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The Wisdom of Silence in the Age of Online Writing
Why all of us, especially writers, would do well to shut up sometimes
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
The peril and promise of Substack Notes and other social media
A week ago, Substack launched its new “Notes” feature, which you may have heard about, including from me. As the company’s first foray into social media-style interactions, Notes is a kind of Substackified rival to Twitter. I have been using it for several days now and rather enjoying it, since, as a writer with a newsletter on Substack, it enables me to share short ideas, quotes, links, etc., that wouldn’t add up to a full newsletter post but that can still serve to connect with readers and foster enjoyable communication.
As I have used it, and as I have observed the enormous surge of launch-week activity from all kinds of Substack writers, some thoughts have arisen about the necessity of using technologies and services like these with care. Already, a handful of Substack writers have announced after a week of engagement with Notes that they have decided not to use it going forward, both because it is presently unmoderated and because it represents yet another temptation in this age of uber-online-ness to scatter one’s energy and attention into the digital wind. In one of these cases, the writer said she wanted to avoid the inherent gravitational pull of social media toward converting oneself and one’s writing into products to be advertised in search of subscribers and restacks (Substack's version of the retweet).
Writing online in the age of ego addiction
I grok these concerns very deeply. Social media really do carry the inherent risk of colonizing our minds with the virus of hustle and self-promotion. So, for that matter, does all online writing, with its potential for delivering instant feedback on how, and how widely, people are receiving your stuff.
This means it is necessary to make a deliberate practice of focusing on the writing itself as an end and a value in its own right, because the other alternative, which isn’t really so much an alternative as a consequence, is to give free rein to your egoic-addictive craving for attention and validation, and thus become its slave, and more than that, its carrier. What’s needed, in other words, is a Buddhist-like freedom from attachment to the fruits of one’s actions. But the thing is, this is a practice and an ideal that may stand in a position of intrinsic conflict with like buttons, restacks, and eyes on subscriber counts.
The wisdom of silence
As the above matters percolated in my psyche during the past few days, something else came to mind, a unit of wisdom from a winsome but mostly forgotten American sitcom from the early 1990s.
Key West ran for a single season in 1993. It was about a man named Seamus (wittily played by Fisher Stevens) who wins the lottery, abandons his blue collar job, and flees his former life by heading south to Key West, where he hopes to fulfill his lifelong dream of living as a writer like his idol, Hemingway. But what he actually does it to become a reporter for the tiny local newspaper in a town full of kooky characters.
A plot strand in one episode has him incessantly pestering his editor, Roosevelt, to give him a column. Roosevelt is a blind man whom the show frames as a kind of caustic wisdom mentor for Seamus’s “hero’s journey.”
In one key exchange, Roosevelt asks what Seamus thinks he would write about in a column. “Oh, you know,” Seamus replies. “Observations. Insights.”
Roosevelt says, “What makes you think anybody gives a diddly about your observations and insights?”
Seamus, obviously caught off guard, pauses a moment, then says, tentatively, “Well…”
To which Roosevelt replies, “Good answer.”
For all Substackers, bloggers, Tweeters, Facebookers, and everybody else who conducts a life of sharing ideas, information, and “content” online, Roosevelt’s question is well worth pondering. What makes you think anybody gives a diddly about your observations and insights, or anything else that you may choose to share? For many people, your “value add" to their daily experience may not seem all that valuable. In light of this, and to repeat, what’s needed is to do the work for its own sake, as arising out of an authentic inner need, conviction, desire, or direction for doing so. (On this count, I might direct you to my A Course in Demonic Creativity, especially the fourth chapter, “Getting to Know Your Creative Demon.”)
“It is necessary to make a deliberate practice of focusing on the writing itself as an end and a value in its own right. The other alternative is to give free rein to your egoic-addictive craving for attention and validation, and thus become its slave and carrier.”
There was also another key moment in Key West that rewards serious reflection by all of us who would undertake to write publicly and expect other people to read it, and maybe even sign up to receive it, and maybe even, good Lord, pay for it. The moment occurs at the end of the second episode, which is the one in which Seamus actually lands his newspaper job. After freaking out for the whole episode because he has learned that nearly all his lottery winnings are gone, which means his pointedly irresponsible life decisions are now poised to come crashing down on him, Seamus returns to Roosevelt at the newspaper. They have the following interaction, which is worth quoting in its entirety:
“What you need?” Roosevelt asks when Seamus walks through the newspaper's front door.
“I need a job,” says Seamus.
“You ain’t ready to write for this newspaper,” says Roosevelt. “Don’t know enough, boy.”
“I don’t need to write.”
“What you need?”
“I just need to be near the writing. I need to be around it.”
Seamus ends up accepting a job at $4.00 per hour. Roosevelt tosses him a broom and says, “Get to work.”
Seamus begins sweeping the newsroom floor. After a moment, Roosevelt chuckles and says, “You’re gonna learn something, newshound.” Seamus, still sweeping, nods and says, “Yeah.”
Roosevelt leans forward in his chair. “What you learn, newshound?”
Seamus pauses, looks at Roosevelt, and opens his mouth to speak. Then he thinks better of it, shuts his mouth with a slight smile, and returns to sweeping. Roosevelt nods and says, “Keep sweeping, newshound. You may be a writer someday.”
“If we’re meant to write, anything of value that might come from doing it will arise out of an inner attitude and outer practice of silence, not from a frenetic grasping for validation.”
Like Seamus, all of us who are saddled with the desire to write these days may need to have the wisdom to shut up sometimes and just sweep the floor, just devote ourselves to some useful work, however conventionally menial or minor, while we detach and detox from our inner glory hound and listen in silence to the world around us and within us. If we’re meant to write, anything of value that might come from doing it will arise out of that kind of inner attitude and outer practice, not from a frenetic grasping for validation via shares or click counts.
To conclude with a quotation from one of my favorite fictional characters, Kwai Chang Caine, whose pseudo-Buddhist utterances entranced me during my adolescence when I exulted in reruns of Kung Fu on WGN on Saturday afternoons in the 1980s: “If one’s words are no better than silence, one should keep silent.” (In this case he was actually quoting Confucius, but I didn’t know that at the time.) I can’t think of a more countercultural attitude to adopt in the world at large today. I also can’t think of a more deeply beneficent and healing one for writers in particular, including me, to adopt.
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