Entries by Molly Gage

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New Year, Old Tensions, & the Potential for Generative Balance

Writers are very familiar with the tension between the fresh-start promise of a potential story and the perpetual pain of a blank page. When the new year turns over, many of us feel the discomfort between productivity and paralysis, too.

Even though the calendar is a construct, we’ve tacitly agreed that it’s a construct that renews itself on January 1. The implication of renewal suggests a new opportunity to rewrite our beginnings and endings, and this heightens that latent tension between doing and dormancy.

While many of us seek to discharge this tension through resolutions–declaration helps to provoke the momentum we need to act–resolutions don’t really work. This may be because resolutions borne out of a desire to discharge discomfort miss the mark.

Feeling caught between possible action and perpetual paralysis is uncomfortable, but we shouldn’t seek to relax this feeling. We should instead think about trying to heighten it. 

The push-pull tautness of desire—I want to act; I don’t want to act; I want to act—is elemental. We rely on it, especially the uncomfortable friction it generates, to negotiate a generative balance between activity and rest. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oft-cited line suggests something similar: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Reframing irresolution as generative orients it to the future, aligning it with action. Withstanding such tension mistakes the locus of power. When we foster such tension instead, we open wide the world of possibility: “One should,” Fitzgerald writes, “be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” 

This year, let’s think about resolving to work toward the generative balance that tension makes possible. After all, doing so sustains the conditions of imaginative possibility, which gives all action meaning.

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It Takes a Team

Writing a book feels like—because it very often is—solitary work. But a published book is the result of coordinated teamwork. A roster of readers, reviewers, editors, copyeditors, production managers and production assistants, marketing managers and marketing assistants—and sometimes an agent or two—are responsible for binding a sheaf of pages into a brand new book. 

Some or all of the following people often have a hand in shaping a rough-draft manuscript into a clean-copy book:

    • First, the writer
    • Then, usually, a reader
    • And another reader
    • And another reader
    • Then, frequently, a more critical reader-reviewer
    • Next, often, a developmental editor
    • Then, after revision, another, second- or third-round reader-reviewer
    • Often, next, a copyeditor
    • And another, third- or fourth-round reviewer
    • At this point, possibly a query reader-reviewer
    • Or, a query editor
    • Upon submission, an editorial assistant
    • Then, an acquisitions editor
    • Next, an editorial board
    • Then, the acquisitions editor, again
    • Then, a developmental editor
    • Next, a copyeditor
    • Then, a production manager
    • Then, production assistants
    • Also, a marketing manager
    • Then, marketing assistants
    • Along the way, an agent might also read and shape words, sometimes serving as a reviewer, a developmental or other editor, and maybe as a copyeditor, too.

The point is this: We often feel alone, and this feeling of alone-ness can be amplified in the process of writing a book. Perhaps we assume we must go it alone. Perhaps we feel as though we really are on our own. But, in truth, no one writes a really excellent book alone. It takes a team of interested, thoughtful people to bring forth a book that matters.

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When It’s Not Working

When we’re faced with disappointments on a project to which we’ve committed time, effort, money, and emotion, it can be hard to know when to persist and when to quit.

On the one hand, grit can get us over the finish line, argues Angela Duckworth, even when our lungs are labored, our legs are heavy, and the race is too long. 

On the other, quitting the race can save us from overvaluing persistence for its own sake, claims Annie Duke. Why should we keep running, Duke asks, when we know we can’t win, and when a loss means more than just a hit to our pride?

To dig deep and show grit, or to pull up short and quit? It’s a timeless question many of us must ask about the commitments we care about, whether it’s a project, a job, a race, or a relationship.

It’s a hard question to answer because we often assess the costs and benefits of persistence versus abandonment only when things go wrong. Yet, when things go wrong, we’re not especially good at neutral assessment. The sunk-cost fallacy and other cognitive biases typically limit our thinking and confine our actions. We end up overvaluing our investments when they aren’t paying off, or blowing long-term equity in a short-term fit of pique.

Because life is uncertain and so many variables shape our experiences, there’s no easy way to decide when to show grit or when to quit. But we can get closer to the least-wrong answer by identifying the root of resistance. Ask yourself:

  1. Do I say no (or, I don’t want to, can’t, don’t feel like it, prefer not to, uggghhhhhh), more than yes?
  2. What are my reasons for saying no?
  3. Are those reasons bounded by time and space, or are they existential and timeless?

The preceding exercise won’t tell you what to do, but it may give you enough clarity to make a plan. For example, if your resistance is rooted in overwhelm, take a break, or take steps to reduce contextual chaos.

If, on the other hand, your resistance is related to the possibility that we are mere drops in the swelling ocean of humanity, that there’s nothing new in its depths, and that nothing you say or do can really change the rhythm of the waves, well, quitting isn’t going to change that, so you might just need to make a plan to comfort yourself before keeping on keeping on.

