Taming The Beast: Writing By Deleting Text

Some six or so years ago, I began work on a book. I’m still not done and the end isn’t in sight either. I’ve alluded to this state of affairs on this blog before: on my About page where I make note of the extremely impressive and portentous title the book bears, and once, in a post on the anxieties of the ‘creative process’ when I confessed I seemed to be permanently adrift in that terrifying stage where you feel like a dog’s dinner is considerably more promising in its appearance than your dearly beloved project. In the intervening years, I’ve finished other books, so all is not lost, but this unfinished work is now an albatross and a millstone and several other metaphorical burdens to boot. Almost three years ago, as I returned to teaching after my academic and parenting sabbatical, I realized my ‘book’ did not deserve such a dignified title; it was merely a file containing some ninety-five thousand words of notes culled from various sources and some assorted ramblings scattered throughout, posing as commentary and annotation and critique.

This morning, during my hopefully daily editing session that I’ve set aside to work on my book, the word count approached sixty-nine thousand. I’ve finally begun to tame the beast, in the best possible way, by cutting it down to size. Twenty-six thousand words have bit the dust. The file might grow again but for now, matters appear considerably more tractable than they did three years ago.

There is some deeply satisfying about deleting troublesome text, words and sentences that refuse to behave, to make sense, to conform, to fit in. Negotiations have failed; expulsion is the only way out. And so it happens; I highlight the block of text, and Ctrl-X the sucker. If it’s lucky, it goes into a separate file called ‘bitbucket,’ possibly to be salvaged for future use and reintroduced into another version of the manuscript; if I’m feeling particularly ruthless, I do not bother with such niceties. History informs me that I’ve never, ever, reused anything from a bit bucket file; it’s merely there to provide a kind of security blanket, a fallback measure of sorts; but once you’ve moved on, you’ve moved on, and that’s that. There’s no looking back. (There are, of course, many deletions that occur because I’ve carried out an efficient rewrite of the same material; that’s satisfying too in its own special way; the succinct, sharp, expression of a thought in a sentence remains an aspirational ideal and much brush needs to be cleared to bring that about.)

Deleting text is an old writing technique; it’s one of writing’s great pleasures. Sure, there are times it’s agonizing–thus leading to the sober gnomic advice to not be afraid to kill your darlings–but truth be told, very little regret ever evinces itself. The text to be deleted stands in the way, obscuring the promised view; shoving it aside gets rid of the dross, letting the gold shine through.

I really should have been working on my book instead of writing this post. Tomorrow morning, and more deletions beckon.

 

The Pleasures Of Providing Directions To The Lost

A short while ago, as I alighted at the New York City’s Herald Square subway station, I was approached by a Chinese gentleman seeking directions to Penn Station; he needed to catch a New Jersey Transit train to, well, New Jersey. I was already ‘late’ for my weekly Tuesday stint at the library, but I stopped and gave him explicit and detailed directions. He listened eagerly and attentively and then sallied forth; I slapped him on the back as he left, calling out ‘good luck’ as I did so. As I strode off to the library–where I am now writing this post–I had a smile on my face. The beneficiary of my directions had been bewildered and disoriented; now, hopefully, he wasn’t any more.

Once, some twenty years or so ago, while walking up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, I had spotted an elderly Sikh gentleman clutching at the hands of passersby, imploring them for something; I crossed the street, and heard him asking for directions in extremely broken English. I sidled up to him and spoke in Punjabi, “Sir, what are you looking for?” (Rather, I called him ‘padshah,’ a colloquial term that literally means ’emperor’ but doubles as a respectful term of address.) His expression changed dramatically from confusion to the broadest of smiles; he grasped my hand and squeezed it with some feeling. A minute or so later, I was heading off again, to the same library as I was headed to today, once again smiling from ear to ear.

There is something deeply satisfying about providing directions to the lost, to the bemused, to those cast adrift in strange environs. I have not yet descended into the realm of the symbolic or the metaphoric, and I don’t need to; getting lost, even if only temporarily, is a disconcerting experience. The fear of being so informs every step of mine in the great outdoors; it has prevented me, until this past summer, from ever going hiking solo. I can empathize effortlessly with the lost, with those temporarily ‘unsure of their position.’ I have ‘been there,’ I have ‘done that’; and I didn’t like it. (This act has special resonance for me in New York City, my first port of call in the US some thirty years ago; back then I was often too scared to ask for directions, intimidated by the city’s reputation and by the supposed dangers of being mistaken for a tourist.)

