I Still Have So Far To Go
I reached the point where I have written at least 200,000 words on this blog.
It happened a couple of days ago, and I was sort of taken aback by the amount.
Because recently, I’ve found that I haven’t liked my writing. If anything I felt like I was getting worse. The reasons for this are several. First, it seemed as though I was not taking the reader along with my writing. For instance, in my Twilight blog posts, when I should have done a better job explaining scenes before analyzing, my graduate school education took over and I analyzed immediately, assuming the reader has seen the series. It was bad writing then that I had to read during graduate school, and it was interesting to note just how little of that painful graduate school experience I remembered when writing my own things.
So the first thing I will say about my writing is that although I have been writing so much, whether that’s due to my own desires or the raging pandemic outside, I still have so far to go.
And really this is no bad thing. In fact the realization that I have just stuck my toe in and there is a veritable ocean in front of me is very exciting. I look forward to the practice, and I feel as though with each post I learn something either consciously or unconsciously about the way I write. Even right now in this post I can see that I’m using much better transitions between sentences and thoughts, in a way I have not done recently, and that gives me pleasure.
But it also gives me pause. More than anything I see now just how hard writing is. Nothing that is worth doing does not come with its own varying levels of difficulty. Surely there is an easier time to be had of swimming: you get in the water and yes, sometimes it’s very cold at first, but once you’re in you’re weightless and to some extent you feel free. But if you decide that you want to become a better swimmer, even to the point of swimming competitively, there is a depth there (pun intended) that you had no idea existed. The stroke, the breath, the kick, the turn, and suddenly you have a new language for everything you do in the water, where before it was simply “in or out.”
Writing is difficult because of the amount you have to write and how little feedback you get. Especially in the middle of your life. In school, plenty of the writing you do is based on a response to the teacher, who is looking for proof of knowledge. In middle school and high school, you begin to leverage your new skills and write for yourself. Perhaps in a diary, or perhaps on the internet, or maybe just writing letters or long text messages to people, you achieve a form of literary consciousness. From here on, the amount your teacher sees diminishes. That can continue for a long enough time. If you’re Canadian writer Alice Munro, this gap between school and releasing her first collection of short stories at the age of 38 was a long time indeed. Writing in this young adulthood is constantly sending words out in little bottles, and very rarely do they make it back.
For those who are fortunate enough to receive feedback on their first published experience, it can be a rewarding one. But here I want to assure the writer that it will never be enough. You have to write for yourself, for the pleasure of finding things out. In this case, that finding will be a very metacognitive experience while writing, where you make adjustments because it is hard, but still enjoyable.
I have plenty to still work on because I want to still work, and that concept alone is exciting.
Writing Has Changed My Brain
Of course I do not really have any profound evidence of this, nor do I pretend that I am some God-tier human being for the ability to endlessly write. No, it’s more that I have found that there are some minor altered traits in the way I think due to the amount I’ve written.
The dirty secret about this blog is that underneath this has been millions of words already written. In college I took several creative writing courses, and I spent a great deal of time after graduation writing little stories, writing several novels that I did not finish (and a couple that I did). In 2019, I decided to write a diary and build up a certain volume of writing.
The more I learned about neuroplasticity, the more I came to realize that deliberate practice and the 10,000 hour mark applied to just about anything one wanted to master.
I think for young people, the people I have taught especially, they seem to think they can simply arrive at an idea and then put it on paper. But what was so frustrating back then was that the cool idea and the resulting ink on paper turned out to be totally different.
And one was much better.
So as a result, a lot of young people bounce off of writing, because it does not contain that 1:1 relationship between the idea and the product.
There are other students who have an idea, and then write, but then instead of writing more they wait for the next idea. This was me in college, and in those cases the only way I could improve was through the in between reading sessions. Reading seemed to be my gateway into writing.
But now I have gotten much more specific: it is the writing that I am doing that influences my writing.
This seems like such an obvious conclusion to draw after so many hours writing. Michael Phelps got better at swimming by swimming. It was not as if he read several volumes about swimming and still managed to get in the pool and ended up an Olympian because of his knowledge. It was all about practice.