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The Cutting Room Floor

Garden shears isolated on a white background

Producing quality writing depends on successfully wielding two opposing forces: creation and destruction (addition and subtraction; expansion and reduction). On the one hand, you have to make it. On the other, in the process of making it, you have to let go of some of what you’ve made.

Unsurprisingly, the letting-go part of the process seldom gets its due. Writers refer to it as “killing your darlings” or “the cutting room floor.” Though the pain of the effort is communicated through verbs like “kill” and “cut,” it is a fundamental part of producing quality writing.

In fact, journalist Kevin Sullivan, in conversation with journalist Chip Scanlon cites it as the best writing advice he’s ever received: “Don Murray, my college journalism professor and friend, said you can always measure the quality of a piece of writing by the quality of what you cut.”

It’s hard to let go of our brilliant turns of phrase, or our tightly crafted paragraphs. It’s harder to let go of whole narrative arcs. But Sullivan confirms that quality writing requires us to recognize that what we’ve created will almost always benefit from what we can cut.

To make it easier, save your cuttings as clips. The benefit is practical—you can consult your clips to develop new darlings. It’s also emotional—you can keep what’s not currently required, saving it for another creation.  

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Big Problems with Big Projects

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Books are big projects. They require time and effort and can be consequently quite difficult to complete. Many (many) writers have to work hard just to make the time that allows us to put forth the effort. 

So, when we finish a draft of a big-project book, we want to be done—done with the time-finding and done with the effort-expending. We want to be done done. Yet, despite the meaning of “finished,” a finished draft is never The End.

Instead, it’s usually the beginning of implementing the big changes that move a draft from finished to accepted. Big changes are often suggested by critical readers, developmental editors, or hands-on agents and often include the following:

  • Too long: The book needs to be significantly shortened
  • Too much: The book needs to be broken into two or more projects
  • Too general: A specific audience needs to be identified as the book’s target readers
  • Too oblique: The argument needs to be obvious and integrated
  • Too weak: The argument requires more, specific, primary, secondary, or other evidence
  • Too confusing: The argument needs to be positioned as the impetus of organization 

Suggestions like these can feel big—too big. It can be overwhelming and demoralizing for authors to realize that their manuscript requires even more time and effort for completion.

But big changes don’t always translate to big effort. Revision, even major revision, is far easier to complete than the hard labor of producing the draft.

In the same way that carving a stone is challenging, while mining stone is backbreaking, shaping a draft into manuscript form is part of the process of artistry. Once the backbreaking work of creation is finished, refinement often feels like relief.

Authors asked to implement big changes can take heart: The request is often a testament to the reader’s confidence in the author’s craft.

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Why Write?

Dark World

How have we come to live with the arrow of death in our collective heart, asks Elizabeth Dias in a recent New York Times essay. In the aftermath of the shooting of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, as well as the nearly 20 mass shootings that have occurred since then, the question is painfully relevant.

Yet, right now, we don’t need answers. We already know that Senators and Representatives, mostly Republican, insistover the will of most Americanson frictionless access to guns. We also know that gun manufacturers, gun lobbyists, and others who benefit from the easy access to guns work relentlessly to associate guns with a violent brand of freedom and protection.

There are other answers, too. But, right now, they don’t matter. Right now, all that matters is that we pull out the arrow.

To do so requires our collective action, which is hard. At its base, collective action asks us to recognize others as preciousprecious in ways we don’t understand, precious in ways we can’t articulateprecious beyond words.

Is it ironic that communal power depends on individual respect, even reverence? Maybe. But, according to Rabbi Mychal B. Springer, it’s a reflection of a simple spiritual truth: Each person, every one of us, contains the whole world.

We may not be aware of it, but we already understand this truth. Our feelings of wrenching despair, of agonized abandonment after such brutality testify to our recognition. We sense that we’ve squandered preciousness. We grasp, however lightly, that we’ve lost the whole world. 

We sense, too, that we cannot wrest it back. But if we pull out the arrow, we can at least start to heal.

So, vote for council members, local officials, state representatives, and national leaders who support real responses to out-of-control gun violence, including federal laws that regulate access to guns. Participate in local, statewide, and national conversations to advocate for gun regulation. Support initiatives like Wear Orange. Join groups like Moms Demand Action and Sandy Hook Promise. Acknowledge, out loud, the terrible burden on survivors of gun violence, who must remind usagain and again and againwhat has been lost.

In short, do everything you can, and even things you think you can’t, to pull out the arrow, so we can heal our heart, and begin the work of rebuilding the world.

After So What

“But is it publishable?” For writers of half-ademic books, it’s a common refrain. The manuscript’s “half” status can feel like the source of trouble, causing writers to question manuscript viability.

It’s true that it’s challenging to publish a book that doesn’t neatly fit into an identifiable genre. However, genre adherence is not usually the answer to the viability question.

