Review of Letters to A Young Writer

I recently listened to Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (Amazon affiliate link), and since I often write reviews I figured I’d write a review of it.

If that feels like an uninspiring opening, you might not be too far from the truth.

Letters to a Young Writer was born out of the seeds of a blog, which McCann mentions in an early chapter, and it feels kind of like a blog.

So, with that said, you have the crux of the weakness in the book. It’s a collection of essays, but they’re all largely independent of each other. The result isn’t terrible, but it means that the entire book has very little build-up and delivery.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive book on writing, I’d suggest John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (my review), or quite frankly any of the longer-form books.

With that said, there’s only a couple criticisms that I would care to level McCann’s writing itself instead of the format of the book.

First, it’s overly flowery, and this is keeping in mind that it’s written for writers, and we tend to be flowery sorts. When McCann’s trying simply to inspire, this works really well. However, there are times when he could be giving a practical insight but it’s lost under layers of wanting to look good.

Second, it’s very experiential. McCann acknowledges this and provides plenty of places where he confesses to not knowing things (which I consider a great positive), but the problem is that when you combine this with the flowery nature of the prose you wind up with situations where you get an almost Montaigne-esque “Oh, but I don’t know for sure.”

While that’s certainly better than pretending to know, and it does enable McCann to explore some avenues he might not otherwise want to talk about because he wouldn’t feel authoritative on them, it feels like he’s going off the cuff and hasn’t done research (the idea of whether writers should go for a MFA in writing, for instance, is one where he prevaricates in a particularly noticeable fashion).

As for inspiration, McCann is very inspiring in the sense that he offers good pick-me-ups and a lot of encouragement. Some of the work feels overly political or, perhaps, not political but attached to the notion that the current moment is radically different than all past moments.

To clarify what I mean, it feels like McCann tells the writer to write because only writers can bring truth and purpose to being. Now, I’m not necessarily opposed to that, as someone who is very into the theories of Jung and Campbell and the roles stories play to our psyche, but this sort of weird teleological devotion sends him off-topic.

If you’re into that, it works well for inspiration. It’s very emotional, however.

All-in-all, the fifty-two essays feel almost like they’re intended to be a once-a-week thing, but the question then is why one wouldn’t just look at a blog. McCann certainly is a gifted writer, and he hits some high points, but with an average length of about three pages the essays generally don’t build on what there is to know about writing beyond a very elementary level.

There are also parts that would be a little too crude for a young writer (i.e. a child), with McCann letting his language get a little coarse. It’s not excessive vulgarity, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting it in a classroom library or giving it to a student.

The audiobook was read by McCann himself, and I actually found him to do a really good job of putting emotion into it and making his meaning clear. He has an Irish accent and musical cadence that really makes his point build to a crescendo and carries more than just the letter of the word.

So do I recommend it?

It’s hard to say. At its price ($14 for a Kindle version at the time of writing), there are a lot of alternatives that could serve just as well, either in the form of blogs or more authoritative volumes. If you like McCann, or you’re looking for something like a writer’s devotional, then it might be more of an option.

Reflections on Aphorisms #58

Ugh, I’m falling back into a rut.

I’m going to make myself go get some serious exercise tomorrow morning and cut back on caffeine to try and make things easier. I’m just having issues focusing on anything, which is not a good recipe for being productive.

With that said, let’s begin.

Aphorism 92

In summary, modernity replaced process with result and the relational with the transactional.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Newton sparked a shift in our understanding of the world toward a modern empirical “rational” model.

Jung’s work with archetypes has become so significant in our day and age, because the change is so fundamental that we left a lot of things behind in our haste.

Now, it’s worth noting that the modern view probably presents a better objective picture of the world. It’s blind to everything outside our senses, and as a result it tends to result in less bias.

However, the shift from the classical and ancient to the modern also deprived us of things.

Alchemy, for instance, when understood psychologically, provides a series of changes and alterations that can impact the mind. The four steps of classical alchemy (darkening, whitening, yellowing, reddening) each reflect a life process; losing innocence, finding virtue, and so on and so forth.

Now, there were alchemists who believed in literally making things into gold, but even they were enlightened to the psychological nature (or willfully blind to it) of the field because of the notion of “as above, so below” that pervades alchemical thought.

This “as above, so below” is what we lost in the transition to the modern age.

