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?

Like a middle-aged patron holding a menu at arm’s length to read its scribbles, writers must manipulate the distance to make their thoughts legible.

But it’s hard to hold our own thoughts far away, much less figure out the relative success of our efforts. How do we know if we’ve explained ourselves sufficiently? How can we be sure we’ve rendered our internal monologue into something externally meaningful? 

It’s not easy–making the internal external is challenging enough without bothering about the answer to the question of to whom readability refers.

But it’s also necessary if we want our thoughts to be understood. As with other intimacies, when we’re too close, our view is obscured.

To gain more distance, we can practice the arts of alienation. Alienate can help us, etymologically, at least (ali-us is other/another, and -ēn-us is to see), establish the distance required to see an/other.

In contemporary usage, the word is negative–alienating something or someone suggests a hard push into an otherness so radical that the other can no longer be seen. But this usage is mostly only expedient for political ideologies that seek to hide the friction of distance and difference beyond the horizon.

The rest of us know that distance and difference are also opporunities. When we identify them for what they are, we can decide how and where to build bridges of common understanding.

Somewhat similarly, when we make our writing distant and different, we gain a perspective we can’t otherwise take.

We can do this in a number of ways: We can take time and space from a project, separating ourselves from and forgetting for a while our prior closeness. We can also use tools that make our work strange. Interrogative outlines are useful for this purpose. So, too, are AIs, which can make our writing so different and distant that we must work hard to build that bridge of understanding.

Wherever we’re standing in terms of our writing, it’s probably too close. By holding it out further, much further away, we may see opportunities to create common understanding.

The challenges writers face that feel so insurmountable are often habits of thought based on mistaken premises. 

One of strongest and most hidden beliefs we hold is that writing is a linear process. It’s not. It’s iterative.

To loosen our hold on this strong opinion, we have to first see that we’re holding it. 

Then, we can confront it.

In These Dark Times, the question of whether you’re with us or them can be a crude tool of categorization. But that usage is for simple minds. By turning the divisive equation into a question and using the answer not as a conclusion but as a premise, we can all build more powerful extended arguments.

To persuade means to move, and the force required to move something depends on the weight of that which must be moved. We apply a different force when an argument is pitched to us than we apply when it’s pitched to them.

When we pitch to us, we pitch to the people who already agree with us. It’s not that we don’t need to move these readers, it’s that we don’t need to move these readers to understand that a problem is a problem. They already understand the problem exists. Instead, we need to persuade these readers of the merits of our proposed solution–we need to move these readers toward our answer.

When we write for them, however, we write for the readers who haven’t yet identified the problem as a problem, or haven’t yet identified its relevance to them. We can’t yet move these readers toward our solution–that’s too big a step. Instead, we need to persuade them that the problem is a problem that’s significant to them. 

In this way, the answer to whether our argument is for us or for them determines its development. For us, we focus on identifying, describing, and explaining the solutions. For them, we focus on defining, describing, and supporting our identification of the problems.

A few examples make the difference clear. First, a manifesto, the ur book for us: The Lightmaker’s Manifesto: How to Work for Change without Losing Your Joy. From the title we know that Karen Walrond writes not for them, for readers who don’t know that a lightmaker is an activist and that activism is hard to sustain. The book is for us, for lightmaking readers who seek real solutions to the problem of burnout they already know they face.

Books for them look a lot more like Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. As their titles indicate, the pages of these books are devoted to naming, describing, arguing, and supporting the identification of a new (or newly articulated, or newly relevant) problem. The books seek to persuade readers that these problems exist and are significant to them. 

Answering the question of us or them can guide the earliest stages of argument development. But it can also act as a useful intervention. If you’re stuck, blocked, uninspired, or lost and confused about what you’re even arguing, ask yourself: Am I mostly identifying a problem and arguing for its relevance to people who don’t yet understand it? Or am I mostly suggesting a solution for people who understand the problem and are willing and ready to make change?

In other words, am I writing for them or for us?


“[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.

Though a project outline can be a helpful roadmap, for an outline to be radically useful, it can’t be traditional. It must be interrogative. 

We often take it on faith that all outlines are useful: If you’ve got a destination in mind, you want (and often need) to know how to get there. After all, aimless exploration isn’t ideal or enjoyable when you have an end in mind and a timeline for your arrival.

Although for a big project like a book, the destination is typically “done,” the kind of outline we use can get us there or it can get us lost. 

Traditional outlines get us lost. They’re passively structured and inert, articulating the themes and topics that need to be covered and connected to get a project to done.

But their structure makes it easy to lose your way. They’re simple and feel satisfyingly productive to create. We frequently confuse the effort we put into the outline with the effort required to turn the outline into a finished project.

However, our attention to it is reinforced by the traditional outline’s serial structure. An A, B, C pattern makes it incredibly obvious what comes next–D.

The obviousness poses a problem. By emphasizing structural connection, a traditional outline leaves unanswered the question of why A precedes B, and how we should make our move to B. The structure is maximally authoritative but fundamentally inert.

