Why I Write

Update: The Good Men Project actually decided to run my little rant =)

Sometimes, I just need a little prompting.

I keep up with The Good Men Project, and on their blog recently, it posed a question open for any of its readers to chime in on:

Do you write for yourself, or for an audience? Do you write to tell a story, or to change the hearts and minds of men?


 

I write because I can’t, not, be honest.

Otherwise, I’d be going up to random strangers, shaking them profusely, admitting with wide-eyed conviction some deep-seated guilt or expressing an epiphany like an enlightened being. (Or a creepy one.)

Writing feels like an emptying.

It is like having a jar of sand that I open, and the contents of which I scatter out on a surface and sift through hollow seashells and shards of glass and jagged rocks and little stones that were once sharp rocks, smoothed over time. But mostly I’d have a lump of damp sand, once so densely packed, that it made the jar heavy.

The more I pack into my little jar, the more burdensome it becomes to carry. So I spill some of it onto a page, or scatter traces of it on a public blog post. It needs some other place to contain it, outside of myself.

That’s a little bit of what writing is, and what it does, for me.

For me, and surely for many, writing is at first, self-serving.

It is therapy. It is catharsis. It is unapologetic self-absorption. It is the hoarding of all the best recollections of things. It is the setting free of all the worst.

But once the words are read by another, the writing morphs into an entirely odd and frightening beast. That which was, at first, a platform for the individual becomes a spark for conversation, a reason for dialogue, and an opportunity for community. And then, it gets scary.

But if it were to remain too private — if too carefully stashed away for any wrath or embrace to welcome it — well, wouldn’t that be a shame?

Maybe, of course, the only kind of honesty I know to practice is the messy, navel-gazing, endlessly questioning kind, revealing raw ideas and sleeve-worn feelings.

But it’s mine, the whole lot of it, and the writing — the public writing especially — gives my brazen words their audience.

My honesty wouldn’t realize its own transformative potential, were it not subjected upon the immediate whims and fancy of the public sphere.

It needs to know if someone on the other side of the world is listening and nodding. It needs to know — I need to know — that there are others saying, “Yes, me too.”

Ultimately, then, the writing becomes a remarkably humbling process — because with it comes the risk of bearing one’s soul so openly, without ever knowing for sure if it will be accepted, let alone, understood.

Regardless, after such a risk I can only expect, if nothing else, a profound relief.

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Taste

“It’s going to take a while.”

I’ve listened to this snippet from Ira Glass many times over, and every time I do, I can’t help but feel a little encouraged, and a bit more hopeful.

Everything he says here, regarding the craft of creating stories is spot on.

Not only does it take time to feel like we’re creating something even close to our own ambitions, but it truly takes, a huge volume of work. Between the time, and the work, it’s the work that keeps me humble. The amount of work I will need to churn out, just so my writing can sound a little more like what I have in my head is daunting.

Time feels like a luxury. Sure, we take it for granted, too. But in my particular case, time is hardly the issue. I have loads of it. (I don’t manage it well enough to feel like I do, but I do)

It’s the work, though.

The commitment to churning out draft after draft of likely bad writing, again and again, until it looks a little less like a deformed mass of jumbled words and resembling more of a properly executed, carefully crafted story. Something beyond just well meaning, but poignant. Something actually worth reading.

I don’t fear the work. I just get tired thinking about what it will require of me. The demand is great, and the worker is few – me.

Now, about taste…

That’s the other thing in which I take some amount of solace. Actually, with regards to taste, there’s a little bit of pride.

I am not ashamed about what I like. I do not mind sharing the books I’m reading, or recommending films worth watching, or plugging the kind of music I’d want the rest of my small world to tune into (likely, it’s jazz, by the way).

What I like motivates me to create something that would, similarly, illicit a sense of pride – that I, too, can come up with something enjoyable. That I can move someone to action, or challenge someone to think differently, with my words, in the same way much of what I consume, much of my interests, move and challenge me.

Right now, the “taste” that Glass is talking about – that’s all I really have.

The body of work has yet to be built. The time to do so has yet to be managed.

But the taste, to me, is there. To me, it’s my beginning.

