A Very Deep Well

Thursday, November 04, 2010

A couple of years ago, upon re-reading The Art of Non-Fiction, I posted about my amazement at Ayn Rand's ability to see the relationship between philosophical issues one would not ordinarily see as related, and then apply such connections to the craft of writing. In particular, I was impressed with the connection she drew between a common implicit premise, determinism, and a common writing mistake that can basically cripple a writer.

I'm making my way through the book again -- and it's happening again! Things I missed the first couple of times are leaping at me from the page this time around. Here's just one example, which I encountered yesterday while waiting at the doctor's office:

It is improper to address yourself to a faulty psycho-epistemology. Devising a rational method to address the irrational is a contradiction. If some of your readers are irrational, there are no principles by which to decide what they will choose to hear, what they will not, and what connections they will make. Neither you nor the evader can predict what he will miss and what he will integrate. That is in the nature of irrationality.

... Do not make allowances for readers' mental weaknesses. For example, do not tell yourself: "I'm saying something new or antagonistic -- how can I prevent their minds from closing? How can I soften the blow?" If you ask such questions, you will only paralyze your own mind by attempting the impossible. You cannot reach a mind that chooses to be closed or is so incapacitated that even if, momentarily, it wanted to integrate properly, it could not. Such a mind lacks the capacity of full focus, and is the proper concern only of a psychotherapist. In all dealings with people, you have to deal with their conscious minds. [link added]
I first became aware of this kind of issue during a difficult time in my life many years ago, but was recently reminded of it when answering a comment.
[They] would sit around and listen to the words that left my mouth, ignoring their context and assigning their own politically correct meanings to the individual words. Then, when I said something they deemed sufficiently outrageous (i.e., thought they could get away with as an excuse to attack me), they'd all pounce on me.

For example, I once had the temerity to use the term "girl" to describe a woman I was interested in dating. The whole hour-long session was then wasted as it morphed into an attack on me for being insensitive! I spoke about this with a few female friends of mine later, all of whom agreed that what I'd said was not unreasonable, and that the group was completely out of bounds.
Clearly, communication in such a circumstance was impossible. (And if I had tried, I am sure they would have found another "reason" to indulge in their favorite sport.) I found better ways to make use of my time.

And if walking on such eggshells is hard to do in normal conversation, imagine the kind of mental paralysis attempting to do the same thing while writing could cause!

And ditto for evaluating criticism of one's published work. (I don't know whether Rand gets around to this.) Is such criticism objective? Is it worth taking into account?

That last question just occurred to me. I already run finished work by my wife before submitting it for publication as a check on how well I have communicated something for a general audience. I now have a standing order to myself to check any significant criticism my work may receive in the same way -- just as I did the puzzling "reviews" I received for the single word that left my lips way back when.

A German physicist once said, "A book is a mirror: If an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to look out." This is a rather harsh and misanthropic way of putting my point, which I would render in the following, more positive way: "A book is like an investment: The better-prepared you are to make it, the more likely it will be to pay off well."

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

"A book is a mirror: If an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to look out."

I believe that Tom Lehrer had a variation of this which he attributed to a depressed friend of his. "Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it."

c. andrew

Then he offered this "revival" song about the ending of the world.


Gus Van Horn said...


Hah! I remember that quote (and love Tom Lehrer. Thanks for reminding me of that one.


kelleyn said...

Thanks again, Gus--that example has turned out to be relevant to multiple issues. I've let people go from my life, and essentially cut off all meaningful communication with some others with whom I am entangled, and now I can fully explain why. I've wasted so much of my life on futile conversations in which the other participant(s) either honestly failed or outright refused (I usually couldn't tell which, and ultimately, it didn't matter) to understand what I was trying to communicate. The more of my inner resources I sank into that lost cause, the more my self esteem suffered.

I believed, as I was often told (once explicitly by a professor of technical writing, to the entire class during a lecture), that if my communication failed it was my own fault. There was always something more that the deliverer of the message could have done, supposedly, and to "blame" the intended receiver showed a lack of responsibility. How was the receiver not a human being, I wondered?

I've caught myself making this mistake when coding, too. I've agonized over every little thing from the purpose of my program to indentation style on the assumption I could prevent all unfair criticism (which we all know never happens among programmers ;-). I'm grateful for the time I will no longer waste going down that rabbit hole.

Gus Van Horn said...

You're welcome, kelleyn.

It can be hard to see where the responsibilities of one person end and those of the other begin in communication. I have always found -- and not just with that problem -- that getting feedback from more than one source is very often quite helpful. Even if everyone you seek out essentially agrees, you can get multiple perspectives, anyway.