Intellectual Alchemist at Work

From time to time, people ask me where I find so many and such varied post ideas. I always answer that I have been a steady reader for most of my life, and since 1990, I have had the habit of writing down my thoughts about whatever it is that I am reading. I also copy out a few quotes now and then. Over the years, those thoughts and quotes have accumulated in paper diaries, journals, notebooks, as well as their digital counterparts. Taken as a whole, they form a loosely structured representation of an ongoing attempt to understand the world around me and my own way of relating to it.

Old Computer Work Station

Working out a thorough understanding of my writing had the alchemical effect of illuminating and solidifying my entire worldview. (photo: Pdphoto)

However, this is an incomplete answer. I am by nature a thinker, but I am also uniquely motivated. As a troubled manic-depressive, I spent years in painful cognitive behaviour therapy. My need to make sense of life is greater than most. Perhaps this above all made me more determined to fit everything together. That need also drove me to study particular subjects in a conscious effort to expand my awareness in certain key areas.

My blog posts attempt to present an integrated worldview composed of elements drawn from philosophy, creativity, psychology, and spirituality. Regrettably, a poorly organized collection of notes does not automatically translate into a coherent philosophy. A catalyst was required to fuse the disparate parts into the worldview I now present. The bulk of my more useful ideas come from a special project I launched in January 2005 as a way to gain a better understanding of my writing.

I had been writing on and off since the early nineties, yet, incredibly, in 2005 I was still vague about where it was going, what I was trying to accomplish, and what my work was really all about. Troubled by my lack of clarity, I worked out a plan aimed at firming up my nebulous conceptualization of myself as a writer. After due consideration of what I had written so far, I started with the premise that I was writing “spiritual” fantasies, but remained open to a significant perspective change. The word “spiritual” was not intended to suggest any religion of the organized kind.

Word did not have its wonderful navigation pane in those days so I set up a file using an application called TreePad with an eye to describing the project and tracking my progress through it. Notes (old and new) would drive everything, and TreePad was ideal for organizing them. I began by compiling non-fiction and fiction reading lists. The plan was to examine the lives and work of other writers who had earned – for various reasons – the title “spiritual writer.” I settled on the grand title, “The Spiritual Fantasy Research Project.” Fellow intellectual types will understand how happy I was!

As always happens with me, the original idea quickly began to grow in size, scope, and complexity. The more I read, thought, and made notes, the more I could see where I might profit from further explorations. I added extensions, planned detours, and revised timetables repeatedly. In March of 2007, I decided to read the many Gene Wolfe novels I had acquired and, while deeply immersed in that enjoyable experience, lost sight of the project of which they were a part. Explorations continued, but nothing made its way back to the dedicated project file. I was moving fast and winging it. Evolution had streamlined and focussed the process. Notes now sorted into an “insights file” and a more general “reading notes” file.

In May 2011, I decided to excavate the project’s original file from TreePad and bring it up to date in Word as a way of consolidating what has become the permanent process of trying to understand my efforts as a writer.

In June 2011, after a month spent struggling with the project’s large unruly file, I realized how much the work associated with the project’s purpose had come to influence the way I think about my writing and to dominate the overall direction in which I am going. Since the project’s inception in 2005, almost all of my online book purchases, most of my reading, and nearly all my note making have been related to the project. An integrative mindset was quickly established which remains in place to this day. While there is always more to learn, the project has already done its job. My concept of what I do has expanded, grown more sophisticated.

I now see my work as being as much philosophical and psychological as it is spiritual; for me the three things overlap and merge with creativity in an interconnected concern with inner resources, human values and behaviour, society, and – most important – wisdom.

I already knew that I write novels of ideas; it was easy to see that. I knew they had a somewhat philosophical slant or aspect. One of my works-in-progress has a huge and vexing “philosophy thread.” Now I know that I write serious quasi-literary philosophical fantasy and science fiction novels. I combine the spiritual and fantasy inclinations of authors such as C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and Charles Williams with the more rigorous thinking of philosophical writers like Ayn Rand, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre. For good measure, I throw in some of John Cowper Powys’ lively interest in pagan belief systems.

All well and good, but here is the most interesting result: working out a thorough understanding of my writing had the alchemical effect of illuminating and solidifying my entire worldview.

In May of 2012, I began to expand some of my insights into posts for this blog.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

7 thoughts on “Intellectual Alchemist at Work”

  1. Thomas, your process is fascinating. Thanks for sharing the details. I envy the way you’ve organized and integrated reading and writing into your life. My path is more scattershot and though I sometimes come across interesting ideas because of that, I feel I could do with a bit more focus.

  2. Fascinating insight into your intellectual life and working practices, Thomas. I’ve often wondered how on earth you manage to write so many blog posts, all of them well-written and interesting. Taking copious notes must certainly help, but I also wonder how you manage to balance your blog posts with your other writing projects. Do you ever sleep?! 🙂

  3. Phillip, what I have described sounds more organized then it actually was. The project’s concept was tight and well-structured and the record keeping was intelligently laid out, but the implementation tended to stray badly from the original idea; hence all those detours and extensions. Schools and universities can plan a fixed path of study because they know what must be learned and where the journey is going to end. It is impossible to plan that way when you don’t know the outcome in advance. What you learn at one stage may change your mind about what you thought would come next.

    I used your scattershot approach for years when I was a young man. My interests were broad and it took some time before I realized which areas meant more to me than others. Perhaps the process is one of seeing the personal possibilities in any given area. By midlife, I had narrowed things down to what I work with today. Within those interests, I still do a lot of roaming around.

    In my early forties, I learned to set up some kind of program and then adjust as I go along. The plan provides me with a loose frame of reference that helps me keep my objective in sight. I write short descriptions of what I hope to accomplish at the outset and rewrite them as the project’s context changes. This saves me from chasing goaIs that have become obsolete. I keep these little descriptions at the top of the project’s note file, or if it is a work in progress, they go at the top of the project log where I record the work I have done. I maintain a project log for each project I have underway. Since I work on several things at once, these logs are invaluable for getting back on track after I have been away for a while.

  4. Mari, I sleep far less than a normal person does. I went to bed at 4:00 AM this morning (after writing the May 16th post in the night) and got up again at 7:00 AM. This is about an hour short for me, so I *may* need a nap this evening.

    As for balancing my blog posts with my other writing projects – I don’t. At least, I haven’t been. The blog took over completely when I was posting every other day. I have taken to leaving a post current for three days to liberate some time for novels and stories. Regrettably, with it being spring, yard work now gobbles up my free time. Alongside the usual chores, I’m battling tent caterpillars in the ornamentals, moss in the lawn, and wasp’s nests under the eaves of the garden shed!

  5. Thomas, thank you for all that you’ve shared on this blog. I’ve been spending the past few days reading through your posts, taking notes of my own, and I appreciate the way you’ve organized the posts through links. I found your page while searching to understand what artistic vision really is, and your writing has given me more insight into my work than many books dedicated to fine arts themselves. Thank you.

  6. John, I am always delighted when someone finds the blog useful or inspiring. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope what you have picked up here will serve you well in your creative endeavours.

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