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

Photograph by

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.

Audience jealousy of artists, part 2; & what this has to do with Sisyphus and rock ‘n’ roll


Stills from Jankovics Marcell’s ‘Sisyphus’ (1974)

[ part 1 is: here ]

And what about the collective memory of artistic creation? For every Prometheus and Sisyphus haunting scholars, how many of their former equals are barely stirring and covered in dust?

The Sonderberg Case, Elie Wiesel (2010)

Our screen shots from a short Jankovics Marcell animation, Sisyphus (1974) — a work of genius in nearly every frame — could be depicting the struggle to change the monetary terms on which artists make art. We would like, in this lifetime, to see that accursed rock stop and stay still, where it ought to. By that, we mean that some self-sustaining way of letting artists and writers keep up with plumbers must somehow be put into practice.

Presumably Marcell, a Hungarian, earned enough from licensing a giant US multinational to adapt his haiku-like video for a (comparatively crude and clod-hopping) tv advertisement to make the world a gift of his original, so that anyone can watch it, free. But only a sub-microscopic fraction of creators can afford such generosity.

We still shudder, remembering the relentless succession of hostile posts in the discussion on a newspaper site we quoted extensively the last time we wrote on this subject, last month. Artists have starved and suffered throughout history, ran the argument – if we have to dignify rants with that word. So what? … the ranters raged.

It is asking for nearly inhuman self-control, to suppress the vituperative and scatological reply that comes immediately to mind, on hearing that question. People all over the world were actual serfs for aeons, but then became merely virtual serfs – wage-slaves – a few centuries ago. Being a baby-making machine, year after year, and – as someone once put it, ‘tied by their tits’ to their broods – was seen, for most of humanity’s time on earth, as the unavoidable fate of women. If injustice could be defended merely by precedent, and by precedence extending to pre-history, how odd that we no longer accept chaining and whipping our fellow-beings like defenceless animals.

Poverty was once universally accepted as the inevitable lot of most scholars. The great 17th century Dutch rationalist-philosopher Spinoza – whose idea of God, Albert Einstein said, was closest to his own — is known to have lived on porridge, groats and milk, or was certainly obliged to eat that diet more often than most of us would think endurable. Then someone invented tenure, and certainly in rich countries – even after years of budget cuts – few contemporary academics share the abject insecurity, at the level of penury, that too many artists among their fellow-citizens do.

We have returned to the subject not to say anything new as much as underline the importance of change – and because we forgot to mention, earlier, that thoughtful interpreters of Greek mythology consider the fates of Prometheus and Sisyphus to be allegories for the life of inventors and creators. What most of these theorisers have in mind, in drawing their parallels, is not money and financial survival but the interior, psychological struggles of creative people — and the punishment for extraordinary talent, in both stories.

This post ends with a semi-non-sequitur, an extract from an essay by Rollo May (1909-1994) – a disconcertingly perceptive, often poetic, writer on the psychology of workers at creativity’s coalface – for which our excuse is simply that we have been admiring the passage for a very long time.

It earns its hopefulness; is as far as possible from Pollyanna optimism. As May explains to the uninitiated in a terse footnote, ‘Sisyphus was a king of Corinth condemned by Zeus to roll a large stone ceaselessly up a hill.’ (Alternatively, as Nick Pontikis claims in an irresistible, fleshed-out version of the legend on his Thanasis blog — we are indebted to the stoical monarch for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.)

… Are we doomed to live in a world no one can make sense of? …

… Out of that … despair is born this myth which is new but eternally old, the only myth that fits this seemingly hopeless situation. This is the myth of Sisyphus. The one myth which … goes no place at all, seems to be a repetition, every day and every act being forever the same in perpetual monotonous toil and sweat.

But that is to omit its crucial meaning. One thing Sisyphus can do: he can be aware of each moment in this drama between himself and Zeus, between himself and fate. This – because it is most human – makes his reaction completely different from that of the dark night of the mountain up which he rolls his rock …

… The myth of Sisyphus is sometimes interpreted as the sun climbing to its apex every day and then curving down again. Nothing could be more important for human life than these circular journeys of the sun. …

… [W]e face monotony in all we do; we draw in and exhale breath after breath in ceaseless succession through every moment of our lives, which is monotony par excellence. But out of this repetitiveness of breathing the Buddhists and Yoga have formed their religious meditation and a way of achieving the heights of ecstasy.

For Sisyphus is a creative person who even tried to erase death. He never gives up but always is devoted to creating a better kind of life; he is a model of a hero who presses on in spite of his or her despair. Without such capacity to confront despair we would not have Beethoven or Rembrandt or Michelangelo or Dante or Goethe of any others of the great figures in the development of culture …

Sisyphus’ consciousness is the hallmark of being human. Sisyphus is the thinking reed with a mind which can construct purposes, know ecstasy and pain, distinguish monotony from despair, and place the monotony – the rolling of the stone – in the scheme of his rebellion, the act for which he is condemned. …

Sisyphus … must have noticed in his trips some wisp of pink cloud that heralds the dawn, or felt some pleasure in the wind against his breast as he strode down the hill after his rock, or remembered some line of poetry to muse upon …

… [In t]he myth of Sisyphus … [w]e are required … to recognise our human state of consciousness in progress or without it, … with the disintegration of the world or without it. It is this that saves us from destruction when our little rules prove unavailing.

This is what led Albert Camus to conclude his essay on Sisyphus, ‘We must consider Sisyphus happy.’

… Rollo May does mention money in a passage before that extract, not in connection with artists who have too little of it, but showing us why their poverty so often elicits self-righteous scorn. He says, in a profoundly intelligent dissection of greed, focused on America, but applying widely on every continent:

There has been in America no clear-cut differentiation between right and wrong ways to get rich. Playing the stock market? Finding oil under your shack in Texas? Deforesting vast tracts of Douglas fir in the state of Washington? Amassing piles of money for lectures after getting out of prison as a Watergate crook? The important thing in the American dream has been to get rich, and then those very riches give sanction to your situation. The fact of your being successful is proof that God smiles on you and that you are among the saved. It is not hard to see how this, in true Calvinistic tradition, drifted into getting rich as the eleventh commandment.

[ part 1 is: here ]