The problem with writing is that it’s all done by writers.
But seriously, it’s an innate flaw to the medium. Though not a unique one, this flaw carries its own particular proclivities and issues stemming from the viewpoints of writers. They have a tendency to care about words. They have a tendency to care very deeply about being a writer and all that perception entails. They are inordinately interested in writers and writing. And other writers and their writing. And various detailed minutiae of the writing process, including how to use it to extract the very best writing.
Not everyone who reads is a writer. Arguably, most people aren’t. And thus we have this conundrum wherein what is most interesting to the writer is not necessarily what interests the reader. But, by definition, writing must be done by writers. Unless, of course, it is done by Snookie. There are, I guess, non-writers who write. But even if they do it very badly, they will eventually become writers. By the sheer process and fact of having done enough writing, one is, like it or not, a writer. And thus the problems entailed above ensue.
This isn’t a unique problem because it is inherent to almost any field of produced media, let alone field of study and perhaps creative or thoughtful pursuit writ large. It is most visible (my opinion) in the realm of movies, where the vast majority (99.5%+) of moviegoers are not filmmakers, but they are subjected, via tautological monopoly, to the whims of filmmakers if they wish to witness films. It seems, probably, least problematic in the art of photography, perhaps ironically vis a vis what happens once that lens starts moving. But there is something quiet and observant enough about the process of photography that we seem to be subjected to relatively few illustrations of cameras, lenses, photographers, and whatever it is that particular interests those behind the (still) camera.
I am speaking somewhat glibly and perhaps not entirely sincerely with all these “subjected to”s. After all, I consider myself a writer. And I sure as hell am subjecting you to what interests me as a writer, which is, if anything today, meta-writing. Or possibly, God help us, meta-meta-writing, since I seem to be writing about the nature of writing about writing, at least at this moment.
But I think there’s something fundamental here, that transcends even the creative arts. Nearly any field or group or category inevitably becomes self-referential and, in America at least, self-aggrandizing. It is in the interests of an insular group, be they a team of researchers or a team of debaters or a team of basketball players, to congratulate themselves disproportionately, to overemphasize the value of their accomplishments and struggles. In some of these arenas, say basketball, there is a small country worth of reporters, fans, and businesspeople all too willing to reinforce this kind of insular self-emphasis. Less so in college debate, perhaps, but the reduced number is counter-weighted by the verbosity and eloquence, in that order. But all of the debating is still done by debaters, and therein lies the rub.
This has application to things that matter very much indeed, as you might have already predicted would be the ultimate direction of this post. I think it’s something we’ve put our finger on, collectively as a society (I nearly said “as a collective society” to be more direct about phrasing before realizing that’s a very misleading representation of the United States at present – we are no such thing), but haven’t quite grasped, let alone articulated. Specifically with regard to politicians. The problem with politics is that it’s all done by politicians. Which sounds almost trite in its 1990s mock-discovery, ignoring the quarter-century since of cascading candidates who want to paint themselves as outsiders. But really. There are things that matter to the kind of people who would seek office that don’t matter to everyone else. There are assumptions that they make and priorities they presume that are not held by the 99.5%+ of us who are, roughly, “the governed”. There’s a little bit of “power corrupts” in here, but it’s more than that. It’s that every profession becomes an echo-chamber. And pretty soon all you can hear are the voices, quite loud, of politicians.
This applies to science, too. I was going to do a separate post about this Ted Talk video that I ran across, somehow recommended for me on YouTube as though the Internet really is learning things about people other than to try selling them the product they searched for yesterday. I’ll link it below, even though it interrupts the train of thought, because it’s someone who knows a lot more about science than I do saying what I’ve always said about science, which is that in the twenty-first century, it’s adopted a hierarchical and unyielding religious orthodoxy that would make most faiths blush. We have fallen so in love with our technological innovations and (albeit doom-creating) mastery of the planet that we cannot question any of the fundamental assumptions underlying the founding beliefs and doctrines of those who put us on this path. Anyway, I think this is enlightening, if not entirely in keeping with the theme. And no doubt many of you will find it laughable and/or offensive. But at least stick it out till the stuff with the constants:
As those of you defending the scientists will no doubt say, possibly for the first time in a list of prior professions/pursuits that you may consider to be empty, airy, and/or blustery, but the scientists are the only ones qualified to do science. You can’t just bring in a writer to do chemistry! And more importantly, as observed before, if that writer did enough chemistry to properly be seen as doing chemistry they would, inevitably, become a chemist. Because part of the learning process requires enough contact with and tutelage by the elders of the field that it is basically impossible to learn enough about the field to not become a part of its echo-chambery flaws.
