When I was in high school I spent a lot of time imitating bad
writers. What we studied in English classes was mostly fiction,
so I assumed that was the highest form of writing. Mistake number
one. The stories that seemed to be most admired were ones in which
people suffered in complicated ways. Anything funny or
gripping was ipso facto suspect, unless it was old enough to be hard to
understand, like Shakespeare or Chaucer. Mistake number two. The
ideal medium seemed the short story, which I've since learned had
quite a brief life, roughly coincident with the peak of magazine
publishing. But since their size made them perfect for use in
high school classes, we read a lot of them, which gave us the
impression the short story was flourishing. Mistake number three.
And because they were so short, nothing really had to happen; you
could just show a randomly truncated slice of life, and that was
considered advanced. Mistake number four. The result was that I
wrote a lot of stories in which nothing happened except that someone
was unhappy in a way that seemed deep.
For most of college I was a philosophy major. I was very impressed
by the papers published in philosophy journals. They were so
beautifully typeset, and their tone was just captivating—alternately
casual and buffer-overflowingly technical. A fellow would be walking
along a street and suddenly modality qua modality would spring upon
him. I didn't ever quite understand these papers, but I figured
I'd get around to that later, when I had time to reread them more
closely. In the meantime I tried my best to imitate them. This
was, I can now see, a doomed undertaking, because they weren't
really saying anything. No philosopher ever refuted another, for
example, because no one said anything definite enough to refute.
Needless to say, my imitations didn't say anything either.
In grad school I was still wasting time imitating the wrong things.
There was then a fashionable type of program called an expert system,
at the core of which was something called an inference engine. I
looked at what these things did and thought "I could write that in
a thousand lines of code." And yet eminent professors were writing
books about them, and startups were selling them for a year's salary
a copy. What an opportunity, I thought; these impressive things
seem easy to me; I must be pretty sharp. Wrong. It was simply a
fad. The books the professors wrote about expert systems are now
ignored. They were not even on a path to anything interesting.
And the customers paying so much for them were largely the same
government agencies that paid thousands for screwdrivers and toilet
How do you avoid copying the wrong things? Copy only what you
genuinely like. That would have saved me in all three cases. I
didn't enjoy the short stories we had to read in English classes;
I didn't learn anything from philosophy papers; I didn't use expert
systems myself. I believed these things were good because they
It can be hard to separate the things you like from the things
you're impressed with. One trick is to ignore presentation. Whenever
I see a painting impressively hung in a museum, I ask myself: how
much would I pay for this if I found it at a garage sale, dirty and
frameless, and with no idea who painted it? If you walk around a
museum trying this experiment, you'll find you get some truly
startling results. Don't ignore this data point just because it's
Another way to figure out what you like is to look at what you enjoy
as guilty pleasures. Many things people like, especially if they're
young and ambitious, they like largely for the feeling of virtue
in liking them. 99% of people reading Ulysses are thinking
"I'm reading Ulysses" as they do it. A guilty pleasure is
at least a pure one. What do you read when you don't feel up to being
virtuous? What kind of book do you read and feel sad that there's
only half of it left, instead of being impressed that you're half
way through? That's what you really like.
Even when you find genuinely good things to copy, there's another
pitfall to be avoided. Be careful to copy what makes them good,
rather than their flaws. It's easy to be drawn into imitating
flaws, because they're easier to see, and of course easier to copy
too. For example, most painters in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries used brownish colors. They were imitating the great
painters of the Renaissance, whose paintings by that time were brown
with dirt. Those paintings have since been cleaned, revealing
brilliant colors; their imitators are of course still brown.
It was painting, incidentally, that cured me of copying the wrong
things. Halfway through grad school I decided I wanted to try being
a painter, and the art world was so manifestly corrupt that it
snapped the leash of credulity. These people made philosophy
professors seem as scrupulous as mathematicians. It was so clearly
a choice of doing good work xor being an insider that I was forced
to see the distinction. It's there to some degree in almost every
field, but I had till then managed to avoid facing it.
That was one of the most valuable things I learned from painting:
you have to figure out for yourself what's
good. You can't trust
authorities. They'll lie to you on this one.
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