One of the things that I was thinking about recently was my motivation for writing.
For a while I’ve been somewhat uncertain about that, not because I didn’t feel driven but because I wasn’t really sure how to communicate it, so I’d often give an answer that wasn’t necessarily untrue, but didn’t encapsulate the whole truth.
I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing (Amazon affiliate link), which I found to be interesting. I’ve read a few other books on writing recently, so I figured it’d be interesting to compare King to other writers.
In the past I’d heard that King’s book was not really all that great for a writer, so I approached it with a certain amount of skepticism.
I split my reading across four days; the first two days covered roughly a third of the book each, then I split the remaining third up between the rest of the main text and the appendices.
At the end of the first day, I was in agreement with the skeptics. On Writing contains enough autobiographical content to be considered King’s memoir (which, coincidentally, is mentioned right on the cover, so there’s not really a surprise there). If you like King’s writing (I do) it will be a pleasant enough read, but other than seeing some traits and habits you can emulate there’s not a whole lot there in the way of practical advice.
The rest of the book, the remaining days of reading, were much more effective. King launches into a top-to-bottom overview of his writing process, which is quite interesting. Although it generally doesn’t do a whole lot of coaching on some of the elements, it gives a certain amount of insight to each.
And this is really where the recommendation gets tricky.
You see, King doesn’t give a whole lot of details about how you should write. He gives points you’ll need to address if you want to be a good writer, sometimes in a very basic way (e.g. “What is a good starting seed for a story and how can you tell?”) and sometimes being more specific (e.g. “How should you structure paragraphs?”), but he never goes into meticulous detail about anything.
For me, as someone who’s a fairly comfortable writer who wants to open up the world of creative writing, that’s useful. But I taught English, and while I don’t always adhere to best practices (do as I say, not as I do), I am at least familiar with them.
If you’re writing and you worry that the quality isn’t good enough, King doesn’t really have a lot of stuff for you, other than the reminder that he practiced a ton and wrote a lot of subpar stuff before he got good (which is largely communicated in the memoir portion of the book). If you’re putting out work that other people find unintelligible, you’re going to need to learn to fix that elsewhere.
I think this is best illustrated by his example for editing.
Now, this comes from work that was contemporary with On Writing, so it’s after he’s already become an expert writer, but his first drafts look tremendous compared to any first draft I’m currently in the realm of (not that I’m a good benchmark for quality), or any I’ve ever seen outside Stephen King’s (people do not usually rush to present me with first drafts, so again I’m not the best benchmark here).
By the time King’s showing us the process, the manuscript would probably be in a publication-worthy state for a lesser writer.
Now, a lot of that’s because King doesn’t want to waste his reader’s time time; proofreading isn’t the focus, revision is.
But it is an example of how the book generally goes.
As someone who’s been through four books on writing in two (three?) months, I think it’s a great example of a companion to other books. A more advanced, less specific book that leaves more to the individual and treats them like a journeyman or master instead of as an apprentice.
Plus, it’s written by Stephen King. Even if the lessons are occasionally thin, the writing is good enough that I found it a pleasant read; King intersperses humor and examples well enough that you forget you’re reading what could be an incredibly dry book (and I’ve read the dry writing manuals, ones with exercises, for crying out loud!).
Yesterday I woke from sleep (or, rather, trying to sleep, because the process has always been a drawn-out one for me) twice to work on a story. Both times I was consumed by a fit of energy and a desire to write so fervent that it was just a step below a religious experience.
This energy is brilliant, it flows through me like a river flows when a dam has burst, it fills me with a joy that is difficult to describe because it is something so pure that it lacks words. It is purpose, completion, motivation, drive, flow, unification of the self, inspiration.
I’ve felt it before, but not as strongly, not as vividly. It still echoes and resounds in my soul.
But there are things that threaten to drive it away, and not just sleep deprivation.
Going back and getting a master’s in creative writing was supposed to help me teach, but the mere act of pushing myself into that stream has awakened the writer that has been dormant for some time. But it also opens a door to the unknown.
You see, for all the joy that I’m feeling as I give myself more permission to write and bask in the presence of like-minded individuals, there is a lingering shadow that comes along.
