On the Forced and the Glib

I know I’m an incompetent blogger. I don’t post anything for weeks, and then I dump multiple three thousand word essays on you in the space of a few days. I redesign this website more often than I write for it. I resolve to blog about every book I read, then promptly fall silent for a month. I invite you to vote about what I should write, then ignore your decision. Moreover, a distressing drama plays itself out inside me when I do manage to post something. Immediately afterward I castigate myself that what I posted was slight or inelegantly written, or I wish I’d saved up the idea and pitched it somewhere else.

Why have I persevered? Why not delete this blog, and turn the website into a mere list of my publications in other venues, a list that the discipline of not blogging might cause to grow faster?

I really can’t answer that question. All I know is that if I try to stop blogging I regret it until I start again. A blog, its astounding potential audience, its editorial and aesthetic autonomy: what writer could possibly resist that siren call? Well, obviously plenty do resist. But I can’t help suspecting they’re either unaware, incompetent with computers, or, deep down, unwriterly. A blog is just too good an opportunity to pass up.

But is an opportunity ill-used better than an opportunity foregone? What am I even doing here?

I believe good writing is called forth rather than pushed out. I see this in my students, whose prose varies in quality according to the rhetorical context my assignment has created for them, and I see it in myself, because I write best when I have to submit my work to an editor, even though my editors often find almost nothing outside a few typos to improve upon. It’s all mental. The higher the quality I perceive to be demanded of me, the more I am capable of. Good writing emerges in response to objective rhetorical stimuli.

But this blog calls forth nothing, and I’m beginning to wonder if that isn’t why I am perpetually dissatisfied with what I post. All the writers who excel in this medium have an editorial vision, a project, a method, which serves the function of an objective rhetorical stimulus: their very consistency calls forth good writing. Inconsistent, wavering, undetermined, and self-doubting, perhaps I’m not cut out to blog at all?

It is at this point in my reflections that the optimism of my inconsistency usually asserts itself. The reasonable thing to do would be to give up. But instead, I propose a new and even more grandiose and even more quickly abandoned project or series or method.

*

Badly desiring to write is a futile impulse if conceived in a vacuum. But precisely this empty wish has structured my endeavors since childhood. Sublunary goals — causes, theses, themes — present themselves and exert a temporary gravitational force on my writing, but I press on with or without an orbit.

For a long time the aimless inexorability of my drive to write filled me with dread. There is something machinelike about it, and to see yourself as a machine has the horror of death without the solace of oblivion. So I fooled myself into believing that my will to literature was really a will to something else: when I was religious, I thought it was perhaps a will to theology and that fascinating genre, the sermon; when I first entered grad school, I thought perhaps it was a will to philosophy, to the phenomenological description and the dialectic critique; and when I got woke, or, more accurately, accepted the moral necessity of socialism and the ubiquity of the struggle for liberation, I thought perhaps it was a will to politics, to the tractate, the op-ed, and journalism. All wrong, though each phase left a mark.

Earlier I proposed that good writing is called forth rather than pushed out. I understand this phrase through an image. Picture the writer as a cave. In his gloomy depths sleeps the capacity to write well. The cave cannot wake the creature sleeping inside it. But if a likely quarry should pass the mouth of the cave, the creature within it snaps to wakefulness, leaps to the chase, and emerges with red eyes and frothing jaws. Because it can only be called forth, good writing actually lies in wait. Being a cave, the writer — yes, my metaphor is about to break down — can only keep his cave mouth open on clearings where prey are likely to pass. Reading, note-taking on life and books, meditative silence, long walks, watchful conversations with interesting people, attentiveness to one’s own dreams and gusts of feeling: these are the passive fundament of good writing.

And thus the will to literature is of necessity aimless. Of course there’s always a next thing to write about, but raising your head to peer beyond that next thing, you will see only more writing. This claim is not meant to devalue other reasons one might write, the myriad reasons most people write. Literature has the weakest of claims to be an ultimate value. Really, you shouldn’t choose it. But some of us, helplessly, have been chosen by it.

*

All this language of passivity might obscure an equally important feature of the act of good writing: its difficulty. Don’t think for a moment that all my language of “calling forth” and “lying in wait” is an endorsement of the frivolous idolatry that goes by the name of “inspiration,” or its false prophet “genius.” Good writers don’t sit waiting for a lightning bolt.

Good writing is difficult not just because it must be called forth, but because, in the heat of composition, you can easily mistake a pushing out for a calling forth. I call this the danger of “auto-complete”: the tendency of a sentence to finish itself, stupidly; of phrases to offer themselves, clichés; of thinking to arrive at typical conclusions, group-think. The next word always wants to auto-complete, not just on your phone but in your mind and on the page.

