Shiny Essay Syndrome: A Critique of Writing 30 Essays 30 Days Straight

I’ll start this off with some unsolicited advice: whenever you see the word ‘critique’ in the title of an essay, run away as fast as you can. A writer who uses the word ‘critique’ is a writer who’s giving himself permission to sound overeducated. ‘Critique.’ Something about that itique-sound gives off the impression of an undergrad student who mistakes himself as a tenured professor. Writers should be prevented access to certain words only until they’ve proven themselves worthy of their power.

On the other hand, a critic is someone who loves the subject that they’re going to criticize. Why else would one spend so much time thinking about something? Nietzsche was Christianity’s harshest critic. He was also it’s closest friend. Likewise, I love online writing. I love, love, love the free exchange of ideas, blogging, newsletters, podcasts, and everything else that makes the Internet the perfect breeding ground for serendipity. I mean not to attack anyone in particular. Instead, I’ll be underscoring the problem that everyone who writes will face: the problem of motivation.

My first question of this rant is, why do writers write about anything at all? It is so that they can express themselves. Put another way, it is so that they can do what we, as a species, are, as a rule, always doing whether we know it or not: Expressing ourselves. Our behaviors, habits, to-do lists, vices, decisions and choices reflect both the highest zeniths and darkest trenches of our values. Yes, it’s true. The cliched and colorful expression, ‘just express yourself,’ is pretty good advice if you want to keep your psychological health in check. If you’re even the slightest bit creative then you know how disagreeable it is to not express yourself even for 5 minutes. Writers write stuff down because writers accept that to express oneself is to accept one of the fundamental tenets of being human.

Now that we have the why, let’s move onto the what. What do writers write about? Their biographies. Writers are always pointing to their biographies. Biographies are inescapable. To try to write anything but your biography is like trying to calculate without numbers. This truth is most evident when the writer is writing naturally. Naturally! Yes, when the writer writes naturally — that is, when a writer is writing because he’s kept awake at night, troubled by idea fragments that, if put into words, would solve unresolved problems (and not merely the problems keeping him awake on this particular night, but all other nights). Naturally, when a writer writes not because he’s inspired (that never happens), but because his boredom is the force that propels him into writing. The writer who writes naturally knows of no other motivations to write but to answer those volcanic forces within him that scream, “this must be written!”

The writer who writes that which must be written, no matter how unpopular they’ll become after what must be written gets written, is the writer who cannot be bothered with whatever hot currents are stirring up excitement in their friends who happen to write every now and then. Every now and then. When picking how often one should write, this is the frequency chosen most often. Every now, and every then, I’ll write. Not too often because, you know, I’m not really a writer…but not too far off in the future because, you know, I still want to write and get better at the craft. This oscillating sine wave of motivation to write matches the frequency of trends. Every now and then a trend comes and goes. And what we are seeing today, in the tiny slice of the Internet that finds no difference between the craft of writing and an MBA, is a trendy motivation to write. It’s a trend as hard to turn away from as good porn. If you participate in this trend, you might become better at writing which might give you more of a following on social media which might lead you to better opportunities to make a little bit more money and/or speak to someone who also has a big following on social media because they got better at writing which helped them get a bigger following on social media. Does that make sense?

It’s amazing what great lengths people will go to for a kick in the pants. The ship30for30 trend sells such a kick in the pants. For a price, writers who want to write more can buy a reason to write. The price includes a community of other writers who agreed to the price to be told to write more. And it works. Writers who sign up for the trend do write more. Why? Because they paid for the kick in the pants. Because they’re now part of a community of people who paid for the kick in the pants. Because it’s trendy.

Ship30for30 teaches writers that yes it’s possible to write more often than every now and then, but only if you’re extrinsically motivated to write. The trend never gives the writer a tour of their inner volcano. Instead, it teaches that writing should be done for the sake of social approval. And, well, yes — socially, people will approve of you if you know how to write. Knowing how to write means knowing how to think clearly. Society rewards those who can think clearly. But, thinking clearly is not a trend. We’ve been trying to think clearly since the morning of civilization. Likes and retweets and essays watermarked and color coded and formatted to fit your phone screen? Those are trends. They’re manmade. They don’t last.

I believe it’s possible to critique something without being too cynical. I hope I’ve done so. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean that you get to be an asshole about it. I have many friends who’ve taken ship30for30. They all know I love their work. I bother them about it constantly. Truth is, I get fanatical, absolutely bonkers when I see my friends write newsletters and blogs and essays (especially blogs). Few things give me more joy. But what I don’t enjoying seeing is my friend’s motivations to write corrupted by shiny essay syndrome.

If you took ship30for30 and you’re still writing even after it’s over, congratulations: you avoided the trap. But if the gig is up and you’re suffering the withdrawals of a dopamine detox, consider writing as you mean to go on.

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