Things are likely to look a little different around here. It’s probably going to be a bit messier. I’m going to be testing a lot more out. See what sticks. My more manicured, professional self has its own, separate place – over here. But here…here is where the work, the real, grind-it-out, raw material, will once again gain its footing.

So pardon the mess ahead, but I have a lot of work still to do.

Adrift

Day 31, 500 words, 31 days

I confess, I may have romanticized this writer’s life.

I imagined entire days spent reading classic literature and taking breaks jotting down passages that inspired me, and maybe writing some of my own. I would start off with my morning cup of coffee, perhaps go for a run if I felt the need to clear my mind, and then get to work at a reasonable morning hour – 10, or 10:30. By noon, I would pour a second or third cup if I felt the afternoon hours baiting me into submission, and sleep. Chances are, I’d end up napping anyway, with a book resting neatly over the bridge of my nose or with its pages spread over my chest. I’d be in some Zen-like state, unconsciously generating original ideas to write about – the kind I’d punch into a blank Evernote page to park for later. And late in the evening, if I couldn’t quiet the restless thoughts running in my head, I’d sneak out of bed and write a little more – perhaps along with a little nightcap, and if I took it at the right time, I’d knock myself out for good after I typed up my final words.

This is, however, not the usual day.

The version I actually live usually revolves around running morning errands like stress-inducing trips to the market, or remembering to hang out the laundry at a reasonable hour – like 10 or 10:30. By noon, I’ve missed lunch and debate whether it’s worth putting on some pants to go to get Char Hor Fun on the corner, or if I’m better off fixing myself the driest sandwich imaginable. Somehow, I fight off the spell that is sleep and manage to be alert enough to Tweet something tweet-worthy or skim over Facebook for something other than a Buzzfeed list. (I click on the Buzzfeed list anyway). By nightfall I’m wondering where my day went, and realize I hadn’t written a single thing worth posting. So I hit my hardest stride before 10 in the evening, pushing through a post around midnight just so I can earn the satisfaction of uninterrupted sleep.

I may have seen one too many movies of writer-types – the sort of miserly, unkempt professor of Wonder Boys or the manic-depressive one in Adaptation. There’s, of course, the feel good bunch too – the outcasted, but hopeful young writer in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or the diamond-in-the-rough discovered in Finding Forrester.

Reality is, I’m absolutely like none of those characters at all. I’m too fastidious about fixing the hair that I have left and I still actually put together outfits that don’t make me look like a child rummaging through his parent’s closet for “dress-up”. I didn’t fancy myself a writer when I was a kid, and I have a hard time believing I’ll be fortuitously discovered as one, as an adult.

The “writing life” and the “writer” itself remain such odd, though appealing, caricatures to me, but I find it hard to relate.

The truth about writing is that it’s just going to take a lot of work. It already has. The daily grind of it that brings about both magical epiphany and mind-bashing frustration. The practice and discipline of it make it more of a craft to be honed than a mere hobby to be dabbled with. The sheer effort it requires reminds me all the more that, like time itself, it’s never going to be free.

I’m already feeling the cost creep into my ideal, daily routine. I’m experiencing the quick loss of fresh ideas and concepts the longer my day goes without writing anything, because I’m too busy filling it with other responsibilities – like doing my own dishes or cleaning up after my cats or checking Facebook…for work.

All I know now, is that it will only get harder.

I don’t have the energy or patience to look back (yet!) at everything I’ve written. Measuring the amount of work (or words) I’ve amassed in the past month feels both daunting in task and in number. The “achievement” of which, doesn’t incite pride, so much as it does, genuine relief.

I stayed the course. I “ran the race.” I persevered through the really bad days and I capitalized, as best as I could, on the good ones.

I haven’t even begun to weigh what worked and what didn’t. But I suppose that sort of deliberation is for after-the-fact. Much after.

For now, I only feel the strong, unrelenting desire, to rest. Just for a while. Just long enough to get my bearings again – on the real day-to-day I’m about to experience once more, without this writing project tethering me to the anchors that were my tablet, keyboard, and desk.

After all, they have kept me afloat long enough. Now, it’s time to drift along.