The alchemists associated everything with great mythical and religious mysteries. Nothing existed without a will guiding it, a divine spark of being that led it to act in the way it did.

The work of Newton and Einstein serves us a whole lot better when we wish to accomplish things, but it lacks the integration with a cohesive worldview that the alchemists enjoyed.

When Taleb says we have replaced the process with the result, he refers to how we have stripped the psychological valence from everyday things.

The word “profane” actually serves as an antonym to the word “holy” in its function. We have stripped the mysteries of life of their sacred meaning, and we do so at our own peril. Think of the mystery of conception and child-birth (now considered little more than a biological process) or the mystery of the sun and moon cycles. These dominated myth, and are often given value by even relatively secularized and ecumenical religions.

A diagram showing an overview of common sacred and profane elements over time. Made by me. The faded colors on the modern side indicate increased individual variance.

The concept of the sacred and profane still exists, though it is hidden in different language and the responses have changed. We have some common elements between them (namely, social elites are always associated with being sacred figures, outsiders or ignorant people are considered profane), but the actual functioning of this is different.

Some of this stems from the fact that individuals have a greater latitude for independent moral judgment in the modern age, creating a greater variance in what is classified as sacred or profane. Part of it is also simply down to the fact that reason-based worldviews, though often flawed, should not require as much dogmatic conviction as, say, a faith-based worldview would. In thepry, dogmatic conviction is supposed to be diametrically opposed to rational thought, though it is never too far off in practice.

One of the things that has also changed here is the relationship. Some of this has to do with increased size of social circles, but it also comes down to what is sacred.

Most “sacred” (here referring to both religious and secular cultural expressions) traditions place a strong value on the family, and this is what archetypal thought goes back into. The family serves as a model for future interactions outside the family, because it is the most familiar unit of relationships (see the etymological relation?) but also the earliest that most people have conscious experience of.

A strictly rational worldview, however, doesn’t necessarily view relationship as being terribly important. So long as one fulfills obligations, and obligations are fulfilled in return, the transaction is completed to mutual benefit.

Falling more in the ancient than the modern camp in this issue, I think that this was a defining reason for my stressed relationships with many of my more modern-minded family members. Coming from a position that I have always held where certain things are expected in a relationship (with some degree of flexibility to respect the individual; i.e. you wouldn’t ask the same things of every mother or every brother), the fact that many of my family members felt and experienced love in a more transactional way was lost on me as a youth.

Now, I don’t want to condemn this; the people that I find to be like this are often great role models, but the difference in communication creates perceived deficiencies.

I think it’s also fair to say that we’re not wholly modern. Or, perhaps, that the modern worldview has not wholly dominated the collective conscious expression of humanity.

Resolution

Be patient with those different from myself.

Don’t forget to speak the same language as other people.

Music of the Day: Tchaikovsky’s Hymn of the Cherubim

In the interest of full disclosure, despite following Tchaikovsky’s work I first heard this piece not very long ago.

I’ve always found choral music to be an exemplar of the most moving and powerful parts of the classical tradition, and Tchaikovsky offers something that is beyond even his usual mastery.

Of course, most people in the West know Tchaikovsky for his contributions in the form of the Nutcracker ballet–which has probably the largest cultural relevance and serves as a Christmas-time staple–or his rousing 1812 Overture. His Romeo and Juliet is instantly recognizable, though it is often used for its motifs and not attributed to him (e.g. played in very short snippets). Personally, I don’t particularly care for much of his music from the ballets, though his orchestral compositions appeal to me more.

Until recently, I was entirely unaware that Tchaikovsky had written any sacred music.

It’s quite beautiful, and one can see the premonitions of what would continue in the works of Pärt and other writers of modern sacred music in it.

Reflections on Aphorisms #57

I feel like I’ve had a breakthrough today. It’s not one I can explain, but something just clicked and I feel like I’m a better person in some small, possibly intangible way.

I know that sounds kind of crazy, but I stand by it. I’m also feeling a little crummy, so it’s not just an elated high. I guess maybe doing more reading on mythology (currently African mythology) has helped me unlock something in my mind, or maybe I’ve just gotten into a mood.

Aphorism 91

My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.

Montaigne

Interpretation

Have I ever mentioned that I love Montaigne’s work? He’s like if you crossed Mark Twain and Socrates, and he’s just fantastic. The first great modern, and the last great classic. Impeccable.

