This story doesn’t matter
Or to be slightly more specific, the content of this story doesn’t matter. This story matters a great deal. Come to think of it, the content of the story matters too, only in a very specific way. It matters because you’re here, in it, experiencing it. It matters because I’m thinking it and introducing it it to a system outside of my own brain. It matters because something has to be here. Something has to be the first thing I write if I’m going to do this thing where I commit to writing. That’s a thing I’m doing, by the way. I’m committing to writing something everyday. I would have told you about that plan earlier, but this is the first time I’ve ever spoken to you. Unless it’s not the first time I’ve spoken to you, in which case it’s the first time I’ve spoken to you in this voice, which is basically the same thing.
For at least the past six years I’ve lamented to myself and to my partner that I feel a drive to create without a suitable creative outlet. I realize now that what I’ve meant by those lamentations is that I want to make interesting things that people can observe and enjoy. I’ve meant that I want to turn the racing thoughts in my head toward some outlet that would produce a tangible object in the world. I’ve considered pursuing hobbies like photography, drawing, music, but nothing has ever fully piqued my interest. Anytime I’ve considered writing as a creative outlet, however, I’ve hesitated and ultimately stalled. I think almost exclusively in words. Words are the purest expression of my mind, and writing makes me feel vulnerable. Writing feels inherently confessional, even when I’m not writing about myself. I’m exposing the weird ways my brain puts ideas together, inviting you to wonder why someone would think those things using those thoughts in that arrangement.
I’ve also been dismissive of writing as a creative outlet because it’s hard not to feel like words are less interesting than other forms of expression. They can be a creative medium, yes, but they’re also utilitarian. They’re commonplace. When I experience a piece of art created in a medium I don’t understand well, I feel a sense of awe and admiration. When I talk about wanting to express myself creatively, I’m talking about making objects that inspire that same feeling in others. Words don’t generally fill me with that same feeling, so I’ve always assumed they wouldn’t do that for others either. When I experience a beautiful piece of writing, it feels different than experiencing other kinds of art because I can’t unsee the technique that underpins its creation. I don’t identify written words as creative objects with the kind of quasi-mystical power I associate with other media. But from what I gather, not everyone finds putting words together as easy as I do, and maybe it’s that feeling of not understanding how a thing is made that contributes a feeling of awe. Perhaps I can evoke that feeling in others even if I don’t feel it myself.
People who have the credentials to tell other people that they’re good at writing have told me that I’m a good writer, and I have no reason to suspect them of lying. I’m not sure that I agree with them though. I think that I have some talent with words that makes the things I write interesting to read. I don’t think I’m a good writer though. I think I could be, but I’m not right now. I don’t think I’m a good writer because I don’t have good writing habits. My perfectionistic brain mulls over each sentence and insists that it be fully formed before committing it to the page. I read and reread sentences that I just wrote and edit them in real time. I lose focus if I have to leave a piece of writing and come back to it later. I don’t write outlines. I don’t write drafts. I’ve never written a single piece of writing that was longer than a few thousand words. Of course I haven’t; can you even imagine writing something like a novel in the way I approach writing? You would start at page one, synthesize characters and story ideas as you go, decide how each sentence should be formed, double check each sentence as it’s written to make sure it’s perfect and ideally never have to do much more than proofread the final copy. Obviously I know that’s not actually how you write longer pieces — and honestly it’s not actually a good way to write short pieces either; it just happens to be slightly more doable.
So no, I’m not a good writer. But I know my way around a lexicon, my syntax is generally engaging, and I think I have some worthwhile things to say. I suspect that when people in the past have told me that I’m a good writer, one of the things they’ve meant is that they can see a value in my thoughts. I don’t know if my thoughts are any more valuable than anyone else’s, but they’re definitely the best thoughts I’ve ever experienced. So right now, in this moment in which I happen to have the emotional wherewithal to shut down the nagging voices that tell me that I’m wrong, not good enough, not talented enough, not smart enough, fundamentally flawed in a way that will permanently prevent me from achieving lasting satisfaction with my life, I’m going to give myself permission to feel proud of what I can do and hopeful about what I could do with it. All creativity starts with at least a small amount of delusion.
I’ve recently decided that instead of saying “I’m not good at that” I want to say “I haven’t placed enough value on that skill to develop it.” Saying “I’m not good at that” implies something essential and permanent while “I don’t have that skill” is experience based and malleable. “I don’t have that skill” is a more accurate reflection of reality, whereas “I’m not good at that” is limiting. It’s a dead end rather than a road. A torn up, overgrown road maybe, but a road nonetheless. It’s one of those small cognitive adjustments that feels incredibly obvious on one level, but it makes me feel like a wizard when it works correctly. So when I say “I’m not a good writer,” what I mean is, “I haven’t yet placed enough value on writing to develop it as a skill.” But I would like to. Some thing or set of things in my upbringing led me to believe that if you have a talent for something, it will come effortlessly. Of course the logical corollary to that belief is that if something doesn’t come effortlessly, you must not have the talent for it. That’s bullshit. Talent is a stepping stone. It makes practice easier, not unnecessary.