There’s a place this all gets way more insidious than politics, though. A thing I’ve thought for a long time and have almost been afraid to bring up for its implications about my own slight successes in whatever field they’ve been in (okay, mostly debate). And this thing may be at the core of what is really wrong in this country and maybe all the countries. And I mean really, truly, deeply powerfully wrong, like the root. Like the hard core taproot of what is wrong.
Are you ready?
The problem with success is it’s all had by the successful.
Yes, this applies to wealth, and that’s a big chunk of it, but the myopia of the rich for problems of the poor are pretty well documented and discussed. What I’m saying actually goes way beyond that, though it’s worth observing how wealth and poverty interplay with these things the whole way down. Because finances are not the only way one can achieve success. One can receive acclaim, fame, the respect of one’s peers, awards, even self-fulfillment. And once one is recognized for this success, in whatever form those achievements take, one joins the ranks of the successful and all that implies. One transforms into someone who is repeatedly getting praised for their success, given credit for that success, and asked how they did it as a model to others. And this creates several knee-jerk reactions, all of which I posit may be total myths.
1. The belief that you are the reason for your success. No matter what role luck, timing, or the help of others may have played, the successful (at least in this country) are inundated with the narrative that “you did it!”
2. The belief that this success is actually what success is supposed to look like. This one is tricky and complicated, because it can sound very quickly like we’re not talking about anything. Easiest example I can think of is Presidents who do nothing with their term or make the country much worse, but still get re-elected. They have achieved “success” as defined by their surroundings and context (political party, supporters, voters), but this is a lousy definition of the notion.
3. The belief that anyone could reach this success. This one seems like it should be in high tension with #1, but empirically these myths persist in unison all the time. We revere the winners for being extraordinary, for doing the impossible, and yet simultaneously take copious notes for how we can precisely emulate them. It is the great drumbeat of hope, aspiration, and even the worship we lavish upon those at the top. They just worked harder. They wanted it more. They put in the extra time it took to be better.
Our society is so full of these responses to success that it’s hard to even picture a world without them. I mean, what would it even look like to not revere success? Or to not then apply it to others as a model with the belief that they can get there if they learn the lessons of that success? Questioning this is pure blasphemy, and not just for capitalists. For teachers. For coaches. For anyone. I mean, how else are you supposed to even tell someone to try if it’s not through the lens of how Michael Jordan worked to recover from getting cut from his high school basketball team? (He grew a lot.)
Even Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book that is supposed to break down the grand myths of the genius and talent of the most successful people, goes back to a sheer formula of time and opportunity to maximize time. Ten-thousand hours, kid. That’s it. This number has been so often repeated as a mantra that it’s just taken as a proven fact at this point. Play as much as the Beatles, code as much as Bill Gates, and you will become the Beatles or Bill Gates.
I fear we’re at another quandary, though, that getting around this is about as easy as having people who write really good stuff who aren’t writers, or people who can do science well who aren’t scientists. It seems definitional to the pursuit that someone has to pursue it long enough and seriously enough for it to become a part of their identity, or at least for them to sufficiently identify with being that thing that they can adopt its core principles. Even if those core principles include things that undermine the nature of the best development of the thing itself.
The best we can do, probably, is step outside ourselves and try to shed our perspective a little. My mantra in young adulthood was that “truth is vision without perspective” and it still holds true (!) today. And by “without perspective”, I mean “all perspective”. For by having 100% of the possible perspectives, one loses what we mean by “perspective” as an aspect of where one is standing in relation to the object being perceived.
Imagine a tennis ball. The truth about the tennis ball can only be grasped when one simultaneously sees it from all possible vantages. Up, down, left, right, but also inside at every molecular distance. It is, of course, impossible (for humans) and very difficult to picture, for it is a jumbled and confusing collection of seemingly contradictory information. Especially since our image of a tennis ball is a round fuzzy green ball, but much of the truth about it is the hollow inside that we basically never see. There is the old saw about the three blind men and the elephant, but the reality is that everything is the elephant and we are all blind. We are prisoners to our perspective. But we have the power of abstract thought to allow us to step outside it, or at least to try.
That’s all we can do. To write as though we are not writers, to make movies as though we are not filmmakers, to debate as though we are not debaters. Traditionally, when people can actually do these things, they are often called groundbreaking, revolutionaries, even visionaries. And then the real challenge is to wear that success as though we are not successful so that we may, possibly, make a way forward for a world where most people are not deemed to be successful at all in what was never really a fair contest to begin with.