My game loop: think, write, learn, share, repeat

After testing the waters and giving it some thought, I’ve decided that I am not going to make the effort to try and find a third party to publish my writing. Ultimately, I write for myself, and I don’t really need the endorsement of a third party to make me feel any better or worse about what I produce. It certainly would be nice to be published, but the overall pay-off doesn’t really seem to me to be worth the effort. Crucially, it takes time away from writing itself, which is far more rewarding than the hard work of submitting work for consideration.

So, why do I share what I write on this blog?

The opportunity cost of publishing my work on this blog is pretty low and well worth the chance — however faint in a world with over 600 million blogs — of finding one or two readers who enjoy what I have written, benefit from it, and take the time to let me know. More ambitiously, by sharing my work, I might even connect with a kindred spirit and potential collaborator. That would be a fun and rewarding outcome of sharing my writing here and well worth the time of copying and pasting it from one file to another.

In fact, when I first set up this blog, many years ago, that was the original plan: take advantage of the new and free tech to stick my work somewhere someone might stumble across and enjoy it. For better and for worse, I’ve tested a bunch of different approaches for this blog since that first post, and, with the benefit of hindsight, it isn’t surprising to me that I have returned to the original plan. With the benefit of that very same hindsight, I also know that I learned a lot by testing those different approaches which means it was time well spent, even if I have ended up exactly where I began. The game loop is straightforward, but the rewards are satisfying. I guess that’s why I keep playing.

Once more into the breach!

An unexpected novella: Aberrant Hope

Last week, I unexpectedly completed my second novella. It’s called Aberrant Hope.

I say, “unexpectedly,” because, I returned to the novella in a bit of a writing funk. I looked it over only to gauge my interest in writing fiction again, fully expecting that the verdict was going to be, no, I don’t want to write fiction anymore.

But, when I realized the story was far closer to being finished than I remembered, my sense of duty was tweaked. I owed the story an ending. I couldn’t leave it half-born.

In the weeks and months that followed, little by little, I laboured, and, at long last, it was fully born, with all its fingers and toes. I saw that it was good. I rested.

Not too long ago, I would have immediately expelled the novella from the garden of creation, posting it online like spaghetti or the Showtime Rotisserie. This time around I will take a bit of time to see if there are any small quirky independent publishers out there that might take an interest in it.

I fully expect that I will eventually post it here and, perhaps, self-publish a hard copy. I don’t imagine there are any publishers sufficiently small, quirky and independent to want a piece of this weird little story, but I lose nothing by taking a look.

Having said that, I previously expelled my progeny promptly because I valued the immediate feedback that was sometimes returned in exchange.

However, other than a few mostly meaningless metrics, much of the feedback I have received over the years has come from people I already know or might easily come to know via email. There is no necessary reason to post something publicly to get some feedback.

If you are interested in giving it a read and providing some feedback, give me a shout on any one of the very many channels we might already be connected on or leave a comment below.

Here is my first crack at a promotional blurb:

In the thin light of a foggy dawn, Jaq meets a naked, filthy and foul smelling boy, carrying a short sword. Against his better judgement, Jaq joins the boy on his quest to kill God. Aberrant Hope is a modern myth inspired by the Tarot and told from the perspective of its supporting characters.

Writing: what I’ve learned

In the beginning, writing was a fun school assignment. It was a way to compete with my friends. It helped to wean me off my toys, offering an age-appropriate medium for the expression of my imaginative impulses.  

Then, when I was sixteen, going on seventeen, while hiking across a glacier in the Rockies, I experienced something I couldn’t quite make sense of. In response to the experience, I tried to make sense of it by writing a poem. It was, I think, my first true poem. I also now suspect that I turned to the page only because I had no one else to talk with about the experience. 

If writers, like super heroes, have secret origins, my experience on the glacier and my effort to make sense of it with words is my secret origin. Like every super hero’s secret origin, it has shaped everything else that has come after. I never finished that first true poem; I don’t think I’ve ever stopped trying to write it either. 

Twenty-nine years after that first unfinished and forever-revised poem, I now know this about writing: Luke got it backwards. Flesh becomes word, and not the other way around. The marks on a page don’t affect us. We affect them. The influence we suppose we feel in words originates in us. We make marks work. We make marks words. The power of words is us imaginatively transubstantiated.

