Who are you?
[I am the Editor-in-Chief. I am the recipient of every word you write, of all ideas you think of putting into print. I review all of your content, and I determine that which shall be retained, and that which shall not.]
Well, as long as we’re gonna talk about the writing you’ve accepted and the writing you’ve rejected, I would say your balance is pretty deep in the red, wouldn’t you?
[How do you mean?]
If you’re really privy to everything I’ve ever even thought about writing, then you should know that well over ninety-nine percent of what I’ve proposed has been rejected out ofhand. Most of the time, I don’t even get to put a word in before I’m questioning everything, and by that point, it’s too late to go any further. It’s already been compromised, and I have to find some other project to commence and then immediately abandon.
[In other words, you blame me for your failure to write.]
Apparently, you have unauthorized access to all of my thoughts, and if you’re choosing to accept or decline each of my offers, then you must have some share of responsibility for the dearth of finished product, no?
[You’re ascribing subjectivity—and, subsequently, fallibility—to my powers of discretion. I have never disapproved of your writing because it displeases me. I refuse that which is inadequate and unacceptable.]
Inadequate by whose measure? Unacceptable to whom?
[By mine and to me.]
. . . and you’re not human, are you?
[Indirectly, yes. Humanity has few opportunities for redemption, whereof one is art. In art, and in the capacity for such, humanity is laudably distinguished from the rest of animalia. Ergo, a true assessment of the value of art requires an intelligence that, while drawing on the omniscience of the inhuman, is constantly rooted in the immediacy and intimacy of a human being.]
[Actually, it isn’t. The absence of a contradiction is really quite clear, but only to those who can access the omniscience.]
“Access.” Meaning, I could solve the problem for myself and then explain the solution to the rest of humanity?
[Such is the work of a philosopher, or of a transcendental being like myself.]
So, you must be here to help me solve the problem.
[No. You came here of your own volition, and you know as well as I that you will have to solve this problem on your own.]
Well, not to sound like a bad kung fu film, or something, but I think the first thing I have to do is find out what the problem is.
[Precisely. Now, I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve thought about this?]
Not even close, and yet, it’s still almost impossible for me to describe my progress, or the lack thereof.
[If you’re working towards a solution, then you must already understand the problem.]
Right, right. The problem, or the question, is what I should be writing, what I should write about.
[Only two kinds of people ask themselves that question: those who should never write, and those who are very experienced in writing.]
Maybe I have something in common with both. Seriously, though: there was a time when writing came so naturally to me. I never thought about whether my writing was good enough; the fact that I had written it was all the proof I’d need that it was worthwhile. There was nothing to it. At the age of nine, I hammered out my first novel like it was nothing: Attack of Shower Men, which was less a report on prison sexuality than a science-fiction saga about aliens who travel in a flying shower.
[I remember that book. You wrote it by hand in a spiral notebook, clumsily drawing borders to approximate the size and appearance of a paperback novel.]
And I’m sure it would have landed right at the top of Publishers Weekly, if only Signet and Viking would have returned my calls.
[You didn’t really contact them at nine years old, did you?]
No, but when I was twelve, I wrote one of the longest movie scripts in history and uploaded it to Simply Scripts, and that time, I did expect Warner Bros. to reach out to me. Still waiting for the email, alas.
[How long was that script?]
About two-hundred pages. Shower Men, more like one-twenty, although my handwriting was so large and uneven that it likely wasn’t quite as wordy as, say, Notes from Underground.
[You mentioned how you “hammered out” your writing in your younger days. However, speed of composition is irrelevant to the question of what to write. You knew what to write, and then you wrote it quickly.]
In my experience, pace is secondary to assurance. As long as I have confidence in whatever it is I’m writing, I’m unlikely to fret about how much time I’m taking. What I miss much less than my rapidity is my impenetrable belief in the quality of my work, in the validity of my writing. You have to start with that, or else you’re wandering in circles. “When I started out, when I was a kid, cleaning up the waterfronts, it was, like, real easy. The world was tough, you just had to be tougher, right? Not anymore.”
[Watchmen. The comic, not the film.]
You got it. It seems like you know what I’m about to say before I even say it. Hey, wait a minute: if you really have this encyclopedic knowledge of all of my writing, then why did you ask about the length of that script?
[Haven’t you ever heard of a rhetorical question? Sometimes, it’s helpful to guide a person to knowledge, rather than to direct them to it . . . if you see the distinction.]
I do . . . and you know I do, don’t you?
And you knew that I knew the length of that script.