On the Brink

Day 30, 500 words, 31 days.

It’s almost over.

What began as an exercise in commitment and discipline has since evolved into a daily battle of attrition. I feel mentally fatigued, pressured more than inspired, and a little too eager to begin other pursuits when this one remains unfinished.

Today was the most ordinary of days for me – the typical sort of easy-going routine that begins as I wake myself slowly out of my morning lull, hits a sudden and desperate halt for lunch, crescendoes with a short stint of productivity in the early hours of the afternoon, and resolves itself into smug satisfaction as I prepare to pick up my wife at school.

At different points of the day, I scoured for every day encounters to write about. Today, for instance, perhaps the friendly postman that assured me my wife’s postcard will make it to the U.S. on a ringgit stamp would have made for a decent story. Or the Muslim woman who sells me doughy ‘bao’ for a quick lunch. Earlier on in the process, I even dedicated an entire entry to my cats, though I haven’t mentioned them much since. I figured if they were the main characters of any given day of writing, it was probably a pretty uneventful day.

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for Miles and Madu. Especially Madu, who, inexplicably, never really tires of me.)

This has been the most persistent challenge with this project – the task of making the most mundane things more than ordinary, knowing that every day doesn’t bring forth a riveting, raucous adventure. I’m lucky to have had some notable travels this month – to the tea plantations of Cameron Highlands during my wife’s winter break, passing through the historic (and culinarily famous) town of Ipoh, and of course, my own personal passage to India’s Kolkata, a remarkably dense city of unforgettable vividness and adrenaline-inducing energy.

But in between such excursions are reasonable – and necessary – breaks. January was an especially full month, which worked in my favor, as far as writing was concerned. Now that it has officially passed, I’m looking forward to not feeling a moral obligation to post daily, and hopefully, I’ll be exercising a keener, more judicious eye to scoop out the story when there doesn’t appear to be one. I’d hate having to resort to manufacturing some out of the blue…

Though, that isn’t a bad idea, entirely. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing short fiction, and maybe that’s a reasonable next project. Or compiling different lists. People like lists. Or launching an actual travel blog that only involves my jet-setting ways. Who knows?

Is it possible to be approaching the end with both eager in anticipation and cringing with dread? Does that sound, to you, a lot like graduating from a prestigious program, or for others, their wedding day (and others still, their wedding night?) I’m having trouble pinning down what exactly it is I’m feeling now that this whole ordeal is winding down.

Maybe it’s like a glass of whiskey…

(No, no I’ve made that analogy before, and this time, I wouldn’t have any idea where to go with it)

Perhaps it’s more like the relief you feel after stopping a wound from bleeding with a band aid. At that moment, you couldn’t be more grateful for a way to plug the thing from gushing out the life source inside you. That is until you you pull off the band aid a little too early and see the scab as it’s still forming. And yet, you’re just glad you aren’t staining your shirt anymore with your own blood.

Yes, a little like that.

When it’s all said and done (and soon, at that), I dread having to re-read all of these entries as if I’m being forced to flip through my middle school yearbook. But a lot like middle school, I’m just glad I survived it at all.

Granted

Day 27, 500 words, 31 days.

“One of the things that happens when you give yourself permission to start writing is that you start thinking like a writer. You start seeing everything as material.” – Anne Lamott

This morning I had a cup of coffee at the nearby Starbucks with a new friend, a writer, though he is many other things as well. In short, he practices a far healthier diet than I do, and he also has a lot to say about grace.

We probably could have talked for many hours. I think it takes a writer to ask another what it is that he likes to write, or what it is she enjoys reading for the conversation to sound natural and not like a blind date. So we exchanged resources – people who we’ve read recently, people who we should give a try, writing we consider interesting, and so forth.

It was refreshing, to say the least, to chum it up with someone about books, over a decent Americano.

I asked him who else he had known who writes, and he mentioned one other fellow, another parent at my wife’s school, who’s written several books. Unsurprisingly, they, too, are friends. That’s two other people who fancy themselves writerly and have even managed to publish their own work.

The third who I know – me – well, he’s working on it.

