I was going to write today’s blog post about how to organize your reading life. I had some trenchant observations to offer, apropos of my reading a few books of literary criticism. But instead of writing that post, I sat here staring at the blank screen for fifteen minutes.
Lately I’ve learned to listen to my own disinterest. Because there is no point in putting more words out there just for the sake of entertaining an invisible audience that may or may not care. I’m not saying my post on the reading life would not have been interesting, or that you wouldn’t have gotten something from it. But, for me, that is not enough. There has to be something more.
I’ve also had many thoughts lately on skepticism. Recent replication failures, particularly in the field of social psychology, has me questioning much of the stuff I thought I know in the social sciences. It turns out that even scientists aren’t amazing at determining even the correlations between things in the human world, much less the direction of causation. It’s very difficult to know anything, and I’ve begun taking all arguments about patterns, particularly those patterns that are created after looking at the data, with a lot of skepticism.* But, again, everything there is to say about skepticism has already been said. My opinions are just David Hume mixed with Thomas Kuhn mixed with Daniel Kahneman. These ideas exist pretty readily out there in the world, and anyone can find them. So what’s the point?
More and more I feel like writing the things that only I can write, and I really don’t think I’ll ever contribute much that’s new to the world of ideas. Sometimes I read essay collections, and I’m like, “Wow, this is so organized and so interesting. Maybe I should write an essay.” But then I think about all the research that’s involved, and I get exhausted and depressed. It’s only an hour or two later, that I’ll be like, “Wait a second, I don’t have to write an essay. I don’t have to write anything. I can have my own thoughts, for my own elucidation, and never write them down.”
I can’t be the first author to have thought this. Last night I was skimming Edith Wharton’s memoir A Backward Glance, and in the chapters about Henry James, she writes that it’s a pity nobody ever recorded his conversation, because he was one of the most thoughtful, interesting, and witty people she had ever met. She said this entire side of him, the joking side, never came out in his published writings and only rarely in his letters. Now…Henry James wrote alot, and it’s pretty staggering to think he was able to use language in ways he never put on paper. But the man was also a genius, and maybe he realized that while he was funny, his humor in no way matched what he was able to do in other arenas (now if you come back at me and say that Henry James’s writing is funny, I will have to disagree with you. There exists humor within it, but jokes? there are almost none).
The practice of following the thread of my own interest is one I’ve been using a lot this year. I think it’s hard when you’re used to school, where you have to write on assignment, or freelancing, where you write for money, or genre fiction, where you write under contract, or the workshop, where you write because you’ve a slot to fill. Following the thread of your own interest doesn’t come easily, because, especially early in one’s writing career, you essentially have nothing to say, or at least no idea how to say it, and so ‘following your own interest’ would more or less mean silence.
Nor is that thread a very strong one, especially at first. Usually when you tug on it, the thing snaps. And sometimes this is good. Maybe I wasn’t very interested at all. But before I learned to listen, the voice of my own interest was a very quiet one, and it was easily overpowered by the voices of fear and of ambition. It takes a lot of quietness to listen to your own interest, because it’s not very insistent, and it’s extremely willing to be overruled.
In my current work-in-progress, I had one situation that repeated itself (essentially, two different characters, in two different chapters, did something that was very similar). And it was very easy to convince myself this was a stylistic choice. Whenever I felt a sense of dissatisfaction, I was like, “But I’m doing it on purpose!”
It took faith to go back and delete the repetition and search for another answer. But the moment I had done it, I knew that it was the right decision. Similarly, in re-reading the book, I’ve noticed places where I get bored: situations that are perfectly well-drawn, but which simply don’t cut to the heart of what I’m interested about. Cutting these parts will leave gaps in the story that I’ll have to fill, and I won’t be able to say precisely why they’re being cut, but it’s still something that has to be done.
Following the voice of my own interest means, most often, not writing something. So many times over the past year, I’ve looked at the opening lines of a story or a novel, and I’ve said, “This doesn’t work for me.” Which is an easy thing to say when it’s just a line or a paragraph or a scene, but about when it’s an entire concept? What about when it’s something you’ve had in your idea box for years? What about when you haven’t finished anything in a month, and you sit down every day, and nothing comes out right? At that point there’s a very strong temptation to just force it. And I think if you’ve a very good sense of narrative structure (a much stronger sense than I), then that forced result can often be published and perhaps even acclaimed.
But the biggest damage there is not to your career or to the public, but to your own sense of what you’re interested in. I don’t know, I shouldn’t phrase this in the second person. Authors all have their own ways of finding inspiration, and many of them (including a few great ones, like Anthony Trollope) seem to profit from just churning stuff out. But there are entire years in my life (I’m thinking of 2014 to 2016, the years right after selling Enter Title Here) when I was completely unable to get in touch with my own inspiration, and once you’ve gone through a period like that, you don’t ever want to risk losing touch with yourself again.
*Human beings, when we look even at random data, can usually assemble some sort of pattern from it. For me to even come close to believing in a person’s assertion, one of two things must be true: i) they must have tested it in some way, using protocols and methodologies established before data collections; or ii) it has to fit with my preconceived biases =]