A Thousand Words

I’ve written before about writing a thousand words a day, every day. (Yes, any sort of writing will do. A thousand words of anything, as long as it really is writing. Do tweets count? I’m not sure tweets count.)

Someone, I’m not sure whom, commented that if I wrote every day, and writing was a pleasure, then I was doing something that gave me pleasure every day, and I thought – more than that. And my thoughts went back to some passages in Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

I’ve had an interesting and difficult relationship with that book. I love what Frankl has to say about life in general, about how our central driving force is the search for meaning. The difficulty is that I can’t seem to get through the first part of the book, where he describes being in a concentration camp. It’s not that the section is horrific – quite the opposite. It’s so ordinary, and I have a difficult time with the idea that one person can treat another person that way, or one group of people can treat another group of people that way, and it can become ordinary. I find that a profoundly painful, although very important, realization.

The second part of the book, which is theoretical, is much easier to read, and I think that’s a sort of failure on my part, that I can take the theory but not the practical experience on which it was founded.

But there are parts of the theory that are important to me. Frankl essentially states that the search for meaning is our most important drive, and that we can endure almost anything if we can find a meaning in it. But also that meaning, searching for it and finding it, is what leads to fulfillment, to joy.

More specifically, he writes,

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

And,

“One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.”

And,

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In other words, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

What I get from this is that I have to find the meaning of my life, and that the process of finding it will be something I continue to do (there is no endpoint), and that the meaning will alter depending on where I am in my life and my circumstances. And I am the one who is asked to find that particular meaning. It is my meaning, not necessarily anyone else’s.

And this comes from elsewhere in Frankl, I think, but it’s important for me to realize that I am called to find that meaning, whether that call emanates from within me or comes from outside. Either way, it’s a call and I need to answer it, to respond. To be responsible is to be the one who responds – not by fulfilling anyone else’s meaning, not by doing what anyone else tells me to do, but by doing what I am called to do.

Frankl also writes, and this I find to be very important,

“We can discover this meaning in life three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”

I’m not going to talk about (3) because that’s the territory of concentration camps and chronic diseases, and I have no right to talk about that. I have never experienced unavoidable suffering. Frankl does say, and this is important to me, that suffering is not itself ennobling, and should be avoided whenever possible. There is no point to seeking out suffering. But if it truly is unavoidable, one can experience it in such a way that one retains meaning, and therefore a reason to continue on, to live. And one can even die with meaning.

Writing falls, fairly obviously I think, under (1), which Frankl calls “the way of achievement or accomplishment.” I think I would rather call it the way of work. Because for me, the meaning of writing is not in achieving or accomplishing something, which implies that meaning arises when the work is done, but in the activity itself. I find meaning in the act of writing, in the creation.

So, by writing a thousand words a day, I’m not just giving myself pleasure. I’m also creating meaning in my life. And that’s even more important, I think. If meaning is the aim of life, our fundamental drive, then every day I’m working toward that aim. I’m responding to that call.

Frankl says, “The second way of finding a meaning in life,” meaning (2) above, “is by experiencing something – such as goodness, truth and beauty – by experiencing nature and culture or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness – by loving him.”

I know I’m not doing the experiencing enough. I’m not getting out into the natural world enough (well, it’s winter, and I hate the cold), or the museum enough, which would give me my dose of beauty. And that last bit, I wrote about in my blog post “Thoughts on Love,” which was about experiencing another human being in his or her uniqueness. I’m not sure you can experience another human being in any other way. If you want to change another human being, to make him or her into something different, you lose the uniqueness, you lose the human being. I suppose what Frankl means, in a sense, is that the other human being will have his or her own meaning, his or her own response. And you have to respect that.

But what I wanted to do, here, was talk about writing a thousand words a day. If I do that, I give myself pleasure, but more than that, I provide myself with a way to both generate and discover the meaning of my life, at this particular moment. One blog post at a time.

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15 Responses to A Thousand Words

  1. A wonderful post. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for another great post!

  3. rushmc says:

    >>I have never experienced unavoidable suffering.

