For this new phase of my writing life, I have been thinking of characteristics, themes or stances that I imagine will be typical of my work.
At this point, I anticipate my that outwardly-directed writing will be:
Honest. Everybody dissembles to some degree. We craft personas, wear social masks. It can be impolite and off-putting to drop these pretensions, to reveal too much. (“Spilling your guts is just as attractive as it sounds,” I once read). But I feel most comfortable and productive when trying to be honest. Reticence for me leads to silence. This I have learned from decades of bitter experience—years of not writing, entire decades lost. Truth telling is liberating; honest prose begets more prose. So, within some minimal bounds of decency and prudence, I expect to err on the side of being overly transparent rather than reticent. That’s what suits me, what feels right and natural. Revealing, not withholding, helps me write.
Vulnerable. There’s no other way to do this, I think. Being honest is necessary for writing—for the liberation of my own voice, anyway. But it will involve some risks. Disclosure may not always be comfortable or in my best interest. It may strain some relationships. Disclosure may work against some facets of self-presentation that I’d like to maintain. But the risk of not facing such risks is continued chronic block. I simply can’t have that! So a truth-telling we will go, with some acutely sensitive nerves exposed, ready to wince, shudder and maybe scream. I know it is necessary but dread it—feel trepidation—nonetheless.
Contingent, speculative and open-ended, not oracular, declarative or authoritative. Wanting to be in control and make pronouncements, to speak in an authoritative way, to avoid mistakes and inept phrasings, wanting to make brilliant utterances and be loved for them—all that has been characteristic of how I’ve thought about and approached writing. The problem is, all of that can be lethal to my impulse to produce outwardly-directed material. I have to make mistakes, show ignorance, get things wrong and speculate if I am going to get any writing done. Trying to write perfectly makes me mute. “Perfect” equals “never done,” and I am so done with not writing! Therefore I will not—cannot—assume a stance of trying or expecting to write perfectly. Heretofore I have assumed such a stance, mostly without conscious intent, and that a stance contributed mightily to my chronic block. For me to generate writing I need a speculative, inquisitive, open stance. I need to accept and even consciously affirm that my work will sometimes sound clanky, bloom with errors and seem at times just downright stupid. Those aren’t goals, of course. But if I don’t lower my standards below “excruciatingly, impossibly high” and permit some level of error and ineptness, the writing that I long to do just won’t get produced. Only imperfect work exists. Only imperfect works. Mess first; masterpiece later. That is the necessary order. I therefore grant myself permission to write loopy nonsense, to change my mind, to show that I don’t know stuff that I probably should (and imagine that many others do). I grant myself permission to learn through writing, to wonder aloud about things (thereby betraying my gaping ignorance). I grant myself permission be wrong, clumsy and sometimes moronic. That’s the only way I may sometimes stumble into being correct, elegant, erudite and perhaps worthwhile in a few others’ estimation.
Process-oriented. Writing to learn; having an open, not declarative, stance; and giving myself permission for error are all part of treating writing as a process of discovery, not a means to proclaim settled truths. For decades I’ve been prolific with respect to private journal writing but nearly mute with respect to other forms of writing. A reason for this is that in journal writing I use writing as a tool for discovery and contingent ordering, not as a means of virtuoso performance. Journal writing feels for me nearly as effortless as breathing, whereas writing other stuff—outwardly-directed writing or ODW as I’ve sometimes called it—has felt nearly impossible—comically, tragically difficult for me, creating the most absurd self-defeating patterns. To break those patterns, I am going to—I must—let ODW be more like my journal writing. Sure, writing made public is inevitably a public dance, the “finished” in some way private journal writing is not. But if I think of generating ODW as chiseling on eternal tablets, I know from experience that I won’t get any public writing done. So I must treat writing always as process, not definitive performance.
Disintermediated. I hope in time to amass some “pub credits” and build a traditional (dead tree era?) body of “published” work. I’ll confess that I’d like, someday, to have a piece in The Best American Essays of 20xx. I also want one day to see my name on a traditional, bound book. But getting writing done, not third-party sanction, is my first goal. I need to write, not be distracted by chasing others’ approval. I do not want to look for an agent. I do not at this early stage even want to worry about publishing outlets. I’m impatient, too impatient to endure the whole query-send-out-manuscript-get rejected-and-resubmit process. Peer review for me, for now, means readers—should there be any, which I acknowledge is a hope not an assumption—can review it after I’ve hit “publish.” I have waited decades to begin writing outwardly-directed material. That’s much, much too long—an appalling delay. Having misspent so much of my “professional” life and almost missed what I perceive to be my true calling or vocation—almost missed living “my real” life—now that I finally feel ready to write in a more public way, I will, I think, publish and disseminate my writing with modern tools—via this blog, for instance. Viva the internet! Viva digital technology! Hooray for full-text indexing and searching, so that readers can find things that interest them without the intervention of editors or support of any institution! Viva disintermediation! Maybe, once I have built up and shaped enough ODW, I will knit it into a self-published ebook. Maybe that will be picked up by a third-party publisher. We’ll see. But yearning after or awaiting upon third-party permission isn’t my path.
Incremental. I would love it if work tumbled out of me in big, polished pieces. But it doesn’t. I will work in short bursts. I may craft longer pieces from the fragments, but I won’t await a huge expanse of uninterrupted time to commence The Big Work. That, too, I have learned, is a good way for me to never write anything.
Promiscuous and with respect to topics. I like writing. I am interested in China, and I have spent decades learning about China. I went to law school. I’ve taught in business schools for more than a decade. I grew up in Alabama and was imprinted by its religion-besotted culture. I am interested in many things, and I have significant background with regard to a few. But trying to write about only one subject or subset of my interests—say the regulation of financial markets in China, an authentic, longstanding interest—paralyzes my voice. I can’t have that any longer, so henceforth I will broadly indulge my interests, writing promiscuously with respect to topics, following associative chains wherever they lead.
Promiscuous does not I hope mean superficial. I do like to “grok” on complex subjects. In fact I become exquisitely uncomfortable when I have to work in areas in which I feel no mastery. But trying to present myself as an “expert” in some area creates pressure. It causes me to feel an obligation to cover or react to everything important that arises in relation to my chosen “fields” (contemporary China, PRC capital markets, whatever). This become burdensome and counter-productive. It starts to feel like a job, not a passion. Such a sense of obligation repels me, makes me to want to avoid following and writing about the very things that once so animated me. It drains the fun out of things. I write best when I feel playful, not obligated. So I grant myself permission to seem random, to be promiscuous with respect to topics and to be wildly non-comprehensive. I will write about whatever I fancy, with no implied promises to faithfully cover any particular “beats.”
I probably will in time write about contemporary China, PRC financial market regulation, creativity and writing (or, to begin, my long experience of “not writing”) and personal information technology. All those things interest me and have for decades. But I also like intellectual history, photography and architecture. I also am a parent (“Daddy” is my favorite title of any I’ve ever held, by far). In bookstores I graze across subject areas, so I will probably offer criticism and responses, I hope not too flippant, to a wide variety of others’ work, both current and older. I work in the education “industry” and am interested in its contours, disruption and internationalization. I may write about any and all of that, as well as unforeseen topics.
These are my thoughts as I commence this new, liberated phase of my writing life. I offer them honestly, feeling slightly vulnerable (and also relief) for revealing them. I may change my mind about how I’ll be as a writer. This just a speculative fragment, a shard created along the way toward some fuller explanation of my writing self. Also, it’s “just” a blog post, jotted and released into the world without third-party screening or polishing. The next thing I write may be an extension of my thinking on this topic, or not. But I have for today written something. That is for me the point.