The Infinite Writing Theorem: If A Monkey Can Do It, So Can You.

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I want to be a writer damn it, so why am I so bad at actually writing? As in, sitting down and actually writing something. Anything. Ever. I think about writing, I read about writing. Heck, I even dream about writing, so why do I not actually sit down and write?  

Writing is one of those things you can’t learn about, you have to learn by doing. Like riding a bike. Or having sex. There are only so many “helpful hints” you can acquire before they just become an excess or an excuse. One day, I want to open a “how to write” book and find it says only three words: “Just. Do. It.” (Now, there’s a project I think I can aspire to…) because honestly, all that mumble and jumble about theme and character and style and voice and motivation and punctuation is just so darn intimidating. You’re already stressed out before you’ve even written a word, already convinced you must have done it all wrong because you haven’t researched your arguments’ three intrinsic possibilities, if the world ends, or outlined your character’s five favorite places to visit in July! It’s a catastrophe! Why even begin!? Begin because you have to at least try to make a mistake before you can make one, and trying is half the fun, and 99.9% of the learning. (The other two half percents are made up of god- given-talent and delusional arrogance)

Obviously, different kinds of writing are, well, different – your Ph. D. thesis will most likely require some in-depth preparation and (hopefully) research, as will your term paper, while a personal reflection or creative work may not need so much background for it to be convincing, but I feel as though the basic premise still stands. There shouldn’t be all these books and classes and programs on writing; you shouldn’t be made to think you have to know what to do before you do it. To get good at writing (and by extension arguing, proving, explaining, and expressing thoughts) in an intelligent way, and to write something believable and moving and entertaining or just plain coherent – you have to write. And write. And write again. And re-write. And really that’s the only requirement.

I’m thoroughly convinced that anyone can write and write well, as long as they have a basic understanding of the language and how to string sentences together. Do you know how to talk? Then you know how to write.

Do you know how to talk? Then you know how to write.

Writing is just talking on paper, except better, because if you make a mistake you can erase it or if you don’t get your point across the first time you can start over and try again. It’s magical  like that. If I could do this in real life I would be a very eloquent (and slightly less regretful) person. But I can’t. I’m clumsy. I use the wrong words, I say “umm” too many times, and essentially just make myself look like a ditsy fool 80% of the time. That’s why I like writing. I can speak with different voices within different contexts to suit the requirements. A person can sound intelligent and direct, formal and friendly, laid back and indifferent, artsy and hipster, all by the words they use and the ways they use them. It’s such a powerful tool, one that everyone should have at their disposal, especially during University, but one that is made to sound complex and intimidating by professors and editors and endless how-to manuals. Where does one begin?

Firstly, by throwing away the manual. If that manual happens to be a very expensive textbook though, perhaps simply placing it on a very high shelf where it is essentially unreachable will be sufficient. Next, clear your mind of all preconceptions, fears, or inhibiting thoughts about what you need to write, including ones like: “the example paper was so well written, I could never write something as good as that!” or, “I bet Susie’s paper will be so much better than mine, because she has charisma.” All of that pathetic, negative gunk. Get it out. Start fresh with a blank mind and a blank sheet of paper, and begin to have an internal conversation with yourself, talking yourself through your project, and anything about it that comes to your mind. There will be things. Then, let the pen touch the page. Just let it. No, flames will not burst forth, and the ink will not sink into the page. Perhaps nothing will happen at all except a very ugly black mark. Yet, by doing this, you will have broken through the first and hardest barrier that all writers face. Now write. Don’t think. Thinking is bad. Just write, and your brain will catch up, and soon your pen won’t be able to keep up, and what you’ll be left with is a whole bunch of words – raw and uncensored and unsoiled. Your words.

If you dare, you can go back and read them. Or you can start again with a new page, and again, until the concept of writing freely without (much or any) planning or forethought simply becomes second nature. It may even sound more natural, like you didn’t force the words out painstakingly slow with a sharp object. And now that you have words you can mould them into what you want them to be. Change them, rearrange them, until you are satisfied with your results. Maybe now you find you don’t have enough research to back up your claims, or your character seems flat. Now is the time to consult the manual that you’ve just thrown in the bin, to see what you can improve. Eventually, you’ll find that the more you write, the less you’ll need the manual. At the end of the day, writing is simply a different aspect of language – a language your brain already understands; logical patterns of creativity and coherency we use in everyday speech that with practice, you will learn to use naturally in all your writing.

I think therefore, that the focus on classes and writer’s manuals is perhaps mislead, and may even contribute to people losing their interest in writing. I certainly feel conditioned so that I must come to the page full of knowledge and insight and background experience before I am worthy to type a word at all. What a ridiculous thing, since writing is essentially a handy method of communicating thoughts and ideas that most of us feel pretty confident about expressing in “other” ways.

writing is essentially a handy method of communicating thoughts and ideas that most of us feel pretty confident about expressing in “other” ways.

So, the next time I feel the writing bug bite, or have a painfully long essay due in three hours, and have the desire to sit panicking for half of it, thinking about what I should or shouldn’t say – I will take a risky, rebellious approach, and just write it. Anything. Something. Who knows, maybe my disaster will prove disastrously wonderful, or at least show me what not to do next time.

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Discussion1 Comment

  1. avatar

    Excellent article, though I’d say that not all writing advice books are totally useless. William Shank Jr. and E.B. White’s “Elements of Style” is a handy resource though a lot of it is plainly obvious if you already have good writing skills. Stephen King’s “On Writing” is also quite an inspiring read, and he shares a similar no nonsense approach in cutting out unnecessary fancy words. Similarly there’s some helpful hints in this Guardian article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one Obviously though, these rules are there to be broken, and should not be seen as absolute.

    I find it useful when it comes to an essay or something important that I have to write, to in my first draft, just write it intentionally bad, ignoring grammar spelling or sentence construction and not bother making any changes until I’ve finished. Even though the result is crap and painful to read back, you’ll at least know where you’re going with it and have the basic points down. After that you can properly refine it and make it something of worth.

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