Auto-complete is inimical to good writing. It produces what Mario Vargas Llosa calls “dead language.”

To avoid auto-complete, good writing must be a constant oscillation between unselfconscious momentum and self-examination. You must look beyond your immediate impulse in order to avoid what’s easy, hackneyed, unexaminedly ideological, and what’s merely smooth and pleasant to the inner ear.

But passing from inarticulacy and illiteracy to competence is already an immensely difficult journey. Many people never get there. And the further demands that literature makes — for instance, that one should avoid auto-complete — can seem counter-productive, elitist, even reactionary from the perspective of someone who has not been given their human birthright, the resources of time and training that lead to real literacy. Moreover, to many who have received this birthright, literature’s condemnation of auto-complete is an offense, an indictment, an intolerable imposition: isn’t their achievement enough, their lucidity and ease of expression?

In college I had a friend who thought he was a very good writer because he wrote purposefully with the maximum number of cliches. He rooted out original expressions the way I try to root out unoriginal. He told me this was the only way to ensure readers easily understood everything he wrote.

But there’s a small, crucial difference between smoothly exchanging words and communicating, between easy writing and literature, between the glib and the good.

*

The problem of blogging, for me, is that it encourages me to write in a way that is both forced and glib. I want to reboot this blog, but not in the way I’ve done so many times before, by proposing some rigid new program and eventually trailing off in shame and self-disgust.

I read Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work recently, a book about the routines of interesting people. It inspired me to tinker with my own routines. I reasoned that I should embrace the freedom afforded by the dissertation-writing stage of graduate school to experiment with myself. So last week, after years attempting to become an early riser, I gave in to my nocturnal proclivities.

Minerva’s owl is my spirit animal. I become most naturally alert after 9pm. So I now use 9pm-3am as my working hours, sleeping in for as long as I need to (no alarms) each morning, which often keeps me slugabed as late as 10am, and after I wake I allow myself to read or socialize or take the long walks I favor, just as I please, until the night and my working hours roll around again. In a mere week’s experiment with this schedule, I’ve discovered myself reading and writing almost twice as much as before. My “productivity” (hateful word) is enormously increased.

This alteration in my schedule, with its combination of giving in and trying harder, corresponds to alterations in other fundamental habits I’ve made over the last year. For instance, I’ve changed how I take notes. Once I would carefully determine in advance for each book what I wanted from it and how I would extract that information. Now I read freely and mark whatever strikes me as interesting or makes me feel something. The result is better than when forethought guide my marginalia, presumably because my unconscious knows just as well as my consciousness what I’ll want to remember and to use from a book. When I’ve finished, I go back over the passages I’ve marked to see if those marks indicate facts to summarize, passages to add to my commonplace book, leads to other books, or problems to work out. Since commencing this new anti-method, I’ve both enjoyed the act of reading more completely, and taken better notes. How does all this correspond to working from nine in the evening to three in the morning? Because both are ways of adapting my external goals to my internal rhythms, of moving decisively in a specific direction without going against my own grain.

I wrote the essay “on apophatic criticism” early this week as a consequence of the new schedule. I woke up around 9:30am and felt like working through some thoughts I had about criticism, Ben Lerner, Steve Mitchelmore, theology, and atheism. Those thoughts, their connection, and the form they took, were a byproduct of that early morning mood. I don’t know how the essay struck you, but to me it stood out among the other things I’ve posted on this blog for a very simple reason: I don’t feel ashamed of it. It was called forth (rather than pushed out) because I composed it simply by reflecting on the ideas foremost in my thoughts on a few consecutive mornings, and it wasn’t glib because I wrote it with no preordained deadline or intended form, in short self-contained sections.

What I propose to do from now on is to devote a portion of each morning to writing this way. I will take as many days as I need to compose each post, teasing out the various dimensions of whatever thought captured my attention on the first day. I’ll write with no urgency, but I’ll write every morning with my coffee. I won’t set preliminary restrictions on subject matter, as I’ve done in the past, though it’s a fair bet that books will remain central. The only thing I can promise in advance is that I will never publish something here again that I feel to be forced or glib; everything I do publish, however unpleasant or controversial or odd or stupid, will be ripened by reflection, earnest in expression, and written with care.

Wish me luck.

