We write for others like ourselves

I don’t know why I share the things I think.

I write a lot of my thoughts privately, in journals and notes, and I share most of these things seldom, with maybe only close friends and family members.

But then I also post some of these thoughts online. I also sometimes email ideas or even jokes to my co-workers, many of whom won’t be interested in the ideas or may not get the jokes.

Probably, most of what I say is of interest only to people whose minds think like mine does, and then only a subset of those people will be interested in what I say at the time they encounter what I say.

Communication is hard.

The textbooks say there are three main purposes to nonfiction communication: to entertain, to persuade, or to inform. These are bullshit, of course, for all but the most formal communications; I usually only think “this interests me, and may interest others” before I say or write something to others, and this “interest” might be some combination of all three purposes, or may be beyond those three. I’m not even sure it matters why I say a thing — I may not even be aware of why I express a thing before I say or write it. (After all, we don’t even have to mean all that we say. Or, as happens to me during a free-write, I may say something before I know if I mean it or not.)

And once I’ve said a thing, I don’t know that it matters to me whether others find what I’ve said interesting or not. Sure, it’s fun to make others laugh, or to receive a “that’s interesting” response, but it’s not like I’ll stop sharing things online even when I get very little response.

I don’t, and can’t, know how others really feel about my sayings or writings. Very often, when we’re around others, they don’t want to receive my “sayings” or “writings” at all — I’m learning that some ideas and messages fail to be interesting when I ask a person to read them in front of me. We need silence, separateness, for these things. We need to encounter certain messages when their authors aren’t around.

And then, as readers, how are they to respond? They may respond with a positive comment, or a critical one, or no response at all. Some of the things I’ve read that have had the most influence on my thinking are things that settled in over time, that resonated and stayed with me for months. Eventually I may write a letter to that author, saying, well, what? That “your work has been influential to me”? That’s nice, but … but what if what authors really want is my money rather than my praise?

This may be why promoting a piece of writing, or maybe promoting any artwork, seems kinda silly. (Here’s an example of someone trying to promote Bruce Springsteen, which seems difficult. How can you argue someone into sharing your taste?) An author or marketer can promise that a book is a thrilling read, or an incredible story, or is thought-provoking — but the reaction to an artwork is ever and always particular to the reader. Some readers may feel thrilled or provoked, while others are not. It’s to this first group I write, I guess, and yet, I may be writing to those who are similar to me in outlook, in thinking habits. I want to write to others who aren’t like me (maybe so they will better understand me?), and I want to read the writings of those who aren’t like me, so that I may understand a different perspective, and yet, if the writer and reader are too different, there may not be the basis for communication. I tend not to like reading self-help or positive-thinking books (as one of my brothers does), and that’s just not something I’m gonna connect with. It feels too different (it doesn’t share my philosophical values and/or assumptions) and I’m not gonna learn from it.

And I find myself feeling this way, at times, around some of my small-town neighbors, who are much more engaged by football, hunting, and Polaris jackets than I am. Of course, it’s not that I couldn’t do these things myself, but from an early age, I’ve sorta seen (whether from an emotional need or an intellectual disconnect, or both, or a nature-and-nurture combination) myself as different from those I grew up with, and so I have avoided small-town culture (such as it is) on principle.

So I tend to make friends with others who avoid small-town culture, many of whom have left the small towns (thus I’m a little like Gonzo the Great in the first Muppet movie, who says he’s gonna try to become a big film star but not in Hollywood. Also, I’m someone who references both Unte magazine and Gonzo the Great — not that that makes me a great person, but that these references come to my mind naturally, it’s not always easy to communicate with others who don’t catch these references, don’t share at least some of my patterns of mind). This makes me aware that most of my neighbors don’t give a crap about my interests — as Annie Dillard says, writing is beyond the pale — and it makes me wonder whether most writers felt understood outside of a small group of other writers.

Watching a PBS documentary about James Baldwin the other day, I realized that most of the people praising him were fellow writers, rather than people from society in general. No doubt there were even people in his own family who didn’t like everything Baldwin wrote. (Baldwin says he became a writer against the wishes of his father, who wanted Baldwin to be a preacher, which he did before becoming a writer). If our neighbors and families don’t appreciate our ideas, our talents (and why would they, other than out of “tribal” pride? Just because we live near someone or share DNA with someone doesn’t mean they’ll share our mental life.), we need to seek like-minded others, and we will be valued by those whom we value, those by whom we want to be valued.

Of course, this narrowness would seem to question the whole idea of fame, and even, for writers, being canonized. Being liked by those who are already like us doesn’t seem like such a worthy accomplishment. It could be all accomplishments are bullshit, of course, as they are either A) easy/natural for us to do, or B) mainly accidental (being in the right place at the right time and simply reacting), and C) our value, our dignity, as human individuals can’t rest on accomplishment, anyway.

Maybe wanting to share, wanting to be understood, even wanting acclaim, are just emotional or psychological needs that can’t be further dissected.

I write because I find the engaged-in-writing mind to be very satisfying. I share writings with others because, I guess, of a hope that others might feel they can, by reading, recognize or commune with a like-mind, a like-mind that stretches their understanding in ways their minds are ready to be streched — and that I would likewise benefit from having my writing be meaningful to others.

I feel I need to end this post, thought I don’t quite feel I’ve broken through to a deeper idea or understanding here. That happens too, sometimes.

Addition:  Several years ago, my wife and I were swimming at a glacial lake in California when we saw a man tell his children to wash their hair with shampoo in the seemingly pristine water. He said something preemptively defensive about how the environmentalists wouldn’t like them using shampoo. We couldn’t think of anything to say to the man that we thought would work to change his mind and his actions.

Not that this was a big deal — it was just shampoo, not toxic waste — but this incident has come to mind lately as an example of how it might not really be possible to argue someone into changing his/her mind. People probably have to be receptive to other viewpoints, willing to change their mind, or else they get defensive and more-resolute in their views. Perhaps arguing a point, trying to convince someone of your point of view, only works when the audience hasn’t already decided one way or the other, like our jury system. Both sides in a trial try to convince unbiased jurors — if the plaintiff had to convince the defendant, or vice versa, in order to bring the trial to a conclusion, surely that’d make decisions more difficult.

2 responses to “We write for others like ourselves

  1. You wrote “I write because I find the engaged-in-writing mind to be very satisfying.” I, too, post my images because I find the ‘engaged-in-photographing mind’ to be self-fulfilling as well. Often, the images I like the most, the ones I know have been the most difficult to capture, are glossed over by viewers.

    • Good point. I’ve noticed that, too — that I’m not always a good judge of what other people will like, and that the amount of effort a project doesn’t correlate to the amount others enjoy it!

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