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.

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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.

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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.

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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.