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.

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 #24

Tried to push myself harder today. Fell back into a rut with my same order versus chaos schtick that I need to get away from; I believe it’s very accurate, but it’s also not enough by itself to fully explain things and to delve deeper I will need to break out of the rut.

Aphorism 40

Art is a one-sided conversation with the unobserved.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

This is not my first attempt to reflect on this aphorism, put previously I have never been satisfied by the conclusions that I reach.

There’s a question of what is the “unobserved” subject of art. This is what has always been the sticking point for me when I try and think about this. Is the unobserved that which does not fit neatly into an empirical understanding of the universe? Is it that thing peculiar to the artist which they cannot fully explain? Is Taleb just blowing hot air?

There’s also another question of the unobserved. Is the unobserved that thing which we are striving to move toward? Is it that interstitial space between order and chaos that we spend much of our lives in? Personally, I like this as my interpretation, though I don’t think it’s the original point.

When I was in college, I study studied Romantic literature. No, that doesn’t mean literature about people falling in love with each other, though such events often happened in Romanticism’s key works. Rather, it was a sort of protomodern movement. It focused heavily on experience as the basis for understanding, but in an emotional sense. It wasn’t about being rational and calculating, but always focused on what people felt.

One of the great things emphasized in Romanticism is the notion of the sublime. The sublime can be beautiful, but it would be better described as terrible. Not in the sense that has a negative value for people, but rather in the sense that it defies our comfort. It should scare us. There’s a great painting of a man standing looking out over a valley from the top of the cliff, painted by Caspar David Friedrich. This is often used as the examplar of romantic art.

Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, from Wikimedia Commons. In public domain.

In this painting, the foggy valley represents an encounter with the sublime; anything could exist within the clouds, and the potential excites the mind. There is danger, too, in the potential to be lost in the fog.

The biblical commandment to “fear God” is possibly an injunction to view Him as a sublime being; to remember that there is not only beauty but also unlimited power contained within.

I think this is the sort of thing that Taleb is referring to. More earnestly than others of art (the Romantics valued honesty, even if they did not care about certainty), they represented the notion that their goal was the pursuit of the unknown. They never sought to hide this, indeed they professed it with great vigor.

The predominant difference between the Romantics and the modern is that what they sought to do with emotion, we do with reason.

My Life

I consider myself in some ways an artist. Much of my work is what I would describe as technical, in the sense that I am not pursuing anything outside what has already been done, but that I am merely trying to do it slightly better than the other guy.

However, I do try and pursue art as well. I don’t write prolifically in what we would call an artistic sense. I have written some poetry, I sometimes write stories, though not as much as I say I will (bringing my action in line with my word is a key priority for me), but I do often work on games that focus on storytelling.

I think that storytelling can lead to the greatest expressions of art. Some of that comes from the fact that it’s the form I do most, so I have perhaps a subtle bias in that direction. However, I think that storytelling doesn’t just refer to writing stories. It’s any creative endeavor which has as its purpose the act of communicating information.

This active communication extends Beyond what one does without intent. If someone asks me how my day was, I seldom tell them a story.

Resolution

Embrace art as heroic.

See the act of creation as the act of discovery.

Don’t ignore the mysteries of life.

Aphorism 47

How good bad music and bad reasons sound when we march against an enemy.

Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms.

Interpretation

There is a concept of the other that is often talked about in humanities. I think that sometimes it is taken to a platonic ideal and not fully appreciated for its nuance, but the basic notion is this:

People consider others to be either part of the in-group, and therefore friends, or part of the out-group, and therefore enemies.

Nietzsche is keenly aware of this. He faced no small amount of ostracism in his personal life, in part because he was willing to challenge accepted norms.

I had to read some Nietzsche when I was in college, and it was some of this work that focused on moral development, that is, how morality developed in societies. I do not know how well did Nietzsche’s work actually follows what happened. At the time, I thought that he sounded quite bitter. I don’t think I understood anything of his biography, nor did I really understand what’s this work.

One of the interesting things that I read then that stuck with me was the idea of resentment.

I was familiar with the notion of resentment on a very basic level, but I never understood it philosophically. I believe that resentment is a fundamental part of human nature. That doesn’t make it good, and I think that if everyone were able to suppress their resentments we would live in a much better world.

The thing about an encounter with the other is that it is easy to tally up resentment when chances for civil contact are limited. People are already predisposed to fear that which is unfamiliar, so a mixture of resentment and fear can quickly create hatred.

We identify this process with chaos. I’m a believer in the idea that there is an association between order and chaos as parts of a diametrically opposed process. People don’t consciously appreciate this balance unless they have been made aware of it.

The other creates the sort of existential chaos, they are constant reminder of the unknown. Order is represented by that which is known as the in-group.

It is this that makes up Nietzsche’s bad music and bad reasons. Something which a rational person would reject may seem necessary when chaos intrudes on order.

This is not solely responsible for the totalitarianism that nearly killed us all in the 20th century, but I believe that it’s at least closely related. Both extremes breed fear, but in chaos this is associated with the unknown and in order this is associated with oppression.

The unexamined response is to pursue the opposite extreme. If everything seems chaotic, then surely more lot and Order must be the solution. Of course, this is a failure of reasoning. It is actually an induction into more chaos, as now further changes are being pursued instead of a better understanding of what is here already.

Governance does not make society.

In some ways, a totalitarian government creates more chaos with its arbitrary concentration of power into an individual. It may be dressed in the language and styles of tradition, but it creates no more certainty.

It is the society that swings dangerously back toward order. On an individual level, in countless day-to-day interactions, people begin to lose their tolerance for the unknown. It is as if there is a balance of order & chaos that must be preserved, and the centralization of power into one arbitrary figure or institution makes it so that no other uncertainty can be permitted.

Because people cannot trust their governance to provide order, they return to the trappings of order. Arguments that worked well for the past, the styles and social conventions that served that predecessors well, return to visit the sins of the fathers upon their children. These are representations of archetypal order, and the best tangible manifestation of order you can find if others are denied to you. They are also outdated, at least some of the time.

There’s also a second point here to be made entirely independent from the question of order and chaos. It is the question of “mine”. If there is one trait that humanity has perfected over the years, it is greed. We have managed to find an infinite capacity within ourselves for desire.

