When You Miss Writing (But Don’t Miss It At All)

Photo via Taro Taylor

I once called writing my ‘sine qua non’ – the indispensable condition for my entire existence. I was only alive when I was writing articles on the internet.

Then I stopped.

If you had told the version(s) of me that existed between 2011-2013 that in 2017 I wouldn’t have consistently published work online in about 2.5 years I’d have been distraught. ‘Did I lose the fire to write? Did I become complacent?’ – those are the sorts of questions I’d ask.

It wasn’t so much that I lost the fire. I was proud to shovel digital coal into a pageview (or choose your KPI) furnace up until the moment I saw the grotesque locomotive drawing power from it.

At that point I decided I’d only write unless I really wanted to say something, which is why I only have a smattering of articles published at my previous employer. When I left for my current employer, I knew I’d essentially be giving up the ability to publish articles on a widely-read website whenever I wanted.

I was OK with this. The limitation felt strangely liberating. I didn’t have to say anything anymore. I didn’t have to care about The Discourse™. I could just disappear.

My attitude shifted very quickly after the election. Hillary Clinton’s defeat changed the way I saw everything (to be fair, the primary had moved me significantly left but the election pushed me even further leftward). Sometimes I’d see ‘gaps’ in the content cycle:  Things the Top Thinkfluencers™ weren’t seeing or writing about that I was seeing (but not writing about). Things I felt so strongly about I wanted to run outside and scream them as loud as I could, as often as I could, until my lungs collapsed and my vocal cords were ground to dust.

But I didn’t write any of these things. Some of them I’m still intensely mad about because I was (and am still) so certain they would’ve been extremely potent. In 2013 I briefly developed a malady I called ‘contentphobia’ – an illness where I simply couldn’t consume any well-received or popular content because I’d become physically ill over not having been capable enough to create it. I developed a less virulent strain of contentphobia late last year/earlier this year. I’d become so angry with myself when I’d read these stellar pieces. Strangely, I’d get even angrier when I read the bad ones because I know I could do better – but nobody else would know because I didn’t fucking write anything.

But there’s a reason I haven’t been writing articles despite occasionally wanting to: I’ve been working on something with much more staying power than the 18th repackaging of a Woke Take on a news story.

I’ve wanted to write a fiction book literally since elementary school. Throughout my whole life I always found an excuse to put it off: I haven’t taken enough English or writing classes, I need to graduate college first, I haven’t read enough classic literature, and, the most persistent: I need a full-time job.

I finally got a full-time job in January 2015. Full-time work actually meant I had more free time as opposed to less. Previously I’d been working a patchwork assortment of freelance and part-time gigs that left me working upwards of 12 hours a day for a pittance. I immediately started writing fiction. But even when not procrastinating, I procrastinated. ‘I’m not good enough to write the story I want to write yet. I have to do a practice one first,’ I told myself (I took a creative writing course last year, apparently this is a very common refrain among new writers). So I wrote a ‘practice’ story about a small-time theme park tycoon with ambitions of taking on the fictional world’s equivalent of Disney. I got to about 20,000 words. That spring a guy I went to high school with got his head blown off. It occurred to me I could just as easily get my head blown off, too. And nobody on earth could divine the stories I wanted to tell from my splattered brains, so I should probably just start writing them.

Two years later, I finished the third draft of a manuscript. Nearly all of my spare time has gone to this effort. I just sent it to beta readers a week ago.

And I discovered something I didn’t know I missed.

One of the beta readers had done some fast reading. They gave me back the first four chapters or so with annotations – feedback, editing, criticisms, comments, etc. I haven’t gotten meaningful feedback on a truly creative endeavor that I cared about in some time. It was the most rewarded and enriched I’ve felt in ages. It hasn’t happened in so long that I didn’t know that I missed it, if that makes sense.

I remember a teaching assistant I had a crush on in college writing positive comments on my paper (and even a smilie or two) and it making me feel like I was worth something. I remember professors always saying my essays were the best written in class. Again, it made me feel like I was worth something but it also made me feel like I was building towards something, like I was internalizing feedback and learning and growing.

I didn’t get that often on the internet. When you’re contributing to the content cycle there’s no time for meaningful feedback. ‘The lede needs more SEO keywords.’ ‘Paragraphs can’t be more than four sentences because it looks too blocky.’ ‘There needs to be a GIF between every two or three paragraphs.’ ‘Throw in a Harry Potter reference.’

And honestly I don’t want to be good at that. I don’t want to jettison 750-word recaps of a topic I just researched on Wikipedia into the internet. I don’t want to publish articles for the sole purpose of said article occupying a slot on the Google News module for a precious few minutes or, more importantly, winning the Facebook algorithm lottery and bringing in millions of precious pageviews. (I’ll never understand why the offspring of wealthy lawyers and doctors decide to live in Brooklyn broom closets with 18 other doctor/lawyer-offspring for the privilege of aggregating news at trendy start-ups instead of doing literally anything else).

I miss writing on the internet intensely to the point where I can feel it physically. I miss receiving feedback (both positive and negative!) from a dedicated editor who has likeminded goals. And I’m not really sure what to do. I miss people liking what I say and how I say it because it made me feel good.

I’m in a holding pattern now. Beta readers are looking at my manuscript, so I’m free from it for the first time in years. So should I try writing on the internet again – not posts like this but for real, for actual places? I’m not sure. Even now I’m not thinking of articles, I’m thinking of the next manuscript (a story idea I came up with in summer 2014 and have quite literally never stopped thinking about since then).

Maybe I’m done with it for good. I hope not.

(Photo via Taro Taylor | Flickr)

2 thoughts on “When You Miss Writing (But Don’t Miss It At All)

  1. Elba says:

    I feel this so hard. Especially the part about wanting to write fiction and not feeling capable, and writing useless blog posts instead.

    I’ve always enjoyed your writing: It has an authenticity that’s refreshing. I can’t wait to see what you’ve been working on. Take care!

  2. Dillon says:

    Wow! Cannot wait. Sounds like your heart, mind & soul are committed! The necessary formula for one’s masterpiece! Best of luck, Matt.

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