Writing, as I have shared in discussions with many of my friends, helps me think. Through planning and typing words on paper, new ideas come to mind that I had previously not synthesized. Perhaps a scientist could explain why this is the case, or maybe this will remain to be one of the great mysteries behind "creativity." Over the years I have been writing, I have realised that there are a lot of nebulous parts to the creative arts. We all measure quality differently; we all have different standards; we all have diffferent ways of working. Finding how and on what we work best is a great challenge.
These last few days have seen me ponder, many times, whether I should write about writing. Meta indeed. I have erred away from this subject matter because it feels like I should be writing about something more important. Consequential. As I write this paragraph, I am reminded that writing is a tool for me to think. I know this deep down but I often need a reminder. If I need to process something, why not write about that topic, even if it is not as impressive as all of the other pieces of writing I consume?
Why not just write?
My mind has been ravaged by arguments on why I should not write about topics. I figure others likely feel this way, too. I hope that by writing what is on my mind, I can better understand the challenges I face and share information that might be helpful for you as you pursue a creative art. I will focus particularly on writing, but my thoughts may be more broadly applicable.
"This isn't worth writing about"
I have come to appreciate that there is no such thing as the perfect piece of writing. Comparing one's creative works and pace of output to that of another creative is never effective. It's easy to see the best in what other people have done but not all of the other things that people do. One can have a favourite writer and admire all of their works. That does not mean your idol presents the only way of writing. There are infinite ways to express one's self with the written word. There are also just as many topics to write about.
I find myself regularly thinking in the mundane and the abstract. I ponder big questions for which I do not have an answer but would like to learn more. Are these topics not worth writing about? I don't think so. One such topic I would like to write about but have not yet is on balancing ambition and one's every day life. I haven't written about this because I wonder: what unique perspectives do I have to share on this topic? I believe I have something to say, but I wonder whether, in the sea of other pieces of writing in similar veins, my writing is significant enough.
The best way, I find, is just to write and see what comes out.
I have a creative voice in my mind that tells me that I sometimes need to discard what I have written and take it from a new angle. In hindsight, I prefer that voice to thinking about what could have been and letting the idea flow away without being able to explore it in more depth. Just as journaling can provide greater mental clarity, so too can other methods of writing.
Is the topic of "creative voices" worth writing about when many more accomplished writers than I have talked at length on the topic? I believe so. Those other writers have their own experiences and ways of seeing the world. All writers have stories and ideas to share; someone else talking about them doesn't mean you cannot add to and help advance the discussion. Indeed, in so many areas, what we need is more thoughtful, written discussion.
"This isn't good enough"
Occasionally, my mind will tell me "this isn't good enough." When this voice echoes in the recesses of my mind, I can take one of several actions. Sometimes I will delete a paragraph or a section of a piece of writing. I like to edit as I go; my sense of flow and how I want to approach a topic builds as I continue adding more words to the page and craft out a structure with which I am happy.
Other times, I will realise that what I have written is not what I would like and I start at the beginning. In extreme cases, I have written more than one thousand words on a topic only to realise I am not happy with what I have written. Then I either start over or move on to another subject. In the moment, this feels discomforting. Was my time wasted writing what I did only to start again at the beginning? No. I learned a bit more about what does work and what doesn't work. All writing is learning. I don't think the feeling of having to stop writing and start again -- imposed only by a voice in my mind -- is going to go away any time soon, but I can work on taming said voice and understanding what I can save from a piece of writing.
I would also rephrase the statement "this isn't good enough." Good enough for whom? Are you writing for yourself? An audience? How do you know if your writing is not good enough? If you intend to share your work with someone else, perhaps facilitate feedback from someone else to see how you can improve what you have written. If I am writing for myself, "this isn't good enough" should not hurt me. After all, nobody is going to see what I have written. Yet it does. This voice is hard to tame. What helps me is taking a step back to ask: is this in my head? If there's something wrong, how can I make it better?
Many of my words have never been shared with another person. While it feels good to publish an essay or another piece of writing for someone else to read, a lot of what I write is not ready. This is especially the case for the short drafts I write only to discard because I need more time to think about a topic. Writing doesn't need to be shared with anyone else. If writing makes you feel good, write. I don't expect my first take at a lot of ideas will work out. Some ideas stay just as ideas; others become essays that I publish; others still stay in my drafts, never to be looked at again.
"What if I don't know enough about the topic?"
To write, you need two things: an idea, and the willingness to write. I also think there's something of a spark you can get when you write which can help you keep going. I find the "spark" (a prime example of the nebulous language we use to refer to creative phenomena) is often derived from one's excitement over an idea. A spark doesn't just arrive out of nowhere. If you are excited about an idea, you can keep going.
I regularly note down ideas only to realise I don't know enough about the topic. In these scenarios, I do one of three things: (i) leave the idea for now because I know I will have more to say and share on the topic later; (ii) research the idea in more depth and find the information I need to write before then getting started; (iii) start writing, see what I do and don't know, and then research along the way to get me over the finish line. I would say there is a relatively good balance between my use of these three strategies. I rarely have an idea and just start writing. The pieces of work of which I am the most proud are usually the products of research, practical experience in the subject matter, reflection, and discussion.
Writing is hard
It goes without saying but writing is hard. Discarding work that doesn't "feel right" is common. Starting from scratch because you have a new angle happens all the time. As with everything, practice is the key to getting better. I have explored many writing formats, from interviews to technical writing to personal reflection and tutorials. I still feel writing is hard. What helps is writing and experimenting.
From first principles, I believe in a playful approach to writing: writing about something is, if nothing else, an excellent method of exploring your thoughts. This is hard for me to implement in practice though, which is why I do not recommend holding stock in writing advice. What works for one person may not work for another. What someone tells you about writing might not apply to you. I have, to the best of my ability, steered away from offering precise recommendations on how to write or how to think about writing in this essay. Rather, I wanted to share some of the questions I ask and the voices in my mind.
Perhaps you can sympathise with some of my experiences. Perhaps not. But all of this exploration has made me feel a tiny bit more confident in myself, all the while serving as a reminder that even after a long break from writing personal essays -- or anything of this length -- I can still show up and write. I suspect there will perpetually be voices in my head telling me I'm not good enough or giving me a reason not to write. The feeling I get when I feel comfortable having written something that matters to me offsets all of the hard toil through which I go when I am writing something.
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