Good writing requires having something to say

Here’s a nice essay, not too long, by someone who just completed a career as a writing teacher and can now speak freely about the program he taught. Some passages that caught my eye:

  • “The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it.”

  • “Without exception, my best students were the ones who read the hardest books I could assign and asked for more.”

  • “For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults.”

  • “After eight years of teaching at the graduate level, I grew increasingly intolerant of writing designed to make the writer look smart, clever, or edgy. I know this work when I see it; I’ve written a fair amount of it myself. But writing that’s motivated by the desire to give the reader a pleasurable experience really is best. I told a few students over the years that their only job was to keep me entertained, and the ones who got it started to enjoy themselves, and the work got better.”

  • “We’ve been trained to turn to our phones to inform our followers of our somewhat witty observations. I think the instant validation of our apps is an enemy to producing the kind of writing that takes years to complete. That’s why I advise anyone serious about writing books to spend at least a few years keeping it secret. If you’re able to continue writing while embracing the assumption that no one will ever read your work, it will reward you in ways you never imagined.”

Seeing things as they really are

I’ve mentioned the grain of the universe, learning to work with the grain of the universe, not kicking against the goads, an approach to life that I think of as “I can work with this.” A prerequisite to living such a life, of course, is an ability to discern the way things are, as opposed to the way we’d like them to be. That ability is a skill which needs to be developed. It can also be thwarted by bad habits and self-centered impulses, so those also need to be brought under control.

How do we learn to see things as they really are? There is no set program, no spiritual diet, no list of disciplines which when faithfully followed will get you into the proper state of mind. You have to track down your misalignments one by one, think deeply about their nature and their reason for being there, and then search for a remedy. It’s difficult and tedious, and progress can be irregular, especially in the beginning. But one gets better at the job, and the work becomes easier.

The best guides are not those who tell you how things are, but help you see it for yourself. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish them—just ask the Emperor with No Clothes. The critical test is a simple one, simply asking: am I seeing this myself, or am I just taking someone’s word for it. For example, do you know from direct experience that life is best when lived for others, or do you only accept it as an abstract principle which must be true because you hear it so often from the pulpit?

Here are some wise words from Dallas Willard on the subject, from Living in Christ’s Presence.

You know Jesus’ effect on people was different from that of the scribes and Pharisees. That was because he spoke as one having authority, and people noticed that. The scribes and the Pharisees had to go look up their footnotes or find out which rabbi said this about what. The people listening to it understood that those people didn’t know what they were talking about. The scribes and the Pharisees pull authority out of their connections and laid it on them, but Jesus talked about real life.

The amazing thing about Jesus— and I hope you might look carefully at the logic of his words— was how he was able to refer to reality and cause people to understand it in a different way. Usually it was in a way that got past the hardened traditions of those people who thought they were in charge of the religious life. The test of religious life is life, and that’s where Jesus lived it. And that’s why he refers to children and says that if you are going to enter the kingdom of God, you have to come like a little child.

Now, apart from Jesus, the next most presumptuous person in the world is a little child. They just go, you know. The main thing is, when you hear Jesus, do what he says. Don’t build a theory. Just do what he says, and reality will teach you, and that is where authority ultimately lies. So, the test for the secularist and the Christian spokesperson is the reality that they bring people in touch with.

In our recent past the single greatest illustration of this is C. S. Lewis. He never pulls authority on you. He just talks about things, and he helps you see things. Multitudes of people have simply put in practice what he says, and they have found it to be true. That is the ultimate appeal of the spokesperson for Christ.

These are scary words for professional talkers. As this article notes, some things cannot be unseen. Once you’ve seen them, you will continue to see them. Once someone has helped you see the grain of the universe, their job is done and you are no longer in the market for what they have to say. So it was quite to the professional benefit of the scribes and Pharisees that their efforts were focused on “helping” people see things which can’t be seen … because they aren’t there. This is a job that is never done, giving those in the field a high level of job security.

Good writing requires courage

Professor X, the author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, is a good writer who was frustrated in his efforts to write professionally and turned to other things. So when his fifteen minutes of fame landed him a book contract, he took the opportunity to write in a writerly fashion, and also to expound on his ideas about writing—fair enough, since he is writing about being a teacher who teaches writing.

