I lay in bed this morning listening to the rain softly drizzling on our corrugated steel roof when a curious question floated through my mind. “Why maintain a blog that no one will ever read?”
It was not a self-conscious feeling of disappointment or longing for attention, but a sincere question. Phrased in a different way, I began to contemplate about the purpose of writing. Why is it worth doing? And particularly, why is it worth doing when what you contribute to the cacophony of public thought is never seen by anybody?
There’s no one right answer here, clearly. Everyone has their own motives for putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. From private, leather-bound diaries to public blogs, it’s the process that’s important. But the question of “why write” is an important one to revisit periodically. The motives that lead us to pour out our thoughts may not remain the same over time, and it’s worth tracking your intentions, because it helps you stay authentic.
I’ve always said I write to think, but it’s worth unpacking that further. What is important about thinking? Why is it an avocation of value?
“Now, what do I feel like talking about today?”
When I first started going to college in the early-1990’s someone said to me: “It doesn’t matter what you major in. You’ll never use it anyway.” That statement stuck with me longer than I wish it had, because it led me to approach the experience with a casual, laissez-faire attitude in which nothing really mattered. I’d do my best; but in the end, my best was ephemeral. In four years time the whole affair would be over, good or bad, so long as I finished.
The result was 3 years of absentminded, half-hearted participation. I’d fall asleep in class, when I bothered to show up at all; my textbooks were as pristine and untouched at the end of term as they’d been at the beginning; I’d sit in the back of the class and spend more time doodling than taking notes; I even went to the pub before my exams once or twice. My heart just wasn’t in it.
It didn’t help that I had teachers during this period who seemed as disinterested in the process of learning as I was. One in particular stands out from everyone else in how little he seemed to care. He’d show up at the start of class ever day, shuffle lazily to the front of the room and lean casually against the blackboard. He’d gaze blankly and dispassionately out across the rows of students, draw in a deep, almost groaning sigh, and say “Now, what do I feel like talking about today?”
I don’t know about anyone else that term, but that class felt like an utter waste of time. A sheer formality and box to tick, where an instructor who didn’t want to teach droned on to students who didn’t want to learn. It was a perfect storm of pointlessness.
Then, in the last semester of my last year, I took a class on Environmental Impact Assessment. It had absolutely nothing to do with the Economics degree I was more or less sleeping through, but it piqued my interests and I decided to give it a go. It was a revelation.
“When you know what to think, you’ll know how to act.”
This man was everything that my other instructor wasn’t. He was passionate about his discipline, he was concise and effective in his teaching; but more than that, he truly wanted to be in the classroom, and he sincerely cared about us. He wanted to make a difference, and leave us with thought-provoking ideas that didn’t necessarily have clear conclusions. He wanted to get us to think.
It was this last point he came back to time and time again, in the form of a mantra he repeated ad infinitum throughout the semester. “When you know what to think, you’ll know how to act.” Use your mind, explore your opinions and subject them to scrutiny. Test your theories, and see how they hold up to reality. Don’t assume anything. What you think is important.
He shook the cobwebs from my mind and actually got me interested in discovering what I believe, and whether these beliefs are justified. He inspired an interest in contemplation and reflection that has been with me ever since.
As a result, I threw myself into studying with an enthusiasm that had been utterly absent previously. I discovered subjects that excited me and fueled my curiosity, and I learned that I really, really like to write.
At the best of times, my head is a jumble of conflicting thoughts. Writing provides me with the structure, scaffolding, and sequence I need to make sense of it all, which is why I find it such a valuable way to explore ideas. I don’t write to express my thoughts. I write to discover them.