Benjamin Cain: ‘Transcend the Medium’

Today’s internet thrives on polarization. Websites profit when people take opposing sides. That’s what happens in what we call “the comments” on just about any article, especially those on websites that are designed to make money for someone. “The game itself is rigged and it deranges the players,” Benjamin Cain says.

There’s no obvious way to respond to online criticism, especially when so much of it is trolling. One type of response works in one situation, another type in another situation. Often, a writer’s best strategy is not to engage the critic at all, especially when the critic isn’t sincerely interested, isn’t informationally equipped to have a real discussion, is going to harass the writer, is backed by an algorithm that will mobilize an army of trolls, or has fled the scene so the writer would be speaking to empty air.

But if he could give one piece of advice, it is to “transcend the medium.”

“…the writer should somehow transcend the medium that encourages or that thrives on cheap conflict.”

— Benjamin Cain, “How Would a Saint or a Prophet Reply to Rude Online Comments?: The dead end of trying to excel on a degrading platform,” 18 March 2022

 I note: He does not say to transcend conflict itself. More specifically, he doesn’t say to transcend the meaningful elements of online conflict. Instead, he says to transcend the medium that is producing unnecessary, ridiculous, unproductive conflict.

Let’s keep that question in mind. What does it mean to transcend the medium in which one writes? How does one do it?

‘A writer just needed to keep scrolling’: ‘Runaways’ by Michael J. Seidlinger

“A writer, a little bit lonely and a whole lot desperate, signed into social media,” begins Michael J. Seidlinger’s new book, Runaways: A Writer’s Dilemma.

Isn’t that how the day often begins? Reading people’s online conversations about books. Thinking about joining the conversation. Drafting the post. Posting the post. Receiving a notification of one engagement. Checking the stats. That’s how the book will be written, correct?

“A writer just needed to keep scrolling.”

A writer may, or may not, have this fraught relationship with social media. A writer may, or may not, occasionally drink one too many beers. Occasionally, a certain writer exists who has never opened a social media account nor a beer can. That is OK, because that writer, too, is also included and is grateful to be seen, if at an angle. That writer is also afflicted by nostalgia and best-laid plans and egg timers and fountain pens and friends to whom they owe phone calls.

The runaways are the itch and the scratching of the itch. The counting of the words. The tallying of the rejections. The reading of Runaways is a meta-runaway.

The reading of Runaways is a meta-runaway.

We read and write to feel seen and to get better at reading and writing. We do that, right? We read and write.

“Eventually, a writer abandoned the books and went back online.” — Michael J. Seidlinger

From Future Tense Books.

‘Don’t use YOU’: Writing advice from a high school paper on Shakespeare

Reviewing one of my high school papers I saved from over two decades ago, in which I discussed King Lear, I note my original paragraph:

Some people are able to maintain their goodwill to others despite personal insult and tragedy. Edgar says, ‘[I,] by the art of known and feeling sorrows, / am pregnant to good pity.” The context is not optimistic, but his philosophy is clear, and it is more promising than the idea that people are born evil and misfortunate. Edgar says that when bad things happen to you, you can make something good out of something bad or at least grow as a person.

The teacher’s feedback in red pen on that last sentence: “Don’t use you.”

The teacher was correct. “You” was a bit too informal here, especially as my paper about human nature was otherwise written in third person.

“…when bad things happen to you, you can make something good out of something bad…”

Similarly, several years later, in college, I wrote in a classics paper on Lysistrata: “Therefore, if most of the women don’t pretend to be deeply committed to a political agenda…” and the professor circled “don’t” and wrote in the margin: “Avoid colloquialism.” Maybe that, too, was the correct guidance to conform to the habits of the scholarly genre at the time.

Photograph of a college paper on the Lysistrata. Relevant sentence: "Therefore, if most of the women don't pretend to be deeply committed to a political agenda, this only makes them more honest than the men."

“…if most of the women don’t pretend…”

But when my inner self-critic finger-wags at me, even today, “Don’t use you,” “Don’t use don’t,” I’d do well to remember where this teacherly advice came from. These were shorthand comments that applied to specific papers. They may not apply to whatever I’m writing today.

What’s a ‘commonplace book’?

“For nearly four decades, I’ve kept what’s known as a commonplace book,” Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times in November 2020. “It’s where I write down favorite sentences from novels, stories, poems and songs, from plays and movies, from overheard conversations. Lines that made me sit up in my seat; lines that jolted me awake. About once a year, I’ll say something I think is worthy of inclusion. I mostly end up deleting those entries.”

I have always done this, too, since I was 18. In my first year of college, in 1998, I started my own website as a hobby, and I began filling it with my own mini-essays (“blogs” were not quite invented yet) and interesting passages that I found in library books and typed up. As my list of quotations grew, I grouped them by theme; and as the lists continued to grow, the themes multiplied and became more specific.

