March 13, 2009

A Need to Blog

I was counting the other day, and came to the realization that, over the last couple of years, I have ended up blogging in about ten different places. Yet despite that, I also made the rather disturbing observation that while I am regularly writing articles for O'Reilly (about fifteen to twenty a month, which, when you get right down to it, is an incredible amount of writing), for (which is focused on XML issues), for DevX, for EMC/Documentum and elsewhere, what I didn't have was a place where I could just blog for myself.

That's when I remembered this blog. It's not a Drupal instance, just a simple Blogger app, but I'm coming to understand that perhaps this is not a bad thing - I need something that I can periodically just write to without having to get sucked up in the mechanics of blogging. I've learned to really like Drupal, but sometimes you need to just walk away from the code and concentrate on the message.

In the case of Metaphorical Web, that's precisely what I intend to do. This can be considered my kick back my feet and just write whatever I want to write blog. I might talk about code, or economics, or just how I'm feeling that day, and I make no promises that you're going to learn anything here, other than maybe the occasional odd rumination.

Ironically enough, as a professional writer, I'm beginning to realize the real value of such a blog. One of the real challenges that you face as a pro writer or journalist is that overall you are always writing for others. You have to consider every thing you say in terms of the editorial message of the site, the audience involved, the needs to promote this or that conference or book or product. Especially in the age of tightening belts, you also have to make sure that what you're writing has value with every article.

Yet here's a secret for you - no writer can be "on" all the time. That's not to say that a writer can't consistently write articles or stories or what not. That part of writing is a lot like what a long distance runner goes through, just building up your endurance so that you can crank out an article every day or two, two to three stories a week. Yet even the best writer (just like that endurance runner) will have off days, will produce a piece or two of forgettable crap for every good story, and the really incredible pieces will be balanced by the occasional article that frankly should have been left exposed on a rock to do a humane death.

What's more, that writer periodically needs to write to no one in particular just to get the frustrations off his chest, to say the things he daren't say when writing for pay, to have, well, a journal. In its own way, writing is an addiction. The more you write, the more that the pathways in your brain see writing as the mechanism for expressing itself, and as a consequence you find that its often difficult to use the medium of speech because your brain is wanting to shape things into words on a page or pixels on a screen.

I've been at a number of author readings and been on panels at everything from science fiction conventions to international conferences with other writers, and one of the things that I've noted is that most writers tend to be naturally taciturn and withdrawn, though certainly capable of speaking eloquently when called upon to do so. At first, my thought was that the profession tended to draw introverts to it, in great part because introverts tend to live more in their head than via interactions with others.

Yet over the years, I've also begun to see that the process of writing reinforces this introversion, makes it stronger. Writers are aloof not because they believe themselves above other people, but rather because writing crowds out speaking and other human interaction, and as a consequence, the skills for dealing with other people become rusty and frequently mechanical, as writers find themselves having to remember how to do these things.

This isn't unique to writers, of course. Creators in most endeavors tend towards this way of thinking. Artists use different pathways, and as a consequence, the way that they view life differs somewhat, but at the same time, most artists become artists because art is the mechanism that they use for communication. Musicians, good musicians, similarly become wrapped around their music - and find that the channels over which they communicate dominate their interactions.

Once consequence of this is that there is a world of difference between communicating with someone in your modality of expression, and someone who simply "appreciates" that modality. I can communicate with my eldest daughter along a channel that others can't, because my daughter has the artist "genes" - the combination of talent and the overriding compulsion to draw and paint - that I have (I was very much the same as she was at her age -I was always drawing). I can communicate with my wife along the writing channel because she is a writer herself, which provides a shared set of referents or symbols (and experiences) that would be lost among non-writers.

Yet the irony is that I'm a lousy critic, which is I suspect also true for most creatives. An artistic critic is someone who looks for meanings and interpretations in a "work of art", as if there was actual intent there to provide such symbolism. I remember in high school one time, an elderly English teacher gave us a test which included the question "Why did Shakespeare write Romeo and Juliet?". My response, for which I received a rather stern lecture, was "because he had to pay the rent."

Writers write for public consumption not to load their works with deep symbols and meanings, but because they've discovered that the voice in their head that demands expression can be occasionally harnessed to pay the bills. The voice, the compulsion, to write, is still there, of course. They would write regardless, just as the artist will draw or the musician play, even if there was no audience. It's their language.

Yet this harnessing the writing impulse to pay the bills has a darker side as well. When everything has a deadline, what this means is that the temptation will be strong to do nothing but write for public consumption, even if what you're writing holds no great interest to you. The stories that you used to write get left undone because the clock is ticking and you have to get three articles on the latest news du jour written by the end of the day, you have to get the next chapter to the manual completed by mid-next week, the interview you did has to be transcribed and re-edited before the next conference. All are important, all pay the bills, but the music, the creativity that you once enjoyed as part of the writing process gets lost - your ability to express yourself gets lost in the requirement of expressing the needs of others.

There's another corrosive aspect of commercialization: you began seeing other writers not as people with whom you have a deeper understanding based upon your art, but as competitors for the same audience, the same revenues, the same lucrative barely minimal writing contracts. You don't dare do any but your best work because if you fail, you're toast. Unfortunately, this typically means that you also don't experiment or take risks, both critical for improving your craft, because the perceived cost of failure becomes too high.

I'm not sure there's necessarily a morale here, though I do have a suggestion to writers, (though it applies just as readily to artists, musicians and other creatives) from a writer who is rediscovering this for himself:

Always leave a certain space for yourself; block out a chunk of time in the week that is devoted to your play time, your experimentation time. If you write news for a living, use this time to work on a novel without the expectation that it will ever see print. If you're a technical writer, spend some time composing poetry, playing with the way that words sound and feel. If you're working on a book, take some time to write an essay about the coolness of the spring morning, or a random character portrait of someone you see in a coffeeshop.

Minimize the interruptions around you during this time, and do not, regardless of what else you do, use this time for paid work. This time is the equivalent of working out at the gym (something else you should do, for what its worth) in that it is not time that is owned by someone else but is necessary for your own sanity. This time takes precedence over everything - even if you have a critical deadline, take this time for yourself, because there will always be critical deadlines, and just as working out physically can often help relieve a lot of the physical stress that you face and make it easier to get things done, so too is this creative exercise time necessary to cut down on the mental stress that you face.

My suspicion, when it's all said and done, is that when I finally die, it will be the work I do during this time, rather than the marketing document for client X due next week, that will define me as a writer. Creativity is rare not because people aren't creative ... most people have a streak of creativity in them ... it's rare because people become so obsessed with the need to do their "work" that they fail to take the time necessary to actually be creative for its own sake, rather than in the service of some larger goal.

Take the time, it'll make you a better writer.