Each morning, I sit down to write. I usually stare at my screen for a while, fuss with screen brightness or some other unimportant setting on my computer, write a few words, get up, sit down, and fuss/procrastinate some more. Eventually, most days, I get down to writing. I sit and write for however long I can manage to stay focused, which is never as long as I wish it would be. After a couple of hours I usually run out of steam.
Writing is a particularly difficult creative practice. This has been confirmed by every writer I know. There are occasionally moments of flow, but mostly writing is like dental extraction or elective surgery without anesthetic: painful, slow, precise, occasionally pointless. This, apparently, does not go away with time. No matter how many times I sit down to write, it is still difficult.
Speaking is easy. Why is writing hard?
Spoken word is ephemeral: the only record of a thought or idea that has been spoken exists in fallible and limited memory. Writing has permanence — words can be examined, read and re-read. They exist until they are destroyed. But they are not destroyed easily in our digital networked world. Copies of copies of copies abound.
The marks we make when we write represent us, and so they must not be careless. When we put care into our work we are better for it. So is the work.
In order to write with care, we must write with vulnerability. With honesty. Above all with quality. Two monkey fight over a banana: one monkey wants to get the damn writing done; to publish; to be prolific. The other monkey wants to create good art. Both monkeys are you. The banana is your work. Impossibly, you must satisfy both.
Thankfully, there is a formula. Or at least a playbook. Or maybe just a vague set of instructions. But at least there is something. It goes like this: First, we must discover what we know, then decide what we think. We must inscribe these bits of us into words and wrap them in voice. Then, we must publish.
To discover what we know, we must look inward: pull forth scraps of human experience, little slivers of character, fragments of everything we have ever seen or said or thought. We must draw out, carefully and oh-so-gently, facts and ideas and impressions from our over-filled cortexes. Then carefully, tenuously, encode these into real, living words. We must do battle with these words, for they will not be tamed so easily. They must abide by the rules of the language, unless it is better for them to break the rules. Naughty words.
To decide what we think, we must look further inward still and expose our beliefs. This is a courageous act in our hyper-judgemental world. It is especially courageous to write what we believe because what we believe might be wrong. It is one thing to be wrong in the privacy of your own mind or an intimate conversation, but quite another to be wrong in front of the world, and the trolls and dissenters and devils-advocates wait quietly in the shadows to pounce.
We enfold these thoughts and beliefs in voice. How we sound when we open our mouths is decided by the shapes of our vocal chords, but how we sound when we write is decided by us. Voice is tone: formal or informal, eloquent or concise, poetic or unadorned. Voice is diction: the choices between illimitable variations of language, grammar, structure, meter. To create voice we make impossible distinctions between differing words with identical meanings and similar words with similar meanings, even between differing words with differing meanings. Sometimes we imbue words with entirely new meanings. This is called this style. Voice can have style, but not all voice has style. Just like dogs can have style, but most dogs don’t (cats do). Bukowski knew that.
Voice is the signature that represents us as writers, but also represents us as breathing, thinking, living humans. It is constructed, but in its construction it is also revealing.
We enfold our wisdom and experience and beliefs in voice, and in doing this we bare the very stuff of our selfs to the world.
And then, we publish. These selfs, fragile creative expressions that they are, go on display to every literate human on earth — or at least those who use the internet. This is likely why it is so nerve-wracking to publish.
Why bother writing?
Because our writing exists, will exist, forever, as infallible artefacts of our culture. And we, the creators of our generations, have responsibilities to make this culture the best we can make it — to pass down such riches to our children and grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.
And to earn permission, we must throw ourselves into craft, into art. We must create with care, even when it is hard. Even when the trolls and the critics and inner voices hound us, we must persist.
With practice, we can become our best creative selves. We can learn to create work that only we are capable of creating. We can gift our fingerprints to humanity. Maybe we can even inspire others.
So today, we must write: with determination, with grace, with eloquence, with humility.
And maybe even with style.