Whistling in the Dark

It is unsurprising, I'm sure, but I really love writing. I'm not really clear on why. I have a fairly boring and unchallenging job in a word factory, requiring that I write all day. But writing on my own is still something I want to do pretty much all the time, whether at work when I should be working (like right now) or once I'm done.

I'd love to write fiction, by which I actually mean “complete a work of fiction that I'm then willing to show to people.” I'm actually putting my toe in this particular water, albeit slowly. I'm starting to get into drawing again, after dozens of abortive attempts over the last few years. Writing here has also been part of this, and I'm already more engaged and invested in my blog here than I have been before, despite plenty of attempts.

All of these are things I've tried to do repeatedly over the years, but kept striking out for one reason or another. What finally clicked and allowed me to move forward, at least so far, was surprisingly simple: I had to find ways to allow myself to be terrible.

It seems strange that this would be as difficult as it is. But for me, at least, I was never able to justify the time spent on something when I knew I was going to be unhappy with the results. Just throwing platitudes at myself, like how I'm still learning, didn't change the reality: it still made the actual day-to-day unpleasant, and the way I'm wired is not particularly hopeful as a rule. Some theoretical future “I'm going to be good/successful at this” just isn't in my mental vocabulary, and makes for a poor motivator overall. I can't rule out low self-image as a factor, but don't think that's really it, with it instead an issue with predictions generally. I'll write more about this another time, and will try to remember to update this post when I do.

For writing, I think I was very self-conscious. I've been told in the past that I'm a good writer, but could never see it. It's not that I thought that I was bad necessarily, rather I didn't see or understand what somehow distinguished what I did from “bad” writing. It wasn't like I ever put work into writing, I just did it. I would write papers the night before they were due and get good grades, and never turned in anything other than a first draft. To this day I don't actually know if I'm a good writer, even if I know I'm not horrifyingly bad.

Ultimately the magic bullet for me to start writing for real is to realize that no matter what I do, someone will dislike it. If there's no hope of being universally acclaimed, then I don't have to worry about that, and can try to write something that someone, someplace will like. That feels much more attainable, and more to the point, feels like something that I can stumble into by accident by just writing what I want. Dan Harmon had a great answer on this during an Ask Me Anything he did on reddit a couple of years ago:

My best advice about writer’s block is: the reason you’re having a hard time writing is because of a conflict between the GOAL of writing well and the FEAR of writing badly. By default, our instinct is to conquer the fear, but our feelings are much, much, less within our control than the goals we set, and since it’s the conflict BETWEEN the two forces blocking you, if you simply change your goal from “writing well” to “writing badly,” you will be a veritable fucking fountain of material, because guess what, man, we don’t like to admit it, because we’re raised to think lack of confidence is synonymous with paralysis, but, let’s just be honest with ourselves and each other: we can only hope to be good writers.

My solution for art was similar. I had struggled a lot more with this, because the ambiguity with writing wasn't there: I could see that I'm terrible. Some attempts to improve my technical skill gave me little on this front, because I was still at the point of building a foundation that I'd later be able to improve upon rather than actually improving in and of itself.

Instead, I had to find a different hack. Rather than having my goal to simply be “better,” which will take years, it has instead become finding my own style. Because I don't have to be capable of doing something photo-realistic to like what I do. It's a way to have more realistic expectations without feeling like I'm settling. The result has been more regular and more productive practice than at any other point in my life.

It's nice when my foibles can work for me.