My writing is struggling.
I long suspected it, but last week a friend pointed it out — he said my writing had been “shot with an elephant tranquilizer then buried in Benadryl.”
He said it wasn’t the words — they’re still in the right place. It’s that my stories could be distilled down to: “Something weird happened today. I cried. Then I realized something.”
I always fear I am not good at this — that I was never good at this. It’s like, when I was in middle school, I had a sneaking suspicion I was a loser. High-rise socks and a Pokemon obsession should’ve given it away. But I always managed to convince myself I was very cool, until someone told me I wasn’t by saying, “You’re not cool.”
But, before that dork bomb, I mentally listed all the reasons why I may not be cool so I could change. Well, I haven’t changed much — not only am I still a dork, but I still make lists. So here’s the mental list for why my writing may be struggling:
This means: 1) I don’t have an editor. 2) I can’t be successful simply by juxtaposing my voice to the serious newspaper tone. 3) I don’t have a deadline. 4) I have to earn authority, because, instead of a fancy newspaper logo at the top of the page, I have an animated elephant.
But these are crap excuses. The real problem:
When I wrote for someone else — for a publication — I separated the real Alvin from the columnist Alvin. I built up a character who was bold, loud, radical and passionate. And if anyone attacked it, I funneled the criticism and vulnerability to my alter ego.
In a personal blog, I have no excuse. I do this because I want to. There is no character protecting me. It’s just me.
I always felt the strength of my writing was poignancy: I knew what I was saying and I said it with conviction. But that was before — that was my character. The real me is unsure of many things — even life’s most basic questions.
I have doubts, I doubt about my doubts and that makes it hard to be brief and to the point.
An example of my brainstorm:
In this piece, I need to figure out how to make this homeless man sympathetic — that way, he’ll become more real to my readers and they’ll understand why we need to do something about it. But why don’t I just do something about it? It seems dumb to just sit here and tell other people to do stuff. But I wonder if those people think they were unfairly screwed in life — I wonder what some of them think about their circumstances. And I wonder if they question a God that allows them to suffer like that. Or I wonder if the hope they gain from their faith allows them to live happily, despite their bad situation. … Is that bacon I smell? Man, I love bacon. But it’s so inhumane how they are raised and slaughtered …
I can’t focus. My mind wanders too quickly from the micro to the cosmic to the pork fat. I know they are interconnected, since my mind is racing through the junctions. But I can’t encompass enough of it in my mind to write something with true meaning.
When I covered the city of Liberty, Missouri, for The Kansas City Star, I went to every school board meeting. And once, I observed a woman at the back of the room who was knitting — and I wrote her into my piece.
The next day, I received several phone calls about that detail. They loved it because, despite some of the heated arguments at these meetings, they were all fascinated by this green scarf she was making.
I’ve always had an audience to write for. But here, some readers are facing gunfire, while others are facing layoffs. Some are going to school, while others are pondering retirement.
In trying to be relevant to everyone, I’ve become irrelevant.
Before this blog, I used to tell stories for the purpose of delivering a message. They would always be metaphors to deliver a point, hopefully to help people. But I fell into the habit of telling a story because it was cool, then forcing a message out of it.
That’s like staging a blooper for “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Not cool.
I’ve been working from home the past six months. I wake up at 6 a.m., begin working at 6:30 a.m. and finish anywhere from noon to 6 p.m. My schedule is different from most other people’s. This means that I interact with very few people each day. It sucks.
This also means I’ve become uncool, in the middle school kind of way — video games, TV, nerdy obsession. Not things that lend inspiration.
I am stuck in life. I’m working from home, waiting to go to grad school, far away from people I care about — hundreds of mile from my girlfriend, thousands of miles from my parents. And I’m trying to push myself to get healthier, smarter and humbler — yet generally failing.
The hardest part of being in transition is that you quickly run out of things to look back on. The “remember when” moments whither away, and those are things I can be most honest about.
When I wrote my first column in high school, I approached it knowing I wasn’t good at this. (My first SAT verbal: 500.) With practice — and reassurance — I gained confidence. That turned into pride, and that pride turned into delusion.
A few years ago, my friend, Adam Playford, nominated me for an award and wrote that my pieces “remind us what it means to be human.” And a huge part of that: relationships. C.S. Lewis once said, “Friendships is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art … It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.”
(Spoiler alert: Realization coming.)
My writing is special because of the way I can describe relationships among people. But I can only do that because of the way I was treated by others. People in my life have loved me, despite my struggles with identity, ineptitude in social situation, doubts on faith, and an overwhelming pride.
My ultimate mistake has been thinking that the source of my success comes from within myself. But it turns out it’s within the people around me.