On writing

quill-8Mark Twain is reported to have said, “Writing is easy, all you have to do is cross out the wrong words.”  Ernest Hemingway is reported to have said, “The first draft of anything is shit.

I have a few paid, professional writing credits to my name.  They’re all articles written for technical magazines (I do not count writing a custom annotated bibliography).  I’ll not be the one to publish the next Great American Novel – though I confess, I do have a few drafts tucked away.  None begin with “It was a dark and stormy night.”  Though on a lark once I did start writing a cruddy noir detective story by starting “It was a rainy day in the naked city, the City of Angels.”  Oh my. No, I won’t be the guy you see sitting in the corner of the neighborhood coffee shop working through his latest writing workshop notes and discussing character development with a fellow novelist.  With his ironic hipster beard.  (this is Portland…)

My non-technical, non-work writing tends to be for myself mostly.  Even still, I do have, sitting on the bookshelf behind me, a copy of both Strunk and White and the Chicago Manual of Style.  One may as well have decent reference books just in case.  Floating around in a box someplace I think I still have a copy of the Manual for Writers as well.  I don’t really write papers much anymore though, and that last one is pretty specific to that sort of research writing – it may have gone to the book donation bin when I moved, come to think of it.

Way back in the mists of time, in an ancient epoch as I neared the end of High School, I was considering a career in journalism.  In the last two or three years of High School, I shifted my class focus toward more advanced English composition classes and a study of language and literature.  Then I did as many 17 and 18 year old kids do – I changed my mind.  I ended up going in a technical direction rather than living a life of letters and prose.  I probably made better money in that path certainly, and I probably wasn’t cut out for the routine grinding work of a Journalist, either.

Over the years, writing has become two things for me.  First it’s a utility that I use on a regular basis to communicate.  Part of my success in my career, as a matter of fact, has come from the fact that I have an ability to take a highly complex and technical subject and break it down in to what some would call plain English – and what I’d simply call less technical language.  This ability has earned me a fair amount of appreciation over the years from all sorts of non-geeks whom I’ve worked with.  Though I haven’t mastered the ability that Randall Munroe of xkcd has to really, really simplify things with his writings using only the 1,000 most common English words.  His book Thing Explainer is truly a work of art.  Secondly, writing serves as an outlet for me.  I’ve been known to journal, although I don’t do it on anything like a regular basis.  This little hobby gives me the ability to simply wring an idea through nine or ten or thirty variations until I’ve thrashed it to its basic fibers.  The vast majority of what I write never sees the light of day, nor should it frankly.  I find that I have to get it down in writing so that I can look at it, peruse it, consider it, think about it … and edit.  It’s a rare bit of text that just hits the page the right way the first time.  I refer you to Mr. Hemingway’s comment above.

Lately, I’ve been experimenting with actually writing – by hand, on paper.  It started one day when I was sketching (another of my creative outlets that I’ll talk about another time) and I started scribbling notes about what I was sketching.  Then the notes became longer and something almost like a stream of consciousness started flowing.  Eventually, I actually decided to go back to trying to write good old fashioned cursive text like we, of my generation, all learned in elementary school.  Since my teenage years, when I started lettering for mechanical drawings and such, I’ve been a hand printer.  All uppercase, letters all standing alone in a line.  But on that day, when I would focus, I found it surprisingly easy to fall back in to those old hand motions that were ingrained in me from about age 6.  Take it nice and steady, and better yet use a really nice pen, and handwriting can really start to look nice, too.  Just like anything else, practice makes better.  There is nothing that man does that reaches perfect, after all.

This evening, a line has crept in to my head.  Not sure why, not sure where these come from.

As he walked away, twenty-seven years separated the good times from tonight …

Yeah, there’s probably a story there.