ML180927 - Bob and the Scourge of Writer's Absence
Got up at almost 10 and did nothing of value until about 2. After 2 I did even less, but I at least gave up on the pretense of useful work and instead stacked more REM cycles onto the night before (almost half a day). My subconscious pushes this conservative behavior to clear the path for a daunting future activity, namely sitting down and writing. I’m compelled to believe there’s more to it than performing those two verbs back to back. This belief is scaffolded by a scenario that plays out in my head whenever I consider doing it:
Grab a keyboard.
Find a sufficiently comfortable spot to sit.
Open a blank page.
Stare into the whiteness for a few minutes.
Get up and pace.
Sit down again.
Type a sentence.
Delete that sentence because it’s stupid.
Close the laptop and go do something else.
I haven’t cleared a tangible threshold of preparation for the task, so my mind’s eye sees no more obvious future than the false start montage above. I buy into the mythos of authorship, particularly its central villain: Writer’s Block. Writers complain about this phenomenon so loudly that even people who don’t really read are aware of it. We’re all familiar, personally or academically, with a drought lasting months or even years with nothing to show for the strain but a refuse pile of anguish and self-pity. This is the state my brain wills me away from. Better to do nothing rather than risk coming away with nothing. Given how high the hazard floor is for literature (what do I actually lose besides time?) that tradeoff, at face value, sounds comically stupid. I’ve been trying to convince myself for some time that tradeoff is—at a deeper, truer level—comically stupid.
I should write off this fear for a basic reason: the theoretical blank page exercise I stepped through earlier has never happened to me. Ever. The lack of both contingent paychecks and public notoriety probably contributes to that, and more times than I can count I have sat down and distracted myself until the clock runs down without a word to show for it, but if reptile impulses keep at bay long enough for the pilot light to catch, a sentence with rhetorical value will find its way out of my hands. After I’ve summoned a few of those, the job becomes critical sanding—removal, refining, polish—to extract paragraphs with *actual* value. The editing process, like most things, is like sex. It’s heated and delicate at once, it makes a mess, and doing it without knowledgeable consent can ruin someone’s life. I also find that people frequently don’t put their heart into it, finish way too early, and are content to do it by themselves most of the time. There is, however, one difference salient to this discussion: I find editing prose reliably enjoyable. So the trouble lives entirely in that pre-analytical lump of minutes, but even if producing that first set of words to comb over isn’t always fun, it doesn’t daunt me in reality the way it does in fantasy. I don’t get Writer’s Block. Instead, I have to deal with something more fundamental: Writer’s Absence. Given how easy it is to pretend one affliction is the other, I suspect Absence is the truly common disease. Losing to Writer’s Block sounds like a toll exacted by the ether of creativity: a sacrifice anyone will openly admit to. Losing to Writer’s Absence sounds like you didn’t even try, something no one beside the apathetic or morbidly introspective would openly admit to.
A lot of people think they reason or rationalize their way out of being good. I don’t think we give enough credit to the simple non-necessity of being good in explaining why we fail ourselves and others, constantly, relentlessly, day-after-day. To say there is a “logic behind something” is telling. It means logic is not leading the charge but trailing behind whatever compulsion pushed us. Barring moments of particular drive, humans are programmed to opt out wherever we can get away with it. This strategy conserves energy and reduces risk: both evolutionary virtues. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush because bushes are tiresome to wade through and have asshole mountain cats with big artery-severing teeth hiding in them. Why leave a trodden path to get snagged on a bunch of thorns and possibly murdered? Eat the bird you have; keep the job you’ve got; re-read the stuff you already wrote. This uninspired, insular position extends naturally from gratitude: an emotion correlated with well-being and happiness strongly enough to warrant the constant attention of positive psychologists. Hence, our feeling of present satisfaction burns a bridge to future satisfaction. The irony of this is visible from space. Some might go so far as to call it a dichotomy (they would be wrong, it is in fact a paradox). But how does one navigate the basic weirdness of it? What if you already have all that’s worth having, in some essential way, and growth or ambition would compromise that? Whether you do or not, is it a perversion of character to be unsatisfied given that possibility?
Today marks the dissolution of the seventh production schema I’ve used since the one I talked about at the start of this Mach Log season. Every one of these heavily researched, insight-driven, modular deployments of energy implode within a week of my flipping the switch. They always lose in due course to the machinations in the back of my brain (hereafter anthropomorphized as a gender-neutral Bob, for back-of-brain). Bob is a one-bird algorithm concerned exclusively with immediate, easy gains. Even if Bob’s intentions are shortsighted and dumb, it harnesses the same neural architecture and memory as the more noble muses in my brain to reach its conclusions. It’s exactly as smart as I am because it is, in fact, me.
