Our Capabilities

Writer John McNally posted on FB he was going to finish a story that day.

Today’s goal is to sit down and write a complete draft of a story that I’ve been unsuccessfully toying with for two years. I’ve written three different openings so far, as much as 25 pages of new material, countless revisions, and then last night I saw the ending: it’s a detail from an unpublished novel I wrote in 2002. The process is a messy, shitty one, but I don’t know a better one.

I’ve known John for 25 years and this was unusual. A story taking years to finish is normal. It’s probably one of the reasons why his stories are incredible. His collection, Ghosts of Chicago, is phenomenal, the work of a short story master.

The odd part is the self-imposed, publicly stated deadline. Much later that night / very early the next morning he posted an update.

Done. 4,000 words on the nose. The ending I thought I was going to use? I didn’t use it. But thinking I was going to use it unlocked the story.


As he posted yesterday, getting a story on paper is a messy business. It requires a discipline he has been sharpening for about 40 years. My guess is he found the epiphany, he discovered the elusive ending that’s unexpected but plausible.

John is a morning writer. A grinder. He’s at the keyboard every morning. Yesterday’s writing session must’ve lasted 20 hours. That’s some discipline.

After my morning FB scan, I stopped by Seth’s blog and read ‘There is more than one solution to your problem (and your problem is real).’ That’s some serendipity.

Falling in love with your solution makes it incredibly difficult to see its flaws, to negotiate with people who don’t agree with you, to find an even better solution.

But of course, the problem is real. The dissatisfaction or inefficiency or wrong direction isn’t going to go away merely because we deny it.

It’s amazing how much we can get done when agree to get something done.

Our Capabilities

Meaning What One Says

‘Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. ‘I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.— I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.

‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least— at least I mean what I say— that’s the same thing, you know.’

‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, ‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (with the complete original illustrations by John Tenniel) (pp. 29-30). Digireads.com. Kindle Edition.

“If you cannot say what you mean, your majesty, you will never mean what you say and a gentleman should always mean what he says.”

‘The Last Emperor’ Reginald Fleming Johnston

Meaning What One Says

Why Make Art

Virginia Woolf on Why She Became a Writer and the Shock-Receiving Capacity Necessary for Being an Artist

A reminder to read great writers.

Moments of Being.

Why Make Art

Ed Cooke – Emotions of Memory


Interesting that when he combines his memory number system with images, he says his brain remember the emotions.

From Joshua Foer’s book, the ‘poetry’ winner, Corinna Draschl, also spoke of emotions and how she had to understand the poetry on an emotional level.

…she can’t memorize a text unless she understands what it means. Even more than that, she has to understand how it feels. She breaks the poem into small chunks and then assigns a series of emotions to each short segment. Rather than associate the words with images, she associates them with feelings.

Foer, Joshua (2011-03-03). Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (p. 133). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Rick Russo’s Risk Pool is all emotion in my brain. The book is vivid in my mind– even though I haven’t read it since my father’s death on August 8th, 2007.

Maybe the emotion bit is the part I’m missing when trying to figure out how to memorize text.

More on text memorization from Ed’s Reddit AMA:

[Ill_eat_it] My question: I find it more difficult to learn poetry because it’s more abstract (I’ve been using the method of loci btw). Any tips?

[Ted Cooke] Cool! Glad to hear that you’re getting into memory techniques.

Poetry is very difficult. I use loci to map the lines, not the words. So I’ll have an image for each line, sometimes two or three if it’s very elaborate, and then I will recite the poetry with as much emotion as possible as I go through the memory palace in my imagination.

It takes repetition, but as you do it, you get to know the poetry to a depth quite impossible through casual reading.

When especially deep in my long-term project of trying to learn Paradise Lost (a project I’m still working on) I find myself able to speak Miltonically fairly effortlessly. One of the sweetest (and most pointless) pleasures I’ve encountered that life has to offer.

On memory palaces and vocabulary:

No, I wouldn’t recommend vocab in memory palaces: they’re best for structured info. You want to be able to recall vocab out of context.

On Memrise we’ve built what we think is the optimal way of learning vocab, and omission of memory palaces was deliberate.

Good book reference from the AMA: From Dawn to Decadence.

Ed Cooke – Emotions of Memory