    I disagree with that. While we may not experience precisely the same type or degree of suffering that someone else does, I don’t think that we can escape the fact that the very nature of human experience makes suffering inevitable (all Buddhist thought is based upon this idea, for example). And it is frequently unavoidable. It may be comforting to tell ourselves that if choosing A makes us suffer we can choose not-A, but in practice, it is usually more complex than that: there are advantages and disadvantages, rewards and pains, for both choices. The creative compulsion itself is a type of suffering.

    Or, in Frankl’s words, “What gives light must endure burning.”

  4. Ron Sering says:

    I agree with rushmc. Suffering, in Buddhist terms, means at its most basic level “putting up with stuff.” While dealing with discourteous store clerks or paying taxes pales in comparison with cancer or concentration camps, these annoyances can still disrupt your day and affect those close to you.

    Being able to placidly go through any day without letting such disruptions interfere is an accomplishment. Like I can do that! But it’s still a goal worth aspiring to.

  5. Rushmc: I’m afraid I don’t agree with that, except in the most general sense that yes, we will all experience suffering in our lives. It’s a part of the human condition. I have never experienced the sort of unavoidable suffering that Frankl describes. I have never been trapped in a situation I could not get out of or move away from. I have never been ill with no hope of a cure. I’m intensely aware that, compared to most people living in the world today, and most people who have ever lived, my life (an ordinary middle-class American life) is incredibly privileged. To say we all suffer is to elide the difference between degrees of suffering. And to say that life is suffering is, I think, to say something that is fundamentally untrue. Life is a lot of things, including peace and joy. I personally don’t experience the creative compulsion as suffering. (Although I do experience not being able to express myself creatively as frustration.)

    I’m also not a big believer in the Buddhist idea of non-attachment as a way to deal with the inevitability of suffering. Lots of issues here, but that’s my basic position.

  6. “While dealing with discourteous store clerks or paying taxes pales in comparison with cancer or concentration camps, these annoyances can still disrupt your day and affect those close to you.”

    Ron, I think the key words here are “pales in comparison”! 🙂

    We all have to deal with annoyances. I think the key is dealing with them as best you can when they arise, and then letting them go, not keeping on thinking about them. But they’re just part of life. I’m not sure they rise to the level of “suffering.”

  7. rushmc says:

    >>To say we all suffer is to elide the difference between degrees of suffering.

    I don’t see how you can make a case for this claim at all. It is exactly the same as saying “To say we all feel happiness is to elide the difference between degrees of happiness,” and surely you don’t believe that, that you’ve never been happy because someone else out there wins the lottery, the Nobel Prize, has hundreds of close friends, and smiles more?

    I realize you’re going out of your way trying not to compare yourself to holocaust victims…I just don’t see how that’s really necessary or helpful. No one assumes that you think you have suffered as much as someone in Rwanda (although for all I know, you may have…I make NO assumptions)! I think it would be arrogant for us to try to invent a standard unit of measure for suffering and then try to rate everyone’s suffering for purposes of comparison and contrast (I know you’re not suggesting this, that you are only trying to rate–and diminish–your own suffering, but your principle applies a lot more widely).

    Who can really know how much (or little) another suffers? One of my best friends lost her 10+ year battle with cancer earlier this week. She suffered a great deal with it…but she was absolutely the most upbeat, happiest person I’ve ever known. In similar circumstances, I know for a fact that my suffering would have been subjectively much greater, simply because of my personality and way of coping. So how can we put an objective measure on “cancer” as a source of suffering? Did all people in concentration camps suffer equally? Somehow I doubt it (some, for example, were killed immediately…they can’t have suffered anything like those that were there for several years).

    I think reducing people’s suffering to “annoyances” is a bit facile and unfair. What about being dumped by a friend or lover or spouse? What about having a friend or a parent or a child die? What about cancer, broken bones, car accidents, bad backs, acne, a stutter, insomnia, going bald, erectile dysfunction, strokes, heart attacks, getting fired or laid off, getting evicted, bad reviews of one’s work? Everyone has (at least some of) these experiences eventually. Are they, then, trivial annoyances that can’t be said to produce suffering? I could list dozens of experiences common to life that don’t measure up to “victim of genocide” that I still think pretty inarguably lead to significant suffering. Why deny that?