Desire is good at a fundamental level. Without it, we would never dream. Even a certain amount of self-serving greed can be helpful when channeled through the right lens. It is a balance against completely losing oneself in the collective or in apathetic nihilism.

The problem is that desire leads us to immorality. What we want to take is elevated to a higher value then our moral values. I call this the “mine” question. We’ve all seen children who will attach themselves to a particular object and fixate on it. Even if it belongs to someone else, they will consider it their personal property.

This is not necessarily worrying when they are at a young age, because it is a part of the process of psychological development to realize that such things are not true and would bear disastrous consequences.

The problem is that we grow up still believing that we know the answer to the “mine” question, and our preferred answer is that it’s all ours.

All that we need is a better pretense to satisfy our desire. If we are socialized to the point that we are willing to pretend to behave, but we do not really have the virtues that lead us to see the danger in our actions and desires, we will cling to anything that seems like it justifies our actions.

I think there are also ties to Hannah Arendt’s statement about acting in place of thinking here, but I already covered them just yesterday, so I’m not going to retread the same ground.

My life

It sounds petty in light of the greater scope I’ve covered, but this topic makes me think about my diet.

I have a serious problem with willpower. Admittedly, I’m currently in a state for my diet is actually being followed, or at least mostly so. I’ve lost a few pounds I found in the previous few months, but not yet so far back on the routine that I am not tempted by every little thing.

Often, I will justify my decisions that I make to pursue what brings me the most pleasure immediately instead of follow the plan that I know the dogs to the best outcome. This generalizes all the way up, so my tendency to argue that going to the gym means that I can sneak a few chocolates throughout the day is mirrored by a similar tendency toward rationalizing decision-making in the big picture.

I think that it’s important that people lead examined lives as a defense against this. Of course, there’s always the danger that people who believe they are philosophizing are instead rationalizing. However, I believe that we’re better off striving than falling into laziness. Besides, failure is a common experience. To argue against trying to think may actually just be thinly-veiled rationalizations assuming that people cannot become more skilled at the process of thinking.

It is also important to consider what is good. I don’t just mean what we like, but rather what is good for us.

To continue the example, I only rarely feel any particular concern about my weight, since I don’t usually have any health issues or feel like I can’t accomplish what I want to accomplish because of my weight. However, I know that if I am disciplined about diet and exercise I will achieve a better potential than I can otherwise.

The seed which has sprouted into much rationalization is that I cannot be entirely certain about this.

As such, when I am out of breath or tired, I will say “but I am suffering from allergies” or “but I didn’t sleep well last night” to mask the symptoms of a less than ideal lifestyle. That’s a rationalization.

When I’m disciplined and at the top of my game, I am not out of breath or tired. It simply requires seeing beyond what I can immediately conceive as desirable and thinking to the second order consequences of things.

What are the consequences of what I am doing?

That is the question we should ask.

Resolution

Learn to despise bad music when it comes has a comforter.

Never rationalize things that cannot stand on their own merit.

Don’t be afraid of others because they are different.

Reflections on Aphorisms #22

Aphorism 36

It’s much harder to write a book review for a book you’ve read than for a book you haven’t read.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

I chose this aphorism because of Taleb’s trademark acerbic style and its clear, bold point. It’s also relevant to a lot of what I do in my life, since I have been a reviewer for years.

I don’t believe in simplicity. Or, rather, I am skeptical about it. There may actually be simple things in the universe, but I have rarely found them. Even something whose significance to us is relatively straightforward may itself be quite complex.

Take, for example, a pure chemical element. It still has all sorts of qualities and traits, and the process of purifying it is not simple. Just because it can be classified neatly does not mean that we understand everything about it immediately; only through exploration have we come to the knowledge that we have, and it is deeper than any immediate explanation can convey.

When someone writes about something and evaluates it, they are trying to answer a very difficult question.

In the American education system, evaluation is considered to be the highest level of achievement, and the deepest level of the depth of knowledge breakdown. To actually assesse the quality of something requires clear communication skills, enough experience to draw a comparison, and the guts to speak earnestly.

I’m frequently struck by the inauthenticity of others’ praise. Often when I see something reviewed, I can the trademarks of someone who has no idea what they are talking about. Such a person is not evaluating anything, as they do not really have an opinion and cannot draw a meaningful conclusion.

What I have found is that once you develop an opinion that’s actually meaningful it becomes difficult to communicate.

I do not know how many reviews I have written in my life, but it’s probably around five hundred or so, in various places and fields.

Even with that much experience, I often struggle to make my opinions meaningful to the reader. It is also difficult to explain who the target market of a particular product or book is. Hyperbolic praise, that is, saying that something is tremendous, is much easier than nuanced discussion of merits and virtue.

Tak literary awards. I would be lying if I said that I never want to win an award for something that I write. However, I think that awards are a poor metric for whether or not I will like a book. This doesn’t that awards are bad. We do celebrate things for the sake of their quality. Rather, it would be like trying to describe a whole day with a single word. You may be able to get the gist and say that something is great if it is great, but simply giving it an award does not explain why it is great. Preferences are diverse enough that it’s too simple a premise.

I think Taleb’s point here is profound, because we have entered an age where we live in a society of so-called experts. We need specialists to help us make decisions, and that’s a testament to the near-infinite opportunity we have grown to as a society. People have more knowledge than I do in all sorts of fields, so I do not let this bother me.

The problem is that experts require training, time, and practice to do their work well. Much of our exposure to writing comes in the form of what could be charitably described as inexpert. For whatever reason, whether it’s a lack of self-awareness, apathy, or just failure in the short-term due to one reason or another, a lot of writing is bad. At the very least, it may hold limited value for its target audience.

I think reviews are particularly prone to this. This is one of the reasons why we often encourage people give numbers alongside their reviews, a practice that I personally despise except in certain cases, where a number can help communicate factors that are difficult to express in words and permits a comparison between different things of the same sort (like restaurants).

I think there’s also a hidden meaning to this quote. It’s often easier to make decisions with less knowledge. We fall victim to analysis paralysis. We have trouble describing what is familiar to us precisely because it is familiar to us. There are significant difficulties that arise when we cannot put our words in an order that describes our experiences. However, the process is actually very similar to evaluating something.

