Dried up

When you’re feeling stuck in your work, stagnant in your thoughts, or bored in your writing, it’s easy to feel like the inner spring has run dry, or there’s no well of ideas to tap. 

Boredom is frequently considered a prerequisite to creativity, maybe because, for some of us, boredom is so uncomfortable we’re willing to go to inventive extremes to sidestep it. The British Psychological Society points out that boredom provokes at least as much pain as does effort, and maybe more. 

But to push past boredom’s dead-end, we don’t really have to get that inventive. We can instead approach it as a cue to formulate new questions about old ideas. When we feel its telltale signs–restlessness, disinterest, and a sense we’ve become flat and featureless, we can pause and ask:

  • What am I interested in?
  • What do I not yet know about the things I’m interested in?
  • What else do I want to find out about?
  • What do I think I already know about the things I don’t know?
  • What other intuitions do I have about my interests?
  • How can I test my intuitions?

Questions can be useful interventions because they direct us toward answers. They contain a provocation that pushes us toward places we aren’t. Just by asking the questions, we can generate the movement that makes effort  seem less like a choice than an imperative. How else will we find our answers?

Escher's_Relativity

“[O]ne has only learnt to get the better of words for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which one is no longer disposed to say it”  —T.S. Eliot

The doing and thinking required to write and revise means that writers are constantly calculating the output of their subtractions and additions. 

We’re counting on precision, but there is no exact answer. We can’t use perfect words; we can only use words that serve the moment. But, blink, and, as Eliot points out, that particular moment has passed. Those words, “shabby equipment always deteriorating,” which were so apt, are already wrong.

The attempt to fix moments in time, with words, frequently feels impossible and pointless.  This discomfort can coalesce into an unmovable obstacle, encountered by some as writer’s block. 

Writer’s block does not mean that you’ve failed. It means that you’ve stumbled onto the failure of words.

Such failure is constitutive of language because language is not commensurate with meaning. Our words always say less (and sometimes more) than what we mean. We can never really say just what we want to say–first because we don’t always know exactly what it is we mean, and second, because if we do, we don’t usually have the just-right words to convey it.

In other words, our thoughts and words can’t coordinate precisely. Writing lets us pretend otherwise by offering itself as a tool for facilitating closer connection. But its mechanism merely extends the variable of time, which magnifies imprecision.

There’s a solution to this problem, but it’s not without remainder. We must free ourselves from the tyranny of exactness by acknowledging our future failure. It’s not a personal shortcoming: It’s a consequence of communication, which is only approximate. 

Similarly, esprit de l’espalier. is linguistic melancholy. The perfect words–like the perfect comeback–often only arrive (if they arrive at all) when the moment has passed.

We can still write, we just have to tolerate that it’s almost always wrong.

Parthenon temple on the Athenian Acropolis, Attica, Greece.

No matter how dense the subject, complicated the field, or convoluted the material, every interested reader should be able to access and understand the argument in any nonfiction book.

This can be a difficult imperative to accept. When we’ve spent years/decades/a lifetime gaining expertise, we usually bury the assumptions, connections, and relationships that make up the foundation of our work. If we condense that work into a book, we implicitly demand our readers do the work of excavation.

But readers won’t.

Even so, authors often resist the directive to make their argument more accessible–protesting that it’s a directive to dumb things down or pander to casual passersby.

This is not true. Accessibility is not synonymous with simplicity; it’s synonymous with functionality. When it comes to argument-driven books, functional means readable, and making a book readable is an authorial responsibility.

Authors of functional, readable nonfiction books adopt the conventions by which thinking can be shared. Importantly, they explain the foundations of their argument and expose the scaffolding from which they’ve built its tenets.

This is harder than it sounds. The foundations of complicated arguments tend to be deeply buried and are hard to unearth. Many authors give up their search during the drafting stage, deciding that if readers can’t do the work themselves, then they’re either not sufficiently motivated or the author’s thinking is too complex.

Possibly. More likely, though, this is what we tell ourselves to avoid what we prefer to see as unnecessary effort.

While it’s true that not every reader will be interested in evolutionary biology and the future of genetics, or in the philosophical foundations and future of AI, those who are interested enough to purchase our books are already motivated to follow the most complicated of thoughts.

We write for these readers–interested, motivated readers–readers who have sought out our work and want to know more. However, to understand our thinking, they must be able to access it.

Feedback is an integral part of any big project. Ideally, we solicit feedback from functional experts, neutrally review their notes, and integrate their applicable suggestions. In practice, however, we often solicit feedback from our friends, review their notes somewhat defensively, and search in vain for usable insights.

Feedback is always helpful, but it’s not always helpful in the ways we expect. Though we typically use feedback as a tool for finding solutions to our project’s problems, it’s more effective (and more reliable) to use feedback as a tool for verifying our project’s problems (and determining which of them require our attention). 