The quote I included above, is another inconspicuous gem of a line from Bird by Bird. I don’t consider it her most quotable of quotes, but it belongs in the second paragraph of the first page whose corner I actually leafed. I promised myself I’d never do that again and rely instead on free bookmarks I collect at coffee shops, but this one deserved a leafing. A permanent crease on the corner, the kind made when the intention is to return to it, over and over.

The first word that popped out to me is “permission”.

I had never considered it that way before – as if the venture of writing deserved a formal granting of passage. I just always thought some people did it because they couldn’t see themselves doing anything else.

To be fair, that’s actually an incredibly romantic idea, though perhaps a bit, limiting. It flies in the face of believing “one can do all things”, and yet, it is the very foundation of the mantra many hold, in which they believe they are pursuing what they are “destined to do”.

If it’s possible to subscribe to both ways of thinking – I would. But regardless of reasons behind why writers write, I’m fast approaching that part where I start to ask how to begin.

Frankly, I haven’t even fully sorted the “why” part. I was telling my friend today, and then, another friend later (and perhaps too many friends, with whom I am now divulging my little dream), that I just love stories, and I have a natural way of putting together words. Now, before that sounds absolutely pompous, let me just say, I didn’t mean it as a declaration of inherent greatness. I only mean to say, I’ve always found comfort in expressing myself this way, the written way, and that, I just can’t explain.

So for me, maybe it’s a little bit about doing one of the few things I feel I can do, and it’s also a little bit about doing something that I love.

I read something recently on that as well – and the writer gave a fairly nuanced summation of why people ought, not, to bash the idea of pursuing what one loves. The way I gathered it, as long as the lover tempered her expectations for her muse, she ought to pursue her muse with purest fervor and most dedicated resilience.

The mystery of this whole endeavor is the quality about it that feels like the closest thing I’ve ever felt to “calling” – as if it was one of the few options that actually made sense, amidst the myriad of options that make so little of it.

It’s not like I “chose” to like writing. I suppose I just always have.

It’s not like running, which I’m hoping to like, choosing to do, and feeling vehemently opposed to, most the time.

There aren’t many other things I enjoy doing, purely for it’s own sake. This is the case, so far, before it ever becomes something more than an everyday hobby. I pray the moment, if I’m ever so fortunate, that this ever resembled the makings of a career – I do hope to God, I enjoy it just as much then. Despite the many, many torn up drafts, bad reviews, and clever critics ready to rip me apart.

Despite all the good and bad that has yet to come, I hope only to give myself permission – that free, undeserved pass – just to continue.

On Grit

Day 24, 500 words, 31 days.

On my wife’s Facebook wall today, I came across an interesting article that unpacked the importance of a particular quality in becoming successful at what you do.

Grit.

The article couldn’t have been more timely. There are just several days left until this writing project officially comes to a close and while my restlessness makes for numerous ideas floating about in the mysterious space between my ears, it doesn’t always translate into actual material.

I mean, good, worthwhile, storytelling material.

Some days are like, today.

Nothing particularly eventful or interesting, just a day in which I let myself languish for the sake of “recuperating” after a draining week. I got my coffee at the usual spot, had a nice, long conversation with my friend, the owner, came home and putzed around for half the day, looked up airline flights I can’t afford, picked up my wife at school, and then we got groceries, fries, and some porridge. That about sums it up.

For several days, I had more than enough to work with – the rapid pace of traveling and unfortunate twists and turns that made our trip far more an adventure than it was projecting to be – that made for some decently compelling stuff. I could barely keep my eyes open to write, but I had more than enough to get down on paper before my body shut down for good.

Today, I’m struggling. I’ll admit it right now.

I suppose like any story, this project, too, has a beginning, middle and end. And within that trajectory there are rising things and falling things. There’s excitement, and then, there isn’t. There’s suspense, and then there’s the pending resolution. It’s, for moments, mostly interesting, and then, clearly, not at all.

Right now is one of those dips in the plot arc that the reader, you, might be trying to avoid before you sink into a quicksand called boredom.

It’s one of those days when the only thing that motivates me is what I said I’d do from the very beginning – to stay the course, and finish.

