From Reading to Writing
“He may have felt that, like therapists and religious leaders, writers have a legitimate right or duty to hear people’s confessions.” — Haruki Murakami, Men Without Women
Think back to a time when someone said an offhand remark that really hurt your feelings: an instance in which a callous comment that was said with no forethought stuck with you and shaped the way you think about yourself.
I can so vividly remember the time in college when I was walking home from my philosophy department during an unseasonably warm day in March, and I undid my shirt’s top button. My girlfriend at the time looked at my chest hair and said “Woah dude! Put that away!”
We had been dating for nearly 2 years, so I think (or at least, I’d like to think) that she said that as a joke. But still, it really stung and I started thinking of my chest hair as something to hide. A quick and thoughtless remark made me feel ugly and embarrassed.
Unfortunately, it goes both ways.
I once made a comment about her weight in a way that I didn’t even realize was insulting, and she brought it up six months later to tell me that she hadn’t forgotten about it and that it still made her feel really bad. I apologized, and I tried to explain that I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings; still, the damage was done, and although she forgave me, I still felt guilty for making her feel so upset.
A flippant remark that wasn’t even said with ill intent can have a profoundly negative impact on someone.
So it was with me and writing.
One of the first classes I ever took during my philosophy studies was led by a very handsome and scholarly professor on Nietzsche whose intellect was surpassed only by his pomposity. The type of guy whom Nietzsche would’ve been proud to have teaching a course on Nietzsche.
At one point during the first class, the professor said (with an air of absolute certainty and bluster), “Anything you will ever think of has already been thought by smarter philosophers than you — and I can guarantee they expressed themselves in better words than you ever could!”
Here, again, I sense that this professor’s tongue was firmly planted in his cheek. (He had gorgeous cheekbones after all, so it’s only natural that he’d be cheeky at times.) Also, as a scholar himself, he knew better than most people that philosophy as a discipline is constantly bearing fruit in the form of novel ideas and new areas of inquiry.
Still, this offhanded, possibly jocular comment had a big impact on me.
I got the sense after that it was pointless to write down my thoughts — however intelligent or seemingly original they may be — since they were probably already written by people who were smarter than I. I believed my ideas weren’t worthy enough, and even though I’m sure I had good ideas to share (as we all do), I never actually put pen to paper.
I think of this experience as a form of impostor syndrome, which is the belief that we’re somehow not qualified for the positions we occupy. We know that impostor syndrome has a damning effect on people who struggle with self-confidence (it also disproportionately affects women), and even though I’m a fairly confident dude, I generally get really anxious about writing.
I realize that this anxiety is unfounded. Anyone can be a writer, and there are no qualifications or licenses or bar exams to pass before you’re entitled to open up a Google Doc and start typing away.
But let’s be real: yes, anyone can be a writer, in much the same way that anyone can be a singer, but that doesn’t make one a good writer. I sing in the shower, and I happen to have a divine voice that makes the angels of cleanliness weep lavender-scented tears of delight every time I lift my loofah, but I’m not about to hit up Beyoncé and tell her I’m joining her next tour. Similarly, I may know how to write, but I don’t expect I’ll be winning the Pulitzer anytime soon (even though my grammar is on fleek).
Reading books has the double effect of encouraging my desire to write, while further entrenching my impostor syndrome. I think, “Wow! I want to write like Toni Morrison!” But then I think, “Damn, I will never be as good as Toni Morrison.” 😭
It was only after my month of listening to 100 audiobooks that I realized I was being a silly goat.
“Of course I’ll never be a writer if I never even start writing” I thought.
So many of the authors I listened to had such wonderful things to say about writing as a practice. Philip Roth and Jhumpa Lahiri wrote their memoirs about the art of writing itself, and I really loved Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, which is all about the ups and downs in the life of a writer. In particular, it was the line by Murukami quoted above that really stuck with me. There’s something so enchanting about the magic of writing — it immortalizes the fleeting acts of speech and thought.
All the 100 books sort of blend together in my mind at this point, so I don’t remember which author is responsible for this sentiment, but one of them casually remarked in passing that writing itself is a gift to the world and future generations.
It was an inspiring comment, even if it was mentioned casually, and that attitude really shifted my perspective. It gave me the courage to start writing, and I’m already grateful for the change.
It’s true that casual remarks can have really harmful effects, but they can also have really positive and constructive effects too.
Besides, I already have a fan!