We're All in Publishing Now and We're Terrible at It

Quick Thoughts Jul 07, 2020

I have a nostalgic crush on Ed Catmul's Creativity Inc.

Years ago, I was listening to it for work (after I had listened to it for pleasure) and I remember walking around the old Colorado Springs neighborhood, the sighing autumn trees adding their color to the Halloween decorations, listening as the narrator droned wisdom from this long-time industry contributor. I finished the chapter and then watched a double feature of American Graffiti and Frozen --because we could.

His chapter on "The Hungry Beast and the Ugly Baby" changed my life.

His basic thesis is:

But the success of each new Disney film also did something else: It created a hunger for more. As the infrastructure of the studio grew to service, market, and promote each successful film, the need for more product in the pipeline only expanded. The stakes were simply too high to let all those employees at all those desks in all those buildings sit idle. If you’d asked around Disney at the time, you would have had trouble finding someone who believed that animated storytelling was a product that could or should be made on an assembly line, even though the term “Feed the Beast” has that very idea embedded in it. In fact, the intentions and values of the high-caliber people working in production were surely admirable. But the Beast is powerful and can overwhelm even the most dedicated individuals. As Disney expanded its release schedule, its need for output increased to the point that it opened animation studios in Burbank, Florida, France, and Australia just to keep up with its appetites. The pressure to create—and quickly!—became the order of the day. (Catmull, Ed. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration . Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Loc. 2039)

While he's talking about the blood-feud between art and commerce, I find the same battle in my own mind. And in my own culture.

What hath the internet wrought?

The internet is built on human reaction. Humans were the first cause of the internet and we've built it in such a way that that the internet has to swing back and ask for more. It needs us to react so that it can react back. Computers require command inputs and, for now, that means computers require us.

We have to click "like", we have to type posts, and we have click links or else the machine either stops working or moves to where it can get those reactions. That "moving on" is exactly what so many of us are afraid of. Few of us can stand the thought of being invisible. So we stay home where people can't see us and try to get notifications to love us.

Our Wonderfully Terrible Publishing Tools

Publishing, like performing, should always be an act of the will. "Do you still get nervous before you speak?" so many people ask me. "Yes," I always answer, "because when you're not a little bit nervous, that's when you say something really stupid."

Cricky, the cringe stories behind that answer make me want to hide under my sheets.

There's a kind of nervousness about performing and publishing that grounds you. Makes you double check. Makes you probe for the real reasons. For real wisdom. And it turns out, the best way to cultivate that wisdom is through editing.

Every creative knows this.

I worked alongside a photographer for a year and what I learned watching him and his colleagues was that the everyday job of a photographer was photo editing. They'd spend one day shooting a wedding and a week editing the photos. The same is true for film: production takes a month or three. Postproduction takes a year. Preproduction cane take decades. And let's not talk about development hell. Or ask any published author of any genre and they will all tell you the same thing: writing is not the project; rewriting is.

Editing is the real craft of thoughtful communication and yet we're all signed up for communication tools that all but forbid it.

"What do we want?!" "Reactions!' "When do we want them?!" "Reactions!"

Still, you'll never hear a complaint from me about the ubiquitous access to technology (I made that super clear two weeks ago, right?). But this wonderful technology that has turned each of us into publishers has made each of us slaves to the hungry beast. And we don't even realize it. We just have to post more and more and more. We have to make "my voice" "heard".

It's all spontaneous. There's no editorial calendar, no space for research, no opportunity for a friend to look at it. No time for rewrites. In fact Twitter and Snapchat --by design-- don't allow for rewrites.

There's none of the tools and processes that makes great publishing great. It's all infrastructure and no process. The mandate is, say something now or it won't matter. You won't matter.

That means the only raw material available for publishing is how we feel about a thing. The mind requires time that the heart does not. If the heart is a sports car, then the mind is a semi-truck. That's why it takes forever for our judgment to catch up to our impulses. Yet, in spite of that, our romanticized culture still think "raw" and "uncensored" is preferable human communication.

Take it from this student of human history: humans are not at our best when we're being "raw" and "unfiltered".

Intellectual Digestive Issues

Staring at a blank whiteboard or a legal pad or a blog post and waiting for an idea is the only guaranteed way not to have one. Ideas come from exposure to other ideas, that's why our communication tools tend to generate so much material. We see a thing, it sparks a thing, we react to a thing.

But the intellectual digestive system needs more than nutrients to operate, it also needs time. In my experience, the digestive issues of ideas can look at least three ways:

  1. Ideas that haven't been digest at all and just pass through whole. This is where we get plagiarism and "hacky" ideas. Somebody hasn't internalized idea, they've just copied it. It's also the root of most bad preaching.
  2. Ideas that enter the system but don't have the rhetorical musculature to find the way out and
  3. Ideas that are digested but pass through the system so quickly, they just explode out the backend and make a huge mess.

The problem with everyone being in publishing and everyone feeding the beast is that we're ending up in all three of these scenarios. The first one results in group think and platitudes (and then group think about platitudes), the second results in rage (because we all get angry when we can't use our words), and the third is Twitter.

Pressure to Perform

When we post from pressure, we sacrifice the art of our souls for social commerce. Worse, in a true twisting of the knife, we actually do it for others' actual commerce.

Social media companies are ad companies. They need us to post content so that they can monetize it. There's an admirable, evil genius in a business model that says, "You mean, we can get all the ad revenue and not have to pay any writers or editors? I'm in!"

And what do we, the users, get out of it? Well, candidly, we just feel good. We feel important. We said a thing and people noticed. And boy does it feel good to say a thing.

But when the lumbering truck of thoughtfulness finally rolls in, does anybody actually feel good about this?

And that's the irony of publishing emotions: we scream into the void hoping to regain our agency without realizing that the peer pressure we feel to scream is the very thing that's robbing us of our agency.

"Stop all that posting!" said the blogger

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get how ironic this post could be, but I think that's exactly the point: I've learned the hard way –and am still learning– that there's a profound difference between performing from a place of pressure and performing from a place of love. So all I'm saying is that people –as many as possible– should think, write and publish, but not from social pressure. Not from an adrenalin jolt. Not from an emotional spasm.

In the past hundred years, our public discourse has gone from a turn-based strategy to a first-person shooter. It's made us faster, shriller, and more tilted, but it hasn't made us better. So, like Neo in The Matrix, we can just tell the system, "No." and put the hungry beast back in it's place. Then we'll be free to say what we truly want to say. What we'll be proud to have said. True, lovely, good things that will echo for generations.

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