Rather, when doubts arise about a manuscript’s publishing potential, the cause is more often the writer’s sense of an ambiguous diffuseness in their story. 

To provoke a sharper focus, editors and readers typically ask, so what? As in, so what if people feel bad and sad about climate change? So what if kids in special education classrooms don’t receive comprehensive sex education? So what if our genes matter more—but also much less—than we typically assume

So what? is an economically efficient editorial tool. It’s also an effective imperative to articulate an argument’s strongest expression. When you answer your manuscript’s so what?, you identify your manuscript’s reason-for-being.

However, writers of half-ademic books often have answers to the so what?. They already know their manuscript’s reason-for-being. In these cases, it’s not answers but questions that are required.

The order of operations for writing a book doesn’t always proceed logically. Consequently, writers, and especially writers of half-ademic books, who are writing out of an academic tradition, offer subtle and complicated answers to questions that they have never actually articulated. This frequently results in an obliqueness, or what I above refer to as a diffuseness, that fuels writers’ doubts.

In these cases, the necessary fit is not between manuscript and genre, but between the manuscript’s answers and the unasked questions driving exploration. Articulating these questions creates space for the answers, and for the manuscript that contains them.

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“No One Ever Builds a House”

Although he may be better known for his “2nd 4th grade” illustration skills, Tim Urban’s essays can be energizing. Exhibit X: His recent NYT editorial, in which he offers advice on how to approach time in a (near) post-Covid future.

The editorial is based on his “depressing math” posts from 2014 and 2015. There, Urban reminds us that although we tend to think we have all the time in the world, we don’t. Even if we’re very lucky and live a very long time, the experiences that define our lives—visiting friends and family, eating pizza, reading books—are not limitless. In fact, they’re depressingly countable. 

It’s gloomy. But it’s also galvanizing. When we realize that the life we (perhaps) passively live can be easily broken down into countable experiences, we can activate our agency to make different choices. Different choices can change the math, making the sum a little less depressing. 

Elsewhere, in Exhibit XX, Urban makes a similarly gloomy-but-galvanizing point about procrastinators. Based on his own rich experience, Urban argues that procrastinators frequently forget that, “No one ‘builds a house.’ They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house.”

Urban here echoes Epictetus; indeed, the stoics have enjoyed a popular renaissance in Oliver Burkeman‘s and James Clear’s arguments on habit formation. Part of their message is that transformation is not the result of epiphany but the product of mundane persistence. (And persistence is most efficiently executed through habits.)

Taken together, depressing math and the procrastinator’s faulty memory can help us think about the mediating role we can play in our own lives. By intervening in the parts—whether in terms of the experiences that add up to a life, or in terms of the small steps that result in a transformative project—we can change the whole. From the perspective of the present, this kind of intervention requires a persistence that tethers it to the mundane. It’s often only from the vantage point of the future that we can see its bigger meaning.

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“Mass Is Just Energy You Haven’t Met Yet”

Mass isn’t just “‘stuff’ that things can be made out of,” according to University of Copenhagen particle physicist, Matt von Hippel. Rather, mass is what “a high energy of interaction looks like.” 

Von Hippel has a provocative way with words. His claim that mass is energy you haven’t met yet refers to the surprise that, in particle physics, mass is less “stuff” and more a consequence of energy. A proton’s mass, for example, far exceeds the weight of its component quarks. It’s the energy of interaction, according to Von Hippel, that accounts for the extra weight.

His argument should certainly be isolated to its applied field, but it’s too provocative for detainment. When broadly considered against the relationship between parts and wholes, it offers interesting insights. Take, for instance, a book. Intense interactive energy is required to transmute letters, pixels, papers, and ink, glue, and binding into something as weighty as a story. The book in our hands barely compares to the narrative it provokes in our heads.

As in the relationship between a proton and its quarks, the relationship between words and story is not commensurate. Word count accounts for neither a book’s mass nor a story’s heft. Perhaps this is because a book is less a product of the stuff out of which it’s made than a product of the energetic interactions that result in its story.

Elsewhere, writing about the relationship between synchronization and the speed of light, von Hippel points out that our knowledge of the world depends entirely on the models we build to bridge perceptions and our memories. Another name for these models? Stories. Here again, insights from particle physics are relevant, but we already know how much the mass of such stories matters.

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Take Me There

Clive Thompson wants to “rewil[d] your attention,” and as an aid to such savagery, he submits the Glitch-built, Weird Old Book Finder

WOBF allows you to explore the outer reaches of the public domain with the random search terms of your choice. Of course, your terms hardly matter. The non-congruence between what you seek and what you find is part of the point. Whether you input “infinity,” “twilight,” “anemone,” or “ballet,” your choice will help you search, and perhaps discover, a scrap of the internet’s originary chanciness. Use it, and find the books for which you never knew to search.