Friday, July 28, 2006

Writer's Block: Blogger's Bane

There is nothing more intimidating than a blank slate. Whether you're a struggling artist staring at a blank canvas, a gifted composer looking at a blank sheet, or an amateur blogger watching the cursor blink hypnotically in an empty text editor. You've created in the past, and you know that you've the potential to produce something worthwhile, if only you knew where to begin. You know that you've the necessary skill, and it frustrates you to no end that can't employ it at will. However, to create requires inspiration, from within or without, and, unfortunately, inspiration can often be hard to find, especially when deeply immersed in the endless unremarkable drudgery that is daily life. There are times when you try to convince yourself that, if you just stare hard enough, the slate will fill itself. You become so focused on filling that slate that the very effort itself serves to stifle whatever creativity may have been bubbling in your subconscious. There are only three ways to deal with this kind of creative block: you can keep staring at it until inspiration does finally strike, you can create something unimaginative and/or derivative (like, for example, writing about writer's block), or you can just give up. And that's why I don't think I could ever create for a living, however tempting it might be. I wouldn't have the patience to wait, I wouldn't have any self-respect if I proceeded without inspiration, and yet I literally could not afford to give up. To create at your leisure is joy, but to create on demand is torture.

So why does writing for a living still tempt me so? I've often questioned the direction that my life has taken. When I finished high school, I went to UNB because it was there, and because they threw money at me. Supposedly I enrolled in Computer Science because I was interested in a career in video games, but I was lying to myself-- if I had been serious, I'd have gone away to Digipen as I originally planned. The fact was that I had already given up on my dream, for reasons that not even I am sure of, and ended up in my current career for no better reason than the fact that I kind of liked computers at the time. And I've felt utterly directionless ever since.

Even within UNB, there were other options available to me, but for whatever reason I never seriously considered any of them. I had a fondness for the sciences coming out of high school, and thus toyed with the idea of concurrent degrees in CS/Physics (which is what Travis and Trevor did), but that would have taken me seven years in conjunction with the CS co-op program, and for some reason I was intent on enrolling in that program (which is one of the few things that I do not regret about my time at UNB-- the co-op program was very good to me, and very good for me). I loved my enriched introductory Physics course, as it was both challenging and rewarding, and I did quite well in it. However, that was as far as my post-secondary scientific pursuits ever went, as it is very hard to take Physics courses without Calculus II, which I never actually managed to take, since it proved irreconcilable with my specific co-op schedule until my fourth year, at which point it wasn't worth the bother, as there wasn't enough time remaining to get a Physics minor. Unfortunately, the scientific curiousity that I had back then has long since died a quiet death, and although I miss it, I don't think I'd ever be able to recapture that feeling, so that door has been closed to me.

I considered switching faculties after my first year, since I was having no luck with co-op initially, I found introductory Computer Science courses insultingly simplistic and thoroughly unrewarding, and two other faculties had caught my eye. I again gave thought to a Physics major, this time without any Computer Science, and a couple of Physics professors were gently encouraging such a switch (in fact, one was still advocating such a switch when I last spoke to her during fourth year :-P), but I didn't want to feel as if I'd wasted a year, and I just couldn't see a career in it. I also considered what would have been a much more significant departure for me: an Arts degree. I had a first-year English professor to whom I had submitted a number of creative writing assignments, and he was quite insistent that I would be wasting talent if I didn't pursue a career in writing. Specifically, he thought that I had a gift for humour and satire, and wanted me to enter the Creative Writing program. It was certainly tempting, since I enjoyed writing a lot more than I did coding (and still do), but I felt like I couldn't respect myself if I entered the Arts program, although I want to be very emphatic that I intend no disrespect towards any of the several people I know who are pursuing/have received an Arts degree. Whether it was valid or not, I felt like that would be settling, and I was still very much an over-achiever at that time, so I refused to settle.

