Always writing, never written

For several years now, I’ve defined myself as a writer. It’s the only label I’ve ever felt comfortable with or enjoyed. And it’s never felt like a lie. I always feel like I’m writing. Right up until someone wants to read something I’ve written. That’s when the conversation gets a little… awkward.

“Have you written anything I can read?” When I get asked this question, my first thought is to wonder if I’ve written anything even I’d want to read.

“Well what do you write about?” Good question! Unfortunately, the answer is that I try to write a bit of everything, which is really no different from saying I write nothing. They’re both equally so non-specific as to be useless answers.

“Are you working on anything right now?” Yes: a blog, an article, a poem and a short story that isn’t very short at all. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. Sometimes it’s even true.

I decided to total up my word counts from 2020. This includes the short fiction I drafted, blog posts I never published and the blog posts I did publish. Looking at the result, I might have felt better about myself if I had added all the words in my Notes app and all those job applications for companies that ghosted me.

  • Short Fiction: 57,943 words
  • Unpublished Blog Posts: 16,493 words
  • Published Blog Posts: 3,663 words
  • Total: 78,110 words

Now for some, that might be an enviable word count, especially considering we’re living through this thing called a global pandemic. By the standards I set for myself, though, it doesn’t fill me with much pride.

I don’t feel any less of a writer, and I don’t think there’s an arbitrary word count you need to hit to call yourself a writer. But it’s certainly nowhere close to the 1,000 words per day that I’ve long aspired to.

The question is: why can you only read 4.7% of my total output from last year? Why didn’t I publish the many blog posts I drafted? Why am I unwilling to share even a few rough paragraphs from all that short fiction?

I think all these questions have the same answer. And that answer was best put by Tim Kreider in his Medium article “I Am a Meme Now“:

[It’s] scary putting yourself out there, letting yourself be seen, vulnerable to people’s wrong opinions and dumb judgments. I’d sooner let a stranger see me naked than show them a first draft, which is like letting them see my naked brain.

If you follow me on Instagram, then you might recognise that the final line of that quote inspired one of my Escapril poems.

I think it gets to the root of my anxieties. I started several projects last year and abandoned almost all of them, including my old writing blog. It felt less humiliating to run from the writing than let anyone see the imperfect sentences my brain had come up with. I had convinced myself that admitting failure made me feel less vulnerable than sharing my work.

As a writer, the process is often excruciating, riddled with fear at the prospect of humiliation. We compare every word to not only the magical prose of our favourite writers, but the spellbinding stories we wrote before that now feel like a fluke.

A friend of mine once said how she hated being told she was good at things because it made her not want to do them anymore. In a way, I understood. Praise leads me to raise my already unrealistically high standards I set myself even higher. To know I’ve impressed someone means I now have to keep impressing them. Those messy first drafts become so much messier all of a sudden.

If you’re still reading, I’m hoping it’s because you’ve connected with what I’ve written in some way. Maybe you’re a writer or another kind of artist wondering, like me, how to feel more comfortable with the messiness of the drafting process. How do we embrace the naked brain?

I don’t have the answer. Or at least not yet. But I’m hoping to find one through blogging again.

“How will blogging again help?”

To answer this question, I put to you this from a 2015 blog post called “How I’d Start (Restart) a Blog If I Were to Begin Today” by John Saddington.

You’ve been trained to put your “best foot forward” your entire life and that’s just not what writing is about.

You know what writing really is? It’s about putting your completely incomplete and perfectly imperfect thoughts on paper. It’s about facing the stark reality that you’re not as smart as you thought yourself to be and that your beliefs about life (and everything within it) are not as clear as you had hoped them to be.

Writing is introspective. It’s self-reflective. It’s humiliating and yet, at the exact same time, our way to salvation. It’s how we tell the stories and how we express the fabric of our very lives.

So, if (your) writing is to be perfect then you should quit before you start. Don’t bother. But, if you can come to terms with your own imperfection then please do yourself and everyone else a favor and tell your story, as imperfect as it truly is.

Hiding my incomplete and imperfect thoughts isn’t going to make them complete and perfect. People aren’t going to stop asking about my writing, and even if they did I’d be sad. So as Saddington says, I should do myself and everyone else a favour and tell my story.

“But John, what’s actually different about this blog? How can you be sure you won’t run into the same problems?”

Another layer to my past anxieties was a lack of focus. I wanted to write about a hundred things, but I’d been led to believe that’s bad blogging. I needed to focus on one or two things and neglect the rest. But I couldn’t pick one or two, so I wrote about nothing instead.

I felt like I didn’t know enough. I thought I had nothing of real value to offer. I couldn’t convince myself people would care to read.

But then I read Marc Weidenbaum’s case for writing a blog, and it altered my perspective. This point in particular stood out for me:

Only people who don’t write think you need to know what you think before you write. You write to learn what you think.

Personal blogging is different to writing for a business. You don’t need to be an expert or have all the answers to have something to say. Just as writing in my private journal helps me work through problems, a personal blog is like a public journal. This is a space for sharing, and there can be a great deal of value in sharing the right questions.

I learn, you learn, we learn. (Hopefully).

Austin Kleon on his website and in his book Show Your Work! often brings up that he didn’t start a blog because he knew what he wanted to say and how to say it. Rather he “started a blog to find something to say.

On blogging, Kleon also has this to say:

Blogging is very satisfying to me — even more satisfying, in many ways, than having a book in a bookstore or a page in a newspaper. If I have an idea or an image I want to riff on, I sit down for half an hour or an hour, and then I publish it where anyone can see it. Instant self-publishing. Instant gratification.

That instant gratification is alluring for someone like me: someone who loves to write and just needs a bit more incentive to share. I found blogging a lot of fun in the past, and I’m very excited to share more content going forward.

This post was made with a great deal of care, but I know it’s not perfect. This blog will never be perfect. I don’t know what it will look like a few months from now, let alone years from now. I can’t even be 100% certain how regularly I can post (hopefully frequently).

What I do know is this: with a blog, I’ll no longer just be a writer who is always writing. I’ll be a writer who has written.

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