Rituals are important for a person's well-being.
April 9 is a kind of personal holiday, which I have observed for nineteen years, starting in 2001 on the day that I launched the original version of this website. I'm using holiday here in the OED Definition 1 sense of a "consecrated day, a religious festival" – less about getting the day off work, and more about reflection. Commitment Day, as I call it, is the time that I set aside each year to quietly decide for myself whether writing is something I want to keep doing. Am I going to "re-up" for another year of art, or is this the year that I finally give it up?
Most years, Commitment Day has been a non-event: I wake up in the morning, realize what day it is, and and think to myself, "Yes, of course I want to keep doing this." Some years, I spend the entire day agonizing about this. What are my goals, here? Are those goals achievable? What do I even get out of writing? What is the point? In essence, is what I spend so much of my time, mental energy, and focus on is worth doing? 2020 was one of the "yes, of course" years – but I was thinking last night that I should probably circle back and interrogate where I am at as an artist.
The twenty year timeline here should tell you that I'm getting older. When I was in my 20s I felt time on my back like a demonic goad, constantly whispering to me: "Now – you have to do it now. Now, before it's too late. Now, while there's still a chance. Do it now. Do it. Now, now, now, or you'll miss it." With "it" here standing in for all kinds of different ego-stroking outcomes: publication, initially; fame or notoriety; success generally. I think everyone has a fantasy image of what their own success looks like – and I know for sure that every artist does. The big gallery opening, or whatever. For me, the repeated fantasy is twofold: I have always wanted to see a book that I have written on a library shelf; and, more importantly, I have always wanted to be interviewed about my work. Which is hilarious to me, and says more about how the media I consume shapes the narrative of my life than it does about actual success: I have seen, and absorbed, quite a lot of interviews with people I would consider literary giants; I have read their letters answering questions; I have seen endless films and TV shows about artists that either begin or end with dramatic interviews. To my mind the Capital A, Captial I Artist Interview has always been the key marker to me of whether someone has succeeded enough to be worth paying attention to. All rubbish, of course. Vanity, in both the narcissistic sense and the futile/pointless sense. I've read interviews with dogs for chrissake.
As I've gotten older, time has been, as the Very Online say, "hitting different". I still feel oppressed by my awareness of time, but rather than hearing the voice as a goad, I hear it as a high-pitched whine, like tinnitus. Like a poor surfer, I have missed the wave and now can only watch it roll to shore. A lot of parts of my life feel like that. I'm getting to the age where having children is, while not impossible, certainly not advisable. Besides, the whole point of having kids is watching them grow up – and even if I had them tomorrow I probably wouldn't live long enough to see that. So, that wave rolls to shore without me. I can still marry and buy a house and settle down, but I don't know why would this point. An empty house is dreadful thing. Living a life concerned only with yourself is a dreadful thing. Watching your partner grow old and die is a dreadful thing. So, that wave, too, rolls to shore. I can keep going down the line: career, friends, family. My elderly relatives have already begun to die. My parents will follow soon. Then it will just be me, and then I too will die. Then there will be nothing left. And with no one left, and no children – what becomes of all this material I've piled up? Nothing. It's all vain and pointless. Wave after wave rolls to shore.
Is writing, is the pursuit of art, another wave that I need to just let roll to shore without me?
What does success mean to me now? I don't know. Publishing seems almost redundant at this point. We're in a period of history that I've heard called The Age of Infinite Content – and that phrase chills me like the sound of my bedroom door opening in the middle of the night when no one else is home. Infinite content. All infinities are terrifying, but an infinity of hack artists is the most terrifying of all. So, publishing isn't really success. And, besides, you can get anything published if you try hard enough. It's more about persistence than talent. And, on a related line, making money from art seems silly, since I've already arranged my life in such a way that it pays the bills and leaves ample time to work on what I care about.
What about the other old fantasies of success? Is success still about getting a book into the library? Not really.
Is success still about being interviewed? Sort of, despite knowing how vain and conceited the image is, I still secretly cherish the desire to be asked for my opinion. I think a lot of people have this same secret desire. But in terms of Commitment Day, a vestigial sense of self-importance isn't very helpful.