For that hopefully brief period of time when we are not sure which way to turn, we are overcome by a panoply of emotions, novel and archaic: frustration, irritation, impatience, anxiety, these all surge to the fore; we worry about missed appointments; we curse our inability to magically walk on the straight path home; men fret about whether their masculinity faces its most rigorous challenge yet; the GPS rises in our esteem as the greatest blessing of this technological age. To apply a healing balm to these myriad afflictions is Good Work; we should not shirk it.  And I don’t.

Action As Antidote To Political Anxiety

The spring semester has started today and it is no exaggeration to say that I’ve not gone into any previous semester–over a period extending to the fifteen years I’ve spent here at Brooklyn College–feeling quite as unsettled as I do today. Perhaps it was the third cup of coffee, perhaps it was just the stage-fright that is my usual companion to semester kick-offs. Or perhaps it was just dread. We live in interesting times, and one of the tolls these times exact is a psychological one.

This morning, I met one of my students in my office to go over his plans for an independent study in the philosophy of science this semester. I assigned readings, talked about possible writing assignments, and made some preliminary remarks about how I hoped our fortnightly discussions would go. Our conversation proceeded smoothly in general, but there were a couple of rough spots: first, my student greeted me by asking how I had been, and I found myself unable to answer for a few seconds, and then, when my student told me how he had spending time at JFK providing translation services for the ACLU lawyers helping resolve the fiasco created by Donald Trump’s anti-refugee executive order, I was rendered speechless again.

My student is Egyptian-American; born to, and raised in, America by Egyptian parents . He is one of the brightest and most sincere students I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with here at Brooklyn College. He is hard-working, erudite, passionate, committed to being a good student and a good human being. I am proud of him, and happy to be somehow involved in his education. I am, therefore, protective of him too; I am concerned for his safety and well-being these days. This fear is not a particularly well-formed one, and so it amounts to a species of disabling anxiety. (His country of origin is not one of the blacklisted countries of the executive order, but I was still alarmed to hear his American citizen parents were planning on traveling to Egypt this summer.)

I suspect that what underwrites that my emotional responses to my student’s presence is a deeper worry about my family and friends; there is no doubt that the world today is a more dangerous place than it was on January 19th or November 8th: bigotry and racism have acquired executive power, and it is being exercised vigorously, even if incoherently; political chaos is almost upon us; and much worse apparently awaits.

The only antidote to this quasi-cosmic funk is that old elixir: action. This administration needs toppling and many points of pressure exist in order to do so: pressure on elected representatives to block cabinet nominations for now, and later, against legislative atrocities; financial support to those–like the ACLU and SPLC–fighting legal battles; vigorous public protest, civil disobedience, and direct action, including but not limited to, general strikes. (Perhaps hacktivists will step up and make it harder for the technical infrastructure required to implement Trump and Bannon‘s regime to actually function; on this point, more anon.) Thus far, I’ve written and donated and made a few phone calls; much more needs to be done; therapeutic relief awaits.

Letting Your Childhood Make Your Parenting Easier

To be a good parent, think like a child. Well, that was deep. Let me see if I can unpack that. First, think like the child you were, or imagine and remember yourself as being; in any case, this is the best you can do. Now, think about what your perception of your  parents was like in that time of your life–again, as best as you can remember it. Take as long as you like. (Some of us might need extended therapy sessions to induce such self-knowledge.) Got that? Good. Now, open your eyes, and look around at your parenting world: are you now open to the possibility your child might be perceiving the world–and your place within it–the way you  used to? And if that is the case, do you have any reason to imagine your child needs the  parenting you think it does?

I make these suggestions to reduce some of the parental anxiety that comes from a peculiar sort of overburdening of the child: ascribing to him or her fears, anxieties, needs, beliefs, that exist largely within parental fancies and imaginings.  The best antidote to such anxieties is the thought experiment I describe above. (Standard caveats about neurotic responses to my suggestions apply; neuroses will construct parental memories as feverishly anxious as they need to be in order to sustain present parenting patterns.)