I’m losing the mysticism. Now, that’s not a literal statement. After reading Carl Jung, a part of me will always be drawn to mystery and secrets, a part of me that also knows that they will never be achieved.
But actually opening the door to craft, that’s something that’s scary. You step into a shallow stream, and you can walk across to the other side. You step into a deep river, and you’ll be pulled to the bottom.
I’ve only been a critical reader for a minority of my life, and one who reads for the sake of writing for a short time.
And it makes me nervous to go forward and take that plunge. I’ve been reading King’s On Writing, and one of the things that he talks about regularly is the idea that one grows as a writer by writing and reading.
But I’ve always read as a reader.
My first memories involve books. Most of my second ones too. I stop and read signs. I read all the legalese in contracts and license agreements (well, in contracts at least). I even play games you have to read, for crying out loud.
I’m slightly obsessive, in the sense that if I don’t have something to do I slip into anxiety. Reading is one of those things that can satisfy that, so that I don’t have to run around the room pacing (in multiples of five steps), wash my hands until they bleed, or chatter excitedly to myself. Usually I combine these things, when possible (especially the pacing; I like to get the steps for my fitness tracker and it makes the anxious reptile brain part of me very proud when big numbers show up), but in the case of the last resort reading by itself is enough.
And the curse of the writer is that you cultivate something inside you that reads in a different way than my adolescent reading for pleasure. You read to learn.
But, looking back on it, did I ever read except to learn? Poetry, perhaps, or the master-works of someone like Ishiguro or Dostoevsky (or Tolkien), whose prose can transcend the banality of life.
Isn’t the beauty just a way to teach? Isn’t the consumption of beauty just an attempt to learn?
In the introduction to his book, The Stuff of Fiction, Douglas Bauer writes of reading a story and analyzing it:
After coldly, ruthlessly, dissecting it, all you have to do to bring it back to life is read it again.
Douglas Bauer, The Stuff of Fiction, page 4
The problem is that I’m not sure I believe him.
But this joy of writing is something that could transform me. All change comes with the risk of destruction, but I also suspect that the changes we bring upon ourselves are not really changes, but awakenings.
So I will seek that awakening, risking the writer’s curse.
At the very worst, I’ll be pacing about wringing my hands at the end of it, which is not all that different from how I am now.
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (Amazon affiliate link) offers a different look at writing than you are likely to see in other writing books. It does so with passion, zeal, and above all else a sense of clarity and purpose which combine make it refreshing.
I’ve read or listened to quite a few books on writing recently, like John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which I also highly recommend (my review), but Lamott takes an approach that is conversational and cordial, making the reader (or listener) a co-conspirator with her in the ups and downs of life as a writer.
Two of the most challenging parts of writing are finding a spark, figuring out what you want to write, and then figuring out how to transfer it to paper. Lamott focuses on these two subjects almost to the exclusion of everything else, but she does so with such depth and from so many different angles that she never repeats herself and covers a good portion of everything else that you would want to know as a writer on the side.
Lamott captures the spirit of writing without feeling preachy or over-romantic. I think of Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (my review) as an example of a book that is sentimental rather than practical, basically a collection of calls to action and motivational speaking rather than an example of what writers are likely to encounter. Lamott, on the other hand, takes the experiences from her own personal perspective, giving the reader emotional attachment and lending them part of her drive.
Lamott is bitingly sarcastic and incredibly funny. She is transparent about her personal crises, leading to a book that shows both the bigger picture of the publication process and the smaller moments that make up the triumphs and ordeals of the writing process; from the feel of getting galley copies in the mail to the shared anxiety of calling another writer on the day of publication to realize that neither she nor he achieved the runaway success that they had dreamed of.
I wouldn’t suggest this book to younger readers due to some of the language and content in it, but it is still one that I would recommend to novice writers because Lamott never does anything that might come across as intimidating or elitist (at least, not without lampshading it in a devilish self-aware fashion). You get a feel for her personality and character and how her life has motivated her to write:
“I try to write the books that I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives… and that can make me laugh… Books, for me, are medicine.”