One of the reasons why we read memoirs is that they provide us with a vision of someone else’s life, one in which they often explain what helped meaning and significance to them. A good memoir is written by someone who would also be able to write good reviews. The reverse may not be true.

I think that a lot of life’s meaning is to be found in evaluation. Those people who learn to do it well have provided themselves with a tool to improve everything.

My life

As I mentioned earlier, I have written many reviews. At first, my interest was more commercial. I was a game reviewer and I got free games if I reviewed them (plus commission, though I was never good at driving traffic). Since I had more time than money, this was a good arrangement for me.

Now I’ve grown to see it as more of an art. I enjoy writing reviews, even though they are no longer particularly profitable endeavor for me, because they are a representation of meaning. I’d say that it’s judging things that makes it worth doing, but judgment is not really the purpose of a review. I don’t try to express my superiority over other people. I am successful enough to do away with envy.

Rather, I’d describe it this way: When I review something, I have a chance to test it against the universe. There’s an opportunity to go in and really see what makes something tick, but there’s also an ability to ask if it’s worth it. When I write about game design, I often separate my reviews from my analysis.

That’s because these are two entirely different things. Something with flaws may still be sublimely right in one or two ways, and be worthwhile to analyze. However, whether or not it is worth spending time on is the point of an evaluation. Do the flaws, on balance, get covered over by the merits?

In many ways, I think that it’s a sort of proto-wisdom. Evaluation and analysis are both prerequisites for creating something meaningful. They’re independent from this process only in the sense that the creative act comes after analysis and evaluation.

Resolution

Evaluate ceaselessly.

Judge for merit, not for preference.

Don’t get lost in analysis what does valuation would be more proper.

Aphorism 37

It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.

Jordan Peterson, from 12 Rules for Life

Interpretation

I did an in-depth breakdown of each chapter of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, and it had a transformative effect on me (Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is available for free to Kindle Unlimited members through that link, was also significant in my life, though I read it later). I came to new appreciation for the buance of existence, and many pieces of advice contained between its covers were life changing.

This quote comes from the chapter on Jordan Peterson’s second rule, which states that you should treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. The question of comfort versus protection is one that is the pivotal issue of my generation.

I can speak from first-hand experience can I see countless instances of my generation being unprepared for reality. We have this tendency to view it as a dirty and dangerous thing, because life is dirty and dangerous. However, our stigma against hard truth has left us unprepared for being. We reject the risks of living entirely because we do not know what it means to triumph.

Many of the actions we have been trained to take in our daily lives are those would shelter us. This has an anodyne effect. Like the Buddha as a child, our faces are turned away from anything that could causes suffering.

But suffering is part of life. Without it, it’s impossible to appreciate virtue and choose right action. We will suffer the consequences of living without introspection, but not even have the wherewithal to understand what we are going through. Suffering is the guide that leads us to self improvement, and what motivates us to make a better world.

I think that we have a tendency to think of ourselves incorrectly. I do not mean self-deception, though there is certainly much of that our everyday lives. Rather, I mean that we have limits to our perception. We believe ourselves to be competent, collected, wise, strong, and heroic. However, we ignore the shadow, Jung’s hidden subconscious, because we want to ignore our complexity and vulnerability.

In many of our lives we walk around with untreated battle wounds. Ignorant of the source of our perdition, we view ourselves as impervious agents of the will or as driftwood on the sea of existence. We do not realize that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Potential is counterbalanced by limitation. We don’t just get to be a victim of the universe or to be the hero that saves the world. We need to accept that we need help in our moments of weakness, and selfless sacrifice in our moments of strength.

My Life

As a teacher, I found myself trying to do what’s best for my students. Often, as an English teacher, I would have them read books that challenge them. One of the tendencies that I have found results from being over-sheltered is an inability to distinguish between good and evil. Take the book To Kill a Mockingbird as an example.

My students often have an aversion to the book. Sometimes, this is because they do not wish to read anything which they are assigned to read, out of what could be uncharitably described as laziness, but it is also because they see unpleasant things in it and they do not understand why they would have to see evil face to face.

This causes discomfort, but I have never had a student complain that it was not meaningful after they have read the novel.

In my life, I have definitely been too self-certain on many occasions. Overconfidence has been a great adversary of mine. It is also responsible for more money wasted on things I have broken and do not know how to fix and I would care to admit; this is evidently a common masculine trait in this day and age. However, I think that I have a particular tendency towards learned helplessness, and it is certainly not unique to me out of my generation.

I find that when difficulties arise I prefer to work around them rather than over them. This tendency doesn’t do me any favors in the long run.

I think of all of Peterson’s 12 rules this one may have had the largest immediate impact on me.

When I entered teaching I had what Jung might describe as a martyrdom complex.

Despite cautions from my instructors in college and from my various mentors in practice, I viewed my job as sacrificing everything for my students. There is no problem with sacrifice, but I carried it to an extreme. I would work 12 hour days, then come in on weekends. Eventually, I had reached a point where I was less effective because of my devotion, simply due to exhaustion. I became bitter and resented the weight of my task. The overexertion led me to make mistakes, which led to more overexertion. My response was to push harder, and strive to put in more effort.

By the time this reached its peak, I had almost resigned from my job. I do not know what would have happened if I’d given up then, but I am not optimistic. Fortunately, those around me were supportive and helped me understand where I had gone wrong.

I had forgotten the need for self-care. The consequence of this was that I had instead embarked on a path of self-destruction.

Resolution

Accept my limitations.

Foster in others the skills they require for Independence.

Remember that self-deception is not the only thing that bars self-knowledge.

Reflections on Aphorisms #21

I may have gone long-form on this one without meaning to, so we’re still at just two aphorisms for today.

If anyone’s reading, feel free to comment on this. I’m always torn on whether people want to read about the interpretation or my life more (not that I’m pushy; it may be that people don’t want to read either, but if people do I’d like to make it as good as I can).

Aphorism 34

Most people write so they can remember things; I write to forget.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

There’s something sublime in the act of writing. It’s the act of making permanent thoughts which are otherwise fleeting. As a result, it can be used for more than just what it appears to do on the surface.

In the field of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and others write about the importance of words. By putting something into words, it becomes meaningful. Without words, things tend to just disintegrate; Jung describes what he calls a process of psychic disintegration in many of his patients which often stems from an inability to name and deal with problems.

