Tag Archives: writing

Experts, non-experts and enthusiasts

Plans
I had planned a longer entry today – about adventure games and the terminology of the Internet – but I’ve shelved it for this weekend since it still needs some tweaking. I’m also planning to write at least a few entries about D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance,” which I recently watched on Netflix.

So far this year, keeping this blog more up to date and with a mix of long and short form pieces has been revitalizing. Before this January, I had come to regard all writing as work rather than leisure for me, which led to long gaps in my output here (there are still some big gaps on my Tumblr, which I plan to fill with some of the creative projects I’ve tested here). Sometimes it was because of the feedback I receive on my professional work, which can really run the gamut from all-out praise to criticism that seems out of place given the stakes and circumstances.

Experts and non-experts
Writing, like education, is a field that everyone feels entitled to comment on since everyone deems herself an expert, if only subsconsciously. Let me explain.

To look at the last 20+ years of education history in the U.S. – which I had a front-row seat to, as the child of two educators – is to see a long string of opportunists from fields such as management consulting, software, and venture capital, not to mention state, local, and federal politicians with no history in education, prescribing what’s “right” for students and teachers. I can’t think of any field as large in which so much power is held by non-experts.

Not just non-experts, either, but people actively hostile to the profession, who want to destroy teachers more with obligations around standardized testing (useless), “metrics-based” reviews (based on the aforementioned useless standard testing), treating students as “customers” (in another sign of the creeping financialization/corporatization of everyday life), and sexist emphasis on being “makers” rather than, well, educators. I suspect so much of this bullshit is due to education being a relatively weakly credentialed field.

While certain positions are off-limits to individual without the appropriate degrees, it’s still relatively easy – if anything in the U.S. job market can be described as such – for fresh college graduates, regardless of background, to get a foothold in education via Teach for America or a similar program. Moreover, some of the most influential figures in education in recent memory – such as Michelle Rhee, who ran D.C.’s school district for years – have been objectively bad educators.

Politicians feel entitled to comment on education at a high level since there’s this notion that educating is easy, anyone can be an educator, and performance doesn’t even matter. Education has become a launching pad for all sorts of nonsensical political speech, from “we’re losing the race against [Japan/China/insert country here]” and “we have a skills gaps [nope].”

Now, imagine all of this happening with general practice medicine, law, or dentistry. It’s unthinkable since this fields have hard credentials, not because they’re superior to other fields but as as a result of the immense power of the upper middle class to resist the type of Uber-style disruption that has put cab drivers, musicians, and educators (who face massive open online courses, among other threats) up against the wall in recent years. Educators don’t have the cachet or prestige to hold the non-experts at bay.

Writing
Writing is in even worse shape. Virtually everyone has to write in some capacity, which isn’t the case with educating (or performing a dental operation). So everyone fancies herself a writer, even if she doesn’t identify as such. It has become so lowly regarded as a profession that it is an incidental trait – like wearing a blue coat or having size 11 feet – that one would never make synonymous with identity, making it sort of an anti-Maker label.

Accordingly, the criticism that can be directed at writers or people like historians whose work is writing-intensive – the backlash against Jill Lepore’s destruction of disruption last year is instructive here – is often intense. It’s sort of like “this is obvious, we’re all writers anyway, what are you not getting?”

An argument or phrasing that one doesn’t like is sometimes met with the intensity that one might expect for driving the wrong way in traffic or walking through Tiffany’s without pants on. The cost of failure is deemed so high, perhaps because everyone shares, at least in small part, in the underlying skill set (being able to write), just as they do with certain social norms. I feel that the insanity of Internet comments is partially rooted in the mentality of everyone being basically a part-time writer (comments have to be written, not dictated, after all).

Enthusiasts
For someone who writes all the time, though, the type of criticism that might normally be confined to a message board or paper critique can be both uninteresting and strangely bothersome. On the one hand, you get used to it and there’s a quiet confidence from knowing that your critiquers are often less qualified than you are. But there’s also the feeling that the sort of basicness of writing, the idea that anyone can and should do it and so you can be free and natural while doing it, gets lost in the torrent of feedback that channels writing toward some political end.

The long term effect from the latter can be waning enthusiasm on the part of the writer, which must be combated with, well, side projects, like blogging. Part of the appeal of blogging, for me at least, is the absence of feedback. I long ago disabled comments and I just write whatever I want to. The dailyness of blogging requires a certain enthusiasm and ability to shirk self-consciousness, but it also reinforces these traits over time, strengthening the same enthusiasm that it requires. Maybe it ends at some point. I haven’t reached it yet and I’ll always have John Gruber’s observation below in mind as I try to keep my streak up:

“Blogging isn’t hard work in the way that coal mining is, but above all else it demands enthusiasm. There’s no other way to keep going – blogs cease when their authors run out of enthusiasm. For many people, the enthusiasm seems to run out after just a few months, maybe a few years.”