We do this by looking for the feedback behind the feedback. Readers’ suggestions are often motivated by the emotional friction they experienced when encountering our project. When we look in the background, to the feedback behind their feedback, we can identify this friction and deduce the problems that generated it.

Let’s take a comparative look. Here, a list of solutions from a reader of a working draft:

  • Consider taking out chapter 3–it doesn’t seem to fit.
  • Chapters 8 and 9 seem a bit long and meandering–consider combining them into one chapter.
  • Some chapters start with stories and others don’t–consider using the same structure for every chapter.
  • There are so many citations–I’m not sure where your argument begins or ends.
  • The story in the conclusion is very interesting–move it up.
  • The chapter examples are repetitive–consider mixing it up more. 

These might be helpful, but they might be arbitrary. Is deleting chapter 3 a good solution? It’s hard to say when we haven’t identified the problem beyond “fit.”

If we look behind the feedback, though, we find more generative feelings:

  • I’m confused, and I’m not exactly sure why. Chapter 3 seems confusing.
  • I’m confused. Maybe it’s because some chapters have different forms than others.
  • I’m confused. Maybe it’s because there are a lot of interruptions in the sentences. 
  • I’m having a hard time following this argument. I’m confused.
  • I’m not interested in this argument until it’s too late. / If I’m totally honest, I find this a little boring.

What’s the friction motivating our reader? Confusion and, potentially, boredom: They can’t find the argument’s throughline. They don’t find the argument interesting. They may not find the argument relevant.

The feedback behind the feedback can feel harsh (which is why readers don’t offer it and writers don’t seek it out), but it points the way to the underlying issues keeping our project from completion. Sometimes, useful solutions are in there, but in the background. We need to look behind the feedback to find them.

https://clevelandart.org/art/2021.204

When beginning a new project, especially one that requires skills not yet acquired and experience not yet gained, we often encounter a gap between what we envisioned for our project and what it seems poised to achieve.

This chasm is an unavoidable feature of the creative landscape. It’s there, and we know it’s there, and if we’ve ever before created something, we know that sooner or later, and typically when we’re just about ready to release our new project into the world, we’ll arrive at its edge. 

The crevice is the beginner’s gap, and Ira Glass of This American Life candidly defines it as the space separating our work from our ambitions for it. Encountering this gap is demoralizing–and arriving at its brink over and over again makes it seem unnavigable.

Plus, there’s the irritating truth that the gap remains open for a surprisingly long time. “Beginner” is somewhat of misnomer here because the gap is always present, it just goes by other names.

Luckily, the gap gets easier to navigate. In fact just the work of creating a lot of material over an indeterminate but necessarily long period of time builds the bridge required to reach the other side of our efforts and feel real satisfaction.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t get there. We might encounter the gap once or twice or more and decide we never want to encounter it again. We experience the disappointment of the gap’s darkness as a message to turn back. 

We should instead experience it as a message to keep going. The beginner’s gap is just one element in a larger scene: It’s true that there’s no way to really close it (in part because disappointed ambitions are a frequent companion to creation). However, we can prepare for it and build a bridge across it by expecting our projects to fall short of our ambitions, and by keeping going anyway.

Valentine’s Day is for lovers, for family, for friends, for children, and for pets. It’s also for artists, for creators, and for writers, too. We can think of our relationship to creativity as a labor of love, but a passion project requires more than care; it requires a commitment.

These projects are marked by the love-is-a-battlefield kind of love (thanks, Pat). We may actively avoid committing because so many complicated feelings are involved: We’ll need to negotiate some give and take, some push and pull, and our intense, sometimes furious devotion. 

A passion project also stirs up resentments that can mimic our most fraught intimacies (echoing Terry Real’s “normal marital hatred” here). We can spend infinite time thinking about our project, or thinking about making time to work on it, or thinking about working on it. But then, when we’re actually working on it, we’re dissatisfied. Infinitude is too vast. We want something more, something better, something different.

Valentine’s Day is a good day to remember that when it comes to the objects of our passions, it can be ok to hate—just a little bit—what we love. Maybe your project seems to require too much sacrifice. Maybe it doesn’t live up to your standards or your ideals. Maybe your standards are so high that you can’t begin the work.

Psychotherapists and philosophers have long suggested that, in our intimate relationships, big resentments and small hatreds might possibly enhance our love. Perhaps, like the naughty child seeking secure parental devotion, our project thwarts our every effort at discipline to test our dedication.

Maybe. Maybe not. But if you find yourself returning to a project—whether an idea, a book, a venture—again and again, even after false starts and disappointments, it may be because your love is true. Celebrate your passion: It’s probably time to commit. 

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.

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. Am I saying no (or, I don’t want to; I can’t: I don’t feel like it; I prefer not to; uggghhhhhh), more than I’m saying 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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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.

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.