Thursday, December 22, 2016

Sentiment Shaping and Tuning

Note: This post makes more sense if you read or listen to Invincible Summer first. On Becoming Poems also helps.

One of the great lessons of mnemonics is “Memorable things are also impactful.”.

You may be riding an elephant that doesn’t care much about your puny reins, but if you’re a master mnemonist, you needn’t rely on reins. Memorable thought is not stored in a card catalog; it sinks deep into your mind where its tendrils intertwine with the rest of your knowledge and experiences. If you can think memorably, you’re an elephant whisperer.

There is a correlate: “If you know how to make something memorable, then you can impact other people, as well.”

This is a principle I ran with when I designed my speech Invincible Summer. I applied a lot of different mnemonic techniques, but most of all, I applied Becoming Poems. I developed a new technique I call “sentiment shaping and tuning”, which is basically Becoming Poems for composition, rather than learning.


When I’ve talked about memorable thought in the past, I’ve mentioned that sticky things are “story-like”. “Shaping” refers to one central feature of stories: their emotional arcs.

I started with a couple of rough ideas, which I threw together into a draft. I edited the draft in the usual way until it made conceptual sense, more or less. Then the shaping began.

In terms of Becoming Poems, “shaping” corresponds to the step where you identify the structure of the edifice. The idea is to get an emotional handle on each block.

In composition, it includes the additional step of moving the blocks around. After all, a rough draft is a giant heap of bricks.

So I mashed everything together into a single block of text with no paragraph breaks, like laying the bricks out side by side. Then I read through, and inserted a line break every time I felt an emotional transition trying to happen. This left me with chunks of text organized by emotion.

Next, I labeled each chunk of text according to the main emotion(s) it wanted to express. I might have labeled this paragraph “presentation and invitation”, for example, because right now I have a feeling of showcasing a technique in a transparent way.

Then, I looked inside the chunks of text for smaller scale emotional transitions (like lines in a poem, rather than stanzas). The previous paragraph labeled “presentation and invitation” might have a more specific flow of “discernment, demonstration, illumination, explanation”.

Thus concludes the descriptive portion of shaping. So far, this is just what I would do if I were going to memorize the text.

Now for the exciting part.

I took all those labels and made a list, in the same order as the text but without any content. So it was just a list of emotions, something like


I walked through that list, simulating each emotion as I went, and attending to the overall effect of experiencing those emotions in that order.

Vonneghut famously identified eight emotional arcs for stories. A “man in hole” story is one with emotional valence that rises, falls, and then rises again at the end. A “rags to riches” story starts low and ends high.

So I thought about story arcs, and how mine might be shaped. My list looked like it wanted to be two man-in-hole arcs in a row, which a sentiment analysis of novels suggests is one of the most popular shapes. (It’s also my favorite.)

But the actual list didn’t have quite the smooth, satisfying, rise-fall-rise-fall-rise shape I imagined, so I rearranged the list items until it did. When I was done, I had two clear man-in-hole arcs, with the second bigger than the first.

Then I walked through the list again, and made a few more adjustments. Some places felt jarring - horror followed immediately by curiosity was difficult, for instance - so I inserted a new emotion that smoothed the transition: horror, grasping, curiosity.

And in some places there was a long string of similar emotions, which I knew wouldn’t work so well. So I kept the most important emotion in the string and cut the rest, or I combined them into a single, more complex emotion.

At the end, I had a list of a bit over 30 emotions, which sketched an emotional arc I was happy with.

But a list is not a speech.

So I re-arranged the original text blocks into the order of the desired emotional arc (having already conveniently labeled them by emotion). Then things got cut, combined, and added, to reflect changes I’d made to the original list.

Making sense of the concepts in the new order took some doing, but when I was done, the draft was far more fluid and satisfying than before.


0) Make a draft.
1) Label the emotions.
2) Write the emotions as a list.
3) Simulate the emotions in order.
4) Find a satisfying story shape that reminds you of the list.
5) Modify the list to match the chosen shape.
6) Make a new draft to match the list.


Next came tuning. (This corresponds to “diving” in the Becoming Poems method.) I tuned everything, but focused on the points that mattered most, so they’d each be strong enough to carry the weight of the entire speech.

Under each emotion label, I looked at the phrases. Anything that didn’t cause me to feel the emotion I was going for got cut, or (where necessary) modified.

For the remaining phrases, I took anything that tried to point at the emotion abstractly, and replaced it with an image it would be easy to “dive” into if I were memorizing the text. “Boats are exciting” might become “the wheel’s kick, and the wind’s song, and the white sails’ shaking”.

Specifically, I made things concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, story-like, and personally engaging. Here’s an example.

Desired emotions: Loss, hollowness, horror.
Original text: I have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Winter after winter, I forget who I am. I lose sight of my values, passions, aspirations, for months at a time.
Tuned version: I have Seasonal Affective disorder, so for me, this season really sucks. What it sucks, specifically, is my soul, out through my mouth, then hides it in tattered robes, while I become an empty shell of a person who doesn’t miss what they’ve forgotten they ever had.

The original text invites the audience to share a certain emotional experience with me. It’s like handing someone a flute and a piece of sheet music. The tuned version, though, is like sitting right next to them and playing the flute myself. There’s no question about whether the experience will be active in their minds, so I know there’s something solid to build the rest of the speech on.

I kept doing this with each section until System 1 groked every piece, until every phrase made the elephant move.


