Old journal entries and the paradox of maturing writing

Recently, I was talking with a friend and thought of an old LiveJournal entry I had made my junior year of college. LiveJournal, which still is a thing, though deeply changed, is a blogging platform founded in ’99 that was popular for groups of friends journaling, blogging, and sharing fanfiction. My LiveJournal page operated as a journal and blog, often mingling the (deeply) personal and philosophical.

This particular entry was about the struggle of getting up some days, opening your eyes and solving the “why get up” question. I think a lot of us have been feeling this lately, whether from the quotidian, home-bound nature of working situations or the genuine horrors and hardships of the moment, from job losses, to dead family, to months of uncertainty.

As I reflected then:

I ask myself why I fight. Why I continue to live out days steeped in the same despair and angst. I never find an answer. Instead, I lose myself in the pattern of my life, a pattern arrayed to defend me from such dangerous questions. I have to limit my scope to be happy. Looking beyond the bounds of the “norm,” daring to desire something beyond the regular patterns framed by society, only leads to nausea, a sickness derived from life’s sheer futility

Unfortunately, I don’t find much comfort in the entry, basically advocating getting lost in one’s daily patterns–a pattern that is likely skewed or broken for many right now, leading to this questioning.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to dwell on that today. It is an important topic, but revisiting this old entry, I found myself sucked into a document of other entries, where two things really struck me.

First, how confident and unqualifying most entries were. They flowed out with a flourish and kept going. They made big claims, ignored huge assumptions, talked about deep truths with nontechnical glibness. They were more naive and less self-aware than my current writing. They hedged less. They did not go into deeper explanations, digressions, or intellectual genealogies to the same extent. They were less careful.

But on the other hand, the writing was much less heavy and much more lively, even raw. It also had a more transcendent quality, a reaching or over-speculating that was refreshing and exciting. It wasn’t worried about being “correct” or professional; it was about thinking through things.

It was less like a product and more like a process.

And in some ways, that can be bad, as it is messy and over-sharing, possibly more sure of itself than it should be. Even smug or self-centered. Navel-gazing, not considering its audience as carefully. As some composition scholars may term it, it was “writerly” prose, writing for the writer, and not “readerly” prose, writing for the reader. But I also really liked it. Or at least parts of it.

And so I come back to three larger observations.

First, how much easier or less stressful that kind of writing is. As someone moving to write as part of a living, I am constantly haunted by the specter of “the reader” when I write, a misty figure who always seems excessively invested in picking through my writing to find every possible shortcoming. Writing without that reader, even reading that writing, is liberating.

Second, I thought of Ira Glass’s famous thoughts on the “taste gap,” the uneven development of taste and ability:

Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

As time has gone on, I think I let a lot of my creative writing go to the side because it did not feel good enough, or more perniciously, I would start a project and abandon it because I thought I would never be up to the challenge. If I feel the work is bad, so will they.

Though I think this is somewhat inevitable as Glass describes it, and as he suggests, we should just work through it, producing more writing. And on the other side, I think we may be throwing less spaghetti at the wall because we get better at making it. Writing that goes through our self-criticism gauntlet is indeed better–more informed, polished, and mature–but it’s a hard process, leaving lots of dead documents.

But conversely, I thought about Albert Camus revisiting his old writing and finding it refreshing, filled with a life and sensuous poetry that his more current writing lacked. It inspired him in his unfinished final novel, The First Man, to return to a similar style.

The style of the novel feels closer to some of his earlier essays, like in Nuptials, different from the deliberately sparse writing in The Stranger and the expressive yet restrained writing of The Plague, especially in passages like this:

He could breathe, on the giant back of the sea he was breathing in waves, rocked by the great sun, at last he could sleep and come back to the childhood from which he never recovered, to the secret of the light, of the warm poverty, which enabled him to survive and overcome everything.

Albert Camus, The First Man

Camus’ writing always has a depth, poetry, and a sensuousness, but it got more careful as he got published. Those early essays are a bit stumbling, over-extended, and unduly grand, but they have a certain intensity to them. A rawness. Just look at the opening few sentences of The Wind at Djemila:

THERE are places where the spirit dies so that a truth may be born which is the spirit’s very negation. When I went to Djemila there was wind and sun but that must wait. What has to be said first is that a great silence reigns there, heavy and without a crack. The cries of birds, the furred sound of a three-holed flute, the stamping of goats, murmurs from the sky–these are so many noises which made up the silence and desolation of the place.

