19 March, 2014
"No, fuck that shit JB"
I sip at my pint, a little crestfallen.
"Nobody wants to read about your writing problems."
He's right. There are few things worse in blogging than an extended silence punctuated by the occasional "I know I haven't written in a while" apologies. When all you've got left to write about is how you've nothing much to write about, you probably want to look at what you're doing.
Otherwise, you eventually end up apologising for apologising.
Which brings us to my current inability to crank out a few words. And when I say "current", I mean "coming on for six months now". That's almost as long a streak as I managed to keep writing for in the first place, during which time I seemed able to pull together a few hundred words every week. Hell, sometimes I even managed to get ahead of myself.
Yet since October? Nothing of note.
I mean, I could point to the fact that I had a pretty horrendous November, that December wound up being pretty full-on, that January brought us some more bad news, and that February represented a concerted effort to spend less time on things that didn't have direct family benefits (which led to a pretty awesome month, by the way). But none of those things can explain why I was unable to find twenty minutes or so each week to push out a couple of paragraphs of content.
It's not that I don't want to write. I sit down almost every week to write something, but then find something else to do instead.
It's also not like there's a lack of inspiration. My "write about" list has about fifteen items in it, all of which (pardon my modesty) are pretty damn good. Maybe it's the opposite problem. Do I have too many ideas?
But that's not quite it either. I've always had loads of ideas for what to write about here. Hell, I want to start writing fiction here occasionally; I want to write up a few more
git workflows; I want to discuss some of the design patterns I've been playing with (both software and social); I want to write about education, about Josh's experience at Primary school; about parenting; about psychology.
I've got a whole series I want to write on what tools I use day to day, including (yes, honest) OmniFocus.
I've always had that list. It used to have a bunch of other items on it, too, but I've been slowly chipping away at it while simultaneously feeding more ideas in from the top.
So what's the problem?
"Seriously, JB: you're a really good writer. Your best stuff is when you just write about things that have happened to you. Stop worrying about trying to make some sort of wider point each time."
He means well, but all I can think about at this point is the conversation I had a few days ago. A colleague was telling me how his favourite articles were the ones where it started out just as a personal story, then suckered the reader into realising it could be about them.
Five days prior to that, I had someone thanking me because they finally started to understand
git (more thanks to Sam Livingston-Gray than anything I wrote, but still: I'll take the finders' fee).
And I still have people emailing me asking where my bloody GTD article is.
In short, it slowly dawns on me that I have an audience.
Now I'm not some camera-shy recluse who is spooked by the idea that people read my stuff. Hell, I have a blog that I pimp quite heavily. I post links to twitter and then refresh Google Analytics like a maniac. I love the idea that people read my stuff, and I love even more that some people find something to take from it. I craved feedback, I wanted to know if people liked what I wrote, if they didn't, if they wanted more or less, or if they violently disagreed with me.
I wanted engagement. And make no mistake, I still do.
The problem, I think, came when I realised that "an audience" isn't just a single entity. It's a massively diverse group of people who all have different likes and dislikes and (here's the kicker), whom I also probably already know and respect. This means that, when they give me feedback, I take it as "the truth", and try to fold it into what I write next.
And when that feedback contradicts, I lock up.
I keep coming back to a conversation that I had with my English teacher in S5. I must have been 16 at the time. I'd written something that I was pretty proud of, that I felt had come together really rather nicely. I'd handed it in, concerned only that one particular part could have been better. The section in question was written in second person, which I thought was rather clever (hey, give me a break: I'd just read Complicity on the recommendations of the same English teacher), but I hadn't been able to get it to a place where I felt it was done.
I'd received the piece back with a couple of corrections, and a single comment on the second person passages:
First person would be more immersive here.
It both was and wasn't what I had expected, and I felt a bit deflated. She was right, but I wanted to understand why it was still bothering me.
I wait till the end of the class, and amble up to her desk. "Do you have a moment?"
"Of course, Jonathan."
"I just wondered what you meant by this," I point to the comment.
"I meant what I said: first person works better there." She waits for a response.
It occurs to me that I have nothing much more to say, though I feel like the conversation shouldn't be over. "But, I thought…" I trail off, not really knowing what I thought. But she does.
"You thought you'd figured out your audience," she says, still smiling. This isn't a criticism: it's her putting a name to the odd shape that I'm trying to identify.
And again, she's right. I had been caught showing off to my audience, throwing something into my writing that was there purely to show that I thought I knew who was out there.
"Honesty is important in writing," she continues, "and most important of all is to write what you feel like you need to write, not what you think people want to read. When you start chasing that, you'll be wrong more often than you're right.
"Or you'll be working for a tabloid." She grins.
And so we come to the real reason for my hiatus: This article.
This article has quickly forced itself out of my fingers every time I've tried to write something else for the last six months. And so here I am, writing what I feel like I need to write.
It's not an apology, it's not even an excuse or therapy.
It's me reminding myself that this place is for articles I want to write. And hopefully, that reminder will give you guys something to read a little more regularly from now on.