Old Heavy Voices

Aging artists are in the process of succumbing.

In one of his books, I think Adventures of the Screen Trade, William Goldman laments the tendency of artists’ abilities to deteriorate as they get older. But I think artists also gain something as they get older, and that something is gravitas.

I think this is especially evident with singers. John Prine, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Tanya Tucker, and John Hiatt come to mind. They sing the way your grandparents speak. You can feel the weight of their lives in the gravel of their voices. Maybe that gravel is just a byproduct of aging vocal cords, but I think it also suggests an existential symmetry: The older you get, the more you know; the more you know, the heavier things get; the heavier things get…and eventually you succumb.

What I think makes these old voices so poignant is that they are all in the process of succumbing.

My Problem With Programming

I like programming, but I don't know yet if it can tell me anything about how the world works.

How long have you been learning to code?

Cumulatively, probably two to three years. I really got into it in October. And that’s web development, what I mean when I say programming. First HTML and CSS, now I’m learning JavaScript. Still not fluent in that, I wouldn’t say.

You like it?

I do like it.

So what’s the problem?

Well so I do enjoy it, like I said. It is quite satisfying to build websites and see them work. But I can’t get away from this sense that all I’m learning how to do when I build websites is build websites. Does that make sense?

Maybe.

Scott Aaronson put it a way in one of his posts. He said that he opted for quantum computing over programming because only one of those things was going to teach him anything about how the world worked.

Ah. And you want to know how the world works.

Right. And I can do that in my free time, of course, reading and so on. But we devote so much time to just trying to make a living that it would be nice if those efforts happened to also be teaching me about the nature of existence and not just how to tell computers what to do.

So what do you do?

I have two options as I see it. One is to drop coding and pursue something else. The problem there is that I don’t know what I would drop coding for. Option two is to think critically about programming as a discipline and see if I might be wrong about whether or not I can learn something from it that might be relevant to life outside a computer.

Which one do you like better?

The second. Because again, I don’t know what I would do if I did drop coding, and I’d like to get a real job sooner than later. And webdev happens to be one that I enjoy and also has the potential to pay well. And the other thing is I don’t know that I’m actually right about programming’s potential to teach me anything about how the world works. There are plenty of programmers out there who are also philosophical. Paul Graham is a great example. But what I don’t know is how much programming informs his view of things versus to what extent he’s a programmer who just happens to also be interested in how the world works.

Isn’t he the one who defines programming as a mode of expression, like painting or sculpture?

He has defined it that way in one of his essays. He likens it to art in that yes, it’s a mode of expression, which implies that it informs his perspective, because what are you expressing if not a perspective? So there must be something there, some meaning-making element that I haven’t seen or experienced yet, that programming imparts to programmers. I think I probably need to find that if I stick with programming as a discipline, or I’ll burn out. Do a little more reading, see if I can’t pick up on the philosophy underlying it. Try the hat on, so to speak, see if it fits.

What is Rain?

Poetry as a way of thinking.

In college I took a poetry seminar, not because I had any interest in poetry, but because I thought it would be easy. (Not that it’s important, but I was right. There was no homework. We didn’t even have to write poetry.) The professor’s name was Ryan Tucker. He was an adjunct, I think, and couldn’t have been much older than I am now. Often he’d begin class with a video or a song, sometimes to illustrate a point, but also because he apparently thought learning should be fun, a virtue I would appreciate long before I came to recognize it.

What I liked so much about Ryan was that he taught poetry not as a craft or an art but as a way of thinking. He’d ask us questions like, What is a car? And we’d answer something like, A car is a vehicle. And he’d say, Yes, but what else is a car? And we’d say, A car is a mode of transportation.

Yes, but what else is a car?

A car is an expensive necessity.

Yes, but what else?

Eventually we’d give up. Then Ryan would come out with something like, A car is a chair with four wheels.

Ahhh.

It was like he was a magician, and had just performed the most wonderful trick.

We’d go home and come back the next week hungry for more. We’d listen to Ryan’s song, or watch his video, and await the question. And then it would come: What is rain?

Every object, every concept, comprises layers of somethingness. A car is a mode of transportation, but it is also an expensive necessity, but it is also a chair strapped to four wheels and an engine. Ryan was teaching us to peel back the layers.

