Paracelsus, Alchemy, and Character Development: A Widget for Writers

The other day, I posted on the idea of “widgets” for writers. Here’s an example: a double-widget focused on character development.


Over the last few weeks, I’ve been taking a break and reading up on some of the subjects I need to know more about for the remainder of the book I’m working on. Namely, about The South Sea Bubble, early Georgian-era brewing and gin distilling equipment, theory, and practice, and the history of alchemy.

Whilst reading up on the last of those topics, I ran across something quite fascinating when it comes to the connections between alchemy and literature, which any lit scholar can tell you peaked during the Renaissance. I suspect, in fact, that this is the reason why Renaissance writers were the first Western writers to really profoundly dig into the idea of “character development.”

It all goes back–like so many things–to Paracelsus, and to Sulphur (salt), Salt ( sulphur ), and Mercury (Mercury).


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Études vs. Widgets

A while back, I started a series of posts on what I was then calling “Études for Writers.”

I think that title is a mistake. I had reasons for choosing the title, of course, which I explained in the first post on the subject: basically, études are special kinds of exercises that marry technique to sensitivity to a theoretical structure. Just about every étude in my book of Ferling “studies” is designed to build specific musical-theoretical structures into your working muscle-memory: the rhythms, the harmonic and melodic structures (and phrasing and articulation) of traditional classical music, and so on: it’s all there.

In other words, doing these etudes mindfully is basically training in the fundamental structures of European classical music, as far as a woodwind player is concerned. It’s a horrible training method if you want to play like Pharoah Sanders or Albert Ayler, but if you want to internalize classical woodwind technique, and the materials and structures and vocabulary of traditional classical music, it’s pretty much excellent.

Ferling's studies. They're public domain, folks!

Ferling’s études. They’re public domain, folks! Download ‘em here.

The thing is, writers have nothing like that: we do have a massive body of “writing exercises,” and plenty of those exercises can be grouped into focusing on this technique or that skill or this part of a narrative or that tricky device, but I’d argue we still haven’t come up with a system of sensitizing writers to the systematic, structural features of compelling writing. Formulaic-convoluted-commercial-schlock-grinding-theory, yes. Compelling writing, no. And somehow, the creative writing teaching industry hasn’t thought to go raid other creative-teaching fields, not even really old and well-established ones like music instruction.

(That’s not unusual, by the way. Bizarrely, the English as a Foreign Language teaching field (TEFL) has pretty much failed to raid music training and education for insights into how to approach performance, despite the massive similarities between learning to perform on an instrument and learning to perform speech acts or conversations in a foreign language.)

But there are two problems with a term like “étude”:

  1. Terminologically: Most writers don’t have a background in music studies. They don’t know what “étude” means in a musical context, and so it just sounds like “study,” which sounds like “exercise.”
  2. Practically: Even when I explained the difference, I found that almost immediately people started misusing the term to simply mean “exercise.” The worst part was, they seemed to just think it was a hoity-toity way of saying “exercise” which it absolutely wasn’t.

Besides that, there’s also the fact that some musicians actually use the words “étude” and “exercise” interchangeably–to mean what I describe above as étude. What I mean is: when a musician says “exercise” they’re talking about a very different thing than when a writer talks about a writing exercise: musical études/exercises are very much more saturated with technical skill and information than anything writers do. In fact, if you take a (classical) musician and try to get them to do the sorts of open-ended, unfocused kinds of practice that writers often get prescribed in writing courses, they get very confused, very quickly.

And my point was to try design a method of studying and teaching writing that capitalizes on the kinds of things that have long been common practice in music teaching and study.

widgetsBut I don’t need to pin that onto the method’s lapel, after all. That can be under the surface. So, I’m casting about for a better term. Right now,  the one I’m considering is [Conceptual] Widgets for Writers. It sounds a little gimmicky, but probably less threatening or WTF than études. What do you think?


The Mudang’s Dance (Reprint)

So, a few years ago, I was invited to write a piece for Arc Magazine. The result was “The Mudang’s Dance,” a piece on how accelerated modernization and social change seems to have given Korean society an interestingly different relationship with the future (and the past) from what dominates in the English-speaking world.

The piece was only available in Arc 1.2… until now. It’s been reprinted in the premiere issue of Compass Cultura, a new travel webzine.

See it here.

(Note, it’s been a few years… which means my view has evolved somewhat since then; my view of Korea is always shifting and changing as new information trickles in. But this is a very clear snapshot of where I was a few years ago.)