  8. Rushmc: I’m very sorry to hear about your friend. My condolences.

    I wrote “I have never experienced unavoidable suffering,” and you wrote, “I disagree with that.” But I believe it to be true, that I personally have never experienced unavoidable suffering. The suffering I have experienced, I have chosen to bear for a time because I thought it would be worth it, because there was some reward at the end. That’s simply my personal experience.

    The word annoyances was actually used by Ron, and I agreed that “dealing with discourteous store clerks or paying taxes” were indeed annoyances. My point was that I didn’t think they rose to the level of “suffering.”

  9. Thoraiya says:

    What a thoughtful essay.

    I’ve not read the book you’re discussing but it sounds like I should.

    In the meantime, 20 words down, 980 to go?

    I was going to say that I’ve come to realise that 1000 words a day is less my style than 200 words some days, 3000 on other days, and zero on still different days. But then you wrote the post that follows this one and I’m relieved to see I’m not the only one with the conceit of a muse 😉

  10. rushmc says:

    Thanks for the condolences.

    You didn’t address the (very partial) list of life’s unavoidable sufferings that I provided. If you have truly been fortunate enough to have avoided ALL of these thus far, well, you have been fortunate indeed. And I still maintain that smaller sufferings can be additive and, ultimately, even more debilitating than large ones in some cases.

    Of course, I suppose one could argue that ALL suffering was avoidable if one holds out suicide as an option…. I guess I just don’t think “avoidable” is a very accurate or useful qualifier here.

  11. Thoraiya: Thanks! If I have a muse, I hope he’s a hunk! 😉 I will say that I wrote a thousand words of a story that day. Maybe that’s partly why I couldn’t do a thousand words here.

    Rushmc : I’ve had some acne and some insomnia, neither of which I would classify as “suffering.” But I don’t think anyone who comments here, me included, should feel the need to respond to every point of every comment. I really do appreciate your arguments, but I’m going to move on from this discussion. I’m working on a story, and need to focus on that this week. I do hope people will like it once it’s written . . . 🙂

  12. Grey Walker says:

    “To be responsible is to be the one who responds”

    When you put the words into this pattern, I can see them in a way I hadn’t before. I like it.

  13. rushmc says:

    You rather missed the point, but that’s okay, it’s all just friendly brainstorming anyway. 🙂

  14. Tork says:

    You know, I’ve been following the ‘write every day’ rule for many days now. But I’ve gotten into an argument with myself. See, I want to be a fiction writer. But sometimes I would write in a journal to satisfy my daily writing, which struck me as cheating. Does a person practice piano by taking up the violin, or learn guitar with a banjo? I felt like my daily writing should be on stories, not just journals or blogs or whatever.

    It’s a question of whether all writing is equal, I suppose. Is it the same kind of practice to write a blog or a journal as to write a story? My gut’s been telling me no recently, though perhaps for others it does work either way. I don’t know.

    This makes me think of all the ways that general advice can be badly applied. Like a guy who hears that to meet women he just has to get out there and talk to the gals, on the street, at work, in the library, wherever. If the guy is well-meaning but takes the advice too generally and literally, he might end up hitting on women who are clearly taken. Already with rings on their fingers and husbands close by, say. I can see it now.

    “Hey there, would you like to go on a date?”

    “Excuse me? I’m married. That’s my husband right there. Jeff!”

    “Oh. Hi, sir, didn’t mean any trouble, sorry, uh, bye…”

    Perhaps I’m missing something, Theodora. Do you see ways in which writing a blog or a journal gives good practice for writing fiction?

  15. Tork: I’m not a musician, and I have no experience picking up women, so I’m not sure how to respond to those analogies. 🙂 But for me, writing different sorts of things is like cross-training. I’m hitting the same muscle from different angles. It’s all the same muscles or tools: using words and sentences. I think that even learning how to write a sentence in a legal contract helped me to be a better fiction writer. I learned more about what sentences could do.

    Also, I find that most professional fiction writers actually write more than fiction. Elizabeth Bear does a column for Realms of Fantasy. Seanan McGuire writes songs. Lots of people (more than you would guess) write tie-ins or works for hire. We all write bios, blurbs, interviews. I honestly think that any practice writing is good practice. But that doesn’t mean neglect the fiction, of course. Just as an artist who is doing sketches and studies wouldn’t neglect painting, if that’s his or her ultimate goal.

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