I identify very strongly with this quote, and I think most people do. Especially in this modern day and age, a lot of people seem to be of an anxious type (myself included), and that doesn’t do us any favors.

One of the things that I’ve noticed in my own life is that I have an infinite ability to let my mind wander, and usually I let it wander into the things that I’m most afraid of.

There’s value to this. It helps prepare me for what comes next.

The problem is that usually the worst stuff doesn’t happen.

There’s a stoic injunction to contemplate the worst and then accept it, and I think that’s something to learn from here.

When I find myself worrying, I sometimes ask myself “So what happens then?”

Usually the answer is less dismal than one would think.

I’m not good about this, and I think I need to get better about it (back to my Latin teacher’s “What is this to eternity?” question again), but it’s something that provides a little opportunity to improve and I could do quite easily.

One of the other things to note here is that Montaigne had a lot more to worry about than we do, at least in general and in the severity of his worries (e.g. plague, civil war, religious conflict). Our problems are real, but how many of them really threaten us? We’ve built society primarily to protect ourselves, and we lose that advantage if we don’t keep a clear mind.

So what’s the take away?

Things are never as bad as your mind can make them.

Resolution

Be prepared, but don’t over-plan.

Keep it all in perspective: the chance of the worst thing happening is low.

Don’t over-dramatize your life. You have value, but you also are finite. Come to grips with that.

Reflections on Aphorisms #56

I’m going to do something a little out of the ordinary today and focus on a quote from something that I read that isn’t really an aphorism for one of my reflections. It’s a quote from Clyde W. Ford’s The Hero with an African Face (Amazon affiliate link), and I found it very interesting for its clarity.

Typically I’ve tried to gravitate toward short aphorisms, but I’m beginning to exhaust the ones that I have at my disposal that speak to me, so I’m probably going to wind up going over a greater range.

This is both exactly what I hoped would happen when I started doing this, and something that I feel a certain amount of hesitation over. Ironically, I don’t even keep close track of who reads these, so this may just be me writing for myself anyway. Lest I sound vain, I do this as part of a self-improvement exercise, and I’m not able to work diligently without some accountability, so the publication of my thoughts is a necessity toward a different end than fame or success. Still, I won’t object to any money thrown my way.

Aphorism 90

Across time and throughout the world, the hero strides out of myths and legends as the one who has ventured beyond the security of the present into an uncertain future, there to claim some victory or boon for humanity left behind.

Clyde W. Ford

Interpretation

The Hero, in an archetypal sense, turns chaos into order. That is what they do.

I do not believe that I have ever heard the notion of the hero expressed as a traveler in time before. That is something that is an important concept, because time and space have both unique and parallel expressions in consciousness.

I like the notion of the hero moving into an uncertain future, which speaks to me in a way that I don’t often hear.

We have a tendency to think of stories as something static, something that gets set in stone and never changes.

Of course, there’s also Reader Response Theory, which argues that stories are always what people make of them, but I don’t like holistic approaches to understanding because they’re never as good as what you come to piecemeal.

The truth is somewhere in-between. Stories have the intended meaning of the author (RRT doesn’t deny this, but basically ignores it) and their more immediate purpose and meaning in our lives.

There’s a link here in the form of the archetypal, Jung would say the collective unconscious, elements that are common across all times and places. People can see the archetypes and connect to them, even if they are not aware and conscious of what the archetypes are.

A lot of these archetypes are most clearly expressed in myth–which does not mean that myths are simple and primitive–because ancient myths carry meaning for us only in the sense that we are aware of it. There are things that an American will see that would never occur to an ancient Arabian, or African, or Asian, or Greek mind. There are things that were very important in the original context that have fallen away from our knowledge (and knowing these can allow us to make even more connections which sometimes are obvious in their universal quality only once we awaken to them).

But the real thing here is that the Hero moves from the current unbearable world into the world of chaos and potential. It’s a cosmic force, in the literal sense; it is the sun rising in the east and falling in the west, being brought across the sky on a fiery chariot.

And this is why we have anything good at all. Everyone is a hero when they move the world in a better direction. It is the act of sacrifice for a noble purpose, even if the sacrifice seems insignificance (sacrifice is, loosely defined, merely giving up something in the tangible present for intangible benefit), and this is what builds society.

The Hero is the basic unit of life. We can choose to rise to the call or fall into squalor.

Resolution

Step into the uncertain future.

Sacrifice now, feast later.

Tell the stories that lead to the way of life.