Writing fatigue

The most successful stretch I ever had with this blog was in the months right after I left my first ever full-time job, at a software startup. I had long days with nothing to do and, crucially, no other writing obligations. Many of most-viewed entries (which I don’t think correlate with my ‘best‘ posts) were from this period.

Since then, I’ve taken on a day job at which I write 1000s of words per day, which I think initially sapped some of my energy for writing throughout the second half of 2013 and most of 2014. Part of the rebound in posting frequency and length this year has been willful – writing every day even if I don’t have something pressing in mind, and not being as exacting about achieving a certain aesthetic – and part of it has been a more relaxed attitude toward working.

Working “hard,” I feel, has never been the right approach for me. The sheer effort of making so many decisions and switching between tasks – what source should I use? what phrasing will make it seem ‘ok’ in my head? – leaves me exhausted by mid-afternoon, so I have tried a different tack.

I usually wake up a bit later and then let myself gradually come to my senses – drinking water and eating breakfast along the way – before I start writing. At first, I let myself write pretty freely since I know that I won’t get it right on the first try and will require a few pass-throughs to get the piece how I want it. Then I take a break between each piece instead of just trying to power through a bunch of them in a row – sometimes simply standing up and walking around can ‘reset’ my mindset and make it much easier to resume working when I sit down again.

It’s part of that cliche about working “smart” instead of working hard, I suppose. Today I didn’t follow my advice so well, though, and so I don’t have much left for today’s entry. Tomorrow, though, I’m planning a longer piece that will talk about 1990s adventure games and their influence on the term “Internet,” which I’m excited about.

Creative projects: “The Gambler”

Finishing a short story collection – with stories in a variety of styles – is one of my goals for 2015, along with reading more books. So far I have three stories published to my Tumblr (“The Loop,” “The Lightning,” and “The Chancellor“) and I am working on a fourth. Below I have printed an excerpt; the idea with this one is to somehow weave in lecture-style writing (which I practiced while doing a Humanities course five years ago) into a narrative. I’ll do a debrief of sorts on my logic in a future post, but for now here’s part of this work in progress.

“Where are you, Lauren?,” James scrawled in the Prentice Hall composition book from his eloped daughter, appending “what should I learn in 2015,” this one with the question mark elided to seem more earnest like a university student taking notes, or a lonely Twitter account mining for at-replies.

Mottled questions, all, written at his kitchen table bearing a bowl of fake fruit under 4pm sunset. The mild winter space was filled out with the sounds of Above & Beyond’s “Group Therapy” and the sudsy sizzle of a Goose Island Mild Winter, leaving its Chicago comfort zone for a green plastic cup.

“Time paints over the truth,” he followed up on the facing page, inscribing these song lyrics with a hope that his chicken-scratch script would with its all of its slicing T’s mimicking the Chicago skyline – choosing “mimic” for its funny sharp-seeming participle, though “panic” would have been a more forceful epigraph – cut ephemeral EDM poetry from an Ibiza, or more dearly for James a Halsted St., scrapbook, and transpose it into this country notebook. The Prentice Hall even still had a receipt in the back: Walmart, Lebanon, August 1991.

“I never take notes,” Lauren told him a few years after that late summer purchase. “I know, ‘why’? Everyone is always pounding away at their keyboards or have their gel-pens out with a legal pad. It’s pretentious. Maybe it’s exercise, like rowing for the hands and I’m some lazy elitist. All I do is circle receipt totals and double-over my too-light writing on rent checks.

“When I was in Philosophy-35, laptops were still like briefcases with screens, but they were good for capturing all the high-sounding ephemera – ‘Aristotle and the Academy,’ ‘substance vs forms’, ‘the rebuttal to Parmenides’ – that would be all musty minutes the second after leaving the class, almost like the whole point had been, from the beginning, only to create something to trivialize years later upon finding and laboring to boot an ancient PC with VGA connectors, or the analog equivalent, heh, like sizing up a crinkled yellow zombie page, aged after its interment in a moist closet…”

James, with his Bucktown beard and Instagram sunglasses, layering Aly & Fila on top of Marion County, Kentucky and reading the Book of Psalms while Burgess Meredith recited it from a Willow-filtered “Twilight Zone” fresh with the glow of the new year.

