Lisa's Notebook

Writing Exercises by Lisa McNulty.

It's Nothing Personal

I really didn’t want to write The Trouble with Lists.

This is because:

  • It describes a genuine problem for me. I actually do physically write these lists, and find it soothing to do so, and then (this is not made explicit in the piece but is kinda obvious) feel pressurized and frustrated afterwards. I am sufficiently inexperienced at writing in public that this feels like personal information.

  • The fact that nice crisp stationery is a trigger for this is really specific, and it’s weird. I’m not sure I want you to know how weird I am.

The more unintended personal reveal is just how shockingly middle-class all of my hobbies are. Oh well. But when I wrote the piece, I found that even though the inspiration behind it was weirdly specific and personal, the actual post was not. I’m fairly sure that no-one who read it will have my particular, stationery-based problem. If I’m wrong about this: what should I write soothing lists of? Answers on a neatly written postcard. But it turns out that was merely a framing to explore the more general problem of, in David’s words, “the tendency for achievable, bounded, goals you want to morph into unachievable, unbounded, ones you want to want, out of a sense of completeness”.

I have long held the opinion that philosophy is a bit like sewing. Perhaps the metaphor applies to enquiry more generally, as well. You can guide the needle and thread downwards, to concrete, specific experiences; or upwards, to abstractions and general principles. However, it’s the capacity to move between these - to abstract from particular experiences, to apply the abstractions elsewhere to different experiences - which actually moves the needle and thread forwards, and ensures that you are creating something. Depending on the kind of enquiry you are doing, the particular experiences may be yours and yours alone, and yet what you are creating may still be something of more general use. In this sense at least, it’s nothing personal.

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