Writing wrongs

“What could I be wrong about?” 

The first underlined word, “could”, is there in place of “am”. To ask yourself what you are wrong about is nonsensical. No one willingly maintains a state of wrongness. If you know you’re wrong, you change your mind, right? But by using “could” instead of “am” you’re merely considering the possibility that you may be wrong. This makes it less likely that you’re ego will hiss and spit, and therefore it becomes possible to actually explore the answer.

The second underlined word, “wrong”, is notable for what it compels you to consider. To explore what you could be wrong about you have to take account of what you think you are right about. That may seem like a simple exercise, but try it. In reality, it’s difficult to articulate exactly what you think is right and true. Believe me, this whole writing endeavour is a consequence of my attempt to do just that.

But aren’t there better ways than writing to figure out what you think is right and discover what you think is wrong? Not really. Sure, you can test the rightness of an idea by acting in reality. Say you think that treating people like dirt and stabbing them in the back is the best way to clamber up whatever hierarchy you want to conquer. You can test the rightness of that conviction by being a nasty, mean, cruel, scheming douchebag. Pretty quickly, the consequences of your actions will reinforce that belief or dispel it. But not all thoughts and beliefs are so easily and rigorously tested by reality. For beliefs that are abstract in nature and irreducible to a testable action, some form of articulation and expression must suffice. Writing is the most common and the most stringent, but other creative acts like drawing, painting and making music can have a similar function.

Speaking from personal experience, writing has been, and continues to be, a transforming act. It has helped me understand and evolve existing beliefs, as well as generate and synthesise new ones. Of course, there are people who subscribe to and oppose that view. Ryan Holiday kinda-opposes it. Recently, he answered the questions,  “How many words a day do you produce, or try to produce? How much of that ever sees the light of day?”

“I don’t know if I have an answer to that. I definitely try to eliminate wasteful writing preemptively. That is, I’m not writing to figure out what I have to say. I want to know what I am trying to say and writing is merely putting it down. If I write 60,000 words for a manuscript’s first draft, I want it to end up, in published form at, say 55,000 words. Meaning I am not having to cut a bunch of stuff that I could have avoided writing in the first place. I want editing to be a matter of tightening—not jettisoning. I definitely will re-write a big chunk of those 55,000 words, almost sentence by sentence, but I think of all my books I’ve had like maybe one “bonus” chapter I didn’t know what to do with after.

A really good day for me is maybe 2,000 words. But I suppose if I didn’t have my approach, I could write a lot more. It’s much easier to vomit words on the page, it’s harder to spit out polished prose—but that’s what I am trying to do. Writing to think is terribly inefficient, I think. I shudder at the fact that Robert Caro cut 250,000 words out of the Power Broker (written by hand no less!). He could have given us another edition in the LBJ series! But to each their own, to each their own.”

I agree that “writing to think is terribly inefficient.” But it’s also one of the only practises through which we can both discover and examine the make up of our thoughts. For example…

When I asked myself, “What could I be wrong about?”, I realised that I don’t really know what I’m right about. I have no idea. Not fully-formed ones anyway. Just fuzzy outlines and subtle hints. And I’m no special specimen of the human race. My powers of perception and analysis, and the engine that drives them, are of no difference from ninety-percent of people on this spinning rock. But as a consequence of this question, of writing what I could be wrong about, I’ve figured something out. One single, small, lonely thing that I think is correct; most people, me included, don’t know what they think.