0408 – (resist the) tendency to talk in explanations

TLDR: I get neurotic when I try to explain everything, including how and why I try to explain everything. Relax.

I’ve experimented with all sorts of to-do lists, what’s working for me best right now (fingers crossed, knock on wood) is Trello. I find it useful for work. I think what I like about it is the way it splays out all the information visually, like post-its or cards. There’s something about that that’s a little more appealing than just a list, or series of lists. (I still enjoy workflowy for its triaging abilities, but Trello performs a different function.)

Anyway, so there have been a couple of times where I’ve written “Write a Vomit about X” as a task. And so this is the first vomit that I’m writing (or the first in a long while) in response ot a specific “Write a Vomit” task that I’ve set for myself. This slightly contradicts my general principle of being as random as possible with vomits– but I recognize that prior to starting I didn’t really feel like I had anything on my immediate mind that I wanted to write about, and if I didn’t have a cue to work with, I’d just be rambling about rambling or something inane like that. (And here I am anyway, doing a rambling preamble about what I’m about to write.)

So today I want to write about the impulse to write in explanations. Which is an exquisite sort of self-torture– the horrible thing about writing about writing is that you’re going to trip over your own feet over and over again. So here’s advance warning: I’m probably going to be guilty of making the very mistakes that I’m trying to warn against.

Some people argue that one of the most important functions that the human brain does is it constructs narratives. We come up with explanations. We’re storytellers more than scientists. Which might be why we come up with all sorts of silly explanations to things that don’t make sense, and we cling on to them despite contrary evidence. (Maybe. You see why this is hard!)

If you’re a semi-decent writer, you’re probably going to suffer from this as an affliction. You’re going to feel a subconscious impulse to write about things as though they follow in linear steps, in a logical fashion somehow. This happens, and then that happens, and then this happens. That’s the story. The king died, and then the queen died of grief.

The challenge in writing is to come up with things that are accurate. You could be writing fantasy or science fiction, but even then you want to be writing things that are grounded in some sort of reality. Well… not always, I’m being a bit narrativistic here. Things like Twilight and 50 Shades are almost “pure fantasy” in the sense that they’re unlikely to happen in real life.

(This is the point where I realize this vomit is going to end unsatisfyingly, because the amount of work required to write it well is far beyond the capacity of a single vomit by an author who isn’t a specialist in this field. I have to do a lot more reading and a lot more writing to do this justice. So this is going to be crap. But that’s why it’s fun, anyway. So let’s keep going.)

Let me start with a good example, let’s say, Harry Potter. There are all sorts of things in the Harry Potter universe that don’t make sense. I’m not talking about the idea of magic itself, but about how things function. The economy and whatnot. But no writer can really be so accurate as to create an alternate world that’s completely internally consistent. That requires endless, infinite computation. So instead writers settle, like painters do. Instead of painting a perfect photograph, painters paint impressions. (I’m digging myself into a another massive rabbithole here… but try and follow the gist of it without worrying about the exceptions and alternatives. In a meta sense, I am trying to write in impressions, because I’m not capable of writing with perfect accuracy about the problem of writing with perfect accuracy.)

So Harry Potter for example is compelling because it captures certain human emotions quite accurately. From the beginning you sympathize with Harry and his suffering in the broom closet, and his uncertainty and confusion and surprise. All of those feelings are very real, even if they’re happening in a world that’s incredibly unreal. And maybe because we’re primarily social animals, we’re willing to suspend disbelief about blurriness in the background and periphery as long as we have enough detail to focus on that’s accurate. (I found that JK Rowling was really good at friendships and family, but she was terrible at capturing teenage romance– and in those moments everything often felt )

Yeah… I made a mess. Which was to be expected, I’m operating in kinda unfamiliar territory. But I feel like this is important, and this is worth sucking at until I figure out how to be good at it. I’ve seen really smart people– way smarter than me– fall into the trap of writing things that are inaccurate but handwavey-explainy. I do it, I’ve spent way too much of my writing doing it. In fact I think one of the most important things I’ll be doing when I’m editing my vomits will be to look for all the instances where I’m getting overy handwavey-explainy, and open those things up. What plots am I writing about my own life that are far too convenient, far too simple, far too nice-sounding to be true? Cracking open those things will reveal all sorts of intricate complexity and nuance that I haven’t explored yet. And the idea of exploring those things gets me excited, because that’s where the good stuff will be. It might not necessarily be complicated– it might even be really simple. But the critical and important thing will be that it must be true.

So this is a longwinded way of me saying that ultimately, we’re so quick to explain things and to explain ourselves and each other, that in the process we neglect the truth. And to end on a cheesy note, the truth probably doesn’t need a lot of explanation. We just need to be observant. And it’ll sort of reveal itself. There’s a bunch of work that needs to be done, of course. But the first thing is to not be satisfied with simple… ah screw it, I’ve over-sketched in this vomit. I’ll start fresh another time.

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