A Writing Lesson

I wrote my first book in about fifteen months. I have been working on my second book for nearly two years, and the process has been both frustrating and illuminating.

The frustrating part has been the slow progress. While I have done a tremendous amount of research, I also did a lot of research for my first book. But the nature of the research has been considerably different. For the first book, most of the research consisted of finding examples, and that consisted primarily of finding articles, websites, or a particular page in a book. For the second book, much of the research has consisted of reading entire books. In many instances, the books were not particularly exciting, such as Josiah Royce’s The Philosophy of Loyalty.

The illuminating part has been the evolution of my theme. My original theme was: California is dominated by collectivism and Texas is dominated by individualism. And I could find ample evidence to support this theme. For example, California has some of the highest taxes and most draconian regulations in the nation, while Texas has no state income tax and is widely regarded as one of the most business friendly states. Further, the economic performance of the two states provided additional evidence.

In studying the histories of both states, I traced these ideas back to the two events that, in many ways, define each state—the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill and the Alamo. For nearly eighteen months, I was confident in my theme.

But several facts kept troubling me. Texas was a slave state, and after Reconstruction, Texas enacted Jim Crow laws. And today, Texas has some of the strictest abortion laws in the nation. How could I claim that Texas was and is an individualistic state in the face of these violations of individual rights?

Interestingly, it was a book by current Texas Governor Rick Perry that clarified the issue for me. Texas is no more individualistic than California. Indeed, both are guided by a thoroughly collectivist premise—the “will of the people.” They simply apply that premise differently, and so, the consequences are different.

My error was in looking too closely at concrete issues. When I started, I was looking almost exclusively at economic issues. In that regard, my original premise was accurate. But human beings are not solely economic creatures. When I began to look beyond economics, I was confronted with facts that challenged my theme.

In any writing project, one must delimit. It is impossible to cover every aspect and tangential issue of a subject. But over limiting is just as dangerous, as one can easily overlook relevant facts that cast a completely different light on the subject. The “trick” is finding the balance, and that can only be found by addressing the subject in terms of essentials.

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