Sun Jun 7

As far as I can tell, there are three major reasons to write.

  1. To help people
  2. To get things you want without having to do patient hard work
  3. Because you're a lonely egotistical maniac who just can't shut up

Let's go in order I guess. Writing actually doesn't help people that much. The primary benefits of good writing seem to be 1) distracting or entertaining people for a while, or 2) priming their subconscious with "good" ideas that have a small chance of floating into their mind later to influence them in a positive way.

Of these, the entertainment value seems like the clearest net positive. There's nothing wrong with good entertainment, besides being distracting if the reader is trying to procrastinate on something important. With all this cognitive surplus we have in the modern age, and distressingly few outlets to channel it into something productive, I have to say that I'm pro entertainment. We honestly don't have enough good entertainment, which leads people to derive "entertainment" from things which actually should be important and thoughtful (like politics).

Benefit 2 is extremely tricky. In general, there are a great many positives from having and sharing good ideas. But actually executing this on purpose is basically impossible for humans. For starters, your ideas might not actually be good; they could be bad ideas. Even if you're expressing good things, they could come at the wrong time. Your intentions could be noble, but the reader might be pissed off at some subtle political connotation in your writing, so they associate your "good" thought as being a "bad" thought; propaganda from the enemy team (this happened for me with a lot of Social Justice content in my early 20s).

Most of all, it's just not your place. Writing can have an incredibly strong influence on people, especially young minds. Writing necessarily violates the first principle of the Hippocratic oath; that of doing no harm. There is no surgical way to influence people positively through writing. (Silly example from my life; I was obsessed with Paul Graham in college, while I was studying computer science. Paul Graham is great. But he influenced me so much that I got pissed off with everyone around me, dropped out of college, and moved to San Francisco, where I spent a lot of time in misery and never even came close to founding a startup. Smh.)

In short, writing can be good, but it cannot be perfect. "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." - James 1:17.

There is a third type of benefit people seem to get from writing, which is the whole genre of books and media that try to tell you directly what to think and how to behave. I never got much value from this stuff and I don't really understand it, but it seems to be popular -- in my estimation about 95% of books and essays seem to have a kind of "do as I say and then things will be good for you" flavor to it; 7 Habits Of Highly Effective Teens, 12 Rules For Life, etc. C'est la vie; if people enjoy it, good for them. I personally choose to avoid this stuff where possible.

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Why else do people write? To get things they want without having to do hard work.

A lot of romantics learn to play guitar or write poetry to help them get laid. Businesspeople publish books on business so they can demonstrate to other business business-ers how business-y they are about business. Politicians and activists publish manifestos so they get votes and support. (You can actually tell a lot about what a person/party stands for just by reading them; I liked Andrew Yang when he was on the Joe Rogan podcast, but it wasn't until I read The War on Normal People that I was like "holy crap this guy is serious").

Art in general works because it is a display of talent, of understanding, of having a grasp on things, and (usually) a signal of the discipline and free energy it requires to learn, practice, and hone a challenging skill. Finally, it demonstrates the commitment to publish a beautiful, polished artifact.

Writing is different from other artistic skills because, while it does require talent, it doesn't actually require too much discipline to churn out something that resonates with people strongly. It does require a lot of reading and writing, but it still doesn't need the sort of rote boring practice as, say, learning to play piano, or painting on canvas. You can just read a lot willy-nilly and poop out dumb thoughts to a journal over a couple of years and become decent enough at it to get a bunch of likes on the social medias.

It kind of feels like a cheat code, to be honest. Good writing hijacks your attention and draws you in in ways that are, frankly, a bit rude. Humans are just highly susceptible to words and language in general -- most don't realize how little information is actually encoded in messages, and when you compress a lot of "good" ideas into a short space, it can potentially have a sort of hypnotic effect. If done with ill intent, the results can be disastrous (or even with good intent; see above).

It's these properties of writing as an art form; strong effect, little discipline needed; that breed into you over time a very thick layer of skepticism toward people that are suspiciously good at words. Older people understand this better than I do; it's deeds, not words, that warrant trust and admiration from people who want something from you, or that you want to build some kind of relationship with.

The best way you can get "what you want" out of reading and writing is just by getting a sense for who someone is. Personal accounts are infinitely better than abstract ideas in this regard. But even then, unless someone is extremely prolific and has written a lot, you still can't fully trust the slice of experience they're deciding to share with you. Prolificness is a really key indicator though; I've met never met him, but I strongly assume that Stephen King is a generally good guy -- if only because he's clearly too busy writing all those damn books to get up to no good elsewhere in his life.

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Finally, people write because they're a "lonely egotistical maniac who can't shut up". Okay, I'm being a little harsh here.

I say "lonely" because, well, it's usually not worthwhile to produce good art if you're healthily engaged in performing duties and maintaining relationships that you're supposed to be doing. If you're not writing because you want something specific, or out of a misguided sense of helping people, you're doing it because you just have thoughts and you need to express them, dammit; you feel compelled to, even when you suspect it might be a bad idea.

It can be because there are few people who understand you enough to feel like you're fully expressing yourself in the web of relationships that keep you sane, grounded, and human. It can be because you've had a lot of "interesting experiences" (see postlude 2) that you still need to wrestle with. (Therapy is probably better than writing for this purpose, but finding a good therapist is basically "as NP-hard" as connecting to other lonely people through the written word). Flatly, I think Soren Kierkegaard puts it best:

"What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music...

And the people crowd around the poet and say to him: "Sing again soon!" -- in other words, may new sufferings torture your soul, and may your lips continue to be formed as before, because your screams would only alarm us, but the music is charming."

Secondly, "egotistical". I actually have no idea what an ego is. Everyone has too much of an ego, but also they have too little. Is ego your whole self, or just a part of yourself? I honestly have no clue, and I don't care; not my area of expertise, and also it's probably a stupid question. (For what it's worth, the best definition of ego I've heard is from my dad; ego just means "edge God out").

I think what most people mean when they say someone is "egotistical" is just that they're not being humble. Being humble is super hard; I'm not very good at it, but try to practice it every day. I don't really have any advice for being humble, other than constantly acknowledging that you're actually just not very cool, you're not very smart, and you're about as powerful as a cute little snapping turtle in the grand scheme of things.

I say "maniacal" because writing is actually just a little mentally challenging. It actually does require grit, courage, and deep spiritual soundness. Writing about personal things that are important to you makes you vulnerable. If you record what's happening in your head onto a paper or a screen, you're giving everybody else a window into your soul. In general, this is a very bad idea! Maybe you need to have exactly one screw loose to pull it off correctly, reaping the benefits while minimize harm (to yourself and others). It can be very slightly scary sometimes, which is why most writers who do it a lot don't write about very personal stuff, or do it only rarely.

This gets glorified way too often, IMO; I am extremely for having all of your screws completely tightened at all times, and getting too personal too often is just flatly a little ugly. If producing good art requires you to be a little crazy, choose sanity every time. I will say this; in the best version of producing excellent art of any kind, you do it to honor God.

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Anyway, those are some of my thoughts on writing. Thank you for reading. And sorry if I hijacked your attention; as stated, it is rude and I apologize.

If you're curious, here's a short list of writers who have influenced me deeply over the course of my life:

To most of them, I express the deepest gratitude. To others, I say "fuck you". Still not really sure which is which.

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