Writing can be an artificial arena where we mash the world into a shape we can stand to look at

Controlling the Narrative


JUNE 9, 2014 8:20 PM 31 Comments

Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.

I used to be a polemicist. I was an editorial cartoonist, and wrote what I called “artist’s statements” to accompany my cartoons each week, which over the two terms of the George W. Bush administration lengthened and sharpened from rants into something more like essays. I became practiced at using language as a weapon. My role models were hilarious, elegant and brutal humorists from Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken through Hunter S. Thompson and Matt Taibbi, who raised American invective to an art form. This is a fine and honorable tradition when practiced with a certain amour-propre and panache, but in the last couple of decades it’s become our dominant mode of public discourse, degraded by hacks and amateurs who ape its cruelty but are rhetorically illiterate and tone-deaf to humor. They’re just parroting talking points with profanity.

I’m no longer an active combatant in that fight. As the grim, endless decade of the War on Terror dragged on I began to get a bad aesthetic conscience about my screeds, and grew concerned that I might be doing cirrhotic damage to what let’s call, for old times’ sake, my soul. I found a second career as an essayist, and made a conscientious effort to be more intellectually honest, fair-minded and empathetic, to get out there and try to help instead of just cheerfully jeering from the bleachers.

But excising aggression from your art turns out to be a tricky business, like separating Hyde from Jekyll; even if you could do it, what remained would be pallid, weak and denatured. My first book of prose was less angry than my political writing had been, more melancholy and reflective, and almost every one of its essays was about someone I’d loved — but there is aggression at the heart of all attachment, just as there is a dark unconscious attraction beneath all hatred. And it was only after I’d finished that book that I saw clearly how much old aggression, competitiveness and ambition had been sublimated into it.

Two of its essays were about important role models and mentors in my own life, and it’s obvious in retrospect that part of my motive in writing about them was to transcend the influence of these figures who had loomed so large in my youth. Friedrich Nietzsche compiled an entire book denouncing the music, worldview and pernicious influence of Richard Wagner. Wagner had been an important figure in Nietzsche’s life — an artistic hero, intellectual mentor and friend. (It might also be relevant to mention that Nietzsche was probably crushed out on Wagner’s wife.) But Nietzsche was not, suffice it to say, acolyte material, and “Nietzsche contra Wagner” was, for him, a necessary symbolic assassination/declaration of independence. My own essays weren’t the idol-toppling manifestos that Nietzsche’s polemic was, but making one’s former teacher a subject — think of the various denotations of subject — is itself an assertion of intellectual and artistic parity.

Several of my essays were about friends I’d lost — conversations with people who were no longer in my life. One reason so many exes cannot seem to stop talking to each other during their breakups — making furious, ill-advised late-night phone calls and crafting exquisitely damning emails even as they’re vowing never to speak to each other again — is that they’re struggling to wrest control of the narrative. They’re like antagonists at the climax of a melodrama grappling for the last weapon, telling each other No, this is what happened, here’s what went wrong, I’ll tell you why it’s over.

Some of this motive informs almost all writing — you are finally having your say, getting the last word in, telling them all How It Is. Certainly some of my own essays have been efforts to better articulate my side of a continuing dialogue or argument I’d been too slow-witted or timid to formulate in real time. Writing is an artificial arena in which to exercise control, where we can mash the world into a shape we can stand to look at. And control is inherently aggressive. It is, if you think about it, absurdly hubristic to presume that your version of events is the Truth, that you of all people are entitled to tell us what happened, let alone why.

I’ve found myself looking down the wrong end of art on occasion, as when a friend asked my permission to write about the bungled affair we’d had years before. Reading the finished story was a lot like getting a root canal — not exactly painful (especially since I was well anesthetized), just very, very uncomfortable. It’s frankly not pleasant to be accurately depicted. It’s like seeing a candid snapshot of yourself rather than looking in the mirror — you are not necessarily shown to your best advantage. Writing about someone requires a dispassionate observation that is very different from the forgiving light in which we usually choose to view friends, lovers or family. It’s like the difference between talking to someone and talking about them, between looking into someone’s eyes and watching them when they don’t know you’re there.

I’ve often thought, with some regret, that I would be a better writer if I were a worse person — basic human decency compels me to keep all the best details out of my work. Writing about someone with whom you’re still in a living relationship inevitably does some violence to that relationship. It may be survivable violence, no more than a scratch, but even a biopsy, whose purpose is benign, leaves a scar. For this reason most of the people I’ve chosen to write about were already gone from my life, estranged or deceased. But, as I discovered when I tried to write about people I still knew and loved, even if you have nothing but good things to say about someone they will still somehow come out the wrong way. It’s a freaking minefield. Dispassion is a double-edged instrument: As a writer you can find empathy and compassion for someone who, in real life, gets on your nerves, but you can also look with unsympathetic lucidity at someone whom, as a fellow human being, you respect and love.

For a time I seriously contemplated pulling one essay from my book because of fears about its effect on a friend; in the end, I decided it was one of the most substantial and serious essays in the book, and resolved to keep it, personal reservations notwithstanding. There was a ruthlessness in this judgment that felt very unlike me. I still think it was the right decision artistically, and the wrong one personally. I’m beginning to understand why people write fiction.

What ultimately motivates these acts of artistic treachery is less often resentment or vanity or wanting to Make Them All Sorry (though let’s not discount the power of these motives in art), but something seemingly more innocent, but also more insidious and irresistible: interest. Once you become genuinely interested in a subject it becomes very difficult to prevent yourself from writing about it — tact, privacy and personal loyalties notwithstanding. Interest is a kind of love, and love is without conscience, heedless of bounds or propriety. To an artist, people are, among other things, data. There is a part of you that isn’t necessarily cruel but isn’t especially nice, either — a part that just watches, and listens, and wants to know.

Maybe this is the same kind of clinical detachment doctors have to cultivate, a way of distancing oneself from the subject, protecting yourself against a crippling empathy. I won’t say that writers or artists are more sensitive than other people, but it may be that they’re less able to handle their own emotions. It may be that art, like drugs, is a way of dulling or controlling pain. Eloquently articulating a feeling is one way to avoid actually experiencing it. Words are only symbols, noises or marks on paper, and turning the messy, ugly stuff of life into language renders it inert and manageable for the author, even as it intensifies it for the reader. It’s a nerdy, sensitive kid’s way of turning suffering into something safely abstract, an object of contemplation. I suspect most of the people who write all that furious invective on the Internet, professional polemicists and semiliterate commenters alike, are lashing out because they’ve been hurt — their sense of fairness or decency has been outraged, or they feel personally wounded or threatened. Writing may ultimately be less an offensive weapon, like the proverbial rapier, than a shield.

Tim Kreider is the author of “We Learn Nothing,” a collection of essays and cartoons.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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