Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Retrospective Wince

Of the many traits, qualities, and tendencies hard-wired into the human kind, your favorite candidate for Most Overlooked is doubt.  And yet, the potential for doubt is legion.

You can begin your deluxe doubt safari by doubting the truth of a statement--any statement,  This is a basic Skepticism 101 approach to the ever widening gyre of propaganda about you that has been presented as though it were fact.  There is some small satisfaction in having doubted, researched the ramifications of your doubt, determined your doubt to have been justified, then sit back, smug and at peace with the entire transaction.

You can have suspicions about something presented to you as fact or high probability, then do nothing to research your doubts, at which point, you become the loser in the transaction.  If you are not careful, dozens of such events will occur to you, but you will not respond with research.  You in effect become a tacit accomplice to the propaganda that is pretending to be fact.  

You can doubt that your failure to check on your suspicions will produce any adverse results.  But you will be wrong.  Your insulation of doubt and cynicism will have thinned a bit, making you more likely not to question the next stirring of doubt within your internal mechanisms.

Over a period of time, this could lead you to stop doubting, leaving a hole that will soon fill with the complacency of thinking you are well informed enough about a few tiny things.  This complacency will allow you to think you have good instincts, good judgment, thus able to judge how much you know of a thing or condition without ever having articulated the potential for mischief.  You are, after all, a shrewd, well-read fellow, are you not?

In fact, you are hardly well-read, simply because you've read a few dozen or hundred books.  You are perhaps shrewder than you might from time to time imagine because of the accidental and eclectic factors of your choices for the books you did read.  Yet you doubt there was any grand organizational force behind your accidental choices of things to read.  In greater fact yet, you read many of the things you've digested over the years as an idiosyncratic response to being bored and wishing not to be bored, but holding interest and focus and self-awareness hostage with the demand that the thing you seek to read be on its face inspirational and filled with vital, vivid information.

You are in many ways at your most strong when you most doubt your intelligence and understanding, a state that causes you at least this much honest self-evaluation:  You wonder which thing or things you need to understand in order to move to whatever may be on the next tier.

This position often reminds you of the times you ran a carnival booth where the object of the role you played was to see if you could guess the age, weight, profession, and various other improvised traits of an individual customer.  The reward for the customer was a series of prizes or premiums arranged on the shelves of a large bookcase.  The most expensive prices were on the top shelf.  The least expensive, at the time scarcely worth the two or three cents you'd paid for it, at the bottom shelf.

At the time, the customer paid you 25 cents, a bet that you could not guess his weight.  Of course you couldn't guess it, because of the laws of profit and loss.  Your "loss" or failure to guess correctly meant you were selling the customer a prize worth two cents from the bottom shelf.  Not a bad profit.  But wait, for another quarter,let me see if I can guess your occupation.  If I miss, your prize will be from the next shelf (a prize worth at best five cents).

The customer comes forth with another quarter.  You ask to see his hands, which you've already noticed seem to be covered with a brownish tint betraying a walnut picker.  You take a long critical look at the customer, then smile in recognition.  You've got him nailed this time.  "You are,"  you announce loudly, "a bus driver.  Those limber arms of yours was a dead give away."

Of course the walnut picker is overjoyed to have put one over on you.  You plead an opportunity to "get even."  The ante is upped to a dollar. The prizes on the fourth shelf are beginning to look intriguing, although they're rarely worth the dollar of the customer's bet.  You lose again, calling the customer's attention to the lamp or nightstand radio or stuffed teddy bear, worth perhaps a dollar fifty.  

Your goal is to work the player "up the shelves" to the point where you are betting in effect that you can pretty much guess anything about the player.  Which state he was born in.  How many foreign languages spoken at home.  You are pretending to know this individual while selling him the extreme doubt of your knowledge.  You are selling him on your rube-ness and him on his ability to fool you.  Good analogy here.

When you are sure of a thing, you've accepted the challenge to show proof.  When you lead with doubt, you are challenging yourself to do as well as you can plus an extra spurt of something more.

When you begin reading what you consider to be a well-written story or longer work, you begin to doubt you can extract all the many clues and nuances, a doubt that often reminds you of the doubts you experience in everyday life.  The more you read, the more you are making a tacit agreement to come back to this work in another year or five or ten, because you doubt you'll have extracted the many wonderful implications from the one reading.

After a time of working on a story or novel, you doubt you could be more clear or artful, and so you consider the work finished and it is until your agent has read it and made suggestions, whereupon it goes to a number of publishers who see things you at one point doubted you missed.

What is more humbling than coming back to something you wrote some time back?  One more humbling thing is coming back to something you wrote and "sold" to some publishing venue some time back.

You doubt you'll ever get beyond this point of what you think of as The Retrospective Wince, which is what you often do when you return to something done way back when you were too dumb to doubt but thought at the time you were pretty good to have tried.


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