On Not Writing What You Want

Yesterday’s post mentioned ‘Islamic Societies And The Great Transformation’ a dissertation I wrote back in the day which was pretty lacklustre, although it was helpful to write it and gave me a few insights which I still use today. It got me thinking of the tendency to write something other than what you want to, which plagues at least me and probably lots of people, so I launched upon a new post on that subject, only to find that I wasn’t saying what I wanted to say in it! This, then, is the second attempt at covering that subject.

I’ve written three dissertations in my time, and probably would’ve written more if I was less scattered about how I approach things. None of them ended up saying what I wanted, and in fact they also all involved me selling myself short. But did they?

When I was about twelve, my voice used to have a whistle register. That’s the pitch range above falsetto which for example Minnie Ripperton uses in her 1975 song ‘Lovin’ You’. Apparently it’s also used by Ariana Grande and Mariah Carey. Unsurprisingly, the effect of testosterone on my larynx led to me losing that range of my voice as far as I can tell, but when you lose an ability, it doesn’t always go in quite the way you might expect. In a phenomenon similar to phantom limbs, the impression I had was that it was still there but I just needed to clear my throat sufficiently to reach it. This was of course an illusion and it makes me wonder what other apparent abilities one might feel are just beyond one’s reach which are in fact well beyond it. An example of this might be one’s magnum opus. Maybe one just doesn’t have a work in one, or even well-expressed thoughts, but it could well be that they would seem to be something which if you push yourself just that little bit more, you’d get there. Well, maybe you wouldn’t.

Every time I’ve written a dissertation it’s ended up feeling that it falls short. This is partly because the subject matter has always been different than what I intended. It makes sense to push oneself beyond the familiar in writing or other creative activities, to be sure, but if this happens in the wrong way that unfamiliarity, far from being stimulating, ends up putting the writer in a realm which she simply doesn’t care enough about to do more than a workaday, unspectacular job. That job might well end up appealing to other people, even a huge number of them, but that doesn’t mean she can identify with it, that it belongs to her or that she had a sense of control over it. This is the contrary position to feeling that something is just beyond one’s reach when it’s really completely impossible to achieve because in that case one still feels ownership for it even though it isn’t really there, like a lost limb. It’s the feeling that although it was well within one’s abilities, it doesn’t feel like part of you. If someone were to criticise it harshly, it would stand no chance of upsetting you on a deep level because one doesn’t care enough about it. There is a neurological analogue to this in the conviction some people have that certain body parts are not theirs. On the whole, we all probably feel something like that when we consider the bodies of strangers, but we may disagree on which limbs are part of ourselves.

The mention of the word “care” brings Heidegger to mind. His idea of Geworfenheit, “thrownness”, is about that which matters to one. This could also be linked to the soul-destroying job – paid work which only seems to involve tasks which one doesn’t care about. This could happen in a time-serving sort of way, where one writes, for example, what people want to read, what has a ready market, for some time, building a reputation, and on having reached a certain status is then able to do one’s own “thing”. My Masters dissertation, ‘A Comparison Of Dialectic And Supervenience’, serves to illustrate how this can go wrong. Supervenience is a philosophical concept about the relationship between mind and body and also between ethics and description, among other things, and is crucial to the attempted solution to the mind-body problem known as Anomalous Monism. Without going into detail, I’m one of the few people who has done much significant work on the concept of supervenience and if I hadn’t dropped out of academia, I can easily see myself having become some kind of recognised authority on it, particularly in the area of philosophy of mind. The only trouble is that I don’t believe in anomalous monism at all. I’m panpsychist, and that could be characterised as the opposite position to anomalous monism. I can envisage a path never taken in my life where I advocated anomalous monism solely for career reasons and was deep down a panpsychist, but recognised that it would be imprudent to say anything to that effect. One coping mechanism for such a situation would be to lie to oneself, in my case to talk myself into believing that anomalous monism was correct, and I wonder if I’d done that if some kind of God of Philosophy, maybe Athena, would have struck me down by making it impossible to publish anything on the matter, due to the possibility that although I might argue that position well, the reviewers would be able to intuit unconsciously that there was something not quite right about my work. The question then arises of whether that particular intuition could ever be examined in such a philosophical framework, or whether it would simply go unacknowledged.

