“Should I be Writing?”
My attempt at answering this question with a little help from Seth Godin.
There are certain rules that I try to live by.
One of them is that I do what I want regardless of what other people think I should or shouldn’t do.
When I started writing, that’s the approach I adopted. I wanted to write for the pure pleasure of doing so. I didn’t care who read my articles or if I made money off it.
Well, I think that’s what it was at least in the beginning. Somewhere along the line though, things changed.
And lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s any real value to putting my words out there.
First of all, my writing is mediocre. I’m not being humble; I’m simply self-aware.
Second, I’m always struggling to find the right topics to write about. The things that I can say are difficult to talk about (or rather, difficult to push them out there into the cybersphere where they’ll go on to live for an eternity…or until the end of time).
Third, I don’t think my writing changes anything. Whether or not it’s out there has no real consequence in the real world.
Last but not least, I can think of a dozen other things I could be doing in the time that I write personal essays on Medium that’d directly contribute to my work or my research. But instead, here I am, typing up haphazard words, hoping they’d come to mean something by the time I’m done with this.
This leads me to wonder — should I be writing at all?
This is the ultimate moment of my personal brand of existential crisis for the “writer” in me.
Here I am, typing up haphazard words, hoping they’d come to mean something by the time I’m done with this.
I don’t really have mentors or heroes per se. There are some really smart engineers out there who’ve helped me understand my subject matter (I’m an electrical engineer if you were wondering), and in some ways, have helped solidify my appreciation for this vocation.
But aside from that, aside from aspiring to their creative and intellectual geniuses, I’ve never looked up to them or anybody else as my role models.
But, when it comes to writing, I had to find a role model.
It came to me that I didn’t need a role model until I started writing because I was confident in my ability to do what I had to do. In school and later at work, I’ve always managed to get shit done. Not because I’m a genius, but because I’m resilient. I don’t allow setbacks to keep me from doing what I’m supposed to, or what I want to.
All that changed when I started writing a few years ago.
Confidence went up the chimney. Resilience failed me.
You see, with engineering, I have a way to gauge my ability. Things either work, or they don’t. And until they work, I keep pushing.
It’s a simple formula, but it works. And the process gives me great pleasure. When I look at a system I’ve designed work, I get a dopamine rush.
I cannot figure out for the life of me what works and what doesn’t. That’s the most difficult part for my brain to process. I’m used to weighing things in discrete values. So, when I cannot evaluate the quality of my writing on a scale between 0 and 1, I’m at a loss.
I’ve written articles that I thought were mediocre at best, which ended up getting curated on Medium with hundreds of claps.
And there were others I’ve thought were some of my best work, and yet, they didn’t get any traction.
For someone like me who has no literary or creative writing background, who only started blogging a few years prior, the lack of confidence often messes with the head, leading to wonder if spending time writing is worth my time.
When you start to feel that way, when you start to question whether you should continue to write or not, you need someone. Someone like a role model to gently push you forward, to tell you to keep at it, and not give up.
So, whenever I start to question the legitimacy of my writing, I know it’s time for a dose of Godin.
My writing is mediocre.
What I brought to writing is this: write poorly. Write poorly, write more. Write more, write more. Sooner or later, if you write poorly long enough, you will write well. — Seth Godin on The Motley Fool
Whenever I start to wonder if there’s any meaning to continue on with my mediocre writing, this quote from Seth gives me hope and the push I need to keep writing.
A few months ago, I was doing a bit of digital cleanup and came across one of the very first blogs that I had started on Google’s Blogger platform. It was a book review blog.
Before deleting the blog, I gave into curiosity and started reading the short summaries I had written all those years ago. I started with the very first review and pretty much cringed all the way through as I continued to read.
I was trying too hard, and it showed! And not in a good way.
But as I kept reading one summary after another, somewhere along the line the cringiness left me, and I was filled with a genuine curiosity and nostalgia for all those books I had read.
Just within the span of 6 months or so, my writing had improved significantly and I didn’t even realize!
My writing may be mediocre now, but I’ve come a long way from being downright embarrassing. That’s some accomplishment!
You see, it’s often easy to forget how far we’ve come. If you struggle the way I do and if you constantly read your own writing only to think, “man, that sucked”, I suggest you go back and give some of your old writing a read. I’m sure you’ll see a difference.
And when you do, let that be your motivation to continue writing. Because if you do, you’ll get better. Inevitably. You may not become the next Hemingway, but that’s OK. Not all of us have to. The idea is to not be so and so, but be the best version of ourselves. The bar keeps moving, and that’s fine. As long as we don’t stop, we’ll also keep moving. That much is a given.
I’m always struggling to find the right topics to write about.