Lauren, with her Queen of Hearts paleness and Facebook neck, shunning the prefabrication of any antiques to rival Egypt, instead seeking a Future Sound of Queens in her job as a content marketer for an AV firm, peddling Shure and Kramer to the integrators

“…I mean, how would I know months later, on the eve of the final, wtf ‘Physics section on change’ means? There is the issue of me thinking the Physics important, granted. Notes – the pre-ripped jeans of the academy. The reinforcement of the workmanlike original as something for prelaw dabblers to gawk at and laughily mention during Thanksgiving break.”

Unmoved by James’ kitchen-table micro philosophy, Lauren chewed Bazooka Joe in her apartment, which had no room for a kitchen table. The space was tight enough to force food preparation on unlit burners and in an unfilled sink. She thought back to a lecture that was lively in her head, even if scribbled on the page only as “10/8/04 religion as labor”:

“One of the best arguments against religion is that it gives people bad reasons to do good deeds when good ones are readily available. I’d like to propose a corollary to that, namely that religion also gives us bad reasons to do bad deeds when better ones are out there.

Let me explain the original first. Say you go to Africa to provide relief for a famine – so that you can ascend into heaven after you die. Why not just do the deed because you want to help? Why the dark bribery of religion?

Now, let’s think about bad actions, and bad men.

James’ poem, somewhere els:
The Bad Man: A black-booted Persian Gulf cowboy,
With a James-like Anglo-Saxon beard,
With a silhouette cast across 1990s local TV news;
His profile is gray – “pic upon request”?
No account activity since 1991.
Can we make it slightly easier?
We’re out in a desert, stuffing our briefcases.
Yes. Filling up on trinkets bought in Jerusalem,
Look at these stockings we have on for gathering sand
And bringing it all back home.

In this case, say you attack another country’s embassy with rockets and suicide bombers – so that you can be magically transported to a 7th century bordello and escape the tortures of a fallen angel. Why not do it (if you had to do it) because of political or economic grievances?

Many in the West realize that the latter reasoning is more palatable, even if they don’t acknowledge it. See, they will respond to every terrorist bombing, every hostage situation, no matter how cynical, with remarks about how the imperialist regimes of Europe and North America had it coming, how fanatics were simply evening the geopolitical score.

But in taking this line of reasoning, they tacitly signal that they regard strictly religious motivation – that pining to escape hell and reach heaven – as too absurd to explain the actions at hand. This is the logic of people who don’t know what it’s like to really believe in the high stakes of religion, where eternal life (and, alternatively, damnation) are on the table. They haven’t spent Valentine’s Day fearing eternal damnation for the mere thought of ‘adultery.’

No economic or political prize can compete with religion’s various promises and threats. Accordingly, we find actions, motivated by religion, that have an intensity totally out of sync with whatever perceived slight they are retaliating for. So we get beheadings, massive civil unrest, and threats of worldwide domination – for the desecration of a book. Or sham trials and executions – for giving off the air that one might be a fictional creature, let’s say a wizard or a witch.

High-stakes drive people crazy. That sounds like an oversimplification, but consider the herd mentality of Wall Street, or the surge pricing of Uber, and all of the attendant fierce arguments, justifications (“supply and demand”), disregard for the non-wealthy, and general ego-feeding that goes into these enterprises.

Now, imagine that even the billions or trillions of dollars at stake here were dwarfed, and you brush up against religion’s dark world.

Religion’s stakes are eternal. It would as if one could win a game of poker and the victory lasted forever, never having to worry about the next hand. Meanwhile, the losers would be tortured endlessly.

The metaphor becomes even more instructive if one considers that the randomness of poker is a pretty good stand-in for the madness of religious dogma – not eating shellfish, ensuring that women are covered head to toe in clothing, believing in the virgin birth of a Jewish prophet.

Or maybe a slot machine gives a better idea of the motivations of religion. I have gone to many casinos with relatives who play slots despite all the evidence – plus their own experiences, of losing hundreds of dollars – that they are impossible to crack and will destroy you.

The default mindset here seems to be, in an unspoken way, one of “yes I am going to lose, but wait no, this time, this time I’m going to get lucky,” with both that tacit acknowledgement – like a certain stripe of Westerner toward radical Islam – that madness is at play and, yet, a stronger feeling that, no, the universe makes sense and so madness can’t possibly win (right?). Religion is like compulsively pulling the slot on a slot machine, except its unique brand of pulling is praying, adhering to ritual, and persisting in dogma.

