I am writing this during the first week of January. 2023. The start of a new year. I have long since given up on new year’s resolutions, but as I look around at my incomplete projects—physical, digital, metaphorical—I can’t help but get swept up in the idea of “the end.”
No, this is not morbidity or mortality. When I say “the end”, I mean the “purpose” or “goal” of any given project.
The teleology of it all.
In his Ethics, Aristotle wrote that “the good has been declared to be that at which all things aim”.
To oversimplify Aristotle, let’s define “good” as that which best fulfills its purpose. A “good” ship is the ship that best ferries people across the water. “Good” ethics is a code to live by that produces the best life, or the guidance for the best life—but I’m falling down an Aristotle wormhole.
Aristotle was all about teleology: studying ethics, nature, politics &c. in relation to their “end” or “purpose”.
Aristotle’s works are among the most influential when it comes to western ideologies and philosophy. In ways we don’t often think about (until we do) we are products of Aristotle (filtered, distilled, and bottled).
In Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, the character Berowne asks the King of Navarre, “what is the end of study”, to which the king replies “to know which else we should not know" (I.i). A bit of a throwaway answer, but it demonstrates that knowledge, too, must have its end in sight. The vast majority of high school students are Berownes (in many ways): they must know “what is the point of learning this?”
What is my goal? What “good” should I be aiming at this year? And what does this have to do with writing?
Publish or Perish
Publish or Perish (POP) is a truly Aristotelian way of looking at writing.
It is most associated with the academic world, the idea being that you publish works or you do not succeed as an “academic”.
In their article in The Journal of Research in Medical Science, Rawat and Meena write,
Academic institutions and university frequently use the number of publication to an individual's credit as the measure of competency. Administrators are increasingly using this as the criteria during recruitments. Scholars, who publish infrequently or who focus on activities that does not result in publications like instructing undergraduates, may find themselves out of contentions for many teaching positions. It is due to these reasons that there is an immense pressure to publish
They go on to explain how this mindset is harmful to not only the value of published works (quantity over quality) but also devalues the idea of teaching.
I am more interested in how this concept, prevalent since the early 20th century, has seeped out of the ivory tower and perfumes all aspects of writing.
POP is the lifeblood of content creators. Do you want to make money as a blogger, or digital journalist, or a video content creator? The algorithm—that great gatekeeper of your work—is the vengeful spirit of POP, and Aristotle. Are you not contributing tangible works to the world? Then you are not a good writer or creator.
Do you want to find a publisher and get your novel that you have been passionately working on for the last decade in print? Your success will largely depend on (1) how much you have already put out there or (2) how much you can promise your publishers. They are investing in you; you must reward their investment.
Academic, social media, commercial—writing of all kinds are driven by their end: a “good”, complete work with the promise of more “good”, complete works.
This begs the titular question
Can you truly write for the sake of writing
The simple answer is yes. I, and many others, have been doing it for some time. I am doing it right now. This post has no end but to exist.
Except that’s not true.
I want to write blogs more regularly to build up my profile, to drive traffic to my site, to demonstrate my abilities.
What about fiction? Yes, I am working on a novel and a short story with the aim of publication, but I write other pieces for the sake of--
It’s been far too long since I have written more than a few pages with no end goal in mind.
Perhaps this is a failing on my part. Perhaps I don’t love writing as much as I say I do if I need a tangible end. Perhaps I should commit to aimless activities.
But then there's publish or perish.
I have a few publications to my name, but it is coming on two years since my last story was published, and that has affected me.
I will not perish (financially) if I don’t publish, as writing is not my profession. But I have bought into the idea that I am perishing, that my (writing) worth is rapidly diminishing because I have not published, and if I don’t refuel by publishing, I may as well not write at all because—what’s the point?
I am a ship with a hole in the bottom. I am an “Aristotelian bad”.
What is the solution? I don’t think it’s aimless writing. I have come to believe that this does not exist.
The truth is, I have been writing the wrong things.
It sounds silly when I write it, but it may help you if you are in the same leaky boat as I am.
Advice to myself and anyone else
Conclusion, in which I get too honest
What has brought this on? It’s not just the “new year blues”.
I was born with a rare strand of retinitis pigmentosa (RP). This means that my vision is meant to decline rapidly. Indeed, I “should” have lost most of my vision by the time I was a teenager. My vision has been mostly stable my entire life. This is, ultimately, a good thing.
Here’s the catch.
I can wake up any day with severely decreased vision. There are days when I do wake up and “feel more blind” (often it’s a result of being overly tired). But it’s frightening walking around with an internal bomb that can be detonated at any time. Among many effects this fact has had on my life, it has made me very sensitive to my teleology. I need to do my “good” while I can.
Aimless writing and shying away from the stories I want to tell have lost their appeal.
There’s a line from Cyrano de Bergerac:
How's that for a new year's resolution?
This year, as I subject myself to the inevitable goal-setting, I want to write honestly, tell the stories I think I can tell, share myself in ways that I have been terrified to do—and maybe it will be aimless despite my efforts—maybe it will come to nothing--
But I will try.
And if you have followed on this reflective journey thus far,
Thanks for reading!