I disagree with his general viewpoint about what it takes to write, but only in context. He speaks from the viewpoint of a literary novelist, draws most of his examples from literary novels, and sees the problems of a writer as being just those of the literary novelist. Even while sticking to fiction you’ll get quite a different perspective from Dean Wesley Smith, who very proudly writes pulp fiction. There is some overlap in their advice, but the emphases are quite different—Professor X, for example, would probably emphasize authenticity, while Smith would emphasize telling a gripping story. William Zinsser writes about writing non-fiction, and his perspective is different still.

I think they might all agree with this observation by sportswriter Red Smith, from a 1949 Walter Winchell column:

Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. …”Why, no,” dead-panned Red. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

It’s a famous quote, but usually read as meaning you need to be passionate,, or authentic, or confessional, the sort of thing Professor X would be more likely to say than Smith or Zinsser. But I think they would all agree that the best writing, regardless of genre, reveals something about the writer. And that takes courage, and sometimes feels akin to opening a vein.

I don’t write passionately, or authentically, or confessionally. But I still find writing daunting and draining, just because I always set myself the goal of conveying to the reader only what I think about the subject I’m addressing. And so I suppose there are elements of passion and authenticity and confession up front—elements that need to be shaped and tamed as the words are written. Plus there’s the scary part—if I’ve done my job properly, the reader will then know just what I think.

How did we get into this mess?

I have a weakness for “how did we get into this mess?” stories. How did health care become an oppressive, insanely expensive gauntlet—and In such a short time? How is it that the majority of the world finds itself working for the weekend? How did the world economy end up utterly dependent on a fragile and finite resource? How did we become consumers? How did we decide that selfishness was the best organizing principle for economic exchange? How did we end up viewing efficiency as one of the greatest goods? My secret history page was in large part intended as a record of the best writings I’ve run across that ask and try to answer such questions. (It needs a lot of work, and I’ll try to get to it in the weeks ahead.)

Right now I’m reading In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, by Professor X. It’s one of the many $3.99 (shipping included) books I’ve order from on a whim—there are a lot of used and remaindered books books out there which people will sell you for next to nothing. I remembered reading the 2008 Atlantic Magazine article which gave birth to it, made a when became an entire book, but then forgot about it until I ran across a mention recently. I’m always interested in learning more about the current education mess and its sources, so I thought it would be a good read. It is, although I don’t recommend it over the article for any but those of us who Just Can’t Get Enough on this particular topic. The book is a mess, but a genial one—Professor X turned his 15 minutes of article-spawned fame and turned it into a chance to write and publish a book, so good for him. What he has to say on the topic isn’t book-sized, so it ends up being a jumbled collection of marginally related thoughts he’s obviously wanted to get into print. But he’s a good writer and a good observer, so the book makes for excellent light reading.

The most important thing Professor X has to say about the college education mess comes right at the beginning. Describing the first session of a new class, he writes:

In this simple opening-night meet-and-greet session we come smak against the crux of college life in what I think of as the basement of the ivory tower. College enrollment has expandedl wildly over the last thirty years, and more than ever before includes many students who are unprepared for the rigorous demands of higher education. Many of my students have no business being there, and a great many will not graduate. As they freely admit, they are not in my classes because they want to be. The colleges require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass English 101 (Introduction to College Writing) and English 102 (Introduction to College Literature).

OK, there’s the mess. How did we get into it? He continues:

Some of my students don’t even want to be in college in the first place, but what choice do they have? For a licensed practical nurse to become a registered nurse requires an associate’s degree (awarded after approximately two years in college) in applied science—68 college credits divided equally between nursing and general education. To become a state trooper requires two years of college, and please note that in some states military and/or law enforcement experience does not substitute for the required degree.

We are vaguely aware that this is a problem, but if we think about it at all we chalk it up to undesirable results at the edges of a system that largely gets it right. After all, people need to be trained and qualified, and this is the system that has developed to do that, right? But I think Professor X manages to get at the source of the problem, and it’s not where we usually place the blame:

A quick look a the classifieds reveals the large number of jobs that either require or discreetly suggest that the applicant have at least some college under his or her belt. A tabloid newspaper is looking for someone to sell legal advertising. Qualifications: high school diploma or equivalent, some college preferred. A wholesaler needs to hire an accounts receivable clerk. Qualifications include a familiarity with Microsoft Office and the ability to assemble billing statements and send them out on a monthly basis, to call past-due accounts, and to process payments; a two-year college accounting degree is also required. Retail giantess Ann Taylor prefers that her district managers have a bachelor’s degree. Interested in testing water? High school desired, college preferred.

