About ten years ago, I started to really ramp things up with my fiction-writing; coincidentally, about ten years ago, I all but stopped writing about movies and books and such on this blog, and never really got back into the swing of those things.
The shift away from criticism wasn't just about time management, but about realizing somewhere along the way I had lost — or discovered I never really had — the one thing I now know I most needed to have to say anything useful or interesting about someone else's work. It was an attitude about the material, a point of view, other than that something was good and you should experience it, or something was not good and you should avoid it. I felt less with each passing year like any of the work I'd done before in that vein had validity. I wasn't saying anything constructive.
Around that time, I also started a new job, the one I am in today, and easily the best and most beloved job I've ever held. One of my bosses noted that at our company, we are not, by and large, in competition with organizations that break news. We expand on things, add perspective, provide utility and service. If we can't do that for a given subject, we should save our energy. Given a choice between publishing a piece that adds no value to a conversation and publishing nothing at all, publish nothing. I found myself taking this advice to heart in many realms.
From 2000 to 2014 I posted 423 movie reviews on this blog and its predecessors. From 2014 through this year, just about a decade, I have published twenty-five. But I also completed and released five or six books (the timing on a couple of them are a little fuzzy), and shifted most of my critical output to Ganriki.org, where I published a couple hundred articles over the last ten years. And as of 2022, I shuttered that site for many of the same reasons I more or less quit writing reviews generally. I felt like whatever point of view I had to bring to the material either didn't really exist, or wasn't articulated well enough to be worth it, or was pre-empted by superior effort.
It was this last reason that became predominant. Every time I sat down to talk about something I thought I had something to say about, I realized everything I had to say about it that mattered had already been said better, at greater length, more powerfully, more persuasively, more completely by other people. And once again, my boss's advice prevailed: given a choice between adding no value and saying nothing, I chose to say nothing. My energy was better saved for only the things I could say, and those were things I could not say any other way except as a story.
Here and there, inwardly, I made feeble gestures towards starting the gin mill up again. At one point I considered refocusing my writings about movies, etc. around Buddhist or Zen-Buddhist lines, until I saw a number of other people doing exactly such things — some well, some badly. That was all it took to make me lose interest, and that in turn convinced me I had not been looking for something to aspire to but merely a justification, a cover. I needed no such thing with my fiction.
I've seen and read and heard some really great things in the last few years, and I'm consistently disappointed in my inability to say anything about them that is more than just boosterism or banning. It doesn't help to say to myself: But the way I would talk about Barbie would not be the same way anyone else would talk about Barbie! Well, maybe so, but somehow that was still not enough. And I also know that examining other works have been a powerful way to learn how to improve my own works, but I could just as easily do that in the context of my own notes about a project, and not in public.
One of my favorite blogs, Something Old Nothing New, ran for several years and signed off with the note that the author felt he had run out of steam. He also had this illuminating point:
... you can't force yourself to be enthusiastic about anything, and in some cases, a lack of fandom can produce better writing, or allow something to be approached from a different angle. I sometimes do my better work when I'm trying to illuminate a point, rather than trying to say that this show is great or terrible.
Re-reading these words helped me reframe where I had run dry. Whatever points I wanted to illuminate with all the things I had picked up on for discussion, had been made until they were verging on truisms. At least, for me. Anything I wanted to say beyond that needed to be an actual story, it seemed. Not merely an essay, or a critique, or a deconstruction. I needed to save my energies for where they would be of the most value.
Another minor reason, but a significant one in retrospect, was that I started writing about these things at a time when it was incrementally more difficult to experience some things than it is now. I loved to dig things up and talk about them, back when the digging meant something. I enjoyed being an evangelist for things that lived in the corners, and using the perspectives gained from that evangelism to look at popular things with fresh eyes. Now things are more readily available than ever, and so are deconstructive or contrarian opinions about both popular culture and niche culture. What I needed to do was not come up with spicier opinions — that's the road to clickbait hell — but ask myself what I could really do that mattered. I knew the answer to that: make my own stuff.
The struggle I have is in the constant low-level desire to say something, only to find the desire alone is not enough. I tried to do that with a couple of movies I adore that recently got nice reissues -- The Maltese Falcon and Paths of Glory — and in both cases I produced tiresome, uninsightful essays that I didn't even want to sign my name to. I kept saying to myself, wasn't this stuff so much easier when I didn't know what I was doing? Well, sure, it always is, and that's the problem. Ignorance is the most toxic bliss we have.
Maybe what I'll end up doing is akin to an exercise friends of mine have done for each other in the past — they would challenge each other to write X number of words on some given subject. They'd give each other reading or watching assignments, so the resulting project would have a guaranteed audience of at least one other person. I know a few people who would be happy to supply me with assignments like this. If that leads me back to a state of grace with my critical work, I'm all for it.