Writing, journalism and the revolutionary spirit

One of my favourite essays of all time – insofar as that’s a legitimate category – is one called ‘How to do what you love’ by Paul Graham, the startup guru. In it, he makes a case for the usefulness of a passion. Mine is writing; what kind of writing I don’t know yet. According to Graham,

To be happy I think you have to be doing something you not only enjoy, but admire. You have to be able to say, at the end, wow, that’s pretty cool. This doesn’t mean you have to make something. If you learn how to hang glide, or to speak a foreign language fluently, that will be enough to make you say, for a while at least, wow, that’s pretty cool. What there has to be is a test.

So one thing that falls just short of the standard, I think, is reading books. Except for some books in math and the hard sciences, there’s no test of how well you’ve read a book, and that’s why merely reading books doesn’t quite feel like work. You have to do something with what you’ve read to feel productive.

My personal test of how I’ve read a book comes to be when I write about it, when I take away something the book’s author did not directly intend, but which I realised by merging the book’s lessons and my experiences. I’ve applied my habit of writing – whether for The Wire or for the blog – in a similar vein to almost everything I do, hear, read or think. I write personally informed takeaways. The flipside of this is that when I’m unable to write about something, I disregard it, and I don’t know what the consequences of this have been or will be.

The one thing I’ve realised I don’t like about this habit is that it prevents me from crafting bigger lessons. Because I read a book, write about it, and then throw the book away (figuratively speaking), I make a habit of ‘not mulling over it’. I move on. As a result, my blog is littered with a string of shorter, piecemeal observations but nothing too protracted or profound. Thankfully, my writing habit also improves my memory: I remember better what I’ve written than what I’ve read/seen/heard. So looking back, I can piece together a picture of my thoughts over the course of time. The true issue arises when this habit is brought over into journalism.

In journalism, this seems to be a problem because it fosters a coverage-oriented mindset: “Have I covered this? If yes, then move on. If not, then cover it now and then move on.” Our coupling with the news cycle – which is a polished way of saying our dependence on traffic from Google News – means we cover frequently cover the smaller issues but rarely piece them together to reflect on the bigger ones. Ultimately, we believe that because we’ve written about it, it counts for something, and that we get to move on with clearer heads.

Mayank Tewari, who wrote the dialogues for the Bollywood film Newton, perhaps alludes to this when he tells Anindita Ghose (in Livemint),

“We are living in a time of self-conscious irony,” says Tewari. “We are aware of what’s wrong with our society… but if you read the righteous online news platforms, it’s as if just knowing this elevates [their writers and editors] from that reality. The revolutionary spirit is exhausted right there…the constant talking about what they are doing and what other people are not doing.”

The realisation that one knows about something is meaningless to our readers at large. But is its expression in words also equally meaningless? If they’ve adopted the coverage mindset, then Tewari is right: “the revolutionary spirit is exhausted right there”. We need to stop assuming that expressing our knowledge once will change anything.

This is difficult to internalise, however, especially if the journalist in question is busy. To go hammer and tonks at an issue, to repeat some details over and over again, doesn’t make for good business; it’s novelty that sells so it’s novelty that journalists seek out. And depending on what kind of a news organisation a journalist is employed at, I wouldn’t blame her if she wasn’t harbouring the revolutionary spirit.

Featured image credit: ChristopherPluta/pixabay.