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The joy of writing badly and publicly
This is a weekly newsletter that’s part public diary and part essays on tech, policy, and finance. To receive this newsletter in your inbox each week, subscribe here:
In seventh grade, I was obsessed with pirates. This was in the heyday of Pirates of the Caribbean and when it was impossible to check out Captain Hook, Peter and the Starcatchers, or Bloody Jack from the library. That summer I decided to write a chapter-book about pirates— I must have only written 5 pages before eventually giving up.
It was only towards the end of high school, during the process of applying to college, that I started to write again and was surprised to find that I enjoyed it. My boyfriend jokes that I am not right in the head if I enjoyed writing college application essays. But, weirdly, I did. The essays felt like a journal, where I could think about things that were interesting to me. I wrote about why crying was important to me, penned a letter to my future roommate about being clumsy, wrote a memo on girl’s education.
When I got to college, I was excited to take creative writing classes. But surrounded by my brilliant peers, I quickly realized I was not especially gifted at writing. I didn’t have Lila’s evocative descriptions, or Justine’s beautiful, meandering sentences, or Josh’s poignant phrases that made you stop and reread it.
Thankfully, I didn’t care. I liked reading and talking about books, and I discovered the beauty of putting words together, arranging them across the paper for the sole purpose of it “sounding nice”. Writing down my scatterbrained thoughts on paper also helped me make sense of the world. So I took more writing classes— a short story salon, an intro to non-fiction writing, and poetry.
My poems were especially bad. Here’s one I managed to dig out—
Coffee grinds littered across the floor,
Dirty plates, small, medium, large,
Oozing Heinz, plastic forks, recipes for whole-wheat bread,
A porcelain chef losing his white hair
Complemented by his counterpart’s black,
Loose tea leaves, aging in glass jars,
Half-eaten frosted cupcakes, blown-out candles,
A knife with no-longer moist crumbs,
Unwrapped, newspaper-wrapped presents
Glinting Corona’s and crisp white wine
The surprise over, blur of grinning faces
But I still look left and right,
No where to be found.
I’m not really sure where I was going with that… but those writing classes were some of my favorite. The professors were writers themselves and encouraged us to write no matter how cliched our writing was. A class of fifteen would take turns workshopping each other’s work through the course of the quarter, marking the essays up and commenting on how we loved the imagery, the metaphors, the dialogue. Nearly all of us got A’s.
I decided to forego a “traditional” economics thesis to write a novella on the 2007-2009 Recession, as part of Stanford’s Honors in the Arts program. I must have spent seven months writing two chapters and the last month writing ten. Thanks to my friends and advisors, I somehow managed to get it done, and now a mediocre draft of Small Talk lives somewhere in my Google Drive.
After college, I wanted to continue writing. I was still not a good writer, per se, but the Honors program gave me confidence. Other cohort members were applying to MFA programs, and Brittany from the year above had just published her book.
So I wanted to see if I could “make it”. I gave myself six months and did the whole writing across Europe thing, staying in hostels and mooching off friends that lived abroad. I even did a “workaway” in a Spanish beach-town, where my friend Christina and I handled a yoga studio’s Instagram in exchange for housing and vegan food. While Christina studied for the LSAT, I forced myself to write and hit my goals and deadlines.
Write 1,000 words today.
Don’t get up from your desk till you finish writing the chapter.
Edit the short story.
The endless time was helpful in the beginning, especially when coming off of a busy senior year. Without the distraction of coursework and the bustle of campus life, I hoped that the six months would be enough time to produce a draft that I could use to query agents.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. After my six-month, self-imposed writing residency, I gave up on creative writing. Along with the Small Talk draft, a number of unfinished short stories and the beginnings of novels continue to sit in my Google Drive. I continued to journal. I wrote emails to myself to keep track of the mundane parts of my life. But that was it.
George Orwell writes that there are “four great motives for writing”. They are—
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc…
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose – using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
Writing for The Economist was an experience like no other— I’ll write about this another time— but my motives as a journalist fell squarely across the four that Orwell describes.
But for my creative work? Perhaps the second and third motives most apply, although those don’t necessarily capture my intentions either. Instead, I find that I use writing to reflect and learn.
Writing is a private, individual activity— it’s a solitary act, where only I mattered. A college admissions officer reading my application essay, my professors evaluating my short stories, my Honors cohort members critiquing my novella— it didn’t matter what they thought. For me, at least at that time, writing allowed me to abstract away the emotions, to understand myself, and make sense of the world.
However, somewhere along the way, writing had morphed from a personal, creative process into serving the other motives that Orwell describes. When writing became a public act— an act, where I felt like I had something to prove to someone, or to further my “personal brand”, or even to pay the bills— it no longer served what I loved it for. All of those other intentions changed my relationship to the act of writing itself.
I still harbor hopes that I can pull out one of those Google Drive drafts and shape it up to publish something out of it. But for now, I want to return to that curious, naive writer, without the pressure to perform, to write well, to have an opinion that’s worth having.
So this is what this is— a home for my writing that acts as part public diary, part fiction, part essays on things I’m looking at for work, and whatever else I might be thinking about. In an effort to embrace writing badly and publicly— to shut off that inner critical voice— I won’t try to edit myself and will commit to writing weekly.
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