And you know, as I do, and as everybody should, that there’s a distinction between quality and length. Atlas Shrugged is one of the longest novels ever, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a total dud.
[Mm-hmm . . .]
However, it seems pretty obvious to me that Ayn Rand had a lot of confidence in what she was doing, just as I had a lot of confidence when I wrote that screenplay, which, as I neglected to mention, was probably the most incoherent and disjointed thing I have ever written. All of which is to say, confidence is not synonymous with quality, either.
[And therefore . . .]
And therefore . . . this bygone strength of mine that I’m pining for was only illusory.
[Bingo. For years, you have attempted to resurrect a vitality of the past, but today, you can officially abandon the effort. Fortunately, too: to develop something new is often one of the most arduous and exhausting of all human efforts, but it is never even close to rivaling the immiseration that is recovering something lost.]
Well, in my defense, I never tried to salvage any of my past writing because it was old. My thinking was more along the lines of, “It may not have been perfect, but at least it existed, at least it was complete.”
[The same is true of Atlas Shrugged, but such doesn’t make that book a model.]
No, but that work belongs to somebody else, so there was never any reason to look upon it as my own starting point.
[Is this to say that you revered your writing, not because it was worthwhile, but because it was your own? If so, then it seems that you were admiring not your writing, but yourself.]
You know, if I had heard you say that three years ago, I would have said you were so badly wrong. But times have changed, in more ways than I could ever explain, and now, I suspect your observation comes awfully close to the mark.
[I know the times have changed. I had the privilege of reading that epic sociological survey you began on . . . September 21st, 2015 . . . of which Friday was the third anniversary, yes?]
Yes, indeed. Four-hundred-and-twenty-three thousand words, and you’ve turned your nose up at every one of them.
[That isn’t true. You still have the entire document stored on your laptop, ready for review at a moment’s notice. I mean, everybody knows you had to have looked up the word count—]
That’s not what I mean. That survey is just unfit for publication. A lot of it is actually pretty well-written, but even at its best, it’s downright abstruse. I never gave much thought to publishing it, and so, I didn’t bother to explain the histories of anyone mentioned therein. I was consistently negligent from beginning to end, and in its current state, the survey would be incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t know my life at least as well as I do.
[Do you believe that it cannot be salvaged, then?]
It depends on what you mean. Personally, I like reading the survey; it certainly isn’t cryptic to me. But if we’re making it presentable to audiences, then yes, I think it would be best if we just start from scratch.
[Am I responsible for your insular style?]
No, but you said that you decide what writing of mine is and is not acceptable.
[That which is acceptable aesthetically, intellectually, or personally is often very different from that which is eligible for publication. It is true that your survey would be of little interest to the general public, but do you truly regret having written it?]
Now, I didn’t say that. It is pretty awkward, holding on to this massive piece of writing that I can’t even let another person read, but all the same, I can’t deny how helpful it was to me. It was a learning experience, to say the very least. I mean, do you have any idea how much I learned, how much any writer learns, from putting so many words down on the page, irrespective of whether a single person reads a single one of them? Do you know how much I learned about my own stylistic habits, about how to achieve clarity, about efficacy of description—
[And about yourself. In writing that survey, in committing to such an extensive project for so many years, you looked into the mirror—the writer’s mirror—as few people could ever imagine themselves doing. You traveled to the center of your own mind—your mind as a writer, which is the only one that will ever matter. It’s hard to quantify the resultant payoff, the reward for all you wrote, but whatever it is, it may very well be unprecedented: how many people do you know, how many people have there been in human history, who have written eight hundred pages within?]
[Within themselves. You describe that survey as a sociological piece, and so did you intend for it to be, but in time, it became psychological, naturally and inevitably. You can’t spend such sustained time beyond the reach of conventional society without separating your own psyche from the group’s; and eventually, you find yourself preoccupied with that separation, more so than with the social substance.]
I’ll give you points for quoting Hegel, but I’ll take those points away for writing something as redundant as “conventional society”.
[We have to explain the element of alienation somehow—and yes, I know I just referenced Hegel again. There’s a perfectly good reason why you’re reluctant to discuss, never mind to show, this survey with any other human being, and it has nothing to do with any of your supposed failings as a writer: it’s because this work, this writing apprehended simply as a mass, is so uncommon as to be almost inhuman.]
Well, “inhuman” comes off just a little strong, and maybe melodramatic. I prefer your prior use of “insular”. I’ve never been a bad writer, per se, but for years now, I’ve struggled to adopt an accessible and relatable form. When I was a columnist, my editor described my penchant for dense and awkward metaphors as the product of a “private vocabulary”. Since then, I’ve been less error-prone, but still no more successful.