Albert Camus, “The Wind at Djemila,” Nuptials

And it doesn’t let up much from there.

But finding that balance between the sometimes naive, exploratory confidence of immature writing and the careful craft of more mature writing seems essential. While they seem somewhat contradictory, I don’t think they are. I don’t know where the reconciliation occurs, but I think it mingles the hot fire of younger emotions with more reflective hindsight, somehow allowing both to breathe and inform the page.

“A wild joy”: Finding meaning

Boredom

Somewhere I read (Schopenhauer, I think) that boredom occurs when you feel time pass while doing fruitless activity. Unlike pain, which invades our sensations, forcing our response, boredom seeps in from contrasting our current action from a better alternative.

Existential boredom, then, is a sense that life more generally is not fulfilling. It might be “pleasurable” at a daily level, but when one steps away, it lacks something. Life–like a story–needs a certain cohesion, a “meaning” or significance.

Continue reading ““A wild joy”: Finding meaning”

Play(dough)

[Image from Learning4kids.net]
[Image from Learning4kids.net]

Playdough. Tiny hands tweak, pinch, stretch the dough into tinsels, meaty threads, snakes curling into snail shells–suddenly smashed flat, “like pancakes,” and rolled smooth in young palms into spheres. Perhaps, with a few gentle, well-placed tugs, the children teas out arms and legs, or a simple face, then the fingers close, vise-like, dough peeking slightly from the spaces between, molding shaping it into a small brain, nooked and crannied, and grained with palm lines.

Then, at the end of the day, it all goes back in the plastic can, smashed, once more, into an uneven cylinder. “Don’t forget,” say the teachers, “or else you won’t be able to play with it anymore.” Sealed behind primary-colored lids and walls, the malleable plaything remains withdrawn and dormant, waiting.

II.

“Writing is revision.” A teacher I once shadowed said this a few times. So did I to own students, thinking it a properly provocative, axiomatic phrase. Something White Lotus from Kung Fu might say if he taught first year composition.

But, to be honest, I don’t really know what it means. Is it a reference to something like Linda Flowers and John R. Hayes and their “cognitivist approach to writing,” in which revision and pre-writing are part of the “writing process”? Or perhaps it’s a more political adage, on the “revision” of ideological entrenchments and social structures. Writing allows one to “revise” the state of things, both inside our heads and outside, in the world.

Or it may stretch the never-ending inventive tweaking that revision entails over the whole of writing. In other words, writing is a constant “revision” of sorts, a constant trying to get words out as best as we can. We are never done. The moment we pick up our pens, we are already revising. The moment we “finish,” we are still revising.

III.

If one mentions (or Googles) Albert Camus, the word “absurdity” is not far behind–neither is “existentialist,” which is a whole other issue. But, as with most cases of historical association, things are more complicated.

The “absurd” is the first of three philosophical progressions for Camus. During WWII, Camus wrote the trilogy of the absurd: the play Caligula (1944), the novel The Stranger (1942), and the essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). This, he said, would be his guiding process, tackling his ideas with a play, a novel, and an extended philosophical essay.

His second trilogy centered on revolt, inserting human values in the face of nihilism. Writing the book-length essay The Rebel (L’Homme révolté, 1951), Camus received a wave of criticism. For one, he attacked the French left, which included his friends Sartre and Beauvoir, because they knew about the atrocities of the GULAG and still supported Stalin.

But more pointedly, Camus also changed his thoughts. He no longer was the “prophet of the absurd,” but the spokesman of revolt. While some argue this shift was a complete rejection and others say it forms a “continuum” with absurdity, both represent a shift.

As Camus writes in his essay “Enigma,” “Everyone wants the man who is still searching to have already reached his conclusion. A thousand voices are already telling him what he has found, and yet he knows that he hasn’t found anything.”

Camus was still searching, still stumbling and exploring his ideas, flashlight in hand, but his public name was already solidified–and, in many ways, remains so.

