Writing Inspiration: Reading

Paradoxically, reading is simultaneously one of the biggest obstacles to my writing while also being an absolute requirement for it.

Given a choice between these activities, I will choose reading nine times out of ten. Reading is my default setting. It seems to operate on my mind in the same way that mental states like meditation and dreaming are purported to work. When you're meditating, the aim is to let thoughts flow through your mind, to not hold onto them and just watch them go by. When I'm engrossed a good book, the thoughts flow by this way; I'm in the moment within the story. Both dreaming and meditation are supposed to be "resets" for your mind, a way to clear out all the garbage we hold onto and perhaps become anxious and depressed about. Reading takes you outside of yourself, invests you in situations and problems that are not your own for a while.

If I don't read for a couple of days, I start to become irritable in a similar way that I do if I haven't had enough sleep or exercise recently. If I don't have a book in my bag or beside my bed with a bookmark keeping my place, I don't feel grounded. And carrying home a big stack of books from the library gives me the same sense of satisfaction as getting lots of good things to eat at the grocery store; it's the sense that my larder is full, and I can count on being nourished for the near future.

And that's the crux of it: reading is the nourishment that allows me to write. You have to fill the cup before you can drink from it.

It absolutely astonishes me how little most people read. I suppose since it's so integral to my life, I can't imagine that it isn't that way for everyone. It's easy to blame the Internet; even with that satisfying stack of books piled next to my bed, I often find myself enticed into scrolling through nonsense articles on my phone rather than getting engrossed a book. That goes on until a vague sense of irritation begins and I realize that I'm not doing what I want to do and that what I'm doing is an inferior experience; it's like I'm filling up on Nerds while a big, juicy steak grows cold beside me.

I'm not saying that everything that one can read on the Internet is empty, sugary garbage. I'm just saying that most of it is, and it seems to be proliferating. If 'you are what you eat,' then as a writer you are what you read. Many people who write on the Internet read on the Internet. And I would argue that the format itself, the speed at which it can be tossed off—largely unconsidered and typically unedited—contributes to not only the decline of quality of thought, but to a destruction of peace of mind.

Neil Postman wrote about this in Amusing Ourselves To Death in 1985. He talked about how 'form excludes content,' the concept that different kinds of media can only sustain certain levels of ideas. He referred mostly to TV and to the fact that television news was becoming 'entertainment.' This was long before the current juggernaut of the 24-hour news cycle, the pervasiveness of unearned celebrity in the form of reality television, and the Internet's inundation of content for content's sake, but is prescient about the consequences of the early indicators that, through a dilution of discourse, we might be heading in that direction. In the Introduction to the book, he writes about the possibility that when it came to dystopian views of our future, we feared the wrong thing:

"We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's
Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in
Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right."

If you look at the current state of writing, or, 'content development' as it is now termed by the marketers, you can see that Postman and Huxley were right. We are drowning in a sea of irrelevance, in the form of memes and 'listicles,' thoughtless opinion pieces and incendiary tweets that are attention-seeking rather than thought-provoking, that are aimed at generating 'traffic' and 'likes' rather than mature discourse or insightful reflection. I can't think of better words to describe the consequences of people's constant checking of Facebook than 'reduced to passivity and egoism.'

The articles I read on the Internet, even when they purport to be think-pieces about important subjects like politics or science, are often so disappointingly pointless. They are not well thought out or organized, or containing anything but regurgitated soundbytes and buzzwords that can be re-linked back to other articles that say essentially the same (no)thing as per SEO best practices. They do not refine anyone's thoughts or enhance anyone's lives. If anything, they increase the division of our attention and promote anxiety; it cultivates the feeling that you're missing out, and how can you possibly click on all of the branching links to get the full picture and context of the discussion? You can't. Because there isn't any context, and there isn't really a discussion. Readers of this type of 'content' are not filled with knowledge or even—though they more are highly prized in our society compared to knowledge or the ability to reason—facts. They only thing people seem to be filled with is outrage, which the comments section provides an arena to thoughtlessly vent, thereby fomenting further outrage in others.

We've become a society of people who are so addicted to attention and stimulation that we are all talking at once. No one is listening to each other, or even, it seems, to themselves.

