Want to know why I started writing as a kid?
The first thing I can remember writing just for the sake of writing was an essay called "Utter Nonsense". I was eleven years old. Sixth grade. Six pages long, but I used a really large font. It starts:
This is an essay on how to write an essay like this one.
Nonsense, really. (I was going to upload and link a copy from this blog post, but a quick Google search reveals that it was posted to an online forum in 2008. By whom? I don't know. Why was it posted? I don't know. But I love seeing these connections pop up and it's why I try and put as much of my old work online as possible. Anyway I think it looks better as a messy forum post than it looked as an essay.)
So I write this thing, and... people laugh. When people read it they find it funny. Of course, this means I show it to as many people as I can. I show it to classmates, teachers, the girl I had a crush on. Because I thought, If people are laughing, this is the right thing to do. And the more people see it, the more right it is.
I was a pretty pathetic kid when I was eleven. Who wasn't, right? But I was especially pathetic. Once I wrote a survey asking people to define the word "popular" as it applied to our middle school social structure. Printed out copies and stuck them on every desk in homeroom. Because if I could only get people to admit that they were using words that lacked concrete definition, they'd stop using them! Utopia through linguistic prescriptivism!
Pretty pathetic kid.
I was too cerebral, see. Mathematical. I wasn't at all a rational creature, but when I was eleven I thought of myself as rational, and saw the world as something to be solved and beaten. Maybe I was just a gamer. Maybe it was the D&D manuals I read in elementary school. I saw the stats in everything. So I saw high school popularity as a game to cheat my way out of. And I saw writing funny things as a way of exploiting myself to get ahead.
Sometimes I think that I'd have been a happier person if I never started to write. Because I started using writing as a way of getting out of situations that might've otherwise required me to think. Love poetry. Why do young people write love poems to people they've never talked to? Because it's easier.
A lot of writers think: Maybe if I know how to write something beautiful, then I can just show people that beautiful thing, and then they will know that I am a beautiful person. And you know what, that's not the worst reason to want to write. It's a lonely, miserable reason, but I don't know if it's right to criticize lonely and miserable people. It's not like they want to be that way.II
Beauty, man. That's why I wrote. There's something beautiful in being able to make people laugh. Or in being able to make them cry. Moving them in any way, really. I get so wrapped up in that movement that I keep forgetting to have a good motive for the movements. I'm capable of being a provocative shit. I can get people really angry or annoyed or upset. I can do it so well sometimes that the other person doesn't even realize that I'm intentionally doing it. Or I can say something funny with such a straight face that nobody realizes it's a joke. There's no good reason to upset people. And there's not much of a reason to tell a joke and try to get people not to laugh. But I get so wrapped up in the beauty of the movements. That impersonal poetry. I'll get so lost in watching the flow of the river that I forget all the people sitting by the riverbank. Or I only start noticing them when they're leaving.
And then I start getting resentful. I really do get resentful when people like things sometimes. Especially if they're people who are willing to openly dislike and dismiss something that I like. Sometimes I think I'm in the right for my resentment — I mean, you've got to be ignorant to dismiss something that somebody else likes. Ignorant, or at least unwilling to accept that other people have valid reasons for liking things even if you don't share them. But then other times I feel like that's just me valuing the things I find beautiful over the people in my life, and then I feel bad and try to smile and join in. Sometimes that works.
Beauty is everywhere. Which means that while beauty itself is very valuable, individual instances of beauty aren't inherently worthwhile. You get to decide what kind of beauty you like at any given moment.
One counterintuitive result of this (counter for me, anyway) is that things are more meaningful when they're popular. Unless you're an aesthete searching for a particular thing, there are good reasons to follow the ephemeral tastes of the crowd, if it's a crowd you want to belong to. Crowds form around mutual interests; if you spend your time deliberately avoiding crowds, then you're only ever going to find yourself among people who have no interests whatsoever.
But the flip side is that when you're creating things, you have no reason to strive for popularity, unless you're that sad sixth grader that I was who only makes things in order to be loved. Not that you should strive to be unpopular either; it's just that you should be comfortable seeking the beautiful things you like regardless of who else sees their beauty. The odds are that you will find people who appreciate the same things you there; you're not mad for seeing the beauty there. So if you make it, you'll find the people looking for what you're looking for.
I'm more worried about the diversities of the people who make things than I am about the people who consume things. It's much harder to avoid conformity when you're creating than when you're consuming, because the people who preach certain forms of conformation present them as if they're simply the "right" ways to do things. I've seen it in writing, music, graphic design, film, game design, and I have no reason to think there's any creative field on the planet that doesn't have a certain legion of people pushing "rightness".III
And here's why I'm worried about that lack of diversity. I'm worried because I'm thinking about that kid I was when I was eleven. The kid trying to sum up popularity with a paper survey, and who wrote essays about bullshitting to make fun of how bullshitty his classroom assignments were.
I still love that "Utter Nonsense" essay. I'm fucking proud of it. I mean, it's mediocre in a lot of places, but fuck that noise, it was brilliant. It was a young kid writing about one of the only things he knew anything about, using as much pilfered technique as he could muster to make it funny. I stole one joke, near the beginning, from an Animorphs book, but other than that it's all original. I still smile reading it.
When young-me realized that people liked that essay, he decided to play the system a bit. He figured out that first essay's formula. Then he wrote a bunch of copies of that essay, and handed them out to people in the hopes that what worked the first time would work the second time, and the third time, and the fourth. He took an essay that was beautiful because it was his and created a bunch of copies that weren't much of anything. And four years later, when he started writing poetry, he did the exact same thing. Wrote something, developed a formula, killed it.
We have a lot of people striving to be perfect. To be polished. They try so hard to be good that they sand away their imperfections. And that's a problem, because those imperfections are what make things interesting. Beauty, abstract beauty, is about as meaningful as learning how to piss people off just because you can. What matters is how beauty connects us to the people and places it came from.
There's a struggle between the individual and the universal. Which is to say: How can I make something that can reach as many people as possible, without sacrificing the parts of it that are me? Some people dismiss the universal for the individual, and just make things that appeal to themselves. I don't have a problem with that. But I'm worried about the people who dismiss the individual for the universal, and learn how to sell their work to the world at the cost of really putting themselves into it?
It teaches the lesson that who you are matters less than what you make. And that lesson in turn fucks a lot of things up. It leads us to hurt people when they're at their most vulnerable, by criticizing the parts of them that are most integral. It leads to lonely young kids who believe, honestly believe, that the only way they can be beautiful is to write poems. And then it leads those kids to resent the rest of the world, because they've been trained not to see any of the beauty in the people who are different than they are; they only look for what they know, and when what they know isn't there they dismiss the world for being ugly or stupid or wrong.
Want to know why I started writing as a kid? It's because I thought that writing was who I "was", writing was how I could be "beautiful". And if I wrote six-page essays and people read them and didn't become my friend, it was because there was something wrong with me. I wasn't beautiful enough. I had to become more beautiful.
All these kids, man. All these fucking kids worrying if people like their smile or their clothes or their hair or the way they talk. All these miserable lonely goddamn kids who keep looking at themselves, worrying about themselves, worrying whether people like them, worrying whether they're popular enough, worrying about if they're beautiful. Not realizing that how you smile matters less than that you're smiling. Not realizing that the worst way to be beautiful is to keep worrying about your beauty. Not realizing that the only thing you've got to do to be beautiful is just to be.
Doesn't matter which way you're going as long as you're going. Beauty, man. We can stop looking for it. It's everything.