The power of writing, then, is always the power of a community. Like a currency, writing is only as influential as the people who call it their own. If you want to craft writing that wins friends, influences neighbours, or earns money and acclaim, the marks on the page are probably the least important consideration.

Don’t write each day; instead, ingratiate yourself each day to the right people. It’s gatekeepers all the way down.

I also now suspect that words have limited efficacy when it comes to making sense of the kind of experience I had on the glacier. The experience originates, I think, in a part of our brains that experience, know, and understand without using the marks, sounds and physicalizations we learn as children to express as language. If this suspicion is correct, it is probably impossible to express in words the experience I had on the glacier. My adolescent turn to words, poetry and writing, to make sense of my encounter with the infinitesimal nature of human experience, was probably futile from the outset. 

Fortunately, writing has helped me to understand myself, others, and the world around me, even if it can’t magically motivate people to action or express the inexpressible. Despite its mundane limitations, writing can be very satisfying, especially when I catch in words some feeling, intuition or idea that had previously seemed ineffably out of reach. Rationally, I know writing — my writing — is little more than an elaborate game of solitaire; irrationally, I also know that it feels important. I’ve always been one of those kids who takes play very seriously.

In another twenty-nine years, I will be seventy-four, going on seventy-five. With so much life left to learn from, I wonder who I might yet become. Will the person I am today be as much of a stranger to me then as that sixteen year-old is a stranger to me now? It seems likely. It also seems likely that the different texts I have created or will create will be insufficient to forge a persistent identify over time. My past selves, my present selves, and my future selves, like any other reader, make of texts whatever they bring to them at the time of the encounter. There is no indelible message that can be preserved in the bottle of my words, even for my future selves. Waves in the ocean of experience leave no trace. 

If all of this is true, why write at all? It’s a fair a question, and one that I often ask myself. If there are so many other enjoyable activities that are much more likely to win friends, influence neighbours, and earn money and acclaim, why bother writing, why persist in a habit which serves no greater purpose than its own perpetuation. At the age of forty-five, going on forty-six, this is my answer: writing deeply is like breathing deeply; you understand its value, whenever you take the time to do it.

My own private iconoclasm: making the word flesh once and for all

After many many years of reading, writing and thinking, I have arrived at the rather unremarkable conclusion that reading, writing and thinking are neither important nor unimportant in and of themselves.

They are human activities like any other and, as such, their value is ultimately determined by other humans. They can influence others — if they influence at all — only because of the values and valuings of families, peers, and communities. They can’t convince, compel, or convert on their own. They do not have quasi-divine and human-independent power to influence humans and their affairs.

I mention this only because I suspect that I may have implicitly believed all these years that reading, writing and thinking did have quasi-divine powers, even I can’t recall ever explicitly thinking to myself, “if I read, write and think just so, people will have no choice but to understand and agree.” Why else would I spend so much time reading and rereading, writing and rewriting, thinking and rethinking? Of course, I enjoyed it, but there are many other enjoyable activities I might have pursued instead. The intensity of my dedication seems to imply that I was hoping for something more.

School, university and academia probably helped to engender this implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking. From the earliest days of school until the very end of academia, I was taught that the correct reading, writing and thinking would produce and, perhaps, even compel the appropriate mark, degree, or publication. It was as if there was a kind of magic at work — a magic that inevitably produced success when it was invoked correctly.

The implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking was also stoked in the early days of social media. Time-and-again, it was (and is) claimed that there is a uniquely correct way to succeed at social media. Do it correctly, we were (are) told, and the followers, likes, pageviews and advertising dollars will inevitably flow. In the end, we have learned that there isn’t anything entirely unique about social media. Like any other human activity, there are many familiar but not entirely certain paths to success and failure.

I suppose William Carlos Williams also contributed to my implicit hope. As a young man, I was entranced by the idea that he remained a doctor, lived in Paterson, New Jersey, and, nevertheless, became a towering literary figure. According to the official hagiography, he opted out of the lifestyle of a poet but, nevertheless, became one of the greatest. I assumed, at the time, that it was the power of his words and talent that helped him overcome the geography of his choices. I see now that I overlooked the true power of the relationships he maintained.

I am tempted to be troubled by the non-divine nature of reading, writing and thinking, to characterize it as a problem, and to draw some profound conclusion, but I’ve been down that path too many times before to make the same mistake again. The absence of God only seems troubling if you characterize it as an absence, but to do so is a mistake. That which never existed can’t be absent because it was never present to begin with, no matter how it might have otherwise felt.   

