Writing Is Never “The Thing”

Stop trying to pretend it is and it’ll go better


Sometimes I have these moments where writing suddenly feels like total bullshit

And I sort of “forget how to write” — or rather, have to re-decide how I want to do it.

There are two high-level ways to write:

  • Second person, i.e., “you, the reader.” This is the way most top writers in the most popular tags write (not excluding me.)
  • First person, i.e., “I” — and not even “I, the writer,” ideally, but rather “I, a person.” Some writers do a better job of this than others, while others don’t seem to realize they have a voice at all, writing like they’re some amorphous “person behind the curtain” willing you to accept them as a face projected on a screen.

And yes, there is also technically “third person,” but you’ll just have to believe me when I say: beneath the surface, it’s still really one of the two above.

All third-person writing is either for the reader’s knowledge (second person) — including most nonfiction — or for the writer’s own amusement and intrinsic joy (first person) — including most (good) fiction.

“Content” writing, written simply to get information across, is second person. “Craft” writing, which is actually written beautifully regardless of information, is intrinsic and first person.

And maybe you want to argue that there are nonfiction or informative writers out there doing it “intrinsically” or for the sheer craft of it, and sometimes that is true. But for the most part, I find it hard to believe that someone could be writing intrinsically while simultaneously neglecting to include their own voice. If they’re so “authentically” charged, where are they? And I don’t mean the inclusion of their marital status or the phrase “my kids” in their posts — get out of here with that simple shit. I mean their actual voice — their fears, aspirations, failures, etc. Their living and breathing experience.

I write a lot of content. And by that I mean “content” writing. I get all “insight” on that shit and churn it out, and sometimes I prioritize the articulation of these “universal truths” like it’s the thing, but the irony is that it’s not. Insights aren’t stand-alone, and insight are not craft. Craft is craft.

Experience is craft. And creating something is definitely craft, but only if it’s a unique expression, not a summary or insight. Art — and creative writing — is craft. But only if you’re actually in it. (And no, not a story “about you,” ffs. Again, voice. Experience. Emotion.)

And either way, writing is simply a tool. That’s all it ever is, all it ever will be, and all it should be regarded as — and I say this as someone who’s loved writing since I was like 7.

Writing is a medium.

And it’s either a medium for sharing information (marketing, even) or it’s a creative medium in the same sense that a canvas and paintbrush are. Writing is a tool — for transporting (external) information around, or for expressing our (internal) selves. That’s it.

And only one of those should even be regarded as true craft.

Writing is not stand-alone

Even the “craft” kind.

Recently a reader emailed me and asked if my goal was to eventually drop out of software. My answer was no — one, because I enjoy it, and two, because:

Writing is nothing in a vacuum.

I’m not sure I’d ever want a life where I sit down and write in a void. From where would this writing come? And based on what? My writing is based on my life, which means: I need to actually have one.

Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote some of her earliest essays based on her day jobs at the time — a ranch hand in Wyoming (The Last American Man); a bartender at a rowdy dive bar (Coyote Ugly.) Clearly, these “day jobs” were much more than income. And not only do I understand her approach to her work (and do it myself), but I have like a million times more respect for it than treating the work as something preciously to be coddled and fawned over.

That being said: does that mean I end up with more “insight” than “craft?” How do you blend the two? How do you decide which “person” (first or second) to take? Because sometimes I’m perched on a stool facing the reader; other times I’m talking to/for myself, only to look up 1,000 words in, like “oh shit, does that even make sense to someone else?” (This post, in case it’s not clear, is more the latter — but even then you can see where I make efforts at insight all the same.)

And best I can do is offer a bit of both, maybe because “my experience” is, to be honest, one in the same as “my insight.” I do the latter so naturally, it’s hard for me to draw the line. And when it comes to writing, it’s hard not to let the thing solidify as I get it down.

And maybe that’s where I hold my work — at least for now.

But the point is: it’s never about the writing. Writing is never the thing. The thing is either how you feel, or how you make the reader feel.

And maybe if you’re lucky, you get to nail both.

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