To Rowan, Re: Publishing and Its Effects on Us

Dear Rowan, It was lovely to speak with you yesterday on the subject of writing and publishing, and how these things affect us.

I enjoyed our conversation, and appreciate finding common ground and agreement that we hadn’t realized existed until now. I know that I will return to your ideas on publishing and its effects on the self many times.

First, I Owe You Some Quotes

Emerson, “Self Reliance

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which crashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

Emerson, here, identifies a powerful reason why your habit of publishing daily works; so much of our ideas that are of value are lost, forgotten, or return to us in the New York Times or from Silicon Valley. If you commit to saying something, you force yourself to get out at least some of these thoughts.

Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms:

When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. In learning to write, the pupil goes over with his pen what the teacher has outlined in pencil: so in reading; the greater part of the work of thought is already done for us. This is why it relieves us to take up a book after being occupied with our own thoughts. And in reading, the mind is, in fact, only the playground of another’s thoughts. So it comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day in reading, and by way of relaxation devotes the intervals to some thoughtless pastime, he gradually loses the capacity for thinking; just as the man who always rides, at last forgets how to walk. This is the case with many learned persons: they have read themselves stupid

While this view is extreme, I’m not inclined to disagree that much; the scary part is the extent to which we don’t realize that we’re unthinkingly repeating the thoughts, logic and ideas of others. Meanwhile, with social media, much of the engagement is semi-conscious—scrolling, browsing—which means that the material that makes a “playground” of our minds does so on an irrational level. Is it any wonder that our own thoughts and actions surprise us?

Hunter S. Thompson

I am glad that you appreciated hearing about Thompson’s epistolary work; thank you for getting me to consider the hidden literature of letters written by those who found it hard to publish because of social norms (women in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, in your example). It seems worth considering what form this literature takes now? Tor? PGP emails? Signal messages?

An observation about Thompson: I don’t know if you knew that one of his methods for learning to write was to sit at his typewriter and type out books that he loved by other authors. How about that for a means of “unblocking” the ability to express oneself? So much of the craft of writing is in the doing.

Neal Stephenson described, in an interview with Naval Ravikant, his method of dieseling (named for the diesel engine habit of continuing to run despite you turning off the ignition): he stops writing, but then sits for 15 minutes and collects the sentences and ideas that continue to present themselves.

Media and Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

I highly recommend engaging with Naval Ravikant, especially on Twitter, where he is a master. I think the medium itself, specifically the character limit, is important to his style. Here’s a tweet from a few days ago:

If your opinions line up neatly with those of your friends and colleagues, they’re not your opinions.

There’s something of the satisfyingly-proportioned statue hewn from a block of stone in work like this. He must edit hard, and what results is weighty and aphoristic. This is why it makes sense to publish frequently: there’s as much of a difference between a thought and a thought written down, than between writing and writing represented through a medium.

This is why, also, everyone should read Ted Nelson, who explores how media affect the way we engage with and form connections between texts; the Internet, which had the potential to expand, diversify and empower our means of expression, instead gave us the Web, which, continuing the paradigms established at Xerox PARC, is simulated paper. 

An amusing side node: AI researcher and entrepreneur, Jaron Lanier, visited Xerox and was shown some of the “copy” and “paste” features over connected machines. He said that they were great but that, as the computers were networked, why didn’t they simply reference the original data; he was swiftly taken aside and hushed, reminded by his handlers that Xerox is a copier company.

Finally, you and I discussed yesterday how writing can help us to think and to structure our thoughts. I noticed in the evening that there might be something of a post hoc ergo propter hoc here: isn’t it true, also, that people who are naturally clear-headed and eloquent are drawn to writing; writing is much easier when you’re good at speaking, and speaking much easier when your head is clear.

Christopher Hitchens is perhaps the best example of this: his speech, thinking and writing are almost totally integrated, as though he popped into existence at a desk at the New Statesman, so they gave him a typewriter and said get on with it.

This is key: we’re not all Christopher Hitchens, and his clarity and immediacy of speech is something to which I aspire every day; those who struggle with writing, to the extent that they give up, are shut out of the benefits described by Schopenhauer and Emerson, but it’s just hard and you have to stick with it.

Mindfulness meditation is the converse of this, and is just as hard, perhaps harder: with writing the idea is to capture a thought and go with it, with this form of meditation the idea is to observe a thought and go back to the breath. Both practices often end in the same disaster: distraction, worries, ruminations, envies, wants; but that’s the point—most people’s minds are similarly disordered, and the function of practices like meditation and writing (among many) is to build the faculty that is required to find clarity.

My point, I suppose, is that habits like meditation and writing can be discouraging: but the extent to which people are discouraged is also the extent to which these gifts remain the preserve of those, like Hitchens, whose gifts are natural.

Thank you again, Rowan, for a lovely conversation.

Oliver Meredith Cox

The recipient: Rowan Price | www.rowanprice.com