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5 Things Philosophy Has Taught Me about Writing

I'm in my third full year of graduate work and soon to graduate (side note: huzzah!). When I first decided to go back to school, I had clear goals and ideas of my future's route. Of course - as normally happens - life really surprised me. Somehow, a year into working on my master's in theology, I knew I was in the wrong discipline (even though theology is an awesome discipline!).

Philosophy is often maligned as being irrelevant to practical issues, overly complicated, or crazy boring. While that's all certainly true sometimes (and my family and friends frequently get a glazed look in their eyes when I talk too much about metaphysical properties or anything involving Aristotle), philosophy has a lot to offer. Not just in our everyday lives but also, come to find out, in writing!

So stick with me here. I promise not to mention Aristotle at all.

Philosophy has taught me...

1. How to be clear and concise.
While philosophy is often seen as longwinded, in reality, brevity is very much valued. If you can make your argument in fewer words, do it. One of the most famous examples in recent years of a short article that blew up the philosophy world was Edmund Gettier's article published in 1963 that challenged what constitutes knowledge. The article was a lean, mean 3 pages, and philosophers are still trying to figure out the problem he raised.

I don't know about anyone else, but I can write long. I have a hard time condensing my thoughts. I want to write ALL THE THINGS WITH ALL THE SCENES. Unfortunately for me, that can be super boring for a reader. Reading and writing philosophy has helped me assess what's necessary in my own writing and let go of what's not.

2. How to dig deep on theme.
"Theme" is often a dirty word in fiction writing. Frequently, you hear writers say that they write for readers to enjoy their work, and themes are secondary. Now, I'm not knocking the enjoyment factor. It's the essential purpose of creative commercial writing. But for me, theme is incredibly important. It's the why of my stories - why this plot, these characters, and these struggles?

One of the reasons I love NBC's The Good Place is because it pokes at seriously deep issues (e.g. an afterlife, what it means to live a moral life, etc.) while still being incredibly entertaining. Working in philosophy means constantly asking yourself how, why, and for what purpose. When I brainstorm novels now, I do the same thing. One of my favorite parts of philosophy as a discipline is that it stretches your brain and helps you think in different ways - and that's opened up a lot of new options for me in creative writing.

3. Some killer sci-fi concepts.
Science fiction is my favorite genre, and it's full of concepts brought up through the history of philosophy. The Matrix is full of Descartes, Frankenstein and reanimation plots touch on issues from philosophy of mind and brain/mind identity, and The Giver brings up both end-of-life issues and other ethical issues in philosophy of science. I can't tell y'all how many times I've been reading a crazy thought experiment in a philosophy article and thought, "This would make an amazing book."

If you want more proof of this, check out my favorite show ever, Fringe, which is full of both amazing scientific possibilities but also theological musings.

4. How to let go and not get (too) emotionally invested.
Creative people are often sensitive. We get attached to the worlds and characters we create. Our protagonists become our friends, and when it's time to let go of a story (maybe because it's just not working or no editor/agent connects with it or for whatever other reason), it can be difficult to let go.

Philosophy is full of a give-and-take of ideas. Someone is always going to be commenting on what you're writing, and vice versa. New ideas (and criticisms) emerge. Philosophers, like other people, have their core beliefs, and the philosophical work they do is often trying to explain those core beliefs. But sometimes, you've just gotta abandon ship: your theory isn't working, someone has come up with a better theory, or you're getting nowhere with your thesis. You've got to know when what you're working on is no longer feasible - and bounce back. For fiction writing, that means writing the next story. Allowing yourself to get excited again about a new idea. And separating emotions from the work.

5. How to better take criticism.
This is very much related to my previous point. It's not a secret that my debut experience in 2015 was less than positive. My book tanked, and it received (valid) criticism. I was pretty devastated, but hindsight is 20/20, right?

In philosophy, if someone takes the time to criticize your work, that means you're worth taking the time to critique. Now, this might seem a little counter-intuitive. I mean, nobody wants to be critiqued, right? But if your thesis is ridiculous and obviously unfounded, no one is going to bother even referencing your work. So if someone does take the time to critique you, it's actually a compliment: your thoughts were well-articulated enough to warrant a response.

Book writing isn't always similar, but at the end of the day, you wrote something, and it was good enough for someone to read it and offer their opinions. No matter how bad it hurts, you did something - you finished something - and you entered the dialogue of ideas. You put yourself out there. And criticism is gonna come. I've learned to better embrace it.

Not all criticism is going to be valid or warranted, but a lot of it is. And in the end, it means your work was important enough to be noted. And, hey, that counts for something.
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