Naturally, none of that happened, and I’m free to continue to believe in panpsychism and subject myself to what’s been called the “argument from incredulous stare”, though that applies to modal realism – the idea that all possible worlds are actual and this one is just where we are located. That said, a particularly stark situation is known to arise among religious ministers, where clergy lose their faith but continue to practice as ministers because so much of their lives is invested in the Church, such as an income, accommodation, friendship and, I hope, the more rewarding parts of their jobs.I now have to ask myself whether this passage is itself getting away from me. I hope it isn’t.

In the Simpsons episode ‘Bart Gets Famous’, Bart gets known for his accidental catchphrase “I didn’t do it” as ‘The “I Didn’t Do It” Boy’. He finds it impossible to escape from this reputation and attempts to comment on the state of the rainforests on a chat show, to which the host irritatedly responds “just say the words”. The details of that may be wrong, but there’s a strong tendency for the media to package people into a particular persona and it can be very hard to forge a new one. One can get lucky and find a match between what one is moved to create and popular appeal, but there should be some kind of match between who one really is and what one puts out there, because people can have excellent insincerity detectors and not being able to churn the stuff out is a serious problem. It has to come from you, and that means you have to be the right kind of person. It might be that the kind of person you are is simply one who can fake sincerity and consciously build a persona, and there will be people out there to help you if that is who you are, but this is in fact paradoxically a form of sincerity. You can be entirely fake in such a way that your very fakeness is who you are, in which case you are not fake at all. A fairly innocuous example of that might be camp. Perhaps that’s who Julian Clary really is, and the jokes about him secretly having a wife and children are in a way a reference to that.

Another aspect of this is the way in which one’s work takes on a life of its own when it leaves one’s fingers. Writing letters used to be a marvellous example of this. One might write a very emotive missive, stick it in an envelope and post it into a pillar box, and as that envelope dropped from one’s grasp there could be a sense of crossing the Rubicon. The postal service prides itself on not allowing anyone to intercept the mail. What’s done is done, and there followed a growing sense of anticipation or forboding concerning the imagined consequences of one’s letter. This could apply to a love letter, hatemail, a CV or so-called “blackmail”. It still works today with online communication except that the response is often far more immediate. The same would also be true of written creations submitted to a potential publisher. But the feeling of casting a message in a bottle onto the waves doesn’t end with the submission. If it’s accepted, or if something goes viral, one has lost control of the consequences and it takes on a life of its own. You can never grasp the skein of cause and effect, wrap it up neatly into a ball and stow it away unobtrusively into your sewing bag. In fact, if you have a contract you are legally constrained from even trying, and if it’s gone far enough, with J K Rowling for example, the livelihoods and careers of thousands may depend on your work. This very consequence can be deadening, I would imagine, and lead to just the kind of inauthenticity which can kill.

All this could be seen as a form of loss of control of the creative process, but such a loss is also essential. I can imagine throwing paint at a canvas and, if my talents were in that area, finding inspiration to produce something representational from the results. That also applies to writing. On re-reading a first draft, one can become aware of patterns or aspects which one had no intention of creating but which are doubtless perceived, and then choose to augment them and make them look deliberate. An audience for one’s work also works in this respect because they can sometimes contribute to one’s creation by critiquing intelligently and enthusing about aspects of it which they have in a sense created themselves by reading one’s inkblot. This means something like the audience being an extra member of the band (thinking of the Simpsons again) might sound insincere but is pretty close to the truth.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide if this post is really mine or not, and if it really belongs to me.

One thought on “On Not Writing What You Want

  1. Sometimes I feel you’re about to break the fourth wall across to me, but then, no. You’ve a talent for asking yourself the right questions. That talent is yours.


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