For me, it is about identifying the things that you find interesting that no one else finds interesting. That’s one way to view your job as a writer: It’s to tell stories that no one else is going to tell unless you do. I feel like there are a lot of stories that we read that anyone could have told. There are books that you read, or movies or TV you watch, and you feel almost anyone could have written them.
There’s also a good Annie Dillard quote that’s mentioned in the interview:
You (writers) have been sent here to give voice to your own astonishment.
I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but it seems to be a decent goal, I think. Write what only you can write. And I would broaden that to: Make what only you can make. I’m trying to figure out what that means for me, both for writing and for everything else.
What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.
I recently came across this quote from Martha Graham (which according to Wikiquote is from page 264 of Agnes de Mille’s The Life and Work of Martha Graham) and it’s been in my thoughts often since then (italics mine):
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.
When impostor syndrome is railing at me about my art or my writing, the italicized portion is what comes to mind. I find it reassuring.
George Saunders in The Braindead Megaphone, of the news but perhaps applicable elsewhere as well:
In surrendering our mass storytelling function to entities whose first priority is profit, we make a dangerous concession: “Tell us,” we say in effect, “as much truth as you can, while still making money.” This is not the same as asking: “Tell us the truth.”
Almost 150 years before Columbus set sail, a Tartar army besieged the Genoese city of Kaffa. Then the Black Death visited. To the defenders’ joy, their attackers began dying off. But triumph turned to terror when the Tartar khan catapulted the dead bodies of his men over the city walls, deliberately creating an epidemic inside. The Genoese fled Kaffa, leaving it open to the Tartars. But they did not run away fast enough; their ships spread the disease to every port they visited.
From Wedge, a history of the conflict between the FBI and the CIA:
One famous undertaking was spawned by an unsolicited letter to the president from a Mr. Adams of Irwin, Pennsylvania, asserting that the Japanese were deathly frightened of bats and suggesting that America consider the opportunities for “frightening, demoralizing, and exciting the prejudices of the people of the Japanese empire” by a “surprise attack” in which Japan would be bombed with live specimens. The president passed Adams’ letter to Wild Bill [Donovan, head of the COI] with a note asserting that “this man is not a nut.” Donovan promptly commissioned the curator of mammals at the American Museum of Natural History to work with the Army Air Corps; bats were strapped into catapults and flung, and their trajectories noted on clipboards, but the project was terminated when it was discovered that bats would freeze to death at forty thousand feet. Also, though no one had bothered to check Adams’ assertion at the time, it turned out that the Japanese did not fear bats.
If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.
The Lord’s University taught me a new tongue, one that enables me to do three things: (1) delineate between spiritual discourse and worldly discourse; (2) recognize when I have slipped from the spiritual into the worldly and rectify the slippage; and (3) check my tendency to hijack the language of the spiritual to suit my convenience in the worldly.
I returned to BYU for a graduate degree because of the abundance of the spirit on its campus. Partaking of this spirit creates the courage to dream, and consequently there are dreamers aplenty here. So I returned to the machine shop to mend the tires, knowing that I must leave again to go elsewhere for a Ph.D. But this time I will leave understanding that unless one is careful, there is a negative correlation between advanced intellectual inquiry and spiritual preservation. When I went away the first time, I found that the more I pursued only the nuances of political, economic, and social history, the more the spirit eluded me. When I go away the second time, I will do so understanding that it doesn’t work the same way if the two factors are turned around: Beginning with the spirit, no depth of intellectual inquiry is outside of one’s grasp. It is possible for disciples to do first-rate intellectual work, work that has meaning. Indeed, to use religion to excuse substandard academic performance and intellectual sloppiness is to strengthen the false dichotomy of faith and reason.
What is my dream? I want to be part of a counter-renaissance of men and women who call themselves servants of God who will reclaim from the world the arts and sciences. I dream that the abundance of spirit at the BYU campus will, even in the face of apathy and materialism, initiate a resurgence of learning where disciples will once again create the standards for meaningful intellectual inquiry. Of course this is a grandiose dream. But there are dreamers aplenty at BYU in body and in spirit as embodied in the history and unique heritage that is BYU’s. If one is not careful, one can be infected with their vision. I stopped being careful a long time ago.
A good bit from chapter 20 of G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics:
Whether the human mind can advance or not, is a question too little discussed, for nothing can be more dangerous than to found our social philosophy on any theory which is debatable but has not been debated. But if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there has been in the past, or will be in the future, such a thing as a growth or improvement of the human mind itself, there still remains a very sharp objection to be raised against the modern version of that improvement. The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut. Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
I recently finished Mindhunters, John Douglas’s account of his work as an FBI criminal profiler catching serial killers. It’s a fascinating book. What stood out to me most was this paragraph towards the end:
In all my years of research and dealing with violent offenders, I’ve never yet come across one who came from what I would consider a good background and functional, supportive family unit.
On a related note, a passage earlier in the book:
At the request of Buffalo SAC Richard Bretzing, I came up that weekend. Bretzing is a very proper, solid guy, a real family man and a key member of the FBI’s so-called Mormon Mafia. I’ll never forget, he had a sign in his office saying something to the effect of, “If a man fails at home, he fails in his life.”
No doubt it was “No other success can compensate for failure in the home,” often attributed to David O. McKay, who was quoting James Edward McCulloch’s 1924 book Home: The Savior of Civilization. I hunted down the book here at the BYU library and, for curiosity’s sake, I present to you the full paragraph (p. 42):
When one puts business or pleasure above his home, he that moment starts on the down grade to soul ruin. The loss of a fortune is nothing compared with the loss of home. When the club becomes more attractive to any man than his home, it is time for him to confess in bitter shame that he has failed to measure up to the supreme opportunity of his life and has flunked in the final test of true manhood. No other success can compensate for failure in the home. This is the one thing of limitless potentialities on earth. The poorest shack of a home in which love prevails over a united family is of greater value to God and future humanity than the richest bank on earth. In such a home God can work miracles and will work miracles. The greatest miracle that King Herod ever saw was John the Baptist. The religious home, though poor, produced John the Baptist. The most dazzling miracle of all history is Jesus of Nazareth. His education was that of a united religious home. Pure hearts in a pure home are always in whispering distance of Heaven. In such a home there is always a key which one may use in opening the reservoirs of the Infinite and start a Pentecost. The great, good God who made this world ordained man and woman for the home and He is seeing to it that they may search the whole world over but will never find the sweetest joys of life anywhere but in the home. In obedience to God’s law for human life, one should make it his highest ambition to build an ideal home. Make home your hobby; for, if anyone makes a loving home with all his heart, he can never miss Heaven.