About a week ago I had an Uber driver tell me that in addition to driving people around Madison, they were also a writer, and that really stuck with me. They were taking me to work. Where I work is a coffee shop, and it’s the kind of place where writers come to write things. The driver mentioned that they might come into my shop to write sometime, and the reality and the proximity of a world where a Writer is a Thing You Can Be took me by surprise. I don’t know why it’s surprising. There are lots of words out there that need to be arranged in clever ways. Someone has to arrange them. The idea of writing as a profession has always held some mystique for me. I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of living a more nomadic lifestyle, traveling the world and not having much of a permanent home. The short list of things you can do for income without much of a permanent home features writing prominently, so when occasional flights of fancy lead me to imagine what such a life might look like, I am compelled to consider the prospect of being a writer. Usually this brief consideration concludes as I remind myself that I don’t have the je ne sais quoi and abandon my daydream.
I used to read a lot of webcomics, and a common factor in many of my favorites was that if you went back in the archives you would be confronted with laughably poor renditions of characters who would come to be defined by deft artistic hands in later years. There was no secret to the success of the formula: creating something on a regular schedule is effectively forced practice. I’m starting this project here and now because I want to force myself to practice. It’s an artificial beginning because all beginnings are artificial. This isn’t the first time I’ve written a chunk of rambling, semi-confessional text. This isn’t the first time I’ve posted something I’ve written on the internet. It’s a beginning because I’ve decided that I want to establish a demarcation here, and from here forward it’s my intent to write frequently, put the things I write out into the world for public consumption and maintain a reasonably cohesive, reasonably continuous collection of what I write. If my skills develop as I hope they will and if people come to read and enjoy it, then I might hope that someone would be willing to pay me to write something someday. To be more ambitious than that feels presumptuous at this stage.
Being a writer makes a tremendous amount of sense though. The amount of sense that it makes is giving me a feeling of peace that I find upsetting. That’s a thing about me, by the way, I find internal peace upsetting. If my anxiety and depression were people you would call this Stockholm Syndrome. Anyway, this isn’t about anxiety or depression [except in the sense that everything is in all ways and at all times about anxiety and depression]. There will be plenty of time for that later.
There’s something else though — what happens if I commit to this and fail? I’ve always told myself that the thing holding be back as a writer was the lack of a specific kind of skill, but what if I practice a lot and become someone with great writing habits and it turns out that no one cares what I have to say after all? What if it turns out that after two or three pieces of writing I’ve said everything interesting I have to say? I always feel this weird compulsion to hold something back, to make sure I don’t put all of my most interesting thoughts on the page, just in case I need them later. My logical brain knows that’s a ridiculous thing to worry about. If I really believe I can be a great writer, then there’s no way I can believe that this will be the best or most important thing I ever write. And if this is, in fact, the best, most important thing I ever write, then why should I hold anything back? So I’m writing these thoughts and setting them free. I am trusting that the depths of my mind are such that these thoughts individually have fairly little value. I am trusting that there are a lot of thoughts like these. Better ones even. These thoughts are probably small and trite and uninteresting. My way of writing them is probably technically flawed in some incredibly obvious way. Anyone with any talent for editing is probably reading this and cringing. I’ll probably cringe when I edit this. If I edit this. I’m currently contemplating whether I should actually edit it or just put the whole raw text out there and let the disjointedness and self awareness become part of the creative expression. I’m feeling very self aware of my self awareness.
This thing takes too many words to make its point, starting from the generous assumption that it makes its point at all, with that starting from the generous assumption that it has a point. This nascent thing is awkward and writhing, but it contains at least some kinds of truth. I promise I won’t always be so self reflective and autobiographical. I can’t promise it won’t be a fairly common thing though. I don’t have a specific agenda in terms of the content or overarching themes of the things I write going forward. Really I just want to write, so I’m going to write about whatever happens to be on my mind when I sit down to do so.
I haven’t yet developed the skills I need to be a good writer. Thinking about that now, it is amazing how small that concern seems. This is my first piece of writing, and it’s probably pretty bad. Tomorrow’s will probably be pretty bad too. But one of these tomorrows there might be something worthwhile. I hope you’ll be here to read it when it shows up.