Reflections on Aphorisms #55

Another shorter Sunday reflection, this time on Pascal.

Little bit of trivia: the programming language Pascal (named after, well, Pascal) was the first that I had any experience with. Not sure if that matters to anyone, and I probably couldn’t write a line of Pascal if my life depended on it now, but it’s kinda funny. I heard someone talk about it like it was one of those old “back in the day” languages not too long ago.

Aphorism 89

Desire and force between them are responsible for all actions; desire causes our voluntary acts, force our involuntary.

Pascal

My biggest gripe here is–and I’m willing to bet that it comes down to this being out of context and maybe not translated well–that Pascal doesn’t explain the difference between desire and force.

For instance, I have a desire and a need to eat. I always eat as a voluntary act, but all the same it is not optional. If I don’t feel like eating, and I have gone days without food (say, for instance, if I am ill), I will eat food out of respect for my needs.

I guess the better distinction here is voluntary and involuntary.

I’ve studied a lot of Carl Jung’s work, and one of the things that goes into Jung’s work is this assumption that the self is made up of a conscious, known, element and an unconscious, unknown, element. This is a simplification, but it’s good enough for a layman like myself when discussing less serious topics.

One of the things about the notion of a voluntary act is that it’s something that we choose, but the degree to which we choose something versus being forced into it is uncertain.

I would posit that there are things which appear voluntary which are actually forced (e.g. by our unconscious urges and desires), and things which appear involuntary which are actually chosen by the same mechanism.

Take, for example, the notion of a Freudian slip (Freud was Jung’s mentor). This is the idea that one can consciously undertake an act, but the execution is dependent upon the unconscious agreeing to the proceedings.

A great common example would be the act of speaking or writing while one’s mind is on another subject and talking about the real subject rather than the topic of the conversation. I do this from time to time as a writer, and if you’ve read much of my writing you’ve probably seen it in a place or two.

Jung takes it a bit further (though one could argue that most psychoanalysts do) by arguing that it’s not just the surface level stuff but also ties into selective memory, mishearing/misreading things, and so forth.

Kazuo Ishiguro touches on this a lot in his novel The Remains of the Day, where it’s clear that the narrator is intentionally avoiding the memory of certain things that he or members of his household have done in the past.

The Freudian slip in daily life may be overstated because a lot of what often slips out is not truly unconscious but rather suppressed in the conscious (e.g. not wanting to reference something embarrassing or inconvenient), but it’s worth talking about nonetheless.

But I ramble.

I think that what I want to get at here is that I challenge Pascal’s assertions that we can form a neat dichotomy around force and desire. I believe in the concept of free will, but also that it is limited. I believe that people have free will in the sense that they choose available decisions around the circumstances they’re in. It’s possible for people to be in situations where their decisions are made for them by the unconscious, and therefore not technically using their free will, and to this extent a certain portion of all actions are deterministic.

Resolution

Be aware of what I do, and how I came to do it.

Don’t fall victim to the temptation to classify.

Remember that words are markers for concepts, and concepts do not reflect reality.

Reflections on Aphorisms #54

Aphorism 87

When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.

Oscar Wilde

Interpretation

Remember that Wilde is not writing as a religious man. This may have more to do with myth, fable, and literary allusions than religious matters.

There’s a common mythic motif of being careful about what one wishes for.

I think there are two forms that this takes and they’re each distinct:

The first is the folly in the request. This is what happens when someone asks for something that they wouldn’t really want.

For instance, if you ask for a fancy mansion, you’re stuck maintaining it. You might not have the means to do so, so the getting is moot.

We often overlook the steps between our position and our goal when we are filled with desire. This does us no favors.

What we truly long after is not what we desire, but the success and comfort that comes with getting the object of our affections. The best way to cultivate this is self-improvement, not pursuit of wealth.

The second is the folly in the result. Sometimes getting what we want changes us for the worse.

The best example of this can be found in the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, immortalized by T.S. Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral.

King Henry II makes a remark about wanting to be rid “of this turbulent priest” (formerly a close friend), and the knights around him oblige the remark by killing Becket.

Henry finds this to be little recompense, however, and is forced to prostrate himself and turn to penitence. Whether his grief is authentic or false, he still is humbled by the consequences of his desire.

This is a classic tragic arc.

