Memory Lane

Two attempts at music criticism. Two pieces of television criticism, two longer looks at television as a medium. Two collections of paired observations. One outlier piece of comics criticism, phrased as an apology for not being able to read comics well. Two interviews. One long-form preemptive eulogy. Two reviews of non-fiction works on national security. Two pieces on national security news, prefaced by an apology post. One odd, too-quickly written reply to writers I don’t know. One post announcing I was taking the blog public, two posts announcing I was busy with finals, and a post announcing I had been picked up by another website. One post on being done with law school finals. One piece on the economics and aesthetics of franchising. One on ideas in film. One post on a dead writer and a life-affirming book. One long-form essay on the how filmic storytelling relates to structure. Four pieces looking at the ethics of individual violent films. Five direct comparisons of elements from two works, (of which one of the violence pieces might also be one), a sixth comparing three, and a seventh comparing four. Three short odes to good journalism. One post on May 17, 2012.

– Output to date

In early 2011 I was living at home with my parents and without a job. I had graduated college and was likely to start law school the upcoming fall, so things weren’t rough, but I was broke, bored, and badly in need of something to do. I discovered Internet comics criticism around the beginning of March, and it made me excited about art in a way I hadn’t felt for quite some time. I wondered if I might have anything to add. I watched Faster as an in-flight movie after heading back from a poorly-planned trip to California, and put my first real post up for this blog a little over a year ago, on April 13, 2011.

Happily, the site served its key purpose: I made it through to school. Having somewhere to write gave me some structure during a very boring, altogether depressing eight months at home, and I have something to show for the trouble. I’m pleased with much, if not most, of what I’ve written; there’s some stuff in here I think will stand up pretty well.

Tallying up what I’ve written, I can see stops and starts, recurring themes, and some clear indications of what I’ve felt most drawn to talk about. I find most interesting, however, how many of the key essays came in the first four months of writing. This place has lost a certain amount of momentum since, and its current glacial pace feels altogether out of place with the experimentation and almost existential urgency of its beginnings.

I’ve hoped to find at the end of this first law school year a respite, and the possibility of returning to a normal schedule for what I write here. I’ve thought of this year as a unique drain upon my time, not to be repeated, with the site now set to return to its proper level of commitment and attention. It’s an appealing story, especially because second and third-year classes, while taxing and time-consuming, don’t have the same pressure as the first year. Professional and extracurricular commitments outside of class are only going to grow, though. And more tellingly, I’m now done with finals and have little free time to show for it. I’m working two jobs this summer, and even on my nominal “break” now there’s a writing competition hanging over my head.

No, truth be told, it’s far more accurate to view last spring and summer as the aberration. I wrote while I had a 9-to-5 job as my only commitment. My life was about to have a reset button hit by entering law school and moving to New York. I had a luxurious amount of time to spend on anything I wanted. This is simply not going to happen again, even for a week, for the indefinite future. This site was born in unique circumstances, and they aren’t going to come around again.

This is a constraining and simplistic way to look at the problem, however. I may be busy, but time can be found, when one wants to, especially for what’s important. It’s a wild exaggeration to say I lack any time to write, even to write semi-regularly. “Time” frames the problem wrong, or at least not quite right, because law school isn’t a “distraction” from this site. For the better, a legal career is the path I’m on. Even if I were to drop everything right now—which I emphatically do not want to do—I’m not going to become a professional critic. Writing about art isn’t going to be more than a hobby or an off-shoot, and that’s going to hold true for my whole life.

There are opportunity costs, too. Every minute I spend writing about art here, I’m not learning more about subjects relevant to what I’m actually doing. I’m not working on the things that are going to mean a great deal for my career and for what I hope to accomplish. The part of my conscience that speaks in the voice of Cal Newport and urges a clarity of mission and purpose takes a look at this blog and goes crazy. Sinking time into this website, from this view, is an ongoing illusion. Each foray on display represents a way of writing and understanding that isn’t going to be important to my career in the short-, medium, or long-term.

This would be all beside the point if the Cal Newport part of my brain were in control, or if I fully believed what it recommended. It’s safe to say if it were, this site wouldn’t exist, because I’d be a very different person. No matter how much I’m committed to what I want to do, I’m inclined to think art is the most important thing in the entire world, and so long as I can meet it with the respect it deserves then I’m happy spending time here. Distraction or not, there’s more to life than what’s sensible.

When my answer to “why write here” is “I think it’s important,” however, then my words need to read like I actually think this is the case. If what I write feels as if I’m treating this space as a random outlet, then it really is a waste of time. While I would like nothing more than for this to be a distraction to readers, I’ve kept up the time to post because I want this to be more than that for me.

It’s this that worries me far more, for not being able to keep up a sustained commitment, and the secondary focus I’ve placed on what I write about, is immediately apparent in what I’ve written since school began. It’s far more scattershot, reaching a bit too far in places, unsure of what I’m after at all in others, or retreating into safe territory, such as “I like this.” Too much feels unmoored and dashed-off, even what represents several drafts. It feels like pushing against a door that no longer opens.

