“Space, I can recover. Time, never.”Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)
I was seventeen, and I was a film student.
My teacher set the class a lot of essays. So I developed a system. Whenever there was an essay due, I would open up Microsoft Word at about 9pm the night before, and go at it furiously until I had a completed essay coming out of the printer, however long it took.
My system worked – I got good grades. But one day my teacher suddenly slammed my writing – in front of the whole class – as weak. He said that it was a shame because I could put words together well, and I had good points to make, but there was one cardinal sin I made over and over and over:
I couldn’t just… make a point.
Peppered throughout my essays were all manner of qualifiers, like “in my opinion…” “I believe that…” “what you could say is that…” I seemed desperate to distance myself from whatever I was trying to assert, desperate to let the reader know that this wasn’t all necessarily objectively true.
Back then, I really didn’t understand why this was a problem. After all, my essays were my personal exploration of the topic at hand – they weren’t objective facts. They were opinions, conjecture, subjective guesses… was I not being kinder to the reader – and treating them like an adult – by being crystal clear with them about this?
No. It was actually condescending. Because people aren’t stupid. They already know they’re reading opinions and beliefs – they don’t need reminding every couple of sentences. So whilst I didn’t enjoy being chewed out in front of the class, my teacher was absolutely right. My writing was weak, and it all stemmed from this one bad habit.
I bring this up today for two reasons.
Firstly, because it helped inform the way I write today.
I preach the things I preach as fact. I state things, I make assertions, I try not to constantly remind you that you are reading my opinions and beliefs. I assume that you’re smart and that you already know this. I respect you enough to tell you what I believe to be true without coating it in sugar, and leave you free to agree or disagree with me.
I know that the more I try to soften the hard edges of what I write, the less power it has, and the less anything meaningful is communicated. So I really try not to do this.
And the second reason is that whilst I might have learnt that specific lesson as it relates to the way I write, I still have a very long way to go in the rest of my life. It’s just one of the many ways I have been deathly afraid throughout my life to take a stand. To pick a side. To risk being wrong.
The fear, I suppose, comes from believing deep down that if I am wrong about a decision, that it would somehow be impossible to ever recover from, and so it’s just not worth the risk. I don’t know why part of me believes this with such fervour – especially when it is so obviously bollocks – but it does. It seems to weigh up the potential gains of making a clear decision against what I have to lose if I’m wrong, and ultimately decide that the risk is too large.
Well, I want a lot of things for the 2020s, but more than anything, I want to seek out like a bloodthirsty hyena all the places in which I am sitting on the fence, terrified of going one way or the other, and for fuck’s sake make a move.
I want to prove to myself what I on some level already know – that there are no mistakes from which I cannot recover from. No, in fact, it’s even bigger than that. There are in fact no mistakes that I cannot ultimately find a way to profit from.
Sitting on the fence is not a neutral action. It is a clear decision to do nothing. With no action there is no motion. With no motion there is death. Most people die spiritually a long, long time before their body gives out.
Realise: you left the womb for a reason, and it wasn’t so that you could spend your life trying to recreate the warm and cozy conditions you enjoyed those nine months.
Don’t be so afraid of making a wrong move that you stand still forever.
“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.“John Augustus Shedd – “Salt from My Attic” (1928)