Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Font of creativity

I'm undecided as to whether writers' block is a real thing.

I know there are times I find it difficult to write.  Not only my fiction writing -- which, as a purely creative endeavor, might be subject to more mystical forces of inspiration and imagination -- but even my work here at Skeptophilia.  Sometimes the daily blog post is easy and quick, and other times it's an uphill slog at best.

But the term writers' block implies that it's near impossible to get a word on the page, and I kind of doubt that actually happens.  Writing, like anything, takes diligence, dedication, and a decent work ethic.  Doing it well is like any other skill, requiring effort and practice.  Your first efforts probably won't be very good, but you wouldn't expect to sit down at a piano for the first time and play a Bach partita flawlessly.  Why should creative writing be any different?

As Stephen King put it -- vividly if graphically -- in his tour de force analysis of horror fiction, Danse Macabre, "Discipline and constant work are the whetstones upon which the dull knife of talent is honed until it becomes sharp enough, hopefully, to cut through even the toughest meat and gristle."

So the way to write is to sit your ass down and write.  I'm saying this to myself as much as I am to anyone else; I just started a new (and ridiculously ambitious) new work-in-progress yesterday, the first in a post-apocalyptic trilogy that will eventually span a thousand years.  (As my dad used to say about me, "He likes to test the depth of a river with both feet.")  And I know about myself that I tend to get overwhelmed and go into major avoidance-mode sometimes.  Fortunately, I'm lucky enough to have a supportive group of author friends who are perfectly happy to hold my feet to the fire when I'm looking for a distraction, any distraction, rather than opening up my document and getting to work.

Because it is work, as Stephen King points out.  The idea of writers effortlessly pouring words onto the page is a myth.

But it's a remarkably persistent one, because people always want an easy solution.  Which is why a claim has been circulating for the past few months that the way to break through writers' block is to switch fonts on your computer.

Unfortunately, the font you're supposed to switch to is...

... Comic Sans.

Yes, Comic Sans, that much-derided loopy font that tend to make one think unwillingly of the comic strip Garfield.  The idea is that Comic Sans is "easy on the eyes" and "playful," and this decreases the stress of coming up with quality plot, characters, narrative, and dialogue.  A writer in Medium who goes by the moniker "Ms. Lola" tried it out, and she describes her experience thusly:
Seeing one’s own work stripped of pretension down to its most basic level, language wearing children’s clothes, is a powerful thing.  By the second or third day of writing in Comic Sans, I found myself feeling freer than ever to make silly mistakes, take risks, and explore stranger territories. 
In result, the word count of my novel has doubled in the past week. 
There is no magical solution to writer’s block, but sometimes even the smallest changes of habit can remind us of our own meek position as artists.
Far be it from me to criticize anyone else's life hack; we all have our personal mental gymnastics we employ to keep ourselves going with challenging tasks.  For me, I'm dubious it would work.  I went to the three pages I wrote on my new book yesterday, and altered the font to Comic Sans just to see what it would look like, and my feeling was: it looks ridiculous.  The story I started on yesterday is supposed to be tense, dark, and dramatic, and written in Comic Sans, you keep waiting for the main character to have a hair's-breadth escape from the Bad Guys just in time to get home and feed his overweight cat some lasagna.

So I switched back to serious, no-nonsense Times New Roman.

It's a little like the claim I looked at a couple of months ago, where some researchers in Australia claimed to have found a font that improves reading retention.  (They called it "Sans Forgetica.")  Sadly, subsequent studies found that it was both annoying and unhelpful, so it actually had the opposite effect from what a teacher of literature would want.  And while I wasn't able to find any legitimate research about the effect of Comic Sans -- I don't know how you'd measure writers' block in any case -- I strongly suspect the same is true here.  While the novelty combined with the placebo effect might help some writers increase their output for a while, I'm dubious that there's anything more than that going on.

It's a little like the famous exchange between the mathematician Euclid and his pupil, King Ptolemy.  When the latter asked his teacher if there was no easier way to understand the mathematical concept they were working on, Euclid responded, "μὴ εἰ̃ναι βασιλικὴν ἀτραπὸν ἐπὶ γεωμετρίαν" -- "There is no royal shortcut to geometry."

There's no royal shortcut to creative writing, either, more's the pity.  And with that, I need to sit my ass down and work on my new story.  Dark, harrowing post-apocalyptic tales don't write themselves, even if you use a goofy-looking font.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun and amusing discussion of a very ominous topic; how the universe will end.

In The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) astrophysicist Katie Mack takes us through all the known possibilities -- a "Big Crunch" (the Big Bang in reverse), the cheerfully-named "Heat Death" (the material of the universe spread out at uniform density and a uniform temperature of only a few degrees above absolute zero), the terrifying -- but fortunately extremely unlikely -- Vacuum Decay (where the universe tears itself apart from the inside out), and others even wilder.

The cool thing is that all of it is scientifically sound.  Mack is a brilliant theoretical astrophysicist, and her explanations take cutting-edge research and bring it to a level a layperson can understand.  And along the way, her humor shines through, bringing a touch of lightness and upbeat positivity to a subject that will take the reader to the edges of the known universe and the end of time.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

1 comment:

  1. And guess who is going to nag, nag, nag you until you DO sit down and do it, daily, until it's done? Three guesses and the first two don't count!