IV.

Playdough is revision. You’re never done tweaking or sculpting it. As it’s name suggests, playdough is always “play,” never product. Pure process, pure doing, all about feeling the grainy pliant substance stick and fold with your fingertips. And each time, it goes back in the container, like an artist who scrubs away his canvas just to start again.

It’s not “art for art’s sake,” but creative construction and exploration without a clear endpoint. Like a sand box or a “sand box” game, playdough provides a space to explore the space. That’s its end and means.

In a sense, it even differs from a “game,” our usual sites of play, as playdough has no constraints. No “rules” that structure the game. For example, in soccer (i.e. football), because you can’t use hands and arms, the “game” is to use one’s other body parts to head, dribble, kick, cross, and score.

Playdough has no “rules,” except, perhaps, a parent saying you can’t stick it on the rug.

V.

Camus also wrote that writing is a “daily fidelity,” a daily act of holding onto and working one’s ideas and images into something that may take years. For some reason, Camus often latches on to five years, saying that one must have an idea five years before one starts writing about it.

Camus’ often forgotten first novel A Happy Death is a steppingstone to The Stranger. The character is a cold, detached Algerian named Mersault (a one letter difference from The Stanger‘s Meursault.). It evokes similar images, similar echoes and feelings, though the novels differ profoundly.

Scrapped and unpublished in his lifetime, A Happy Death may be a failure in some ways. Or a mere writing exercise, a book-length warm up for a new writer. But still, the question remains, how much does it stand on it’s own? How much is it part of The Stranger? And how much does the distinction matter?

VI.

I always remember that our English “essay” comes from “essai,” the French word for “trial” or “to test the quality of” (like metal in a furnace), echoing Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, which he viewed in a similar light. They were not meant to be polished, finished pieces, but “trials” and “attempts,” sketches or studies in a sense that tested his ideas.

Like Camus’ daily fidelity and playdough’s unfinished pliancy, Montaigne’s Essais were searching, roving, and unfinished–despite receiving countless edits, read throughs and revisiting. And like Camus writing, the Essais offer profound political and philosophical insights. Here, writing is revision, and revision is powerful.

Encountering most essays, however, we often see them as static and finished. We also see them as discrete and separate–or when not separate, as “derivative” or “remixed.” But technology provides a possible return to Montaigne’s Essais or a possible shift into the realm of playdough, of productive play, as our “interfaces” are often not static. Here, writing is much like revision.

Only I shudder to use the word “productive,” because it has become an instrumentally focused word, layered with nasty, anxiety-inducing overtones that make me wonder if I’m “doing enough,” and “keeping up,” and not “wasting time.”

So, in a sense, technology allows us to have interfaces of co-authorship, interaction, constant change, new mechanics of invention, etc., but we also need a culture that can explore this. We may have playdough interfaces, but we need a playdough culture, a culture that isn’t telling us what we have “found,” to paraphrase Camus, but relishes the play of the finding. Doing so, we may further liberate our technology and creativity to innovate and express. But most of all, it may bring more freedom and joy back into the creative process.

As I said above, it’s not art for art’s sake, but doing for doing’s sake. It’s about turning revision into invention and vise versa. It’s about taking our tacky, doughy language and playing with it, seeing what comes out as we stretch and flatten it into compositions.

Creepy pasta and Internet “culture”

I’m not talking about some new Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese Halloween-themed release. “Creepy pasta,” a term from 2007, refers to  memes of creepy stories. They are like urban legends or folklore from the Internet. The term itself comes from “copypasta,” a name from 2006 given to easily “copied” and “pasted” documents, around since the 80s.

Creepy pasta has similar roots. In the 90s, for example, people often copied and pasted creepy stories and sent them via e-mail. Many of these ended with an infamous clause, like the Mickey Mouse one that threatened an evil Mickey Mouse would invade your home unless you forwarded the message. Others threatened curses or a ruined love life. As people forwarded the messages, the creepypasta spread.