I miss being an over-achiever. I've been one all of my life, but especially in my last year of high school. In fact, I'm convinced that I kind of peaked in grade 12, and that my entire academic career from that point forward was a slow downward spiral. Had I remained in school instead of entering the workforce, I'd probably have completed that spiral by now, crashing and burning. I strongly suspect that if the me of grade 12 were to speak to the me of now, he'd be disgusted by what he saw. And I'm not sure he'd be wrong. He'd be my superior in every respect: he'd be smarter, he'd be funnier, he'd be a harder worker, he'd be a better writer-- hell, he'd even be happier. If I'd been that man when I'd graduated from UNB, I strongly suspect I'd be in a graduate program somewhere right now, and loving every minute of it. However, with each passing year of university, I just began caring less and less. By the end, I just wanted out, so I could at least start making money to offset my dissatisfaction. Granted, I did find a bit of direction, in that I chose a specialty and got my Honours in Information Systems, but that was simply because, through my experience with the co-op program, I'd found which item in an unsatisfactory subset most appealed to (or, to be more precise, least appalled) me.

Well, I did get out, and I found a job, and I did start making money, which brings me to my current situation. I've made no secret of the fact that I find my work to be interminably boring. That's hardly unique to my position here at DOT, though-- it's simply a product of the career I find myself in. It's not as if I find the work distasteful or anything. I'm very good at what I do, it pays fairly well (although I might be able to make more if I were to give private industry a shot), the people are nice, and there is the occasional bright spot, such as when I find an elegant solution to a problem or receive praise for the results of my work. It's just boring, is all. Very, very boring. But if that's the worse that I have to complain about, then I should count myself lucky and not give it any further thought. And yet, my mind still wanders to writing...

Writing is fun. It's that simple. Whether it's a blog entry, a forum post, an e-mail to a friend, or a passage for a novel that will never be completed, to write is a joy. It just feels so elegant-- it allows me to express myself in a way that I can't ever seem to through speech alone. I'm just more comfortable with the written word-- I needn't fear stumbling over myself or making mistakes, and I needn't moderate my pace to suit the listener. I'm free to refine my thoughts to a degree of precision far beyond what I would be able to achieve with speech, and to do so at my own pace, letting the reader assimilate those thoughts with whatever pacing they please. However, I suspect that the only reason that I find writing so fun is because there is no responsibility associated with it-- the moment I had to do it for a living, it would cease being fun, and become a chore. I'd run square into the imposing wall that began this post (in more ways than one): a blank slate.

[Editor's Note: This is where this post should have logically concluded. Even though I ended up on a tangent and didn't talk about what I'd intended to, it still came full circle just now, ending on the thought with which it began, and matching the post's title. However, I was five paragraphs further along before realizing that (ironically discussing my aptitude for editing, which prompted the "Editor's" part of this section's label), and I refuse to waste that much effort, so onward we go...]

However, even if that weren't a problem, there's still one other big deterrent: I don't think that my writing is good enough for me to make a decent living off of it. Don't get me wrong-- I still think that I'm a good writer, and I'm generally pleased with what I produce. Once I have an idea to fill that slate, the rest almost writes itself, the only pitfall being that my brain sometimes gets so far ahead of my fingers that I forget what I'm presently typing and my train of thought derails entirely, although I can generally avoid that by jumping forward and writing bullet points in an attempt to play catch-up when my brain refuses to wait. It's still a significant time investment (as I do nothing quickly), but the effort required is minimal. In fact, sometimes I'm writing so much on auto-pilot that I'll fall asleep mid-sentence. But proficiency does not enjoyable writing make.

I used to be proud of my writing. I feel as if there's some intangible quality that it has lost. I can still take pride in the mechanics, but not in the content itself. There's one thing in particular that's damning in its absence: humour. I used to be funny-- I'm sure of it. People always told me that I was, anyway. I had a kind of, to quote a high school teacher's yearbook signature, "dry scathing cynicism" that I was quite fond of. But these days, rather than being genuinely funny, I feel more as if I'm trying vainly to recapture past glory. It feels like I might be onto something while I'm typing, but when I examine it afterwards the humour just isn't there. Whenever I try, I either fall short or over-shoot.

