Sunday, September 15, 2013

Everything I Say Has Come Before. Assembled Into Something Into Something Into Something. I Am Never Certain Anymore.

William Deresiewicz:

It’s like this: I’ve hit a wall. I’m not completely empty of ideas, but they’re no longer coming fast enough to sustain a column. Imagine a pair of lines on a graph. The one that’s falling is the pleasure that I get from being able to express my thoughts each week in public. The rising one’s the pain that comes from having to. The two lines crossed a few months back, and the prospect ahead is bleak. I’ve never wanted to become a person who repeats himself.

...All Points has concerned itself with culture in the wider sense of our collective self-awareness, and at its best (at least for me), the material for this column has arisen naturally from the daily drift of my attention as I go about my business: reading the paper, listening to NPR, talking to a friend—or more often, free associating about it all later while I make a salad or zone out at the gym. Something gets caught in the net—a way we have of saying things, an assumption that we take for granted. Something shifts enough for me to see a corner of it catch the light. I’ve been staring at it all along, but now I finally notice it. Writing is the act of dragging experience across the threshold of consciousness.

I’ve become habituated, over the last couple of years, to thinking in blog-sized units. That could make a post, I’ll say to myself, the way that fiction writers filter the world for possible stories. It was a useful mindset, for a while: it focused my imagination, and composing the pieces—which took anywhere from a couple of hours to a full day—was the writerly equivalent of doing wind sprints. Lately, though, it’s started to feel confining.

Well, damn. His was my favorite of the weekly columns at the American Scholar. Still, I know how he feels; I've been complaining about the same thing myself lately.

I'm under no illusions that there's any other form of writing that I could be doing. I don't have the vision, skill, or openness to experience to be a novelist, nor do I have the originality or depth of knowledge to be an essayist. No, the small pond of the blog is the perfect natural environment for this particular fish.

One thing I especially appreciate about blogging is the immediacy of it, the conversational aspect. For me, that serves to forestall any perfectionist tendencies to dwell forever on a post, trying to make it excellent rather than merely good. Get the basic idea down, hit publish, and move along. Return to the theme later if something else occurs to you to say about it. The casual give-and-take of the social web presents a challenge that I've been happy to accept — find something worthwhile to say while staying within touching distance of current events. It would be easy to pick one or two topics a month and spend time cultivating my thoughts on them. Is it possible, though, to make a near-daily ritual of it without falling prey to the danger that Deresiewicz himself noted last year, that of refusing to allow the necessary time for thoughts to develop into something worth saying?

I think I've made a respectable effort at it, but the fact is, I only have but so much general knowledge about a smattering of topics, and it's starting to feel like I've exhausted my ability to expound on it. Even that might not be a problem, were it not for the fact that I, too, have never wanted to repeat myself. I'm not producing a product here. I know which posts and topics have attracted the most interest and pageviews, and if I were interested in that sort of attention, I could easily start churning out replicas on the assembly line and put some blogads money in my pocket. Sitting down to eat while absentmindedly scrolling through posts sneering at mindless entertainment like the Kardashians or Duck Dynasty is a form of mindless entertainment itself, and one that plenty of bloggers are happy to sell you along with an inflated sense of superiority. I don't want to peddle my own version of that to anyone. My favorite writers have always been the ones who surprise me with insights that encapsulate thoughts I never even knew I had until then. I'd like to think I could do that for readers, but if not, I'd still rather insult you than flatter your preconceptions or pander to your expectations.

Of course I could be wrong. Perhaps I've just been due for a fallow period. Maybe it's like the dilemma I often heard about rock bands — they had their whole lives to write their debut record, but only a matter of months to produce a follow-up of equal or greater depth. It could be that I had thirty-some years of reading and thinking to draw on for a few years of posts, and it'll just require some patience to replenish the reservoir. Or possibly the Internet has just been unusually dry and boring over the summer, and there will soon be a cloudburst of inspiration to make me look foolish.

I don't suppose there's any tidy conclusion to all this. I'm just thinking out loud. Maybe I'll start posting a bit less, but nonetheless, here I sit, read and write. I can do no other.