Jan 17, 2017

Freewrite rescued from my email drafts: 2

Part 1 here.

Time. That's a topic. That's what I want to write about. Not philosophy. Not physics. Pragmatics. How do people use their time? How do they experience it? More specifically: how do I use my time? How ought I use it? How do I experience it?

God this is hoity-toity. I spend a lot of time with my eye on the future. On how I will be evaluated, on what abstract critics will think of me. This, what I'm writing right now, is juvenilia, and I'm painfully aware of it. The content is near non-existent, and the form is not strong enough to carry on without content. This self-awareness is paralyzing, and currently my main treatment is to acknowledge the paralysis and refocus my writing towards it. Write about it, write about nothing, because when I write about any actual topic I get locked up.

Time. Hah.

I spent the last hour attending to miscellany on my computer. Added my company credit card to my Lyft and Uber accounts. Subscribed to the New Yorker so that I could read Garrison Kellor's first contribution, a short satire published in 1970, which I learned about from a New York Times article discussing Kellor's retirement from Prairie Home Companion. A year ago, I was so zealously against reading the news. Now, with Trump ascendant, I've sunk deep into the mire. Sometimes it feels like all I do. Check the news, read the blogs I follow, read some analysis, check the prediction markets, make some small trades to readjust my betting positions, sketch out a plan for the rest of the day, almost immediately disregard this plan as I poke my head back into a news site.

And it gets worse when I stumble across some brilliant piece of work by another. I just stumbled (by way of checking the Hacker News front page when I inadvertently opened it as I was trying to delete my Hacker News bookmark from my browser toolbar) onto a philosophical paper by famed computer scientist & blogger Scott Aaronson considering the philosophical implications of computational complexity. My god. That's brilliant. I haven't read it, all I've done is glance at the abstract and save the paper to Pocket, but I'm sure it's brilliant. And even if the treatment is poor, the topic is so interesting. It reeks of interestingness. All I can do is stare in dumb admiration. I can't even read it. If I allotted some time for reading it, it would become a chore, and I would move on to doing something else. Something less productive. Something like watching an episode of Archer, or checking the front page of the Times, or clearing out my email inbox. It is so interesting, yes, but I am more concerned with staying culturally fluent, conversant in every domain, than I am in actually indulging my native curiosity in a subject. Even a subject as interesting as the philosophical implications of computational complexity. Another way to phrase this: I want to be the sort of person who is interested in the philosophical implications of computational complexity. The progress I actually make towards learning the topic is instrumental towards this social goal. I am ashamed of this.

God it feels good to write. But getting locked up, being blocked, is so painful. Painful enough that I shy away, that I'd rather passively consume the output of others rather than stumble through half-baked creations of my own. I want perfection. My ideas, ideas brimming inside me, unshaped, just hints of form and content, these are perfect. They bubble up, I form my thoughts into a phrase, that phrase sounds pretty good, I follow it with another, still pretty good, I venture another, still pretty good(!), but by this time I'm losing the shape of the first phrase, then my mind moves to some other track and I lose the whole construct. Writing it out, putting the first phrase into harsh light, then the second, then reading the two, then venturing the third, that is a different project. The imperfection is self-evident. The first phrase was trite, the second unnecessary. What was I thinking? I'm no creator, this is embarrassing, I'm third-rate at best. So I make the alternate choice. I consume, I read, I endeavor to become "well-read." This criterion is too soft to be evaluated cleanly; I can't be perfectly well-read, so whatever progress I make feels positive, even if I'm spinning my wheels. There's no paper trail. I have occasional interesting conversations in which I signal intelligence and well-read-ness and up-to-date-ness and I come out of these conversations feeling validated. Later, when I remember them, the feeling of validity dominates all other aspects and I mark it a success, progress, a step down the road I want to walk, even if I can't remember what we were talking about in the slightest.

Not so with writing. The content does not slip away so easily. Recall that piece you wrote a few months back? Pull it up and there it is, form unchanged. Reread it, revise your impression of it, your memory of it, your evaluation of it. A different experience entirely. A difficult experience. So easy to not, to have good intentions and a plan but when it comes down to doing the hard thing to turn away instead, to consume a couple of think pieces, a hot take, a news analysis, wile away an hour, maybe two, they slide by like water and before I really recognize it, I'm too tired to actually do the hard thing, too tired to take a crack at it, I've absorbed so much content, I need a break to process it all.

And I could do this for ages. I could do this, day after day, for years. Wake up, good intentions, make my plan, set my course, then immediately veer away. Regret this, angst over it, reflect, resolve. And do the same tomorrow. And on and on.

This feels like a small tragedy. No blood, no loss. No social cost or stigma. Indeed, a content consumer is elevated, and an expert one venerated. Did you hear about this going on? Yes, of course, what a shame. Did you read this piece in the Times? Yes, I glanced at it, but I really think the Journal did a better job with its coverage. What do you think about health care policy, gun control, religious freedom, African poverty, women's rights in the Middle East, the new budget, what the Fed chairperson did last week? Well, it's complicated, you see, but I do think that reasonable people could agree on X.

This is a small tragedy. Edging up to the hard thing, making hollow plans, then pulling back and burning the day. Coasting. Coasting through your job and your leisure. Making "ease in the moment" your primary decision criterion. Oh sure, sometimes the hard thing comes easily. Sometimes it flows out of you like it's flowing out of me now, when it is imperative, when it is literally the most important thing in the world. The ground could crack asunder, the building could crumble around me, there could be scream and shout and bloody commotion and I would write and write and write because that is all that matters in this moment. But this moment is a rare breed. Most of the time writing is a hard thing, tough and wracked and easier to avoid. Yes, I would like to be a writer. Yes, I'd like to create. But let's wait until inspiration hits (think about how good that feels!). Inspiration is a fickle thing, you can't force it, there's no sense in trying to make it happen, so let's sit back. Take in the news. Take in the view. Take it easy.

But this is so wrong. I write well, even when it is hard. Even when I find it awful and off-putting, the quiet pulsing joy is still there. Deciding to wait for inspiration is placing ease at the foreground of decision-making, even if you rationalize it differently. If it's not inspired, it won't be good, therefore you shouldn't do it. Ridiculous. Even if the product sucks when uninspired, the process is good practice. It builds a habit. Even if the breaking of the dam remains mysterious, and you go years without feeling the inspired urge, the practice of cranking out piece after piece, word after word, is healthful. The slog is good for you. This is not an empirical claim. This is a hypothesis, couched in mysticism and imperative. Like any hypothesis, it can be tested.

[rereads: 2, edits: written in June 2016, a couple stylistic things but largely untouched]