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.
For writers and artists, feelings play a big role in what motivates us to create, and they are also important for the characters we create. Many feelings are hard to spot and to name. Exploring them can yield rewards.
“Odd Emotions,” an article by Rebecca Webber (Psychology Today, Jan/Feb 2016), discusses the treasure trove of unnamed feelings. As the article explains, simply being aware of feelings gives us more insight into our perpetually changing inner lives, and naming them can help us feel that we are participating in a shared human experience and can empower us to respond appropriately.
One language or culture may have a name for a feeling that another language or culture does not. Feelings may be nameable in principle and, if they don’t have names, it may simply be that no one has named them yet or that the name is not yet widely known or translated. Webber gives the example of the Norwegian word vardogr that refers to “a premonitory sound or sight of a person before he or she arrives.” Finnish also has such a word, “but not English.”
Webber quotes Lisa Feldman Barrett, the author of How Emotions Are Made, as sharing her position that emotions are caused by the brain “categorizing sensations, making them meaningful so you know what they are and what you should do about them.” But emotions are not neatly divided even into primary types. From a brain science perspective, emotions are complex and overlapping.
Webber also refers to the work of writer and artist John Koenig whose long-term project The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a portfolio of his invented names for feelings. It is a Tumblr blog, a YouTube, and a forthcoming book from Simon & Schuster. One person, reflecting on a work situation, remembered that “her stress was infinitesimally small in the context of all the time that had passed before she was born, and all that would go on long after her death.” For this feeling, Koenig coined the term “moriturism,” based on the Latin term memento mori (“remember to die”). Koenig has also come up with the name “exulansis” to describe “a sense of frustration when you realize that you are trying to talk about an important experience, but other people are unable to understand or relate to it, so you give up.”
Another woman quoted by Webber mentioned “a ‘deflated’ variation of schadenfreude, which she describes as when someone ‘finally comes around to your point of view or is served a very cold helping of karma, but sadly, you’ve matured past the point of really caring anymore.'”
Take a look at the article “Odd Emotions” and see what resonates with you. Is there a word for the special feeling of that resonation? What does it mean for your writing and art?
Beginning this Saturday, 16 November 2019, at 4 a.m. Pacific time,
will be only 99 cents for Kindle!
Put the URL in your calendar so you don’t forget: https://amzn.to/2pU7lo1
The price goes up the longer you wait. For example, it will be $1.99 beginning Sunday morning at 8 a.m. Pacific, which is still a good deal, but you may as well move fast and get it Saturday! Thursday, 21 November is the final day of the discount.
In her novel Make Your Home Among Strangers, Jennine Capó Crucet presents a young woman protagonist who is developing a sense of self.
She perceives herself as relatively accomplished, as, while teen pregnancies seem to be the norm in her family and high school graduation is the bar to meet, she unexpectedly lands and accepts a spot at an elite private university. On the other hand, she feels that she has somehow betrayed her family by moving away (because they tell her so), and, because of her Cuban heritage, she is treated differently than the rest of the majority-white student body. Home and school are alternatingly appealing, but neither is perfectly safe, and neither is exactly what she wants.
It’s a choice between what feels most “authentic” despite knowing that all choices are engineered anyway, that outcomes are not predictable, and that everything has a price. It isn’t a resolvable problem, as those of us of a certain age have already found out.
The protagonist becomes increasingly self-conscious about how people perceive her. She can’t control what they see, in part because she hasn’t yet decided what image she wants to project or whether she should have to go to the effort of projecting an image at all. Near the book’s final pages, she introduces the term “double vision” for this: one part of her is living her life while another part is sitting aside, detached, evaluating and criticizing herself from a distance in anticipation of what others will say.
My short story “Exit Interview” is included in the anthology I Didn’t Break The Lamp: Historical Accounts of Imaginary Acquaintances, published today by DefCon One. I hope you’ll buy a copy of the book, as it’s quite entertaining. I’m honored to be included among these 25 other talented authors.
“Exit Interview” was a difficult story to write. It took years to develop in my imagination, and, although it never really happened, some of the details have roots in a nonfiction book I’ve been working on concurrently. It is deeply meaningful to me, and I’m glad to be able finally to share it.
I hope you will give this anthology a try. Who among us doesn’t need to call on an imaginary friend now and again? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book. It’s available from Kindle and other retailers.