Don't Write for Money, Write for Power

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4 days ago

This isn’t going to be a guide for turning your passion into yet another soul crushing pursuit for income. By now, you should’ve seen enough bad poetry on WordPress sites to figure out that any idiot can make a living writing online. Everything I’m about to tell you assumes you are already making enough money to pay your bills. If not, my advice to you is to go out and get yourself a soul crushing job. Then come back to this article.

In her book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt laid out three distinct categories of activity that comprised life in the Greek polis. The first was labor. Labor is that work you do to secure your material existence – to feed and clothe yourself. Before man congregated in cities, much of his life consisted of labor. The other two activities, work and (political) action, came about from city life. Work is something very different from labor. Whereas the products of one’s labor was immediately consumable, his work produced something that lasted, sometimes well beyond his own lifetime – things like monuments, instruments, art, etc. His action is that activity in which he exercises his freedom to its fullest.

Modern life has blurred the distinction between labor and work. “Find a job you are passionate about, and you’ll never work a day in your life” is an ethic that perfectly captures our boneheaded ignorance of this distinction. The motivation behind writing a piece is the greatest determinant of the final product. Writing done to capture the largest income is often so superficial, quasi-artistic and “artful”, that it comes off to the reader with the same monotone voice as the young aspiring actor’s “acting voice” – you know, that exaggerated Shakespearean gaudiness.

I don’t advise violating anyone’s privacy, but if you ever get the chance to peer into someone’s private diary you will find the purest form of writing. What is the motivation behind this writing? It is to speak to oneself. This sort of writing is about articulating one’s thoughts and feelings to themselves, to structure and clarify their thinking. Often, it becomes something masturbatory – the writer explores their fantasies, innocent or not. The inversion of this that we find everywhere online is writing that is much like masturbating for an audience. The ego takes over and becomes the driving force throughout the writing. The motivation becomes about displaying the writing.

THOTs make a lot of money, though, so it’s an easy trap to fall into. And the good question you are about to ask next: what then should be the motivation behind writing to an audience? Writing to an audience is a strange sort of act. It impresses into its readers ideas and structures of thought which they would not otherwise hold. See, we all have our own temperaments, vocabulary, and habits of thought which makes it so nothing you write will ever be integrated into someone else’s mind the way you intended it to be understood – not without a little force. Sometimes what you write is so foreign compared to the web of ideas and facts in the reader’s head that they will outright reject it.

Writing to an audience, even if you think you are merely writing to inform or entertain, is an inherently political act. You are deliberately trying to colonize someone else’s mind.

The narrative we hear about Galileo and his little skirmish with the Catholic Church is portrayed as a battle between reason and faith. The Catholic Church lashed out against the heretical heliocentric model of the solar system. While there was a religious element to this divide in worldviews, it was also a contentious issue within science. In its infancy, the heliocentric model was refuted by all the best evidence of the day. A hallmark example was a phenomenon called parallax. If it were true that the Sun was the center of the solar system, according to the model, we ought to notice that the position of stars one night of the year will be different 150 nights later when the Earth is on the other side of the Sun, because the light from those stars will reach us at a different angle than before.

Telescopes in Galileo’s day were not sensitive enough to detect this phenomenon, which was damning evidence against heliocentrism. Paul Feyerabend makes an example of Galileo in his book Against Method, in which he argued that the great moments in scientific history did not come from obedient scientists following “the scientific method”, but from those who outright violated the standards it codified. Galileo did not win hearts and minds with irrefutable evidence for heliocentrism, but with rhetorical devices. How he wrote about and argued for heliocentrism subtly reshaped the assumptions we made about the world. “He introduces a new observation language,” writes Feyerabend, or, in other words, he alters the way we describe the facts we are arguing about. No one noticed the drip drip drip of his rhetoric until one day we woke up in the world that had once only existed in a few men’s minds. In other words, Galileo is by far the greatest propogandist who ever lived.

The fact that modern scientific instruments can detect parallax, and many other phenomena predicted by heliocentrism, is beside the point. It’s difficult for us to see in posterity why geocentrism was so obviously true in Galileo’s day. We don’t talk about the world the way people did back then. Our children learn language by joining in on the conversations going on around them, and so they adopt the assumptions, morals, and models codified in those words and syntax. Modern language codifies concepts like ‘frames of reference’ and ‘relativism’ that Galileo first introduced. Prior to those concepts, the children in his day grew up in a geocentric universe—geocentric because the language they knew interpreted their experiences as such. Children today grow up in a heliocentric solar system inside of an even greater void because the language they learn processes their experiences as such.

Whether you like it or not, your writing is attempting to have this impact on people’s minds. If it doesn’t, then it fails as writing. Instantly forgettable. Just a little more noise in the explosion of information we are going through in the internet age. Writing that doesn’t colonize another person’s mind dies out of its own irrelevancy.

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