According to legend, when George Will signed up to become a syndicated columnist in the 1970s, he asked his friend William F. Buckley, Jr.—the founder of National Review and a columnist himself—“How will I ever write two columns a week?” Buckley responded (I’m paraphrasing), “Oh it will be easy. At least two things a week will annoy you, and you’ll write about them.”
Buckley was right. Annoyance is an inspiration, aggravation a muse. That which gets your blood up, also gets the ink—or these days, pixels—flowing. Show me an author without passion for what he holds to be the truth and I will show you either a boring writer or someone who misses a lot of deadlines, or both. Nothing writes itself, and what gets the writer to push that boulder uphill is more often than not irritation with those saying wrong things righteously.
Nietzsche noted that happiness is not nearly as contagious as querulousness, and that a single unhappy person is enough to darken an entire household. Negativity is so easy and tempting, an apparent default setting for many people. I’ve often wondered why it seems so much harder to write interestingly about happiness or enjoyable things, whereas a disagreement certainly provides plenty of inspiration. My provisional conclusion is that when arguing with someone, you’re presenting information or a perspective that you feel is being overlooked or ignored. There’s a slight “twist” to the dialogue which seems to naturally appeal to us, a conflict which grabs our attention. But if I were to describe things that make me happy, it would be pretty straightforward and boring. “Today we went to dinner at an Italian restaurant. It was delicious. We had a good time talking and sharing food.” There’s no subtext to dig up, no conflict to excite the reader. It is exactly what it appears to be, and there’s nothing much to say about it. In fact, when you’re happy, you just want to experience it, not reflect on it.
Many years ago, I read a post about kishotenketsu, “a plot structure that does not have conflict ‘built in’, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest.” I’ve thought about it often since then, and in this context, I’m interested by the distinction between contrast and conflict:
Kishotenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. The basics of the story–characters, setting, etc.–are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. The third act is the core of the plot, and it may be thought of as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole.
I’m just thinking out loud here, but this makes me wonder how I might incorporate contrast, in this sense, into the sort of scribbling I do here. The older I get, the less I want to be exposed to the contagion of other people’s rants and resentments, let alone spread it myself.