In my last yearly review Looking Back on ’21 and Forward to the Rest I complained about not being as productive here as I feel I should be. That’s not news, I do that often, and writers do that often. It’s an odd vocation, writing, so well-loved and desired and attractive but also generally understood to be torturous by its practitioners.
The reasons for what’s called “writer’s block” are without doubt individual, but for me blogging is just another arena in which I struggle with the same thing I do elsewhere: not laziness exactly, but an inability to resist short-term wants and aversions in a sustained manner. I can resist my impulses for a while, but it’s draining and eventually I give up , thinking “no I can’t and shouldn’t try to constantly fight this feature of myself, I should learn to roll with it and do things that turn my weaknesses into strengths”. When that turns out to be impractical it becomes bitterness and listlessness, at severe risk of reinforcing itself.
For example, I also wrote in Looking Back that I struggle with soliciting Patreon donations because it feels presumptuous and off-putting to ask people for money so I can blog. I have still decided to do so a little more because others told me it was ok. I know I would be better off I had more of the “salesmanship” and “chutzpah” personality traits and could just stop feeling uncomfortable about this. But it doesn’t feel like I can, so instead I have to keep expending mental energy to overcome such hangups over and over again.
It’s felt so unfair to me that some can be productive and successful seemingly without having to expend effort going against their natural inclinations. It’s made me think “I shouldn’t have to do that, I should find a way to just change the things about myself that don’t work for me”. Such fixes are hard to find, though, so I’m coming around to the idea that yes, it is unfair, but there’s no one to complain to and the only way to get rid of hangups is to keep struggling against them and cling to the hope that this will make them go away, eventually.
My instinct is that they won’t, because I have no experience of that happening (none whatsoever of any part of my personality changing in response to effort or changed circumstances). I guess I still have to try, because nothing else has worked either.
Naming is necessity
A good first step is to point out and name what causes me problems, which will make it easier to recognize and then to reject them. I guess this could work with all kinds of problems, but I’m going to focus on writing itself, specifically, and on the things that make it hard for me to write more and with less struggle than I do.
While all these things are related and tie into each other, it’s more useful to name them individually, as they become more recognizable and manageable that way. So I decided to call 2011 and ask if could borrow one of their article formats. Once I told them about Bitcoin they were quite accommodating, and I was able to put together this listicle.
My 7 writing hang-ups
1) Ensouled objects’ right to care, integrity, and self-actualization
Perfectionism is first in the list, by virtue of also being a general label for the other six items. It’s for good reason often cited as the number one issue for writers trying to be productive; it’s difficult because it causes us trouble but can’t just be rejected wholesale either. It’s required to produce good things, to want to go that extra mile, to put in that effort you really can’t justify but that people notice.
At my day job the explicit ethos is “good enough, not perfection” and I hate it. I feel debased doing work that I don’t feel is as good as it could be. I really value creative output. I don’t mean just personally but like, ideologically and morally, almost religiously. In my mind everything made by human hand has a right (and an obligation) to be as good as it could be, and every post here should be work of art, however small. I owe them the opportunity to self-actualize, if that makes sense. I said in On Chords, Maps and Effects in Art that works of art has part of the creator’s soul in them, and making something in a half-assed manner without the genuine care something ensouled deserves, is degenerate and sinful1.
I do realize that this is kind of deranged, but it’s what I get when I reach into my mind and ask myself what I feel. I need to stop being a slave to it, but that isn’t as easy as just telling it to shut up. That’s partly because I don’t believe it will go away, and partly because I don’t really want it to. Religious convictions are a source of meaning, and believing this will make things better (once they get done). I just have to take control of it.
2) The fear of legitimate criticism
Second on my list is the first sub-feature of perfectionism: the worry that I said something wrong, or that there is legitimate criticisms that I didn’t anticipate. I really try to not say something wrong, which is one of the things that lead me towards abstract or conceptual topics and a kind of analytic dissection style with reference to subjectivity, instead of being more informative and/or argumentative2.