There’s an intersection of both types of wrong desire in the King Midas story: wanting all the gold in the world, he gets the power to turn everything he touches to gold. Quickly Midas realizes that gold is not the thing he truly wants (folly in the request) and that he’s also ruined his appreciation for what he had and created new problems for himself (folly in the result).

The stoics teach that being too close to what we desire is dangerous. It begins to control us. Getting what you want may actually be subordinating yourself to it.

Resolution

Don’t desire things; strive for discipline and all else follows.

Live so that your desires serve you, not vice versa.

Guard your desires carefully: don’t let evil join their midst.

Aphorism 88

We can do noble acts without ruling earth and sea.

Aristotle

Interpretation

One of the common fallacies about goodness is that people have to be great (in stature) to be good (in spirit). Now, I’m as much a believer as anyone that good deeds tend to be rewarded, and a lot of success can come down to making the right decisions consistently enough that they pay off.

However, there are connections to Aristotle’s point to be drawn here.

First, those people whose success is tied to their virtue must practice that virtue before they are successful, and continue to practice that virtue when their fortunes waver.

They do not have rule over their lives, but they still do the right thing precisely because it is right.

Second, there are people who are moral who never receive any tangible reward for their good lives.

The reasons for these are complex. One part of it is that I think that the external signs of success are often not tied to the internal acts of morality. Being highly moral may not lead to having more money, but it does lead to liberation from the want of money.

Another point to be made here is that anyone has the potential to choose the moral path. Even the lowest person by society’s standards has a chance to do something that would help another person. Heck, a smile and a kind word goes a long way to make things better, and that’s practically free.

One of the things that Jordan Peterson once said is that a lot of his work with young people has been to encourage them to try their best, and that a lot of them have never heard an encouraging word in their life.

My own experience confirms this. A lot of people go through life without ever experiencing the mercy of compassion. Surprisingly, they don’t always become bitter, so you can’t look at someone and see clearly whether or not they have the support they need.

I think that this is one of the best places that anyone can take a simple step toward virtue: find someone who is struggling and speak a benediction into their life. Give them a chance to appreciate themselves. Lift them up.

Resolution

Use words that build up others.

Don’t judge success by the car someone drives.

When in doubt, remember that no good act is too small to be worthy.

Reflections on Aphorisms #53

This will be a short post today because I am trying out a new software for editing. I’m not 100% sold on it because I’ve lost a lot of writing because it doesn’t have any auto-saving functionality. The web plugin didn’t check if the page has refreshed between starting and finishing working, and once I clicked save and it did not.

So it wasn’t the best of days.

Aphorism 86

One often contradicts an opinion when what is uncongenial is really the tone in which it was conveyed.

Nietzsche

Interpretation

This is an interesting truth.

What people don’t realize is that being unpleasant makes everything worse.

If the best project in the world required collaborating with someone truly distasteful, it would not be the best project in the world.

I almost never swear. There are few places where swearing adds proper emphasis, and many where it causes emotions to run ragged.

However, I think it comes down to a lot of things. Other than my tendency to whine (which is something I am better about), I try to be polite and helpful around people. There are limits to this, but I’ve found being pleasant and a little cooperative gets more results than you’d expect from being useful. The sacrifice required for this is minimal. Fifteen minutes a week earns interest.

There’s a connection to politics. I migrated across political affiliations before deciding just not to have any. The reason for this is simple: I cared more about victory than principle. Then I realized that everyone that I was looking up to was flawed. There are very few honest politicians. If you align with any faction, you align with a lot of snakes.

So I don’t. This change made life better.

I’ve found that many abrasive people hide issues. Whether it is emotional, social, or practical, something feeds that attitude. There’s room for lenience–people have bad days–but if there’s a habit, it’s a red flag.

Nice people suck as friends. You want people who are honest. No exaggeration.

Look for people who give productive criticism. They have a good outlook. They don’t flatter and don’t denigrate. 

You may notice that these people are wrong. They will not judge your opinions. Return the favor. Life will get a lot better.

You may notice that you agree with people. See if they’re jerks. If they are, do the kind thing and let them know politely. Everyone wins. If they become hostile, it’s their loss, not yours. You can’t befriend everybody. If they improve, you’ve helped them and yourself.

There is one exception: blunt honesty. Telling the truth should be the priority. Just don’t put a negative spin on it. Sincerity to help, not to harm. Take your frustrations out on paper or canvas, not people. Know when to pull a punch.