I am drawn to make such claims because–as might be imagined, I revisited an episode of parental anxiety, and was able to mitigate it somewhat by casting my mind back as I described above. When I’m alone at home with my daughter, I often fret about whether she is sufficiently occupied, whether she can be alone by herself while I attend to something else that needs my time. Because I often suffered from loneliness in my teen years (and sometimes even later), my usually melancholic disposition drew me to project these same feelings onto my daughter, causing me untold worry if I were to ever consider stepping away from her; I would imagine her lost and bewildered, wondering what to do, floundering about helplessly in her isolation. But when I thought back to what my reactions were as a toddler when left to my devices by my parents–as far as such memories can be trusted–I realized I had been rather comfortable in those circumstances: I had daydreamed, played with my limited collection of toys, browsed through picture books, or just investigated perfectly ordinary physical objects in my surroundings. Interestingly enough, those times had been rather enjoyable; I wasn’t constantly having instructions pertaining to ‘reality’ thrust in my face, and could just play with the elements of the various fantastic worlds I inhabited. When I see how my daughter occupies herself when she is ‘left alone,’ I sense some of these diversions–or activities like them–occupy considerable time and space for her as well.  If that’s the case, she’ll be perfectly fine while I step away; in fact, she might even welcome it. (As interestingly enough, she has reassured me on occasion when I check in her to find out if it’s OK for me to ‘do my thing.’)

There are many ways in which our childhood is a burden for our parenting; there are others by which it can relieve some of its cares.

Parental Anxiety And Its True Subject

In ‘What The Childless Fathers of Existentialism Teach Real DadsJohn Kaag and Clancy Martin write:

Why do we put limits on our children? Why is a daughter not allowed to climb that tree or jump across a river?…Why are neither daughters nor sons allowed to run away? Father knows best….virtually all fathers think that they are operating in their child’s best interests, but we have been at this long enough to know, if we are honest or authentic, that most of us protect our children, at least in part, because we are avoiding or coming to grips with our own Kierkegaardian anxiety. The more we argue that it is about the kids’ safety, the more obvious it is that it is all about us. [link added.]

Kaag and Martin’s insight here is available to most parents by the briefest of introspections: examine your feelings as your child comes to harm, or even approaches it; pay close attention; what you are averse to is that terror you experienced when you first let the full range of possibilities that awaited your child fully sink in. ‘Don’t ever do that again!’ we say, but sotto voce, we continue, ‘Because I don’t ever want to feel like that again.’

Interestingly enough, I had an inkling of this aspect of parenthood as a child, when I witnessed my mother’s reaction to my brother after he had injured himself at the playground:

My mother’s face blanched as she saw my brother’s face. But she said nothing as she raced to the medicine cabinet and returning with cotton wool swabs, a mug of water, and some antiseptic solution, quickly got to work. She efficiently cleaned and wiped and medicated. And then, one of her swipes revealed that the blood on the face did not conceal a gouged out eye. My brother had not been blinded; he had gotten away with a cut above the eye.

At this point, my mother slapped my brother. It wasn’t a hard blow; but a stinger across the cheek, nonetheless. My brother, quietly undergoing the patchwork till then, stared back at my mother, astonished and hurt….Watching this little drama go down, I wasn’t puzzled at all. My mother must have been petrified when I had brought my brother home late, a bloody mess. She loved us, powerfully, a love that often racked her with deep fears that we might ever be hurt in any way. But she had suppressed every other reaction of hers in favor of immediately providing succor to him. With the most immediate wounds cleaned and shown to be non-threatening, her relief had combined with the anger she had felt at my brother for subjecting her to that terrible anxiety.  That slap followed. I felt sorry for my brother but I felt for my mother too. I knew why she had snapped. And slapped.

Perhaps I’m overstating the knowledge I possessed at the moment, but not by too much. I was about seven or so years old and I had had ample opportunity to study my mother’s  interactions with us. Her anxiety about us was transparent in action and word; as mine about my daughter is to me now.

On Bearing Grudges

I bear grudges. Some of them are of impressive vintage, their provenance almost hidden, tucked away in some distant corner of my memories and recollections. Yet others are more callow, stemming from events and incidents that have barely received their marching papers. Some burn with a fierce intensity, the glow of yet others is dull, even as they continue to smolder sullenly. But they all have occupancy rights and long-term leases; they are all legal squatters, welcomed and let in, taking up space, consuming vital resources of thought and emotional energy. Residencies this prolonged must be paid for; and these long-time tenants do square their debts in a fashion.

