On knowing how to start, and when to stop

by Kieran Healy on February 1, 2010

Mark Pilgrim, on getting started:

I’m a three-time (soon to be four-time) published author. When aspiring authors learn this, they invariably ask what word processor I use. It doesn’t fucking matter! I happen to write in Emacs. I also code in Emacs, which is a nice bonus. Other people write and code in vi. Other people write in Microsoft Word and code in TextMate+ or TextEdit or some fancy web-based collaborative editor like EtherPad or Google Wave. Whatever. Picking the right text editor will not make you a better writer. Writing will make you a better writer. Writing, and editing, and publishing, and listening—really listening—to what people say about your writing. This is the golden age for aspiring writers. We have a worldwide communications and distribution network where you can publish anything you want and—if you can manage to get anybody’s attention—get near-instant feedback. Writers just 20 years ago would have killed for that kind of feedback loop. Killed! And you’re asking me what word processor I use? Just fucking write, then publish, then write some more. One day your writing will get featured on a site like Reddit and you’ll go from 5 readers to 5000 in a matter of hours, and they’ll all tell you how much your writing sucks. And most of them will be right! Learn how to respond to constructive criticism and filter out the trolls, and you can write the next great American novel in edlin.

Bill Watterson, in his first interview in 15 or so years, on stopping:

Readers became friends with your characters, so understandably, they grieved—and are still grieving—when the strip ended. What would you like to tell them?

This isn’t as hard to understand as people try to make it. By the end of 10 years, I’d said pretty much everything I had come there to say. It’s always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip’s popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now “grieving” for “Calvin and Hobbes” would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I’d be agreeing with them.

I think some of the reason “Calvin and Hobbes” still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it.

I’ve never regretted stopping when I did.

{ 28 comments }

1

Hidari 02.01.10 at 8:47 pm

He writes in Emacs?

Weirdo.

2

ben 02.01.10 at 9:15 pm

You probably can write a great novel using edlin, but it would be significantly easier to do so using a screen-oriented editor. Or pencil and paper. It’s not as if these choices are completely empty.

3

Sufferin' Succotash 02.01.10 at 10:12 pm

Goethe once said that genius consists in knowing when to stop.

Jest sayin’.

4

Kieran Healy 02.01.10 at 10:30 pm

It’s not as if these choices are completely empty.

Not at all. But sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the point of the software, too.

5

rea 02.02.10 at 1:27 am

That’s a peculiar thing for Pilgrim to say, giving an interview in a long running series entitled, “What Do People Use To Get the Job Done.” Why did he give the interview, then?

6

engels 02.02.10 at 1:41 am

This is the golden age for aspiring writers. We have a worldwide communications and distribution network where you can publish anything you want and—if you can manage to get anybody’s attention—get near-instant feedback. Writers just 20 years ago would have killed for that kind of feedback loop. Killed!

Yes, you can just imagine Hemingway or Proust compulsively checking the comments on their blogs every five minutes… How did they manage without the internet?

7

tomslee 02.02.10 at 1:41 am

Pilgrim misses the point completely: the whole point of agonizing over the choice of a tool, followed by agonizing over the customization of the tool and fiddling with irrelevant options, is procrastination – not productivity. The best tool is the one that provides the most options for fiddling, and hence the best excuse to oneself for not getting anything done (again) while still avoiding being roped into household chores.

8

tomslee 02.02.10 at 1:44 am

Oh yes, and if anyone can help me get the Charter font installed now I’ve moved my emacs + LaTeX toolset to Ubuntu I’d be grateful. Or maybe not.

9

Kieran Healy 02.02.10 at 1:54 am

See, Tom understands.

10

Substance McGravitas 02.02.10 at 1:57 am

Yes, you can just imagine Hemingway or Proust compulsively checking the comments on their blogs every five minutes…

Well, you can imagine Ayn Rand doing that, and that could have prevented longer works…

11

Salient 02.02.10 at 2:04 am

Of course, I hear Emacs has the C-x M-c M-novel command, which speeds up the process considerably by doing all of the work for you. It also has C-x M-c M-intent, which employs Husserlian phenomenological exegesis (and mindreading, through your onboard webcam) to ensure that you’re saying exactly what you mean to say.

(Kieran, that paper is just wonderful.)

12

vivian 02.02.10 at 2:08 am

(I’ll snark on the words Substance left out)
“Hemingway or Proust … How did they manage without the internet?”
Well, Hemingway shot himself and Proust repeated himself. Procrastination is looking pretty good so far.

13

Salient 02.02.10 at 2:32 am

Not only would Hemingway, Proust, Shaw, and Wilde all have made for incredible bloggers, the four of them together would cover all the bases for what constitutes amazingness in blogging.

But Hemingway would have been the consummate stereotypical blogger. Crash out of bed hung over mid-morning, slam away at Twitter until the train of thought’s pace gets too fast for 140 characters per click, switch over to blogspot and rail the paragraphs away until it’s time to hit the bars, which would bear fruit in the form of live-bloggingheadsed conversations and brawls. The sheer amount of content he’d produce! Matt Yglesias and Glenn Reynolds bewares!

