Non-fiction writing is a special kind of auto-sadomasochism

research - so many books

It occurred to me this evening, as I drafted the first full research strategy for the propaganda project that it’s a special kind of auto-sadomasochism.

The excitement of beginning a new project is unparalleled. There are only two places that are super exciting, for me, in a new project. One is right at the beginning, in the first flush of unknown ignorance; a time that makes everything seem relatively easy, simple to address, fast to write, and impactful to release. The other is right at the end, when you have finished writing a work, have printed it, wrapped it, and let it prove.

Of course, this excludes the production of a book, which is another Little Death that happens later.

Researched non-fiction is the ultimate auto-sadomasochism. I don’t mean that the pain of it makes me sexually excited; rather, it gives me some kind of existential la petit mort. There’s a reason why PhDs take four years of full-time work to complete: It’s intense, arduous, and–depending on your topic–apparently never-ending.

In his interview with Joe Rogan back in 2017, Henry Rollins explained some of this. He spoke about how the best part of finishing a book is writing the next one: And that is totally true for me. As soon as he’s into the next book, it’s at least two to three years of work. And until the book is off his desk, it’s just effort.

It’s true. I don’t think any writers would disagree with me on that.

Right now, I’m at the bottom of the mountain with the propaganda project. I began reading by instinct; the time has come to define a research strategy. This has been helped along by using TheBrain to capture concepts, notes, and ideas, and start seeing the–gigantic–landscape.

In one hand, I have TheBrain and Zotero, and am fiercely documenting, thinking about, and linking everything that comes my way. On the other hand, I have the map generated by TheBrain, one that becomes more detailed as I go up the mountain and can gradually see more of where I am.

And on my back is a backpack, into which I am collecting gems along the way.

I’ve literally just gone past the signpost telling me that I’m now in the land of Conscious Incompetence. While I was still unaware of my incompetence, the entire project seemed so simple. Now I have a huge chasm ahead of me, filled by what appears to be an ocean, and beyond it–if I peer through my foggy, cheap binoculars–I can see a sheer cliff stretching to all horizons on the other side of the chasm.

There is no way around it. I have to find a way to navigate the depths, and then, using what I find along the way, to scale the cliff on the other side.

Only then will I reach Conscious Competence.

The trouble is, the fun stuff–developing and testing new frameworks and models–is over the top of the Conscious Competence cliff-face.

And yet, something is driving me forwards. Whatever that something is, it causes me to fall over resources that appear by accident in my path; they’re proverbial bits of paper floating out of the sky; words scratched in a path that are only distinguishable from a particular angle.

This project is consuming me like nothing else I’ve worked on since the earliest days of my company. It’s almost like, now that I have got the measure of what I’ve built with that thing, I have to build the next thing. I have other projects I’m working on, too, but nothing is so seductive to me as this work. If I was so inclined I might suggest that it’s divinely inspired.

I get up at 5 am, and spend time on this project. While I’ve been sick, I’ve been reading, writing, and documenting. And every spare minute of the day, I’m thinking about the next thing. Even most of the messages I send or receive in a day are about this project!

But all I can feel is the pain of not being able to do this any faster. It takes time to read. It takes time to think. The more I read, the more I realise I need to read.

Even the knowledge that I’m going to hit convergence at some point is little comfort. All things converge at the constant, and literature reviews are no different. Yet, this project is so broad and so deep that the constant feels like it is a long way away.

It’s exciting, and painful, and terrifying, and exhausting, and I must keep going. The sadomasochist in me won’t let it go.

Perhaps that’s why so few people engage in such deep work. Throwing oneself into an arduous, taxing, research project–for which the payoff is so far into the future–isn’t exactly “fun” for your average Joe. Why would you work all day, and then sit down and read and write until you can’t any more? When there is no visible (or even right now, intangible) outcome? When you don’t have even have people knowledgeable enough (or interested enough) to discuss it with?

It’s a case of forcing yourself into monastic isolation, bursting with ideas, surrounded by people with whom you know you can’t discuss anything.

It’s a particular prison that perhaps only research students understand.

Except for one thing: They have a defined timeline, and a degree waiting for them.

All I have right now is a vague map, and a desire for self-satisfaction.

And until I get it, most of the journey is painful, frustrating, terrifyingly remote, and unbelievably exciting.

Your support helps this research continue at a cracking pace

Metasocial propaganda is the concept that propaganda is built into the culture, that it informs how you think, feel, and talk, without you even noticing. It’s like 1984 on speed. This project–The Propaganda Project–unpacks it, shows you how to spot it, and even how to use it. (You know, if you’re like Pinky and The Brain and want to take over the world.) By contributing to the research fund, you enable it to happen at a faster pace. And in return, you’ll get the inside view, week to week, with exclusive content and podcasts. Are you in? :

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