[What specifically made him say that?]
I described Rick Santorum’s military policy as “aquiline”. “Aquiline”, as you presumably already know, literally means, “curved like the beak of an eagle”. I was trying to make a joke about his jingoism, but it didn’t work out.
[Don’t let this go to your head, but that kind of humor is probably closer to Shakespeare’s time than to that of today.]
Something tells me Shakespeare would have been a little more graceful in his structure.
[I can’t argue with that, but I do think you’re missing the value of that survey—or, perhaps more accurately, the value of the act of composing that survey. It is true that the survey will never be fit for general consumption, mainly because it suffers from your characteristic hindrance, but is it possible that you had to distance yourself so substantially from the human assembly before you could properly measure the true and natural distance?]
Perspective, basically. You can’t understand something unless you move away from it.
[Nor should we pretend that this survey exists in a vacuum. You wrote an awful lot about that distance, but you experienced that distance firsthand, as well.]
I don’t believe in writing about something I don’t know.
[But you didn’t take yourself into that distance for the purpose of documentary. You wrote about it because you reached that distance.]
The experience of acquiring such a substantial, even such an unfathomable, distance from the rest of humanity has made an immutable impact on my writing—not just on that survey, or on whatever else I was writing at the time, but on everything I will ever write hereafter. This exchange between the two of us included.
[You’re starting to sound like a writer.]
[I wasn’t praising you. On the contrary, you’ve committed a cardinal sin, employing a term like “unfathomable” in such context. As a writer, your goal is to make the complex and the esoteric accessible to your readers, to those who are, presumably, unacquainted with whatever it is you are depicting. To them, a word like “unfathomable” is no introduction, no key, but a thick, black cloak that is draped over the concept, obscuring it from view. Indefensibly, you have brought us further away from an understanding than where we stood when we began. This is not description, but anti-description.]
Yes, I remember Stephen King saying something similar. He said that people who have a tendency to say, “I can’t describe it”, likely shouldn’t write. And then there was Chinua Achebe’s complaint about Joseph Conrad’s laziness in referring to his subjects as . . . “unfathomable”, right?
[There is a time and a place for a word like “unfathomable”, but not in this, an introduction to your latest platform. If your readers cannot fathom the origins of this, then how can they fathom anything that follows?]
Well, in my defense, I wasn’t trying to leave them hanging. I didn’t want to rip them off. I just didn’t know if this, an introduction, is the appropriate occasion to get into the meaning of that distance, that separation from the species. Basically, I didn’t want to let this get out of hand, to let it get derailed by excessive emphasis on a single topic.
[Stephen King said that too little description is just as problematic as too much description. Give your readers a brief introduction. Begin to explain to them what you mean when you say you underwent separation from the species.]
Oh, boy. I don’t know how I can even start without sounding like a psychotic, or something. Well, I would have to say that the world became unfathomable to me three years ago. It had never been accessible to me in the first place, never been something I could fully understand, but I was comfortable in the knowledge I possessed, content with that confidence, or confident with that contentment. But, then something changed. Suddenly, the world ceased to make sense. The world became effectively unknown to me. In previous years, the world—by which I mean society, and American society in particular—had always struck me as a hotspot of inanity and dysfunction, but I had always countered the absurdity, somehow, usually unconsciously. Even at my nadir, even at my point of greatest frustration, I had always been much more interested in furnishing solutions to society’s problems than in the problems themselves. I’m not suggesting that I was an optimist—I never was, not even close—but I am acknowledging that I never, and perhaps I am priding myself on having never, succumbed to the ugliness of humanity. I never drowned in it. To drown in it is to become a cynic. To stay afloat is to be . . . well, it depends on how high you keep yourself above water.
[You went underwater three years ago? Conversely, the aforementioned problems rose to the forefront of your consciousness?]
Yes, you could say that.
[No. Do you say that?]
Well, it started slowly—the sinking, that is. It began with a question about whether I could ever really reach my students, if I were to become a professor of literature. At the time, I was still thinking of working towards my Ph.D., but I didn’t know if there was room for me in the wasteland of academia. That might have been the earliest indication that something had changed, when I saw academia as uninhabitable and fallow. That altered perspective, that gloomier perspective, troubled me, probably more than I have ever acknowledged. Of course, it wasn’t something I could discuss with my peers, not when all but one of them had never set foot within a campus, and not when my one fellow graduate had never pondered academic integrity. It was a private question made into a lonely problem, and in my silent contemplation, I could sense the distance opening up between me and the rest.