The process advice that makes sense to me is to write. Constantly. At length. Often. Don’t publish everything you write, but the more you write, the more you have to choose from. — Seth Godin on his blog
Deciding what to write about is a big issue for me.
Here’s the thing. I know quite a bit about engineering, but I don’t want to write about it. I mean, I already spend a significant chunk of my life writing, talking, and thinking about my work. That’s enough!
That leaves me with my life to write about — everything in it that’s not a part of my work. The only problem is that I’m extremely private. Almost to a fault. It’s taken me a while to get comfortable writing about my life. But even so, from time to time, I give in to all kinds of doubts and resistances.
But Seth’s advice there is spot on.
We don’t need to publish everything. But it’s important that we keep writing. The more we write, the more choices we’ll have.
Often when I sit down to write, I can’t get an idea to form into something publishable. I write a title, maybe an intro, and then I get stuck. And that’s fine. I don’t usually delete these ideas because you never know when you’ll think of ways to make something out of them.
I also do not restrict myself to writing only one type of thing. Sometimes I write fiction. I have yet to write a full story, but that’s not the issue. The most important thing is to keep writing and keep improving.
I write fictional stories (parts of a story at least), I write about the guy at Starbucks who was sneezing the whole time he sat next to me and didn’t bother to cover his mouth, I write about my abusive past, I write about my crazy sex fantasies, I write angry letters to my exes, and other things I don’t dare mention here.
Most of these do not see the light of day, but I continue to write anyway. Often I borrow materials from these half-finished stories. And the more I write, the faster the ideas come to me.
Back in the days, I would go weeks without writing anything because I couldn’t get an idea worth writing about — the so-called writer’s block if you will. These days I write every single day. I cannot publish everything I write, but at least I don’t have writer’s block.
If you struggle from writer’s block, ask yourself, is it because you have nothing inside your head, or is it because you’re trying to find the perfect topic that you will write about and publish?
If you’re trying to write things only to publish them, you’ll likely have a hard time doing it. Instead, just write. Don’t think about writing publishable things only. Whether to publish or not is something you can decide after you’ve written something first.
Kelton: Do you believe in “writer’s block”? If so, how do you avoid it?
Seth: This is a fancy term for fear. I avoid it by not getting it. Because I write like I talk and I don’t get talker’s block.
— Seth Godin in his interview with Kelton Reid for the CopyBlogger
My writing changes nothing. Whether or not it’s out there has no real consequences in the real world.
[Reassurance] makes us feel good in the short run. You know, pity, sympathy, being reminded that everything’s gonna be OK […] It actually gets us off the hook, it actually means that we’re not the ones who’re responsible, because we’ve been reassured that everything is fine. […] Reassurance is futile. There is never enough reassurance to reassure about the things you truly care about. […] No amount of reassurance is gonna make you the artist you wanna be, it’s not gonna make you the parent you’re capable of being, it’s not gonna make you the contributor, the linchpin, the empresario, the employee you could be. Reassurance is futile, we need to stop looking for it, and accept the fact that what we do for a living is deal with that feeling. That’s our job. — Seth Godin in Unmistakable Creative
When I sit down sulking about whether or not my writing is making any real difference in the world, it’s really nothing but my search for reassurance. I’m waiting for someone to tell me that they love what I’ve written, that somehow my personal essays are helpful to them…
Waiting for reassurance does nothing for our creativity.
Often, those who are truly helped, won’t even reach out to you to thank you.
And they don’t have to!
If you’re writing hoping to get swarms of fans to walk up to you in the streets and thank you for what you do, then there’s something wrong there! You’re not really writing to make a change, you’re simply trying to feed your narcissistic ego.
Here’s the truth. You don’t know who your art has touched, or will touch. You can simply… create. Create because YOU think it’s worth creating. If you’re serious about your writing, somewhere, someone will be touched by it. And that’s enough.
There’s a lot to admire about the common-sense advice, “If you don’t have anything worth saying, don’t say anything.”
On the other hand, one reason we often find ourselves with nothing much to say is that we’ve already decided that it’s safer and easier to say nothing. — Seth Godin on his blog
I can think of a dozen other things I could be doing in the time that I write personal essays.
[…] committing to having a point of view and scheduling a time and place to say something is almost certainly going to improve your thinking, your attitude and your trajectory. — Seth Godin on his blog
That’s it. That’s all you or I or anyone needs as their motivation for taking some time from the day and write.
Because writing isn’t just about changing someone else’s life, but it is also about changing our own. And at the end of the day, the one who is affected (and benefited) the most from your writing is YOU!
Also, from the same blog post as the one above,
Commit to articulating your point of view on one relevant issue, one news story, one personnel issue. Every day. Online or off, doesn’t matter. Share your taste and your perspective with someone who needs to hear it.
So, should I be writing?
The answer is simple.
And so should you.