No Ideas But in Things: On Writing about Politics

September 10, 2018 § 12 Comments

zz_amosBy Peter Amos

No ideas but in things. Over the last two months, I’ve made my first real push for publication. Prominent magazines and journals often accept a fraction of one percent of submissions. There are thousands of others that accept between five and ten percent. The point being that, by virtue of submitting my own work, I’ve read gobs of essays from a slew of journals.

Coming at anything as an outsider can be fascinating. Everyone is an insider somewhere. I talk about Star Wars with my best friend from elementary school in a shorthand that culls outsiders quickly. With that in mind, I’ve noticed two things about magazines and journals, one related to the other.

The first is that essays are overwhelmingly narrative and skew wildly toward memoir. All people who strive to be better at things tend to over-learn the lessons of their mistakes. No ideas but in things. Write what you know. I hear both phrases floated to support a narrative style grounded in objects, people, events, and action. I’m not sure they mean what I always think.

No ideas but in things –

I twist this phrase frequently to avoid abstraction rather than to suggest ways in which it can be expressed. Nevermind that the phrase is ripped from a beautifully cryptic and meandering sentence. Even in its common usage among aspiring writers, it’s a challenge rather than a crutch. Ideas are better concrete, but the point at which I trust the reader to take my meaning is dangerously close to the point at which I avoid entirely having to have one.

Write what you know –

Writing stems from experience and perspective. But writers don’t only write from what they know, they strive tirelessly to know the thing about which they are curious. You know what you write.

The second thing I’ve noticed about magazines and journals is that the overwhelming majority explicitly forbid the submission of political opinion. I understand immediately. Politics can be divisive and, either way, many journals and magazines are simply working toward a different aesthetic. But that disappoints me.

Writers are notorious radicals in the truest sense. Saul Bellow wrote of great art that “its departure from tradition is the result not of caprice or policy but of an inner necessity.” Writers push against things, poke them with sticks, prick the surfaces to see if they pop, swim over to the deep end of the pool and trawl the floor for pennies. When the world demands lock-step conformity and passive voice, simply walking in the other direction can be transgressive.

George Orwell wrote that political writing is bad writing. He’s also the strongest evidence to the contrary. In context, Orwell argued not against political writing and social criticism, but against dogmatic writing of any kind.

No ideas but in things –

In politics, the phrase is perverted: No things, but in ideas. Political punditry is riddled with euphemism and distant language, but politics are fundamentally about people. No one is better equipped to humanize an idea than a writer. For Orwell to write of his life and his community and his world without engaging the politics of the time would have been dishonest. I’m inclined to think the same of most other lives and communities and worlds and times.

Engaging abstraction – untangling the yarn inside one’s own head – is the first step. Joan Didion wrote powerful stories and pieces of investigative journalism, but also breathtaking and funny contemplations of ideas: “On Keeping a Notebook” or “On Self-Respect.”

Aversion to politics or social criticism, I think, stems from an aversion to being wrong, or fear of being taken as arrogant. But is the confidence to write boldly about an idea more arrogant than a paralyzing fear of turning out to be wrong?

Two more things Saul Bellow wrote:

“There is grandeur in cursing the heavens, but when we curse our socks we should not expect to be taken seriously.”

… and …

“ … there is only the pitiful obstinacy of a ‘position,’ that marvelous dishonesty of modern politics.”

Write about big things or small. Weigh them appropriately. Curse the heavens, but roll my eyes at the socks. Write about them both. Positions are things I occupy in opposition to something else rather than vantage points upon which I look to improve. The “marvelous dishonesty” is not the location, but rather the manufactured opposition or permanence it implies.

I got back into writing by writing about politics and do so almost constantly. In the first months of 2016, I began a piece by saying that “I try not to write about politics but …” I wrote countless other things about which I later changed my mind. E.L. Doctorow, in his first essay for The Nation, laid out what writing about an idea or developing a fiction really means. He writes not because he has a profound thought to express, but because he needs to figure out what he thinks in the first place. He feels deeply about something and begins to explore it. The idea emerges along with the words:

“That is why ideologically committed writers, brilliant political persons, engaged artists, often write material that is born dead. Their ideas are stamped out on their work, cutting and forming it according to needs exterior to it.”

Talking is how ideas spill out.  Writing is how one sifts through the bog that’s left over and examines everything for value.

Most political writing is bad writing. But I wish writers wouldn’t abandon politics to ideologues – for the simple reason that writers write well. When the language of solid things, of humanity and action and emotion, occupy themselves elsewhere, the machinery of the world is left to empty words and dishonesty. Writers are radicals in the truest sense. Radical in their uncertainty and desire to humanize every idea, to bring things close and look them in the eye. That’s a valuable perspective in any field, politics most of all.
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Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia.  The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it.

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