Writing is a form of ThinkingSunday, March 10th, 2019
[Mark Safranski / “zen“]
As a form of amusement and also a bit of self-improvement, I decided to subscribe to a site, MasterClass.
In essence, Masterclass is an edutainment portal where celebrity practitioners in some field teach an online course and there’s downloadable materials and discussion forums – and in some instances, office hours – for those wanteing more connection or feeling of community. So you can learn chess from Gary Kasparov, politics from David Axelrod and Karl Rove, photography from Ann Liebovitz and so on in many different kinds of subjects. While some of these instructors may also be university professors, most are not so what you get is largely an idiosyncratic take on tips, techniques and procedures from some very accomplished person; some will dive deep into a meaningful level of their creative process for you while others will not, keeping it as a how-to for novices or interested amateurs. My primary interest in trying Masterclass was in writing and there are a large number and kinds of writers from which to choose. I decided to begin with the course by Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell, who is one of the most successful non-fiction authors of the past 10-15 years with such books as Outliers, Blink and David and Goliath all of which made the bestseller lists for long periods of time and remain regular sellers. Sometimes, Gladwell, a journalist, is bashed by academics and scientists as a synthesizer and popularizer, an argument that echoes the familiar complaint from academic historians griping about the success and technical errors found in popular histories preferred by the reading public. I’m not at all troubled by synthesizers, synthesis being a critical intellectual tool nor do I expect the average layman to start reading dry, usually exceptionally narrowly focused jargon-laden papers published in academic journals (in fact, almost no one is reading them). Gladwell’s style of writing and research interests, it must be said, have very little in common with mine but that was the point in taking his course: to learn something new.
One of the things that has struck me is the extent to which writing is really a reflection of individual thinking. Gladwell breaks some of the “rules” which we are all taught or have drilled into us by editors or as kids by English teachers. He prioritizes being interesting (the real strategic goal if you want to be read) over constructing a conventionally perfect narrative or even proving one’s argumentative point. Secondly, Gladwell emphasizes again and again following curiosity over a systematic research or a writing objective. Curiosity is really, Gladwell’s epistemological theme or driver.
Gladwell also has had in his lecture series some useful insights. I liked this one, when opining on the reasons why libraries are more useful than Google in doing research, best:
“The physical construction [and organization of books on] of a library shelf teaches you how to think“
Which implies many things and tools we are using in the digital age are teaching us not to think as well as extending our capacity to think.
We are what we write. We are how we write