—that he would be back with a follow-up essay. He was blabbering and prophesying then that it would be called “On Writing: Or How I Write”, or something like that 🙉
  • Reader: “My, Oh My. Where does he get these outlandish ideas, if someone could only tell me that.”
  • Reader: “Guess what? Looks like he’s got another blithering piece here that is, eerily enough—someone pinch me if this is a nightmare—called On Writing: Or How I Write”… Insert a primal scream here 😱
  • Reader: “Oh. My. God.”
  • Reader: “Some people just never learn, do they ever? I mean, despite all the feedback we gave him to cease and desist from further pontifications, Akram has the gall to return with yet another essay. Please put us out of our misery, and do it quickly!” 🙈
  • Reader: “That Akram guy sure can be a fast one; keep an eye on him before he gets it into his head to, heaven-forbid, terrify us by sending even bleaker essays our way. I mean, if you look at his pic here on the blog—you know, the one right above the gibberish where he says something like ‘Hi there! I’m a Senior Software Developer…’ or something—you would think that he’s the decent sort of person 😇  Only now we know better.”
  • Reader: “My, oh my! Looks sure can be deceiving: I mean, how can anyone be trusted when they don’t hold back from writing back-to-back pieces of trash, his so-called ‘essays’ which are really thinly-disguised foolish talk that’s been dressed up as highfalutin advice on writing. Worst of all, he’s not even qualified to do any of this prattling; we have always known, after all, that doling out advice such as that is reserved for genteel critics, not riff raff like this blogger.”
  • Reader: “And yet, here he is, barging into territory that’s none of his business. Look, it’s plain and simple: He ain’t got no credentials—I mean, for crying out loud, does he teach writing or something at one of those fabled, online, phoenix-like universities?” 🌀
  • Reader: “Sigh.”
  • Reader: “Get us through this, and please do it quick! Taking a deep breath before I dive 🐳  Counting to 100 now: 1, 2, 3, … Someone? Anyone?” 👀
  • Blogger: “And I says to you all—Whoah, gentle readers that thou all surely art, lend me thine ears, and your credit cards, too, should you wish, though the latter is not strictly required 💳  Just kidding, just kidding; sometimes it’s hard to resist a sophomoric joke or two.”
  • Blogger: “Ah, the irresistible pull of humor; imagining stuff like what happens when an irresistible force encounters an immovable object, and stuff like that. Cool, cool, eh 😎 “
  • Blogger: “Please listen to my plaintive diatribe—forgiving me my discursive style for a few moments—and I’ll prove that I offer something of value 😉  Obviously, your time is far more precious than mine—otherwise you would have done the writing part, and I would be doing the reading—plus you have my word that I’ll treat your precious time with utmost respect; as for you credit cards, should you choose to lend them to me—in addition to your delicate ears—then all bets are off” 💸
  • Blogger: “Do please listen to me for just a bit, and everything will be clear like mud. Oops, what I meant to say there was that everything will be oh-so-clear like the light of day in which we all can bask” 🌞
  • Blogger: “And yes, never again will the need arise to have talk of getting these essays hauled out of your sight. You know, towed away at the owner’s expense, too; like, mine!” 🚗
  • Blogger: “If those questions and thoughts—or a variant thereof—are swirling around in your dusty cranium, I mean in the lovely antechamber of your magnificent mind, let me assure you that those very questions and thoughts would’ve arisen in my mind had I considered writing this (follow up) essay even as recently as a year ago” ⏰
  • Blogger: “But that was then, and this is now. Today, I’m not so sure where I stand on the matter of whether anyone should listen to my writing advice” 😕

How I Write: Advice From Your Resident Impresario 🙊

Let’s put some things on the table before we read another word:

So as I sat down to write this up, I did not consult any resources—online, or in book form, or otherwise—to see what advice others had given on the subject of writing. My primary motivation for not consulting any resources was simple: to share my take on how to write, not anyone else’s. In other words, the advice you’ll find here consists of themes that have soaked into the cranium of yours truly over the years. Needless to say, those themes all originated somewhere. I definitely did not discover them; like everyone else, I soaked them up over the years from a variety of resources.

In yet other words, I will try to fish out—that is, out of the writer’s swamp that is my cranium—the major strategies I use when going about the craft of writing.

As you read the advice that follows, you’re bound to notice that a lot of the “how” of writing has to do with cultivating the writer’s mindset. Sure, there are those rarest-of-rare individuals out there who are just born with the writer’s mindset; I don’t deny that, and in fact will have more to say on that exactly that in a bit. But the fact is that most of the rest of us have to cultivate the writer’s mindset—that’s where the “how” of writing comes in.

My hope in sharing this advice is that it’ll help you along your journey as a writer; I was helped by many along the way. Now it’s my turn to return the favor.

We have quite a bit of ground to cover as we start exploring a bunch of writing strategies to. Let’s get started with a bird’s eye view of those strategies ⛷

  1. Listen To Yourself 😽
  2. Don’t Listen To Yourself 🙉
  3. Intend For Others 🙋
  4. Extend Yourself 🏃
  5. Write For Yourself 🎧
  6. Write For The World 🌝
  7. Get To Know Yourself 🌱
  8. Read A Lot To Write Well 📬
  9. Diversify 🐙
  10. Commit Professor Trimble’s Book To Memory 🎓
  11. Read Anything By Philip Bromberg 🎭
  12. Fall In Love With The Allure Of Words 🍒
  13. Seek Physicality In What You Write 🏉
  14. Invest In A Bookshelf 📖 Or Two 📖 📖 Or Three 📖 📖 📖 
  15. Invest In A Good Dictionary 💰
  16. Invest In A Few Great Books On Writing 📕
  17. Read With A Highlighter In Hand 📍
  18. Revise What You Write 🐚
  19. Become Your Own Editor 💪
  20. Collect Idioms 📦
  21. First Learn All The Rules Of Writing You Can 🎪
  22. Then Write Unencumbered By Rules 🏄
  23. Get To Know Your Left Brain 👓
  24. Get To Know Your Right Brain 🎻
  25. Do Not Rush Your Writing 🚅
  26. Learn About The Act Of Creation 🌋
  27. Recognize The Limitations Of Digital Media 📺
  28. Believe In Yourself 😚
  29. Believe In The Goodness Of Mankind 🙌
  30. Listen To Mark Knopfler Songs 🎸
  31. Never Give Up On Your Search 🔭

So I wasn’t joking when I said earlier that we have a lot ground to cover. Let’s jump right into the advice, shall we?

1. Listen To Yourself 😽

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.
~ Plato (428 BC – 348 BC)

Courage is as often the outcome of despair as of hope; in the one case we have nothing to lose, in the other, everything to gain.
~ Diane de Pointiers (1499 – 1566)

First and foremost, start cultivating the belief that you have something to offer to the world. You have the perfect right to ask, Why should I believe you? I’m glad you asked, because the answer is simplicity itself: I know that you have something to offer to the world. The simple fact that you’re a human is plenty right there to convince me that you’ve been endowed with what it takes to offer something to the world ⛩

Remember, you will want to truly believe the same, at least to the same degree that I believe in you: Yes, it’s never too early—or too late—to start cultivating a rock-solid belief in the trueness of what you’re writing; after all, your writing is what you’ll be offering to the world.

No doubt there’s some work to be done to get there; all of us have to pay our dues. So what do you need to do to get there? It is simply this: Through your proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears”, elevate your writing to its zenith; climb your own Pantheon 🗻

Writing is not about making money; if it were, that’s news at least to your blogger. Writing is about passion; it’s all about busting your guts in the telling of the stories that you have to tell 👽

But what if we want to write about basket-weaving? Um, uh, so let’s see 💤

So I may not be much help in that area, fine and noble though such endeavors may well be, but let’s look at it this way: Why don’t we find a topic that you’re passionate about, and then we take it from there? Yes, yes? 💥

Great. I’m glad you asked. The rest of this essay is about exactly that, plus a bunch of related themes to help you grow as a writer. Read on.