Image inspired by the "Suicide Mouse" creepypasta. Mickey Mouse is actually quite common in these. [Image from Villians.wikia]
Image inspired by the “Suicide Mouse” creepypasta. I guess Mickey Mouse horror stories live on. [Image from Villians.wikia]

With the advent of Myspace in 2003, Facebook in 2004, and YouTube in 2005, these sorts of things continued into other social media, with comments today using the same ploy. Fortunately, creepypasta has more to offer than evil Mickey Mouses and poorly worded threats.

Continue reading “Creepy pasta and Internet “culture””

Writerly Routines

As I’ve alluded to in a past post, routine can be central to writers, or creative people in general. In an era that values efficiency and innovation–where so many want to be the next Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs–anything that encourages these traits gains an immediate capital.

[image from dorkboycomics]
[image from dorkboycomics]

For one, it can ease the strain required to enter the creative mode. As some research shows–so eloquently elucidated by John Cleese–one needs a space in time and place to innovate. Stuck with daily stresses, the creative mind can stagnate by worrying over the necessary pitfalls and backtracks required for the creative process. A set hour and a closed door pushes that stress outside.

Making set time also forces one revisit similar issues for an extended period. This helps to inspire seemingly sudden insights that actually occur through long-term reflection, the “slow hunch” as writer Steven Johnson puts it. Doing something everyday keeps one foot in the creative enterprise as the rest of the day unfolds. One never knows what may trigger the insight–a new task, an observation, or help from a colleague–but if one is miles away from an issue, they may never notice.

And at the most basic level, a routine keeps one disciplined by encouraging habits. In a reductive sense, a productive routine is nothing but a series of productive habits, i.e. of heavily ingrained actions that one does with little to no thought. If authors write everyday at 6:00 a.m., it becomes habitual. They keep writing then, regardless of other circumstances, just as one may brush one’s teeth before bed.

That said, breaking a routine can also be affective. While some thinkers, like Kant, were heavily routine and disciplined, others thrived on ambiguity and sprawling, uncertain days. Sometimes travel can be a handy catalyst, too. With it, one breaks from the daily perspectives and concerns of the routine. As one of my friend’s puts it, “Journey outward, journey inward.”

Continue reading “Writerly Routines”

The Creative Brain

The Creative Brain

I’ve been out of town since Friday, so I haven’t been able to write much. But one of my friends came to the rescue and sent me this link to a fascinating article. It is a fun, but informative and insightful look at the human brain at its most creative and touches on similarly aligned issues, like the link between genius and madness.

While a little long for a quick read, it is well worth the look.

Writing in the afternoon

Somewhere a few years ago I read in an anthology that you can’t write in the afternoon. It has to be in the morning or at night, said the author, but the afternoon was a dry landscape without inspiration. Nothing worthwhile grew there. Or if it did, it was weed-choked and gravelly, like a forgotten sidewalk.

I’ve always remembered that piece of advice. But here I am, writing in the afternoon.

What’s it like? Somewhere nearby birds chirp–robins, I think–and a drier rattles with its cargo downstairs. The day is quiet and cloudy, like a teenager not quite ready to face the sun, rolling up a gray ruffled blanket over his eyes as the sounds from the road–the sounds of people awake for the past five or six hours–filter in. Already, I’ve been to a graduation and eaten two meals. I’ve done some cleaning and exercised. I did some work and read. I still have more to do later on today: write a press release, clean more, cook dinner, do some thesis research.

And that’s the odd thing about writing in the afternoon–the part that makes it hard: you are mid-stride in your 24-hour step through life. Stopping to write, you feel adrift. You’re drowsy from a morning of tasks, and a stomach of food, but you know you can’t rest, realistically, after you write. The day must go on.

But despite these difficulties, it has a certain thrill.

Continue reading “Writing in the afternoon”

John Cleese and Creativity

As I have a few other writing projects taking up my time and creative energy this weekend, I haven’t gotten around to writing a worthwhile blog post. Instead, enjoy a lovely lecture by Monty Python’s John Cleese explaining the difference between the “closed zone” of everyday life and the “open zone” of creative expression and how to encourage the open zone–as best as one can.

As one can expect, Cleese sprinkles his clear explanation with humor, so at the very least, you’ll learn how many folk singers it takes to screw in a lightbulb. Enjoy.