So, let's set the material visions of success aside. When I write anything, the hope is that someone will read my words, and feel about them the way I have felt about the words of the people I have read and admired. That's a little loosey-goosey, but it's at least true. Again, it comes back to being admired – but at least in this case is it being admired for the work itself and not whatever comes out of my head in an interview. The problem is, I don't have any control over whether somebody gets anything out of the writing that I do, so it's sort of self-defeating as a definition of success. You can never know. Only measurable outcomes can be proper goals. Everything else is just hope.
We can continue on this line for a very long time, but I will tell you right now that I've never found anything that constitutes a satisfactory definition of success. All the measurable outcomes are futile, and all the immaterial outcomes are out of my control – and what animates my desire for those outcomes is more about narcissim, ego, and libido dominandi than anything real. This means the only thing left to fall back on is personal satisfaction. Do I enjoy the writing process? Do I enjoy having written things? Do I feel good about the work that I have done, independent of any other consideration?
The writing process is horrible, and hurts, and takes forever, and never turns out quite the way you think it will. I can put words on the page all day – Lord knows, this blog is evidence enough of that – but putting good words on a page takes a lot of blood sweat and tears, and revising bad words to something tolerable never ends. So, no, I don't actually enjoy the mechanics of writing very much. Sometimes it feels good to have put together a good sentence but finding that sentence is like trying to do calculus in a room full of flies.
But I do enjoy having written things. And I do feel good about the work that I have done, some of the time. Writing feels a lot like exercise in that sense: it is more satisfying when the work is behind you, and you can enjoy both the results and especially the memories of all the hard, miserable work.
This may be a sign that I have taken on projects that are simply too difficult, or have too many restrictions placed on them. That I have aimed too high. That's possible. And at the same time, I hear that line from "Andrea Del Sarto" – "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Never that the poem is supposed to be kind of ironic, and the character is supposed to be kind of loathesome.
If material success isn't the goal, and the social cachet of being known as a writer isn't the goal, and the respect of my peers isn't the goal – then the goal has to be in the work itself. And if I am going to do work that is worth having done, it has to be hard work. I have to risk failing.
That's really the thing, isn't it? Risk. I value my own work as a function of how how much it succeeds compared against how much was risked to create it. I am not impressed by a trapeze act performed in full safety gear, with harnesses and nets and wires. I am not impressed when the child of a millionaire grows up to be a millionaire themselves. Importantly, though – despite the metaphors – the risk that I am talking about here cannot be monetary or material: the risk must be personal. Good work cannot be done in psychological or personal safety.
The paradox is, in order to take these kinds of risks you have to have a different kind of safety or security in place to operate from. Material safety and security help, but only in the sense that artwork requires a significant investment in time, and if you're working two or three jobs just to get by you'll never be able to fit much else into your day. But what you really need is psychological safety, and a secure sense of your own intent. Your mind has to be able to withstand the possibility that you won't like what you find out about yourself or the world when you scratch the surface, and be open to the possibility that either the world, or your own self, are vastly different than your conceptions of them – both good and bad. You have to be able to look at your own failures and addictions and faults and sins and cruelties and all the things that make up your ego without flinching. You have to be able to find in yourself both heroes and villains, good and evil – to look at a death camp and see yourself in the guard and the prisoner and the liberator and the judge of the crime and the man who ordered the cattle cars.
And that desire for self-knowledge, that internal fluidity of identity, has to be wedded to certainty that the game you are playing is worth the trouble. Certainty can take any of several different forms – the certainty that what you have to say is important, the certainty that what you have to say excites or pleases you, the certainty that what you have to say pleases others, the certainty that what you have to say cannot be said by anyone else, and so on – but that certainty is the animating spirit behind every artist. Psychology provides the materials, but certainty provides the will.
You can doubt whether a work will turn out the way you wanted to, and you can doubt whether anyone else will find your work interesting – but you cannot doubt yourself and continue working. You have to believe that your instincts are good, and that your drives are fundamentally good. And you have to accept that success or failure, however you define them, are someone else's problem.
And in that sense, this year is still a "Yes of Course" year – recommitting myself to a task that I have unwavering faith in is easy.
But checking in on yourself every now and then is still good for the soul.
Packing to move has me asking questions again about the objects that I own.