Most prominently, of course, these grudges allow for self-indulgent wallowing in a fierce, unquenchable anger; this emotion is much maligned, and yet, its pleasures are undeniable. (Or else, we would not allow it such easy, unquestioned access to our being.)  Poke a dormant grudge, and as it stirs to life, there is almost immediate gratification; that pounding, elevated heart-rate, that fierce sense of righteousness, that pleasurable confirmation of our virtue. We were right to be offended and aggrieved; our grudge tells us so.

Grudges remind us we are alive, that we are creatures of emotion too, and not just reasonable reason. They pay compliments to our passional selves, to our capacity to experience and express our feelings; only the banal and the affectless let go of grudges, not us. Our grudges remind us, as we trudge through the endlessly repeated daily routines that blur one day into another, that something within us is irreconcilable and discordant with the placidity that seems to otherwise dominate our lives.

Grudges are an aid to our memories; they are vivid markers of times gone by, of places and peoples that once populated our lives. They point to roads taken, to friendships made and lost, to formative relationships. We know our memories are not distinct and discrete, separable into neat parcels; each informs the other.  To let a grudge go might be to let go its associations, a price we might be unwilling to pay.

Grudges offer words of caution for the life that lies ahead of us; they remind us of what offended us, what cut us to the quick, what was able to reach down into the innermost recesses of our being and find the previously inaccessible and unconscious. They suggest alternative routes and paths for our inevitable encounters with others; we have been forewarned. (They remind us too, that others, much like us, might bear grudges too. We should not glibly assume that our offences have been forgiven and forgotten; we might yet need to make amends. They aid our understanding of others; that inexplicable remark, that mysterious response, is now no longer so.)

Grudges, like anxieties, are messengers; they inform us of who we are. We struggle to understand ourselves; our grudges aid our ongoing projects of self-discovery and understanding. To cauterize a grudge might be to turn off a channel of communication with ourselves.

A Thank-You Note This Philosophy Teacher Will Treasure

Teachers love thank-you notes from students; they, along with great classroom interactions with students, are easily the highlights of our careers. Here is one I received recently, which as a teacher of philosophy, I will particularly treasure–because it cuts to the heart of the enterprise I take myself to be engaged in. It comes from a student who took Core Philosophy with me last year–in that class, I tried to teach an introduction to philosophy via the Stoics. My student was one of the best in my class; but he did not hand in his final as he had started to struggle with some mental health issues by then. He passed the class in any case, and then we lost contact. A week or so ago, I heard from him again:

Professor Chopra, I don’t how much this means, if anything, coming from an ex-student you taught but I feel compelled to write this message: Thank you. Over the past year, I’ve gone back to the Stoic readings we did in that class and reread them. They really helped me through some rough times with my mental health. They have helped change the way I think about a lot of things. Today, in a journal entry, I was thinking about how I often am burdened by my past and anxious about the future. That’s when I remembered how fondly you mentioned Alan Watts and “Become What You Are.” I read that particular essay briefly before but spent most of the day working my way through that collection. It really resonated with me.  Anyway, I just wanted you to know that your class greatly benefited my life. I was going to respond MUCH earlier in the year, but I was hesitant about doing so because so much time had passed. I wish you all the best. [links added]

In a follow-up he writes:

As far as I’m concerned, if the CUNYs do insist on a core curriculum, an introductory philosophy class such as yours, focusing on philosophy as a means to live a better life, should certainly be a requirement.

I unapologetically admit that I began studying philosophy as a kind of therapeutic method to help me deal with personal unhappiness, to find meaning in a life that seemed to have lost its anchors and become adrift, lacking in mooring and direction; like my student, I was anxious and apprehensive and melancholic. Academic philosophy was not what I imagined it to be, but I’ve never lost sight of that original impulse that drew me to philosophy. It is an impulse that animates my teaching of philosophy: I hope that the study of philosophy will make a difference to the way my students live their lives, and how they see the world, and themselves within it. I’ve lost some hope over the years that I can compete in any meaningful way with the various influences in my students’ lives but my personal relationship with philosophy ensures my teaching remains hopeful it can make some difference to my student’s lives, that it can introduce new, and hopefully, helpful, perspectives to them. This email assures me that my efforts are not entirely in vain; I should continue.

Note: I requested my student’s permission to quote his email to me anonymously; he agreed, adding on the note I have quoted in the follow-up.