My high school Latin teacher had a phrase he loved to repeat:

“What is this to eternity?”

Nothing that bothers you is worth burning other people for.

So don’t.

Resolution

Be kind, not nice.

Don’t tear down what isn’t worthy of destruction.

Master frustration, release it without hurting anyone.

Review of Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4 (Amazon affiliate link) by John McPhee is one of the clearest and best books on writing I have ever read, if not the best book on writing I have ever read. It really helped me break through some of the blocks I’ve had as a writer and move on with my writing in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.

When I started reading, I didn’t know who McPhee was. Over the course of reading, I discovered more about him, but the goal of Draft No. 4 isn’t to provide a biography, it’s to provide guidance.

The best way that I can describe this is as follows: McPhee shows how he earned his place in the writing world by giving an overview of what a writer has to do to get there.

This doesn’t mean the book is perfect; it doesn’t cover a lot of adiaphora and is generally focused on non-fiction writing (including creative non-fiction, a field I don’t have much experience in), and also on the general practice of writing.

Now, maybe I’m just a nerd, but I found McPhee’s constant insights to the writing world to be actually quite fun. Like, even in lieu of the whole “oh hey, I can learn something here” aspect of such a book, you get to have the pleasure of hearing about people and places and how those people and places got turned into a story.

The best example of this comes at the end of the book, where McPhee recounts an encounter with Eisenhower (yes, that Eisenhower). Eisenhower was painting a still-life and had left out some grapes, and McPhee recounted that:

“Ike said, ‘Because they’re too God-damned hard to paint.’”

This is just one example of how McPhee recounts lessons (the lesson here is that sometimes a writer just can’t capture something in words) by combining practical, but theoretically presented, advice with personal anecdotes that go beyond just serving as evidence and instead are used to add some vibrancy to the text.

Draft No. 4 is a book that I often found myself saying “Just one more chapter” to, even though each chapter is rather substantial. The organization of the book is such that each chapter focuses on a particular domain of the writer.

The great thing about the book is that McPhee has actually written some very impressive books and he recounts a lot of his process within Draft No. 4. Not only is it full of personal anecdotes, it also features fairly detailed accounts of the making of a couple of his personal favorite works.

The first couple chapters in particular do this quite a bit. At first when I started reading, I felt overwhelmed. McPhee starts with technical writing advice, explaining his work using diagrams and terminology that even I, an English major, struggled with at first.

Then he gave an example of how he wrote in process, and it all made sense. It was a showcase of how to tell a story and how to lay out a text, but also how to figure out the methods you want to use for each, and how to move from writing simple things as a novice to more complicated things as a master.

Couple that with more domain-specific overviews of the writing process and you’ve got a great book that can help both someone with relatively little professional writing experience (like myself) and someone like a veteran writer looking for tips and inspiration.

It’s worth noting that while McPhee showcases his own experience, he never does it out of self-indulgence. It’s always part of an object lesson, and sometimes he points out embarrassing or foolish mistakes on his own part to make sure that a lesson learned painfully can be passed on to people who hopefully listen and learn from his mistakes. That’s the mark of a great teacher.

Draft No. 4 is a tremendous book, and I highly recommend it. There is some harsh language, in academic or mimetic context, and a couple more adult moments described in the context of journalism, so it’s not something that I would feel comfortable using in anything lower than a college classroom, but it’s something that I would find invaluable for any student with the maturity to see McPhee’s talent and advice for what it is.

Reflections on Aphorisms #52

In honor of the Fourth of July, I felt it appropriate to look at America’s most famous early aphorist, Benjamin Franklin, and respond to a couple of his sayings.

Aphorism 84

If you were a servant would you not be ashamed that a good master should catch you idle? Then if you are your own master be ashamed to catch yourself idle.

Benjamin Franklin

Interpretation

There are fewer people who are self-employed than there have been historically, but I think that there’s also a trend toward self-management in the workplace that makes this an important idea.

One of the most important things we can do in our life is to find something that we can do that has a meaning outside the service it provides to us. I’ve found that as a teacher and as a writer. What I do isn’t just providing entertainment or occupying people for a time; if it is successful I initiate people into the secrets of the universe that I have discovered and which have been revealed to me by the intersection of my predecessors and my experiences.

I think that there’s something to be said for being ashamed of oneself. Obviously this shouldn’t be the main experience in one’s life: some confidence and self-validation is healthy, and extreme negative self-concept is a risk to both function and health.