There seem to be three broad categories of possessions around here: utilitarian, sentimental, and… other. The first two categories are pretty obvious. A teapot or a slow cooker or stack of plates are utilitarian objects, whose value is based almost entirely on what they do for me and the convenience that they offer. Eating off a plate is more convenient than eating from my hands – and cleaner! – so I own plates. That sort of thing. Utilitarian objects can be lovely works of art as well, but that's at best a bonus. Whether I take a utilitarian object with me depends entirely whether I'll need it when I get to the place where I'm going. Sentimental objects, by contrast, have no purpose in and of themselves. They are icons, standing in for the people or events they relate to. So, a small piece of jewelry, or a trinket, or a stone from a specific place are all valuable to me because they remind me of someone or something else. I take sentimental objects with me for as long as the connection they represent is still meaningful to me.
To label the third category, rather than "other" I could probably have chosen "clutter" – objects that take up space, and which don't have a particular purpose or emotion attached to them. They just… are. Old computer mice that I should probably just throw away. Cabling. Light bulbs. But, to some extent, I also include books in that category.
True, a couple of the books around here have sentimental value – they were gifts, or mean something special to me. The vast majority, though, are books that I either intend(ed?) to read, or that I have already read and no longer especially need a copy of.
Which is a long preamble to a question that follows on from the last couple of posts: why do I read? What do I get out of it? Throwing out furniture is easier than throwing out books. Throwing out clothes is easier than throwing books. Were I forced to live naked in a bare-walled and unfurnished room, I could survive as long as I had something new, truly new, to read. But… why is that?
I don't read for knowledge, necessarily. I wish I could say that was my main interest – the scholar's desire to learn new things – but like most people I tend to forget most of what I've read immediately after I've finished reading it. I also don't read for entertainment, quite. Most of the books I read aren't very much fun – or, at least, nobody I know would describe them as a good time. As an example, I'm currently about two thirds of the way through Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death – and it's been fascinating, but it's not a rip-roaring page turner.
The best way I can think to describe what I get out of reading is to say that I am a fiend for new experiences – that I thrive in uncertainty, in plunging a little too deep into cold water. I'm never happier than when I am lost in a city I've never visited before. And books, for me, are a cheap means of losing myself an infinite number of new cities.
Which is the answer to a question I've been chewing on for a long time: why have I lost my interest in fiction? For a few years now, I've been incapable of getting more than a few pages into a novel, any novel, and just the thought of picking up a new one makes me feel tired. Why?
Because what I come to books for is novelty – but most novels have precious little to offer. For me, walking through a bookstore is similar to driving through a suburban franchise ghetto, with the same Target, the same Bed Bath & Beyond, the same Chick-Fil-A, the same McDonald's, the same Supercuts, the same Walgreens. We have all been on that street, standing in front of a Starbucks, looking at one colorful logo after another, over and over again, for miles and miles in either direction. That's what picking up a novel is like, for me. The sad realization, "Oh, I've been here before."
More than anything else, this is why I've ended up reading a lot of history and philosophy and psychology over the last few years – these are the most foreign, the most alien, landscapes I can visit these days. I know exactly what a book with a cover like this has to offer. But I cannot predict what I will read when I pick up Kierkegaard for the first time – and though I may or may not agree with what he says, at least the experience of wandering through his thoughts is something new.
Believe me, I know how this makes me sound – an effete pseudo-intellectual who is just so bored with literature. But for real: I read to be uncomfortable. And like any case of hedonic adaptation, the hit I get from fiction just isn't enough to get me there anymore.
Why do certain books compel me to schlep them thousands of miles across the country, at great personal inconvenience and expense? Some are trophies, which I keep because my ego enjoys the reminder of how hard I worked to get through them. Others are reference works, that I'll dip back into when I need to remember something. And still others are aspirational: one day, Schiller – one day I'll read this German-language edition of your plays.
I should probably rubbish most of what's on my shelves…
There is an itch to study – to read and understand. Not anything in particular. No lesson plan, no minimum credits, no graduation. This itch is severe enough to be nearly physical. It is certainly distracting. The voice says, quietly: "Don't you have something better to be doing? You could be working. You could be studying."
Why study? Why read so many books on so many topics?
And still you wonder why your heart
is anxious and your breast constricted,
why a pain you cannot account for
inhibits your vitality completely!
You are surrounded, not by the living world
in which God placed mankind,
but, amid smoke and mustiness,
only by bones of beasts and of the dead.
What's to be gotten out of studying?
