You have learned something. That always feels at first as though you have lost something.
H. G. Wells
Why does anyone write? Why does Orwell write about writing? About why he writes? About the motives authors have for writing? About how it’s this terribly difficult and often disappointing process because we frequently question ourselves? Why do William Zinsser and Joan Didion and Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg–all these amazing writers–write about writing? Because it’s messy and it’s hard and once we break through our resistances, we realize that writing becomes this powerful thing and was worth all the sacrifice and risk and labor that went into writing it. Speaking of risk, read Ms. Prokott’s post about having something at stake (risk) when writing. She put it very well and I would just steal it but it’s very much about her experience with writing, so I can’t. Oh, right, and it’s wrong. Go, read it. Consider this an assignment. While you’re at it, you should also read this post.
She’s right about risking something when you write though, if you risk nothing, there’s nothing to gain. Nothing for you and nothing for the reader. It’s just a flat lump of text on a page, it doesn’t really say anything. Ultimately, risk in writing is about being invested in what you write. Not being attached to it via some strange umbilicus, where everything that is said about your piece makes you flinch because you feel it as an extension of yourself — this just got pretty metaphysical and that wasn’t really my goal, sorry if your head exploded — but connected in the sense that you recognize in it some truth about yourself, or about people, or the human condition, etc. Think of the essays we’ve read that have spoken to you (Okay, fine, Mr. Poopy Pants, if none of them have, then think about something in your life that you’ve read that does “speak to you.” If there’s nothing, then you have no soul.) and then think about why and how it does, because everything is still about why and how. We read and study essays and authors to figure out what they were thinking and how what they wrote expresses what they were thinking and how they were thinking about it and why they were thinking about it in the first place, and especially in that way! It’s fascinating and hard stuff, but, oh, so very worthwhile.
Didion explains that she writes to find out what she’s thinking — knowing ourselves is at once tremendously difficult and tremendously important so that’s part of it: write to find out what you’re thinking. Why did you choose to write about this topic? What do you think about it? What do you have to add to the conversation about it? Why does it matter? What does it say about you? About people? About humanity? Sure, it’s about bowling, superficially, but it’s more about how uncomfortable you are with performing publicly, all eyes on you, and when you describe how stupid your feet look in those hideous shoes what you’re really saying is that you are self-conscious — people are self-conscious — and that every time we step up to the invisible line we’re at the precipice of very public success or failure, praise or mocking, glory or humiliation. This is what matters. This is what you’re essay is really about. The detestable act of bowling was just a means for you to capture something much deeper, much more significant; and that something is about you but it’s also about people. I can recognize some of my own awkward adolescent experiences in Bernard Cooper’s rendering of his. No I did not personally have a gay boyhood that I could write about (like he had) but adolescence is recognized as a universally miserable time for people.
You see, writing requires psychology. You’re digging around in that minefield of your memory, trying to make sense of it, trying to figure it out; to essay means to try. So you are revising your power writing “trials” (your attempts at a topic) into a new big and beautiful attempt to make sense of something that matters. I want to see that you’re thinking. I want to see that you’re making connections. I want to see that you’re writing with sincerity and precision and voice — writers do all of this because they care, they are invested. Don’t misunderstand me and think that as long as you care about something the writing will magically be good. It doesn’t work that way (wouldn’t it be nice if it did?) so you still have to be prepared to muddle through those initial drafts that make no sense or sound cliche or superficial. We all have those drafts. The good news is that we can replace those drafts with better ones. Remember Anne Lamott’s essay?
I’m handing you the reins for this essay in both topic and form. Show me what you’ve learned. Show me what you know. Show me what you care about. You can do this. Use your resources. Invest.