After attending my final panel at RSA, I had the chance to catch up for a bit with @caseyboyle. At one point, he asked me if I liked writing, a question that prompted an answer that was a little more personal than he might have expected, at least three separate instances of esprit de l’escalier on my part on the drive home, and a blog post that you’re reading now. It’s a funny question, but one I’m glad he asked, because my answer to it changes on a regular basis, but rarely moreso than it has in the past couple of weeks.
My best answer, I think, is that for the past few years, I’ve loved writing, but not been in love with writing.
Thing is, I love being in love with writing. That’s where I get things done. So it’s not to say that I haven’t written for three years. From comments on drafts to syllabi to memos to emails to the occasional chapter for an edited collection, I’ve been writing plenty. And yet I haven’t.
One of my favorite books is Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, for the sheer pleasure I get from the chapter titles. Heck, it’s probably been close on to twenty years since I’ve read the whole book, but if I were creating a wall-sized, heart-shaped corkboard collage to writing, there’d be a space reserved for a pdf of that table of contents: “Why I am so clever,” “Why I write such good books,” “Why I am a destiny”! They make me smile every time I look. Say what you will about Freddy, but if nothing else, his work reminds me of the mood that I need to be in if I want to really write.
Oh yes, it’s arrogance. But it’s also joy and confidence and the feeling that writing is downhill, where I just have to move my fingers fast enough to let the words out. Even if I’m writing purely for my own thought process (something I only really do when I’m in love with writing), that feeling allows me to move across the threshold between silence and writing, almost effortlessly. Regardless of what, where, or why I’m writing, it feels like making, like I’m carving up that block of language to find the insight buried within.
And I can’t not write. The last couple of weeks, I’ve found myself effortlessly bouncing back and forth among Facebook, Twitter, this space, a couple of wikis, and three different open word-processing files that I’m working on. I just start going, clicking on tabs, dropping in and out, throwing out words, and next thing I know, it’s three hours later. That’s a zone where I go crazy if I don’t write.
Unfortunately, I know well the opposite of that. When I was convalescing in the fall, my entire life was a matter of tracing the steps between my bed, couch, and kitchen, with very occasional forays to the grocery store. Every email was an imposition, every piece of required writing that I had to do weighed on me. @jodienicotra reminded me in her RSA talk that I wrote a bit in my book about Roland Barthes’ discussion of writing as intransitive and transitive, a distinction I’d forgotten about but seems appropriate here: when I’m not writing (intransitive), it makes all the (transitive) writing I do overwhelmingly hard. And it’s a vicious cycle, because all of the Xs and Ys that I have to write (transitive) crowd out the (intransitive) writing.
Every interaction that my writing initiates exerts inertia on me–rejections and/or neglect mean that they just don’t understand me, while citations and/or successes mean that I’ve got expectations to live up to. My own will-to-write is besieged on every side; there’s no steady state that I can achieve. What’s worse is that no one else even has to see it. I experience the full range of reactions to my own work, and peck away at my desire to keep at it.
Lately, I’ve been browsing Etsy on occasion, and while any other Web2 app would make the same point for me, there’s something encouraging about the aggregate shamelessness of that site. I don’t mean that in a snarky way. Rather, it’s a space that lowers the threshold to a minimum for people who make stuff. They don’t have to convince a retailer to pick them up, or make an argument about how their work targets this or that demographic. There’s amazing stuff there, and crazy stuff, and sometimes the rare combination of the two. It’s a lesson I need to relearn for writing, over and over and over: just make the words fit together, put them out there, and get rid of the hope and fear that comes from obsessing about the outcome.
Be arrogant. Be industrious. Don’t stand in your own way. Be shameless. Write.
Seriously, writing, it wasn’t you. It was me.