Writing to decide on writing

September 2, 2008

Is it possible that something unfounded in reality be greater lived than that which is grounded in fact? Can the unreal live longer than the real? Paradoxically, this is true more than most.

Fiction has greater shelf-life than non-fiction most of the time. Classic novels are timeless, whereas an analysis of the current election, or the past one, wanes in interest quite rapidly. Books about economic crises, climatic catastrophe, trends in food and diet, the status of healthcare, are all written to satisfy very current thirsts for information. They are certainly not meant to be appetizing reading for generations. But, novels about the human condition, romance, crime, hate, sweeping histories, evolution, etc., live on forever. Interestingly, religious books last longer and remain rigid in their message, long after the underlying norms and extant practices bear no relation to those of our forefathers.

So, if you want to write a book, what should be your driving objective? Do you want to make a fast buck, capitalizing on the mass whim of the day? Or, do you want to write for generations to come, with no thought of egregious remuneration. Maybe both? Just having completed a manuscript for a text book, and feeling weary but ready to embark on another, these polarized thoughts have been populating my thinking, asking aggressively for resolution. So, the question is: Write another text, for which I have plenty of material, or leap into the unknown, and write a non-technical book for the lay person, about a phenomenon that is both timely, yet has been with us through the ages and will no doubt, always be?

Do not wait with bated breath for me to describe further my alternate paths, dear reader, for I intend not to do so. I apologize if I whet your appetite and then rudely yanked the serving dish away. But I am afraid that being too specific will lead me to the wrong choice. So bear with me, for I prefer to discuss the choice in the abstract for as long as is tolerable. I guess this debate with myself in the abstract may be more useful than one can imagine, since abstraction usually leads to generality, meaning that this little discussion we are having may apply to more than just the question facing me, but to many others that several readers may have too.

Should I write about what I know (a text), or get to know something new as I write (a new book for everyone)?

There are many advantages to the former. Its easier to write, for I have the material at hand already. I have done it before, and can bring experience to bear. There may be a bigger and ready-made market for a text, certainly one of baseline proportions that one can expect with some degree of certainty. There is context, and hence structuring the material will be easy. The content has already been road-tested in my classes, and the effort will pay off as I use the book to teach more classes. Finally, it will probably get done quicker, and will certainly be more career relevant, though who cares about that any more?! Its certainly the path well-trod, and one that I know well.

But what about the other path, that wander into the uncertain? Should not that be given play? Its certainly the less boring path to take. And it will probably outlive the shelf-life of the text, that is, if it survives its infancy. It also comes pre-packaged with freedom, since there is nothing to tie one down after such a book is written. No revisions, no return on investment, no guilt about not teaching it, just because one wrote it! I would place even odds on being satiated with the material upon completion of the text, so that just when it begins to pay off, one does not want to engage with it anymore. My Book for Everyone (BFE) would certainly not bring with it the Curse of Completion, instead, it would enjoin me to move on, and find something new and exciting. There is something exciting about such a literary one night stand!

The Book for Everyone would be mostly also, the Book for Me. No paradigms to adhere to, no structure to obey, or buck. So much to learn, and so much to contribute, timeless, unique and fresh in ideas and perspective. With the Text, I would be content to write what I know, but with the BFE, I’d need to talk to those more in the know, learn about new ideas and trace their history. It would be the most exciting journey and would derail the mid-life crisis I have been in denial from over the past few years. No one said it better than Robert Frost – “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I…I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

But, while it seems so clear, I am not yet ready to decide. These decisions are not about excitement alone. They depend also on personal taste, life’s exigencies, ego needs, writing history and ability, and of course, a sharp trade-off between the need for exposition and the need to satisfy one’s curiosity. So, wait and see, there’s a book somewhere in the future, near or far. Which one will it be? I don’t know and to help me decide, I go round and round writing about writing. I am in a “strange loop”, as coined by Douglas Hofstadter in his new book. There is this sort of meta phenomenon going on where to begin writing, I first need to write about writing. As I loop, the centrifugal force will drive me out of the loop, and launch me into one or the other project. And I am using this blog to manage my impatience!