Paul Graham’s recent essay, “The Age of the Essay” struck a chord with me. The kind of essay writing he describes, a more free-flowing exploration of ideas than the traditionally structured “taking a position and defending it” essay, is exactly how I write.
Writing makes me think better. By putting words down on the page, my thoughts take better form. And the more thoughts I write down, the more ideas arrive. It’s like letting them out makes space for new and better ones.
I never learned how to write a “standard” essay at school, like most of my British and American contemporaries did. It wasn’t until after we were out of university and married that Abi told me about the technique of “say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you just said.” This came as a revelation to me, and has always struck me as a deeply uninteresting way to put an argument.
We did have writing exercises at school in the Netherlands, but we were never restricted to writing just essays. In every writing assignment, up to and including our final exams, there was always at least one topic choice that was open to a fictional approach. No matter how bizarre the topic, I always chose this option.
All our Dutch teachers warned us (and me especially, as a persistent offender) of the danger of sticking to fiction for these assignments. Stories are harder for teachers (and external examiners) to grade, and so they generally get judged more critically, and end up with lower average grades than essays. It was always deemed easier to write a competent essay than a competent story.
I’m sure that my contrary nature contributed to my insistence upon always choosing the story option, but mostly I just enjoyed writing fiction. And at school I always wrote stories the way Paul Graham describes “real” essay writing: I started with an idea, and then I developed it. If I didn’t find myself excited and surprised by the road the story took as it flowed out of me, then that was an indication that my readers would bored, too.
At school, I don’t think I ever knew where a story was going to end when I sat down and started it.
Looking back on it, this is probably what I used to enjoy most about writing fiction.
It is certainly what I enjoy most about blogging. When I get a-rambling, I rarely start off with a well-defined idea of where I want to go with the thought that prompted me to start a new entry. I rarely start off having done all the research (if any is needed) to back up what I say. If I start an entry in a new Firefox window, then chances are I’ll have about twenty or thirty tabs open in it by the time I come to press “save”, and I’ll always have learned something new on the way.
Coming back to fiction: it has been about a year since I last tried to write any, and probably three since I actually finished a story. So why did I stop?
Until now, I probably would have mumbled something about not having enough time, or not having anything really interesting to say, both of which reasons are thoroughly nixed by the existence of this blog. I think I realise now that the real reason is: I stopped enjoying writing fiction.
So, digging deeper: what made me stop enjoying it?
Plot. Endings. Structure. At some point in the mid-nineties I started being more concerned about these things. It started to worry me that I usually had no idea where a story was going. (Although this was a perfect jumping-off point for the “Best Openings” contest in the IMPs writers’ group on Compuserve.) I got into the mindset that I had to have an outline before starting a story. I started to feel inhibited about writing without an ending in mind. And guess what? Pretty soon the ideas just dried up. Without ideas, I couldn’t come up with endings, and so I stopped creating beginnings. Catch-22.
One of the things I have started admitting to myself is that I don’t persist with things I don’t really enjoy doing. I started taking Tae Kwan Do lessons earlier this year, but stopped stopped going after a month or two. At first I tried to rationalise away the reasons for not going to the classes (family demands, injured shoulder, etc.), but the deep down real reason is that I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I had hoped I would. Likewise, there are plenty of reasons I could trot out for selling my drum kit earlier this year, but the real reason is that I wasn’t enjoying playing as much as I used to.
The other side of this coin is that if I find myself persisting with something, that’s a way for me to know that I really enjoy it. Blogging, for instance. I’ve been doing this since 2000, without much sign of stopping. Ergo, I must enjoy doing it. Likewise golf. I don’t play very often these days, but I do still play.
(Curiously, I feel like this piece of self-knowledge is related to my realisation that a personal music player must have an FM radio built in for me to actually keep using it regularly. It has the same sensation of lifting the veil of self-delusion, and drawing the sting of unfulfilled desire.)
In summary, the only way I will ever write fiction regularly (and consistently) again is if I find myself actively enjoying it. And I to enjoy it again, I must stop worrying about outlines and endings, and just let it flow. I have to start surprising myself again. I have to start writing to please myself before I can even think about sending stuff out into the big wide world again.
That’s certainly what I do here with this blog. Some posts are for the benefit of family and friends, to let them know what I’m up to. Some posts are pointers to, or snippets of information about things I find interesting (like the Movable Type tutorials I’ve written). And some posts are just for myself: me thinking things through out loud, talking to myself in public. You might find them interesting, or you might not. If you take away something of value from the post, that’s cool, but it’s a fringe benefit. I’m no pundit, and I’m not trying to generate an audience for my ramblings.
I’ve had some story ideas brewing for a while now. We’ll see if this new self-knowledge helps to turn them into something tangible, or if it’s just another layer of writer’s block to hide behind.