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.

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

The calendar may be a construct, but we’ve tacitly agreed it’s a construct that renews itself on January 1. The implication of renewal suggests a new opportunity to rewrite our beginnings and endings, making plain the latent tension between doing and dormancy.

While we frequently 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.

It’s uncomfortable to feel caught between possible action and perpetual paralysis. But we shouldn’t seek to relax this feeling. We should think instead 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 popular 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, it might be worth resolving to work toward the generative balance that tension makes possible. In doing so, we sustain the conditions of imaginative possibility, which gives all action meaning.

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.

“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 or marketing fit.

It’s true: It’s challenging to publish a book without a high concept or that doesn’t neatly fit into an obvious genre. But concept or genre adherence are not usually the right answers to questions about viability or fit.

Rather, when a writer’s doubts arise about a manuscript’s potential success, the cause is more often an ambiguous diffuseness in the argument or story. 

To provoke a sharper focus, editors might 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 efficient editorial tool. It’s also a useful imperative to articulate an argument’s strongest expression. When you answer your manuscript’s so what?, you identify your manuscript’s reason-for-being. You make its fit at least obvious.

And yet. Sometimes, it’s not the answers that need to be made clear but the questions.

The order of operations for writing a book doesn’t always proceed logically. For instance, writers–especially those writing out of an academic tradition–might create manuscripts that offer subtle and complicated answers, but the answers apply to questions that haven’t actually been articulated.

This frequently results in an obliquenesswhat I above refer to as a diffusenessthat generate questions about viability and fit.

Consequently, the issue of viability and fit is not necessarily about manuscript and genre–it’s about the answers that have been found and the unasked questions that are driving exploration.

For many writers, simply articulating their questions creates the space required for the answers to fit, and for the manuscript that contains them to fit, as well.

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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(Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA)

Although the American myth of meritocracy continues to crumble to smithereens, some of its fragments are worthy of consideration.

For instance, what does it mean when people who cannot succeed by virtue of their demonstrated abilities and merit, nonetheless continue to achieve? In this context (which is ours), what does success—or failure—even mean?

Success is typically communicated by signifiers of wealth, respect, or fame. It denotes achievement—which itself connotes effort—both of which confer the legitimacy collectively extended to success.

But when wealth, respect, and fame are gained without effort’s exertion, success becomes a more fragile, fluid word. It no longer refers to a meaning relatively fixed by the collective, and depends instead on the relative interpretation of a powerful few.

Failure is, or maybe was, different. Failure, denoted by lack rather than plenitude has always been fluid. We see this in the concept of failing up, where failure must be modified and fixed by its direction. The collective agrees, relatively speaking, that failure is not fixed.

To whom does it really matter if success and failure are now both fluid, relative terms? Well, for the collective seeking to award success and punish failure, it’s a problem. When we become less capable of consensus on what constitutes effort and exertion, we can no longer agree on who has won, and what, or who has lost, and how.

For the individual, however—for you—the responsibility of relativity can be a gift. Determining success and failure according to your own criteria is harder than it sounds, but it allows you to set a standard that matters to you. This is self-help at its most autonomous. Rather than reaching for a collective sense of success that appears increasingly empty, we can extend our efforts toward the kind of success toward which we want to strive. Of course, we can still fail. But, then again, we always could.

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Sometimes, the most mundane habits are the most useful. So it is with note-taking.

The note-taker spectrum is broad: You might be a distractible doodler, an ambivalent-but-obliged recorder, a hyper-efficient graphomaniac, or a steadfast abstainer. While the devoted declare themselves by proximity to a favorite notebook, the reluctant might log random dates in Notes.

(Almost) regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, note-taking is an important aid to comprehension and a surprising access point to power. You don’t have to adhere to the Cornell Method to gain these benefits. Even if your style is more jot-down-a-word-and-circle-it-three times, project-oriented note-taking serves important functions.

First, note-taking breaks down a subject into its parts, allowing a more intimate approach to analysis: When we take notes, we get a lot closer to our subject.

Second, and counterintuitively, note-taking forces us further from our subject: When we take notes, we insert ourselves between our subject and our sense of our subject. The resulting space offers—and sometimes forces—a broader perspective.

Although note-taking fosters both intimacy and distance, both close comprehension and prodigious perspective-taking, its most crucial function isn’t the taking but the notes

When we take notes, we accumulate records of the things that mattered enough to us to be retained. Our notebook or app becomes a storehouse of observations to be consulted, used as evidence,  or considered a provocation for current or future work. It doesn’t really matter if the notes are clear or confusing: The simple act of retention invests our fleeting observations with the potential for future meanings.

Consequently, taking and keeping notes is incredibly useful. It’s useful for everyone, but it’s especially useful for those of us working on big or complicated projects. The practice might be an aid to productivity, but it will also provide past evidence for future meanings.  

Asking for feedback isn’t easy. It’s not easy for anybody, and it’s especially not easy for writers.

In our workaday professional lives, feedback is a necessary efficiency. It offers an opportunity to put in a targeted effort when it’s still useful to do so. We may grit our teeth and assume a protective position, but we ask for feedback anyway. Perhaps we’ll find our efforts have been sufficient and well-placed, but we know to prepare for the possibility that more, better effort is necessary.

In our writing lives, however, soliciting feedback and critique can feel a bit more impossible. Although writing is a professional pursuit, it often requires intensely personal inputs, not just the proverbial blood, sweat, tears, but also hours of time and muscular effort. When you have tried very hard for a very long time to express a very difficult idea that’s very important to you, it can feel almost dangerous to find out if those efforts have been well placed.

In addition, writers, whether part- or fulltime, nonfiction or fiction, often feel a deep sense of intimacy with their work. Passion projects, career capstones, or manuscripts that have been years in the making are frequently imbued with a writer’s hopes, dreams, and desires. Once a manuscript takes shape, you may feel it contains too much of your essential self to be offered up for critique.

Do it anyway.

We all know that feedback (almost) always makes its object stronger. This is particularly the case for writing, where feedback can help writers widen the gap between their experiences and their representation.

As previously discussed, this gap is necessary: We want the gap—we need the gap. Without it, our experiences are too insular and singularly referential to be meaningful to others. Feedback can let us know if our writing offers a real and useful guide through our interiority.  

Feedback’s value is ultimately universal: It’s (almost) always an aid to efficiency, enabling  that targeted, useful, and necessary effort. Writers may need to assume a protective position and armor themselves, but they should take every opportunity to solicit feedback, too.