Epistemic status: n=1
Tagged in: navel-gazing, writing theory,
Note: wow, have I not been posting anything forever. Doesn’t feel especially likely to change, but this post was mostly finished sitting in my drafts. This was written a year ago (!) and I not everything here is still true or agreed with, but I refrain from mangling whatever I was trying to say.
I was catching up with Twig this morning, and came across this passage:
I thought of Mary, and of Gordon, and of Mary and Gordon. I wasn’t really plotting what I was saying, but the words came out anyway, thoughts spilling out as words, more aimless than my usual. “Problem with looking too much at the future, is you can get caught up in enjoying or anticipating what’s down the road. Sometimes you have to live in the now, bring that future to pass.”
It was that particular line “you can get caught up in enjoying or anticipating what’s down the road” that struck me. The impression I imagined was something like a spurious counterfactual, or simply wireheading; getting baited into one source of happiness and not bothering with others.
But, a little thought revealed a rabbit hole to another insight. In Scott’s review of Infinite Jest, he summed up the theme as “the difference between masturbation and sex”, that David Foster Wallace was writing on the necessity of connecting to something outside yourself.
After reading that passage, I think I get it now, at least a little bit.
I think it’s enough of a human universal to assume that most people reading this have fantasized about having or doing something. I’ve fantasized about finally getting around to writing that web serial, and everyone loving it. About finally getting back in the habit or programming, and writing that killer app that everyone loves.
Both of these situations are unrealistic, but the slightly less idealistic cast, writing a decent enough serial that people read and enjoy, writing a decent enough app that people use and enjoy, are not. At the very least, what matters is that I consider them realistic, that if I get up off my ass and preform the necessary actions, I can get the desired outcome, more often than not.
So even if the watered down outcome presented here is unrealistic, I believe otherwise, therefore rationally, I should be trying to obtain these outcomes anyway.
Hold on, let’s go back a moment. Forget everything I profess to want. Is there any reason, barring my own (obviously untrustworthy) testimony, that I should believe I really want to do these things, instead of believing I want them?
The realization I had with the quote from the last section, was that there really isn’t one. Think about why I think I want these things: they would feel good. Being showered with praise for serial or killer app or what-have-you would feel great. Probably. I think it would, that’s what matters.
But. Thinking about doing these things, imagining them having already happened, also feel good. What would motivate me to do those things is if I thought doing them would feel better than imagining them. There might be a contradictory logical spiral in there, where thinking it’d better then what I’m imagining leads to me imagining them being better than I previously imagined, leading to me wireheading in infinite bliss at the prospect of doing something mundane. This doesn’t happen, thankfully.
The short version of this, is simply, fantasizing is oftentimes better than actually doing things, at least in our broken hedonic calculus; if I’m only writing that serial for the feeling of being held in high regard by others, I can just imagine that feeling, and don’t have to deal with the hard work of actually writing, or the inevitable response of criticism or disinterest instead of praise, which would make me feel horrible instead of great.
So what kinds of things do I end up doing? Well, writing this blog is one, and it seems weird that complain about doing one kind of writing and have no problems with the other. But the difference in clear; for the serial, I only desire it for instrumental ends. I want it because of the recognition it would grant me. As for my blog, I’ve technically been blogging for six months, and have had exactly two people read before I switch to wordpress. Two friends I’ve linked myself when something I’d written became relevant. And since switching, I’ve had around seven people who liked something I’d written enough to like it, which being quite appreciated, is still a farcry from the kind of glory you literally dream about.
It’s not at all an original sentiment, but I write for myself. When I started this post, I had no idea how long it will be (still don’t since I have a few more thoughts to share) and had no idea what ground I would cover in it. And that’s the difference. When I write this, the impetus that acts on my fingers isn’t some distant goal of an act of communication, it’s the instantaneous, visceral feeling of pieces clicking into place, of having a nebulous idea acting as your true north, but no idea how you’re going to get from point A to B, and being supremely interested in what you find when and as you get there.
So above all else, it’s about curiosity. I just want to see the sights. What happen when I ask this question? When I write this sentence, what follows?
I write because I have ideas in my heads, and not enough mental scratchspace to work them out.
So when it’s said that you need to connect to something outside yourself, it’s not talking about other people, places or anything of the sort. It’s about grasping at the inaccessible, about playing with uncertainty.
Something is worth doing if in the doing you find out something new. It’s what fun is, in the compression theory of insight. Whether your domain of interest is people, abstract maths, some vaguely philosophical hogwash (see: this blog), what matters is that you are doing it to learn something.
This probably isn’t a one size fits all things, and maybe doesn’t even apply to anyone and this was just an exercise in sophitry. So be it. I take a fox perspective on idea worth. If you have a few handfuls of ideas and good enough intuition of how to tinker with them, you might catalyze something useful. Or maybe not, you never know.