On “Being a Writer”

I tend to harbor some romantic notions about writing that, objectively, I know are silly. I like the idea of being a writer, but the problem there is summed up nicely here by Alan Jacobs:

Wanting to “be a writer” is, generally speaking, not a good sign. That suggests not a commitment to a vocation but wanting to see yourself, or to be seen, in a particular way by others.

The truth of the matter is, there are days when I’m a writer, and days when I’m not. When I seriously commit to writing (like when I decide to post something every day on the blog for a period of time, or whatever), it beings to feel a bit more natural. But if I stop, even for a day, I generally stop hard. Tyler Cowen, in a recent interview about his writing habits, says,

Write even when you have nothing to say, because that is every day.

That’s a sobering thought. The reality is, most days (even on the days when I feel “inspired”), I don’t have much to say at all. The exercise of writing is simply that peculiar way that I try to disentangle the connections that my brain continues to make all day.

All of that to say, the act of writing is both encouraging and discouraging, often at the same time. It helps me make sense of some things, but I end up muddling other things. I worry what people think of me when I am honest, I worry that I’m not being honest enough, I worry that I’m boring and that my thoughts are interesting to no one. The truth is, that may be the reality. And yet, perhaps writing is still the exact thing I should be doing anyway.

Mediocrity is Essential to Our Humanity

The pressure of excellence within our culture (or maybe just my head?) kills that little part of humanity in each of us that’s begging to get out in a society imprisoned by the desire to be productive — and not only productive but the most productive. Often, I fail to pursue lines of inquiry or interest simply because of my awareness that I cannot and will not be excellent at that thing. I have interest in a subject and desire more knowledge about it, but I know that I’m not interested in being an expert. I desire to be the kind of person who runs, but I struggle to do so because if I’m not racing or getting faster, it’s not worth pursuing. The same can be said for guitar playing, for philosophical inquiry, for listening to and enjoying classical music, for writing poetry.

In fostering a society which obsesses over excellence and optimal productivity, we have lost the tiny little quirks that make our lives enjoyable, meaningful, and just plain fun. Why should I care whether I run a 20-minute 5K, or 1:30 half-marathon? Don’t I just enjoy the very act of running? Am I required to continue to pursue excellence there, or can I just enjoy it for its own sake? I think that’s where the breakdown is — we’ve been so formed to think that everything we spend our time doing must be “worthwhile,” in a way that always improves, always optimizes.

Maybe that’s we’ve missed something essential about what it means to be human. Malcolm Gladwell notes in this interview with Tyler Cowen that the educational system has failed in part because we don’t make space for mediocrity, in sports, academics, or otherwise. It’s not enough to just have children and adolescents that want to try and experiment and enjoy themselves — they must want to get better, and they must show natural talent. If not, they don’t belong on the team, in the class, or in the club.

Another way of saying this: maybe, to be a little more human and a little less machine-like, we need “permission to suck.”