I read a beautiful essay called “Cart-Drawn Horses” last month about the obligations of Internet criticism, and the need to show “humility before art.” I’m pleased to say most of this site holds up pretty well to its standards, though little of what I’ve done since last summer.

And it’s this essay which really brings home to me the need to address the constraints here.

For the time of writing—the patience necessary to put down something which reflects what you’re actually trying to say, and which fully engages with what you’re talking about—includes the time to take in art. It’s no accident that film, with its brief runtimes, is the most represented medium on the site. Video games take forever to play, and books are endless. Really hearing an album is the work of many nights, and taking in even a single season of a television series means setting aside a major block of time. Worse, I can really enjoy something but be unable to find enough to say, or read a comic I think is gorgeous but lack the vocabulary to describe. The pool can run dry in this way quite quickly; and it goes doubly for the few books I do find the time to read.

Less time means less ability to select. It also means fewer potential options for connection and juxtaposition, which is by far my favorite and most recurring structural move in what I’ve written here. There’s always writing about something on its own, if you have the time to try to take it apart, but this is just as much effort, especially when you want to be thorough.

This can tempt either a lack of discipline, or a slow retrenchment to the tried and true. In some cases, I’ve attempted to take expansive ideas and moor them onto material where it can’t quite work, since I don’t have a better path at hand. Other times, I’ve sat back and waited for connections to present themselves. They can still emerge, and I’m fairly happy with the results. Hewing closely to the second path, however, can run the risk of diminishing returns. If I wanted to fully commit to a two-work, compare-and-contrast model of essay-writing, then I might be able to keep this up for a long time yet. But as I noted after this post, this poses real dangers in tackling other subjects, and if art (and writing about art) can only illuminate its kindred, then perhaps its importance diminishes.

Pessimism toward well-traveled roads aside, however, the approaches I’ve taken at least have the value of uniqueness. No one else is out there comparing Half-Life 2 and mumblecore, or Point Blank with The Antlers. Novelty makes for an amusing contribution. Keeping this up with any integrity, however, depends so much on a wide range of inputs that is no longer possible in the same way.

There’s always another kind of retreat, into shorter posts or away from substantive or structural ambition. Yet “Cart-Drawn Horses” hammers home how little the Internet needs more bad culture writing. One of the few reliable methods I have to make what I have to say valuable is taking a likely unique approach; even if the observations I have to share aren’t more valuable than other, better writers, they at least come at you in a different way.

It’s for this reason that I’ve made a real effort to not write what could be easily found elsewhere. Yet while I’ve found this necessary to justify adding one more WordPress blog to the world, the ways to accomplish this on display so far on this site aren’t going to be able, on their own, to justify keeping this place open. At least not when the best thing I’ve written was a year ago today. There needs to be more to what’s done here, or there needs to be no more to this.

And I’ve come to think this not only because I worry about the reading experience. I worry about what a reliance upon tricks I’ve already learned means going forward. Taking odd angles and approaches, I suspect, reflects my anxiety that, short of clever complications, I don’t have much of anything else to contribute. And if I truly believe that the only valuable purpose served by what I write is the way it’s done, and when my prose has never been my strong suit, then it’s unclear what’s being accomplished.

Repeatedly leaning upon a crutch isn’t a helpful way to learn to stand up for things. And it’s all the more difficult to find your feet without one when you’re only taking a step once every month or two.

What all this tells me is that I need to find a way to write more, and about something that isn’t art. I don’t want to leave culture behind entirely, but it will need to play in the margins, informing and proving relevant where necessary, but no longer the main concern. Yet while I know the answer (even stopping new posts entirely) will require doing something different, I’m not sure I know quite how to proceed.

Certainly, the most obvious option is to begin writing more about what I am spending time on, namely legal concepts. Especially as I build toward writing a second-year note, I may be reading and learning enough about constitutional law, the executive branch, and a few related subjects to be able to deploy relatively smart writing here on those subjects. Perhaps not. But if the site turns over to being that, then it may as well stop or become something new. “Notes toward a Note” may be a great little project, but if that’s all I was doing it wouldn’t be this site, and it would be silly to stay in the old house.

Nor do I want this to be a site where posts are short and simple, or excessively timely. If I’m writing things I can no longer look back on months later and be pleased to have written… well, I already have Twitter.

I have some glimmers of how I may be able to bridge the gap. If these ideas prove not to be worthwhile, and this place is to become another dead little corner of the Internet, I’ll put a sign up to make that clear. Until then, I at least know what I can’t keep doing. So one way or another, from here on out, it’s not going to be the same.

The stray phrase I misremembered which is the title for the site is from a volume of Sandman called “Brief Lives.” It’s the story focusing on his sister, Delirium, that sets up a choice for Dream: he must change or die, but he must choose. The truth is, the former option is very often going to mean the latter. This may be the case for this site; perhaps it will not.

For now, thanks for your continuing patience. I’ll see you from somewhere different.

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