I’m Like, I Said

Or, In Defense of a Much-Loathed Linguistic Trend

So I was talking to my boss the other day and I was like, “Does anyone know what they’re doing on this project?” And he was like, “I wish.”

Now, what did I just say there?

People have been lamenting the decline of the verb to say for a surprisingly long time — at least as long as I’ve been around, which is enough. When I was growing up, the culprit was goes:

“So he goes, ‘What are you doing this weekend,’ and I go, ‘Going to a stupid family reunion’.”

I never liked goes very much. As a writerly type, I always felt an obligation to speak properly, whatever that meant, and to not give in to imprecision, trends, laziness or other bad linguistic habits. (That doesn’t mean I correct other people when they do it, but that’s for another post.) In college I took some linguistics courses — well, all of two, but it didn’t take much to change the way I think about language. The thing that struck me most was the distinction linguists make between being descriptive and prescriptive. As far as I had always known, as far as I had ever been taught, the only relevant issues concerning writing, speaking and language related to what you should do. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. (Actually, it’s OK to do that.) Avoid double negatives. Make positive statements rather than negative ones (“I forgot” versus “I didn’t remember”). It hadn’t really occurred to me that it was possible to take a different stance: that of the impartial observer, dissecting the ways in which people bend and shape the language to suit their needs, just as they’ve been doing ever since they started talking.

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Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs and the Wrong Question

You have no fucking idea what it’s like to be me.
— Steve Jobs

While I have deliberately avoided reading most of the critical reaction to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the broad consensus seems to be that Isaacson had the biographer’s opportunity of a lifetime, and blew it. Despite having unprecedented access to one of the most relentlessly private of public figures, Isaacson’s is a book without insight: his Steve Jobs is the same collection of contradictory impulses he has always been, a self-centered, unlikeable man who somehow created products that people adored, changing whole industries in his wake. In a world full of assholes, critics complain, what set Jobs apart? What made it possible for him to do the extraordinary things he did?

Let me say first that I agree in principle with the critics: Steve Jobs is a lousy book. I believe I arrived at the conclusion via a different route from a lot of other people, and I’ll get into that soon. First, let’s consider the argument, articulated well by Thomas Q. Brady, quoted on Daring Fireball:

I know lots of people that could be described [as “self-absorbed, immature, emotionally unstable control-freaks”], and none of them started a company in their garage that became one of the most valued corporations in the world. What made Jobs different? This isn’t really answered.

Actually it is, at least to a point. There is the asshole half of the Jobs equation, and then there is the other half, which Isaacson documents and which everyone already knows about: his fanatical obsession with spare, minimalist design; his belief that he was destined for greatness and his determination to achieve it; his tremendous persuasiveness; and his knack for infusing technology products with an underlying human friendliness. Unlike Jobs’s more unsavory characteristics, these are not common traits. Combine them with the ones above, and the story of Steve Jobs begins to seem, if not inevitable, then at least somewhat plausible.

Our civilization has spent centuries debating the origins of genius — even the definition of genius — and yet with each new transformational figure that comes along, we start the debate all over again. The truth is that genius has no formula. It cannot be predicted, reconstructed, feigned (for very long) or dissected, at least not in any way that is remotely edifying. You can quantify the factors that make it possible for people to be successful; for instance, Jobs acknowledged how lucky he was to grow up in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people who could nurture his talents and fire his ambitions. Had his parents opted to raise him in the suburbs of Wisconsin, we’d likely never have heard of Steve Jobs. But creativity — or inventiveness if you prefer, since we don’t tend to associate creativity with non-artistic pursuits — is a process that ultimately operates beneath the threshold of awareness. Indeed, it can operate in no other way; inspiration is not an algorithm.

Many people seem to have expected Isaacson’s book to provide the missing piece of the puzzle — the key that would finally unlock the secret of his genius and forever solve the enigma of Steve Jobs. They were never going to get what they wanted, because it didn’t exist. There was no “one more thing.” The enigma is its own solution.

I don’t want to give the impression that any inquiry into the inner workings of a genius is futile, or that Isaacson should be let off the hook for writing a superficial book about a man who was anything but. I merely suspect that no one could have written an entirely satisfying book on Steve Jobs, because the things people want to understand about him aren’t really explicable. What made Jobs different? How did he look at a Rio MP3 player and conceive what would become the iPod, where everyone else just saw a clunky, half-assed music player? You can posit various intermediary reasons — because he was driven to achieve perfection, because poor design caused in him something akin to physical pain — but what do those explain? What are the reasons for the reasons? The truth is that Steve Jobs did what he did because his unique blend of innate qualities, combined with the people and places that helped to shape his worldview, allowed him to. His career was the result of a confluence of circumstances so unlikely as to appear impossible. “What made Steve Jobs different?” is more a rhetorical question than an actual one. It is a way for our mathematically hampered brains to acknowledge the  baffling unlikelihood of his achievement — the incredible fact that in this world, a man like him could exist at all.

So having put that issue in perspective, what is my primary objection to the book? I will put it in straightforwardly Jobsian terms:

The writing sucks.

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13 Writing Prompts

1.

Write a scene showing a man and a woman arguing over the man’s friendship with a former girlfriend. Do not mention the girlfriend, the man, the woman, or the argument.

2.

Write a short scene set at a lake, with trees and shit. Throw some birds in there, too.

3.

Choose your favorite historical figure and imagine if he/she had been led to greatness by the promptings of an invisible imp living behind his or her right ear. Write a story from the point of view of this creature. Where did it come from? What are its goals? Use research to make your story as accurate as possible.

4.

Write a story that ends with the following sentence: Debra brushed the sand from her blouse, took a last, wistful look at the now putrefying horse, and stepped into the hot-air balloon.

5.

A wasp called the tarantula hawk reproduces by paralyzing tarantulas and laying its eggs into their bodies. When the larvae hatch, they devour the still living spider from the inside out. Isn’t that fucked up? Write a short story about how fucked up that is.

6.

Imagine if your favorite character from 19th-century fiction had been born without thumbs. Then write a short story about them winning the lottery.

7.

Write a story that begins with a man throwing handfuls of $100 bills from a speeding car, and ends with a young girl urinating into a tin bucket.

8.

A husband and wife are meeting in a restaurant to finalize the terms of their impending divorce. Write the scene from the point of view of a busboy snorting cocaine in the restroom.

9.

Think of the most important secret your best friend has ever entrusted you with. Write a story in which you reveal it to everyone. Write it again from the point of view of your friend. Does she want to kill you? How does she imagine doing it? Would she use a gun, or something crueler and more savage, like a baseball bat with nails in it?

10.

Popular music is often a good source of writing inspiration. Rewrite Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” as a play.

11.

Write a short scene in which one character reduces another to uncontrollable sobs without touching him or speaking.

12.

Your main character finds a box of scorched human hair. Whose is it? How did it get there?

13.

A man has a terrifying dream in which he is being sawn in half. He wakes to find himself in the Indian Ocean, naked and clinging to a door; a hotel keycard is clenched in his teeth. Write what happens next.

Originally published on McSweeneys.net.