15 thoughts on “On the Forced and the Glib”

  1. I am not sure where you would classify my blog, maybe book chat? But the reason I started it was for purely personal reasons. I read so many books that I wanted a way to remember them and it has grown and evolved into something I could never have imagined. I cringe to look back at some of my first posts and have been tempted to even delete some of them. But my site has become a reflection of my growth as a reader, writer and a person. I think in the end you have to do what comes natural for you and only write for yourself and not try to capture a particular audience. I have found a core group of likeminded readers who have the same literary tastes whose blogs I visit and who visit mine which is a nice side effect of my writing. And the same goes for Twitter. I only follow and actively engage with about 50 likeminded literati of writers, artists and bloggers.

    1. Everybody keeps asking me to classify their blogs now! Which, fair enough: I suppose I would wonder too if somebody else, whom I knew read my blog, made such a typology. But I’m not sure it actually makes sense to classify a blog as a whole according to my types, since a given blog often includes many different types of writing. Some blogs are driven by almost totally consistency of post-type (like Mitchelmore’s, say), but most of us post different sorts of things at different times. Anyway, I think your actual reviews, where you consider what worked or didn’t in a book, are more than book chat, are real criticism; but of course you also purvey some high quality book chat, as when you write about visiting bookshops and so on. Book chat, the discourse of book fans, is lovely and every real reader should engage in it from time to time!

  2. I wanted to share some of my own thoughts about blogging, given that I am still relatively new to the medium and am considerably older than you are, without the academic “luxuries” you enjoy. That is not a criticism at all, I dearly wish I had followed the path you are on, but in nursing a little of my persistent anger about my fate, I think you have inadvertently given me a step into my contribution to the next Seagull Books catalogue. (So that thought has gone into my notebook, not this response.) 🙂

    I view blogging as a writing exercise. Even then, it takes me a long time to compose a blog review. My intention in writing about a book is to keep the discussion relatively concise and geared to a general audience. If I encounter a book that I feel demands more, I will try to take a review elsewhere. And no matter the context in which I write about a book, I endeavour to open potential in the reading, leaving space for readers to come to the work on their own. Initial views on my review posts are typically decent on the day of publishing, but I find it interesting to see the posts that get consistent viewings over time. That pleases me because I try to write about books that don’t always get a lot of attention and I’m glad my review is out there for other curious readers.

    Yet when I muse, like you have here, it is a very different matter. I feel terribly self conscious spilling my personal experience, hopes and regrets on the page. When I do decide to write like that, the writing flows easily, constrained only by my own desire to edit myself with a strong eye to maintaining my boundaries, or, in other words, to achieve the appropriate sharing balance I always strive for. Invariably, the response to these “controlled bleeding on the page” posts is infinitely more enthusiastic in numbers and honest sharing, than any review I write. Which makes me wonder how people can be so interested in my thoughts, and, more critically, why I feel so self conscious about the writing. If anything, that is my current struggle with writing—and perhaps why I am finding it so hard to write at all at the moment.

    In the end, I suppose the best writing, or that which is most worth reading, is not contrived or written to script, but that which flows from the writer’s desire to explore—no matter where that leads. The exploration informs the form, the language, the medium. Blogging is one way of finding out, for oneself, what that is. And to engage with readers. But, as I think you realize, it does not replace the rewards or demands of editorial engagement. So it leaves one feeling unfinished, unresolved.

    Thank you for, once again, sharing your intellectual and literary exploration. I welcome the opportunity to follow your journey and share a little of my own. Best wishes.

    1. I have to say, you win the lifetime award for consistently amazing comments on blog posts. Thank you for your thoughts, and I will now, of course, carefully scrutinize your next contribution to the Seagull Books catalog to see if I can figure out what thought went into your notebook!

      I just want to add that I wholeheartedly agree with your observation that “the best writing, or that which is most worth reading, is not contrived or written to script, but flows from the writer’s desire to explore—no matter where that leads.” Hear, hear; I subscribe to every clause of that.

  3. I apologize for my comment; I was thinking about your classifications and trying to work out for myself where I would fit in. I was not expecting you to categorize my writing and I should have written my response differently. I also think it is rare that a blog fits neatly into only one category.
    As far as Nero books are concerned I would recommend starting with Nero: The End of a Dynasty by Miriam Griffin. It is a bit old as far as secondary scholarship, but it is still an excellent source and I think she has updated it a few times since publication. Two others are Nero by Edward Champlin (very good and well-written) and The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources. I prefer books like this that rely heavily on the original, Latin histories. Finally, UCP is coming out with new translations of all of Seneca’s tragedies. I can’t wait to get my hands on those! I have been assured that my copies are in the mail.

    1. No need to apologize! *I’m* sorry if I came across as snapping at you. — Thank you very much for the Nero book recommendations. I’ll check them out. The Seneca sounds interesting too; I’ve only read his moral essays.

