I’m not generally a New Years’ Resolution kind of guy, since I’m more than happy to torment myself masochistically with arbitrary self-imposed goals all year long, and not just in January. But as 2018 ground to a close, I did find myself feeling like I needed to make some changes in three key areas in the nascent year before me:
- Read more books, and less social media.
- Read better political coverage, and less often.
- Write better stuff, about something different.
The first two bulleted goals have been pretty readily achievable with a little bit of structural change in how and where I engage in virtual space. I’ve been doing the online thing for a long, long time, so I know how to reboot, reformat, and restart when necessary. I’m glad to have been an early adopter of lots of online communications technologies, and I’m equally glad to kick them to the curb when they have exhausted their utility in my life, or when they make me into a dumber, slower, sadder human being. And America’s educated working classes functioned for decades, if not centuries, with once-a-day newspapers or news shows on radio or television, and we all did just fine all that time. So I can, and will, aspire to something closer to that model. The constant barrage of noise has killed the signal for me. Enough.
That third writing bit, though, has taken a bit more thought and deliberation. I am always better at working out my writing muscles when I have a project, so that I’m not just doing the same old things, only with more repetitions. And my projects are usually the most successful when I tell people that I’m going to do them before I start, as I’m well motivated by delivering on the commitments I announce.
I’ve used such publicly-declared web projects in the past (e.g. a poem a day for a year, a short story a month for a year, my Five by Five Books series, the Hidden in Suburbia series, etc.) to apply discipline to my writing, and as much as I have appreciated the outcomes of all of those projects, the real benefits to me came from the processes that produced them. They were good reboots, and in a year that’s already going to be rife with change, it seems this is a good time to re-energize my writing chops, one way or the other, for current audiences and perhaps for new readers or freelance clients.
Having written a novel, and a lot of short stories, and a lot of poems over the past quarter century, none of those idioms or forms are really speaking to me in terms of what I might want to write in 2019. I’ve done tons of music and art criticism and travel writing over the years, too, so those didn’t feel like things that would keep me motivated and moving forward either. (Well, to clarify: travel very much motivates and inspires me, but I find I’m more inclined as I age to enjoy the moments in the moments, rather than writing essays about them after the fact, and that well-crafted photography often evokes what I want to capture better than words do anyway).
So I’ve slowly crafted a new idea that’s making me vibrate a little, and it’s not as easily described as “Hey, gonna write one poem a day, for one year, let’s do this!” Some years ago, I wrote a piece called How Stories Happen that explained how disparate, disjointed, homeless mental concepts often coalesce and take shape in my head, swirling about for weeks or months before something finally triggers an “ah ha” spark sends me off to my computer to write with some sense of purpose or mission. That’s sort of what happened this month as I was pondering a new writing project, and these bits and bobs were swirling about in my brain, looking for resolution:
- A friend of mine in high school wrote I poem called “My Creed.” It was in the “higgledy piggledy” double dactyl format, with each verse laying out a litany of woes or troubles, all of which were dispatched with the same, simple phrase at the end of each stanza: “I laugh.” I liked it then, as a poem and philosophy, and it sticks with me to this day.
- I’m weary of every issue and every news item being immediately parsed politically into left or right, or red or blue, or liberal or conservative, or whatever other polarity you choose to define. I was thinking about how to frame premises or tenets in ways that don’t immediate drop into one of those mutually exclusive buckets, and in so doing, I started racking up a list of abstract nouns formed from adjectives by adding the suffix “-ity.” Such nouns refer to the state, property or quality of conforming to their adjective’s descriptions, and they are typically abstract and uncountable. On a macro time or global geographical scale, the politics that consume us are ultimately local and ephemeral and increasingly numerical as pollsters stand as the dominant alchemists and wizards of our age. Do uncountable abstractions rise above the daily media concerns that consume us? And are there greater truths to consider if we rise above our own place and time?