Writing lets people produce meaning around phenomena in the same way that a conversation might. Actually trying to describe something, even if the attempt fails, is a good step in understanding it. It unburdens the mind.

Describing things in writing also provides permanence. Writing down something important allows it to be remembered even if it is forgotten, since whatever has been written can be recovered at a later point.

In an ironic sense, writing to forget makes sense, even though it’s the sort of active contemplation of an idea that tends to help it go from short term into long term memory with a lot of practice and repetition. Despite this, the brain is still a fickle thing, and any piece of information you encounter is more likely to be gone tomorrow as it is to last for the rest of your life.

If you accept the fact that you have limitations, it is best to plan on those limitations coming to fruition. Writing something means that the consequence for forgetting it is gone.

My Life

I am someone who has what could be described as a busy mind. This isn’t a boast about intelligence. Rather, I am always thinking about something. I actually consider this a personality flaw.

I’m often taken by reverie and fantasy. For whatever merits this may bring in terms of creativity and passion, I have felt stark consequences for letting stuff that is important to remember be abandoned for a passing fancy. One of the greatest things about writing is that it helps remove the entirely unnecessary urgency to remember things.

I also credit my increased writing with an ability to sleep better at night. When I was younger, I suffered serious insomnia. I would be awake for hours after I went to bed. After I left college, I never had these issues. I attribute this to the fact that I have written more consistently about the things that have been on my mind.

The last time I had problems sleeping other than due to sickness or outside interference was when I got offered a freelancing gig on one of my favorite games ever by the creator himself, and got cold called to do it, no less. That sort of favorable excitement I do not associate with any disorder.

I think this is because of how much writing I do. There are very few things that go on in my life which do not get analyzed and assessed. My childhood cat and faithful companion for the past decade and change suffered a stroke back in May, and while I miss her I haven’t shed a tear for her after the day she died, and then more so for her suffering than her loss (though there were a couple moments of self-pity, especially right after she had passed).

Likewise, when I left teaching I had a hard emotional time of it, but I was able to move beyond it. I still have a deep longing to return to it, but I also know that my path lies elsewhere for now.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no sorrow, but it never conquers me. There are a lot of factors in that: faith, perspective, stoicism. These are things I’ve consciously developed as a result of my writing and reflections, but the act of writing and reflecting itself is perhaps an even greater factor in overcoming the situations I find myself with. It’s something I didn’t have ten years ago or even five years ago. Just over a year ago I had let myself descend into a slump, and working my way out of it was hard.

Now I don’t enter that slump. I am vigilant against the chance of some new and great trauma coming along to shatter my psyche, but the work I’ve done has strengthened me and bolstered my discipline.

I have written on and off for the last decade or so on whatever catches my fancy. I don’t have a total amount of writing that I’ve done, but I’ve probably written at least five million words over the course of my adult life. A lot of that hasn’t been personal, but an ever-increasing share has been.

That’s been a great way to work through stuff. My paternal grandfather always wanted me to write journals when I was a kid (I mean, he still does), and I never really wrote about my life. I would try and put the things I considered to be the products of mind on paper, but I would never write about my self, because I didn’t have a good concept of the self.

Resolution

Write so that my mind can be free.

Create when it is possible to do so.

Become better at bringing thought to fruition.

Aphorism 35

The sad truth is that man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites – day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.

Carl Jung, from Man and His Symbols

Interpretation

The notion of archetypal duality is one that is central to Jung’s work. I don’t think that Jung’s understanding and point is that the universe isexclusively dualistic (e.g. comprised of opposites), though I do not intend to disagree with it. I simply cannot support a notion which I’m not entirely certain of.

I will agree but there are some interesting ways that we perceive the world. I’ve read some of Joseph Campbell’s work in comparative mythology and literature. What I take away from it is that whether or not the universe is truly dualistic in essence, it is definitely comprised of extremes in our minds.

Things tend to fall into one extreme or another because we have a need to come with concrete judgments to any situation we encounter. I don’t know what is the origin of the human tendency. I’ve heard people say that it is survival mechanism and a biological limitation in turn, and truth be told I don’t think it’s significant to ask why this is the case. That is evident should be sufficient as a starting point.

One of the other reasons why we tend to form concrete perceptions rather than appreciating abstract nuance is that it is easier to communicate the simple than the complex.

Not only does our ability to put something into words have an influence in our ability to communicate and perceive it, but there’s also the simple fact that we don’t always have time or skill to deal with more complex topics.

My Life

I’m generally a devotee of Jung’s, and while I do not necessarily agree with everything he says I think he is correct more often than he is not correct. This is, I believe, generally a good measure of whether or not someone is worth listening to. I don’t expect perfection from people: rather, I would be surprised by it.

Looking back on the earlier years of my life, I can see a conflict within myself which I was unaware of at the time.

I don’t think I ever had anything quite as intense as humans internal conflict, which he details in his autobiographical work Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Amazon affiliate link; I am currently listening to the Audible audiobook, and I am as enraptured by it as I tend to get when reading or listening to a great book). However, I can now see in myself a great deal of confusion over the way that I had wanted to live.

I grew up religious. Unlike Jung, whose father had doubts about his faith despite being a member of the clergy, I felt that everyone else had stronger experiences than I had, while my own were relatively weak.

This was a sort of irrational fear, because I have always been deeply spiritual. However, while most people associate the spiritual feelings with a sense of chaos (in the sense that chaos is the great unknown), but I always had a sense of comfortable order from them. My early awareness of God was that of everything being in its place, something which was perhaps even not God but rather an idealized notion of God (insomuch as something great can be idealized as something good, because my more mature understanding of the sublime nature of God is much more meaningful to me).

It was only later as an adult that further experiences would shape me. When I was in college, I had a mentor teacher who was unsupportive and actively hostile to me. She filed complaints against me (which I maintain were mostly undeserved) which led to me nearly having to change my degree program and endangering my ability to go on to teach. I have written about this before in more detail, and the recollection is painful to me, only a little, so I will not give an account of it in great detail here.

At this point in my life, I had known relatively little chaos. There were some small family matters that caused me some minor distress, but the worst of these was nothing that would be considered unusual or traumatic. In fact, my family life was probably peculiarly stable, owing to the prudence and good judgment of both my parents. My father’s work was sometimes unsteady, mostly due to the companies he worked for, but we were never financially ruined due to his foresight and dedication; one of the greatest fears in my life is that I will not grow to appreciate my abilities in the same way he underestimates his own.