Bob sees the production Jenga tower stacked in front of it as an obstacle toward its ultimate goal of being asleep all day (the ultimate conservative state). It starts picking at the wording and flexing the boundaries of the system I’ve placed in its way, trying to pry open gaps. Here’s a sample set of these incessant prods:
Is working for 45 minutes on a task a clock restriction between two points or an independent length contingent on what happens within it?
What constitutes urgency?
How many times do I have to walk away from something before switching tasks? How do I disincentivize subconscious triggering of that threshold when I’m doing something hard [Bob deflecting here, acting like it’s not responsible for that problem]?
What is the minimum switching time that won’t cause wasteful thrashing between too many tasks, and is it dependent on the nature of the task?
Is there a relevant distinction to be made between types of tasks that justifies the bureaucracy of identifying it?
Are social obligations intrinsically superior to selfish ones?
Does the present rubric compromise my ability to perform truly important tasks that cannot be performed well within it, assuming one of those comes along?
On and on and on. These aren’t stupid questions--they address real concerns in my day-to-day existence--but thinking about them mid-flight can compromise the rules I’ve already established. Bob is fully aware of this. It’s asking them to slow me down and frustrate me. Every time something falls out of line, Bob notes the lapse with smug disapproval. My, how inefficient! This nagging refrain weakens my adherence until the entire apparatus collapses. Sometimes a schema survives a few days of legal scrutiny (I’ve gotten reasonably good at designing these things a couple hundred deep). That kind of success doesn’t stop dirtbag coworker Bob. Instead, once it realizes what’s happening, Bob launches the Minuteman III of productive countermeasure thoughts: “you don’t have to do this”. At this point in my life, given my formal stability (in no small part owed to these systems), this is an irrefutable statement. On touchdown, this missive destroys everything in a reductive logical death spiral and though I have yet to stay down after one of these hits, cleaning up the fallout isn’t much fun. I’m still not sure whether a litany of pinprick unwindings or the occasional knockout punch is worse.
I referred earlier to the compulsions that drive the logic centers in our brains, how they determine what we strive to make sense of. Bob is too one-dimensional to represent my (or your) full battery of compulsions. Bob is a wholehearted consumer, not a creator, and I have a borderline obsession with making stuff. Perhaps there are other anthropomorphizable entities sharing that responsibility in my head? I’ve alluded to a set of muses before, but I don’t think I’ve enumerated them yet in the Log. At this point in time (as labels for subjective experience they do shuffle around a bit), the three I’ve settled on are:
· Orca, the intimate (any form of vulnerability, trust or bonding)
· Jack, the controller (not merely manipulation but systems in general)
· Nayr, the sophomore (picture a sail boat suspended in a swimming pool full of sand. This is the kind of dumb shit Nayr likes.)
What does all this have to do with fighting a writing disorder I made up? The three muses above are what push me to do what I do on a grand scale. They are the reason I would sit down to write in the first place if Bob wasn’t dead set on keeping me from doing it. There’s a nobility of action in all three of them that Bob can compromise by pitting them against each other. Orca is obsessed with other people, and Nayr tries to twist those people in knots. When Nayr is engaged in a fluid state of creation, Jack wants that fluid compartmentalized and monitored. Jack knows that discipline equals freedom, and Orca would rather be immersed than free.
Can Bob fall out the middle in this arrangement? Wouldn’t these three antagonize each other without an instigator? Perhaps, but I sense a thread between the scenarios in which they fight that is worth calling out explicitly. It comes back to the conservation principles of risk reduction and saving energy. Orca isn’t interested in either of those things; Nayr doesn’t care about them; Jack likes them both, but only because he’s a workaholic and sees them holistically through the lens of return on investment (which Bob does only in scenarios of proximate certainty). It takes someone with the curmudgeonly myopic attitude of Bob to get the others to fight on these terms. The questions Bob asks while trying to derail me don’t come from Bob directly, but are mouthed by these three dogs at each other. When one dog wants some time on the keyboard, Bob asks a second dog what they would write about number 1’s subject, which looks a lot like a blank sheet of paper at the outset. Once things get rolling they realize they can work together, and most of the work I’m proud of is internally collaborative this way, but it takes time and presence to fuse them. When Bob pushes them into each other this way, instead of working together they fight, I get exhausted, and Bob wins before I even open the laptop. You would think Bob would just hit the “You don’t have to do this” nuclear button every time rather than play this gaem of standoff politics, but that option, like the genuine article, kills everything including Bob’s own motivations. Instead, Bob prefers its home turf: my pre-conceptual imagination.