Question-based outlines, or interrogative outlines, on the other hand, are radically useful. Simply posing questions transfers the exploration of topics and subtopics and their connection to one another from the outline and onto the writer.

For instance, a theme like AI ethics in biomedical research, offers a nearly infinite number of topics and subtopics to be explored. A traditional outline encourages us to list out all the topics and subtopics that fit under this theme and connect them via seriation. It provides shape to infinitude, which makes it satisfying. But what is the shape of linearity? And when is it complete?

A question, on the other hand, solicits completion. If we turn the theme above into a question like, How will ethics shape the use of AI in biomedical research in the short-term?, we limit the topics under discussion while still allowing for maximal experimentation in our response.

Questions are dynamic. They imply not just one but many answers. They assume–by their very structure–an argument. Questions are also future-facing: A question mark solicits our future participation in meaning-making. And when we pose a question to ourselves, that question mark demands our participation.

So turn your traditional outline into an interrogative outline by reformulating your outline entries into questions. You may be surprised by how easy they are to answer.

Semiotic Triangle

When it comes to writing, AI can generate poems, songs, stories, and fiction and nonfiction books. It can produce interviews and summaries and evaluations and copy of all kinds. As it gains more, better, and potentially multisensorial training, it will be able to do much, much more.

For some, the sudden surge in applications uncovers previously unexploited conveniences. If, for example, you spend too much time writing articles to refresh SEO relevance, AI offers a convenient solution.

For others, however, the purpose of writing is not always—or not only—to get the work done. It’s also to do the work. This is the case even though, as a proxy for thinking and reflection, and/or as a means for information exchange, writing is an inefficient, inconvenient medium.

It’s also often annoying, irritating, unpleasant, and very, very hard. Even writers consider writing torturous—a point made in Hemingway’s oft-quoted description of writing as “easy”—you just have to “sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

But inefficiency and inconvenience—and annoyance and irritation (probably not the blood)—are important parts of the process. They’re cause and effect of the friction created when we attempt to match what we want to express with expression. 

AI can make the match easy by smoothing away this friction, but the convenience comes at a cost. In fact, Tim Wu writes in the still-relevant “Tyranny of Convenience” that although convenience helpfully and necessarily sands down some of life’s rough corners, if we sand away too much, we lose the edge.

Making easy our primary goal radically limits our choices, and thus the individuality we express in the act of choosing. Yes, AI can make the work of writing easy, but it smoothes away the friction that invites (perhaps requires) individuated expression.

We can and will turn to AI for a wide variety of tasks. But when it comes to writing, the hard work of enduring the annoying, irritating, unpleasant, and terribly inconvenient friction of writing is (part of) what makes us meaningful.

The most viscerally painful critique I received was from my PhD advisor in a high-stakes, high-reward meeting before my defense. She’d reviewed my 320-page, 466-footnote project. She had much to say.

I, of course, wanted to be showered with praise. I also wanted appreciation for the years of work I had put in. I wanted approval that would not only validate my efforts, but would also free me from this project, which felt more like a boulder than a millstone around my neck.

Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that I didn’t receive anything like the praise I sought. Instead, my advisor was outraged that I hadn’t adequately cited her influence. Then, she picked apart my argument, piece by piece, pointing out its every weakness and dismantling, theoretically and conceptually, the logic of its overarching structure.

I was annoyed. Then incensed. Then devastated. I was also embarrassed—embarrassed that my work hadn’t garnered her approval and embarrassed to realize that I wanted that approval so badly.

Today, more than ten years on, a major part of my work includes participating in similarly high-stakes, high-rewards conversations about high-commitment projects. I’m frequently the critic, but my work is also often the object of judgment. I still wonder: Why is it so hard to hear critique?

I’ve come to feel that critique hurts for a variety of reasons: It hurts because it mimics our inner doubts and insecurities. It hurts because it indicates rejection from a group we seek to join. Critique also communicates a strong signal that we must return to something that we long to release. It’s a painful indication that despite our efforts we haven’t achieved our aims.

I haven’t learned to lessen the quick sting of critique, but I’ve learned something more important: I’ve learned to see critique not as evidence of universal disappointment but as an invitation to collaboration. It may not be gentle, thoughtful, or even particularly well-meant, but critique frequently identifies problems and offers ideas that can make my ideas better.

Luckily, learning to view critique as collaboration isn’t a perspective shift that requires ten years to make. I believe I learned it back then, after the hurt of my advisor’s words subsided. When I felt capable of opening up my document yet again, I applied many of her suggestions. I ripped apart the garment I had spent years weaving, then pieced it into something new. It actually didn’t take nearly as long as I had feared, and once I was finished, I experienced the relief of utter rightness. The project was not only in better shape, but it had finally, finally achieved the form I’d been aiming at all along. 

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to feel the pain of critique many, many times. It still hurts, but now I consider it an invitation to collaboration. When I accept, my projects benefit.

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.