On Writing

If you’ve noticed I haven’t posted a lot of content recently, the truth of the matter is, I don’t write a lot of content that’s not copy I’m getting paid for.  Why?  It’s simple, really.  I hate writing.  But I have the curse of being able to do it cogently, and sometimes, eloquently. But the process is probably the worst thing in the world, because, well, there isn’t one.  I’d like to think writing is a craft, and it all comes down to discipline, but really, it doesn’t.  In the end, it comes down to motivation.

For most people, I think, that motivation is recognition.  That insatiable desire to have their ideas validated, their voice heard, and the intrinsic satisfaction that comes with a any kind of byline.  For these writers, of whom I am insanely jealous, satiation and satisfaction come with finished content.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, only, you know, grammatically and cogent, in order to produce a piece with these people.  Because writing, after all, is an iterative process, and even the greatest writers only get better with practice and a very good editor – at least that’s the consensus.

But when I write (something other than copy), even if it’s something disposable that no one will read, like this blog post, I edit.  And I edit.  And I edit some more. Because the iterative part of writing for me isn’t getting better, piece by piece.  It’s getting every single word right.  And while I know it’s a fruitless task (and you better believe I tried this sentence with a dozen synonyms for ‘fruitless,’ even when writing this parenthetical), it’s my intellectual equivalent of Atlas’ boulder.

It’ll never be finished, because it will never be good enough.  And the reason that it will never be good enough is that I hold myself to an impossible standard.  Because I get recognized for writing, even when I’m not writing (I was named to a top bloggers list just this week despite the fact that as far as me having my own blog goes, this is as far as it goes, and most of this content is republished).  It’s always been that way.  I didn’t ask for it.

It started in second grade – that moment where my identity was unfortunately intertwined with writing.  We had to write a scary story for Halloween, which I think was the first open creative writing assignment we ever had – and one that ended up with me not getting in trouble for scaring the shit out of my classmates only because my teacher was duly impressed with the prose.  The next week, I found out that I didn’t get the gig running the snack bar at Exchange City (a kind of simulated adult town for kids to learn about life in the real world), but rather as the editor of the Exchange City newspaper.

When I protested, because, well, as a second grader serving popcorn and juice is a way sexier job than being a reporter.  Of course, today, snack bar attendant is probably a more viable profession than a reporter, but the point is, I was told it was because I was the best writer in the class.  Which meant I got stuck in front of a computer all day, editing other people’s experiences instead of living them.  Afterwords, the Exchange City employees hung that edition up on the wall of the little fake newspaper office, which is apparently the child newsletter as sociological experiment equivalent of the Pulitzer.  But I was just disappointed that the snack bar was already closed, and I didn’t get any popcorn.

Some other early memories: my teacher refusing to believe I’d written a poem because I used personification (not relenting even when I proved I knew what it meant) and giving me a zero; a trip in a school van with a wacky librarian to the exotic environs of Warrensburg, Missouri for winning a short story contest, in which the van broke down somewhere near Sedalia, getting called to the principal’s for turning in an op-ed about abortion when given an given an assignment in DARE to write about making choices.  Writing led to nothing but trouble.

Of course, even then I had to write – my entire education basically boiled down to being able to write essays well (inevitably the preferred method of evaluation), which taught me a valuable lesson that when it comes to conventional writing, it’s style over substance any time – lack of knowledge could be easily overcome by a bit of purple prose.  Which is what I continue to do to this day.  After all, online, what you say really is never as important as how you say it.

I’ve spent a lot of time actually thinking about writing, reading Annie Dillard and William Goldman and whichever obtuse reference is going to make me sound smartest, and actually got a screenwriting degree with a six figure sticker value, most of which was consumed with coursework like, “Writing from the Unconscious,” which, it turns out, is harder than it should be when it’s a graduate level university course (and a required one at that).  I’ve gotten to study under and work with some of the world’s best writers, and watch them work – and it’s the same frustration as I feel now watching my professional colleagues crank out content.  Writing isn’t the hard part.  It’s knowing when it’s finished – and knowing that even if it is, it will never be good enough.

And it can always be better.

How do you know when writing’s finished?  I’ve asked that to dozens of writers over the years, and the most common, and certainly most expedient, answer, is that it never is.  The more pragmatic answer (and certainly the definitive one for anything I ever actually write) is that it’s finished whenever the deadline happens to be.  But the best answer I’ve ever gotten was, “depends on who you’re writing for.”

In this case, since I don’t have an audience, I figured it was just for me, and decided, for once, that after I finish this sentence, I’m going to hit publish.  And promise myself not to reread this, because, like all of my writing, this is a first draft.  Dammit.  You, see what I mean.  OK, I swear, no more caveats or disclaimers.  Except maybe to mention my other problem: once I get going, I don’t know when to stop.

1071 words.  Assignment complete.

2 Comments on “On Writing

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