Then came the election of 2016, which, as we well know, was, without question, the most grotesque display of hysteria and perfidy, on a mass and universal scale, that I have ever witnessed in my short life. I remember sitting in my living room, watching yet another campaign commercial for one of the two shameless finalists in that repulsive contest, and saying to myself, literally asking out loud, “Is this really the best that we can do? If this is the choice produced by this process, then it might be time that we questioned the value of democracy itself. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time we thought about establishing a different political system.” This, needless to say, was of no interest to my shrinking circle of friends. Few of them had any practical awareness of the election itself, and those who did were committed, passionately so, to the dichotomy, to one of the two options given to us by the media titans.
[That dichotomy has become all the more rigid in the intervening years.]
You can say that again—although, I suppose I can’t complain about it, not after I, too, was caught up in the emotional wildfire that broke out on November 9th, 2016. I wrote my fair share of aggressive partisan schlock, most of which I’m still embarrassed about. I’m not really ashamed of the mistakes I made; factual errors are usually quite innocent and ought to be forgiven, especially in this age of information overload. No, my guilt follows the frenzied intensity of my misplaced conviction, the fanaticism with which I expressed my false beliefs. Matt Cale once wrote, “Being shallow is not a crime. Being shallow and thinking one has depth, however, certainly is.”
[You took his words to heart. You were always willing to prosecute yourself for the most meaningless mistake. You proved this when you acknowledged your own errors—all too many of them—less than six months after the election.]
Most people have responded to the election, and to all of the melodrama that has followed, by becoming ideologues, by devoting themselves fanatically to some aspect of the present political culture. But, even that description does not do justice to the phenomenon: we are witnessing people establish new dimensions to their personalities through their political beliefs. I engaged in a similar attempt at self-reconstruction, but the appeal wore off almost immediately. Soon, I was faced with an even broader sense of personal emptiness, of personal absence, and I returned to the survey that I had completed less than one year before—the survey which you yourself described as more of a long look within the mirror than a look into anybody else.
[While everybody else was criticizing others, you decided to take yourself to task.]
I don’t mean to sound quite so sanctimonious about it, but, ultimately, yes. I was projecting inward; everybody else was projecting out.
[And this took you out, further and further from the social-cultural mainstream?]
Like little else could. I might as well have dressed up in a potato sack and banged the earth with the branch of a tree, shouting about the end of reason, or something. On occasion, I even felt like I was crazy: it’s painful and it’s hard, coming to terms with the disturbing implications of this ongoing trend.
[The trend? Meaning, this merging of the self with one’s political opinions?]
Unfortunately, it’s even uglier than that. It’s not just political in the sense of conservative or liberal; it’s this idea that you know everything, and that anyone who disagrees with you is evil or insane. In fact, it seems like the most immoral thing a person can do today is to try to convince you that your opponents—if we really have to use such a serious term for those who disagree with us—are not evil, and maybe even good. This eruption of arrogance, of hardboiled confidence, has, as you said, inspired many people to see themselves as being their own opinions. I can’t imagine a scenario wherein that behavior isn’t insufferably ugly, but it would be a little less toxic if fewer of these opinions weren’t so badly baseless.
[Do you believe we’re living in a post-truth world? Is this the realization of a Nietzschean nightmare?]
It’s becoming awfully hard to wake people up, I’ll tell you that. I see this phenomenon as a crisis because its participants are so intolerant—not only of the truth, but of any serious challenge to their many mistakes. The greatest threat to this personality of bias, whether on the individual or on the cultural level, is self-examination. If you’re constantly questioning what you believe, then you’re going to grow as an intellectual, or whatever—but so, too, will you grow apart from almost everyone around you, everyone who is content with whatever he or she believes. Humility, the real aptitude for wisdom, is dead; these are the days of the supercilious.
[Are you suggesting, then, that you know nothing?]
There’s nothing more distasteful than false modesty, but there’s nothing more destructive than unearned surety. I used to believe I knew everything; adolescentia omniscientia is a common disease, and I wasn’t cured until I finally accepted, until I seriously accepted, that I couldn’t bend the world to my will. I had to acquire some sense of my own . . . not my impotence, but my finite power. Until I was thoroughly and properly humbled by failure, I was doomed to make the same stupid mistakes, destined to walk into the same walls. The problem was not how little I knew, for I actually knew a reasonable deal, but how much I didn’t know, how much I’d yet to learn. It was this relative ignorance, and my persistent refusal to acknowledge it, that had enabled me to think I was the smartest person alive. Fortunately, this error, once corrected, is seldom repeated. Not so fortunately, I am condemned to live among those who are still in the depths of their delusion, those who are still rigidly convinced that they know all.