The important thing here is to accept that one is capable of folly, and to constantly work away from that folly.

I’ve got a real problem with video games. I love them, and they don’t always reciprocate in a way that’s helpful for me. I like to think that I’m pretty much a self-starter: I’ve gotten to the point where I’m writing between two and three thousand words on a typical day to keep up with my blogging (here and for Loreshaper Games), and then there’s correspondence and work on other projects that I add to that.

If I don’t keep myself busy, I’ll basically work on each thing I do for an hour or two and then be done for the day; I’m something of a “visionary” in a non-boastful sense of the word. My mind works by occasionally having an idea, and then I’m able to bring it into fruition incredibly quickly, but I also have a fairly limited idea-having bandwidth.

This is generally down to individual concepts and ideas, so having a variety of focuses means that I also wind up with a variety of ideas, while having a single focus means stagnation.

I’m getting into the groove of freelancing, personal projects, and networking that means that I’m spending something that more closely approximates an eight-hour workday actually on work without any structure.

Some of that’s coming down to scheduling; I have a fairly solid rotation of waking up in the morning, doing chores, getting a little writing done on whatever the most pressing thing is, giving myself a break, doing my Loreshaper Games writing, doing my mainstream writing here, and then at the end of my day doing these aphorism reflections. I’ve been doing more drawing recently (all technical/diagram stuff for games, so nothing artistically beautiful, but still satisfying in a “I got this done” sense), which also is just immensely time consuming.

I’ve been trying to punctuate that with productive things; business stuff and also reading or listening to audio books, getting some exercise, and so forth.

This lifestyle’s only for now, since adding coursework when I officially start school again will be difficult, and then I’ll go back to my professional life, but I think that being able to master my time when there aren’t as many pressing factors will be something that helps me when things get rough later.

Resolution

Make time work for you, not the other way around.

Push to the limits of industry: make the pushes beyond necessity what you enjoy doing, and make them your duty. This brings fulfillment.

You will regret what you don’t do more than what you do.

Aphorism 85

Wink at small faults; remember thou hast great ones.

Benjamin Franklin

Interpretation

This is an interpretation, I believe, of the Golden Rule. Franklin doesn’t go into too much detail about how exactly we’re supposed to take this: we could say wink at small faults in others or wink at small faults in yourself, but either way still has the same broad lesson and it’s the specifics that detail.

One of the greatest things that I’ve learned in my life is to overcome my neuroses. With the exception of obsessive cleanliness (which I can overcome when needed) and a couple minor phobias (which have also diminished), I’ve learned not to let my own personal foibles get in the way of my daily life and perception of the world.

This is something that was fairly painful, and a lesson I learned from counter-example. I’m not perfect at it, but I’ve learned to identify when I get more emotional about something than makes sense, and then I sort of work down from there in a process.

The thing that I’ve learned is that everyone has these same tendencies; not necessarily manifest in the same way, but certainly tendencies that possess the same inexorable force for them that my own tendencies have on me. Of course one can try to pull against the trend, but the fact is that there are things that will always to some degree yield influence over me, even if that influence is simply met with a conscious response that counters it.

One of the things to do here also is to just learn what matters in oneself and forget the things that don’t matter. Part of my obsessive cleanliness is that I like to shower before bed and before leaving the house in the morning: I can tolerate skipping an evening shower in rare circumstances, but never skipping a morning shower (even if I showered at 2 AM after getting home from work, then woke up at 7 AM for the next day, a scenario that happened occasionally in my college days).

That’s something you can wink at. It’s not a moral failing (I shower quickly and with military precision, lest I be accused of waste), and it may even have its own virtues, even if it’s a little weird and probably not the best use of time and effort.

However, something like my relationship with video games is not a flaw I can wink at. I need to be cautious and aware of it, and make sure that I am disciplined and keep an eye open for how much time I’ve actually spent on leisure: I find I appreciate luxury more when I measure it, but there’s also an element of just letting time slip by that needs to be avoided here as well.

That’s not the most hideous failing (at least, so long as I can afford to keep the lights on), but it is something that should be worked on.

Of course, every person has deeper things that they have to work on as well, the moral flaws of character that keep us from perfection. All other problems are merely symptoms of some development which we could pursue, if only we knew what virtues we truly lacked.

Resolution

Find the virtues I lack.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Overlook small flaws in others, and pray they reciprocate.