College preferred. What sort of job applicant in the midst of a recession disappoints the supervisor from the start by not satisfying his or her preference?

It gets better:

We are used to getting what we want in the United States, and we have a vague feeling that the world would run more smoothly, more efficiently, more professionally if every worker had some college under his or her belt. But who stops to think of the cost of this worthy aspiration to the taxpayers, and to the weary souls who are being sent back to school, often at great expense, for no real reason. There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and our medical billing techs, our county tax clerks, our child welfare agents, our court officers and sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature. We want that officer to have read King Lear, to understand Glouster’s literal blindness as a signpost towards Lear’s figurative blindness, and to be aware that the Fool and Cordelia, the two great truthtellers, never appear onstage together, and wer probably doubled by one actor. I suppose that would be nice. Perhaps having read Invisible Man or A Raisin in the Sun will render a police officer less likely to indulge in racial profiling. I wonder, will an acquaintance with Steinbeck make the highway patrolman more sympathetic to the plight of the poor, so that he will at least understand the lives of those who simply cannot get it together to get their taillights repaired? Will it benefit the correctional officer to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? The health care worker Arrowsmith? Should the case manager at Child Protective Services read Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”?

I love how Professor X’s illustrations plunge into the absurd, because they aren’t exaggerations—he is charged with teaching exactly those things to exactly those people. The source of the absurdity is our vague feeling. And I think the source of that vague feeling is something we’d rather not face up to, namely we think that the world would run more smoothly, more efficiently, more professionally if every worker were just like us, the sort of people who have read those things and benefited (or at least we like to think so) from the broader perspective those writings gave us. Too bad we never counted the social cost of indulging in this fantasy.

Freedom fighter, or fanatic?

I did go ahead and buy a copy of Weird John Brown for my Kindle, and am working through it. It’s not easy reading for me, but mostly because the mode of expression is unfamiliar—who knew that “divine violence” was even a thing? Fortunately Ted Smith’s writing is clear and unpretentious, so I’m able to learn from him.

Conventional thinking about John Brown offers two characterizations of him—freedom fighter or fanatic—and says, ok, now choose. One of the writer’s points is that both choices share an assumption, namely that the state is alone in legitimately wielding violence. Those who call Brown a fanatic think the state was right in its enforcement of slavery, those who call him a freedom fighter think the state was wrong and should behave differently, but both assume that enforcement itself is the proper domain of the state. Once you’ve made your choice, you tend to focus on the differences—champion your view’s strengths, attack the other view’s weaknesses—while neglecting to examine the shared assumptions, something that might yield important insights.

Last night I started watching Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden now available on HBO. It wasn’t a gripping revelation to me, because I’ve followed the affair since it first became public, and I had been generally aware of the technology involved. But the film is pro-Snowden, and as I am vaguely pro-privacy and anti-state I found myself being slowly sucked into cheering for the guy. Until I reminded myself that I don’t need to have any opinion about Snowden or his actions—and not only that, but having an opinion just makes it more difficult for me to see and evaluate issues which the Snowden affair has surfaced. Snowden himself emphasizes this as the film unfolds, wanting to keep himself out of the revelations as long as possible—not for his safety, but to keep buzz about himself and his actions from obscuring his revelations.

So, Edward Snowden—traitor or hero? I have no opinion, and it makes no difference in my everyday life. But I’ll be thinking about Snowden as I continue to read Ted Smith’s consideration of John Brown, and wondering if Snowden will end up playing a similar role in our own day and time.

Learning to be kind

I taught Chris and Maggie to drive, and although I was mildly surprised at how much of it came naturally to them (from years spent watching me and Debbie drive, I suppose), I was very surprised at what they didn’t know—how to brake smoothly, for example. Often it took quite a bit of thought on my part to discern the nature of the problem they were having, then figure out a good way to explain how to deal with it.