The experience with my first attempt student teaching changed the way that I viewed the world. I had already had the inklings of some notional chaos from the periods where my father was between jobs, but it was only with my own personal chaos behind me that I realized that there is going to always be part of the world that I cannot control.

I had failed previously in various things, but they were all relatively minor. None of them posed any threat to my future. And it so was that I had my first encounter with what Jung would describe as archetypal chaos.

It is difficult to explain exactly how the event changed my life. I wouldn’t use the term bitterness to describe how I felt, but cynicism sounds too mundane. For a while, I slipped into what one could call a depression. It is worth noting the difference between clinical depression and depression as an emotional state, just that the two are not aligned (namely, it is easier to exit the latter), despite their similarities. The state that I was in (with maladies consisting primarily of sleep and appetite disruptions) was entirely psychogenic, a consequence of entering a state of purposelessness.

I did not appreciate this for what it was, or grasp that I had entered into archetypal chaos unprepared, and it had very nearly destroyed me. Fortunately, I was surrounded by people who supported and cared for me, and with the help of friends, family, and members of my church I was able to get back on my feat.

I returned to school, got a part-time job as a game designer, and by the end of the year I was more or less entirely back to normal. I had a great mentor teacher in a great placement to finish my student teaching, and even had time to work independently on my own games–I had to leave the game designer gig in the fall because of my student teaching, but I could always write a few hundred words in the morning or evening.

When I graduated with my degree, I had found myself back in the realm of order. In this world, good and evil is clear. Everything is clearly defined, and you know your place. I was relieved.

Then the search for a teaching job came. Since I graduated in December, pickings were slim even with a teacher shortage. My experience has had made me more selective in the jobs that I was going to take, perhaps due to an aversion to dealing with uncertainty. I was not in a hurry to test my skills again.

I had also finished work on my first big solo game. I did not expect to make money off of it, so I was not disappointed when it made pretty much no money at all. It was a passion project. However, on the day that I announced its release to my family with some pride (it had exceeded my low expectations, though not by much), my father made a remark but I do not recall precisely, but which questioned whether I would ever move out of my parents’ home.

At this time, I had never planned to make any real money to sign in games. I didn’t care to work with studios, I think this was a hold-over from some of my prior experiences that year, both in terms of my newfound disdain for uncertainty and the fact that the games that I had worked on before going solo had fizzled out before publication or even testing, despite receiving good feedback.

I developed something of a complex about criticism–or perhaps about negative feedback in any sense.

During my first year teaching, we administered assessment tests which showed us real time progress for students. I was not aware that the preview of students levels assumed that they would miss everything they had not completed, and about halfway through testing I looked at the feedback on the computer.

All or most of my students were failing in every class. I have never had an experience quite as harrowing as that, if only because of the abrupt nature of the experience. These tests were used to assess us teachers as much as the students.

In the end, the students did fine, but this instance is typical of my responses during my first couple years teaching to any chance of failure.

I think this ties back into Jung’s point because the reason that this distress occurred to me was that I was met with uncertainty.

I did not yet have the confidence in myself to accept my own definition of success. This led to me being in the no man’s land between two concrete notions of success and failure. It’s worth noting that success and failure have never been truly divorced from the notion of good and evil. As much as we have made progress in assuming that those who suffer do not suffer because of wickedness and those who succeed do not succeed because of virtue, we do not accept randomness in our own lives.

The failure to see that these dichotomies have middle points and that they are constantly in motion was a cause of persistent angst for me. In that sense I think that the idea that Jung has left out of this statement is that the mutually exclusive dualism of many parts of life is not as mutually exclusive as the term “inexorable opposite” would imply.

Resolution

Pay attention to the dynamics of things.

Never forget that things are in motion and must be kept on top of.

Don’t be afraid of the unknown, harness it.

Reflections on Aphorisms #20

I’ve been doing these reflections on aphorisms for what is now two-thirds of a month, and I’m really enjoying them quite a bit.

I’m not sure if they’re good reading, but posting them helps to keep me accountable for actually it, and I’ve found that they bring me some happiness. There’s a sort of satisfaction in quiet contemplation that I don’t think you can get anywhere else.

Aphorism 32

“You can’t go from books to problems, but the reverse: from problems to books.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Note that I got this quote from the audiobook edition of The Black Swan (Amazon affiliate link), so I probably have a different style and punctuation than the printed version.

Interpretation

One of the things that is interesting about education is that we have a concept of reverse design.

The idea is that you start with your objective and then you decide on the actual methods you use to achieve that goal.

I think this is a good way to write a book as well.

When you start writing for the sake of writing, it’s very difficult. As someone who has written daily posts for months at a time, I can say that it is tremendously difficult to keep up with such a schedule.

It really shows when you don’t have a problem that you’re solving.

Another thing is that books and writing are of limited value. There are very few people who can actually take a concept and then apply it from a book.

People often believe they can do this when they can’t. As English (and I’m sure other language teachers notice this as well) teachers worldwide know, students struggle with generalizing information.

What this means is that you can read something and not get its meaning in a concrete sense. If you start with a book in lieu of any worldly experience you end with a lack of deeper understanding. The ability to generalize, or apply information in a context other than it was first received, is one that requires a certain amount of cognitive development. Frustratingly, it is very easy to listen or read and then immediately fail to apply what has been learned. In education, there is a theory that something must be taught five or six different times before it is truly learned. Otherwise, limitations on memory and failures to generalize make the teaching much less effective.

Mind you, this is with practice. Text itself is more difficult by itself. Fortunately many of the people who are reading books will have better generalization and memory techniques than children.

All the same, books work best as reference if someone knows what the problem is that they need to solve. Then the information in a book is fantastic. Trying to learn from a book in the sense of acquiring wholly new skills is not an easy task.

My Life

I am working on a book on game design. I do not have a whole lot of on paper qualifications for this (though I do actually have more than I sometimes give myself credit for), but I have tinkered with games for more or less my entire life.