2. Don’t Listen To Yourself 🙉

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Crack-Up

The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.
~ Tom Bodett (1955 – )

“Okay, so this blogger guy Akram is plain nuts 🌰 🌰 🌰 🌰  I mean, for crying out loud: First he tells us to listen to ourselves, as in the previous advice. Then he turns right around and tells us to not listen to ourselves.

Come on, are you like that two-faced Janus or something? You know, one of those weirdo characters that we had to get ourselves acquainted with and suffer through—along with all those other, equally bizarre characters that plagued us—back when we took our ill-starred mythology class? I mean, “Make up your mind, for crying out loud, ‘cuz I got way better things to do with my time than watch this Janus-like soap opera!” 📺

Whoah, wait up, dear Reader. Wait up! I mean, hold your horses 🐎

I beg of you to imagine how Charles Dickens—now he sure was a dickens of a writer—would have fared had he been pelted with a question like the following one from a potential publisher on first submitting his historical novel A Tale of Two Cities:

  • Publisher: “Mr. Dickens, you really should make up your mind. Now was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? Surely it couldn’t have been both.” 😾
  • Charles Dickens:Excuse me. Yo, what did you just say?” 😼

See, I told you so; there is a method to my madness. What I did above—I might as well spill the beans now—was to appeal to your finer sensibilities by hauling writing greatness into the fray: Mr. Dickens himself, yes, the dickens of a writer that he was. Look, if Dickens can speak of two seemingly opposite ideas in the same breath—kind of like how the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that Schrödinger’s cat can be simultaneously alive and dead—then surely a lesser writer like your blogger can do the same. 🐱 Can I, please? Pretty please—with sugar on top—just this one time? 🍯

Now if only Dickens could’ve stopped short of bringing weirdos like Miss Havisham into the mix of his novel. Oh well, let’s put this all in perspective: other artists have committed far worst atrocities when they got carried away. I mean, wasn’t there the famous artist—that Van Gogh dude, methinks—who cut off his own ear? 👂 ✂

Oh. My. God.

One piece of advice: Don’t do anything even remotely like that, please don’t!

Again, may I suggest that you all, you aspiring writers, maintain lifestyles that are, um, slightly more staid—in the beginning at least—and stay away from bizarre stuff like that. Once you’re rich and famous, of course, all bets are off 👻

So you see, my essays—loony though they may appear on first blush—aren’t that  loony after all, especially when compared with what you read above; what I proposed, come to think of it, is what I would like to think of as falling within the rubric of “dialectic wisdom“, and that, too in the realm of “dialectic wisdom”—well, I grant you that it’s not that much of a dazzling display of dialectic brilliance, but still

Come on, you’ve got to give your blogger a break sometimes, guys and gals 👍

Just sayin’, just sayin’ 😗

3. Intend For Others 🙋

The only way to avoid being miserable is not to have enough leisure to wonder whether you are happy or not.
~ George Bernard Shaw

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.
~David Hume (1711 – 1776)

But how, you may well be wondering, could one ever intend for others when—with our ever-attendant and all-too-human foibles—we more often than not have trouble intending things for ourselves, let alone intending for others 🙈

I mean, aren’t we turning solipsism on its head here? Would we not be thereby turning the micro-cosmic into the macro-cosmic? Are we perhaps blazing anew the path shown to us by the legendary physicist Richard Feynman when he enlightened the world on the eerie phenomenon of electrons tunneling backward in time? Allow me to clarify—what I mean by “Intend For Others” is simply this:

When you write, always treat others—after all, you’re presumably writing not only for yourself, but also for others—as though they were already the selves that you wish for them to be. Yes, as if they’ve already attained that selfhood 😇

Again, a little clarification, I think, will help clear up the matter in tying this advice back to how it can inform your daily writing journeys:

Always write—just as you behave—as if you readers already are the way you would wish for them to be: their best selves. Do that, and the rest will naturally follow.

4. Extend Yourself 🏃

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

Robert Browning (Andrea del Sarto, line 98) 

The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.
~ Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180)

How Writing Really Works

Work hard. Really, really hard. When you think you’ve written enough for the evening, write some more. Write until you are transported into the throes of fatigue and on the verge of collapsing into sleep right there at your keyboard, or next to your writing pad if you prefer the time-honored—and eminently sensible—way of writing in longhand; I’ll have something to say about exactly that in a bit.

Where others may be tired and ready to call it a day, you’re just warming up—so if ever you entertained a thought otherwise, I invite you to think again. Yes, if you think that your day’s worth of writing is done when you’re merely tired, please think again. That isn’t how writing works 🍒

This is how writing works ⛏

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
~ Thomas Mann

As I revised this section—more on the crucial topic of “revision” later—something cool happened, as in: Oh. My. God.

So as I looked up online the quotation above—I had merely recalled it from memory and needed to make sure I was quoting it with integrity—my search randomly turned up an article by Joan Erakit: Being a Writer Is Hard. Joan’s article is clearly written from the heart, and I’ve bookmarked it for later re-reading!

Here’s the thing: Much as I told you earlier in this essay, I didn’t consult any resources—online, or in book form, or otherwise—to see what advice others had given on the subject of writing and stuff like that. But what do you do when marvelous advice (such as the one Joan has to offer in her Huffington Post article) lands on your lap? 🐱

Sing Your Life With Your Words

What I say here can be taken literally as much as can be taken metaphorically. How you choose to view it is fully in your purview; the choice is yours to make.

But first, shall we quickly check out some haunting lyrics from a classic Roberta Flack song? It goes like so

I heard he sang a good song
I heard he had a style
And so I came to see him
To listen for a while
And there he was this young boy
A stranger to my eyes

Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song

I felt all flushed with fever
Embarassed by the crowd
I felt he found my letters
And read each one out loud
I prayed that he would finish
But he just kept right on

~ Roberta Flack (Lyrics from Killing Me Softly With His Song)

If you can do with your prose what the “young boy” in Roberta Flack’s song—the one who was “Singing my life with his words“—did with his singing, then you know you’ve got a shot at it.

Extend Yourself

Meanwhile, the advice we’re talking about here (i.e. “Extend Yourself”) is so crucial that I’ll now devote a good chunk of this essay to it: In other words, even if you don’t take away anything else from this essay—and while I’d like to think that there at least a handful of points that you could take away—if you garner a single piece of advice, please make it this one:

Always remember that you were born to create great art. You, and you alone—you’ll know this in your heart of hearts—are destined to create the art of prose that nobody else ever can.

Let me try to explain what I mean: So I rely on my readers to keep me educated. I try to avoid wallowing in my ignorance as often and as much as I can. In fact, this is as good a time to encourage you to feel free and contact me—I’m very approachable—thorough your comments, through Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.

Creating Great Art

Having got that out of the way, let’s see if we can get a grip on what it means to create great art; and I’m not talking about Rembrandt or Van Gogh. Writing is—to my mind at least—as much an art as any other you care to name. So that, I would like to think, leads us to wonder what great writing looks like: Is there a litmus test—I offer profuse apologies for bringing up this topic to anyone who has reviled the study of Chemistry and deemed it a sordid mess—in which to dip a piece of writing and get the result out, yay or nay, something like the Harry Potter hat? I’m afraid not; at least there wasn’t one the last time I checked. And I’m not holding my breath for it either…

My two cents’ worth on this is that you’ll know that you’re on to writing good prose when what you write moves you. Once that happens, you know you’ve got something good going. At that point, do everything in your power to propel it forward till you reach the stars. Yes, this sounds nebulous, especially since you have an engineer and computer scientist—all rolled into one—serving this advice… My point is that you have to take that leap of faith when you arrive at your springboard. When that happens, the need for the fabled litmus test—I offer profuse apologies for bringing up this topic a second time to anyone who has reviled the study of Chemistry and deemed it a sordid mess—that’ll be your calculus for deciding whether what you’ve got in your hands is great or just so-so.

The Pyramid Of Writers

During literally the past 48 hours, I’ve had the pleasure of discovering a remarkable book by Stephen King: On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft. Folks who know me may have been surprised—and possibly startled—to hear me mention the name of the maven of the horror genre. I never was into that genre, and am still not drawn to horror books in the least. But I have every reason to believe—and I say this based on the great things I’ve heard about King’s books—that he is a great writer.