In theory, one studies because there is a value in the knowledge to be gained that is worth the effort to gain it. A carpenter studies, and becomes a better carpenter, and so be more prosperous. A doctor studies, and becomes a better healer. A lawyer studies, and becomes a better liar.
But why does a priest study? Does knowing more scripture, more interpretations of scripture, more history of scripture, more knowledge of edicts and rules and orders and all the rest – does this make a better priest? Such study certainly doesn't deepen faith or draw one closer to God – often, it is she's the opposite. The priest overturns a table, throws up his hands, and declares: "Where is God? All I see is bureaucracy. Meaningless ritual. Rote memorization. The work of human hands. The flaws of human works."
I don't want knowledge, I want certainty
Studying is probably more a sign of doubt than a sign of faith or belief or certainty. Nervous fingers fraying the end of an unraveling cloth. More than that, studying is an act of desire. With more effort, more books, more exposure to ideas, more perspective – I can be better.
What does better mean in this context? A better person, possibly. But power is more to the point. Control. To say "I understand what is happening, know why it is happening, and can see what the outcome will be" is as close to godhood as most people ever come. The knowledge does not affect the outcome, but it makes what must be feel easier to accept. To die in terrified, animal ignorance, all pain and gore, without understanding or reason – this seems worse than knowing your body has been mangled in a car wreck. All the details are the same, but for some reason knowing what, why, and to what end is less frightening, and more acceptable.
If thou wouldest seek unto God betimes, and make thy supplication to the Almighty; If thou wert pure and upright; surely now he would awake for thee, and make the habitation of thy righteousness prosperous.
A priest studies scripture, and the interpretation of scripture, and the history of Scripture, to learn and then ti teach what God demands of His people. Follow the rules, and you will be fine. But following the rules is just control the long way around. A man studies the word of the law so he knows how to break the law in spirit – this is true both of scripture and of courts. Control through submission.
The priest says, "I observed all the rights, I followed all the laws, nothing unclean or haram or forbidden has passed my lips, all the days of my life. God sees this, and will not desert me in death – God keeps his promises, as I have kept mine."
The criminal says: "Your Honor, you can't put me in jail! All that I did, whatever your moral judgement of me, was legal at the time. This is not justice."
The patient says: "I can't be dying – I ate right, I exercised, I meditated. I did everything you said! It's not fair."
In a house a man drops dead
As he hits the floor he sighs
"What a morning"
In the end, you study to learn the rules. By knowing the rules you excel at the game. By excelling at the game, you have control. Those with control live longer, and have their pleasures stated. By living longer and sating pleasures, one makes the most of life. By making the most of life, one has no need to fear death – because death has been forgotten in the rush from thing to thing.
But death is what frays the end of the cloth.
What do you care what happened in the past?
I'm standing in a grocery store with a cardboard quart of milk, listening to a book. Only the self-checkout lanes are open. I think about how many people have touched the credit card keypads today. The book is about the past – I'm only partly paying attention. I have read a lot of history and enjoy thinking about the past, and although this specific book isn't doing anything for me, I know I'll find another book that will really interest me soon enough. I used to love novels.
The line moves, and the shuffling of feet dislodges the thought:
What do you care what happened in the past?
My favorite period of history to read about keeps changing.
As a teenager I was obsessed with the middle ages, because that was the time of Dante, and Thomas Aquinas, and the Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare's histories. And the Middle Ages, in my mind, wasn't that far removed from the even earlier era of legendary figures like King Arthur and Cúchulainn and Beowulf, whom I dearly loved. I mentally compressed a thousand years of weird, hilarious, bloody history into a single "post-Roman, pre-modern" landscape of swords and churches and war and horses and ruins and castles and kings.
In my twenties, I was more into the ancient world. The Romans, obviously. But I found the Early Church era, the era of the Patriarchs, fascinating. I loved a lot about the ancient Greeks, and their wars and their philosophy. The excitement of watching some of the earliest people in the world to Figure Things Out (tm) in the process of discovery. All bunk, of course. After a while you realize that every thought that ever got written down was stolen from someone else who'd figured it out like a thousand years before.
But, what do you care what happened in the past?