One of the grand mysteries of the Internet: how few people are maintaining at least threadbarely credible blogs posing as famous authors throughout history. There is not nearly enough of this. Last time I checked blogspot lets one set the date to anything. More fake blogs by Proust and Hemingway, please.

14

ben w 02.02.10 at 3:25 am

The best tool is the one that provides the most options for fiddling

Making it somewhat ironic that Pilgrim uses emacs, where you not only have the ability to configure nearly everything, but can always take a break to write some lisp if nothing presently available does precisely what you wantdesperately need if you’re going to get anything done.

15

Kieran Healy 02.02.10 at 3:31 am

Emacs developers are thus put in a position where their efforts to procrastinate end up extending the editor all the same. Diabolical.

16

Henry (not the famous one) 02.02.10 at 4:27 am

Mr. Watterston is clearly thinking of a certain artist who should have stopped sometime in the 1960s, before Snoopy became the Red Baron or Peppermint Patty or the Great Pumpkin arrived. It’s amazing to me that comic strip artists, who have to turn out new ideas every day, keep going for as long as they do, but 15 years seems to be the limit (with the possible exception of George Herrington, who never had much of an audience, and Elzie Segar, who died too early to reach that limit); even Walt Kelly tailed off toward the end.

17

nick s 02.02.10 at 6:36 am

When I wrote my doctoral thesis, using Emacs and LaTeX, the amount of procrastination available from editing the .emacs and tweaking templates really was nothing compared to the opportunities for work-avoidance proffered by MS Word. I suspect that in an office environment, that’s a feature and not a bug.

Mr. Watterston is clearly thinking of a certain artist who should have stopped sometime in the 1960s, before Snoopy became the Red Baron or Peppermint Patty or the Great Pumpkin arrived.

I thought he was referring to a certain artist whose cartoons will be better known to certain generations through versions lacking their main character. (I wish I could say I was surprised that said artist approves of commercial exploitation of the rendition, as long as his byline’s up top.)

18

roac 02.02.10 at 2:53 pm

No, it would be wrong to say Jim Davis should have stopped on date x; he should never have started. Whereas I (like Non-Famous Henry apparently) am old enough to remember when Peanuts really was the best thing in the newspaper.

19

kid bitzer 02.02.10 at 3:35 pm

“I’ve never regretted stopping when I did.”

well, kieran, i can only wish you a happy retirement, and thank you for blogging as long as you did.

20

M 02.02.10 at 8:49 pm

I was amazed, when I switched over to DarkRoom, how much easier writing was. No options! Just you and the text.

21

mds 02.02.10 at 9:36 pm

But Hemingway would have been the consummate stereotypical blogger. Crash out of bed hung over mid-morning, slam away at Twitter until the train of thought’s pace gets too fast for 140 characters per click, switch over to blogspot and rail the paragraphs away until it’s time to hit the bars, which would bear fruit in the form of live-bloggingheadsed conversations and brawls. […] More fake blogs by Proust and Hemingway, please.

Salient, I don’t know about Proust, but the Hemingway one has already been done. Just Google “Warren Ellis.”

22

Salient 02.03.10 at 12:03 am

I give up and confess that googling “Warren Ellis” and “Warren Ellis Hemingway” and etc. is getting me nowhere. Well, I found his blog, under his own name. There’s that. Is the joke that Ellis sounds sufficiently like a 21st-century Hemingway to pass for him theoretically, or has this guy actually created a fake Hemingway blog somewheres?

Goethe once said that genius consists in knowing when to stop.

…says the guy who wrote Faust part II…

23

Salient 02.03.10 at 12:06 am

OTOH if I had taken Goethe’s implied advice maybe I wouldn’t have spent a full twenty minutes bemusedly reading random websites about/by Warren Ellis before giving up.

24

mds 02.03.10 at 1:03 am

Okay, now I feel guilty for sending Salient off after ghost chickens. Apologies.

Is the joke that Ellis sounds sufficiently like a 21st-century Hemingway to pass for him theoretically,

Yes. He’s a stocky, bearded, literary sort whose online persona superficially resembles the sketch you provided. He’s also known for being drawn to internet invocations of his name in vain, so I will no doubt soon be envying the dead.

25

MR Bill 02.03.10 at 12:51 pm

I just wish Jon Swift were still posting. Anyone know what happened to a great ‘conservative’ blogger?

And is Satire being killed by reality/a surfeit of material?

26

auntiegrav 02.07.10 at 9:17 pm

No one wants to watch sullen, schizophrenic Calvin as a high schooler whose mom is selling real estate while his dad has long since abandoned the family. You know he’d be on Ritalin and probably something stronger . . . like lithium.

27

Treilhard 02.07.10 at 10:17 pm

28

chris y 02.07.10 at 10:22 pm

No one wants to watch sullen, schizophrenic Calvin as a high schooler whose mom is selling real estate while his dad has long since abandoned the family.

He was bullied in high school by Zwingli, which totally messed with his head.

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