And while I’ve merely skimmed through a few sections of King’s On Writing, I can already vouch for its stellar quality. Closer at hand, there’s an amazingly apt section in that book that I’ll now briefly share with you. King notes how

Writers form themselves into the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent and human creativity… 

The next level is much smaller. These are the really good writers. Above them—above almost all of us—are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys. They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain. S**t, most geniuses aren’t able to understand themselves, and many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks, the intellectual version of runway models who just happen to be born with the right cheekbones and with breasts which fit the image of an age (expletive occluded).
~ Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft — Scribner)

People don’t just arrive at this out of nowhere. It takes years of cultivation.

Noblesse Oblige

Or maybe there are a few writers, a rare breed to be sure, who can bypass the whole process—somehow short-circuiting the seemingly unavoidable and admittedly arduous processes that writers of all stripes undergo in their training, maturation, refinement, and elevation of their prose into art form—and rely simply on the artfully-linguistic (or perhaps linguistically-artful) primordial soup that brews unbidden in their brains. If you’re one of those, thank your lucky stars and know that you have to share your art with the world; and there are no ifs, ands, or buts here; and no, I’m not beguiling you by leading you down the alley of noblesse oblige—a French phrase that literally means “nobility obligates”—I assuredly am not. For one thing, I wasn’t born into nobility or anything even remotely like that 🎭

But yes, I’ve written those exact words—the phrase noblesse oblige—on a green board with a white chalk that I had ferreted out of a drawer in a table near which I happened to be seated, all alone in a classroom, in-between classes one afternoon as an undergraduate in Houston. I still haven’t quite fathomed why I did that. All I recall is that I had to pick up the chalk and write that phrase; was this my way of getting it out of my system? I was at that time—and remain to this day—an unabashed geek who revels in the joy of learning and helping others learn. So with my mental accelerator wired to the floor, as always, what I reflexively did that afternoon was perhaps the ideational equivalent of a tic, a reflexive and unbidden act of creativity, an ode that had to see the light of day. But whatever it was, I still haven’t unraveled the ball of yarn that beckoned me that afternoon. All I recall—and it’s one of my clearest memories ever, just as if it took place yesterday, not on an afternoon a couple of decades ago—I distinctly recall doing so, unbidden.

We Joke Around Here And Such

Dear reader, you know me well, always joking and stuff, you know. Yeah, relax. After all, this is the playground of ideas which we have—as the years have rolled by—come to know as Programming Digressions central. You can always come here and bask in the sunshine of comfort, camaraderie, collegiality, kinship, and, most of all, for the unencumbered exchange of ideas. We’re pretty much all geeks and nerds hanging out here in these quarters. Okay, so as the impresario here, I’ll never allow this place to become seedy; if you wish to plant the seeds of fertile ideas, though, I’ll take you by the hand and encourage you like you’ve never known encouragement before.

You trust me, and I trust you—you all are simply the best. I couldn’t have asked for a better set of readers. Period. And to that end, to serve you as best as I humanly can—I consider that my top priority as I write every single sentence, every single word—I try my best to be forthright and express myself candidly. If ever I find even the slightest trace of deceit or deception make the faintest of inroads into what I write, I know that my writing life is done; as much as honesty is a salve, deception is poison.

A Solemn Note

I’ve got something solemn to share—So yes, I’m always joking in my essays and stuff like that; we’re all a relaxed bunch here. But a time arrives one is compelled to make a statement, and when your heart is in the throes of breaching self-disclosure; this is such a time, and I feel compelled to engage in some self-disclosure.

I. Am. Dead. Serious 💀

As you read what I’m about to say, please keep these two points in mind and you’ll be good: Self-disclosure. Allegory. To that I’ll add a third: Parable.

Okay, for the sake of accuracy, let’s quickly revise what we just read: Please keep the three points
above—Self-disclosure; Allegory; and Parable—in mind and you’ll be good 👌

Beholding A Spectacle

But first, you need to know something… No matter what happens, no matter where we all end up—closer still to one another or perhaps farther away—please keep what I’m about to say close to your heart. I will, as ever, remain forthright and candid in all matters except one this one, and to which I happen to be privy: I’ve intimately known someone who can tap into the artfully-linguistic—or linguistically-artful if you will—primordial soup that brews in unbroken cycles, unbeknownst and unbidden even to them. I was in awe as my eyes beheld the creation of art of the highest order.

I suspect that I’m not doing a good job at all of describing the experience of witnessing someone in the midst of the act of effortlessly producing art, hammering out prose just as fast as they could type, and doing all that with effortless ease. I was in awe. I felt like when I was a little boy, gazing heavenward at the billions and billions of shining stars, lighting up our elegant universe.

I said above, and you probably noted as much when I said it—that they were “doing all that with effortless ease”—and it still rings true with me. Could it be that they were like the proverbial duck, paddling… I doubt it, though the duck metaphor did cross my mind so, for what it’s worth, I wished to run it by you. We’re talking full disclosure here, anyway, right?

Trying To Describe An Artist At Work

But whatever words I could conceivably choose with which to paint a half-decent picture of a true artist at work, I already know that the effort is futile; I will invariably fail at describing it adequately enough. What I’m trying to describe borders on the outer boundaries of reason, entering the realm of ESP… and stuff.. Bromberg said about that book. It holds between its covers… But I have seen it with more than my eyes, I’ve felt it with my sense. So while I can’t say that I’ve seen it in action, I can say with utmost confidence that I’ve witnessed it in action; like when you wake up from a dream and know what you’ve witnessed and yet you’re unable to fully retrace the steps through which all that happened.

The mere realization of something so subtle and yet blindingly obvious taking place before my eyes nearly made me faint. I may even have gone into a syncope. It’s a blur, but when I came to, I realized that I had witnessed true art being created before my eyes. I was in awe, and I wanted to tell them—I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs—that they truly had the rarest-of-rare quality in having what it takes to write words that drip with gold, verses that shimmer with the sheen of silver. But I couldn’t. Somehow it all eluded me. I’m sorry, I really am 😔

A Promise

But you have my word: When I meet them again another time—and I sure hope I do so because it was a deeply moving honor unlike any I’ve known in my life—I just might have better luck. Then again, I might not. But I’ll give it my best shot; I’ll try my best to let them know that our world needs to know about their art. They can make spirits sing and they can make hearts weep. They have what it takes. And yes, they have the moral responsibility to share their art—their prose—with the world and lift it above the humdrum of the noise of everyday life. When that happens, we’ll no longer need to live lives of quiet desperation. I look forward to the dawn of such a day, a day that’ll be its usual selfsame self and yet find itself tinged with dripping gold and bathed in shimmering silver 👑

Okay, you all can breathe easy now and, in turn, so can I. Whew, was that intense or what? I don’t know about you, but I was mostly holding my breath all the while I wrote the couple of paragraphs above. And truth be told, I even debated a few times in the first place whether I should even divulge what I just did. But of course I’ve gone ahead and done exactly that. And you know what, at the end of the day, we’re all in this together; if we don’t share our experiences freely with one another in sincere acts of helping one another grow, then much will have been lost, or even worse, never even gained, though what was never gained can perhaps be regained.

Yes, there are those rare souls who truly have what it takes of tap into phenomenal powers of creativity and commune with their fertile imaginations where most of the rest of us would simply fall flat on our faces, tripping all over ourselves in our zeal.

Mere Mortals

And then there are the rest of us. We, mere mortals. I know this all to well because I’ve fallen and bruised my face from lack of dexterity in weaving words into strands of gold that might have captivated my own heart; that is a first, essential step; but if I can’t quite take that step yet, then I know that I have a long way to go still. But that’s okay. I take heart in the wise Chinese saying that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And indeed it does.

So not to worry even one bit; we’re in this together. We’ll help one another create absolutely the best art that we’re capable of creating, just you and I—be it be the loveliest prose you could set your eyes on or be it code of breathtaking beautiful that make your heart skip on beholding it. You have my word. If anyone asks who told you so, would you please tell them that Akram did, and on good authority, too? Thank you.