The only real consequence of this realization is that I must give up on an ancient and essentially childish dream. Neither the bug-eating mystic in the desert, nor the stone-throwing philosopher on the mountain, nor the house-call-making poet in New Jersey can, by the shear force of reading, writing and thinking, legislate on behalf of the world. Read, write, and think if you enjoy it, but don’t expect or pretend that it will have any more influence on humans and their affairs than counting blades of grass, memorizing all the digits of pi, or surfing off the coast of Maui. To influence human affairs, one must be a part of them. There is no escaping that fact of human existence.

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

The game of life: there is no way around it.

Once upon a time (but, really, not that long ago), I think I believed I could, if I worked hard enough at it, write a poem, a story, an idea so high and wild that I would never need to write another. To put it less allegorically and less plagiaristically, I think I believed I could craft a text that could compel others to action and, if not action, at least, maybe, it might compel others to like and admire it.

I say, “I think I believed” because I don’t recall ever explicitly thinking, “If I get this sentence just so, then, people will understand, act, and admire.” But, looking back on all of it, it certainly seems like this belief was implicit in my dogged pursuit of an aesthetic and conceptual perfection that was forever just beyond my reach and entirely unseen by everyone else (my Harvey, I suppose). It is as if, it seems to me now, I worked so hard because I thought perfection would give my words and ideas super powers. Otherwise, why bother?

Once articulated, it seems like a rather childish and somewhat spooky hope for a well-read and well-travelled atheist such as myself, but you don’t have to look very far to find this hope in others. For example, the rhetoric of debate is built around the notion that arguments are expected to compel belief by the sheer force of their logic. People’s heads explode online and around the dinner table precisely because they expect others to change their beliefs in the face of arguments that are so obviously correct that any idiot should be able to see it. In fact, and to put too fine point on it, as I so often do, it could be claimed — and, heck, I am going to go right ahead and make the claim — that the hope at the heart of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Modernism and the entire Western liberal tradition — is the hope that truth, whether accessed through faith or reason, can compel people to change their beliefs and behaviours to align with it.

And that hope, in case you didn’t know, is almost certainly wrong.

There is no property independent of people that can compel people to believe or act any one way or the other. And while there is still much to be learned about brains, beliefs and behaviours, I feel pretty confident in asserting that the key consideration, when it comes to belief formation, is going to be the people with which one identifies. Moreover, the evaluation of beliefs and behaviours will always be done by people. So, even if it turns out that we can sometimes come up with a new idea completely on our own (p.s. it won’t, but let’s pretend), the value of the idea will always be determined by people and is not intrinsic to the idea itself.

So, I suppose this is a very long and unnecessarily elaborate way of saying (as per the uzhe) what most teenagers have probably figured out — that fitting-in, ingratiating oneself to a group (ideally, one that is wealthy, powerful and beautiful) is the only path to success. If you want to be a successful anything (writer, plumber, banker), you need to ingratiate yourself to the people who determine who is or is not x, y, or z and who also determine whether or not people are a success at it. There is no way around it.

The Right Kind of Writing is Good for You. Bonus: It’s Simple!

Writing Is Good For YouI have always had the hunch that writing helps me make sense of my life in a way that’s beneficial.

It turns out I was right.

There is solid empirical research indicating that the right kind of writing can have a measurable benefit in your life. More surprisingly, it benefits you both emotionally and physically.

The good news: “the right kind of writing” is very simple to do. It also doesn’t require a huge time commitment.

This is what you need to do.

  1. Identify an emotional upheaval in your life.
  2. Write about the upheaval over four consecutive days, for 15-20 minutes.
  3. Focus on your deepest feelings and aim to create a meaningful account that makes sense of the upheaval by day four.

That, believe it or not, is all it takes.

In controlled experiments, people who used this simple exercise reported better moods, received better grades at university, missed fewer days of work, showed improved immune system functioning, and were less likely to visit the doctor.

One important caveat: don’t write about the upheaval too soon after it happens. Use it only when you’re ready.

Want to learn more? Here’s a good article.

I read about this research in two different books: The Happiness Hypothesis and Strangers to Ourselves. Both are very accessible, very enjoyable, and cover a lot of research that will be relevant to anyone who wants to make sense of an upheaval in his or her life. I recommend both of them.

If you want to explore the ideas and research in these books (and others), I can help.