I think this is a meaningful outlook, and it’s worth noting that unlike some authors Lamott leaves it to the writer whether they want to have any overarching message or ideas. If all you have to say is a small truth that you learned from something that happened to you, Lamott gives as much encouragement as you would expect if you were to say that you had figured out the way to fix the universe. She also avoids giving too much of a dogma. A large part of her advice is to figure out methods that work for the individual writer, as a more airy and vapid individual or someone who wishes to sabotage their potential rivals might, but she actually gives enough advice and framework to make it possible to follow that path.
I went into this book with no knowledge of Lamott or her work, and left feeling like she had given me an intimate look into both her writing process and her advice for writers. Comparing it to something like Stephen King’s On Writing, which is definitely more autobiographical and takes longer to get into the craft side of things, or John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which is heavily predominated by craft.
I’d recommend Bird by Bird without reservation. It’s like having an intimate conversation with a great writer, and even barring an interest in writing it’s funny enough to be worth reading. That it has surprisingly practical and down-to-earth writing moments tucked underneath every joke and anecdote is a triumph that makes it sublime.
I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing (Amazon affiliate link), and I just had an epiphany that I figured I’d write about. Obviously a lot of it is inspired by King’s ideas, and I just hit a section about two-fifths of the way into the book where he talks about paragraph structure (of all things).
I’m in the process of going back and getting my Master’s degree, a MFA in creative writing. I don’t think I’m a great writer, at least not in the traditional sense. I write a lot, certainly. My output is good, probably in the top 1%, maybe in the top 10% of the top 1%, if you just look at words published over time that aren’t about myself (though I’m not sure that you can count anything as being written about anyone but the author).
Creative writing kills me.
I’m just not a novelist. I’ve written a ton of shorter stuff, but there’s a reason why the longest thing I can recall writing that was pure creative writing (i.e. not a game) capped out at twenty-thousand words.
It’s because I don’t tell stories well.
Not for lack of trying, mind you. I love telling stories.
But I also love writing in general.
And if I may toot my own horn, I write pretty well. I don’t always hold myself to a high standard on my blogs, but I taught writing and I learned writing and if I have to get down in the dirt and seriously write I can turn out some stuff that you wouldn’t expect.
That doesn’t mean I can write anything.
My most painful writing experience, and one of my greatest triumphs, wasn’t rejection in the traditional sense. It came in an English class in my freshman year of college, ENG 104 (yeah, I’m an honors student, I do the combine two-semesters-in-one and try to over-achieve thing).
I forget what exactly the prompt for the essay was, but the professor had already made clear to me that she thought I had a lot of potential (this is the academic way of saying that you’re giving someone an A but don’t think they should get cocky).
This is not surprising. I probably write up to a million words a year, even if a lot of my output gets thrown out (metaphorically; I keep everything unless I lose it) or winds up little tiny things that don’t go anywhere.
One of the reasons why creative writing slays me is that I don’t do it very often relative to everything else. I like blogging and writing about stuff in general. I suppose in school we’d call it “expository writing” or “descriptive writing”, though in reality those terms mean about as much as a liar’s promise.
And that’s where my epiphany comes in. I was pacing around reading (gotta get those step goals for the fitness tracker), and I had a sudden realization that the secret to mastering creative writing is the same as the secret to mastering the sort of writing that I feel pretty comfortable with.
You get your butt in seat and you do it.
I realized while reading about paragraph length of all things that there was some truth here.
You see, other than when I fret over an intro paragraph (always the most important point of your work) or a conclusion containing or not containing something, I’ve put any thoughts of proper paragraph length aside for a very long time.
This is technically untrue; as a teacher I’d lecture students on how to write a formula paragraph, but I never had to think about it when I was writing. I just knew whether I’d said what had to be said in a paragraph.
And that’s something that I need to figure out about creative writing. I’m comfortable with my paragraphs, but I’m not comfortable with my stories. Yet.
So that’s what I’m working toward. The only way there is to do, to keep doing, and to do again.
Got a lot more writing done today than I did yesterday. Didn’t keep track, but I think it was in the area of about 4000 words.