  4. Hi Robert. The first thing I want to say is thank you for the post about This Space. It’s the first time anyone has reflected the blog back at me so that I could see it in a *convincing* new light. Yes, the first time in over 12 years. There has been plenty of scorn, so this is a welcome counterbalance. Actually, more than welcome, as I get almost no feedback.

    The perpetual dissatisfaction you speak of might not end because it’s been my condition for years, though to me it appears necessary. I regret that more people do not embrace the freedom the blogging form offers rather than using it as an excuse to stop. But I would warn against following any programme – following my instinct has worked for me. It’s taken many years, that’s for sure; all worth it.

    It surprised me that you say I have a “consistency of post-type” but it’s probably true. Given my circumstances, I write about only that which stirs me, and I suppose that does lead to a certain kind of post. In fact, I know I’m stirred when I doubt whether I should continue writing and then post what I’ve written – out of its incoherence or potential to offend. It might also result in following the line in John Berryman’s Dream Song 54 that says “Write as short as you can, in order, of what matters” (sic). Critical writing can become very windy – that glibness again – so I also seek to phrase things with as much precision as possible, which often means I can be “impalpable or cryptic” as Dan Green said, because if that is demanded by what you want to say, then that is precision. There are too many literary blogs seeking justification by parroting received opinion. Personal necessity is much more interesting to this reader, and to you too it seems, which is a great relief.

    1. You’re very welcome. I plan to write about your book at length at some point, and the stuff about apophatic criticism was really just a throat-clearing and working out of some preliminary thoughts, because I’d like to do it justice in a properly long review at some place more public than this blog. My thoughts are still ripening though.

      I’m astonished to hear that you’ve not received serious reflection on This Space in 12 years. That fact represents to me the abject failure of the internet, which was supposedly going to be such a discourse utopia. How can a blog like This Space go unremarked while dozens of hack-factories, websites justifying themselves, as you put it, by parroting received opinion and diluting any originality into an acceptable thinness, attract massive readerships and wide acclaim? It’s horrible.

      I find it fascinating that you would find it surprising that This Space has a consistency (from the outside at least) to readers. But it makes sense, since your blog, the whole character of which is bound up in the rejection of groupthink or the mere cozy pursuit of popularity, has its consistency from the same source as its originality: your actual laconic truthfulness about reading. From inside that must feel like a precarious exploratory way of writing, but from the outside it has the consistency that truthfulness draws around itself like a mantle of authority.

      Anyway, I’m glad my post could give you some encouragement. I, and I’m sure many others, really do value and admire what you do, both for itself and as an example.

      1. I should say that Lars Iyer’s introduction to my book also reflected the blog back to me so that I learned something – that is, got a new and unexpected perspective. I suppose I meant something from apparently out-of-nowhere and with a sensitivity that reviews tend to replace with reportage. Not that I want to appear blasé about them – not at all. (Perhaps that one written in Danish in a French newspaper would provide one too!)

  5. Good luck. This is a satisfying and illuminating read. It’s a relief to find words for the incoherent but instintive thoughts that won’t bend in any other direction. I acted on an impulse to write by starting a blog. No defined theme, direction, or purpose. The first year felt less like pushing words than they have done in the last. Despite numerous attempts to break up it with, and always failing, I’ve figured I have outgrown the style of posts (long, rambling) and more drawn brevity. So I’m boxing up the old to put in storage in private. Deleting it would feel spiteful, and it’ll be fun to visit the annals of my writing history down the line. A new blog may come. I haven’t given up on the medium just yet. And of course there are just too few surprising reads in the reader to impossible to surrender. Look forward to keeping pace with where you go. Thanks.

  6. Sometimes inspiration is derived from action, not the other way round. Crazy I know. Some people wait forever for that animal to walk past their cave. It never happens. Sometimes action creates motivation and inspiration. Just write…Let the rest sort itself out.

  7. A writer is always driven by an inner conscious dissatisfaction of what he is writing. Profound and provoking what you have written. I have always thought of writing my own blog. I need to pour my mind and heart out in a deep and original way. To create, to write is a blissful journey towards uniqueness and innovation.

  8. Thank you for writing about the process of writing, and especially what you have discovered about blogging and how it works for you. Your blog has inspired me to keep at it, regardless of what others may think because ultimately, it benefits the author probably much more than the audience. That being said, it is wise to follow and be supported by like-minded writers. Thanks again, and best wishes now and in the future for your new approach.

  9. Writing is so complicated. Often times I have found that when I force my words because I need to submit something or publish a post it is just so badly written. I am truly astonished by the fact that your work merely has some typos because I have heaps of discouraging errors.

    Great post Robert.

Your thoughts?