Structural priming — or why you can’t put an arts career on hold to get rich, then become Van Gogh or Nabokov

Conversational sketch, at lightning speed, by ACB
Photograph by Louise Dumitriu and Drew Collins

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A lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out, to the public gaze.

Daybook, Anne Truitt

‘Artistic people aren’t respected.’

Such was the sorrowful reason given to a mother by a mid-twenties daughter for abandoning the drawing and painting garlanded with praise by teachers at her school. Post-Gutenberg hopes that this daughter, a newly-discovered second cousin, was only having a temporary fit of the glooms and has yet to donate her 2B pencils to the Salvation Army.

We are reluctant interventionists. We are unlikely to collar this cousin and warn her about one common, possibly universal, form of pressure indiscriminately applied to young people with artistic talent.

It comes in the form of this advice: just build a secure nest egg, first, by chopping off the mental equivalent of arms and legs in the service of a Procrustean accommodation to conventional expectations – by working in (say) plumbing, podiatry, linear programming, or as a technology entrepreneur. Get a mortgage. Pay off most of it. Then, and only then, allow yourself to yield to your daemon – or whatever wonderful madness compels people to sculpt, write musical scores, etch, scribble, and so on – ‘and become successful and world-famous.’ That last part is often laced with irony the advisers like to imagine they have successfully concealed.

Ignore this well-meaning counsel, we would tell anyone with a true vocation. Toss it into the nearest circular file, because it amounts to dispatching someone on an impossible mission. Where are the ex-financiers and former Silicon Valley stars rocking and reshaping the arts world with their surpassing contributions, in second careers? (as even post-Gutenberg fondly imagined, long ago: see ‘Literary Capitalism’.)

That’s right. There is virtually no life that fits that arc.

Why not?

Once, we could only have offered a hunch based on years of watching lives unfold. Now, we can point to possible support for our intuition in speculating about the wider application of findings in psycholinguistics – of which the gist is that what we do strengthens and biases our neurocircuitry towards doing more of the same; also, that this can become a sort of mental rut not easily escaped.

For example, someone churning out executive memos day after day is unlikely to be capable of writing with the freedom and literary finesse of, say, a Sean McNulty (Murray) – recently featured on this blog – on nights after work, or years down the road, in retirement. Sean, judging by what he has told us over the years, chooses jobs for the time and brainpower they allow for writing – that free as much mental circuitry as possible for polishing risky, high-wire prose like his new novel, Twentieth Century Transmissions.

Post-Gutenberg would recommend Sean’s solution, working in the time-honoured tradition of ‘day jobs’, to anyone else young, talented and patron-less —  as far preferable to the ‘art as second career’ option that is really not realistic at all. Some means of keeping a talent alive by practicing it every day must be found, if only in the chinks and crannies of a life.

ACB, for example – someone as militantly anonymous as MIL22, whose photography frequently graces this site – has never stopped drawing, sneaking it in much like Jane Austen shoving her manuscripts under a blotter every time a family member entered the drawing room. When she mentioned bearded irises to us last week, in just the minute and a half it took post-Gutenberg to hunt for our photograph of one specimen, she had sketched – from memory — the flower she was referring to in the notebook she keeps at her side. ACB, we might add, is 81 and a half years old, and still, despite the acute arthritis in her hands, the multi-tasker she learnt to be long before whizzy digital technology filtered down to the public.

We had never seen so clear a pointer to the advantages of keeping your hand in, to preserve a talent, as the one we found in the implications of this explanation of ‘structural priming’ – in the way we all use language – in a recent column in The New York Times:

[Y]our brain’s activity in one part of the day shapes it in another, especially when it comes to creating sentences. This is a real phenomenon, described by psycholinguists, who call it “structural priming” or “syntactic persistence.” Basically, earlier patterns in what you say or read or write “prime” you to repeat them when you’re acting automatically. Our tendency to say the same sorts of sentences as those around us was first studied by someone looking at, of all things, walkie-talkie conversations between burglars. Our words and sentence patterns are also primed in the same way, such that the words we chose are the words we will choose later.

If I write Kevin gave Sally a pen, I’m more likely later to write John sent Tim the files than I am to write John sent the files to Tim.


Each time you sit down to write, you should cleanse your linguistic palate by reading some things that are vastly unlike what you’ve been writing.


Also, it’s imperative that you shut off the Web and don’t look at e-mail while you’re writing. Each time you look at Facebook or Twitter, you get primed with another kind of language, whether it’s your friends’ or your own. But maybe you want to write like you tweet. In that case, prime away.

We make no claim to being neuroscientists, at post-Gutenberg. We have no official license to speculate as we have about the critical importance of priming not just as a sort of mental conditioning for scribblers, but a guide to managing a life in the arts. Even so, we suspect that many readers here will find all this cod obvious.