This isn’t generally the kind of blog post I would choose to read, and I wouldn’t blame you if it wasn’t the sort of thing you’d read either. I feel I ought to get that out of the way right at the start.
You don’t have to be Columbo to work out that my writing has slowed down over the last six months. I’ve been thinking about why and it’s because of lots of factors, an accumulation of little things that has taken its toll since the middle of last year. It’s not that I’m not happy with what I’ve written – I am, and I think some of the pieces I’ve put on the blog lately have been some of the best things I’ve done. But I do find more and more that perfectionism is paralysis; I have an idea of what I want to achieve, and when it looks difficult I hit a brick wall.
I must have half a dozen fragments of pieces sitting on my computer, reproachful Word documents waiting to be finished. One is about my lifelong relationship with slogan t-shirts, and how lately it has been coming to an end. Another is about my annual ritual of making a mix CD, and how they and I have changed over the years. A third is about the perfect bar – an imaginary establishment which is a hybrid of a place in Lisbon, another in Paris and a third in Reading, and doubtless countless others. Another is all about a girl I fancied when I was seventeen, and how nothing much alters in twenty years. The last, which has sat on my hard drive for almost two years, describes visiting my aunt in hospital when she had her operation, in a strange week in a strange year when I was the only member of her family in the country.
Just writing this makes me wish I had completed even one of them – to fail to get to the end used to be unlike me, now it seems to have become the norm. Just as glasses of water can be half-full or half-empty, pieces of writing can be half-finished or half-started. Looking at them again, they just feel half-arsed. It’s not a nice place to be.
I have had the misfortunate to read many people writing about writing (I know this piece falls into that category, and for that I’m sorry) and it’s always frustrated me. I have always thought it’s what people do instead of actual writing in an attempt to prove to the world that they are A Writer, as if that label is everything, as if someone will print you a certificate and a badge you can use to show off to your hipster friends. But whatever definition you choose to use, at the root of everything a writer is someone who writes. If you write, you’re a writer and if you don’t, you’re not. By that definition I haven’t been much of a writer for some time, and it makes me sad.
Of course, there’s more to it than just being a perfectionist. I also think that writing is a mental exercise and, like all other exercises, if you stop doing them you get out of shape. You use it or you lose it. The act of writing makes you see the world differently, to make mental (or sometimes even physical) notes, to make connections between things even where those connections aren’t obvious, or to other people might not exist. I still maintain that writing is a lot like photography – you line things up through the lens of your mind and decide what is in focus, what isn’t, how you can treat or develop the image to make it look a certain way. I used to love doing that, and I like to think that I was pretty good at it.
I don’t think Twitter helps. If writing is a proper, crisp, perfectly framed and focused image then Twitter is the Polaroid; quick, pithy, instant, disposable. Somewhere along the way I started taking the things I saw in my mind and shrinking the size of the piece of paper I jotted them down on. It’s almost like Newspeak, after a while. Will it fit in a hundred and forty characters? What do I take out? What are the short cuts? Because it’s always about taking things out, trimming, distilling, choosing what not to say. For a writer those are useful skills, they always will be, but when they are all that you do you start to lose the power to express more. And I think I am tired of taking Polaroids.
I also think there is an element of mid-life crisis about this. My blog is three years old, and in that time it has changed beyond recognition. I have written about a lot of things – about my marriage, about travelling and about loving where you live, about the past and the present, about food and acupuncture and sickness and worry and silliness. And, of course, there have been some things I haven’t written about – how I only speak to half of my family, for instance, or the hypochondria and neurosis that also do their best to paralyse me at times. I went through a phase of wondering if I should write a different kind of blog altogether – to do restaurant reviews, or do a photo blog, to write about music, or books, or current events. I even wrote a piece of fiction, if you remember, something I thought I’d never do. Don’t tell anyone, but I even considered writing poetry. The problem is that you get hung up on this idea of having An Audience, and that audience has Expectations. And then you – well, I – get into this awful maze of trying to work out who I’m writing for, be it me or other people or nobody at all.
I would be lying, too, if I didn’t admit that I have contemplated quitting the blog. I read for a literary magazine now (Hippocampus, in fact) and reviewing submissions can take some time. I have a monthly column now in my local paper, and you have no idea how hard it can be to take the 1500 words’ worth of stuff you want to say and cram it into 600. I should submit some of my pieces and essays – from my golden age, I tell myself – to other magazines and try and find homes for them. I still talk from time to time about brushing up all my favourite pieces and submitting them to a small press here to see if they’d like to publish a collection of my essays. But there have been days lately when I’ve thought that I could slip away from writing here, from the tyranny of perfection and the stat porn of page hits and comments and wondering when and where your next post is coming from, and I might never miss it or be missed.
Something stops me though, and I’m not sure what it is. I think it’s the knowledge that, when it works, I still love doing this. I find myself thinking that maybe I’ve overcomplicated it all and that writing should be like running – that you do it to feel free, to go where you want and as far as you like just for that feeling of being unfettered and that it’s what you are meant to do. It’s other people, the world, that puts rules around it, and adds starting blocks and lanes and a finish line and a stopwatch and tells you you’re better or worse than everybody else (this is, I should add, a very poor simile; I am no runner). I find myself thinking back to the start, when nobody was reading and I wrote every day and I didn’t care that nobody was reading. Because I was flying, and it didn’t matter that nobody was looking on. I never dance – in front of other people or on my own – but maybe if I can write like nobody is watching I can make up for that.
So here’s what I have decided. I’m taking a month off Twitter, and for the whole of April I will put a post on the blog every day. Saying that, I have no idea what they will be like. I think they will be very different from the posts on the blog lately – they may be quicker, shorter, less polished. I might cover different topics, or the same topics in different ways (probably the latter; I have a feeling writers never escape their themes, however hard they try). You might get those restaurant reviews or photos after all. Some of it may feel a bit like pages from a sketchbook rather than the whole canvas, and it might be boring to some or all of whoever is left reading. But I have a feeling if I don’t do this, I won’t do anything.
Encouragement would be appreciated, if you feel like giving it. If you have questions or advice, or any subjects you would like me to write about I’d love to hear them (no promises, mind). But if there’s a stony silence that is okay, too. I will be running, out there somewhere, whether you are looking on or not. I think this is important. It’s time to either start writing or stop writing, and for far too long I’ve been doing neither.