Yet still these concepts have never quite shaken the painful reality of going to school. Still there are plenty of language arts classes where kids are still doing grammar worksheets. In fact, during this time of distance learning, teachers may fall back on it as easy to grade and easy to disseminate. They feel as though knowing what is a noun, knowing what is a verb, will suddenly make them a better writer, and that could not be farther from the truth.
With all this said, the obvious point is that writing makes you a better writer.
But what I did not consider was that writing has also made me a better thinker and communicator.
When I have had the chance to talk with friends, I often come across points or ideas that my wife and I have not talked about. This is a natural reason we have friends: they offer another way of living life that is thrilling to us, and we want to share in our past experiences, or in different takes of how to live now.
And I have found that, in those moments where I am called upon to offer up some words as a response to an idea I haven’t formulated (but I must do so quickly because…you know…my friend is right there waiting for an answer), I can almost see explicitly the words arranging themselves linearly in my head just before I speak them.
This happens rarely. Unfortunately, I do not feel this way all the time.
When I am drunk, I definitely do not feel this.
But for brief glimpses I get a very lucid experience of the writing having an effect on other avenues of communication.
To me, that is thrilling, because as a teacher a lot of my time is spent in communication with students about their reading and writing, and about their lives. It would be painful to not be able to “keep up” with their quick wit, or with their burning questions.
Writing is pervasive, in the sense that when you habitually write, you receive altered traits not just for writing, but for other properties of your life.
There Are Peaks, Valleys, and Plateaus
To conclude here, and to go back to what I was suggesting before, the key thing about writing in this way is that you have to do it. You have to write everyday.
There is something about not being habitual. Like any other practice, the muscles quickly atrophy. You find coming to the keyboard that much more difficult, often painful. So you stop, and instead you check your phone, you watch television, or you play a video game.
I have been there.
But what I am realizing is that to be a true professional, one has to come to the act of writing regardless of personal feelings. Whether one has a great idea or not, whether one has the energy or not. A true professional arrives even and especially when it is difficult. It is in the doing, not in the thinking-of-the-doing…if that makes sense, that leads to better writing.
I have written some blog posts that I am incredibly proud of to this day. “On Assessment” I feel is an eloquent and verbose encapsulation of how I feel not just on standardized testing, but on education in general. It is a manifesto of sorts, and regardless of how others responded to that post, I hold it close to me as a moment where I achieved success for myself.
“Ambiguity in the Hitman Games” is one where I delved into the details of a video game in what I feel to be the best way possible, which is to highlight how the act of playing the game changes the behavior or outlook of the player. I love that post.
But besides that, there are many, many posts where I feel like the writing is so painfully bad. It’s esoteric, or pedantic, or even sometimes feels incomplete.
Sometimes I will even go so far as to say that the ideas are bad.
The latest Twilight posts being one such example. Not only was the writing not hand holding enough for the reader, but the ideas I was trying to shove did not feel natural. It felt like I was trying to brute force a puzzle, and in getting this working class vs. ruling class idea out, I realized that one cannot really analyze something sufficiently until one spent an inordinate amount of time hanging out in that space.
My wife, as a reader of the series, and as a young woman who followed the Twilight trends, would have been a much better relay of the movies. Not only that, she had done some background work on Dracula in high school, watched True Blood, and as such has a very wide understanding of some other examples of vampires to bounce off of.
But look closely at the trajectories of historically successful authors, and you may find yourself seeing that they too had missteps. Almost nobody talks about John Updike’s book The Terrorist, unless it is to dismiss it.
Even if I was the best writer in the world (and I am so not), a person can always be out of their element when it comes to a topic.
Writing every day has changed the way I think. It has helped me realize that no matter the situation in life, I still need to sit down and write. And no matter the skill of the writer, some ideas are dead on arrival.
There are going to be some posts that I feel strongly about, and many not. The bell curve is a natural way to explain that. 50% of my posts are not going to be as good as the other 50%. The key here is not to dwell on perfection, but simply to sit in front of the keyboard and type.
Skill is dedicated to time and attention. I’m here to tell you that if you want to write, you should start now. Start small, and eventually the word count will take care of itself. But you have to write, and I would recommend every day. It continues to change me, and I hope it changes you.