I have been writing for seventeen years. Ten months ago, and following a year-long period of doing it exclusively for academic purposes, I promised myself I would start writing again. The process has been excruciatingly difficult.
Ten months later, I have a folder of documents on my computer desktop, the contents of which amass to over twelve thousand words of partially completed essays — thoughts elaborated on, but insufficiently so, some paragraphs in need of extensive refining, while others remain unwritten. Earlier today, I changed the name of the folder from ‘Essays’ (blatantly misleading) to ‘Unfinished Drafts’ (far more accurate).
Writing for college wasn’t easy, but it was easier than this. You were given a question to answer or a statement to discuss, and that set the parameters. Then, a reading list, which indicated the focal points of interest within those parameters. Even the provision of a word count was a guideline, allowing for some restraint. There were immense and very tangible rewards. You simply had to produce something, or you might not pass the class, and you had to finish it and submit by the deadline, or you’d lose marks. If you wrote it well, the marks were even higher, and higher marks were food for the sense of self-worth needed to ward off imposter syndrome in an academic setting.
As lame as it may sound, there was a bit of a thrill to be had from essay-writing in college, too. My academic writing, for the most part, took place in extremely stressful and high-pressured circumstances that I somewhat curated for myself; writing necessarily involved all-nighters in the twenty-four hour library, fuelled by worrying amounts of caffeine and chain-smoking, and always, always submitting right before the deadline. Essays were a game, not only in crafting a convincing piece of argumentation, but doing it in the conditions that lecturers explicitly stated would not work for us — the night before, sleep deprived etc. Some of my best marks were often awarded to work that was researched and written within twenty-four hours, and I relished that.
I wanted to think of myself as an “independent thinker” and, moreover, a good writer. But when I finished my undergrad I was gripped by the fear that I was actually only good at doing assignments, at responding to material presented to me, and only being able to do it for a grade in return. Shortly after I finished my finals, I did a three month internship, and then I moved to Berlin for ten months. Four of those ten months I spent unemployed, and the rest of the six I worked part-time. Plenty of time to produce well-written content.
But that’s not how it works, at least not for me. Writing-for-myself doesn’t have the same urgency that academic writing had, although the pressure to create something excellent is still there, and is sometimes so intense that leaving a piece unfinished becomes preferable to it being substandard (that incompletion is the grossest form of imperfection is not lost on me; each half-done essay in ‘Unfinished Drafts’ invokes a certain kind of infuriation). I’d been writing-for-myself at varying levels of regularity almost my whole life — for changing reasons, and never quite so seriously, but I’d still been doing it. I started writing fiction at the age of five, poetry at eleven, and had maintained a relatively consistent journalling habit between the ages of twelve and twenty. I wrote considerably less ‘for myself’ throughout college, only dabbling in a bit of half-arsed prose, a couple of essays that weren’t mandated by lecturers, a few speeches here and there, an opinion piece for one of the college newspapers.
In that final year of college, though, everything went to shit. Journals left barren. Thoughts went unrecorded. Moments passed, un-narrated. I hate to say it, but I fell out of the swing of things, out of the rhythm of semi-regular reportage. It didn’t matter that it was only a couple of hundred words on a Pages document (never Microsoft Word), or simply a hand-written page of A5 paper, the habitual articulation of incident and insight was important, it was something.
I tried to come back to it with such lofty ambitions. Ten months ago, I envisioned pumping out an essay a week. I will say, I am notorious for setting ridiculous goals and then spectacularly falling short of them. (Lose fifteen pounds in a month — oops, I’ve gained ten instead. Master the German language within a year — how about I show up to only thirty percent of the classes I voluntarily signed up to, and ignore all correspondence from my tandem partner). I was unequivocally out of practice, and yet I refused set myself goals that might be more easily accomplished. I was also horrendously impatient with myself; too impatient to allow myself to practice properly, too impatient to follow through with things after the initial excitement wore off (this is why I should probably never have a pet or get married).
The other problem was allowing myself to explore a form that doesn’t require a strict format, that perhaps doesn’t require “completion,” in the conventional sense of the word. I mean, sometimes I just want to write! Just throw a few bits down. I get so wrapped up in it needing to be profound, and original, and smart, and cohesive. For it all to marry together in a brilliantly executed piece. What if things didn’t have to be perfect? What if there was a space where stuff could just be written down, without having to construct an entire thematic narrative where the ‘stuff’ gets organised, fleshed out, elaborated on? What if I just bought into the possibility of that space again, accepted the necessity of starting somewhere, of practice?
Ten months later, having achieved very little in the way of personal goals, I came back home from Berlin for a couple of weeks. I went up to my bedroom and found a weathered looking A4 notebook my mother had left on the bedside table. Inside were a bunch of short-stories written at the age of ten or eleven, and written with a dogged conviction in the quality of the prose. Reading them now — of course they’re not masterpieces, but they reflect a kind of precociousness that adults love.
I’d known I was clever then. I’d revelled in it. And now, after ten months of unfinished draft after unfinished draft, I long for the self-assuredness and certainty of that time. The faith in myself. The steadfast belief that I was capable of doing something, of writing.