There’s an episode of “The Twilight Zone” in which an old man, fittingly for our book here with a strong vaguely religious moral opposition to gambling, tries a slot machine once on a whim and then ends up losing everything to it – his money, his spouse, and finally his life, after a delusion that it is invading his hotel room. What a feast for anyone trying to break down religion:

  • Just like this man, the true believer has a certain buy-in cost. For him, it was his first coin into the slot; for her, it’s accepting Jesus as her personal savior, or acknowledging that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.
  • The stakes at play are so high that they almost have to cascade into view. For the average casino-goer, the idea of winning tens of thousands (or millions, depending on the promotion/location) of dollars with no effort is so abstract, yet so overwhelming in its potential energy, that it almost demands a type of effort, no matter how mechanical and fruitless, to justify its promise.
  • It’s like there is a certain labor – no matter how tedious and useless and insane – that is needed to justify, in the laborer’s mind, the enormous prize that seems (and is) too good to be true. In the workplace, this approach may be called the delusion of hard work (i.e., putting in long hours will automatically get me ahead), in the casino the sucker’s bet, and in religion a dangerous dogmatism that inspires highly physical action like jihad or corporeal punishment for imaginary crimes, all of which are insane actions toward an insane goal – but they seem less so when broken up into small chunks like making strange requests (“I just want a new car”) to a god conceived in the Iron Age Levant.

Then there’s…”

Cats, grass, and writing

I don’t own a cat, but my sister does. The cat, Range, is subdued and nice to be around; it’s a typical house cat, meaning that it sometimes lightly claws me while walking across my legs and acts as if it has never seen food before while staring at my plate as I eat. It even walks across my computer keyboard sometimes, making it, in a way, another Internet cat.

16140086705_2074a49c84_z

A cat on a Mac

One of the strangest things it does is eat plants, like onion tops, carrots, or peaces of house plants. Lions apparently do something similar to settle their stomachs, i.e., by eating grass. Purely carnivorous cats like lions and house cats can’t digest vegetable matter; it’s instead a way of inducing sickness to clear out the stomach.

What would be the equivalent behavior for a human, though? With writing, when I am in a funk, the solution is often just to write something way beyond my current abilities, like attempting an epic with mixed-in podcast-style narration, like I did with a short story a while back. It’s just like hitting a huge reset button, albeit one with spikes or something on it – it doesn’t feel good, but it gets me back to zero, in a good way. The random phrases and cadences in my head are cleared out.

After I got three short stories done last year, all in different styles, I was in much better position to maintain this blog more regularly. I had creative ideas (not all good ones) that were bothering me, sort of like a fur ball bothers a cat. The short stories weren’t the best things I had ever written but writing them was like cleaning an old abbey wall so that it could be repainted with a mural. I needed the diversion to Tumblr.

So maybe that was my own experience with “eating plants” like a cat or lion. I expect many other writers do something similar or have their own methods for cleaning the creative palate. In light of the discomfort, though, I find this bible verse (Isaiah 11:7) odd and kinda hilarious:

“And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

Peace comes when lions give up their appetites for straw? I guess this would mean Nietzsche’s “blonde beast” was tamed, too, through similar painful resort to a humbler diet. Peace through pain; that seems like a good summary of new age Christianity.

Treehugging

Cliches are exhausting. Writer Lawrence Wright, while looking back at George Orwell’s career in 2006, said this:

“Cliches, like cockroaches in the cupboard, quickly infest a careless mind. I constantly struggle with the prefabricated phrases that substitute for simple, clear prose. We are still plagued by toe the line, stand shoulder to shoulder with, no axe to grind — meaningless images that every reader subconsciously acknowledges represent the opposite of real thought .”

The only time a cliche or other idiom does much for me is when it is literalized:

  • For example, telling someone to take it down a notch and then having him complying by actually lowering a boat anchor, or adjusting a volume knob.
  • Or, I sometimes think of that scene from Mrs. Doubtfire in which the titular character, played by Robin Williams, when asked about the fate of her fictional deceased ex-husband, says that he was “very fond of the drink,” leading Sally Field’s character to think that he had been an alcoholic, only to have Doubtfire follow up with “it was the drink that killed him” (drunk driving, perhaps?) to reinforce the suspicion and then top the tale off by saying that he was hit by a Guinness truck. It really was the drink that killed him.

Today I came across a really good example of this phenomenon, albeit with a single word rather than a phrase. My spouse told me that one of his relatives had once gone out for a walk while visiting the U.S.. She wasn’t familiar with the area or its weather and as such she didn’t know that there was a tornado warning in effect.

With winds speeding up by the hour, she eventually found it hard to maintain her course. The solution? She literally had to hug a tree for support. So now whenever I hear someone disparagingly call an environmentalist a “treehugger,” I’ll have to laugh and think of that blustery day.