Saturday, February 11, 2006

Why I Don't Write

I've been puzzling over some matters of talent and treasure over the last... oh, say... several years. I have written songs, poems, short stories, and way too many essays, but I've found over the last few years that I have little I want to say that someone else hasn’t said better. Or maybe a better way to put it is that I have little in way of opinion that I want to inflict on the world—even my little sliver of it.

As early as eighth grade I thought about being a writer. I wrote short stories in school and out, enjoyed coming up with witty comments on my reading assignments, and actually liked doing research papers. Well, sort of. I kept journals throughout my undergraduate studies. I wrote "poems" of various stripes, most of which I now just consider typical adolescent indulgence in self-expression for its own sake.

Every once in a while, I’ll go back through what I wrote in eighth grade, high school, or undergraduate school, and I can see that I had something—a voice, some wit, or maybe just audacity. I do think it’s audacious to think that something I write is worthy of an audience. That audacity fit my personality 20 years ago, back when I was a nightclub rock musician, back when I had the nerve to be arrogant and cocky. It doesn’t suit me now.

I never intended to be a technical writer. I fell into it after I finished my MA in English. I had hoped to work in academia, but after two semesters of teaching English composition, I knew I couldn’t support a family on an adjunct’s pay. (I wasn‘t even on staff full time, which made the $18,800 per year of a fulltime adjunct look like a fortune.)

I took a temporary position as a technical writer while I finished a semester with three sections of comp. My daughter was probably 3 weeks old when I started. I worked 40 hours per week around my class schedule. By June, the company hired me full time. I had averaged a 70-hour work week for three months. I started teaching lower-division literature courses that following semester and managed to publish an essay in the Rocky Mountain Review of Literature.

After two years in the corporate world, I still fully intended to continue on to a Ph.D. and had begun the application process at several universities, but that dream ended when my then-wife said she wouldn’t force her son to move away from his father, nor would she leave him behind. I don’t blame her for making that decision, but it was a bitter pill to swallow at the time. I had also given up performing music at her insistence, and I felt as if that I was giving up everything that had ever defined me.

Somewhere in there, I lost the desire to write for enjoyment or exploration. I still wrote for work and published reviews and chapters for third-party books. I revised many of the poems I had written as an undergraduate. I eked out a few poems during those years, so few I could count them on two hands. Oddly, they were better than anything I’d written during my more prolific times. Something about the simplicity of technical writing helped me to clear away the clutter with which I’d previously expressed myself. Even the literary criticism I published improved. (One of the peer reviewers actually noted my essay’s clarity in his comments. Clarity and concision are not hallmarks of academic writing.)

I had a burst of creativity a few years ago when my civil marriage was failing. I wrote probably 10 to 12 poems in a six-week period, as well as a few songs. The difference was that I wanted to say something specific to someone specific. I didn’t sustain that activity for long.

Today, when I consider why I don’t write, why I don’t compose music, why I don’t do these self-expressive activities, I can’t help but think of that cocky 22 year old who thought he had the world by the ass and how little I want to be like him now. I don’t think so highly of myself, but I feel much better about myself now than I do about that arrogant kid. I think that what I have to say could be said better by others.

But why, then, did God give me an ability to express ideas clearly? Why did He give me a voice with which to sing, an ear to hear tonalities, and an ability to play instruments? And why am I wasting these gifts?

I seem to have a Pharisee and a tax collector at war in me. One looks at the 22 year old and says, “Thank you, God, that I’m not that person anymore.” The other looks at that 22 year old and says, “God forgive me for my selfishness and sinfulness.” I’m not really sure what to do with that conflict right now.

I tried to explain my ambivalence to my wife the other night as I started this entry. She reminded from where such defeatist attitudes come, the same place from which those hypercritical thoughts about the sins and errors of my past. God gave me gifts to use. If some other voice is discouraging me from using those gifts, that voice can’t be coming from God’s contingent.

So now I’ll engage in a little bit of that pomo literary criticism that I used to love so much as a graduate student. I chose for the name of this blog a clause that finds its way into many a technical manual. It’s meant to indicate that a page is not arbitrarily blank—that no content is missing. By putting the clause on the page, the factualness of the blank page is subverted. The page is no longer blank. The irony of this post, and the irony of this blog, is that answering the question of why I don’t write forces me to do the thing I wasn’t doing, just as every time I post an entry, the page is no longer blank.
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