I realized something today that I have known for a very long time, really, but not entirely consciously. I am prolific if any writer is. Ignoring my inability to finish a project and send it out into the world. Someone once gave me the book The Midnight Disease which is about hypergraphia–a “disorder” in which the sufferer cannot stop writing. And she was probably right to give it to me.
But when I write to communicate with others (as opposed to journaling or the writing I do in the margins of my books)–whether it’s essay writing or personal letters or novels or, say, blog posts–I have two very distinct modes of writing. And I’ve finally realized that they have very distinct affects on their audiences. And boy do I wish I had clarified this for myself years ago. But there we are. We learn what we learn when we’re ready to learn it. And so I’m passing it along in case it’s relevant or helpful to any of you all.
I had my first profound writing success when I was a junior in high school. I wrote an essay for a contest on the topic of “Kindness.” The essay was about a small but powerfully meaningful act of kindness that a boy showed me in second grade and how that act of kindness impacted my life. I wish I still had a copy. I would post it. I had won writing contests before that. I was considered a good writer as soon as I could write, but that essay was published in the local paper and the response to it was breathtaking. I started getting letters from all over town . . . people writing to thank me for sharing that story. I even got a letter from a Minister who had read my essay to his congregation. I never knew before that moment that my words had any power to move people in that way.
I think I keep this journal because I sometimes get that same feeling . . . Like I am sharing something that is meaningful and touches people. Maybe uplifts or changes them in a way that is not bad. Even though I talk so much about hard things. But I don’t always get that feeling. Sometimes I really don’t like what I write. Sometimes I get the feeling that other people don’t like what I write. Even if there’s nothing wrong with it, it feels off somehow. I have had this same experience with essays. My writing is always “good”, my papers are always well-reasoned and organized. But sometimes they really anger my teachers. And sometimes they invite more dialogue. I write letters to people and sometimes they get angry with me and don’t want to have anything to do with me anymore, and sometimes they draw the other person closer and we share a real connection.
So here’s what I have sussed out as the difference: sometimes I am open and vulnerable in my writing, and sometimes I am just “right”–however that is defined for the particular type of writing I am doing. If it’s a paper, then my claim is intelligent and well-reasoned. If it’s a letter, then whatever the topic in question is, I have presented my views in a way that it would be hard to rationally argue with. If it’s a novel draft, then my writing is technically sound and impressive. But right does not equal good. And even less does it equal productive.
Being “right” is a defense mechanism for me. It allows me to feel valid despite an underlying suspicion that I can be a kind of nasty person on occasion. And I showcase “rightness” in my writing when I need that validation. When I am in an argument with someone, or I am exploring a topic that scares me or that I don’t feel entirely secure with, or when it’s just something like writing fiction that feels so important to me that I don’t honestly believe I could really do a good job with it.
But feeling open is what allows me to connect with others. And in order to be open, I have to be vulnerable. I have to be willing to talk in an honest and authentic way about the moments in my life that have meant something and about my own, sometimes overwhelming, sense of frailty and failure. But when I can get to that place, and probably when any of us can, the writing that comes out has the power to connect with others, make them feel seen, change their hearts. I think this is what real communication is about. Have any of you struggled with this?