The process of finding out where we are going

Reflective puddle behind a bicycle wheel

It may be easy to think yourself a “good writer” from a young age. You form letters correctly, spell, and punctuate. You write a poem that pleases yourself and a couple friends. Your teacher pats you on the back. You compose a short essay that satisfies a standardized test. You win a student award. You get a degree in writing. The local newspaper publishes your “letter to the editor.” You formulate a clickbait headline followed by an article that is shared a dozen times on social media. Maybe you can write in a second language. You don’t suffer “writer’s block.” Your boss reads some of your emails.

Why, then, can you look back on something you’ve written only recently and be surprised at the memory of how difficult it was to communicate information that is so obvious to you now, just a few months later? If you were already a “good writer” then, how did you have room to progress so much in this particular area? Why does this keep happening to you with poem after poem? Were you really a “bad writer” all this time, fifty times over, until you learned to write those fifty poems?

Much of our life experience implies to us that it is simple to evaluate whether someone is a “good writer.” Either they can write something — anything — or they cannot. Either they can write to a particular specification or they cannot. Either they satisfy themselves or they don’t. Either they satisfy others or they don’t.

But all of that assumes that the benchmark is known in advance. What about everything we don’t know? Humanity knows a vanishingly tiny fraction of everything there is; each person knows a vanishingly tiny fraction of what is known to humanity; what an individual knows is always skewed by their perspective; an individual changes over time, acquiring new information, forgetting old information; what we want to believe is determined by our values; and what we can communicate, and what our audience can understand, is another matter.

So, yes, last year you had fifty hard-won personal insights and you challenged yourself to express them in fifty poems. You felt you were a “good writer” for being able to do this. This year, you read those fifty poems, and everything seems obvious to you. You no longer feel there was anything remarkable about that accomplishment. These poems are little more notable than your grocery shopping lists.

That’s because “good writing” is not just one thing. In this case, it was fifty different things. Last year, you didn’t know that you didn’t know them. This year, you know that you know them. Later in life, it’s possible you may forget them again. Maybe, at that time, you won’t need them anymore.

This year, there are, of course, many more things you still don’t know that you don’t know. This year, you’ll discover fifty new things that you don’t know, and then you’ll have an opening to work hard to learn them. There will always be an infinite amount more that can be learned. Part of our life’s work is to decide what it is that we want to be good at.

Cultivating writing skills, regardless of whether we already believe ourselves to be “good” or “bad,” is a process of finding out where we are going.

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