Thinky Thoughts with Aly: What vs. Why

I haven’t been in a writing frame of mind lately, which is a bit unfortunate for one who aspires to make a living doing so at some point in the near future. Editing and writing, I have discovered, use different parts of the brain — or, at least, they use different parts of my brain — and I’ve found that switching between the two is like changing political parties: There’s a lot of paperwork and justification involved. I spend at least eight hours of my day in Editing Brain, and it’s hard to steel myself to fill out the triplicate forms and get my story straight (literally) to put on Writing Brain when I get home.

And also, hanging with my husband while knocking back a bottle of vino is a big distraction. Have I mentioned that he’s my favorite human and that kicking it with him tops just about everything? No? Well, consider that oversight remedied here.

Anyway, it’s been brought to my attention (mostly by said huz) that thinking thinky thoughts and writing about them is part of what keeps me sane, and hey! since we’re all for that, I’m going to try cutting through the mental red tape to put on Writing Brain once a week or so for — tada!: Thinky Thoughts with Aly.

[This is where I insert a disclaimer about my qualifications for thinking and writing about thinky thoughts compared to other authors' credentials, and ask for your patience with my rather elementary approach and tone. Disclaimer ends here.]

For today’s installment, dear reader, I’d like to write about What versus Why. I was actually inspired to think thinky thoughts about What and Why by a book proposal I reviewed this week as part of my editorial duties. (All the editors get together once a week to rip on the ideas of others, which we weren’t man or woman enough to come up with on our own. I love my job!) In the proposal, which was so excellent that I hope we don’t publish it, the author suggests that in this dear old Information Age — borne out of the Age of Reason and accelerated by yummy technology — we try to substitute information (What) for meaning (Why).

Why would we do such a nitwit thing? you ask. (I did, too…and this is where the thinky thoughts come in.) I think we do it because What is easy and Why is hard; because we secretly hope that if we can wrap our brains around all the What in the universe about a Thing, the Why of the Thing will become suddenly obvious and we can dispense with a little thingamajigger called faith (which is the only thing that makes sense of Why).

Here’s a poorly kept secret: I’m a trivia whore. I love to know shit from shinola, and I love even more to tell you the difference. Why? Because information is power. (And who doesn’t love that, can I get an Amen? ) Why does information equal power? Because we’ve predicated our entire society on the faulty premise that the What can save us. Think about the War on Terror. Or consider that the NY Times bestselling “religious” book of the year is based on the idea that we think reality into existence — that the What is the Why. Our sneaky negative thoughts (What) are the reason (Why) we’re in such a fix! (Damn. I wish we’d known this before, say…the effing Holocaust.)

I think you see where I’m headed. Our addiction to What is killing us.

I’m definitely not saying that What isn’t important — I think I may have mentioned that I like information as much as the next gal (and perhaps slightly more). My point is that only Why can make sense of What…not the other way around. To be didactic about it: We can use our What well only when we have a good Why.

Thus concludes the first installment of Thinky Thoughts with Aly.

11 thoughts on “Thinky Thoughts with Aly: What vs. Why

  1. michael lee

    I wonder if the need for more and more information is tied to our intellectual instinct to sort data into patterns. We take in data, organize it into a structure that makes sense of it, then use that structure to gather more data.

    What would that look like if you took out the second part of the equation, the “Why”? Probably a lot like the feedback loop of gather gather gather that you’re talking about here. We keep gathering more data hoping a pattern will emerge.

    Thank you so much for linking to my wonderful faculty page, Aly. I don’t know who wrote it, but I think it might have been done as a homework assignment in Remedial College Writing. It’s kind of astounding, given that I handed them a typed document with highlighted lines to use. Yet they still managed to 1) make things up that I didn’t do, 2) make up artists that don’t exist (check out “David Furtado” under professional experience. Huh?) Also, my favorite thing on that entire page is the “Expertise” section. Not only did they misspell “Orchestrator”, their list of my specialties includes “Touring”. How the heck is that an area of expertise? That’s like saying “Using the Elevator”.

    “Amongst my many professional qualifications, I am fully capable of sitting my butt down on a bus seat and playing 9 hours of Madden NFL between concerts. Cheers!”

  2. Stick

    Yeah, the last one was ok, but his best stuff is the indie stuff he did before selling out to the major label. Stupid MTV.

  3. michael lee

    Follow up to Aly’s actual, ya know, content …

    ‘What’ is passive, but ‘Why’ is active. You can accumulate lots of ‘what’ without having to do anything about it, but once you move to the ‘why’ part, all of the sudden it carries moral implication, responsibility, it starts to actively mess with our lives.

  4. Rosy

    Rattling off a lot of “whats” can make you seem intelligent to the non-critical listener. Rattling off a lot of “whys” can make you seem like some artsy-fartsy dreamer to the same listener.

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