My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, January 28, 2013

It's Really Okay Not to Write. Really.- Part II

Remember, this picture of a pencil is only here to
bolster my authority.
Link to Intro and Part 1  

Part II Chesslectric Boogaloo 


You Don't Have to Do Everything You're Good At

When I was young, I was really good at chess. I actually mean really, really good. I was beating my step-dad by the time I was six or seven, and some of my friends' parents who played regularly by eight or nine. For a while there, I was so good I that there was talk of a weekend class and even a momentary thought of one of those special schools where there's a chess class and all the young boys (it's a hugely male-dominated sub-culture) take an oath to never know the touch of a woman.

I like saying "Check THIS" before I jump over    
two other guys and land....ON YOUR FACE.
But I also had terrible A.D.D. (which back then they called "hyperactive"), and so getting me to sit through a whole game instead of playing Adventure on Atari was not easy. And I say “not easy” as a euphemism to obfuscate how many broken wills and shattered dreams lay in the wake of that little square with its little arrow. If I played a game of chess, it was usually like that scene in Searching for Bobby Fisher where the kid runs up, moves a piece and runs back to what he was doing. Except with me it was trying to beat my high score on opponentless Combat with the three little planes against the one big one. (I think I broke 200 once.)

Not to mention the lost chess pieces from when I played Starbattle Warriorblasters with them and they were involved in a simulation of a “really big explosion.” It was a common sight for my step-dad to have to set up the chess board with a lego dude for the white knights because Roadblock and Thundar the Barbarian had ridden the original chess pieces into battle against Skeletor driving the AT-AT while telling him (in rhyme) exactly what he could do with Starscream's fuselage. Lemmie tell ya, the Baroness knew what side her bread was buttered on by the end of THAT battle, boy howdy.

And the less said about my narrating the game like it was some cheesy battle, the better.

Don't you die, Private Pawn!  Don't you give up on me!
You're gonna give that letter to Jane yourself.  You're gonna meet your son.
Do you hear me?  Private?  Private?  ......James?
You....   You monsters killed him.  You...ANIMALS!!!
I'm going to go positively diagonal on your asses!  DIAGONAL!!!

In the end I didn’t go to chess school or even take a class. I didn't like chess. I was good at it, but it wasn't enjoyable to me. It wasn't fun. In fact, I grew to hate it more and more because it always involved my step-dad yelling at me to stop being such a "spaz" or "an airhead" and to calm down.

Here's a hint: if you want an eight year old to hate anything for the rest of their lives, force them to sit quietly and do it for hours while yelling at them any time they lose attention. Bonus hatred ponts if they are "hyperactive."

I still don't like or enjoy chess. As I grew older people who had (perhaps) less innate "talent" than me at chess got to be better than me by practicing and studying. In my teens I started to lose the occasional casual game. By the time I was in high school, anyone interested in playing was probably going to beat me simply by virtue of their interest meaning they had played far more than I. I played one or two games a year if I couldn't avoid it. I probably haven't played a game of chess in fifteen years. I would rather play Cosmic Encounter with a bossy game theory expert than play chess.

I like the musical though.

Oh right. I should probably make this metaphor about writing at some point soon.

If you’ve watched more than a couple of blogs for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with this type of entry: “Oh hello. It’s been ages since I’ve written. I feel so guilty that I haven’t written in so long...” In fact, there are a non-trivial amount of blogs that are comprised mostly of such entries--apologies for not writing, promises to do better in the future, rinse repeat. You go back and find thirty of the last thirty five entries (spanning a period of four years) all essentially express guilt.  A lot of times these entries are comprised chiefly of "Why I am not writing" inventories. ("Dear Diary. Sorry I haven't written. Crack is a hell of a drug. But I should have LOTS of time to write after the arraignment.")

Why do these people think they have an obligation they are failing? To whom are they apologizing? Why do they feel guilty? Seriously, think about it for a second. Even if it's to their readers, why that sense of failure? Why the contrition?

There's a strong ethic in our culture that if God (or whatever you attribute such things to) gives you a talent you are under a moral obligation to use it. The Biblical parable of the talents (Luke 1:19) goes so far as to say that it would be irresponsible of you not to do something you are good at.  Peter 4:10 pretty much spells this idea out explicitly. In fact, I'm probably going to burn for not joining "Checkmates 4 Jesus" and becoming the chess player known on the circuit only as "The Rook of The Lord."

