There’s a desire, when making something, to have the creation be somehow new and unprecedented, unique, unlike anything that has come before. This can create issues – while ideally every work should offer something new, it is not necessary or even desirable that the entire piece be founded on novelty. The search for perfect uniqueness is similar to the search for perfect anything in that it is an ass-backwards waste of time.
I’ve been thinking about the ways this impulse holds me back. I’m not sure how many ideas I drop in their nascent phases because I’ve already written about them or read something similar – likely it happens to many ideas before I even think of them as ideas. Sometimes it probably isn’t even a topic I’ve written or read about, just something I’ve thought about enough times that I feel like I must have, which makes it a really unfortunate idea to discard – though if I’ve thought about it so much then I suppose I’ll probably think about it again before too long. Probably. Sometimes an idea discarded because I’ve already used it might have branched away and turned into another idea, a whole new way of building out from a common foundation, if I’d only bothered to think about it a little bit longer.
Aside from keeping me from writing certain pieces, this tendency may also make some of my pieces worse. I avoid covering ground I think people will already be familiar with, even if it’s necessary to understanding the thrust of my point. I rush through, assuming everyone’s familiar enough with my line of logic to follow, and am often unconcerned with whether everyone even started on the same page as I did.
I have a concept of the most perfect form of every piece as being that which strips out the most unnecessary elements, that which is most precise and concise, like a polished gemstone. This concept of perfection, too, is useless: Sometimes less is better, sometimes more is better, it is entirely conditional, entirely a matter of what the extraneous adds or detracts. The details add up, and can either accentuate or clutter. Longer words are sometimes better than shorter synonyms because they feel more satisfying to say and paint a better image. With every piece, there’s a core, a kernel, and the details wrapped around it, the aesthetic and expressive choices used to give voice to that core idea. Repetition can be mere redundancy or it can be rhythm. And, the same way that seeds and eggs must provide their own nutrients to themselves before they can become self-sufficient, there must be a certain amount of ‘extraneous’ text for the ideas to grow.
If you just say something once, no matter how eloquently you state it, people are likely to forget it soon. Even if you find the perfect phrasing of an idea, if you fail to ever repeat or restate it your audience won’t retain it. No matter how well an argument is framed, it won’t stick the first time it’s read.
Yet laying this groundwork can be just as treacherous as omitting it, at least when it comes to imparting the ideas I want to impart. Whenever one of my pieces gets boosted and more widely read, I inevitably get responses either taking issue with or inspiration from whatever the first idea presented in my essay was, even if it wasn’t the idea I was trying to get to or found interesting. Often it’s not even an idea I would take credit for, just a relatively commonplace concept, that many other writers have argued for far better than I am prepared to, that I was using as a stepping stone to get to another idea. When you place ideas in sequence, it’s little surprise when many people don’t make it through the entire sequence. If they have seen less far, it’s because the shoulders of giants keep blocking their vision.