Inkwell and quill sitting on an old desk.

Writing as Process

Writing

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.

spiral

Regretful Epiphany

General

I write to think. I write to explore ideas. I write to help myself learn. Sometimes what I learn is unpleasant. Regretful epiphanies are no less important than those that inspire confidence. In the end they both provide opportunities for growth.

Rereading my post this morning, I’m fairly embarrassed at how self-absorbed it is. I was attempting to be funny, and give some insight into what’s going on for me at home right now, in all its monotony, but in the end it not only fell flat, but was deeply uncaring of the pain and suffering being felt and endured across the globe. That is not something I’m proud of. So much so that I’ve had to actively resist the urge to delete the post.

Yet pretending I did not write that post does me little favours. It doesn’t help me change, or grow. It tries to sweep it under the carpet, as though the mistake never took place. I don’t think that’s the least bit helpful in the end.

Instead, I decided to follow it up with another post, looking at what I was thinking this morning from a different perspective. That’s one of the really powerful opportunities in maintaining a blog like this. It takes the ephemeral – the impermanent – and preserves it. As the Jen from Dark Crystal so eloquently said in the 1982 film, writing is “words that stay.”

So what can I take from my regretful epiphany? First, the need to think beyond myself, and to recognise the opportunities that I have that others don’t. As much as the concept of ‘social privilege‘ may trigger outrage amongst old, white men, there is absolutely truth in it. As a medium-old, white man, I choose to see the reality in this, and own that to the best of my ability.

Moreover, ‘choosing to see the truth in it’ is not something that is done once and then disregarded, as if you can tick it off a to-do list. It’s something that must be chosen, and re-chosen day after day. To do otherwise is to risk forgetting the lessons in social privilege, and the return to a sense of entitlement that can sometimes arise. I’d also argue that entitlement breeds discontent, whereas recognising your privilege can inspire gratitude.

Living in a space of gratitude is not only better for one’s mental health, it can also help them recognise the suffering in others, and to hold compassion in their hearts for those that endure it.

In the end, I regret the underlying selfishness in my last post, but I am ultimately grateful for the opportunity to recognise my shortsightedness. I’m embarrassed that I displayed this error in judgement publicly, but doing so has ultimately kept me accountable, and that’s a good thing.

Vintage Typewriter

On Writing

Writing

Without a doubt, the written word is my favourite medium. I prefer it over speech; I prefer it over video; and as an introvert, I definitely prefer it over face-to-face interaction. This has been the case for as long as I can remember.

In uni/college, long-form essays were always my preferred mode of assessment. Not only did in-class exams spike my anxiety, I found I had a natural aptitude for sequencing thoughts and arguments in writing to form a broad discussion on a concept. And not only that, I actually enjoyed the process.

I grew to explore poetry for a while, and when I began to play music and experiment with songwriting, this easily transitioned to lyrics. Professionally, my enthusiasm for print evolved into technical manuals, user documentation, online support materials, and eventually project documentation. Bizarrely enough, despite it being the bane of many of my colleagues, I grew to relish the opportunity to get stuck into the process, which is perhaps why I have done so much of it over the years.

But it wasn’t until very recently – perhaps 3 years ago – that I tried my hand at fictional prose. For some reason, I had come to see myself as inherently non-creative, despite the shorter-form creations I’d produced when I was younger. Now having made several attempts at novellas, I’ve grown enraptured by this particular form of writing, and yet sadly it’s the one genre in which I have the least confidence in myself, and am the most reluctant to share my work. It’s an edge of mine, there’s no doubt about it.

Yet in that discomfort, there is opportunity; in the uncertainty, there is potential growth. Every story I write, every attempt I make, helps me learn. It gives me a chance to try things differently, then review, observe, and try again. Truly, it’s one of the wonders of the creative process. Each creation becomes an artifact that documents the best effort I could make at that time. Yes, I may look back later and cringe at a given piece of work, but this simply reflects the fact that I have improved since then, and that’s a source of immense satisfaction for me.

One of the questions that I’m slowly beginning to explore is what to do with my creations once they feel complete. I’d love to say that the creative process is its own reward, but if I’m truly honest with myself I realise that I need to feel validated externally. It’s as if I cannot call myself a writer until someone else has labelled me one voluntarily. I need to hear what other people think of my stories. Praise is wonderful of course, but in and of itself that doesn’t help me grow. External perspectives feel crucial to me at this point, I’m just not sure I’m brave enough to ask yet.

If you have experience in this area, I’d welcome any insight in the comments!