It may or may not be related to a stylistic departure I've taken from my writing of several years ago. I used to strictly adhere to grammatical and stylistic guidelines, but lately I've allowed by writing to evolve a bit of much-needed character. Where once I used to balk at breaking the rules, I am now confident enough in my writing that I discard those conventions that I disagree with. Punctuation should be enclosed within the closing quotation marks? Fuck that-- it looks stupid. Paragraphs should be kept constrained to within certain lengths? Fuck that-- I have a point to make, and I'll damn well wait for a natural break in the flow. The word I chose isn't in the dictionary? Fuck that-- it should be. I should be using semi-colons instead of paired dashes? Fuck that-- I like the dashes. In fact, I love the dashes. Although I've been making a point to over-use them in this post, examine any lengthy piece of writing that I've written in the last year or two and you'll find that it's liberally peppered with them. I've taken to viewing them as a kind of personal watermark, and I've grown very attached to them.

But has this stylistic departure served to kill the humour that was once present in my writing? I very much doubt it. In fact, I'd think that it would better lend itself to humour. Which forces me to conclude that I'm simply not funny anymore, and that no efforts on my part will be able to change that. So, writing for a living would seem to be out of the question. And yet I read plenty of work by those who do write for a living that looks positively amateurish. In fact, I know that I could improve upon it. And that little revelation, had several months ago, revealed to me another road not taken: editing.

I love editing. It has a very different appeal than writing, but I feel that it is more uniquely suited to my talents. While I think I can turn a pretty good phrase, I'm even better at turning someone else's phrase into a better phrase. Every editing experience that I've ever had has been enjoyable and rewarding, without exception. And unlike the other possibilities I've mentioned, I don't really see a downside. In fact, I think I'd enjoy it even more if I could get paid to do it. But that's the rub-- how precisely does one go about getting paid for that? I don't really know, but I'd wager that they don't just walk out of a programming career into an editing position without any previous education or experience. And I'll be damned if I'm ever going to go back to school-- as stated [far] above, the end of my education couldn't have come soon enough, and I'm in no hurry to take that particular backward step.

So, even though I question if I'm where I should be, I'm here to stay, and content to restrict my writing and editing to amateur efforts. However, if I know that nothing's ever going to come of it, why do I bother? I could be using this time to catch up on my novel back-log, my larger manga back-log, my yet larger anime back-log, or my dizzyingly larger video game back-log. And as I said, writing on demand is not the joy it would otherwise be, which is precisely what this is. I didn't feel particularly like writing another post this week, but felt obligated to do so, and thus spent the last day or two beating my head against the previously mentioned blank slate. So why do I do it? It's certainly not without it's merits. Writing provides me with some much needed intellectual stimulation, and keeps my writing skills sharp. But why should I care if my skills dull? It may be largely an issue of ego-- knowing that I can still write well provides no small measure of self worth. However, I suspect that the real reason is the same one driving most aspects of my life: now that I've started this blog and stuck with it, I'm too stubborn to stop.

That being the case, despite the fact that my week was entirely uneventful, I directed my energies upon the slate and tried to will something into being. My first thought was to write about a classic PC adventure game that I'm currently playing through (courtesy of Nathan): Gabriel Knight. It's certainly deserving of my praise, it's very much on my mind, and it lends itself quite to well to post title word-play ("A Knight to Remember", "Good Knight, Tim Curry", etc.), but, for whatever reason, I just wasn't "feeling it". I considered writing about my current Advanced Squad Leader scenario, but there is precisely only one other person demented enough to be interested in that, and that person already knows everything that I might say. I thought of just putting up an amusing picture of myself as a child that Darcy sent earlier this week (my red-eyed stare looks as if it could flay the skin from your bones), but decided that I should strive to provide actual content instead (and I'm generally disdainful of pictures on a blog anyway). I also thought of a post that I strongly suspect that not a single one of my readers would have taken an interest in (not to say that I've ever let that stop me in the past)-- comments on a map of Oblivion's overworld, detailing my current progress and giving everyone some idea of the scope of the task before me. Fortunately for all concerned, I decided against that one as well. My final thought before arriving at the one I ran with was to just post a list of intentionally inflammatory statements on various polarizing social issues in an ideally transparent (and therefore funny) attempt at soliciting as many comments as my previous post got. However, I wasn't willing to take the risk that people might take it all at face value and miss the joke entirely.