Never before has the straight and narrow path been quite so literal.
Now you might not be Christian or even religious, but these values seep into our culture regardless. How many times have you seen a movie or show where someone said "God gave you a gift, and you have to use it"? How many times have you seen a movie about a prodigy who is really GOOD at something and no one in the course of their travels EVEN ONCE actually asks them if they enjoy it? Can you think of a single story where the prodigy says "I really enjoy knitting even though I'm not good at it," and then goes on to knit their lives away--blissfully happy and content to have crooked gloves and misshapen hats. These "use-your-talents" stories are everywhere, whispering to you even when you can't hear them. In fact, the way we embrace (never reject) innate talents is a theme in our culture's arts and entertainment in everything from Dune (weirding) to Star Wars (The Force) to Harry Potter (magic) to most sports movies. Being good at something simply means doing it. Period. End of story. No questions. Even if the protagonist rejects the gift/talent at first, they end up realizing that it creates a moral obligation later on ("with great power, comes great responsibility"). Our cultural narrative has this idea on auto-repeat.

It's not about what you love. It's not about what brings you happiness. It's not about what fulfills you. It's simply about what you're good at. What talents you have. "Do what you're good at," culture says "whether you want to or not."

And that's kind of fucked up if you think about it.  It might not be so bad if you're just hanging out in this life as an audition for eternity (and I'm not here to evaluate such a claim), but if any part of your life proceeds under the assumption that you only get ONE life, or to hold precious the moments you're given, you don't have time to live the whole of it under some kind of cosmic obligation to be great at the things you don't like doing.

I know it might go against that cultural mantra, but it will really be okay to do a few things that you enjoy in life. Do the things you love. Do the things that bring you joy. Especially if you're talking about something you may never do as more than a hobby (which writing is for most of us).  If you don't enjoy it, there's no reason to do it. I'm a writer because I love writing, not because I listened to my childhood aptitude scores (which were ALWAYS higher in math than language). I imagine Writing About Algebra would be a significantly less interesting to most people.

A lot of people have the linguistic skill to be "good" at writing. But if that creates a sense of onus in you that you are somehow obligated to write, it's really okay to find something you enjoy more and do that instead. Knit, cook, watch Scrubs, play Fallout, go to wine tastings, read, have blistering hot oral sex (but not blistering oral sex, FFS). Chase your bliss. Do what makes you smile. Follow your passion.

And if your passion is not writing, it's really okay. Really. If you find writing looming over you in the same way as that dental appointment for a deep cleaning, it's really okay to just not do it. (The writing, that is. Skipping a deep cleaning means you'll need bridge work when you're 45 or something.) Just because Mrs. Klerpeinski-Winters told you in fifth grade that you have "talent" after you turned in that ten page Easter story (about the kid who accidentally killed the Easter Bunny and had to take over its job of hiding eggs) doesn't mean you are obligated to write. I promise that Mary Jane and half of New York won't get blown up by an explosive pumpkin if you don't write, so this is one "great responsibility" you can just blow off. Trust me no one's going to make you take a bow in front of your class for a long, long time so if it was the attention and the fame you loved, you probably want to get it some other way.

The writers I talk to who have successful creative writing careers or trajectories that are obviously headed towards such, love writing. They just love it. They can't wait to get writing each day.  It is their bliss. It is their passion  It's not that they always love every second of it or never have a part that feels like a chore, but if you ask them what they'd rather be doing next Thursday, they'll probably answer "writing." Even most tech writers, content writers, or internal communications writers, who aren't necessarily writing creatively, often describe profoundly enjoying the writing part of their job. In the same way some people fire up Call of Duty MCXXVIII, they fire up their word processor to get a good session of wordsmithing in.

So...even if you're good at writing--even if you're really, really good--it doesn't mean you have to do it. If it feels like a responsibility, makes you miserable, and looms when incomplete, do something else. YOLO (or something).

And I leave you with One Night in Bangkok which is actually from the musical chess, and is one of the only show tunes to actually rock the top 40.

Check (or checkMATE) out part III- The Search for Sporadic


  1. Speaking of doing what you love... I have a friend who's mother was born and raised in Germany. This was a long time ago, probably during or just after Hitler. They had to take a standardized test to find what their talent was so they could be trained in the field that best suited them. My friend's mom scored high as "nurse". The problem was she dreamed of being an accountant. So she immigrated to America and made her dreams come true. She might not have scored to be the best accountant in the world, but she loved doing it.

  2. William Styron: “I loathe writing with what amounts to a kind of phobia,” he wrote in 1956, “and I suppose that it’s only a sort of perverse masochism that keeps me at it.”

    1. I've never heard that one before. The one of his I always see is that one about making your life boring so your writing can be violent. Thank you!

  3. Is there a way to contact you privately? I've got a bit of stage fright.

  4. Fortunately, writing prose is a very small portion of my job--most of my job is writing computer code. I could probably foist off the prose-writing portion on someone else, but whenever I do, it's always someone whose talent for writing is evidently on vacation in the tropics, and the result is so PAINFUL that I find myself having to essentially re-write whatever they've done to maintain my sanity. So it's much less work (and a lot less painful) to just write it myself--the right way--the first time around.

  5. You *especially* don't have to do everything you WERE good at back in grade school. (Thank you for this, by the way.)