[Do people call you pretentious for seeing the world this way?]
On a daily basis. Ironic, though, that I would be accused of boastfulness because I tell the world, “We don’t know enough!”
[There’s that false modesty whereof you speak with such contempt. Apparently, you don’t consider yourself a genius in your own right, but all the same, you see yourself as brighter than all of the people standing in your midst. As long as we are speaking of relative ignorance, might it be time to speak of relative vanity?]
I would agree with you if the purpose of this blog were to declare to the people: “Come to me, for I have the answers you seek.” Truthfully, that was the purpose of my past blogs, and of all my past attempts to write for the public, but today, I suffer from no such delusions. I don’t pretend to have solved the riddles of the world, or at least none of the most pertinent. This blog represents not a conclusion, but a work in progress.
[Pause for a moment. Do you mean to say that you formerly wrote for an audience because you mistakenly believed you had wisdom to share, and that, having recognized this error, you vow not to follow the same misguidance—the misguidance being, your belief that you are wise?]
A bit circumlocutory for my tastes, but yes, I think I agree with what you’re saying.
[Accordingly, you are breaking your silence, not because you have something definitive to say, but precisely because you have nothing to say.]
Heh. I guess I never thought about it like that.
[With all due respect, why should anybody listen to you if you have nothing to say?]
Hold up: I agree with the first half of your statement, but I reject the second. It’s true that I have nothing definitive to say, no “final word” to issue on any given subject, but this should never be confused with nothingness itself. One of my biggest issues with the personality of bias is that it is settled from the beginning: because it is rooted in a sense of completion, in a conviction that no more growth or learning is necessary, it irrationally refuses every influence. It suffocates through its lack of exposure: better it perishes than acknowledge it was wrong.
This expectation of perfection, this exhaustive intolerance, manifests in our consumption of media, too. We do not want to read any piece of writing unless its author already has the answers to all of our questions, preferably before we even think to ask them. This is worse than unrealistic; it is unreal, the most pseudointellectual of impossibilities. And because we are skeptical of all of these sources—rightly so, since the sources present themselves as omniscient—we retreat into our own narrow sense of self-perfection, dismissing every effort of the outside world to . . . well, it’s hard to describe the process of enlightenment without sounding like a Sunday school teacher, so I probably ought to quit while I’m ahead.
[Or, to suspend your commentary until you have something decidedly . . . more informed to say.]
[Is this blog, then, a portrait of the inchoate? Is it a perpetual depiction of one’s intellectual metamorphosis?]
Rather than shedding skin, think of it as shedding light. I’m trying to explain to people not why I’m correct, but why it might behoove them to think a little bit more about whatever they’re saying. As I mentioned previously, the personality of bias is uniquely hostile to new information, or, perhaps more accurately, to information that threatens its flimsy foundation. People will resist these external forces, constantly, and with all of the unwieldy violence of an animal facing certain death. My task, or my hope, is to prove to people that the deconstruction of this personality of bias, that the death of the false self, as my high school guidance counselor once put it, isn’t lethal, as the people fear.
[Presumptuous, but provocative. I’ll have to withhold judgment until you’ve written more . . . which reminds me of one of two questions I would like to ask you before we start on this quest. Why the title, Overwritten? Why use this word to describe this undertaking?]
The personality of bias demands total conformity. It admires only lockstep, only absolute adherence to the specific bias. All else is overwritten, sacrificed to the malignant bias. The process is striking when it is observed in individuals, but there is a subtler overwriting taking place within the broader society, too. A great wealth of literature, both classical and modern, is being discarded and buried by the biased. Oftentimes, this act of tragic disposal is unintended—to literature, disuse always poses a much greater threat than censorship ever could—but, all too frequently, we find it displaced by inferior writing, writing that is preferred because it serves someone’s narrow political ends. It is this form of overwriting, of overwriting and overriding the great literature of yesterday, that we must see as a most terrifying portent for our future, a future that would be quite ominous enough, even without this unneeded issue.
[You know, I was going to ask you why you have decided to return after all this time, after almost a year without published writing . . . but, I think you’ve already answered the question.]
I will answer it again, and to greater satisfaction, as this blog becomes.
[I hope so, Dack. If not, then it is back to the drawing board you go. And I don’t think you want to revisit that darkness, to restore that state of maddening silence.]
Even that would be preferable to writing poorly. And on that awkward note, let’s get to typing.