Sometimes I think being welcomed into the Kingdom these days is like being handed a driver’s license without any training, with an implicit expectation that you’ll be able to figure it out—after all, you’re now a citizen of the Kingdom of Driving, and the requisite skills will eventually manifest themselves. No Dad to diagnose and explain, not even a Driver’s Ed program to sign up for.

Here’s an article which offers a little diagnosis and training in one aspect of gracious living, even though it isn’t presented that way. It describes the research of John Gottman, who has been studying couples for 40 years. With respect to couplehood, he divides people into two categories: masters (still happily together after six years) and disasters (broken up or chronically unhappy in their relationship).

By observing these types of interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples—straight or gay, rich or poor, childless or not—will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”

They go on to call this "habit of mind" by its proper name: kindness. And they point out an important truth about kindness.

There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

And there are some smart observations about kindness that I think Christians generally miss:

When people think about practicing kindness, they often think about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or giving one another back rubs every now and then. While those are great examples of generosity, kindness can also be built into the very backbone of a relationship through the way partners interact with each other on a day-to-day basis. […]

One way to practice kindness is by being generous about your partner’s intentions. From the research of the Gottmans, we know that disasters see negativity in their relationship even when it is not there. […] Another powerful kindness strategy revolves around shared joy. One of the telltale signs of the disaster couples Gottman studied was their inability to connect over each other’s good news.

I’d like to think the church would naturally lead the way in this sort of teaching: what kindness is, how important it is to living in community, how to go about developing and strengthening an attitude of kindness, helping one another to the sustained hard work. After all, such skills are the keys to successful Kingdom living.

The rocky economics of open source development

This article has a nice headline: “The World’s Email Encryption Software Relies on One Guy, Who is Going Broke.” True believers in the Invisible Hand might take the story as evidence that the open source model can’t work. But I think it illustrates the possibilities (and difficulties) of adhering to this model in a world structured along different lines.

Koch continued to work on GPG in between consulting projects until 1999, when the German government gave him a grant to make GPG compatible with the Microsoft Windows operating system. The money allowed him to hire a programmer to maintain the software while also building the Windows version, which became GPG4Win. This remains the primary free encryption program for Windows machines.

In 2005, Koch won another contract from the German government to support the development of another email encryption method. But in 2010, the funding ran out.

For almost two years, Koch continued to pay his programmer in the hope that he could find more funding. "But nothing came," Koch recalled. So, in August 2012, he had to let the programmer go. By summer 2013, Koch was himself ready to quit.

I’m reminded of a talk I heard by British art-rock musician Robert Fripp, who has pursued a difficult sort of music in ways that have allowed him to make a modest living at it. Yet he continually discourages anyone from trying to go professional unless they are absolutely driven to play music every waking moment, encouraging them instead to pursue music as a “hobby”. In the talk he mentioned that he had trouble making this point with American audiences until he learned that Americans have a different view of “hobby”. In Britain, a hobby can be a pursuit that takes up half one’s life—limited to half, presumably, because the rest has to be spent earning the living that enables the hobby. But it’s the hobby that’s important, the living is just a means to that end.

This kind of productive activity doesn’t make any sense given the current ideal of being paid for what we love to do—even those who aren’t earning a living from their calling are viewed as falling short of the ideal. No other possibilities are considered, e.g. being bi-vocational, or perhaps arranging one’s life so that a living is scraped together without a vocation at all, in order to devote one’s energies to something else. Nothing prevents, say, a Christian teacher from teaching for no compensation while funding his existence through totally unrelated activity. But you rarely see it.

I think the jury is still out on whether the open source model can continue to thrive. The only other place it has been adopted in truth rather than just in appearance is education—not only by explicitly educational projects like Khan Academy and MIT Open CourseWare, but also the endless stream of instructional videos on YouTube and the various expert communities fostered by StackExchange. But there are plenty of hucksters and opportunists operating in this sphere, and who knows if they will manage to co-opt these efforts.

Although twenty years ago I would have enthusiastically championed the open source model as a different and better organizing principle, an older chastened me now just looks at it and ponders. There have been plenty of models proposed in years past for changing human behavior in new and better ways. All of them have turned out to be major disappointments. Meanwhile, here is a far more modest point of view—namely, that it’s a bad idea to treat intellectual content as property—which is not only shocking to the modern mind, but has actually opened up space in the economic sphere for people to behave in different and better ways—and, behold, some of them actually embrace the opportunity.