Because Not Writing is Worse

Why I Write

How do you differentiate between a hobby and a calling? I’m starting to think that the answer lies not in how you feel when you do the thing, but rather in how you feel when you don’t.

Put simply: both hobbies and callings reward you when you do them; a calling, however, punishes you when you don’t.

I’ve always had a lot of interests. I like tennis. I like playing guitar, singing. I’m interested in languages, in biology, in astronomy, in computer science. I want to know more about almost everything.

And yet…

If youth is typified by the sense that you can do anything you want, maturity might be about accepting the (at first) crushing reality that actually you can’t.

Or — to put it more precisely — that in order to do anything you want, you must of necessity give up the dream of doing everything you want.

My dreams have always been expansive; my capabilities, however, have proven to be tremendously constrained. I don’t have enough time, enough energy, enough neural capacity to do everything that I would like to do.

At least, not if I would like to do anything really, really well. There is no other way to develop the mastery of one craft than to wholly commit to that one craft. This means first choosing it. This means selecting one thing from my constellation of interests, making it the star of my solar system, and revolving around it everyday.

This means, most likely, doing (much) less of everything else.

But how should I choose? How do I know that I’m more suited to becoming an author, say, than to becoming a scientist?

I don’t think this is something that anyone can tell me. There is no personality test for this. There is no guide, no counselor, and no guarantees. I need to look at the data and judge for myself.

“Ok, fine,” you may be thinking. “But which data?”

The only data that matters here are the memories of my own life.

“Again, fine. You really couldn’t say anything more obvious. What exactly should I look for?”

I guess I can’t answer that. That said, I can tell you what I’ve decided to look for. It might not be what you think (or maybe I’m totally transparent and it will be obvious, who knows).

It’s not exactly what I’ve been the most excited about. It’s not exactly something that’s created a burning desire in me, or anything that’s kindled my hope for a better world.

Really, it’s the thing that makes me feel the sickest when I neglect it.

For me, that thing is writing. What makes me happy? I guess I don’t really know. What do I feel lost without? That’s considerably easier.

These may sound like the words of a cynical, prematurely old man. And maybe they are. If that is the case, something tells me that I’ve been cynical and prematurely old for a long time.

I remember some things from elementary school. The name of the first girl I had a crush on. Pretending that the wood-chips beneath the play-toys were lava. Going to Hollywood Video every Friday afternoon to rent a video game.

What I remember most vividly is writing*. The first story I remember writing is from fourth grade. It was about a squirrel who built an airplane out of twigs and tree bark. Was that story driven by the pain of potentially not writing it? I don’t remember, so for the sake of my argument let’s just say that it was.

In middle school, we were supposed to write a children’s story. Mine was probably twenty pages. A bad baseball team practices really hard, ends up winning the championship. It put the elementary school students to sleep, but at the time it would have pained me to make it any shorter**.

In high school I wrote all of the time. On the bus to tennis matches and baseball games. When teachers were talking. At home, on Friday nights. I remember going home one Friday and making straight for the computer — not even looking at my N64 — because I felt a powerful need to write my Lord of the Fliesessay. It wasn’t due for a while. Not writing it, however, would have been too upsetting.

This pattern continued in college and beyond. It’s not exactly that I felt right when I was writing (though often I did, and do). It’s that something felt deeply wrong when I wasn’t.

It’s this feeling, more than anything else, that has convinced me. I like playing the guitar, but I can go weeks without and not miss it. I like computers, but I feel no need to take them apart. Biology is beautiful, but I feel no itch to go into the wild and classify birds.

Writing, however, is different. If I’m not working on a project, something in me feels like it is dying. When I sit down to work — even when the work is not fun — that thing comes back to life.

So I write out of necessity. Writing day in and day out is painful, but I know that the other option is not ‘no-pain’; it’s just a worse kind of pain.

And this is perhaps as inspirational as it gets around here.

It’s not clear that this is true for everyone, however. How about you? Which is more compelling: ‘I feel good when I write’; or ‘I feel bad when I don’t’?

If you don’t mind sharing, jot a little something in the comments. Either way, I’ll be back next week.

*And, to sadly disrupt the narrative, reading. And baseball. And Mega Man.

**A problem that I still have.