It’s clearly related to #1 because it’s not so much that I worry about people objecting or criticising me as such, but rather that I fear the feeling that I created something with obvious flaws. I let it down. That’s why my posts get long and why they take long to write: I need to critically examine everything, and think of and adress objections and counterexamples that constantly come to mind. If I have a model or something I feel I might be better off reorganizing it completely when I find something that doesn’t fit, and I often go in a direction I didn’t anticipate and then go back and go back on the going back because I tried biting off more than I can chew. I if get stuck I might leave it, even for years. Tick tock, time passes.
I do occasionally decide to simply ignore some complexity because I deem it out of scope and hope that nobody notices, but it always hurts a little, because I know somebody could call me out on it and be right3.
3) The need to eliminate the possibility of misinterpretation
When I edit I sometimes notice that I say the same thing several times, in slightly different ways. I remove most of that but also keep some because I’m profoundly distrustful of words and communication. I need to be explicit about why this thing is like the other thing or fits into the pattern or what the point is or why this thing follows from the last or exactly what earlier claim is being referenced here in the end, and so forth. Really good writing doesn’t have this because you trust the reader to understand what you mean without being overly detailed and explicit all the time. You just gently prod them with words and have them follow along mostly by themselves. It can be a thing of beauty.
I don’t trust that approach working as soon as things get even slightly difficult. I know about the Curse of Knowledge, I know about semitentional misinterpretation, and about inferential distance. I know how much my own understanding of words and what they refer to is informed by my own personal knowledge, background, and experiences that I can’t even explicitly list4 because they’ve all been compressed into generalities. I even have plenty of experience reading things that don’t make sense at all to me because the author doesn’t take the time to be explicit enough about where they’re coming from and what they’re trying to say5.
How am I supposed to trust my own “natural” writing while being so very aware of all this?
4) Having to take up time and space
As said, my posts tend to be long. Part of that is because of #2 and #3: when you feel you have to explain everything clearly, be explicit with every step, and deal with every weakness and objection, things get long.
But it’s not just that. In The Importance of Being a Slog I suggested that some books are longer than they have to be to deliver their message, and that the “filler” is often not even that engaging. There’s value in length itself when you try to communicate a message: it forces the reader to spend more time with the text and makes the content take up more space in their mind, which makes the message feel bigger and become more impactful. I believe this is true and important and that makes me intuitively resist being brief, despite ubiquitous exhortations to the contrary.
That doesn’t mean I put pointless filler into my posts, but it does mean that I try to use many examples and lengthy explications to hammer home a point. And — perhaps to the detriment of productivity to an even greater extent — when I have an idea I want to communicate I feel that I have to put it into a long post that really “does it justice” and explains it as ambitiously and grandly as it deserves. So I think “oh i should write that one, but it really should be big, I’ll do it after this quick one… and this one…” and then I put it off for ever6.
5) Unwillingness to repeat myself
In Hindsight in 2020 I said I felt embarrassed about repeating myself, and that people who go on and on about the same on-brand things feel like “small” people. I said that repeating a thought I’ve expressed in a previous post is like telling a funny story a second time to someone as if it was the first. Embarassing! I don’t want to look like a fool.
The way this causes trouble is closely to related to #4: it makes me want to “save” a thought or idea to a later, hypothetical, perfect time when I can develop it properly, because once I’ve said it it’s been “used up”.
I can imagine a different approach, when I don’t see a problem with rewriting “the same” piece in a different way (perhaps for a slightly different audience) or expressing the same idea in a different format7. It’d be better to think of what I do here as a work in progress with iterations on certain themes, rather than (as per #1) a collection of articles that are supposed to be perfect little unique snowflakes (but never are anyway).
6) Embarrassment at triviality
I’m not just worried about saying something I’ve already said, I’m worried about saying something someone else has already said and sounding like I think it’s new. This is especially fraught when you, as disussed above, try to write in a detailed and explicit manner, with length, heft, and examples. The risk is always “yeah you don’t need to go on and on and on about this and treat it like some difficult idea, everybody knows this”.
Like with #1 I know it’s deranged. Hardly anything is genuinely new — not derivative or retreading, or well known and trivial to some. I know that. I know I’m not really saying anything new to the world. But I still cringe when I catch myself doing it without acknowledging it in the text (see #2 again). It even hurts to go back and read, say, Illusory Communion from 2016 where I talk about parasociality as some new, unknown thing (even if it wasn’t as broadly and generally understood then as it is now).