With all of those ideas rejected, I settled for an ironically unoriginal topic: the classic "speak about writer's block to dodge writer's block" fall-back. The odd thing was, though, as you can see from the lengthy confused mass of text above, that actually inspired me to take things in an entirely different direction, and resulted in an in-depth self-examination. So what I'm left with now is a rambling and unfocused train of thought that is only tangentially related to this post's title. Given the name of my blog though, I guess that's almost appropriate. So, in a most fitting fashion, this post is yet another example of the problem I detailed above: it almost wrote itself, and seemed to be of quality as I was writing it, but now disappoints me as I examine the finished product. I guess I'd better not quit my day-job.


Anonymous vern said...

I like writing too. I think I've always liked writing. I've never thought about writing for a living though, and I've never considered myself a good writer.
I remember in grade 2, once a week for a half hour or an hour or something, it was writing time, and we had to write about some specified topic. Everyone in the class seemed to hate it; I loved it. People always whined about it, and then they'd look over at me, and I'd have, like, a whole page written, and they were always like, 'wow!'

In any case, I've kept a diary 'regularly' since grade 4 or 5, when I got one for christmas. I write only when I feel like it, and have gone for months without writing anything. I like the feel of a pen and a piece of paper though, and opposite of what you said, I like the slower pace of handwriting, at least when it comes to diary writing, which is usually whatever's running through my mind at the time. I've tried using a computer, but the flow's just not there. Its odd, because I know that I've complained in the past in my diaries that I can't write fast enough, but it just doesn't work with the computer. I also think handwriting, in general, is pretty.
Writing in my diary has become a way to immortalize my thoughts and often an attempt at capturing my feelings for the short period of time that I write them down.

I guess I felt like mentioning that here because your entry seemed fairly close to what my diary entries are, (minus the part about beating my head against a wall to write something, and minus that you no doubt take into consideration what you want and don't want others to read); an unplanned flow of thought.

I'm sure that if you like editing and want to actually do some, there's a lot of printed material out there which is run solely by volunteers where your help would be appreciated. Good for just doing it and also if you seriously wanted a career. Heck, why stick to printed material?
Also, I wouldn't start along the path of thinking 'why would I bother with doing x if I'm only going to be an amateur at it?'. Why do anything?

I'm also not sure your self in grade 12 was really doing any better than yourself now, but this isn't from my opinion of how you were in grade 12 and are now. From my own experience, I've come to the conclusion that I'm almost always viewing my past as better than my present in some way. One of my classes started talking about this phenomena once, (not exactly this, I think we were talking about pain), and I think it was generally agreed upon that 'remembering' the past as better than the present indirectly leaves hope for the future in that things *can* become better.

Friday, July 28, 2006 8:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe you need the challenge of starting your own company. You're bored at work, so maybe you need to try something different. You could grow that company into a large workforce and send them emails. That's how it could try into writing. Cool idea, huh?

Monday, July 31, 2006 9:20:00 AM  
Anonymous NOS said...

If you like writing, then write. What is this nonsense about, "I could be doing some other pointless entertainment activity," anyway? If it is entertaining, then do it to entertain yourself. Same difference.

Anyway, since you harbour an oh-so-secret passion for Wikipedia, there is no shortage of things needing editing there!

Monday, July 31, 2006 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous NOS said...

OK, my last sentence in the comment above mysteriously lost several words in between my brain and the keyboard.

Edit: Anyway, since you harbour a passion for editing, and an oh-so-secret passion for Wikipedia, you should sign up for an account and start editing. There is no shortage of things needing editing there!

Monday, July 31, 2006 11:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Vern said...

Yeah, another thing about typing, I regularly miss typing entire words, and not just prepositions or articles, verbs and nouns too. Typing's evil I tells ya!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006 12:14:00 AM  

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