Blithe Spirits and Heavy Souls
Learning an experiential posture for the Permaweird
This essay is part of the Protocol Narratives series
I posted this thought on Bluesky a couple of weeks ago:
Vaguely unhappy with all my writing this year. Very low dopamine even where I objectively assess a piece to be good.
This has been a recurring and new kind of problem for me in the last couple of years. I’m not blocked, or technically unhappy with the kind of writing I’m putting out. It isn’t as full of what Sarah Perry labeled insight porn as it used to be, but that’s by design. Insight porn is no longer fun to do, and the environment isn’t right for it.
The problem is, the kind of writing I am choosing to do is vaguely unsatisfying. Not in an “I need to stop doing this” way, but more of a “the endocrine circuitry and muscle memory around this behavior isn’t tuned right” way. The fingerspitzengefühl is off. While I can still find flow, in the sense of being able to spend hours writing at what feels like the edge of my skill, it is harder to feel flow. The vibe is off. I’m “not feeling it.” It feels like more of a grind.
As I’ve argued in recent essays, the problem isn’t with me or my aging brain, it’s the world that’s messed up, and the particular way it manifests in my life is as writing feeling unsatisfying. The reason I’m talking about this inside-baseball narrow phenomenon, which probably doesn’t directly interest non-writers, is that I hope some of the insights generalize to other activities, including whatever happens to dominate yours.
Writing today feels hard in the same way eating right on a day I want to just eat junk food feels hard. Or in the way making myself go to the gym on a day when I’m “not feeling it” feels hard. Both are obviously things I should do, and feel good to get done (and bad to not do), but neither is actually fun to do. If I succeed, I feel I’ve improved my general level of discipline, and experience a kind of detached satisfaction about it, but not any kind of visceral pleasure. If I fail, it feels like a deeper kind of failure than an isolated moment of weakness. It feels like failure to be properly oriented in the world. Like I’ve failed because I have the wrong attitude.
With eating and exercising, it’s merely a case of having the wrong attitude towards my personal life, but giving up on a draft essay today feels like a sign that I have the wrong attitude towards the world. The wrong kind of presence in it. The wrong posture. And persisting, which would have felt like perverse masochism when writing flowed more easily, feels like the right thing to do to get to the right posture.
Exercising and eating well make for good comparisons. Unlike with writing, these were never natural behaviors for me. I’m physically lazy, not very athletic, and enjoy my junk food. When I was younger, physical activity was enjoyable and easy enough I could “get into it,” even if I wasn’t initially feeling it. And junk food didn’t seem to do much damage. “Getting into it” has gradually gotten harder, and these days, I often get through a workout without ever “feeling it.” The effects of eating well or poorly are more acutely felt, and closer in time.
As I’ve aged, I think I’ve gotten better at exercising and eating right, especially when it isn’t fun, especially in the last few years. And it’s been obviously worthwhile in ways that are noticeable over months and years, but not over days or weeks.
With writing, it’s paradoxically harder because it was always natural for me, at least in terms of volume. If words were miles, I’d be a seasoned marathoner today, if not a record-breaker. But writing in the kind of hard mode I’m in right now, when the fingerspitzengefühl doesn’t feel quite right, feels draining rather than energizing. It has the desired objective outcomes, but lacks the subjective payoff.
Because writing was always a natural behavior for me, I never learned all the elements of discipline picked up by people for whom it was not natural. Still, I think I’m making up for lost time. I don’t know if I’m becoming a better writer with age, but I’m becoming a more consciously disciplined one. I am beginning to appreciate not just the humor, but the wisdom in William Faulkner’s sardonic remark, “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning.”
The comparison to exercise and healthy eating provides useful calibration. Today, writing feels about as hard as those other good-for-me activities, but I’m actually doing objectively better at it even if it feels subjectively worse. I’m certainly writing more regularly than I’m exercising. And more importantly, I am doing it even when I’m not feeling it. Eating right is somewhere in-between. I’d award myself an A-, B, and C respectively, for writing, eating, and exercise discipline.
But when you’re used to the exhilaration of hitting A+ performance (at least in subjective terms) without even trying, having to fight for an A- feels like a D.
Let’s unpack this further. I’ve already noted that I think the problem isn’t with me, but the growing fogginess of the world. So let’s start by looking at why insight porn used to work, why it stopped working, why writing in the new mode feels less satisfying, and why that’s actually a good thing. I suspect there’s a more general pattern beneath this example.
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