Why I Don't Write

Thu 11 September 2008 by psu

I sat down a few times this week to try and crank out my weekly or twice weekly little rantlet about nothing in particular, but I have not been able to summon the interest and the energy necessary to type the letters in the computer. In contrast, I just listened to the 100th GWJ podcast, which was the very definition of a guilty dork pleasure. How they managed to maintain the energy needed to fill that many hours of content with a relatively intelligent level of discussion about video games is almost beyond my comprehension. The lesson is simple: the difference a real writer and someone who just dabbles uselessly lies not only in their ability to generate pleasing sequences of language. At least as important as the talent to write well is having the energy and the interest in a subject to keep writing about it even when your motivation wanes.

In writing, this state of mind often eludes me. I keep a mental list of single sentence subjects about which I might write an article, but unless the fancy strikes at just the right time I am just as likely to forget my lists as actually write anything about them. I think a real writer would probably be more organized about keeping lists of lists, and not losing them, and not forgetting about them. I don't know.

I also cannot make outlines to be filled in later. I can only write something that basically streams itself from my brain fully formed. Usually I just have to sit down and type it out with minimal editing. In writing articles for this web page, one of the more interesting experiences I have had is finally coming to understand a little bit about what those novelists mean when they say that their characters "take over" the book and dictate how the story should progress. I used to be skeptical about this, but I've actually had my non-fiction do this to me. I will sit down with what I think is a certain idea in my head and discover that the actual text that is there is something different. Usually it's just a different angle or perspective on the subject than I expected. But sometimes it's actually completely different. Often I set out to get to a cool catch phrase (e.g. Dork Nation) but where I end up is not quite the location that I imagined. By far the largest barrier to actually posting here is self-editing. I will start to write pieces in my head and decide that

  1. I've already written it three years ago. Never mind that no one read it then and no one would notice if I wrote it again.

  2. Someone else already wrote something slightly similar over at some other web site. So why bother.

  3. The subject matter is too self-indulgent of naval-gazingly boring. This page has that problem. But I pushed past it.

  4. peterb already wrote the same piece last week.

And on and on. There are certainly more reasons not to write something than to sit down and actually do it. I recall an article I read in graduate school by the Professor Ivan Sutherland (of Evans and Sutherland fame) about courage and research. He said that the major barrier to getting published academically is the self-editing that happens due to the fear that your own work is not worth publishing. His article made the point that it's your job to do the work and write about it. It's someone else's job to figure out if it is good. So just do it and don't do the other guy's job for him. Google found me a more evolved version of this paper, so now you can read it too.

I guess I didn't have to write this piece after all, since Mr. Sutherland did it for me. Oh well. Too late now.

Category: Things