I think every adult man goes through a war phase – especially in the United States, given the extent to which American culture fetishizes war, and the American project exists to fight and support warfare. But I suspect this masculine fascination with warfare is true right around the world. I can't prove it, but I know I've found myself thinking about tactics and ambushes. Wonder what I would've done differently. Think about standing in the front ranks of a Macedonian phalanx. Think about what 20,000 dead men looks like the day after a battle. I don't know what that means. What is it that draws me to read about horrors that I will never experience, and wonder how I would have held up under them?
Why do you care what happened in the past?
The past isn't just something in books, though. Each of us has our own history, our personal piece of the past that we carry around with and add to us day by day. We think about things we did in fourth grade and wince – or wish to have those bygone days in hand again. In my thirties, I don't torture myself much anymore about what I did as a child. I know a lot of people do that. I use to. The further in the past the event, the less likely I am to feel that gripping it-just-happened horror and anxiety in my chest. I'll mull over and regret things I said a week ago, the things I did and said when I was fourteen or gone for me.
So why do you care what happened in the past?
That was the way I got over it actually. I asked myself: do I really care what my now probably long dead third grade teacher thinks of my behavior? Do I give a fuck about the opinion of a bunch of twelve-year-olds who exist now only in my memories? Are these people here, now? No? Then what's the problem? Hell, if you were to embarrass yourself in front of a teenager now, would you feel bad? What if a sixteen-year-old made fun of you to your face, right now? What if a twenty-two-year-old did? You would roll your eyes, and you know it. So why ruminate on mistakes you made when you actually were a teenager? Teenagers don't know anything. Never did. I'm a full-grown man I don't know anything now. I don't think I'll ever know anything, really. And that realization banished those moments from my life. For the most part. Forgetting the past is great therapy.
So, why do you care what happened in the past?
What do I get out of reading about the Mycenaean Greeks? The Minoans? Late Bronze Age Collapse? Goebekli Tepe? That's my current obsession: the Greek Dark Ages and before. The era of the Trojan War – if the Trojan War existed in any sense. The wide-scale transition to settled life and cities. The first empires. The development of writing in China, and the desertification of Africa and Turkey. Pre-literate monolithic cultures. Peoples just on the cusp of entirely new ways of thinking, and existing.
But why do you care what happened in that past?
When I read a long article talking about the attempts to decipher Linear A, or studies tracing the development of certain God-images from pre-literate, late Neolithic cultures into the more familiar pantheons of Europe and the near East – who cares? Does that materially benefit my life? Does knowing that Cybele may have ultimately derived from a truly ancient mother-goddess who may or may not be the one depicted in the various Venus Figurines scattered around cave sites throughout Europe benefit me in some way? Make me a better person? Improve my job prospects, or teach me to be more empathetic, charitable, patient, or honest? Of course not.
What about the Romans? Does knowing about the Sullan proscriptions matter? Does knowing how the Roman Republic became an Empire matter? Does knowing the funeral rites or mysteries of various cults matter? No. And yet, my desktop background is, right now, a depiction of history: the "Nero's Torches" by Henryk Siemiradzki. Heightened, and dramatized – but all these historical images hypnotize me. The togas, the captives to be burned, the gladiator helm and the fountain, the wreaths and the columns. But none of this image is real – it's 19th century schmaltz.
If all this is true, why do you think about the past at all?
I think history is fun to project yourself into because you already know how the game was played – or think you do. You already know, if you studied it, how daily life worked for the idle rich of Victorian England. If you found yourself in the England of Jane Austen, you probably have an idea of how you would act, and how things might turn out for you. Some might think of breaking all the rules, others might wish you could go back and live within their constraints – but that's the lie. We think of history ias familiar to us. We know now how it all turned out, after all: we know what worked, and what didn't. We know why "those people" made certain choices and didn't make others. That familiarity, that comforting clarity, easily becomes the longing for childhood while drowning in adult responsibility – the pleasure of spending hours walking in your mind through that proverbial "simpler time". Or so you think.
You start reading real history, and you discover that the past was basically just like the present, in different clothes. I know that cuts against the grain of the "history is a foreign country" idea. But what I see when I look at the past is people just like me making decisions that I would make for reasons that I understand.
Although, that should be a warning to me.
Reading just s little history gives the illusion that events have clear, easily-delineated causes and effects. That what is happening now is a product of the past, and will become a discrete future. Often there is even a sense of fate about history and this inexorable knocking of cause upon effect upon cause. When you think you understand why people made the decisions they made, remember this: all the reasons you've come up with say more about you than about the people you're purporting to understand.