Let me close this thought with an example with which I was recently enlightened by a reader—a reader of these essays who just happens to also be a most highly esteemed friend—about the nature of great art. They enlightened me on how

The Italians have a word for it: sprezzatura. Making something difficult look easy is the mark of a truly gifted performer or writer.

Then I got to thinking that I have a good friend (based in Canada for many years now) who is originally from Italy. Who better to get insight into an Italian word than someone who grew up speaking Italian. So that’s where I went next. On reaching out to my Italian friend, I got a gracious and detailed response. For reasons of confidentiality, I can’t share the entire response (personal communication). But here is a part—intact, including the tears-of-joy emoticon—of what my friend wrote back to me:

… The word [sprezzatura] is actually not a common one in Italian. It’s essentially the ability to hide one skill by performing an act so effortlessly that it looks easy. Think a great painter making it look so easy but when you try to do the same it looks like a 5-year-old painted it. 😂 I would consider it one of the highest compliments.

Ah, if only I could set my sights that high 🔭

5. Write For Yourself 🎧

All of a writer that matters is in the book or books. It is idiotic to be curious about the person.
~ Jean Rhys 

Poetry creates the myth, the prose writer draws its portrait.
~ Jean-Paul Sartre

You all know me well as the software craftsman that I am, to which credentials I’d like to add—with obvious pride—that I’m also a nerd, and a technologist whose imagination has recently been given a pair of wings through the aegis of a book that goes by the name of Plato and the Nerd (The MIT Press), and I’m a programming languages enthusiast, too. But gosh, surely I’m not a writer—remember everything we read earlier about how I sometimes suspect that you all would rather have my essays towed away, and at my expense, too? Or something like that, right? Or can somebody actually convince me that I am a, gulp, bona fide’ writer?

But hey, I take heart in what Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation when he had memorably advised to

Hitch your wagon to a star

That, surely is a dream floating far away from me, ever so elusively; like the butterfly which hasn’t alighted, yet, on the flower on which it was destined to alight. Ah, if only I could be that kind of a writer. But wait, maybe I am one, already and just don’t know it?

You see, I tried my hand at rhyming verse in an earlier essay—and folks haven’t pelted me with tomatoes, so far, anyway—so maybe I could take that as a sign that I’m a poet and I just didn’t know it? Hmm…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

~ John Lennon (Imagine)

Yeah, this is precisely what happens anytime I entertain discursive forays into solipsism and stuff like that; cool though it surely is, it also makes me think back to my undergraduate days taking a class in Philosophy… As a side note, I came first in my class—goodness, come to think of it, the enrollment in the Philosophy class that semester was quite massive; I had at least 150 classmates. I don’t quite recall whether that class was oversubscribed just that semester or something, but I distinctly recall the auditorium in which I used to sit—my classmates and I, packed like sardines in a cavernous auditorium—taking in each word of my professor with rapt attention. Indeed, your blogger is just plain nuts.

Hey, methinks I doth digress. Nevermore. Quoth the Raven ✈

(Okay, okay—hey, you wise guy snickering there in the back row—I do know my raven from my airplane, okay? It’s just that I can’t find the emoticon for a bird, let alone a raven, in the palette available to me. Your artist has come up short; can you, like, live with that, for crying out loud?)

6. Write For The World 🌝

Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.
~Roger Ebert (1942 — 2013) 

Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”
~ Wislawa Szymborska

Question your assumptions and open your heart; when you do, your writing will open unto you. And that happens—when your writing opens unto you—you will know that it’s time to open your writing to the world in which we live.

Allow plans larger than you own to fold.

And be patient. Miracles will take place before your very eyes.

7. Get To Know Yourself 🌱

Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.
~Oscar Wilde 

Solitude is a good place to visit but a poor place to stay.
~ Josh Billings (1818 – 1885)

No matter what comes your way. No matter what life hands to you, always remember this: You, and you alone, are destined to create what nobody else will ever be able to create. All this follows from keep the following adage close to heart:

To Your Own Self Be True

I was tempted to call this section “Believe In Yourself” but that sounded too Tony Robbins. So there.

Of course, there will be times—for writers and everyone else—when you’ll be compelled to seek growth; it’s an all-too-natural process. Just as a snake sheds its skin, we humans, too, outgrow our old selves and need to shed them; indeed, to grow into new states of being. So should you wish to change, not to worry a bit. I found some advice on exactly that, too:

To change one’s life:
1. Start immediately.
2. Do it flamboyantly.
3. No exceptions.

~ William James

Wow, did you notice that James had his stuff down as a list, did you now? Pretty impressive, I would say. I mean, we nerds actually could’ve made an engineer out of James, what with our propensity for list-making at the drop of a hat?

Just imagine: William James the resident engineer. Hmm… Um, while good for us all who dwell in the realm of technology, and should such a happenstance ever have transpired—i.e. William James having a change of heart and devoting his life to the pursuit of engineering—all that may not have gone over too well with the Psychology department at Harvard University. I mean, who would’ve gone on to write The Principles of Psychology with which to put legions of future students in the ivy-lined classrooms to sound sleep? 😴

[I meant, ivy on the outside, not inside, or at least that’s how I hope things there were and are]
[Pics from my tour from ages ago (undergraduate days) of Cambridge: Harvard / MIT, plus Amherst / Etc. go here…]

8. Read A Lot To Write Well 📬

It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.
~ Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) 

I have nothing but confidence in you. And very little of that.
~ Groucho Marx

Perhaps I’m stating the obvious. But there’s simply no substitute for reading widely, even as you read deeply—it will do wonders for your own writing, guaranteed, or your money back. Um, or something like that.

Hopefully, this piece of advice is descriptive enough, so I won’t elaborate beyond what I’ve said above 📣

9. Diversify 🐙

Training is everything….Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.
~ Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson 

Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.
~ Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Read widely; do not limit yourself.

Broaden your horizons; the sky truly is the limit.

Reach for the stars.

(I owe the genesis of this piece of advice to my friend, the late John Vlissides of IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center—the “V” in “GHJV” (Gamma, Helm, Johnson, and Vlissides), the inimitable Gang of Four (GoF)—who enlightened the world with gifts that I have seen in rare, few others. Vlissides remains one of all-time programming heroes of all time, right up there with Guy Steele, who, by the way, is widely regarded as the father of Common Lisp, and just happens to be the lead author of the Java Language Specification).

10. Commit Professor Trimble’s Book To Memory 🎓

Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.
~ Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) 

At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, training himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance–that is to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is to becuriosityto wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does, and if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got it or not.
~ William Faulkner

Should you take away from this essay only one book to get for yourself, please make it Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing by John R. Trimble. I refer to the volume fondly as WWS. My writing life can be cleanly divided—much as the World Wars (WW) divided history into pre- and post-WW—into pre- and post-WWS. Enough said 🚑

And should you wish to explore more, I invite you to check out some earlier essays, for example the essay on beautiful code and beautiful prose 🌹

11. Read Anything By Philip Bromberg 🎭

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
~ Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)

Never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologize for the truth.
~ Benjamin Disraeli (1804 – 1881)

Sublime Prose on Display

Should you wish to see examples of truly sublime prose on display—and while YMMV, I encourage you to try the strategy of learning-from-examples—look no further than the work of Philip M. Bromberg. His writing is replete with honesty, humor, and thoughtfulness. I’ve written about Bromberg’s work in several of my earlier essays; for example, you can check out this essay which explores the nexus between beautiful computer code and beautiful prose.