Also finished listening to Bird by Bird, which I plan to write a review of later on in the week.
I’ve had the burst of inspiration I need to finish up most of the current freelancing I’m doing. Now the only thing that remains is to turn that inspiration into good writing.
Our temper sets a price upon every gift that we receive from fortune.
François de La Rochefoucauld
There’s an old cliche about not looking gift horses in the mouth.
Our brains are wired to function in a primal mode most of the time, even if we aren’t conscious of it. We’re not thinking rationally because reason is something that has to be learned and consciously practiced, and even then we’re emulating it rather than really owning it as a function of our being.
So when we see something good, our first reaction is to look for the trap. Maybe our newfound bounty will attract larger, more dangerous scavengers.
A manifestation of this is that we’re often more critical of the good things in our life than we are of the bad ones.
Think of how many ways a loved one can annoy or irritate you. If you’re a writer, like I am (kinda), you will have realized (or will soon realize) that they can be very distracting, especially if they take advantage of your “free time” when you need to be exercising the discipline of writing.
This is only exacerbated by the modern era.
If only we lived without the joys of modern telecommunication. We’d just have to deal with constant uncertainty and lose access to the ability to get in touch with all our business associates, friends, and distant relatives at any moment!
A small price to pay, is it not?
However, it is much better to have both loved ones and technology in our lives. There are costs associated with them, either in the form of the dollar or the investment of time, effort, and emotion that accompanies relationships. We call this sacrifice, in case anyone was curious.
If you don’t have loved ones and you don’t have technology, you probably feel it. I don’t think I’d be able to write a thousand words per hour (I have written 400 words in eight minutes just now) without an electronic device of some sort. I could maybe pull it off with a typewriter, if I were really disciplined and had time to practice. My handwriting is so abysmal due to my pitiable manual dexterity that I doubt I would ever reach anything close, and I’d struggle to stay legible, in manual writing.
Perhaps I could have made do with dictation, but that’s only become trivially inexpensive in the modern day with the advent of computers that do it, and even then you wind up with all sorts of issues.
But technology is also our greatest distraction in the modern age. It’s full of wonders, delights, terrors, trivia.
It gives us a way to spend our whole lives doing nothing at all, like reading the blogs of master’s degree students or taking a voyeur-like interest in videos of cats, and those are at least redeemable uses of the internet. Cats are good for the soul, and mine has been deceased for some months. I live vicariously until my lifestyle and fear of loss return to a state which will allow me to welcome a new companion into my life.
We are often better at finding the benefits in our suffering than in our strength. My cat passed away right before I was due to leave town for a week and a half; she was killed by a stroke and if it had happened when nobody was around to check on her she would probably have died of thirst and hunger. The designated catsitter would have been informed of her reclusive tendencies and thought nothing of the disappearance until it was too late. Although her passing was difficult to deal with, there was a small glimmer of relief in the sense that we were able to be there with her as she suffered and were able to have her put down before she suffered terribly.
On the other hand, if you asked me what the benefits of my teaching job were before I left to go back to school full-time, I would have hemmed and hawed and had a really hard time giving you a concrete answer that really spoke to the truth. It’s not that I don’t miss teaching (I cried for hours on my last day), but rather that it’s easy to overlook how nice things were when you were busy actually dealing with them, how much watching students grow brings meaning and satisfaction to your life.
Appreciate the strengths of the good things; they may not be so obvious as they are made out to be.
Accept pain when it offers opportunity and improvement.
Remember that most things I have, even the things that are “intrinsic” to me, can be taken for granted and lost. Do not let that cause anxiety. Instead let it encourage me to use what I have when I have it.
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.
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.
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.
Art is a one-sided conversation with the unobserved.
Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes
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.
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.
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.
Embrace art as heroic.
See the act of creation as the act of discovery.
Don’t ignore the mysteries of life.
How good bad music and bad reasons sound when we march against an enemy.
Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Judge for merit, not for preference.
Don’t get lost in analysis what does valuation would be more proper.
It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.
Jordan Peterson, from 12 Rules for Life
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.
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.
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.