History is not a hall of moments cast in immutable marble for all time, describing a logical arc from beginning to now to the end in the future. Real history, like the present, is chaos.
More than that. History is imaginary. Someone makes it up. Just like everything else: someone sat down and invents it. Everything is interpretive. Nothing is objective. There are no facts, only what we've agreed upon for now.
So what do you care what happened in the past?
If the past is imaginary, then whatever story we think history tells is about us, now. Yes, history is a mirror but not the way you think. It is the I Ching on a cosmic scale – a tool for reading your own mind. If you care to pay attention to it.
I care what happened in the past for reasons that are probably mistaken. I take pleasure in it, is a puzzle and a fantasy. It allows me to indulge the illusions of continuity and telos. The pure-ego part of me enjoys knowing things about the past, because I can deploy those facts in conversation and gather up the social cachet of being "smart" and "well read" – the only thing the ego likes more than to feel superior to others is for those others to acknowledge your superiority.
But most of all, history lets me think I have control, because I know the true names of the events that I see around me. This isn't 2020, it's 1918. America is not America, it is Rome in the time of Sulla. "Hey wait, I've seen this one before – it's 1859." This is how magic works: to know a thing's true name is to control that thing. Why do you think name-calling and slurs are, and always have been, so popular? Why do you think God made Adam name of the animals of Eden?
So, because I've read history, I think I know the names of events and can tell you how things will be. He gives me clairvoyance into a future that I no longer have to fear, because this is all a rerun. I know how this all turns out.
That's all very interesting – but what you care what happened in the past?
[It's crazymaking that writing 1700 words of blather is vastly easier than the ten lines I need to finish this poem…]
Copyediting – I've been lazy about my copyediting, and the laziness shows in a lot of the things I've written both for myself and for work. The battle against adverbs is constant, but wordiness is my main sin. A lot of it comes down to the way that I think and, by extension, the way that I write – basically, I start all of my sentences without 100% knowing where I'm going to land at the end. I flatter myself that I treat conversation like jazz, but more often than not it's the bad kind of jazz. Either it's weird and atonal, or boring and stock; smooth jazz, or child banging on pots.
Part of my job at work is student-facing. Because we are a small team, everyone has to help clear the ticket backlog – which means, in addition to making significant purchasing decisions, I also have a customer service job. I consider this a positive, rather than a negative. The people responsible for making decisions should be required to use the tools they decide to buy, and field questions from the people who are affected by any changes. If I make a bad decision, I know about immediately: I have to answer the complaints.
But this does mean that I write a lot of text in the voice of the company I work for – as their representative. Corporate speak is antithetical to good writing practices. The goal is to numb the reader, so they do not react emotionally; to bore the reader, so they do not feel threatened or confronted; to confuse the reader (slightly), to obfuscate responsibility; and, finally, to assure the reader that our corporation is serious and well-run by being exactly as bureaucratic and frustrating and vapid as every other corporation the reader deals with every day.
This leads to sentences that stretch on forever, like a ribbon in the sky studded with diamonds, except the diamonds are clichés, and the ribbon is made of boredom. It's also a kind of writing that doesn't require a lot of copyediting, because the more brutally you twist the language to avoid responsibility or deaden the impact of your words, the better. In drama, you might have a character declare, as Aaron does in Titus Andronicus: "Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, // Blood and revenge are hammering in my head." In a communication from a corporation, it would read more like: "Due to the ongoing uncertainty regarding recent events, and with sincere regrets offered to those impacted by any forthcoming decisions, AAA Corp has begun an initiative to review our partner network, which may result in a reduction of stakeholder relationships in the coming quarter."
Actually, that's not quite right – corporate speak needs to not just announce an upcoming murder, but also make that murder sound like an exciting new initiative that will lead the company, and especially the company's shareholders, to a new era of prosperity. To announce a blood-vendetta in such a way that the victims are excited about what this will mean for their portfolios.
So, when I say that my copyediting skill has declined, too fully absorbed the immaterial style manual of corporate behemoths. I can write pages and pages of meaningless drivel, very quickly, because it's easy and you don't have to actually edit all that much. As long as it spelled correctly and it seems to have the right keywords in it, most people will just sort of not along as if they understand, when in fact they don't. Which honestly is the last thing that corporate writing needs to do: sound impressive enough that the reader doesn't want to risk sounding like an idiot by saying that the text doesn't actually mean anything. When everyone around you is nodding, and saying how reasonable and well thought out a statement is, you feel like a madman wanting to criticize it as an empty box made of dog shit.
