So, I woke up this morning in a rather poor mood. I stayed up too late, because we watched a creepy TV show, and then Brooke said she wanted to watch something else, to fill her mind with different images. Naturally, she fell asleep as we started the pilot episode of “Psych” whereas I stayed up for another hour. Whoops.
Ellis woke up coughing an hour earlier than usual. It was my turn to get up with her.
I don’t know what to do when I’m in a bad mood. I don’t know how to get out of my own way, how to connect with God or the people around me. Today, I just ducked into my own shell and finished the book I was reading — The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman.
The book is a marvel. As all good books do, it is a story about so much. A newspaper, and the change in society and technology: the struggle the newspaper faces, the struggles the workers face. A man’s legacy, and how his family fights to keep his newspaper alive. In following a cast of imperfect characters, it is also a story about ambition and love and loss. Rachman writes with a journalistic prose: straight and to the point. He manages to write equally effectively whether he tells the story of a heartbroken man who becomes blindly driven, or about a woman who is all alone on New Year’s Eve, holed up in a hotel so she doesn’t have to stay in her apartment.
At the end of the book, Malcolm Gladwell has a brief interview with Rachman. In it, Gladwell states how the internet is polarizing, “it has the result of either making you like [the writer] a great deal more than you would otherwise (this is the foundation of Internet dating) or hate them a good deal more than you would otherwise (this is the reason blog comments are so nasty.” Gladwell goes on to state that fiction reading is a “social discipline,” it is a chance to see characters with nuance and subtlety, to see them with their flaws and strengths, their fantasies and regrets. In doing so, fiction creates empathy.
While neither Gladwell nor Rachman would assert that fiction writing is itself edifying (there are a great deal of infamously cruel fiction writers), they danced around the edifying aspect of it. In reading, for one, we see characters as they truly are, and we are not allowed (by the author) to come up with snap judgments. Writing is the same.
Rachman writes as a journalist. He tells one moving scene where a woman cuts herself — a dark and disturbing image — yet retains an unsentimental eye; he does not try to make the reader feel sorry for the woman. In doing so, he actually creates more sentiment: their is no judgment for the woman: this is who she is in her pain and loss and confusion, and we are to have sympathy for her, to root for her despite her myriad other annoying tendencies.
For me, this is one reason why I write. I need process. I often cannot tell Brooke how I feel about an event or conversation until hours after, sometimes days. I need to think. Writing is often this process. It allows me to search for meaning in random events, to try to understand confusing people, to see how the pieces of this world fall together.
Writing, and reading fiction, makes me more of the person that I want to be, more of the person I believe God wants me to be. It, as Gladwell points out, is a social discipline: good writing refuses snap judgments. And, at least for me, it is an edifying process: I can expel both my junk and my goodness on the page, in equal parts, even at the same time.
I know that whenever a new technology comes about, people panic over how that technology affects us. And, I believe at the end of the day, that people are similar to how we were 50, or 100, or 2000 years ago: full of the same love and hate and ambition and sympathy.
I cannot help but wonder, maybe a new technology changes how people interact, even for a short time, before they realize the error of their ways. For example, fiction reading has dropped dramatically since 9/11. In that same time, internet use has skyrocketed, and we get increasingly inane snippets, increasingly polarizing glimpses of others. Even long serving members of Congress have admitted that the culture has changed: there is less sacrifice, less desire to work together.
I wonder how our tools and toys are changing us without us knowing it, and when we, as a society, will recapture some of this social discipline: of seeing with nuance and subtlety and sympathy.