Whenever I’m thinking about something, I’m really trying to answer the question, What is rain?

Rain is water that falls from the sky.

Yes, but what else?

Qs & As

Q: What is a circle?
A: A circle is every point that is equally far from another point.

Q: What is writing?
A: Writing is thinking on paper.

Q: What is a person?
A: A person is a story that tells itself.

Mining and Refining: The Two Modes of Writing

You're either digging for coal, or pressing it into diamonds.

There are two modes of writing: mining and refining. You’re either digging for coal, or pressing it into diamonds.

When you mine, you search for raw material. That might look like brainstorming, it might look like research, it might look like eavesdropping. It might look like nothing. You’re watching a movie and it sparks a notion, you write it down.

That last example is a little different from the others. It feels passive. You weren’t looking for the idea; it came to you. But you had to notice the idea, and you had to write it down, and that requires diligence. So mining is never passive. Just sometimes it runs in the background.

When you refine, you take your raw material and shape it into a story, an essay, an article, etc. In film editing, you collect hours of footage, then stitch them together in the cutting room. The writing process is the same. You collect reams of notes, ideas, and disparate scenes, then piece them together in the word processor.

Refining might look like reordering chapters or scenes, it might look like reordering beats or rewriting a sentence. The process is the same at every level.

As you write, you switch between modes. You mine some ideas, start in on refining them. As you do that, your brain’s still mining, so more ideas come to you, and you catch them as they fall. That’s spontaneity, and writing is spontaneity codified.

The Gift God Left

It's up to us.

And now
taken by the urge
I will create.
I will create ruthlessly.
I will call forth from the depths of imagination
a world
and creatures big and small to populate it.
I will force the breath of life
down the throats of peaceful sleepers
who did not ask to be woken.
Their heads will turn at my Word.
Their mouths will open at my behest
and they will proclaim my supremacy.
They will call me Lord and King and Creator
and spread their arms like wings
and try
and fail
to embrace the totality of me.
In their futility
they will prostrate themselves before me
and weep.

I will love my creations
my people.
When they are obedient
I will grant them Good Fortune
and make miracles happen.
When they are starving
I will make manna rain from the sky.
When they are thirsty
I will make water spring from solid rock.
Some of them will see my works and rejoice.
Some of them will ask
Why did you allow us to starve in the first place?
Why did you allow us to thirst?
They will be right to ask
and I will punish them accordingly.

I will love and hate my creations
as they will hate and love me.
I will make them good
and then tempt them to evil.
When they fall for temptation
I will take punitive measures against them.
I will expect more from them than they can give.
I will not forgive them for being imperfect.
When they err
I will beat them down with thunder and famine.
The earth will open beneath their feet
the waves will savage their seawalls
the tempest will rage against the levees of their souls.

Some spirits will be broken.
In their brokenness
though it will be of little comfort to them
they will serve a noble purpose:
to convey one Truth of life.
Other spirits
rain-battered and seared by rage
will harden into a bulwark against my love.
Their resolve will calcify as hate.
Many of these will claim that they no longer believe in me
and to that I will say
Who is it then that you are hating?
In their confoundment and loathing
they will reveal another Truth.

In the face of the devastation I send against them
my people will come to depend on one another.
They will shake hands
and help each other to their feet.
A man will brush the dirt from his neighbor’s shoulder.
A woman will tend to her neighbor’s wounds.
A child will offer his friend the last slice of cake
and he will do so not because he thinks he has to
but because he understands
without understanding
that kindness is just the way we do things around here.

And just when it looks like my creations
might be figuring some things out
I will abandon them.
I will not mean to.
It will just happen.
I will have other things to do
other people and worlds to create.
I will leave
though I will not have gone anywhere.
I will be here
where I have always been:
inside my head.

Though they will look for me
my creations will not be able to see me.
They will call my name in the darkness.
Some will do it loudly
others from the deep
desperate quietness of their hearts.
I will answer none
if I hear them at all.

But I am not heartless.
Before I go
I will leave my people with a gift:
the hope that I will return.
It will sustain them for many seasons
my gift
but in time
hope too will fade.

Then it will be up to them.

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