Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Bull Durham

I led a meeting last night at the UNC SKS, starting with "Crash" Davis' famous "credo" speech. I had never actually watched Bull Durham before, so I figured this would be the time to do it. (I hate it when people reference work that they've never actually read . . . and I always found it miraculously impressive when Terry Gross showed that she actually had read the books of the person she was interviewing, and not just relying on her research assistant.) So I watched it the night before.

My gosh . . . it's been almost 20 years since that movie was released. I had no idea. It ages well, though. You can tell it was made long ago because, even though the story is dominated by sexual themes, you don't see any bare breasts or even so much as Susan Sarandon's cleavage through the whole movie. And the movie's writing itself was rather pointed in ridiculing Nuke's adolescent wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am sexuality, and glorifying the long-slow-wet-kisses-that-last-three-days school of the older, wiser Crash Davis. Here is a movie willing to take its time, to be romantically sly and teasing in an era of flash and skin.

I especially loved the voice-overs of the characters while they were actually playing baseball. I had always heard that baseball was a cerebral and psychological game, but never really understood what that meant until I watched this movie. I had always presumed it was called "cerebral" because of its fixation on statistics, and complex strategy of line-ups and what-not. But what I didn't realize was how much the pitcher and batter were trying so hard to get into each others' heads. Suddenly what I originally took to be a feat of brawn and speed (hitting a homer) was revealed for what it really was -- a struggle of wills and intellects.

Really, the whole movie is a parable about the dynamic tension between mind and body, and mind and soul. "Nuke" starts out all Body; "the gods reached down and turned his right arm into a thunderbolt", but he doesn't have the wit to control it. Crash and Annie are full of brains, but stuggle to control their own minds. Only enough of both will allow any of them to "go to The Show" (move up to the Major Leagues).


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The True, or the Good?

A old discussion on the SKS lists has been revived recently, concerning the question: Is it better to want the Truth, or to want the Good? Is it more noble to want to find the ultimate spiritual reality, or to want to serve the good of humankind?

This is a very classic SKS sort of discussion, because the community is usually full of people in both camps. I remember the very first article I ever read in the Wall Street Journal, sitting in the Cup A Joe coffee shop on Hillsborough Steet: it was about social workers, and it was entitled: "The Genteel Poor." One of the highly educated, poorly-paid workers was quoted: "Knowing what I knew about the people out in the street, I just couldn't sleep at night if I wasn't doing something about it." He was bugged, as we say, and I knew just as many philosophers who would say something to the effect of, "If I didn't know who God was, or even who I was, then what was the point of life at all?"

Of course, both sides know that it isn't an either-or question. Augie has always argued that a desire for the truth always trumps our desire for anything else; we wouldn't opt to take happiness if we knew it was based on lies and falsehood. And its hard to know if you're doing any good at all unless you really know what's really going on: in that sense, serving the Good is always dependent on discovering the True. But not everyone feels the primacy of the Truth the way Augie does; for many, the truth is not much good unless it serves the Good. You have to love the Truth for it's own sake to really see things any other way.

I generally agree with Augie, but there's one part of it that keeps bugging me. Most people, especially those of religious faith, have some kind of personal philosophy that contains both metaphysics (what the world is like, who God is, etc.) and morality (what's the right thing to do). What's most interesting is that the intuitions people have about metaphysics usually aren't nearly as strong as the ones they have about morality. If you press someone about the existence or nature of God, most people will profess some level of ignorance: "I'm not sure if there's a God, though I'm pretty sure there's something." Or, in theological language: "God is a mystery." But if you ask someone whether boiling babies in oil is bad, 99.999% of people will categorically declare that it is morally evil. In neither case can most people articulate why they believe as they believe -- it is an intuition that comes out of the depths of their being. So why is it that we have so little intuition about the True, and plenty of it about the Good? We recognize the right thing to do long before we know the Truth (at least consciously).

So what does that say about us? And the Truth? and the Good? Richard Rose, when asked about the same question, once said, "Be good and good and good and good and good . . . until you find the truth, and transcend goodness." God willing, the truth will come to us . . . in the meantime, we best serve the most obvious and immediate truth, which is simply to love one another.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Fast and Furious

Why does blogging work? I mean, you would think that you would get better quality out of a more thoughtful, careful, selective process of writing, rather than a relentless pace of posting, posting, posting. And yet people do blog about things that don't really require such a ferocious pace of reaction (politics, fashion, TV, etc.) And it still seems to work.

I think it's an extension of the 80-20 rule. The fact is that, most of the time, your first quick draft is going to have most of the value that the work will ever have. Especially in creative works where you're trying to get something unique and unexpected past your internal censors, fast is going to be relatively efficient. Of course there will always be exceptions . . . poetry usually requires a excruciation editing and distillation as well as spontaneous presto style. No one probably ever whacked in a concise explanation about anything. And yet . . . the first is still probably the best, or most of it, anyway.

This is, of course, very bad news for the perfectionists. Or, I should say, um, us perfectionists. I find it particularly galling to realize that significant percentages of my effort at just about everything is probably overkill. In school I had one basic strategy, the strategy of the grind: just spend more time at it than anyone else. In the business world, I found that strategy sucked. I remember countless times when I would be agonizing over some detail or other, or gathering just a little more data on a problem, and then my boss would walk in, ask where I was at, pick up the phone, talk for ten minutes, and have everything wrapped up in no time. Every time that happened I would sit there asking myself, "How did he make that look so easy?" Only later did I learn to say: "Why was I making it so hard?"

There is also the Woody Allen principle: "80% of success is just showing up." We should take heart at the fact that the world does not require perfection, or even anything remotely close to it. The world just requires something from us, right now. And as soon as we get it out there, the world can start giving us its 80% contribution.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Taking credit

I just read in the New Yorker the story of the unravelling of the Poincare conjecture, and all the messy political wrangling that the Chinese mathematician Shing-Tung Yau is going through to seize a bigger chunk of credit, while the Russian Grigori Perelman has refused the Field Medal for his achievement and is trying, with Olympian reserve, to not involve himself in arguments over credit for the proof.

I find such stories to be especially compelling for me, because I have known for some time that I'm an Enneagram Type Three, someone who sees things through the lens of "success," especially in the eyes of others. I know that, in my darker moments, I am more likely to be like Yau than like Perelman. The joy of the work is sometimes subsumed in the consideration of the credit. (One of the reasons I started blogging was to confirm to myself whether I liked the craft of writing as much as I liked the notion of "being a writer.") When I think about my "purpose in life," I find myself struggling with superegoic notions of what I ought to be doing, rather than "following my bliss" or some other squishy internal sense of what I find fulfilling.

It came as a shock to me when I realized that, at some level, I still believe in Heaven. I still think of my life as the "work" part, and that at the end of life, I would get the passing grade and be able to sit back and go, "Ahhhhhhhhhhh," and relax in the pleasure of a job well done and have no more anxieties of needing to do something. And I think most of the Yaus of the world think like that as well . . . at some point, you think you will have done enough to be impeccable -- literally, completely free of the anxiety of not being good enough.

You don't have to be that imaginative to see the hole that this lands you in. Existential anxiety cannot be aussaged on this plane; no amount of relative success or relative security can bring absolute success, absolute security. Only something along the lines of Grace can give you that.

What I've yet to figure out, though, is how to let go of the egoic demands for accomplishment without regressing to the opposite error: the self-centered, self-indulgent demands of mere whim. Because that's certainly where your life's purpose is: when the best part of yourself is engaged in something beyond itself, and because of something beyond its self.