And since we are—and will be—seeing Dickinson’s genius on display (in this essay) by way of her verses of poetry, it’s only fair that you have the chance, too, to briefly check out the work of Bromberg, a more-contemporary genius; though he may not not quite be in the league of Dickinson, surely he isn’t too far behind either. Interestingly enough, Bromberg has written quite a bit of and about Dickinson, for example. On top of that, as if this wasn’t a barrel of monkeys already, for crying out loud, yet another individual, a professor at UPenn (Max Cavitch), decided to join the fray—in “meta” or “recursive” fashion—and written about his (i.e. Bromberg’s) writing about her (i.e. Dickinson’s) work. Fancy that! 🐵 🐵 🐵

An Example

In my book, Bromberg is the master of crafting seamless prose, which is something that I’ve tried to explain in an essay elsewhere, and which was in the context of chatting about his book entitled Awakening the Dreamer 😴

At this point in time an increasing number of analytic clinicians, researchers, and theoreticians are arguing that, and presenting evidence that, the human personality begins and continues as a multiplicity of selves or self-states, each with its own dominant affect and sets of characteristics, which are always shifting in configuration and moment-to- moment availability to one another… 
That is to say, if all goes relatively well early in life, one’s own self-state shifts are normally as unobservable as the beating of one’s heart, and self-state coherence goes on without disruption… 
In the face of psychological trauma, self-continuity is threatened, and this threat, for most human beings, is countered by the use of dissociation as an evolutionary response that is as important to survival as certain genetically coded response patterns of lower animals to a life-threatening attack by a predator. The responses of lower life-forms to overwhelming threat sometimes make instructive analogs to what happens to the human self in the face of trauma. 
For instance, there is a strange-looking sea creature, the holothurian, that is best known for its disconcerting ability, when attacked, to divide itself into unlinked parts and regenerate from that part which escapes death. “Non omnis moriar—I shall not wholly die!” Consider the following brief excerpt from a poem by a woman awarded the 1996 Nobel prize for literature when she was in her late 70s, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska.

~ Philip M. Bromberg (Awakening the Dreamer: Clinical Journeys — Routledge)

Bromberg then goes on to quote an excerpt from Szymborska’s superb poem, entitled “Autotomy”, which is—in Bromberg’s own words—the “biological term for the capacity of certain living things to give up wholeness in order to preserve life”.

Voldemort In Reverse

Hmm… “Voldemort In Reverse”?! What in the world could be going on here. Here’s what…

So we had got to talking some about that holothurian critter above, whose name, by the way, sounds right up there—actually right down there since we’re speaking of ocean-dwelling critters—with another equally-hideous-sounding name: coelacanth. What are those marine biologist guys and gals thinking when they cook up such outlandish names? 

Just look at what those marine biologists have already thrown at us simple folksholothurian, coelacanth, elasipodida, pelagothuriidae—I mean, sheesh… Where does this all stop, if ever it does? Next, we’ll be hearing about critters with names such as Arabor, Dor-lómin, Mithrin, Elrond, and stuff like that. Good grief, Charlie Brown 🐶

Marine Biologists: Please Meet Bilbo Baggins

I mean, why can’t they use honest-to-goodness names that we folks—all of the rest of us who live on Main Street—can relate to as well? How about Bilbo, or Baggins? Better yet, let’s have our esteemed marine biologists name the next creature they discover… Yes! That’s it: Bilbo Baggins. Maybe even Gollum. I mean, is that memorable or what? 🐉

Now try remembering a name like holothurian, coelacanth, elasipodida, pelagothuriidae. Exactly, that’s all I’m saying—just sayin’, if anybody would only listen. Sigh 😞

He Who Must Not Be Named

Anyhow, speaking of the holothurian, doesn’t it’s philosophy of life remind you of “he who must not be named“? You know who I’m talking about here, don’t you? In case you’ve been living under a rock and somehow managed to evade exposure to the phenomena that is the Harry Potter series, here’s what’s up…

Okay, so I will toss caution to the wind and somewhat grudgingly divulge the name—notwithstanding the dire warnings of doing exactly that—of he who must not be namedVoldemort, pestiferous dimwit if ever there was one. I mean, think about it this way: 

  • Voldemort—proactive baddy that he was— was kind of like a holothurian in reverse action, having planned ahead by splitting and stashing. You know, grisly stuff like that.
  • Any given holothurian out there (that gelatinous sea creature) is sort of a reactive Voldemort, splitting itself into smithereens when it finds itself in mortal danger.
You know, something like that… 😑

A Poem That Rocks

Ah, and let’s not forget that Szymborska’s poem (“Autotomy”) goes like this

In danger the holothurian splits itself in two:
it offers one self to be devoured by the world
and in its second self escapes.

In the middle of the holothurian’s body a chasm opens
and its edges immediately become alien to each other.

On the one edge, death, on the other, life.
Here despair, there, hope.

To die as much as necessary, without overstepping
the bounds.
To grow again from a salvaged remnant.

Here a heavy heart, there non omnis moriar,
three little words only, like three little plumes ascending

~ Wislawa Szymborska (Autotomy. In: Postwar Polish Poetry, 3rd ed., ed. & trans. C. Milosz. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 115-116).

How Does He Do It?

I have one word of reaction—a single word, nothing less, nothing more—to describe what Bromberg manages to do with his “word-painting” or “word-sculpting”, if that’s what you wish to call it: Wow!

I don’t know how he does it, but he does; his awesome writing makes me turn green with envy 🍏

Frankly, Bromberg immediately comes to mind as the other notable writer—in addition to the inimitably brilliant mathematician-philosopher Bertrand Russell—who appears to be as fond of using those sparkly em-dashes in their writing as your blogger is 💝

Read up Bromberg’s writings; I suspect that the writer in you will thank you for the wonders it will do for your writing.

12. Fall In Love With The Allure Of Words 🍒

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.
~ William Shakespeare

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
~ Oscar Wilde, (The Critic as Artist)

I’m just nuts about words 🌰  There are no two ways about it 💘

Please, I beg of you: Give yourself permission to fall in love with the allure of words. This allure is the surest cure for a flagging spirit, the purest salve that’ll give you endurance, sustaining you during times when even you begin to doubt yourself. What I’ve got in mind is perhaps best expressed through some delightful lyrics from a Steve Winwood song:

Stand up in a clear blue morning
Until you see what can be
Alone in a cold day dawning
Are you still free
Can you be
When some cold tomorrow finds you
When some sad old dream reminds you
How the endless road unwinds you
While you see a chance take it
Find romance, fake it
Because it’s all on you
Don’t you know by now
No one gives you anything
Don’t you wonder how you keep on moving
One more day
Your way
Ooooooooh, your way
~ Steve Winwood (Lyrics from While You See A Chance)

How does that grab you? If you find yourself resonating with the words above, I suggest that you grab it right back: Run to your nearest brick-and-mortar bookstore and grab a copy of a great thesaurus: My favorite is The Synonym Finder Revised Edition (by J. I. Rodale), although the highly regarded Roget’s International Thesaurus, 7th Edition Revised (by Barbara Ann Kipfer)—I used to have a copy of it back when I lived in Minnesota—is pretty good, too.

Go grab a copy of either one of two thesauri above and knock yourself out.

13. Seek Physicality In What You Write 🏉

If you would write emotionally, be first unemotional. If you would move your readers to tears, do not let them see you cry.
~ James J. Kilpatrick 

Time is a great healer, but a poor beautician.
~ Lucille S. Harper (1912 – 1995)

You simply have to imbue your prose with emotion; if your prose isn’t suffused with the physicality of feelings and tinged by your true feelings, it ain’t going anywhere. Period. Try to imagine what it would be like to read cold and forbidding whale-like paragraphs. Does it sound inviting? Indeed, it does not. Now put yourself in your reader’s shoes, and you’ll get an idea of what you need to do to fix the problem: Bring your to life with vivid prose that lives and breathes the life you’ll be putting into it.

Yep, it behooves us all to dig deeper into this area of writing which is, oddly enough, sometimes overlooked.

14. Invest In A Bookshelf 📖 Or Two 📖 📖 Or Three 📖 📖 📖

I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head.
~ John Updike

The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.
~ Gaylord Nelson (1916 – 2005)

Obvious or trite though this advice may sound, please follow up on it: Invest in a bookshelf, or two, or three. Your (writing) life depends on it. This is vital stuff. You can cruise the web all day long, reading online, but there never was—and likely never will be—a substitute for physical books. Take this from a writer who also happens to be an engineer and computer scientist.