If we kind of reverse corporate speak, what would good prose look like? If we take corporate speak as a negative image of true writing, where do we end up?
Rather than numbing or boring the reader, excite them. Make them feel. Given the workings of human psychology, the easiest way to excite a reader is to say something that they already believe or describe something they have already experienced in a new or interesting way – especially if the resulting prose is laconic, and easily quotable. Most readers come to books looking for mirrors.
The more complicated way to excite a reader is to confront them in some way. This tends to be polarizing – some will love the fight, while others will hate to be pushed – but structuring your sentences in a confrontational way, or using confrontational words, or working with confrontational ideas is often successful in arousing the reader's passions. And if your goal is attention, and if all attention is good attention, then this is your quickest ticket to what you want.
The even more complicated way, the most difficult way, is to structure your sentences and ideas so that they are naturally exciting. This is where copyediting really comes in.
Next, rather than confusing the reader, or obfuscating responsibility, declare your intent: clearly, concisely, and right at the start. Of course, when done poorly, this comes across as didacticism – but when done well, clarity is the defining characteristic of well-written prose. I feel like most of the best novels I've read are basically multi-hundred-page elaborations on and footnotes to their opening sentences. Indeed, this technique goes right back to some of the oldest literature in the so-called Western Canon: "Rage, muses – sing of the rage of Peleus' son, that brought such ruin to the Achaeans…" There are like fourteen different ways that that sentence defines the book, either literally or ironically. The rage of Achilles is both the cause of nearly losing the war, but also the means by which the Greeks felled Troy's greatest offender; the rage of Achilles, as a stand-in for the rage of the Achaeans and especially Menelaus, both destroys Troy and themselves in the end; the rage of Achilles, ended at last not by revenge, but by the human gesture of giving back to the king of Troy Hector's body. The only way to change a person's mind – not simply enforce compliance – is to help them have the idea for themselves. Lead your reader to the idea you want them to notice.
Finally, rather than writing to assure the reader that you are a consummate professional, and authority to be obeyed, or giving the reader the image severity or perfection – try to bleed on the page. People are not perfect. Most of the time people can't even find it in themselves to be professional. Everyone you've ever met who is "severe" or a perfectionist or serious – it's all a lie to cover fear. Fear of inadequacy, fear of weakness, fear of loss – whatever. Fear is the overriding emotion of corporate speak, and the people who make brands of themselves.
Expose your humanity. Have flaws. Abhor perfection. And don't demand perfection from others. To paraphrase myself from a thing I wrote long ago: what other people call style is nothing but the ways you and your work deviate from some norm.
This may seem at odds with the apparent goal of copyediting. When you talk about copyediting, people picture a scowling old man or a frazzled old woman picking apart "bad grammar" and fixing typos and arguing with you about word choice. The idea being, they are imposing on you and your writing, from the outside, a set of rules and norms that all writing must adhere to.
Instead, copyediting is the art of making any given piece the best possible version of itself. Copyediting a poem is not about fixing grammar, or rhyme – unless those are somehow important to the poem itself. A great copy editor has the ability to understand at a deep level what a piece of writing is trying to be, and can therefore see the flaws preventing the writer from pushing the piece where it wants to go. Sometimes this does come down to grammar, word choice, and other picky details – but it's also about the rhetoric of structuring an idea or an argument; it's about the clarity and concision of a piece of writing; it's about the tone and vibe.
And it's this kind of copyediting that I have been lazy about.
I tend to take a "first thought, best thought" approach to my writing. Writing quickly, for me, is the most honest way to get a first draft down. I don't censor, or rethink, or calculate – things that can absolutely kill your ability to finish stories. So, on the one hand, "first thought, best thought" lets me say what I actually think. But, on the other hand, writing quickly like that exposes a lot of habits of mind and tics of speech. The thing is, having habits of mind and tics of speech isn't inherently negative – as long as you are doing the work of copyediting to determine whether those little flaws or idiosyncrasies add to or detract from the writing itself.
This has now gone on too long, so I'm going to stop.