The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Eighteen: Writing
Over the course of this Thanksgiving Advent adventure, I’ve talked about a number of things associated with writing, and how they’ve affected my life. I haven’t talked about writing itself, however. So I’d like to focus on that for today, independent of all the trappings, benefits and side effects. Because the fact of the matter is that even if I never became a professional writer, or became a financially successful writer, or even had more people than my immediate circle of friends ever read anything I wrote, I would still write. I would still be a writer.
I would still be a writer for the simple reason that I find the act of writing extremely pleasurable. There is something lovely about sitting down to a blank screen (or blank page, if you want to get old school) and filling it with words. There is likewise a fantastic feeling that comes from taking what are unformed and chaotic thoughts in one’s head and giving them form and structure with words. People often note that ideas and thoughts which seem deep and meaningful inside their head seem banal or pointless when they’re written out, but allow me to suggest the problem is not that that these ideas were reduced when they were translated into words; instead, they were revealed. Your brain lies to you about the awesomeness of your thoughts. Words are the friend that says “Dude. Stop hitting the bong.” On the other hand, if you have a fantastic idea in your head, and it’s still fantastic when you put it into words, you know what? It may in fact be fantastic.
This organizing and structuring that comes through writing comes in handy for me, because it means that I have an outlet to express thoughts I have that run deeper than “I have to take out the trash.” My wife understands this perfectly well; on more than one occasion, after I’ve completely fumbled expressing something to her, she’s said to me “you need to go write that out.” And I do and then I actually have a way to express that idea, so that the next time I try to verbalize it, I have a framework and a method that doesn’t involve increasingly wild hand gestures and the use of the phrase “you know?” every five or six words. Writing makes me a better verbal communicator, funny as that sounds. For which I suspect my wife, who has to live with me, is grateful.
Another reason writing is pleasurable is that I am good at it, and it feels good to do things you are good at. When I was young, I was a good writer — “good” being highly conditional on context, mind you, and I could have benefited from my own list of tips for teenage writers — and especially when you’re young, doing something you know you can do well (and possibly better than almost anyone else you know) means a lot to you and your concept of yourself as a person. You may be goofy or short or socially awkward or pocked with strategically embarrassing zits or whatever — but you can make words do things, things other people can’t, and that’s a hell of a thing when you’re fourteen and you’re trying to find a place in the world and to have it all make some sort of sense.
As I got older another aspect of the joy of writing came to the fore: the enjoyment of the craftsmanship of it, of the appreciation of a turn of phrase, or the right word, or the presentation of a concept just so, that could make an idea pop or turn a sentence from a merely functional string of words conveying meaning into something that stuck into a reader’s brain like a piton driven into a cliff wall. It’s the meta-awareness of a thing you’re doing and how you’re doing it and how it’s working, and the realization of your own competence with it, brought on by a combination of talent, practice and the occasional out of the blue taser jolt of inspiration.
And through all of this is the pleasure of the flow of words that comes when you are caught up in the act of writing, when everything you know about writing and everything you think about it and everything it might have earned you (or that you want it to earn for you) slip off to the side and it’s just you laying out the words, one after the other, into an inevitable sequence. It’s the same thing a musician gets in the middle of an epic jam session, or a painter when the image emerges out of the paint or the actor who has subsumed himself in the moment, no longer thinking about his character because the character is there.
This state of being has been described from a psychological point of view, but conceptualizing it and feeling it are of course two entirely different things. It feels like a gift from the universe to you. And maybe it is. I’m not of the opinion that you have to be good at what you’re doing in order to experience this sort of flow, although it may help. What’s important is that you’re so far into the thing you’re doing that in that moment, everything else doesn’t matter. I’ve gotten this feeling from other things, but where I get it the most is when I’m writing.
It’s a relationship with words, essentially. I have one and it manifests itself through my fingers, usually onto a computer screen but occasionally with pen and paper. It’s a relationship in which I feel defined, in no small part because in the act of writing I have been able to define myself, to myself and to others.
Independent of anything else writing has done for me — and it’s done a lot — this aspect of it has been extraordinarily important to me, and I’m thankful for it, and the pleasure it’s given me. And ultimately it’s why I write, why I keep writing, and why, if everything else that writing ever did for me went away (and it might), I would still do it.