Please get yourself a bookshelf, or two, or three. It really doesn’t matter what kind of bookshelves you invest in: get them from IKEA, your local Target or Walmart. What does matter is that you line your home with a bookshelf, or two, or three.

Okay, so I’ll stop sounding like a broken record now.

Now that we’re in business—at least I hope we are, with you having heeded my words above—shall we take up the fine matter of lining them up with some books?

15. Invest In A Good Dictionary 💰

All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences. ~ Somerset Maugham

I often quote myself; it adds spice to my conversation.
~ George Bernard Shaw

Ah yes, to fall in love with words through contact with the pages of a dictionary that you can hold in your hands. While it may sound old-fashioned, there’s simply no substitute for physical contact with a tangible—compared to an online—dictionary. The experience of interacting with the physicality of a good dictionary simply can’t be recreated by its online counterpart, especially when you’re learning words for the first time; if all you’re doing is looking up a dictionary to verify your understanding of a particular word, by all means fire up your web browser and look up the word in an online dictionary; I do that all the time.

So won’t you please—pretty please, with sugar on top—invest in a dictionary, a really good one? Thank you, your cooperation is appreciated.

And don’t forget to write to me with your experience when your investment (in a corporeal dictionary) is rewarded in spades ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ 

16. Invest In A Few Great Books On Writing 📕

When I have a little money, I buy books; if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.
~ Erasmus 

There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money either.
~ Robert Graves

Okay, let’s go grab more stuff with which to line our empty bookshelves, cool? Heading over to the bookstore now 🚴

So this advice—while it may appear to be along the lines of my advice in the previous item—is actually far more fun. Yep, we’ll have you run to your nearest—or farthest, if you so wish—brick-and-mortar bookstore and have yourself some browsing fun. I mean I’ll be the last one to stand between you and your getting good exercise as you take a brisk walk (or leisurely stroll, as your mood suits you) to the bookstore at the farthest corner of the earth.

One way or another, once you’re in the bookstore, you’ll inevitably find books on writing style that speak to you, because, as they say, different strokes for different folks. When you find those books, invest in them. You’ll be more than repaid in the dividends you reap down the road.

17. Read With A Highlighter In Hand 📍

Reinforcing Hawking and Gödel, Wolpert uses a similar self-embedding to conclude that predicting the future is impossible even in a deterministic world (chapter 10). Even basic mathematics becomes suspect. Popper struggled with reconciling the truth of mathematical equations with his falsifiability criterion for science (chapter 1). Consider the equation 1 + 1 = 2. Can any imaginable experiment falsify this equation? If not, then according to Popper’s theory, the equation is not a scientific theory.

~ Edward Ashford Lee (Plato and the Nerd: The Creative Partnership of Humans and Technology — The MIT Press) 

I not only use all the brains I have, but all that I can borrow.
~ Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924)

Indeed, please make it a point to read with a highlighter in hand. It’ll do wonders for your writing life in truly helping you grok the content in a way that just might surprise you; yes, highlighting isn’t for students only. So please read with a highlighter in hand.

You know what I’m saying, right? Yes, yes, you nod your head in affirmation. Yep, you got it: Don’t just hold the highlighter in your hand. Actually remove the cap—or click the clicker if your highlighter is one of those retractable kind—and start highlighting. Once you start, you ain’t gonna want to stop. Yay, have fun!

Make the book you’re reading your own marked-up, lit-up piece of art. The book should cease to be a faceless stranger. Make the book your friend. Have a dialog with it. It’s quite all right; nothing schizophrenic about it 🎃

…[inner speech][fascinating book about…][Andy Clark][Surfing Uncertainty][embedded cognition]…

18. Revise What You Write 🐚

You write that first draft really to see how it’s going to come out.
~ James A. Michener 

Half my life is an act of revision.
~ John Irving

A dear friend—one of the best writers on this planet—once wrote to me, saying

They say that revision is the heart and soul of writing
(Personal communication with author, I mean, blogger; the two are the same, though, right?)

I still find myself nodding in complete agreement; I can’t of anything to add to the elegant simplicity of the advice above!
If anything, I’ll merely add an afterthought, which taps into my engineering and programming background: As any fellow programmer—with the notable exception of legendary computer scientist Donald Knuth—will care to admit, our first pass at writing any computer program can result in sloppy code. But obviously we don’t stop there; in fact, our first pass is merely the beginnings of creating a computer program, and which serves as the launchpad for refinement-unto-refinement-unto… Ad nauseum, until we have a finished product; a robust computer program.

19. Become Your Own Editor 💪

It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.
~ C. J. Cherryh 

The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for. ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951)

But Akram, I don’t have the budget to invest in a course or two for becoming an editor—or for that matter, the time to take a class 💸

Relax. What I’ve got here is far easier than what you might be thinking. All I’ve got in mind here is simply this: Each word of every sentence that you write needs to carry its weight; dead-weight simply doesn’t fly in the realm of great prose. Period.

Keep that in mind, and you’ll be golden.

20. Collect Idioms 📦

Get into a rut early: Do the same process the same way. Accumulate idioms. Standardize. The only difference(!) between Shakespeare and you was the size of his idiom list—not the size of his vocabulary.
~ Alan Perlis (Yale University computer science professor, first-ever recipient of the Turing Award) 

Immortal is an ample word
When what we need is by,
But when it leaves us for a time,
‘Tis a necessity.
Of heaven above the firmest proof
We fundamental know,
Except for its marauding hand,
It had been heaven below.

~ Emily Dickinson (In Poem XXI, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson)

Herein lies a goldmine of writing wisdom, beckoning for you to mine it for its hidden nuggets. As you go about embracing this crucial advice, be especially mindful—in the words of the inimitable poet-genius Emily Dickinson—of the message she had in saying that “Except for its marauding hand, It had been heaven below” (italics mine).

Once you get that, it’s off to the proverbial races 🐎

21. Learn All The Rules Of Writing You Can 🎪

There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one can agree what they are.
~ Somerset Maugham 

Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.
~ Mark Twain

The whole point of this advice is to get the rules of writing style—as many of them as you can get under your belt (for my male readers) or your obi (for my female readers)—so ingrained into your consciousness that you can use them reflexively.

The writing advice above leads naturally to the piece of advice in the next item.

22. Then Write Unencumbered By Rules 🏄

There are no rules in writing. There are useful principles. Throw them away when they’re not useful. But always know what you’re throwing away.
~ Will Shetterly 

Writing every day as one practices the piano every day keeps one nimble, and then when the great moments of inspiration come, one is in good form, supple and smooth.
~ Anais Nin (in The Novel of the Future, pg. 146) — as quoted in The Quotable Anais Nin: 365 Quotations with Citations (Sky Blue Press)

If your mind is occupied all the time with considerations of whether you’re violating the rules of writing—and they are valid concerns, please don’t get me wrong—as you write every single sentence, then the writing process is going to be ploddingly painful. To comfort you, I offer that I, too, have felt that pain, albeit in a different context: that of writing code in the C++ programming language

Before any of you C++ programming aficionados get all roiled up by my preceding comment, let me assure you that I wish C++ programming the very best; it’s just say that when I discovered the Java programming language, I never looked back. The story is rather long, and I refer anyone with an interest in this particular digression to an essay that I had written earlier; it’s one of the handful of occasions where I’ve touched upon that topic.

In sum, internalize the rules of writing until they become second nature; aim to put yourself in a position where you don’t even have to think about rules; they inform your writing unbidden. In other words, work hard to get those rules engrained deeply enough where they become like the air your breathe; exactly, in the same way you don’t notice your breathing, you shouldn’t have to notice that you’re applying this rule or that at any point of your writing process.

I’m sticking by my story even if it reeks of heresy and would be branded as such by a purist grammarian.

23. Get To Know Your Left Brain 👓

Personally, I don’t think there’s intelligent life on other planets. Why should other planets be any different from this one?
~ Bob Monkhouse 

I have always believed in André Breton’s freedom, to write as one thinks, in the order and disorder in which one feels and thinks, to follow sensations and absurd correlations of events and images, to trust the new realms they lead one into.
~ Anais Nin (in her Diary 1, pg. 11) The Quotable Anais Nin: 365 Quotations with Citations (Sky Blue Press)

Getting to know your left brain is, of course, the realm of logical thinking. Don’t ignore. Remember, though, that writing greatness does not lie here. It is a start. By the same token, this is an important area that deserves serious attention: this is the realm of writing tasks such as creating a coherent outline for you writing task at hand, making sure you supply plenty of arguments to bolster your claims, and other stuff (essential) stuff like that.

