Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

The Advantages of Linear Thinking

This is the realm of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover what a fragmented thinker may never find.

Sherlock Holmes

[With each passing year it seems like we collectively lose more of our hard-earned skills for concentration. Those are important skills that allow us to focus on a single task, seeing it through to successful completion. In short, we are distracted. Digital media are rewiring our brains to prefer ideas or subjects in short and simple segments: a serious loss to our coping and problem-solving abilities.]

By definition, a distraction is a detour. It happens when the continuity of some effort is broken by the need to shift attention elsewhere. Since this website is dedicated to communicating in “the age of distraction”—be it advertising clutter, too many texts and emails, or the frenetic pace of overscheduled lives—we should have an interest in persons who resist all the cultural noise.

One answer to this problem is to discipline ourselves to follow a more linear pathway, even though cultivating this kind of thinking cuts against the grain of the culture.   And it’s not easy to tell the world to take a hike while we muse alone in our own self-made bubble.

Linear thinkers take many forms:  avid readers content to devote large chunks of time to a single work of fiction or nonfiction, artists happily left alone to work through decisions that will end up on canvass or as musical notation.  And of course we’ve enshrined the image of the “mad scientist” as a loner following the threads of their research with long hours in the lab, leaving family and friends to fend on their own.

George Frederick Handel wrote the great oratorio Messiah in spurt of nearly unbroken concentration, finishing in just over three weeks.  And imagine the sustained effort required by William Lamb’s architectural firm, who designed and prepared drawings for New York City’s Empire State Building in an incredibly short two weeks. The iconic skyscraper was completed in just over a year.  Such dedication to a single task can be scaled down to what many writers sense when they notice the time that vanishes when they are absorbed in their work.

The linear thinker looks forward to clearing the decks sufficiently to be able to see an unobstructed view of the horizon. Undisturbed concentration gives them power. This is the realm of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover and understand what a fragmented thinker may never find. Unbroken attention to a task allows a first effort to build on the synergies that begin when scattered thinking  begins to see connections and consequences that others may miss.  By contrast, longer discursive forms allow important details and possible problems to come into focus.

This is more or less the reverse of the kind of segmentation of effort that is now embedded in our work and so much of our media. A reader’s time on a single web page is usually under a minute.  And we are getting cues from all over that we’re not noticing our preference for hyper-compression. Consider, for example, the New York Times reporter who recently noted in passing that an individual “argued” a point “on Twitter.”  Really?  Can a person “argue” in the traditional sense of the term—which includes asserting a claim and it’s good reasons—in a verbal closet of 280 characters?  Twitter imposes absurd limitations on the expression of  thoughts, matched by political ads that “argue” public policy in 30-seconds, television news “sound bites” from policy-makers that average around eight seconds, and the de-facto editing style of commercial television that cuts individual shots into lengths of two or three seconds.

Interestingly, one of the features  sometimes seen in a person at the higher end of the autism spectrum scale is a consuming and total passion for one thing. Subjects with Asperger’s are especially known for their laser-focused interests, making them a challenging fit in a culture that rewards frequent pivots to completely different activities. Psychological historians believe we can thank mild forms of autism for the achievements of Mozart, Beethoven, Charles Darwin, and Lewis Carroll.  It’s interesting to posit that it may well have been Aspergers that made Sherlock Holmes the world’s favorite sleuth.

Given the misplaced importance of multi-tasking across the culture, it makes sense that there is building interest in novel ideas like the self-driving car. Negotiating a ribbon of open road is a linear process that seems increasingly beyond the capacities of distracted drivers. It’s probably better to let a computer take care of a task many are less equipped to manage themselves.

If we think we have identified a significant problem here, we probably should be more humble and note that these few words on the attributes of linearity are a better example of non-linear thinking. The concept deserves a book more than a blog.

Waterfalls of Language

Some of us are waterfalls of language. But we can be too sure that our verbosity will solidify our relations with others. 

I had a friend who had an aversion to people who constantly filled a room with talk.  It was probably the eastern mystic in Paul, who was constantly chagrined by people who had dedicated themselves to replacing whatever silence they encountered with their own observations.  I never asked him why he recoiled from these conversational marathoners.  But I think I knew.  He favored words chosen carefully.  He liked a comment that had a point, but not ten points. Most of all, he recoiled against Very Verbal People who turned their opinions into a circus of logorrhea.  Speaking before fully processing what you wanted to communicate wasn’t his style.  Not surprisingly, his care with words and comfort with silence made him a wonderful listener and a good colleague.

Even so, there are times when we do love verbal people who light up a space with their wit and responsiveness.  For most of us that room is usually a theater.  It helps when we can witness a conversation that has been worked out and honed by a room full of crack writers. It helps as well to have actors who can deliver the perfect response with a naturalness that lets us forget that their words came from a script.

The performer as a Very Verbal Person is something of a showcase for the possibilities of language, a model that we may admire for putting a difficult person in their place or, better yet, restoring the will of someone damaged by the worst that life can give.  A good script perfects what is never quite so clear in real life.

                         Merchant Ivory.com

My favorite cases include the Schlegel sisters in James Ivory’s 1992 film, Howard’s End.  E. M. Forster’s  two young women are confined by the conventions of the day to stay close to their modest home in turn of the century London. But they are full of ideas and thirsty for conversation, even if the potential conversant is simply a clerk who shows up at their front door to retrieve a misappropriated umbrella. Their curiosity makes them seem fully alive.

There is also the pleasure of hearing the complex overlapping dialogue of Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013). Co-written by he actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the series’s two free spirits migrate through first love to eventually face the challenges of marriage and a family. It’s all done with restless characters who have made their interiority transparent. Its the same satisfaction a viewer gets from vastly different television classics like WB’s Gilmore Girls (2000) or The West Wing (1999).  Writer Aaron Sorkin’s breakthrough series about the Bartlett administration is defined by Sorkin’s love of dialogue structured as a series of intense interrogatories and responses. No voiceless and moody reaction shots here. In Sorkinworld characters are always duty bound to frame their feelings as complete arguments and counter-arguments.

The surprise in the otherwise more conventional Gilmore Girls lies partly in the fact that the actors were running through scripts that were often twice the number of pages as similar hour-long shows.  Indeed, the long-running series now in re-runs owes its best scenes to the rhythm and pacing common in 1930’s film farces.  Who knew that there is a bit of Groucho Marx in Lauren Graham?

In these and other entertainments the fun is in watching Very Verbal People trade rebukes and put-downs using a logic entirely their own. The point obviously was not the real-world relevance of the logic, which only makes sense within the manufactured world of the narrative, but the pleasure of seeing people completely comfortable with the task of explaining everything.

All of this boils down to our love of the idea of total fluency.  We spend a lot of our waking hours trying to imagine the right thing. . .anything. . .that will resolve the challenges of dealing with prickly others.  Its only natural to admire those who make it look so easy.