I can give some strong justifications for “reinventing the wheel”-type practices and I’ve had a quick outline of such a post somewhere in my drafts folder for more time than I’d like to think about, but part of that is trying to convince myself that it isn’t a problem, and that makes it a hang-up to hang up on like the rest.
7) My abstraction problem
Here at the end we come back to the beginning, all the way to the tagline under my blog title. “I have an abstraction problem” was meant as a joke, as pretend self-deprecation, but over the years I’ve come to think of it as a genuine problem.
I turn every thing I write about into a generality and a Concept, and then tie it to some even more general Model of Everything I seem to be working on. It’s how my mind works and I can’t change that, but it needs to be resisted somewhat. Because of the issues with language described in #3, grand abstractions often feel much more meaningful and insightful to the person making them than to the reader (unless writer and reader are extremely similar in their mental makeup).
The risk of not being understood properly — of things not landing right or not resonating — goes up the more abstract your language is. So my tendency to abstract makes it difficult for me to write partly both by making #3 a bigger hurdle, and also #2 because generalities have complications and exceptions that specifics don’t have as much8.
The drive towards abstraction also means posts get longer (along with #4), because abstraction in writing is like peroration in a speech: you have to build up to it.
All these points can be brought together and summarized like such: because I feel that every post I write has the right to be its best possible unique self — and I only get one shot to explore and explain each idea, which also has to be novel in some way or note that it isn’t — I have to acknowledge all limitations and objections I can think of, which gets harder when you want to abstract and generalize (which I do), write it long and explicit enough to make it feel as important as I think it is, and also make it impossible for anyone to misunderstand what it says.
I know I don’t live up to these ambitions as it is, and that I don’t have to either. Still, they are there in the back of my mind, judging me as soon as I try. So there’s that threshold to get over before opening that file and getting to work. It would be easier if I knew I should just reject all of them wholesale, but I can’t do that because in moderation they’re forces for good.
I’m publishing this piece now, despite it having these problems;
- It’s unpolished. I wrote it in one 3-hour sitting and edited it only once. I could think more about this and give it a better treatment.
- There might be complications counterexamples in my earlier writings I haven’t thought of.
- This is only a partial narrative where I let one aspect of my thoughts get out and run around freely. If someone reads only this they might get the wrong idea of my psychology.
- I’m only scratching the surface, writing a couple of paragraphs of ideas that might deserve fuller discussion.
- I’m complaining about things I’ve already complained about before.
- Why does the world need this? Everybody knows writers struggle with perfectionism! If I just googled around I could probably find all of this somewhere, so why even write it?
- I actually decided to cut that part but I did spend precious time on a section where I arranged all these facets of perfectionism into a model where they tie into each other and to perfectionism in general in a neat pattern.
I’m going to work on this. I’m not sure of exactly how, but giving them names and numbers could be a valuable first step9.
After the discussion in Looking Back I’m still thinking about whether I should switch my writing platform to Substack. It would be mostly because it could somewhat increase the amount of money I’m making on this and make it possible for me to work part time for a bit, but it could also help me with #1 and its subsidiaries. Having my own site with a little bit more personality than a Substack newsletter probably contributes to the feeling that my posts are my “babies”, which prevents me from having a healthier, more throwaway attitude towards them.
- You might say that with regards to writing, my inclinations are to the extreme k end of the r vs. k spectrum of evolutionary strategies. ↩︎
- And sometimes excessive hedging. ↩︎
- It’s weird because when people do point out some problem or limitation it’s not really that bad. The thought of it is worse. ↩︎
- I’ve tried something like it here. ↩︎
- See for example Science, the Constructionists, and Reality. ↩︎
- The “quick” ones often turn out long anyway, like the aforementioned The Importance of Being a Slog. ↩︎
- I have a few format variations like Fantasia for Two Voices, and The More the Merrier but they’re the exception and I felt a little bad for partially retreading ground. ↩︎
- A case in point is Cat Couplings Revisited. It starts off with some concrete examples of a language construct and turns into a rant about Philosophy, Logic, and Thought Itself towards the end. It kinda works there but at the cost of taking a lot of time to get right and only because that part isn’t very long (and I did feel the need to apologize for it). ↩︎
- I felt the need to repeat this part from the beginning to make it absolutely clear why I’m writing this. ↩︎
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