24. Get To Know Your Right Brain 🎻

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
~ Albert Einstein (The Ultimate Quotable Einstein — Princeton University Press) 

Moving around is good for creativity: the next line of dialogue that you desperately need may well be waiting in the back of the refrigerator or half a mile along your favorite walk.
~ Will Shetterly

Just as there is art in magic, there is magic in art. As a writer, ignore this dictum at your own peril.

Find your muse: be it soul-moving sonatas or masterpieces of paintings. Then let those sonatas and masterpieces move your writing.

25. Do Not Rush Your Writing 🚅

Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure.
~ Oliver Herford 

I took a speed-reading course and read “War and Peace” in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.
~ Woody Allen

The best I can do here is point you to some fabulous advice I came across several years ago:

Successful students don’t spend much more time working than their peers, they just spend their working time smarter. Take three days to write your short papers—your mind, your body, and your professors will thank you.
~ Cal Newport (Item # 41: Use Three Days to Write a Paper from his book entitled How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students — Crown/Archetype)

What works for student sure can work for writers, too.

26. Learn About The Act Of Creation 🌋

The spirit of creation is the spirit of contradiction. It is the breakthrough of appearances toward an unknown reality.
~ Jean Cocteau

Art is never finished, only abandoned.
~ Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Writing is creating. Invest some time exploring the spirit of contradiction and, even more importantly, set aside time daily to meditating on why (true) art is never finished.

27. Recognize The Limitations Of Digital Media 📺

I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go into the library and read a good book.
~ Groucho Marx 

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking, just as the man who spends too much time in the theater is tempted to be content with living vicariously instead of living his own life.
~ Albert Einstein (The Ultimate Quotable Einstein — Princeton University Press)

This particular advice might strike you as a tad Philistine, especially after having read my recent essays on a brand new book entitled Plato and the Nerd (by Edward Ashford Lee, published by The MIT Press)—a bit more on it shortly (specifically in the advice coming up under the 31st item: “Never Give Up On Your Search”). But quickly, here again were the essays devoted to unraveling the nuances of Plato and the Nerd, each of which essay you’ll enjoy, dare I say:
  1. Read up at your leisure the very first deep dive into its wherewithal and gestalt 🏊
  2. Follow up that deep dive with a slightly different perspective on its offerings 👓
  3. Finally, settle down for a relaxed home stretch that’s suffused with some slight poignancy 🐎

Going back to my comment above regarding how this particular piece of advice might strike you as a tad Philistine, here’s what I had in mind: As a matter of fact, nothing could be farther from the truth—since we spoke of Plato and the Nerd just a breath away, suffice it to say that you’ll benefit tremendously from a deliberate study of what Edward has to say on the concept of “continuums” in that book I just mentioned. Rather than elaborate on that concept—as well as a ton others which are helping me hugely in my life as a writer—I refer you to a perusal of the three essays above. They will get you situated with a hopefully fuller appreciation of what all the remarkable volume has to offer to you, as a writer and thinker.

28. Believe In Yourself 😚

To lose one’s faith surpasses
The loss of an estate,
Because estates can be
Replenished, — faith cannot.

Inherited with life,
Belief but once can be;
Annihilate a single clause,
And Being’s beggary.

~ Emily Dickinson (In Poem XXXVI — Lost Faith, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Life in the service of an idea can be good if this idea is life-giving and emancipates the individual from the fetters of the self without propelling him into a different bondage. Science and art can work this way, but they can also lead to enslavement or unhealthy pampering and over-refinement. But I would not dispute the notion that these efforts lead to an inability to cope with life. After all, even water is a poison if you drown in it.
~ Albert Einstein (The Ultimate Quotable Einstein — Princeton University Press)

Touchy-feely though this advice may sound, it is important. To that end, I invite you to spend some time soaking in the intent of the two quotes atop this piece of advice.

29. Believe In The Goodness Of Mankind 🙌

The opposite of love is not hate, its indifference.
~ Elie Wiesel (1928 — )

Are friends delight or pain?
Could bounty but remain
Riches were good.
But if they only stay
Bolder to fly away,
Riches are sad.

~ Emily Dickinson (In Poem XXIX — Friends, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson)

The day I stop believing in the goodness of mankind will be the day I stop writing. Period. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon; yes, despite all the doom and gloom that envelopes our society under darker clouds by the day. 

I believe in the goodness of mankind—and womankind, to be sure. It’s part of the fuel that serves to propel everything that I write, and to inform everything that I do. In fact, at a very basic level, I want to paraphrase Elton John and say

You can win the fight, you can grab a piece of the sky
You can break the rules but before you try
You gotta love womankind
You gotta love mankind

Mankind and womankind, to be sure; you can take this from a proud feminist.

30. Listen To Mark Knopfler Songs 🎸

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~ Emily Dickinson (In Poem VI — A Word, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The historian records, but the novelist creates.
~ E. M. Forster

Reader: “Oh. My. God.”
Blogger: “Relax. I need some information first. Just the basic facts.”
Reader: “Stop in the name of all things sacred.”
Blogger: “But why?”
Reader: “Why? I’ll tell you why: At the rate you’re going… The next thing we know, you’ll start pontificating on ritornellos!”
Blogger: “Rita-who?”
Reader: “Ritornellos, dude. Aren’t you educated or something?”
Blogger: “Oh, those. Yeah, yeah”
Reader: “Good grief, for crying out loud.”
Reader, again: “This guy is just plain nuts.”
Blogger: “Right, so I was saying…”
Reader: “There. He. Goes. Again!”

Appreciating The Lyricism Of Music 

Listen up, because here’s the deal: While I may know nothing about music, my Mom does, so you be careful about what you say, hey! And while I have a biological mother—the sweetest soul on earth—who enjoys music but doesn’t know the rubrics of music (neither to I, for that matter), don’t forget that I also have an adopted Mom, another truly gracious, caring, and refined soul. And dude, she knows music backward and forward. That’s right, so you better think twice before making snide remarks as you did above 👺

And Appreciating The Music That Dwells Everywhere

My adopted Mom has taught me a thing or two about what it means to appreciate music. While sheet music may forever remain an enigma in my mind (Greek that it is to me), I have, however, learned from Mom—and continue to learn from her every single day that I’m alive on this planet—something about the music that lives in the recesses of prose. Yes, these are lessons on the music that dwells in prose, waiting in the wings, poised to take flight and soar to heights unlike anything we’ve seen before 🚀

Much more than even all that, they are—those lessons from Mom—lessons in life itself 🌹

Therefore, you be a good boy—and you be a good girl—and listen up to what I’ve got to say, hey now 👦 👧

An Invitation

With that, I invite you to go out and learn something about the genius of Mark Knopfler. He is a singer-songwriter, guitarist (of the British music group Dire Straits) who has already made several appearances in Programming Digressions essays. Knopfler’s songs are deeply symbolic, steeped—soaked, drenched-but-not-bedraggled, if you know what I mean—in the syrup of some of the most thoughtful lyrics you’ll ever have heard. Ever. Really great stuff; well worth your while.

Check out his songs. If you find yourself resonating with their lyrics—I surely have—allow their lyricism to leave their impression on your writing. Your writing just might become that much lyrical; I sure hope mine will, one day, if perhaps in some small way only.

