Dojo Summer Sessions: Steven Pinker Makes Me Feel Better


He shall probably do the same for you.

I fell in love with Steven quite by accident. I was at Bookmans, the most delicious used bookstore I’ve ever been in this side of Powell’s, and I was combing the Buddhism section for some Zen goodness. Behind me stood books on writing, so I turned round for a look. You never know but you might find something of use. And there, fortuitously out of place, was this book called The Language Instinct.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a sucker for neuroscience, philology, and psychology. This book was all of it. So I clutched it to my bosom and sashayed up to the register to negotiate its release to my custody. Read it. Adored it. Started reading more of his books, and I have to tell you this: few non-fiction authors have made me think as hard or deliciously as Steven Pinker. And I’ve read a lot of non-fiction authors that made me think hard and deliciously.


The Language Instinct is a book I’d recommend to any aspiring author, especially those who are trying to invent languages of their own. But it’s two other books we’re quoting from today. First, we have this delight from The Blank Slate:

“Paradoxically, in today’s intellectual climate novelists may have a clearer mandate than scientists to speak the truth about human nature.”

I’ve always avowed that fiction is a means for telling truths that are difficult to administer otherwise. It’s sad that scientists aren’t as well-regarded as they should be, and shat upon by the fuckwits in Congress far too often. Working to change that, in fact. But until their mandate is secure, I’m more than happy to speak the truth about human nature. Well, some truths, anyway – there is no the truth, no one single truth about human nature. It’s not only a fun and important thing to do, it makes me feel a little useful.

But it’s this second passage, from How the Mind Works, that I wish you to pay closest attention to:

“Geniuses are wonks.  The typical genius pays dues for at least ten years before contributing anything of lasting value.  (Mozart composed symphonies at eight, but they weren’t very good; his first masterwork came in the twelfth year of his career.)  During the apprenticeship, geniuses immerse themselves in their genre.  They absorb tens of thousands of problems and solutions, so no challenge is completely new and they can draw on a vast repertoire of motifs and strategies.  They keep an eye on the competition and a finger to the wind, and are either discriminating or lucky in their choice of problems.  (The unlucky ones, however talented, aren’t remembered as geniuses.)  They are mindful of the esteem of others and of their place in history.  (They physicist Richard Feynman wrote two books describing how brilliant, irreverent, and admired he was and called one of them What Do You Care What Other People Think?)  They work day and night, and leave us with many works of subgenius.  (Wallace spent the end of his career trying to communicate with the dead.)  Their interludes away from a problem are helpful not because it ferments in the unconscious but because they are exhausted and need the rest (and possibly so they can forget blind alleys).  They do not repress a problem but engage in ‘creative worrying,’ and the epiphany is not a masterstroke but a tweaking of an earlier attempt.  They revise endlessly, gradually closing in on their ideal.”

This passage should tell you three things:

It is okay if it takes years for you to develop into the kind of writer that other people believe must have been born with a supreme magical talent, so good are your works. You’re not abnormal or useless or not cut out for writing because you can’t write a masterwork on the first go.

Being a genius is bloody hard work, and it’s not right for everybody.

You’re going to have to work your arse off, did I mention?

Reading that passage in that book assuaged many of my doubts. I’d thought there was something wrong with me. Turns out not. And that’s what I wish you to take away from this: there’s nothing wrong with you, just because you’re not finished becoming a genius yet and you obsess over things. Turns out you’re just doing what geniuses do.

Now, get on with becoming a genius and telling the truth about human nature, perhaps whilst creating your own language, why don’t you?

Comments