One of the challenges here is how to make the book valuable to people. I have faith that my skill is sufficient to make it worth reading, but transferring that skill in book form is the difficult endeavor. Since I write a blog on game design both here previously and now elsewhere, I have written about the subject and done research to such a point that I have gotten my process down well enough to translate to a full-length book.

My plan is to use techniques that one would use while teaching more than using techniques that one would use while writing a traditional book. I’ve noticed that I learned poorly from textbooks, but very well from books written by people with an intuitive grasp of human knowledge. My plan is to use anecdotes, case studies, and other methods including including both basic and deep overviews of various concepts.

There’s also something more personal about the book. When I wrote a Blog, I found it there were things that I wanted to include but could not because of time and length restrictions. If you go too long in a Blog, it’s really easy to lose readers. My average length is something between 1000 and 2000 words, which falls on the longer side for most blogs. I’ve given some thought to the best structure for the book and my plan is to have it be nonlinear.

Concepts will be explained in a simple overview, long-form analysis, and case studies. I will probably not do an individual case study for each concept, but rather for each of the overarching ideas since there will be a couple overarching categories into which the concept will be assigned.

Resolution

Don’t write a meaningless book.

Craft learning objectives for each chapter I write.

Remember the limits of human learning.

Aphorism 33

The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

A problem with modern life is that it is difficult to even be sure what is a factor in any particular part of our overly complex lives. It is an artificial life that we live. Lest I sound overly alarmist, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just something we need to be aware of.

Modern life requires caution. With so much of our life being defined by metrics that have been created and designed, rather than naturally occurring, we run the risk of compounding errors in judgment.

Our prevailing social mode is one of preventing change, or at least that change which we perceive to be undesirable. In doing so, we have created systems that govern our lives and embraced over-dependence on them, knowing that we will resist change tooth and nail.

The problem is that these things will inevitably change.

Our comfort has become an addiction. The salary is a good example of this because it stopped actually useful work instead tried to abstract the value. the danger in this is that at some point we may lose our value not our wage.

At first, this sounds almost reassuring. After all, it is certainty. The problem is that it’s false certainty.

Because salaries blind us to our actual product, we don’t see the value of what we create. At best, we provide better value than we receive in return. Even if this goes unrewarded, at least it generally assures some level of appreciation and job security.

If the value in one’s work falls, and the situation is not remedied, they’re actively destroying their own sense of security and may not realize it. This can happen regardless of an individual’s merits, salaried workers are unlike an artisan who could see that there is less demand for their work they may not have their ear to the ground.

Heroin I do not feel much of a need to talk about. Especially in the modern day, there is such an epidemic of drug abuse that it’s dangers are clearly known. Not using drugs and being a teetotaler, I haven’t had any significant personal experiences in this field.

My Life

My own relationship with carbohydrates is complex. I went on a diet where I consume less than 20% of my calories as carbohydrates and I lost more than 10% of my body weight. Since then I’ve lost discipline to keep up with it, and I’m a little ashamed to say that I may simply not have the willpower (until I get back into it; I’ve been trying to get better about it).

There is something to be said for an addictive quality in the things that we eat. When I was more focused on eating meat and nuts and other high protein foods, I found it I was much less hungry. Many of my favorite unhealthy foods are high in sugar, so cutting out sugar meant that I stopped indulging some of my more Dangerous tastes.

I think the real danger isn’t the fact that all of these tend to be associated with unexamined lives. Strong painkillers take us out of our own minds.

Resolution

Stick to a diet that builds my well-being.

Recognize when I have become dependent on something that does not provide value.

Bring value, rather than seeking rent.

Reflections on Aphorisms #19

One of the things that I like about reflecting on aphorisms is that sometimes aphorisms can contain a challenge. The whole point is to enter into a process of self-improvement and to keep going with that.

Today’s aphorisms are interesting to me, but the first one, a quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is particularly relevant because I find that it deals with one of the greatest dangers I have to deal with as a writer.

Aphorism 30

It seems that it is the most unsuccessful people who give the most advice, particularly for writing and financial matters.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Advice is always tricky to assess. There’s a natural desire to give the world and much advice is given freely without guile, but there’s always a question of who is giving advice and why they are giving it. Another twist in the whole ordeal is that you have people giving advice who are not necessarily qualified to do so.

I think there’s a desire by some people to be seen as an expert, and on some occasions this drive overcomes the motivation to actually be an expert.

The best antidote against this fake mastery this disregard one’s own reputation.

Taleb himself has an interesting way of doing this. He intentionally foregoes the sort of manners that make you pleasant to be around, choosing instead to be recalcitrant and stubborn. He tries not to agree with anything which he does not truly believe, but also does so openly and without politics, which means that almost everyone he talks about has an incentive to disbelieve him or argue against him.

I don’t think you necessarily need to be abrasive to succeed in overcoming ego, but I think it is wise to be wary of salespeople those who are selling something, especially themselves, are not incentivized to be honest about who they are. This is also probably easier to sound smart then to be smart.

A while back I talked about one of Nietzsche’s sayings about writing. What he said was that it is easier to train someone to sound good than to make them write in a concise and coherent manner.

This is important because being concise and coherent is key to making a good point.

I think that there is a tendency to respect what we don’t understand. If someone makes their writing look decent people will just sort of take it at face value. Overcoming this is a key step in becoming a savvy reader. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who have figured out how to harness this fake respect, and many people are still blind to their methods.

I don’t know if I would attribute malice to all of them, because I’m sure that some people with the best intentions wind up being accidentally vapid. I know I was guilty of this (often deliberately) during my college days, when I would write above the level of peers or even sometimes faculty to try and avoid any legitimate criticism.

One thing that I’ve noticed as I read is that I can find trends where there are some people whose writing never leaves me better than I was before I read it. These are often people who are considered to be great writers. This is not to say that reputation is nothing; I am reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (Amazon affiliate link), and he earns all the accolades he has received. However, for everyone who receives great acclaim by merit, there is at least one other person who has achieved acclaim by dumb luck.

I think there’s also a matter of blind ignorance here. If you think you’re really good, you can come up with all sorts of metrics and ways to justify yourself as an expert. If other people say you’re good, that carries a lot of weight.

My Life

Sometimes I worry if I am one of those people who is blindly ignorant of my limitations and naivete. Obviously, if I felt strongly that my advice were useless I would be a hypocrite if I did not stop giving it.

