Here in Minnesota, winter has—emphatically—returned. As I marked the occasion with a frigid run, my mind wandered from the slippery but well-worn route, to the inscrutably repetitious new year, to the ominously redundant omicron variant.
It was surprisingly pleasant going, though, because I listened to Slate’s Political Gabfest. There, David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson discussed a provocative conundrum: When is it okay to critique a friend’s creative efforts?
The initial, unanimous response? Never!
But as they talked over variations on the theme, their answers began to shift:
Well, probably never…if you want to retain your relationship.
Perhaps sometimes…if they’re particularly successful or are particularly solicitous.
Probably yes…if you’re a partner responsible for heading off potential embarrassment.
Definitely yes…in fact, you’re obligated.
The move from “you can’t” to “you must” depended both on the creative effort and on the relationship between creator and critic: Ultimately, critique was deemed necessary when the effort was writing and the critic an editor.
Writing requires a critical reader, argued Plotz, because writing is iterative.
Iteration, a kind of repetition, makes iterative a felicitous adjective because writing requires repetition on both abstract and practical levels. When we write, we not only reproduce what we know; we also engage in mechanical reproduction—writing, reading, rewriting, rereading, asking others to read, rewriting, rereading, asking others to reread, then rewriting again.
It’s challenging, sometimes agonizing work, but modern iteration differs from rote repetition by its invocation of forward momentum. Iteration isn’t only repetition; it’s repetition toward refinement, toward a “desired result.”
Iteration is consequently an apt word for the work of writing. It’s also, possibly, an appropriate word for the work ahead.
In 2022, we face the same virus, the same intractable government and community responses, the same political rigidity, the same individual and collective challenges to childcare, school, and work, not to mention healthcare and other basic needs. The repetition itself feels like an inescapable, isolating trap.
The language of iteration might help us conceive of a way out.
The gentle onomatopoeia in iterative means the word requires repetition for its completion. Like winter, like running, like writing, iterative work is repetitious work. However—and also like winter, like running, like writing—the repetition can reach beyond equivalence. Though 2022 is already a repetitive year, it doesn’t have to be the same as what preceded it.