I don't believe that all books are better than all writing on the Internet. Frankly, it seems like most of the books coming out these days are either memoirs of reality stars, which are essentially ghost-written prequels to their TV shows and tabloid stories, or compilations of popular Tumblrs. And in the world of 'serious' nonfiction, there is certainly a fair share of the same fanatic, gushy dreck that you can find for free online. Fiction, too, is a playground for market-driven, formulaic books from writers who have somehow convinced themselves that they are reaching some sort of po-mo transcendence by subverting the art of storytelling through technology and new media, but who, like everyone else, have merely placed another offering on the altar of the cult of Look At Me.

However, there is something in the form of a book that requires a deeper commitment to denying distraction. It requires attention and memory retention and focus. It requires the reader to approach the author's ideas as something to be digested and weighed against his own perceptions and understanding of the world, rather than approaching them as clickbait or a product to be consumed and then flaunted—I mean 'shared'—with one's social media circle.

Reading books makes one a better thinker, and being a better thinker can make one a better writer, one that is more considerate of priorities. Reading good writers also improves one's writing. The community of 'content creators' online needs to take a step back and consider what they are writing, and whether it is contributing anything—not to the conversation, as in, idle chatter, but to discourse, as in meaningful discussion of things that actually matter. They also need to consider what they are reading, to commit to nourishing themselves with quality stories and ideas. It will inspire us all to become better writers.

Writing Inspiration: Nature

Nature is a necessity.

Humans have some basic needs. Food, water, and shelter are the fundamental biological needs without which we will die. But to go beyond mere survival, to be whole, there are some psychological needs that must be fulfilled. Nature is one of these. It may be one of the most important and it is also one of the most neglected.

In his essay Wordsworth in the Tropics, Aldous Huxley distinguishes between the tame, cultivated Nature of the English country garden (the virtues of which are extolled by Wordsworth) and true Wilderness which, although "marvelous, fantastic, beautiful", can also be "foreign, appalling, fundamentally and utterly inimical to intruding man". It is "alien to the human spirit and hostile to it."

At minimum, I believe access to Nature is a requirement for a worthwhile, healthy, sane life. The thought of living in an urban highrise with a view of only other skyscrapers is hellish to me. To only allow my feet to touch concrete and never dirt, moss, fallen leaves, or sand; to only be exposed to fluorescent lighting and climate-controlled air and never feel sun or rain or breeze on my skin; to see only manmade shapes with everything at right angles and never to let my eyes wander among the intricacies of bark on tree limbs or rest in the symmetry of leaves; to constantly be exposed to the din of human life and enterprise and never the tranquil lull of birdsong or the near-silent hush of an empty field at night is to become malnourished, deformed, and demented.

One can live a life in the city and fall into a pattern in which there is almost never a chance to be exposed to Nature. Or one can find small ways to incorporate Nature into even an urban lifestyle (Lyanda Lynn Haupt wrote a good book about this called The Urban Bestiary). The key is finding the right balance; the ideal being to live in a place that is suffused with Nature while providing the necessary infrastructure for our modern lives and also having relatively fast and easy access to Wilderness.  

Even when I have access to Nature, I still crave Wilderness. Wilderness may be, as Huxley says, alien and hostile to the human spirit, but that may be exactly what makes it inspiring. It pushes us to a realm of non-human concerns and forces us outside of ourselves, making room inside of us for the transcendent. Wilderness seems to be where what is left of the magic in the world still resides. Yes, it is wild and dark and uncontrollable. But belonging to a culture in which we have sanitized and motorized and categorized everything into marketing verticals, we need to expose ourselves to the wild to remind ourselves that we are animals, too. We must not neglect that animal part of ourselves because it is part of what makes us human. Without it, we become frighteningly like robots.

A hike in the woods, a kayak trip down a river, or an afternoon on a lake in a canoe. These are essential escapes for me as a writer because they are necessary for me as a human being. Without them, my life becomes unbalanced in ways that nullify any efforts at creation. You can't make something when you are empty.  In Nature and in Wilderness, I find endless inspiration. Describing the beauty and capacity for solace as well as the vast, irrational, frightful quality that inspires terror and dread is probably the main subject and theme of most of what I write. Writing and storytelling are how humans make sense of our lives and our place in the universe. That exploration is inseparable from Nature and requires the perspective upheaval caused by encountering Wilderness.

For further reading on the importance of our connection to Nature and Wilderness, I highly recommend the writings of John Muir and Rachel Carson. You can also find other books on the subject on my Goodreads Wilderness shelf.