Of course, I don’t so much give advice as do analysis. I’m not a fan the telling people what to do. I merely present what I know and if someone finds that to be interesting or helpful, free to take it.

There are a lot of people who try and make their work seem valuable by painting it as “if you do this, will succeed” or other insipid promises. I find the practice concerning. My goal is always to try let people see my point and draw their own conclusions.

Resolution

Don’t market myself falsely.

Don’t be so proud as to admit when I are not an expert.

Draw the line between theory and practice. If I can find no evidence of my theories being practical, I should assume I have fooled myself.

Aphorism 31

The tyrant dies and his rule is over; the martyr dies and his rule begins.

Søren Kierkegaard, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

Humanity is capable of great and horrible things. One of the greatest triumphs of humanity is an embrace of what is good. Just as people can embrace the good, they can embrace the wicked, but we need not be pessimistic. Evil often wins in small moments, but in the end we tend to see it for what it is. This doesn’t mean that the balance of the universe is positive, nor that there is any moral evolution that is taking place that will bring us to utopia.

However, if you look far enough you will find examples of people who do the right thing when it cost them dearly their legacy built what we rely on. Even if Kierkegaard’s martyr never achieves a worldly reign, their sacrifice builds a universe that is tolerable.

It is resentment for the world that breeds much evil. Attachment can cause just as much suffering, but the tyrant is driven buy a desire to control the universe. They may even believe themselves to be stamping out evil and corruption as they oppress the helpless.

When someone takes acts that are good for the sake of goodness, they forestall the entropic descent into suffering that seems to be the natural cast of the universe.

My Life

I’ve noticed something very simple:

Nothing good comes from force.

This is not true in the reverse; there are times when just and righteous motives are backed up with force (e.g. self-defense, just law), but it’s not automatic.

When I see people saying what ought to be, it’s almost always an extrinsic thing, something they want to change in the world.

The goal of a tyrant.

I hope to be the sort of person (and maybe I even can accomplish it if I strive hard enough) who takes it upon himself to do actions which advance the good.

The goal of a martyr.

Resolution

Find a way to do what should be done, not put it off.

Bring positive change to the world.

Don’t become a tyrant.

Reflections on Aphorisms #14

Going to do a series of shorter reflections on aphorisms for a while so that I can focus on other writing, once I get back into a schedule I’ll be doing more. Until mid-week next week I’m going to be doing just one a day, and then perhaps even a tad longer than that.

Aphorism 21

It takes less time to learn how to write nobly than how to write lightly and straightforwardly.

Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

Nietzsche has interesting thoughts on writing. I’m actually surprised to see how profound they are, not because I disparage Nietzsche, but because they are sublime.

Writers are often focused on appearances. When people focus on appearances they do not always consider fundamentals. One of my observations is that students often use thesauruses when they write in ways that do not improve their writing one iota. This is because they pursue writing has something to impress others with.

What I have discovered as a writer, especially one who is currently planning to write multiple books more or less simultaneously, is that it is not the writing itself that matters. That is not actually correct, but it is a simplified version of the truth.

The good writer doesn’t without their writing. They do not sweat individual pieces of punctuation they do not obsess before anything in there text or at least, if they do, it is not their highest priority. The highest priority is to convey information that is worth knowing.

If there is one thing that I could teach students who want to learn how to write well, it is that they must focus on what needs to be said. Nothing else matters.

We teach formulaic writing in this day and age. There’s nothing wrong with this, I even recommend it. However, when you teach writing in that way, the formula is merely to free students from worrying about the adiaphora, to remove their concerns about what they have to do so that they can do what they have to do.

We assign praise to those who present the greatest prose, but we should praise those to present the best ideas.

My Life

I have written over a million words in my life. This is the verifiable count. Since I tend to squirrel of my lots of little writings on various projects, organization is not my strong suit, and I do not care to waste too much time on metrics, I do not know how much I have actually written. It seems likely that I may have actually written more than 3 million words in my life, but I do not want to making erroneously exaggerated claim, as much rather stick to the known and conservative estimates.

I have found it I am happiest writing when I feel comfortable with this subject and I do not feel the need to describe what I am talking about. It’s not that I don’t like giving definitions and descriptions, but rather that what I have found to be most authentic is the writing which a reader will get without me needing to explain it.

I am guilty of the high and lofty school of writing. When I was in high school, I wrote an essay for a teacher in AP English class. one of the pieces of feedback that I received in the margin was a simple question: “When does this sentence end?”

I was proud of myself for writing a sentence that had lasted for more than a quarter of a page without encountering any grammatical difficulties. As an exercise in writing it was impressive. It was also foolish. There was no benefit to the reader from my having written such verbose sentences. Indeed, I don’t know that that sentence despite its length actually delivered any meaning beyond what a simple short sentence could provide.

I had forgotten that the best points are made in simple statements. It is natural that more complex concepts require more complex writing, but over-complicating writing does not make the point any more sophisticated. Simple statements for simple ideas. Long statements for complex ideas. This is natural.

However, the real master can convey the complex idea with a simple statement.

Resolution

Write with purpose.

Don’t bury my point beneath wasted words.

Think of goal before thinking of means.

Reflections on Aphorisms #5

Another day, another bunch of aphorisms. I’m hoping to get on a schedule of just doing an aphorism or two as a morning routine (namely, reading them in the evening and writing about them in the following morning), but if I’m being honest I can’t get the reflection process down to a consistent amount of time.

That’s probably better than forcing it, though.

Aphorism 7

Writing is the art of repeating oneself without anyone noticing.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

I’m not sure if Taleb is being sardonic here or not, but I’m going to treat this as a sort of double edged statement.

On one hand, we know that the brain is relatively poor at taking in abstract information. It requires repetitive exposure to a complex concept or environment to form what we would call an accurate picture, and even then you need some variance in input data or you can end up with a faulty understanding.

It also helps to have solid arguments based on facts, and rather than just blurt out all the information at once and then try to address all the points at the end. The interspersed presentation means that you do wind up going through a cyclical presentation that leads to some duplication of previous ideas.

The other side of the coin is that writers often blather, especially those of us who are paid by the word or are particularly verbose. However, our brains get bored of hearing the same thing over and over, and to make our work “worth it” we need to keep people from realizing that we generally don’t have that many good ideas.

