Confessions of a Lurker

Depending on how you look at it, online writing forums and message boards are either a tremendous resource or a great waste of time. The same could be said of any number of blogs geared to wannabe screenwriters and novelists. I confess to spending about an hour a day checking various social media sites, Yahoo groups and online communities, but almost always as a lurker. Rarely do I post my own views or observations, which in the eyes of some means I’m not “contributing” to the discussion.

It’s not that I don’t have an opinion — believe me, there have been many instances I wanted to vigorously argue about a particular topic, be it a bit of advice, a movie or book, politics, religion, whatever. I mean, I’m a writer… that’s what we do. We create characters whose sole purpose is to be in conflict with other characters we invent. In effect, we spend much of our time arguing with ourselves when we write, putting ourselves in the shoes of diametrically opposed individuals who may or may not reflect our own values. Is it any wonder writers relish opportunities to argue with someone else, even if it’s just an anonymous poster on some seemingly trivial matter?

When I visit sites like Done Deal, I come for the information shared by working pro screenwriters… but I stay for the 15-page threads that degenerate into huffy diatribes and inane debates over who-said-what-about-so-and-so. What amazes me are the number of pro writers who participate in those marathon threads — I think they actually welcome the chance to put aside pay-for-hire projects and engage in snarky word slinging. Why else would they do it?

Anyhow, it got me to thinking about whether most writers are naturally argumentative… or do they wind up in arguments because writers have an innate curiosity about things in general, which leads them to questioning any given statement or commonly held belief? It reminds me of an incident in a Philosophy of Art course I took in college, a long, long time ago…

Back then I was news editor of the college paper, so I purposely took some easy credits since I knew the 40 plus hours per week I was spending on writing/editing news stories meant I had to skip a few classes here and there. I actually enjoyed the Philosophy of Art lectures, but my notes were incomplete from missing one out of every three classes on average. That was a problem because the professor gave a midterm exam that was “open book” — except there was no text book. You had to rely on your lecture notes.

It was a simple essay question: Choose one definition of art you agree with, and explain why. Then pick another definition you disagree with and tell why. Man, this is easy, I thought. I leafed through my notes and found an intact definition. As a writer, I had no trouble filling up a couple of pages extolling the virtues of that philosophy. However, I really had to hunt through my scattershot jottings before I found another semi-coherent definition to argue against. But I came up with a pretty good refutation of that statement… or at least, I thought I did.

After we turned in our essays, I was chatting with a classmate who asked me which definitions I chose. After I told him, he started laughing and said: “You picked the same one — didn’t you realize it was just worded differently?” Um, no I didn’t, obviously. I felt like an idiot. Here I was taking an easy course with an open notebook test, and I managed to screw it up.

A funny thing happened though at the next class when the professor began handing back our graded papers. He said there were some interesting arguments, pro and con, and he launched into a defense of a particular definition. Then he stopped and said, “On the other hand…” and proceeded to pick apart the very same definition. “That’s called dialectic thinking,” he said. “It’s the basis of all philosophy. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.”

Unwittingly, I had written a dialectic argument for and against a philosophy that I agreed/disagreed with. He gave me a B+ on my essay. I should have argued for an A.

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