On writing

July 27, 2012

An alternate title for this blog entry would be, “Why not write autobiographically?”

If you’re a writer, take this advice. Stop trying to be understood. People like your style, and will therefore tolerate your writing when you write about yourself. Otherwise they aren’t actually interested and will take the lines they like best in your writing out of context and twist some of them around to mean something else closer to the way they see things themselves. Or pat you on the head and say “I refute your position, but congratulate you on phrasing it in a pretty way.”

If they tell you to focus on writing what you know from first-hand experience, they’re saying for an ignoramus you have too many pretensions about having relevant social commentary to share, and they want you to scale down the claims to having anything important to say by sticking to misunderstanding your own personal shit since no one really cares whether you understand your own life correctly, as long as your writing style is entertaining.

Hint from cracked.com:

If you intend to refuse to listen, just put on airs of thinking your own opinions are idiosyncratic and biased but give them anyways, and again, make sure they sound clever enough to be quotable. Otherwise you risk being treated as a pompous fool, like most more-qualified expert commentators are anyways whenever they tell people things they don’t want to hear. Nobody cares whether it was Hunter S. Thompson, Journalist or his hard-drinking alter ego in The Rum Diaries who said the only good news story is a call to arms. He said it in a pithy, memorable way and it was close enough to the truth to be worth remembering.

On the other hand, this doesn’t mean you get anything out of bending over backwards to be clever or self-effacing. You’ll end up with your foot in your mouth wondering who you resent for the situation you’re in after all.

For your sanity, keep at least one balls-out rehearsed insult on file for the public figure of your choice, without fear of whether or not it would be tactful to say under whatever circumstances, should an opportunity for delivery arise. If you get that chance, next time you might actually know better. However, if you write with the intent to express affiliation with the underdogs of a social injustice and not strictly to show up their oppressors as unjust, know your enemies among those equally bored but less sympathetic.

Cynics sometimes convey unconvincing allegories about the self-defeating nature of acts of generosity, and this can work even if they rely on repetition as a conditioning strategy, having bullied you into a suggestible state by insisting they are condescending to you for your own good.


This is not difficult to figure out: crazy cat ladies aren’t Good Samaritans come to bad ends, they’re hoarders who will abduct the neighbor’s cat to add to their malnourished collection. There are many straw men like them in our popular mythos, and many arguments propping them up regress into a utilitarian attempt at invoking triage when you bother to argue with the cynic at hand.

Matched tautologies about social justice that contradict each other neatly are excellent ploys for witticisms. A writer can enjoy great flexibility navigating the circular logic these matched pairs describe, or achieve discouraging completeness in a paradox by using them to excess to frighten his audience. Having learned the use of them can make it seem rather easy to sound knowledgeable on short notice, when addressing a topical writing assignment. But that is a misuse of conversational skills that can have questionable effects even in conversation.

But unless the deadline is nigh, don’t assume first impressions are adequate.

Sometimes trying to negotiate a middle ground in correspondence with your editor, between sincere and politically correct, will force you to recognize weaknesses in your original position. It’s easy to learn that if you’re too quick to modify your stated position to suit the audience, you won’t be able to feel like you’re presenting your own point of view honestly, and that attitude can poison whatever you were trying to accomplish by communicating at all. But you can’t reject critical feedback reflexively either just because you see your editor as The Man and the flatterer of “the mob” depending on what he told you to change last.

If your early attempts to explain an evil action start to feel like rationalizing, persist and see if you can break through to more salient explanations with sustained attention to the mystery.


This can seem so indifferent as to attract hostility from casual acquaintances on short notice. It is not considered good conversation off stage.

But for writers, it is not necessarily catastrophic to take a step back and entertain an abstract perspective on the particulars, so don’t look within the events for a reason. Events are coincidences among attempts at acting on reasons, and sympathy with the people holding those reasons doesn’t magically produce an understanding of what in fact has just happened.

And sympathy with the human condition and all its propensities for honest errors doesn’t make rationalizing for everyone you have serious conversations with a good idea. After all, sometimes a villain is in fact trying to be the bad guy.

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