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embrace your destiny

June 16, 2010

i don’t consider myself a writer.

which is weird, right? because i write all kinds of things. i write this here blog (with a blatant disregard for consistent capitalization, even). i write a regular column, and i’ve written a whole book, and my resume even has a whole section for “publications.” most people would probably call me a writer. so why don’t i?

growing up, i did actually want to be a writer. oh, the bad high school poetry. the failed attempt at a novel. i am cringing just thinking about these things (seriously: SO BAD). when i was a senior i joined the high school paper; once it was established that i could turn in a story that didn’t require vast amounts of copyediting, i was frequently tasked with editing the articles of younger reporters. so although i had a couple of articles to my name, i spent most of my time editing, writing headlines (badly), and assisting with layout.* this was fine with me: turns out that while i’m a solid writer, i’m a terrible journalist, since i don’t really enjoy randomly seeking people out and asking them questions. i agonized over every source i ever had to contact, even though it wasn’t exactly watergate and everyone was always perfectly nice to me.

by the time i finished high school, i realized that i was good at writing, in a technical sense: i could construct sentences and paragraphs and put all the punctuation in the right place. i could whip out a 3 page paper over lunch break, and i’d much rather write an essay than do anything involving math or science. but my writing had no soul. my attempts at fiction never really went anywhere; i could never figure out what i wanted to say or how to translate the images and emotions in my head into something concrete and readable on the page.

and then i went to college and wrote a history paper for the first time, and everything fell into place. this was a kind of writing that i could understand, that i could make happen for me. writing papers for my history classes, i could rely on those technical skills i possessed and use them to construct logical arguments, to support those arguments with evidence, to make sure the thread of the argument carried through the entire paper. i didn’t need to translate emotion and i sure as hell didn’t need to write dialog.

here, then, is when i stopped seeing any sort of future for myself as a writer. in my worldview, writers simply wrote, as an exercise in and of itself. but that’s not what i was doing. i was writing as a byproduct of research. i was writing to critique a book or to argue for my version of a historical moment. the history was important, the writing simply the vehicle by which i communicated my findings. and i carried this idea with me, buried at the back of my mind, through undergrad and grad school, through publications and blog posts.

the problem, of course, is that this split i’ve constructed is false. writing for a specific purpose doesn’t make me any less a writer than a novelist.** and i’ve come to realize that the major effect of this false split is that i have never considered my writing in a serious way. i’ve never worked at writing.*** i’ve never forced myself to sit down and really go over the words i’ve placed on the page, to think about structure and style, to consider how i want to develop the way i write. i’ve edited my own work, certainly. but i have rarely thought beyond “does this convey my desired message in a relatively clear and concise manner?” or beyond the structural technicalities of grammar and usage. when i read other people’s work, i frequently critique it (“good lord, what is with the adverb placement in this book?” “did no one copyedit this?”), but i rarely try to learn from the writing itself. i absorb facts, but not usage. even when i read something beautiful, or perfectly put, something that moves me, i note it and i wish that i could do it, but i never contemplate how i could make something similar work for me.

so as of today i’m going to resolve to stop shying away from being called a writer. this doesn’t just mean that i accept that writing isn’t just a lesser included part of being a historian (or so-called historian, as it were); it means that i accept that writing is a skill. writing is one of my skills. and like any other skill, it requires honing. i accept that i actually have to work at writing.

and maybe, one day, if i work very hard and am very, very lucky, i will learn how to write a conclusion that doesn’t suck.

*i also once got into an argument with the journalism advisor – an English teacher, mind you – about the proper placement of a question mark in a headline that included a quote. an argument that i won, thank you very much.

**also, a novel seems like a fairly specific purpose to me.

***except in a certain grad school class, when i was basically forced to. and yes, i’m a better writer for it.

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