There are moments, long, arduous, baking-under-the-sun sort of moments, when the well runs empty, and the well was the only thing I dreamed about reaching so I could stop panting.

That article I read described “grit” as

“the ability to sustain interest and effort to complete long-term goals”

. I wasn’t completely satisfied with that description so I turned to the dictionary, and it gave me something a little more uplifting.

Grit, noun. Firmness of character; indomitable spirit; pluck.

My favorite of those is “pluck”. That’s the sort of word that wins you games in Scrabble. But the first definition was probably the most heartening.

I needed to hear that grit referred to character. It is the quality you could equate to tenacity. Mettle. Internal fortitude.

In my particular case, it’s precisely the sort of steadfastness I was praying for when I decided I’d start writing – everyday.

To be fair, there are far more things for which this quality of grit could serve an even greater use. Life and death sort of matters, like, well, life and death. Like war. Or championship matches. Or a most riveting game of Scrabble.

To consider how much grit I need to stay the course on a daily writing project that’s about to end might sound a tad overdramatic. And it is. But if I didn’t attribute to this cause so much importance, if I didn’t feel the weight of not finishing bear down on my shoulders like a biblical yoke – well, then I wouldn’t bother finishing at all. In fact, I’d have stopped a long time ago, long before things ever got mildly interesting.

I’d have stopped on a day like today, and I have many of them, believe me.

But I haven’t. I’m proud of that. I’m also foolish and naive and scared everything I’ve written here is the most self-absorbed rambling I’ve ever coughed up in my life.

But I’m glad I have a little bit of that grit. Just enough to last a few more days maybe. So long as I finish, I’ll know there’s more than just wandering thoughts stirring the little engine inside.

Toiling Away

Day 11, 500 words, 31 days.

I’m more than a third of the way in. The last couple days have been more challenging than the first few – a test of my resolve and commitment to this particular project.

On one hand, I’m just glad I haven’t let up.

On the other hand, there’s still such a long way to go. And by that, I don’t just mean this project. I mean the whole, writing thing. There’s still so much more to learn, to unlearn, to fail at and succeed with. For me, I keep telling myself that this has got to get past the 31 days.

But for now, the project is exactly the sort of short, intense mental workout I need to build the right sort of habits. Now if only my commitment in this area of my life could mirror that of my commitment to my health and physical well-being…

Jeff Goins gave us writers a nice little encouragement today. It was he, after all, that challenged us to take on this 500 words a day project, so it was only fitting that he told us:

“…you are enough. You are a writer, and what do writers do? They write. And all of you are doing just that. You’re showing up, availing yourself to the Muse, and doing your work.”

I’ve kept my expectations relatively simple this entire time I’ve been writing since the new year – that is, to just keep on writing. To press on as if my day couldn’t possibly end without having tried. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t feel complete, and a void would be created, to be filled, only by the weight of words.

I believe there will be a time for more meticulous editing. For the doing-over, and the taking out, and the revising again and again. There will be moments when I read over what I just wrote, and realize, “What on earth did I even mean by that?” And then, my face, buries itself in the meaty cushion of my palms, covering my shame.

But for now, my objective has been simple and by grace, I’ve stayed the course faithfully.

This feels a little like I’m toiling, though I’m sure farm workers and day laborers and doctors would have some choice things to say upon hearing such a thing. But I guess I don’t want to take for granted the essence, and necessity, of the work. The day-to-day grind of coming up with something to write – regardless of how interesting, or funny, or God-forbid, neither.

Early on in the project my wife innocently asked me, “So, what exactly are you going to write about, every day?”

I’m sure I didn’t have much of an answer. But I do remember feeling really liberated, that I didn’t quite know. In fact, I feel that way still.

Surprisingly, it’s even been liberating to write, publicly. Something about not caring that any particular piece reads perfectly or is actually, engaging, is helping me feel free to keep writing. Now, I don’t keep track of whoever’s keeping track, but I have a vague idea of which of my friends have remained loyal, perhaps even to a fault – should they instead be, actually, laboring away on their cubicles, or classrooms, or…dare I say, smartphones.

To you, I say, thanks, for putting up with me. But should you decide 31 days is just too long, I totally hear you – and no hard feelings.