On the Difficulty of Writing and Working at Start-Ups

James Somers considers the worthiness of coders in Silicon Valley. But it was a section on writing that caught my attention from the start:

When, in 1958, Ernest Hemingway was asked: ‘What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer?’, he responded:

Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.

Writing is a mentally difficult thing — it’s hard to know when something’s worth saying; it’s hard to be clear; it’s hard to arrange things in a way that will hold a reader’s attention; it’s hard to sound good; it’s even hard to know whether, when you change something, you’re making it better. It’s all so hard that it’s actually painful, the way a long run is painful. It’s a pain you dread but somehow enjoy.

Some of this is existential angst that comes with working at a start-up:

When I go to the supermarket I sometimes think of how much infrastructure and ingenuity has gone into converting the problem of finding my own food in the wild to the problem of walking around a room with a basket. So much intelligence and sweat has gone into getting this stuff into my hands. It’s my sustenance: other people’s work literally sustains me. And what do I do in return?

We call ourselves web developers, software engineers, builders, entrepreneurs, innovators. We’re celebrated, we capture a lot of wealth and attention and talent. We’ve become a vortex on a par with Wall Street for precocious college grads. But we’re not making the self-driving car. We’re not making a smarter pill bottle. Most of what we’re doing, in fact, is putting boxes on a page. Users put words and pictures into one box; we store that stuff in a database; and then out it comes into another box.

He comes back to the difficulty of writing:

The price of a word is being bid to zero. That one magazine story I’ve been working on has been in production for a year and a half now, it’s been a huge part of my life, it’s soaked up so many after-hours, I’ve done complete rewrites for editors — I’ve done, and will continue to do, just about anything they say — and all for free. There’s no venture capital out there for this; there are no recruiters pursuing me; in writer-town I’m an absolute nothing, the average response time on the emails I send is, like, three and a half weeks. I could put the whole of my energy and talent into an article, everything I think and am, and still it could be worth zero dollars.

And so despite my esteem for the high challenge of writing, for the reach of the writerly life, it’s not something anyone actually wants me to do. The American mind has made that very clear, it has said: ‘Be a specialised something — fill your head with the zeitgeist, with the technical — and we’ll write your ticket.’

And so he will continue coding, coding, coding. Thoughtful piece.

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