DRMacIver's Notebook

Writing as yourself

Writing as yourself

There's a simple method to doing anything. Do you know it?

It goes like this:

  1. Be the sort of person who can do the thing.
  2. Do the thing.

How do you become the sort of person who can do the thing?

Well, if you're not already, first you need to be the sort of person who can become the sort of person who can do the thing, then you become the sort of person who can do the thing.

This isn't an infinite regress. It's just the fully general system for learning to do hard things - eventually you bottom out by finding something that is only just outside your comfort zone.

You might, of course, find that some of the steps are impossible, or that the chain of dependencies are too long. I'm not going to win an olympic gold medal - some step in that chain of dependencies there is a "become the sort of person who can..." which I won't be able to fulfill. I'm not going to learn to speak fluent Russian - I could, for sure, but it's hard work with many many steps, and I don't want to. I said this method was simple, I didn't say it was easy.

(Even claiming it's simple is a lie. It may or may not be simple depending on how complex each of those steps is)

Anyway, this isn't really about skill development.

Tautologically, every successful attempt to do the thing works like this: If you do the thing, you're the sort of person who can do the thing.

Similarly, if you can't do the thing, you're not the sort of person who can do the thing.

(Sometimes you "can" do the thing you just don't want to. But if you can't overcome your lack of desire to do the thing enough to do the thing, can you really do it?)

So suppose you want to do something and can't. This gives you two options:

  1. Change who you are.
  2. Do something that you can do.

The first sounds very dramatic, but it's not. Everything changes who you are. You might be the sort of person who can do the thing on a good night's sleep but not the sort of person who can do the thing when tired. So the way to do the thing is to make sure you've got a good night's sleep. Or have a coffee. Or do it on a call with a friend who can help you. Or... You get the picture. Who you are is as much a function of context as any intrinsic aspect of character.

You can also change in more fundamental ways. You can learn new skills, introspect on your emotional relationship with the thing, make any number of changes that improve your ability to do the thing.

But sometimes changing who you are is the wrong thing to do. Sometimes you're just doing the wrong thing. You've picked something that your soul rebels at the idea of doing, and the reason you can't do it is that you don't want to be the sort of person who can do it.

How to do murder: First become the sort of person who can do murder. Probably best... not, right?

I think many things that we think of as immoral but where it's hard to articulate why they're bad are bad for this reason: Even if the thing itself is harmless, you first have to become the sort of person who can do them. Harmless in the moment, but corrosive to the character (I'm thinking of things like Jonathan Haidt's examples of "objectively harmless" thought experiments which people still think of as immoral - the most memorably graphic example of which involves buying a chicken from the supermarket to have sex with).

Anyway, this isn't really about that either.

This is, as the title promises, about writing.

I know a lot of people who say they would like to write, but aren't writing.

Why aren't they writing?

Well, Ira Glass has this notion of "the gap":

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

What you are trying to do is write something that satisfies your taste, but you're not yet or currently the kind of person who can do that.

You're also not the kind of person who can write things that don't satisfy your taste, because if you write something bad you feel bad about it.

As a result, you don't write.

There's more to it than that though. Even experienced writers get writers block.

Know what writer's block is? It's trying to write the wrong thing for you right now. You're not currently someone who can write the thing you're trying to write. You need to change who you are, or you need to write something different.

Often this can be done just by writing - slowly chipping away at the problem, incrementally reshaping yourself and the work to bring the two into alignment.

Creative processes are very susceptible to being the wrong person, because often you're trying to express something deeply felt, and it's hard to fake that. It's tough to write sad songs when you're happy, it's hard to write upbeat practical pieces about fixing things when you're incredibly depressed and everything feels unfixable.

But often there's something else you could be writing about instead. Whoever you are right now almost certainly has something you want to express, so why not write about it?

The result will often not be what you expect, it will often not be very good, but it will feel important in ways that much other writing you do will not, and it will often resonate with other people in a way a more polished piece cannot, because it captures something true.