Bob’s ability to manipulate prospective experience has a purpose. It pushes us to keep looking forward and upward on the most basic forms of control: social standing, the accrual of wealth, et cetera. This is the oft-derided hedonic treadmill, and one feature of it we frequently overlook is that it is motivated almost exclusively by suffering. We don’t live in the world where Bob was genetically cultivated anymore, when pain meant impending death. As soon as we started suffering less physically, Bob made us care more about suffering mentally to compensate, employing all the philosophical gymnastics necessary to bridge the gap. Today, suffering has a cultural priority ranked not merely above every other emotion...we even judge it to be supermortal in terms of relevance and clarity. To put it bluntly, a society that entertains the possibility of suicide as often as ours has defined at least one experiential rung below death. The upward comparison is perverse is its own way. We seem almost scared to lay down a platonic idea of what happiness is, but no one seems terribly conflicted about what constitutes suffering. In most modern contexts, happiness requires a sacrifice. How can someone appreciate the light without knowing the darkness? This logic seems like it should work in reverse, but it doesn’t. How can you know what suffering is if you’ve never been truly happy? This inversion insults a billion impoverished humans across the world. We take Bob’s side in this fight reflexively, not because we’ve come to some principled conclusion about it, but because Bob is still running much of the show in our heads (though in the case of that destitute billion, not with as little cause as most of us). Bob will forgo pleasure to avoid pain 9 times out of 10 (see the psychological phenomenon: risk aversion). In the tenth case, Bob is being barraged by pleasure in a way that blinds it to a gradually accruing pain (see the modern phenomenon: all activities in a market-driven 21st century).
Again, Bob is an evolutionarily responsible agent in a natural environment. Consumption reduced the risk of death in nearly all cases for millions of years, and it makes sense for Bob to keep us from the edge by pushing our emotional Overton window around. The problem is that the painful edge of that window always represents an infinite hazard because Bob has associated that edge with death for a long, long time. As such, Bob has to understand creation one of two ways: push creation as a matter of existential threat or divert your attention to other things. Fight or flight.
The less emotionally stable among us—the manic and depressed, who are in a heightened ground state of suffering—tend to fight. Neurotic Bob has a problem, though: What does that edge actually mean for a non-professional creative task (hell, even for most professional creative tasks)? On utilitarian grounds, it equates to wasting time and energy. That won’t pass muster with Bob. Failure needs to mean more than that. Bob resorts to philosophy to make up the difference. Here’s an example route to the finish. Why write? To express yourself; to explore topics; to humanize and then complain about your own subconscious. What does it mean to fail to express yourself? That no one will know or care about your experience of the world. What does it mean to fail to explore a topic? It might mean you’re too dense or incurious to learn, let alone convey that knowledge to other people. Both these outcomes threaten a lack of connection to the world. What do we know to be true and good? Culturally, it appears to be a connection to other people and nature. What about those instances where we seem to be happy despite a lack of this kind of connection? Clearly that must not be *real* happiness. If you could be happy without those temperamental constraints then you wouldn’t need Bob to save you, and Bob is not about to let you contemplate such a reality. You are thus trapped in this framing, and Bob has now logically calibrated your livelihood to depend on writing decent essays.
Everyone else--the NFL watchers, the 2.5-child types--files toward the exits. They aren’t suffering in this vague way and would rather avoid the possibility of harm altogether. It’s not as if these people have no anxieties or depression of their own (so I’ve been informed), but the masses who flee this conflict are unlikely appreciate the concerns of the fighters. Why is this one thing the only method by which you can create, let alone prove, a connection to the world? How is this all there is to you? It’s a fair point, and there have been millions of answers to it, somehow all unique and precious enough to justify thousands of words agonizing over an inability to write.
This could go in a lot of other directions from here (it could have gone in many other directions along the way). In particular, I want to come back to the muse discussion at a later time. For now, let’s wrap this discussion of Bob with what feels like the closest thing to the seed of the original problem:
You need not revere your own suffering, real or imagined.
The terror inside that blank page fantasy at the top comes from a feeling of uselessness. This narrative is endemic to creativity. The narrative goes something like this: why would you bother to do this thing that people with greater talent, industry, and relevance than you have failed to do or, worse, have already done? This is an honest, important question, ventriloquized from the mouth of your conscience by Bob. Failed to do (risk); already done (energy). Why suffer? Because there are hardships worth bearing, particularly those that don’t exist. Don’t let Bob make that call for you.