In a world of infinite distraction and incomprehensible abundance, how and where are we doing our thinking. A Practice of Writing might save you.
To make coherent some recent comments against writing, I figured I would write a bit about Why Writing Is Awesome.
Well, its results can be.
To those alive today it would seem that those alive ‘back a day’ lead much simpler lives. This is an understandable but largely false judgment. Mother Nature isn’t our friend; if she were a person we’d use words like merciless, inhumane and savage to describe her evil character. And even then, we’d be far below the mark. If Mother Nature were our friend, and nature was the perfect state, then desserts, jungles, rainforests and Antarctica would be perfectly hospitable to squishy, furless beings like us. We’ve made our world hospitable, with technology — or more accurately, with the creation of new knowledge. So no, the idea that life before today was much simpler doesn’t really hold if what is meant by simpler is better, or more peaceful, or pleasant.
But where the argument does have legs is where it concerns information and information processing. Being a know-it-all was once possible; today, not only can you not know all the things that you know you don’t know — time being the most obvious constraint — but you can’t even come to know all of the things that you don’t know.
There was a time where you could finish a newspaper or book and be out of options until the next day. The time in-between could be used for a billion different things, but consciously or not, it would also allow for the information consumed to marinate in the brain. Most of use are familiar with shower-conceived epiphanies; what happens is quite simple: a shower is momentary distraction from parochial problems1. The distraction provides opportunity for new ideas to form, buried insights to make make themselves heard, stale insights to be dispelled. You don’t so easily dismiss a thought when it comes up, you’re unhurried, you’re not trying to impress anybody, you’re not trying to look a certain way or say the Right Thing, you’re naked in every sense — as usual, there’s many factors at play2. In the book-a-day era, there was space to think about what you consumed. And if you didn’t do this intentionally, like by taking long, mind-wandering walks, it happened nonetheless: like most thinking, unconsciously.
The world today is almost the opposite: you don’t have to wait for tomorrow morning’s newspaper, and you have little time to think. The latter point I won’t discuss directly because it’s something we all recognise: there’s a million things to do and only sixteen or so hours in the day to get them done. Everyday. And the list grows. And the hours stay the same. The abundance of information and utter ease of access combined with the pre-programmed3 FOMO further propels the notion that there’s so many things to do and so little time to do them. It’s a flywheel. There’s so much to think about. No time to think.
But we humans are a clever bunch. One of our most ingenious inventions is rather old, and something with which you’re all familiar. Its pertinence today might be greater than ever. It also might be more underrated than it’s ever been. It is writing. And more specifically, the Practice of Writing.
What I mean by the Practice of Writing is the conscious act of taking a pen and paper or it’s equivalent4, sticking your ass in a chair, and trying to articulate to yourself or an imaginable potential reader your questions, ideas, insights, your understanding about subject X, and so on. Rarely is this articulation crisp on the first go — that’s why it’s the practice that matters. It’s the practice that enforces progress in understanding.
Most note-taking is wasteful; it’s done to impress others, or it’s wishful thinking acted out (picture those massive, untouched to-do lists, inducing dread with every thought or glance), or it’s done because it makes one feel that they’re doing something important. The practice of writing is about the opposite; it’s not about impressing others (at least not initially; grandeur comes later5), it’s inescapably real, and the constant confrontation of your own insufficiency makes it difficult to ever believe that what you’re doing is the best use of your time 6.
The Practice of Writing is to me synonymous with thinking. When asked for a definition of ‘thinking’, most people will describe something like the inner voice, imagination, problem-solving, rumination, or the like. But these explanations are shallow. Any form of making is also thinking. Painting, constructing a Lego City set, drawing up architecture plans for your dream house, ‘brainless’ daydreaming, enjoyable conversation, coding — it’s all thinking7. But writing — or if your prefer, conversation — is a special kind of thinking, for unlike painting the Mona Lisa or coding the algorithm which filters out obscenities from comments, it lends itself to anything and everything. It’s lack of demands are its virtue.
You may ask, what exactly does a practice of writing look like? Each person is a world; what works for me will not work for you, what works for you would not have worked Einstein, and what worked for Einstein will not work for J.K. Rowling. Consistency, though probably beneficial and essential in some instances, isn’t the point here. Rather, it’s an appreciation and awareness of the remarkable benefits available to those who take writing more seriously – be it by writing every day at the same time in the same Pret a Manger with the same drink made by the same person, or only writing a page or two when you’re bothered by a particular idea or question. The point is about the thinking that gets done about X. Hence, one’s ‘writing practice’ might be defined as any of the following:
- Allocating time to think about X when all the odds are against you, such as the fact that you live in a world that could distract you till the cows come home.
- Setting time to think about X to the same or greater level of priority you give to anything else in your day.
- Not waiting for momentary distractions to provide space for new ideas to birth, but intentionally spending time every day to think about primary problems, ideas or questions you’re entertaining.
- When necessary, selfishly dropping all droppable things to go and think about X.
- Taking longer showers.
- A tug of war with the Information Age.
- Imitating Feynman (insight here): 1) using your interest as a guide, find a topic to learn about; 2) boil the topic down to its most fundamental truths/axioms/facts/principles/; 3) try your hardest to understand these; 4) take a piece of A4 and with words, diagrams, doodles and origami if needs-be, try to articulate your understanding as crisply and simply as you can; 5) tear the page up. Obviously, the final step is the most important: you can’t do it until you’ve done all the others; and you won’t do it unless you’re confident you do understand, in which case you would no longer need the page.
There will always be things to do. If the world doesn’t tell you, those close to you will. If those close to you don’t tell you, your conscience will. The likelihood that either of these sources will prescribe a Practice of Writing is not something you can depend on; in fact, depending on it is another example of waiting for the world to tell you. If you’re serious, you won’t wait. Accuracy aside, the most compelling History is about people with agency: doers; contrarians; people with ideas, yes, but people who execute on their ideas, despite the norms of the times, despite the advice of those closest to them, perhaps even despite their own resistance.
This piece has not really been about writing or the Practice of Writing, but the critical role time/space to think has in our lives. It just so happens that a Practice of Writing is one of our sharpest weapons, available to most people, and can sometimes be fun.
- Of course, a shower is also a parochial problem — and it is also solving one — but you get the point.
- Social Science and it’s studies will have you believe some combination of a) no such factors exist, b) they don’t matter, c) they’re accounted for, d) because they aren’t known they don’t matter, and or e) because their effect isn’t obvious they shouldn’t be part of the conversation.
- Thanks, Mother Nature!
- Feather tip and ink, branches and leaves, stones and a chisel, sand and sticks, a typewriter and paper, a MacBook, an iPad — you pick the era and tech
- I call this the Principle of Defucking Later. Making it a principle doesn’t make it easier to follow, though.
- A feature mistaken for a flaw.
- The Romans lived this; the Greeks, not so much.