You May Also Listen To…

I’m not trying to sell the songs of Knopfler; far from it. Come on; we’re democratic here, after all, unlike some other places 🔔

And that leads me to make mention of how the title of this section—”Listen To Mark Knopfler Songs”—just as easily might have been any one of the following, depending on your taste in music:

In other words, all I’m saying here is this: allow music to hold at least some sway over what you write. You don’t have to, but give it a try; you don’t have anything to lose, except perhaps a fistful of dollars you’ll spend buying some songs to listen to. And hey, if you’re cheap like I am, all you have to do is turn on the radio and listen to some sad songs, because they say so much. Oh yes they do 🎶 🎸 🎸 🎸 🎶

In yet other words, see if you can swizzle some music into your prose; your writing just may take a turn for the lyrical. Even better, the admixture might work miracles for your writing, it just might 🎈

As For Alvin and the Chipmunks

Whatever you do, I beg of you to please never, ever listen to Alvin and the Chipmunks—those annoying, anthropomorphic chipmunks: Alvin, Simon and Theodore—because if I find out that you do, I’m going to hang up my hat and you won’t get another essay out of me or my hat 🎩 🐹 🐹 🐹 🎩

Exactly, you ain’t gonna see no more essays from yours truly 😉

I mean, sheesh… Don’t their grating-mechanical songs—if they can even be elevated to being called songs—just drive you nuts? It’s like being forced to hear someone drag a sharp set of nails across a chalkboard 💅

Yikes. I’m outta here; someone holler and I’ll be back when their infernal music stops 🏃

Can you even imagine what irrevocable havoc such stuff could wreak with your prose? All I’m saying is this: you have to draw the line somewhere

(In full disclosure, we were just having some fun here: I have nothing whatsoever against those adorable-and-pesky-at-the-same-time chipmunks) 🌰 🐭 🐭 🐭 🌰

31. Never Give Up On Your Search 🔭

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no
When I’m drivin’ in my car
And that man comes on the radio
And he’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no no no
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say
I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction

~ The Rolling Stones ((I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction)

Saving The Best For Last

I saved the best for last. Here it is.

So the search I’ve got in mind here is the one for that oh-so-elusive spark. This is the spark that will unlock your muse; it will give your imagination the wings with which to soar heavenward; and yes, it will also validate your belief in yourself (as a writer, among other things). Imagine that, all rolled into one 🍰

Allow me to illustrate this seemingly nebulous advice—though to my mind it is anything but—with a personal anecdote. I’m acutely aware of how I wear you all out by my rambling, but what I’m going to tell you now is, I believe, substantial enough to merit your attention: I never give up on my search for the spark. I hung in there through the good times and the bad 🌝 🌚

And Then It Happened

Then, one Sunday afternoon, I walked into our local brick-and-mortar Barnes & Nobles bookstore (B&N). I can’t quite describe it all—I begin to choke up even as I try to recall details of that fateful trip to the B&N—because that moment was ineffable, suspended at it still is in my mind its selfsame animation. Frozen in time ⛄

I don’t know how it happened, it all took place so quick. But it remains etched in my mind, in my soul. So I was drawn—as surely as the moth which is drawn to its fateful embrace with fiery embers that will ultimately scorch it to death—to a bookshelf that held for me the gift of a lifetime 🎁

With my right hand I reached out into the rack and held the gem in my hands. From that moment onwards—though I didn’t the timer on my stopwatch—it took all of some 30 odd seconds of flipping through the pages of that book and I knew it right then and there: I had found my spark ☄

The Prize Was In My Hands

Before rushing to the row of cashier’s desk to check out the prize that I held clenched in my hands, I looked again at the book to make sure I wasn’t dreaming 😴  So I asked my wife to pinch me. She did. And I said, Ow! It was then that I knew I was fully awake 😳

I’ll add this much—in the spirit of full disclosure—that I did also cast a furtive glance at my hands just to make sure they weren’t scorched. They were not. Whew!

Evidently, this moth was the one that got away 🎈 Drawn though it was to its fiery embrace with the spark, this time the moth was not so much as singed. Its integrity—wings, spirit, soul—remained intact even as it made contact with the fire which was going to light up its life 🔥

I had found my spark, woohoo ☄

And Then It Began…

Yes, it was precisely then then it began… 🌱 🌿 🌾 🌴 🌲 🌳

And yes, as they say, the rest is history: I went on to write not one but a whopping three essays as a paen to my spark 🎷

No doubt, many of you may already know all about those (three) essays; it wasn’t that long ago that they appeared on this blog (which we fondly call Programming Digressions around here). But for our new readers—the thousands and thousands who I’m happy to see pile on to partake of the exchange of ideas that is the raison d’être of Programming Digressions—I owe you a quick roundup.

Roundup By Way Of Three Pointers

Without further ado, what follow below are directions—one each to the three essays—which will whisk you away to some reading fun that is waiting for you:

  1. Read up at your leisure the very first deep dive into its wherewithal and gestalt 🏊
  2. Follow up that deep dive with a slightly different perspective on its offerings 👓
  3. Finally, settle down for a relaxed home stretch that’s suffused with some slight poignancy 🐎

Have fun reading up the essays above. Remember, too—and this is best of all—that Plato and the Nerd is written by a fellow nerd. He’s one of us 👕

The Spark That Speaks Your Language

See if you, too, can make that spark—if indeed you find it speaking your language—yours for life. One way or another, remember to never give up on your search. Ever. One way or another, and hopefully sooner than later, you’ll find your very own spark, waiting just for you

When the river was deep I didn’t falter
When the mountain was high I still believed
When the valley was low it didn’t stop me, no no
I knew you were waiting.
I knew you were waiting for me
With an endless desire
I kept on searching
Sure in time our eyes would meet
Like the bridge is on fire
The hurt is over,
One touch and you set me free
~ George Michael (Lyrics from I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) featuring Aretha Franklin)

So remember: Never give up on your search. Never, ever. One day, you’ll find your very own spark; just keep your eyes peeled 👀


  1. – Some essays get tonnes of comments from readers; last time I checked, the essay on algorithmic excellence, dedicated as it was to fellow Texans affected by the fury of Hurricane Harvey had a whopping 72 comments!

    – Others essays make shrinking violets out of you all; evidently, this essay has garnered a grand total of one comment, and that too happens to be my comment. Yep, this one you're reading, by your very own blogger 😉

    – What gives? Well, I dunno… I'm going to chalk this up as one of those abiding mysteries of the universe that one never truly gets to fathom 🙂

    – Trust me, though, that nobody's going to make a shrinking violet out of me, no Sir and Madam 😉

    – And much as I've said elsewhere—and that, too, on several occasions—for example here, I invite, in fact encourage all kinds of feedback, both of the appreciative kind as well the constructive type. Please never be shy, you all, about pointing out any flaws or shortcomings that you spot, and which I can fix for you 🙂

    – So I'm especially happy to note that I recently received feedback—via personal communication—that will help your blogger (me) improve the content of the essays you read here even more. Yay! Here it is (that recently-received feedback), verbatim, where I've merely removed the name of the feedback-provider out of respect for their privacy. They said (actually, wrote) to me, saying:

    – "Question – what are you trying to accomplish with your essay? When I write, I know that I write whatever is on my mind without regard to organization, but I have some idea of the end goal so that I can go back and remove anything that doesn't support that goal. No matter how interesting someone might find the information, whether they are reader or writer, if it can't tie directly back to the intro and conclusion, I would suggest it is just a distraction."

    – "I want you to know that I loved the first half of part 1 primarily because it was your heart talking. Yes, it didn't fit in with my understanding of the overall goal of part 1 and probably should have been an entirely different post with an entirely different intro / conclusion, but the bottom line is that it was very heartfelt."

    – "From that point on, though, I wasn't entirely sure what you were talking about. This could very well be because our brains are wired differently (though not that differently) and was unable to follow your train of thought. In part 2 when you list books 6-10 then jump to the photo you took of two pictures on the wall where you could see your outline I was left wondering… does this have anything to do with algorithms? Maybe it did, but I couldn't make the connection from what was written. If I, as the reader, can't stay focused on your point, then you've lost your audience."

    – "…I hope you understand that my goal is to be constructive in my feedback."

    – Once again, I thank my anonymous reader—who provided the detailed feedaback above—as this will help tremendously with improving the content of the essays! Excellent points all, and I've made a mental note of each one of them 🙂

  2. I always used to study paragraph in news papers but now as I am a user of internet therefore from now I am using net for posts, thanks to web.

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