My Life

This is basically me, though I think it’s a little more complicated. I believe in constant revision and analysis, so I often repeat myself.

There’s also the blog format I’ve used for much of my writing, which requires a certain repetitive element because even entries in a series of posts are not necessarily going to be read together, so important concepts need to be repeated.

There is an upside to this, however, which is that you move toward perfecting your ideas. As a teacher, I often found myself wishing I had taught differently and finding a better method after finishing a lesson.

Writing is like that too. You stay dynamic, but you lean on the same core body of work. If you do too much variety you wind up devaluing your own expertise by stretching it too thin.

Resolution

Make what I have to say be worth reading, perhaps even more than once.

Keep in mind that I have my limits, and balance novelty with depth.

Consider whether what I have been said has already been said better. Learn from exemplars.

Aphorism 8

Late resounds what early sounded.

Goethe, quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

Goethe was one of the earliest members of what in America we just call the Romantic movement (technically he was part of the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany), and while he wasn’t necessarily a true member in the sense that he “grew out of it” as it were, he was nonetheless quite influential in the form of his Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, the latter of which I’ve had to read more than twice in my college career.

One of the ideas of the Romantics is that you have an inner guiding star that you should follow, which sort of sounds like me when I’m waxing poetic.

However, it’s worth thinking of them as being somewhat reactionary. They were among the first nationalists (before most of the negative things began to be associated with nationalism), and really believed in finding a cause, even if it meant finding destruction along with them.

Another way of putting it is that they’re very into the “die young, leave a beautiful corpse” way of life. The Sorrows of Young Werther sparked a suicide wave that would make 13 Reasons Why look like a palliative (though that doesn’t make either good for society), though now we can look at it in a little more detached a fashion–Goethe himself was the basis for Werther, and he was attempting to chronicle his mistakes, so the protagonist’s suicide was actually a hypothetical exercise in idiocy in an otherwise autobiographical work, one that Goethe himself tried to make a counter-example rather than a role model.

To get to the aphorism, however, I think that this really does tie in with the Romantic period’s prevailing philosophy in the sense that greatness tends to start early. If it’s something that’s put off, odds are it will stay put off forever.

My Life

I’m not sure I’ve followed this well. I’m still “young”, but I’m probably not young enough to be on the earlier side of this analysis.

However, I think there is something to be said here by translating it away from the language of time and into the language of procedure: “What is begun will likely continue.”

Basically, if one behaves like a child forever, one will be treated like a child forever. If one is wise in youth, they will stay wise.

I don’t know that this is an absolute, but it’s certainly something that’s measurable and observable in life. My friends who were highly disciplined in college about doing what was meaningful for them (even if that meant dropping out of college) remain on a path that brings them meaning, and those that were not find themselves in flux and with less success.

I, as someone who falls in the middle of this equation (I am good at doing what has been suggested for me, but not at finding my own path), find myself in a situation now where I have a chance to really make a name for myself and find opportunity.

Resolution

Seize the day and work toward greatness.

Strive to do today what I want to do tomorrow.

Make plans to build a better future, but don’t worry about what comes next.

Reflections on Aphorisms #4

Figured out yesterday’s aphorism that I couldn’t get a satisfying break-down of, so that’ll be one of the two today (it’s the Taleb one).

Aphorism 5

The most depressing aspect of the lives of the couples you watch surreptitiously arguing in restaurants is that they are almost always unaware of the true subject of argument.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (Amazon affiliate link)

Interpretation

I’m not really in a significant relationship, so I’m not going to cover the relationship aspect of this so much as a simple truth here:

You don’t necessarily know what you’re looking at until you put it into words, and even then you might have done it wrong.

I think that a lot of arguments arise from what goes unsaid on purpose, and what goes unsaid on accident, and this aphorism deals with the latter.

You need to have a good identification with a life of meaning to really notice when things have gone astray.

My Life

Today was my last regular day as a classroom teacher for the foreseeable future. I’m doing some freelance writing in the immediate future and then I’ll be getting back to school to complete a master’s or maybe a doctorate program.

And, to be honest, it’s painful to say goodbye. It’s been an emotionally draining week for a variety of reasons, and teaching is just emotionally draining in general, but the fact remains that it’s still something that brings a lot of meaning to my life.

I wouldn’t say that I regret leaving; this is the perfect time to make a move for me, since I still retain almost no financial obligations except to myself.

However, it’s certainly not easy. Most of the kids were pretty sad to see me go, even more so than I expected (to be honest, since almost none of them were going to have me next year unless something changed in my position, I didn’t expect quite so much of a response).

I’ve probably had something like two hundred and fifty or three hundred students in the past couple years, and it’s sort of crazy to think about not seeing most of them after next week.

But, of course, such is the nature of things. If there is any lesson I’ve learned at a dear cost this past week, it’s that you can’t always anticipate change, so the best you can do is accept it.

Reflections

Find the hidden and secret things that have a tendency to sneak up on my life.

Never forget how meaningful the teaching experience has been in my life, even if more lucrative opportunities come along later.

Value authenticity, pierce the veil of easy explanations.

Aphorism 6

A book calls for pen, ink, and a writing desk; today the rules is that pen, ink, and a writing desk call for a book.

Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

This is another aphorism that begs context. I think that it’s referring to the way in which we interact with books, namely comparing the act of reading and reflecting on things.

Nietzsche is often very concerned about the advent of modernity, and I think that part of this is the transition from having eyes on the past to focusing on the future.

Part of the old tradition is to go into texts as an end to itself. The contemplation on and analysis of the old masters is got necessarily lower than striving for personal mastery.

This is a lot of what Montaigne does in his essays, but while Montaigne may be “the first modern” in his philosophy and interests, he is also distinctly classical in his methods.

Now the fashion is to create and change, to pursue power before wisdom and influence before virtue.

My Life

I am beginning to write a book. I may not finish it, since I may find it unfit, but I am perhaps falling into what Nietzsche is warning about here.

However, I think that I’m not all bad.

Obvious self service aside, I feel blessed to have an inquisitive mind. I enjoy digging deep into everything, and I am reaching a point soon where I can pursue self perfection as a primary goal.

Resolution

Don’t waste my current shot at self improvement.

Learn from others.

Make sure that nothing I do stems from mere desire to do but rather from purpose.