January 27, 2020

Why We Spend Our Brief Lives Indoors, Alone, and Typing

Grappling with the role of writing in the twitchy post-truth world of the modern internet.

Writing about writing feels like a cliché (and one particularly endemic to Medium), but this may be one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read so far this year.

Timothy Kreider has quickly become one of my favourite modern essayists, and in this piece he wrestles with his responsibility as a teacher. Is it fair, he wonders, to lure guileless young people into squandering their passion and talents on a life of letters?”

He worries about the role of writing in modern society, and about the painful transitions his students will face if they succeed in making a career of it:

Anyone who makes the mistake of turning their passion into a vocation gets to watch it turn, like gold transmuting into lead, into a job. You start out motivated by pure, childish things: the pleasure of finding something you do well, of telling stories or making jokes. You’re driven by the same fear that drives magnates and despots: the approaching deadline of mortality, the dreadful urgency to make something to prove you were here. These motives gradually get buried under geological layers of bullshit—reputation, recognition, self-image, money—until every airport bookstore becomes a warped hall of mirrors confronting you with your own insecurity, petty jealousies, and resentment.

It’s his student, of course, who helps validate his efforts:

After all my worrying about what to tell Kate, it turned out it was up to her to tell me. Somehow most people are taught that Art is a way to distract from the terror,” she wrote me, when in fact I think it is the only way to get through it at all.” In other words, all my arguments for writing’s futility are in fact arguments for its necessity…What she and I share is that foolish, ineradicable belief in art and the written word: That there is such a thing as truth, and that it matters when it’s spoken, even if no one listens.

Timothy’s writing was a relatively recent discovery, and it was a joyous one. There’s nothing quite like encountering a talented writer and realizing you now have the opportunity to explore more of their work.

If you enjoyed this essay, you’ll probably enjoy this other great piece by him too.


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