In July 2009 I posted my first essay on International Crime Authors Reality Check. In the last five years, I have posted 260 essays. (Note to self: buy a lottery ticket with 260.) To have written that number of weekly essays requires a certain kind of personality—one predisposed to an internalized tyranny. It is not unlike going to the gym. After a few weeks, the urge to put off working out or writing an essay grows. I haven’t figured out whether such discipline is a good or bad thing. All I can say is that truly surprises myself—looking back and finding that I managed each week to overcome the terror of not knowing what to write next. Yet each week, I discovered a subject, an idea, a pattern or trend worth exploring.
My style is to write an essay as if I am talking out loud to an old friend. Someone I urgently want to communicate information to about what I’ve stumbled over, whether it is a cultural artifact, a technological development, a scientific study, crime investigations and stories, or a new book that opens a door to new ideas. The large range reflects my eclectic interest in law, politics, economics, science, history, psychology, and sociology. I think of these categories as layers of analysis that focus on a specialized aspect of our world. To understand reality means overcoming illusions and biases, and judgments in favor of examining different perspective on hard questions that life raises.
An unexamined life is not a life worth living. I have that taped to my computer.
The purpose of an essay is a kind of personal pattern making from a noisy information charged environment, one that is constantly changing, spinning a litany of contradictions, paradoxes, and uncertainties. The best essay raises the hard questions that lie submerged below the surface of our consumer society with its slogans, headlines, and sound bytes. The best essay refrains from the temptation to give a facile answer. The shadows of doubt can never be eliminated. And that is precisely why there isn’t an Essay Channel on TV.
It is normal to want resolution. Even if that requires distortion, illusions and lies the comfort of believing that the author has solved a problem is irresistible. If you’ve followed my essays over the past five years, you have likely witnessed an evolution in my own thinking and writing. While, I may offer my own meaning of events, I’ve tried to understand that context and multi-perspective giving is a better approach. I’d rather a reader draw his or her own meaning. Events and forces are a roll of the dice. There is never any certainty what numbers will come up next.
I am a searcher and essays and novels are my tools. Like most tools they have their limitations. The way we use words and the situations in which we employ them is a confession of our bias. Each week I roll the dice. What caused those numbers to come up? One valuable lesson that comes from this kind of writing is to understand how much we take causation and agency for granted. And for that reason, most of our analytical tools fail the task of extracting the truth. We find it exceptionally difficult to accept that very small causes can have outsized effects. A nineteen year old shoot and kills an archduke in 1914 and ignites World War I leading to the death of millions of people. Any nobody who rolls the dice has the potential to bankrupt the casino. We look for meaning in a chain of causes even though the best minds such as Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and Slow”), tell us that all the evidence is that such a chain is an illusion. Causation and agency are our shields against the forces of randomness and chance. We don’t leave home without that shield.
Essays are either shield building or shield destroying. I tend to write the latter. That is likely a huge career mistake if I want to be popular.
We are hungry for narratives that give us plausible alternatives to explain life in the face of doubt and chance. Storytellers who create the simple, complete and satisfying story as a guide have our admiration and loyalty. There is a kind of cruelty that comes from the truth that there is no escape from the uncertainties of life. It makes readers uncomfortable. They look for the exit. Who can blame them? No one wishes to give up on the hope of meaning that transcends pure chance. Our modern life is based on the promise of that transcendence and pushes back on a destiny shaped by the outcome of events and forces beyond our ability to control—boundaries, culture, violence, and power.
When I reflect back over five years of essay writing and a quarter of a century of novel writing, I feel that I’ve been on a grand journey. I had to let go of a lot to take that journey. But I am glad that I made that choice. I am frankly not certain if I’d have the courage to have left a tenured university position should a time machine take me back to Vancouver in 1984.
I’ve recorded the experiences, people, events and ideas I’ve discovered along the way in words. I’ve described what I’ve experienced, felt, seen, touched, loved, hated, and wished for—and when you expose yourself in this very public way, the question is why bother, was it really worth the effort? Wouldn’t it have been better if I’d kept my thoughts to myself, taken a vow of silence, been still, and sought an inner peace beyond which words can describe?
I rolled the dice. What you read is the numbers that came up. Rather than looking back, I am looking ahead and asking what I’ve learnt over this time. About writing, life in Thailand, human nature, politics, the book and film business, relationships and communication.
I feel less certain of what I know and what I can know than when I started this journey. At the same time, I’ve become more comfortable with discontinuity and disruptions. I fear them less, and see such events as a natural part of what life delivers. I try to spend more time in the present than dwelling in memories of the past or in possible future realities.
We are in the midst of an information revolution. Whether essays and blogs such as mine continue to exist in this form five years from now is anyone’s guess. Will I finally run out of steam and say enough is enough? I don’t know. I use the metaphor of ‘out of steam’ with intent. Human beings are weak; they run down, break down after a relatively short period of time compared to the longevity of machines in the medium future.
Storytellers thrived in a world of incomplete knowledge. A world where evidence, facts, data played a different, smaller roll. Storytellers have had an audience because an ability to detect and explain patterns and weave them into compelling narratives that deliver a whole, complete and universal feeling to the reader. I fear our position won’t last. The best of algorithms to mine metadata for patterns will likely report correlations—depending us on our cause and agency fix—and deprive us of the cozy completeness of a unified, coherent, and plausible story that endures. In the world of big data and algorithms nothing endures as every nanosecond the patterns are adjusted as new data is accessed, analyzed and evaluated. And not just the data patterns, but the networks and connections shift and move.
But for now, I’d like to invite you to climb aboard a weekly train of thought, buckle up, and take a ride into the unknown with a driver who from week to week has no particular destination in mind. If I can challenge you to rethink something you’ve felt was settled long ago, or point toward ideas that you may not have discovered, then writing this blog will have been worth the effort. Sharing ideas is like sharing food; it something you do with friends. Online has in some ways changed how we view friendship, but I’d like to think that anyone who has read this far, is a fellow journey taker, who is ready to take the cup and roll ‘em.