- As noted above, I’ve been writing online for a long, long time, and so I do have a readership, of sorts, that responds in some moderately predictable ways, as evidenced by traffic and comment logs. The things that generate the most long-term engagement and response from my readers have often been original think pieces that involve personal opinions, and personal stories, but are not directly reactive to a specific stimuli, like records, or concerts, or travels. Call them philosophical pieces, for lack of a better word; they’re examinations into certain premises or tenets that may have relevance to contemporary issues, but aren’t strictly reactive to them, nor are they anchored in the language of political discourse and debate. They almost always carry some emotional heft, too, along with some personal stories or narratives. Here’s a good example.
Those three threads started twining around each other, often as I walked my usual five to ten miles a day about Chicago, and I found myself focusing on a series where I grappled with one of those abstract and uncountable “-ity” nouns every month or so, letting it carry me where it would, with the thematic restrictions on the pieces being that they should reflect some real personal belief (“My Creed”), that they should eschew political dogma (neither “left” nor “right”), and that the acts of creating them should spark emotional response in some way, ideally something at the joyful end of the spectrum as an escape from the unrelenting sourness of modern media discourse.
So focused, I found a grammar page online that showed all the ways that “-ity” nouns can be created from their adjective forms, and I picked the following twelve single-word themes to consider in the year ahead (Note: completed articles are linked here):
I tried to find word themes that would challenge me from both a research and a thought process standpoint, where I don’t really have a clear set of preexisting beliefs that I’ve elucidated here or elsewhere, and that collectively would approach aspects of human experience incorporating what seem to be both positive and negative surface perspectives. I have an idea that when the project is done, the totality of the twelve pieces might actually come to represent a personal manifesto of sorts, maybe a road map toward a next stage in my life, where self-definition may be less a function of my paid work and more a function of how I spend unstructuted time.
From a logistics standpoint, I decided that I would use a random number generator to pick one theme, think about it, write about it, and not pick the next theme (also randomly) until I am done. That way, no one theme gets more or less contemplation than any other, as would be the case with a locked and pre-set schedule, where December’s topic would receive much more mental churn than January’s. I think I can get through the list in a year that way, but if it takes longer, so be it.
When I first started sketching this concept out in writing, the “My Creed” poem was running through my head, and so I originally planned to title the series “Credo,” from the first person indicative present conjugation of the Latin verb “credere,” which means (approximately) “to believe.” That conjugated form has long since entered the English language to refer to a statement of beliefs, or a set of convictions and premises, that guide an individual’s actions.
But as I started to think about it more, I realized that I don’t actually have a statement of beliefs, or a set of convictions, related to those 12 tenets and words right now — though I should in the future, once I really consider them. Hence a new title: “Credidero.” That’s the first person future perfect conjugation of “credere.” This verb form is used to describe an event that is expected to happen before a specific time of reference in the future. So if “Credo” translates to “I believe [now],” then “Credidero” translates to “I will have believed [by the end of the year].”
It’s a weird usage, and a weird conjugation, for sure, so I put it into Google to see if, where, and how it was used elsewhere historically, and one quote kept coming up over and over and over again:
“Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam. Nam et hoc credo, quia, nisi credidero, non intelligam.”
That was written by St Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), who is considered to be the originator of the ontological argument for the existence of God, and of the satisfaction theory of atonement. Here’s what the quote means:
“Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that, unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”
I have read and parsed those two sentences dozens of times since I discovered them, and they still fall somewhere in the sweet spot between subtly sensible and completely confusing. But that seems fitting as I seek to tackle a writing project about beliefs before I can actually state what I believe. I see it as affirmation of this project, a signpost from days long past, pointing down a fuzzy trail in the woods, perhaps with a sharp turn early on the journey, obscuring everything that’s to follow.
I believe it will go somewhere. I hope to enjoy the journey. Maybe St Anselm will appear again along the trail. And maybe you’d like to come along?
Epilogue: I used a random dice generator the day after I posted this article and I rolled a pair of threes . . . so my first theme explored will be number six: Hostility. Well. Let’s get deep right from the git-go, shall we? Watch this space!
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