“Do you keep a notebook?” Prof. Lance Morrow asked my essay-writing class in my journalism program in 2004. He explained to the class that he meant writing down personal musings and interesting passages written by others that might fuel our own future essays. I answered that I did; I had multiple “notebooks,” organized by theme. (The class seemed to think this was a little over the top.) Also, my “notebooks” have always been digital, so that the information is readily searchable by keyword and copy/pasteable in case it needs to be reorganized or, at long last, incorporated into an essay of my own. (I do sometimes use paper and pen to transcribe information, but ultimately I type it up because that’s how it will be more usable.)

In 2020, I counted the number of themed files. There are two hundred. They include:

abortion, abstractions, activism, affluenza, altruism, animals, anxiety, art, attention and busyness, beliefs, bias and control, body, brain, caring, Cartesianism, celibacy, certainty, chance, charm, cheating, climate change, cloning, coaching, commercialism, compassion, conformity, creativity, death penalty, decision-making (and gut instinct), dialogue, dirt, disaster insurance, disgust, domination of nature, emotions, enlightenment, environment, epiphany, eternal now, ethics (business), evolution, faith-based charities, false memory and confession, food (and hunger), forgiveness, free speech, free will, friendship, gender, giving, God (and: anthropomorphism, atheism, biblical authority, faith, feminist theology, “on your side,” and “knows secrets”), grief, hair, handicapping agreements for games, healing, history, honor, human rights, humanism, humility, humor, immortality, integrity, Internet history, interpellation, Israel, Jewish, journalism, knowledge (and not knowing, deliberate ignorance, and ridiculous beliefs), language, liberty and security, literacy and numeracy, logic, love, lying (and rationalization), marijuana, marriage, math, memory (and the permanence of Internet publication), mind, money, monsters, mortality, myth (and political myths), names, natural disasters, “nature or nurture,” networks, nostalgia, oaths, organ transplant, Orwell, Panopticon, paradox, patriotism, peace, philosophy, pleasure, poaching, political polarization, politics (and unwritten norms), power, prayer, prisoners, procreation and parenting, prohibition of alcohol, race, regret, relationships, relativism (this one, dear reader, may be the longest, at 70,000 words), religion and science, religious experience, risk, ritual, saying no, self, self-sacrifice, sexuality, shame, skill, sleep, software design and testing, soldiers, solitude, success, suicide, technology, Thanatos, theodicy, time, tolerance, tree, trust, twee, utilitarianism, vegan, virtue signaling, weapon metaphors, werewolves, writing

Plus, of course, the indispensable catch-alls: “nice turns of phrase” and “miscellaneous.”

If I’m writing an essay and I suddenly remember a phrase I was once struck by, I can search any of these files (or my entire computer) by keyword. Then I can cite it in what I’m currently writing.

I recently told someone that I organize my digital files like this, and she asked if it was difficult to come up with these themes and stick to the organizational system. No, I answered. The themes were born from need, and they developed organically, as when one begins with a messy room and begins labeling the shelves as a response to appropriately accommodate all the material that already exists. Also, I stick to it only insofar as it works. I put the material on the “most correct” shelf because where else would I put it? So I use my files appropriately, and thus they work for me.

If I started with a blank slate, now, at age 40, my labels for these files would be completely different. They are what they are because they spun off of a system I kicked off, semi-consciously, when I was 18 and just starting to make a big proto-literary mess.

I suppose I could restructure everything, but there seems to be no urgent need to do so. And this would be a huge project; how would I begin to approach the 70,000-word file labeled “relativism,” a book-length document comprised entirely of other people’s statements on this subject?

The benefit of keeping the “old ways” is that they are embedded deeply in my brain. When I’m reading and a quote strikes me, I don’t have to ask myself, “Which of 200 themes is this best categorized under?” I already know “what I want the quote for”; my “themes” are just my shorthand keywords for something I already implicitly recognize and understand. It is a private, decades-long conversation I have with myself.

I didn’t know this was called a “commonplace book” until I saw Dwight Garner’s essay in 2020. I have since heard that E. M. Forster’s Commonplace Book was eventually published and is a thing you can actually buy, and that Ryan Holiday discussed the concept in his book The Obstacle Is The Way. Update: Cory Doctorow also used the term in a May 2021 essay in which he said that he’s been writing digitally since 1979 when he was eight years old, although such notes tend to be valueless for him unless he blogs them, in which case he puts in enough effort to make them readable for an audience who may stumble across them, so they are easier for him, too, to refer back to. He divulged:

“I have endless running text-files from the 1980s and 1990s in which I jotted down notes to myself. These are better than my actual notebooks in that they are searchable and I don’t have to decipher my handwriting, but I can’t really say that they generate much value for me as a writer. I couldn’t tell you the last time I referred to them.”

It feels like a commonplace activity within my own life because I’ve always done it. I don’t know if others consider it a normal thing to do. I have never had any other word for it. Sometimes I write “QUOTES” at the top of a piece of paper so that I know the material has to be typed up. Apart from that, it has been a nameless activity for me.