I Don’t Know The Answer

“Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.”—Bertrand Russell, The Best Answer to Fanaticism—Liberalism

The more I blog, the larger my body of work grows. Which is beneficial for so many reasons—writing practice, thinking practice, personal growth, future book material, reference material, notoriety, community, etc. But a large body of work also comes with a cost: I can’t hide from myself.

Everything I share on this blog comes from my own research and my personal experience. But over time, I am inconsistent. Advice I’ve shared before will, to the savvy and long-time reader, contradict what I share in the future. Contexts change. Beliefs change.

So what do I do? Ignore new findings? Bury the old advice? Post with the hope you’ve forgotten what I wrote last year? Compare and contrast? Add nuance? Throw it all out there and let you clean up the mess?

The particular piece of advice that sent me down this path comes from NYT opinion columnist David Brooks (on the Conversations with Tyler [Cowen] podcast):

“Writing for me is not typing into the keyboard. It’s crawling around on the floor, organizing my piles [of notes]. And the lesson for my students, which they ignore, is that your paper should be 80 percent done by the time you sit down and type it because writing is about structure and traffic management. If you don’t get that right, everything else will flow badly.”

This snippet stood out because it mirrors the way I typically write. Before I start typing a blog post (or research paper or book), I spend a lot of time organizing my notes and quotes. I can’t think of the last article that didn’t start it’s life as chicken scratch in my notebook.

my notebook has no answer

But sharing this advice, nodding my head at it, puts me at odds with…myself. I’ve written many times about writing as a process of discovery. I’ve told you to write with no clue where your piece will end up. I’ve told you to be open to twists and turns along the way. I’ve told you if your outline is too rigid, you end up cutting off avenues of exploration and insight.

So who’s right? Me? Or me?

In his blog post, Wearing Many Hats, Austin Kleon declines to answer the question of whether you should pursue one passion deeply or dabble in several. Instead, he shares three contradictory quotes, back-to-back, and leaves it up to the reader to decide for themselves.

austin kleon wearing many hats

When I read that post, I was disappointed. I was looking for The Answer™. But I didn’t get it. Instead, Kleon was asking me to think for myself. To look at how others have approached the problem, to figure it out on my own. At the end of the day, there probably isn’t even one True Answer™.

That made me think of Agnes Callard’s take on philosophy:

“It is not the point of philosophy to end philosophy, to ‘solve’ the deep questions so that people can stop thinking about them. It is the point of people to think about these questions,and the job of the philosophers to rub their faces in that fact.”

As with philosophers and their philosophical questions, it’s probably not my job to “solve” the creative process.

Instead, I should live with the contradictions. And I should give you more credit. If you read this blog every week, you’re the kind of person who isn’t afraid to think for yourself. You know creativity is a process each of us have to figure out on our own.

I don’t have The Answer™. But I do have the question.

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