1) Know what emotions you’re going for.
2) Cut or modify anything that’s out of tune with the desired emotions.
3) Concertize every abstraction, and otherwise push toward memorability.
4) Keep at it until your elephant groks the whisper.


I’ve gotten more intensely positive feedback for Invincible Summer than I have for anything else I’ve created so far. I think shaping and tuning was around a third of what caused that.

There are story shapes that fit snuggly in human minds. They evolved along side us, inside us. They’re part of what we are. When you hear them, you’re a hunter on the savanna at night, enthralled from across a campfire, while someone recounts a legend your tribe has told for ages.

It may be magic, but it’s not mysterious. The shapes are learnable. There are six of them, more or less.

Nonfiction is made from a tougher wood, but you can carve it all the same. You can shape and tune it like the fiction we’re built to love, if you learn the craft.

And when you whisper, minds will move.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Invincible Summer

I gave a speech at the 2016 Bay Area Secular Solstice ceremony, which I'm quite proud of and seems to have been well received. You'll probably like it if you think the world's in grave danger and are into saving it.

Here's a video of the whole Solstice. I start at 34:46, and go for about ten minutes. It cuts out for a few seconds toward the beginning, but comes back.

Content note: This is quite dark, involves depression, and mentions suicide.

And here's the (approximate) text. I do strongly recommend the video over just the text, though, because it's very much designed to be performed in bodyspace.


A stained glass palace hangs in the sky at dawn. I watch from below, circling, as wind caresses the feathers of my wings. The clouds, parting to flow around the Eastern tower, burn red-orange where they catch the sun.

This is a vision of Victory. A fantasy of how life might be, when humanity is safe, and free. A Dream.

I have dozens of Dreams: Ballets choreographed for free-fall. Base jumping without injury or death. Intellectual intimacy with friends, without the barrier of symbolic language.

But here on Ancient Earth, we’re not safe. Not yet. And I am especially unsafe in the Winter. I have seasonal affective disorder, so for me, this season can suck.

What it sucks, specifically, is my soul, out through my mouth, then hides it in tattered robes, while I become an empty shell of a person, who doesn’t miss what they’ve forgotten they ever had.

I remember a time, when I was very depressed, lying on the basement floor and staring at the ceiling. As I had been, for hours. It was like my veins were full of lead.

The line between obsessive thoughts and hallucination blurs at times like these. I saw ice water. I felt it, covering my body. And concrete pressed into my back, where I lay heavy at the bottom of a well. A deep well. Above me were miles of murky water. And I was drowning.

But even through all that water, I could see to the surface, if I tried. And above the well, filtering through the icy sludge, points of light swam into focus.

Not just above the surface, but lightyears away. They were the stars. And they grew brighter as I focused on them, their hearts igniting, and burning through the darkness, with an intensity I’d forgotten was possible.

And in the fire of those distant stars, I saw visions of myself. In one star, I was a professor, teaching logic to freshmen at a university. I could feel the chalk on my hands. In another, I was learning to paint.

And in a third star, the Summer sun warmed my face, and I was laughing, freely. Like that was… just… a normal thing to do.

I’d been very close to dying on that day. Winter had almost consumed me.

But when I saw the stars, when I felt them burning in the night, despite their impossible distance, despite the expectation that I’d never lift my arms, much less climb out of that well into the sky, I realized that I. Had. To live. I had to protect the possibility that I might teach. That I might paint. That I might feel the sun, one day, and laugh.

Today, I’m much more robust against the Winter. But I also see more darkness than I ever have before.

I see the darkness of an empty future. Of the stars grown cold, having meant nothing to anyone for more than one beat of a fragile heart.

It is hard to strive on empty. It’s hard to breathe another breath, and keep on breathing, when your lungs don’t know the taste of laughter.

And I don’t know that we can win. In fact, in the vast majority of timelines, we lose.

Because humanity is fragile and heavy, full of lead at the bottom of a well that seems far too deep to climb out of in time. Nobody’s gonna reach down from the sky to save us. There is no natural law saying that things must turn out ok in the end. No rescuer hath the rescuer. No Lord hath the champion, no mother and no father, only nothingness above. Nihil supernum.

And when I feel the depth of that darkness, smothered by despair at the challenge we face, sometimes it is tempting not to look so far ahead. To look at my feet, at just the next few years. To let myself drown.

Nihil supernum. Nothing above.

But with nothing above us, with nothing but ourselves holding us down, how high might we reach, if we manage stand at all? With what might we fill all that potential? Nihil supernum, absque capacitas crescendi - nothing above, except room to grow.

Dreams are not predictions. They’re by nature inaccurate and fanciful. But they are symbols of what we strive for. And we need them. We need to share them, to ignite each other. To forge the future in the furnace of our shared visions of Victory. We need, in the depths of Winter, to find within ourselves an invincible Summer.

However cold the night, however sharp the bitter winds of Winter, I will fight, forever, as long as I know the taste of Victory.

So I pluck the stars from my sky, the ones that burn brightest for me, that show me what might be, and why we have to live. I tuck them into the pockets of my soul, where I keep the precious things I’ll fight to protect, so that whenever I decide whether to drown or to blaze, in all the little choices made on ordinary days that lead toward or away from Victory, I find myself already on fire.

This is the fire that I share with you: A stained glass palace in the sunrise. The wind caressing my wings.