The two dimensions of time
In life we tend to classify everything into difficult or easy things. However, we’d better bear in mind this classification is fluid. For example, many things we consider difficult when we are young become second nature as we grow up, and the opposite is also true.
For example, I remember quite clearly that as a child I could easily bite my own toes. Now instead it’s something I can only dream of. Of course, I’m not exactly missing the toe biting thing, but the flexibility such feat entailed.
Moreover, in some not so rare cases, aging we start again to find difficult some things we had mastered growing up. Just think of tying your shoes. As a small child you have to learn how to do it. Then, it gradually becomes second nature to you. And then, one day, you discover you have again to pay attention to the process. Because your hands shake, your fine motor skills suck, and the coordination eye-muscle is off.
From what I’ve just written, it seems obvious time influences the way we perceive how difficult or easy any given thing is. To start with, the more time we devote to something — that’s to say the more we practice — the more we get better at it. In addition, also our biological time matters. How old we are. How in shape and alert we still are, or not.
This of practicing and of the ever flowing of time are pretty banal observations. Yet it’s astounding how liberal are people when it comes to wasting their time.
Complexity is a… complex subject
If for a moment we forget about time and look at the things we consider either easy or difficult at the moment, it’s apparent that this easy-difficult classification has to do with complexity. In short, the more complex a thing is, the more difficult it usually is. Indeed, it’s not by chance dictionaries refer to them as synonyms.
At first blush, complexity looks like a fine proxy for difficulty. However, what I find most fascinating is the way complexity and simplicity go hand in hand for us humans.
For example, if you want to know who is the fastest man in the world when it comes to running a marathon, you can get a reasonably good answer with little effort. You can fire up your browser and ask “who is the fastest man in the world in marathon?”. In fact, so doing you would discover that at the 2018 Berlin Marathon, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge ran a marathon in 02:01:39, so setting the world record for men.
That’s a straightforward answer to a straightforward question. However, to accurately measure the time of such a feat, we use stopwatches whose inner workings are neither simple nor easy to understand. In addition, if we wanted to understand the way Kipchoge moves — the reasons he’s so quick and efficient — we would be facing walls of complexity whose surface we can only scratch.
This is to underline how the way we experience complexity and simplicity depends heavily on our perspective on any given phenomenon. I mean, breathing is easy. Really, there’s nothing more natural than this. And yet, can you tell me how the oxygen that is in the atmosphere gets trapped into our blood and ferried away to every last cell in our bodies?
Also, even if we’ve been making babies for ages we still don’t know half of what really happens. You know, how the cells differentiate, how they stop replicating, and how they know where they have to go to form all the different parts of the future baby. And on and on.
Sure, how the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But what is beauty? And an eye? How does it work? And what mental processes does a beholder entail? What is the relationship between eye and beholder?
Describing the world
Of course, you can always choose to take things at face value — for what they look like from the outside. You can look at the moon and say it’s just a small marble up there in the sky.
But the moment you start noticing the moon and the tides seem to be behaving in interlinked patterns, you’ll start feeling hard pressed to find answers.
These can be pragmatic. For example, even though you don’t know why this seems to be the case, given that moon and tides appear to be linked, and the moon phases are well known, you could decide to use them to determine tidal movements too.
This answer can then be dressed up with gods and deities. As a result, we can have Selene, who takes a stroll across the sky. And so doing she often weeps thinking of her long-dead beloved.
The version dressed up with deities isn’t inherently worse than the pragmatic one. After all, if thanks to new and better observations we came to a better understanding of the tidal patterns and discovered that every so often an outstanding tide would occur, we could always write a story in which Selene on certain days weeps more liberally, or next to nothing.
However, in general, the pragmatic view tends to become more and more observational and scientific. Instead, the Mythological view tends to crystallize and become a sort of received wisdom you can no longer challenge.
Verba volant, scripta manent
As writers we find ourselves in a unique position. In fact, while we work with quantifiable entities, these exist only in our minds. In fact, you can show a sign with the words Keep off the grass, you damn dog! and be pretty sure no dog will ever give a shit about it. The same goes with children who have yet to learn to read. And with every adult in the world who can’t understand English!
The fact is, we writers work with words we can count and arrange according to precise grammatical rules, and yet, these words can change their meaning, if only slightly, depending on who’s using them. For example, just think of the phrase I’ll be there in five minutes.
Five minutes. There are people who consider it normal to show up half an hour later. And others who feel they must apologize if they show up just after seven minutes!
Think also of the word mother. It can elicit feelings of love, longing, and melancholy in most people, but for some others the same word can elicit extremely different feelings. Maybe of fear and abandonment. This is essentially why a book that speaks to millions of people is still a book whose language is undecipherable to other millions.
From head to page
The same also occurs even in the head of every writer. In fact, no matter how experienced you are. The difference between the story you have in your head and the one you ultimately commit to the page is still an important difference. One that can hurt.
It can hurt not because what you wrote is terrible. But because you realize that a difference, a discrepancy, will always be there. Sure, you can widen your vocabulary. You can come to understand yourself and the people around you deeper and deeper. But at some point, when ideas stop floating about in your brain and enter this world of matter, they have to crystallize into one single form. And so doing they forever lose that dynamism you more or less unwittingly experience when they swim into your brain like happy fish.
Being a writer despite the indeterminacy of writing
As a result, a writer is someone who works hard to continually improve the quality of her writings — as if she were a child perennially learning to make more and more complex ties. A child who never feels she’s grown up and can relax, taking things for granted. A child who even though she knows she’ll never really master anything, and eventually time will take its toll, she keeps working and studying.
A writer is also someone who is deeply aware of the way a shift in perspective, even an apparently trivial one, can completely change a story, and is fine with it.
A writer is someone who has the balls to write a story, any story, and accept the fact it isn’t exactly the story she had envisioned. Someone who has the balls to edit that story till a point, and then to stop and pass on to something else, knowing well it will be another failure — but also knowing it will be an interesting failure.