Shoot, don’t talk

I love The Incredibles. One of its admirable qualities is a self-aware treatment of storytelling conventions. I don’t know the film introduced the term monologuing, but it is a welcome addition to my vocabulary, perfectly describing a tendency which afflicts not just superheroes but most of modern society—talking about what you’re going to do, usually to the exclusion of (or a substitute for) actually doing it.

I also love The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. One scene in particular provides a favorite family quote:

Tuco’s adversary catches him in the bathtub, but of course he starts monologuing. Tuco listens for a bit, then shoots him a few times. After the final shot, he tells the dead man, “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk!”

Whenever I am tempted to announce my intentions—which happens less and less, but still happens—I always stop and ask myself if I’m about to start monologuing. And that is usually enough to re-strengthen my resolve to let my actions speak for themselves. But not always.

Exactly two months ago I announced that regular posting would resume, and today I announce that it will cease—not altogether, just the regular part. This doesn’t require an announcement, of course. I could have just done what I plan to do with no comment, with no harm to anyone along with the helpfully humbling reminder that my commitment to at-least-daily posting was important only to me. But I decided that commenting on the change would give me the opportunity to say a few things I might not otherwise say when I return to a lighter posting regime.

First, I think my commitment has done its work. It pushed me to write 64 posts, some of them taking my writing into unfamiliar territory. And it showed me that I can pretty reliably write a 1500-2000 word rough draft in 1-2 hours. But it also showed me that the rate was more or less an upper limit, that more practice wasn’t going to make the words flow more freely. This is because the writing is now secondary to the thinking—I can get the words down easily enough once I know what I want to say, but assembling my thoughts into something coherent takes time. And it’s time I don’t really have available right now, so the commitment to spend 1-2 hours per day writing was becoming a burden. Time for a change.

Second, I think the next challenge should be to tackle bigger, more complex topics, ideas that will take 5-10 times as many words to cover. This is not something I can do by just allowing 5-10 times as long to do it. I don’t know how to do it, really, or if I can do it at all. My blog posts are almost always first drafts, and it will take new skills to create 7,500-20,000 word pieces that are worth reading. So I think I need to invest my deep-thinking time in developing those skills, and I don’t expect the work will be worth exposing to public view (although that may change). Although this blog won’t go intentionally silent, the postings will be less frequent and limited to things I can write quickly.

Third, this two month experiment has been a good example of a principle I’ve embraced for a long time—I’m sure my kids are tired of hearing about it—but don’t really have a good name for. The idea is for any effort you are engaged in, strive to figure out as quickly and painlessly as possible that you shouldn’t continue. More than thirty years ago I told a co-worker whose project was dead in the water to just do something simple right now—which he did, and it got his project moving again, and a few weeks later when I stopped by his cubicle I noticed he had pinned a piece of paper to his bulletin board which said, in big letters, “SOMETHING SIMPLE RIGHT NOW”. Leo Babauta of Zen Habits wrote a post about it called Fail Faster at Habits. Two months ago I wanted to improve my writing, and so I decided I should just write something public every day until that no longer seemed to be helpful. It was a small enough step that I was actually able to do it, it taught me some things, and it quickly enough pointed me in a different direction.

Fourth, if I were to continue the recent stream of blog posts, one of the upcoming posts would have been entitled “Exemplify, don’t exhort”. Lately I’ve seen some criticisms of the aphorism commonly attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” The criticism always comes from professional talkers. Here is one, from Glenn Stanton in a post on The Gospel Coalition website:

It is always attributed to St. Francis of Assisi—founder of the Franciscan Order—and is intended to say that proclaiming the Gospel by example is more virtuous than actually proclaiming with voice. It is a quote that has often rankled me because it seems to create a useless dichotomy between speech and action. Besides, the spirit behind it can be a little arrogant, intimating that those who “practice the Gospel” are more faithful to the faith than those who preach it.

The more I look at this, the more baffled I am. Isn’t in fact more virtuous to live out the Gospel than to simply give it lip service? Aren’t we more faithful when we practice the Gospel than when we preach it? Isn’t the dichotomy in fact very useful, reminding us that it is much, much easier to say than to do?

I bring this up here partly because “exemplify, not exhort” makes a nice parallel with “shoot, don’t talk.” But mostly because a 1500-2000 word post is not adequate to cover the topic thoroughly. And although I may not actually be capable of covering the topic at proper length, I can’t know that without giving it a try, and that requires a different approach.

Finally, taking this opportunity to talk about my own talking gives me a chance to say something about why I write, which may not be obvious from the writing itself. I don’t write in order to tell people what to think—far from it. What little is settled in my own thinking has come at the cost of significant time and effort and occasional embarrassment, so I’m long past the point where I could ever insist that others should join me in my thinking.

I’m even past thinking that others should approach the puzzles of life in the same way, whether it leads them to agree with me or not. I’ve done this with my children, but only as a stopgap. In many areas they are too young or inexperienced to be expected to approach an issue cold, and in those cases I’m glad to offer my own thinking, along with observations on how I reached those conclusions—but the offering is made strictly as a convenience to them, and an opportunity for them to learn. Not much makes me happier than watching them come to a carefully considered conclusion that is different than my own.

So I don’t write in order to tell people what to think, or how to think, or even how to go about developing their own way of thinking. I only write to chronicle my own efforts to think, whether successful or failed, in the hopes that it might encourage others to take up the task of thinking for themselves. For those who choose not to, I wish them well—thinking for yourself is good, but it is not vital. For those who don’t realize they aren’t thinking for themselves, I hope that by chronicling lines of thinking they are unfamiliar with I might help them recognize where their wisdom is received—but only by offering a contrast, not by direct confrontation. And for those who are working at thinking for themselves, I hope to offer a bit of help by writing down what has worked for me, and how—which techniques have been helpful, which have let me down, which untried techniques look promising.

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One thought on “Shoot, don’t talk

  1. Somewhere I heard this advice to an actor attributed to Clint Eastwood: “Don’t just say something, stand there.” Much easier said than done. Exactly.

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