Friday, 23 May 2014

Why did I stop writing?

A couple of days ago, out of the blue, I had an email from someone who had come across my old blog and wondered what had caused me to stop writing. It’s a long time since I wrote much more than a brief paragraph of Facebook status update, but something gave me an inkling that it might be worth exploring the answer to that question. Four pages of scrawl later...

Why did I stop writing?

There are so many possible answers to that question, and I’m not sure I even know just how much – or how little – they really give an honest or complete answer, but here goes.

When I started my blog, back in 2003, one of the first decisions was whether to adopt a pseudonym or whether to blog under my own name. At that time, hardly anyone in the UK had even heard the word “blog”, let alone read them or had one, so the chance of anyone I knew in “real life” coming across it seemed vanishingly small. It felt dishonest, inauthentic, to blog anonymously so from day one my blog carried my full identity. To begin with, that worked out fine. Within a few months I was sharing some of my innermost thoughts, both on my blog and through comments on others’ blogs, and found unexpected delight in the community of like-minded souls of which I somehow became a part. But as time went on, this “hiding in plain sight” was no longer possible. Blogs went mainstream (for a while, before Facebook and Twitter took over) and people I knew in the real world began to discover my online presence. That might not have mattered, but my online self exposed parts of me that were usually hidden to others; I became more circumspect, more aware of the potential knock-ons if what I wrote got read by people I’d rather didn’t see it. That in itself may not have killed the blog, but it certainly was one of the nails in the coffin.

I think perhaps others blogging at that time felt something similar. Those first years of the 21st century seem to have been a golden age of blogging. We felt like pioneers exploring limitless new territories – but sparsely populated territories, so there was a spirit of comradeship, sharing what we knew, supporting each other, offering a form of hospitality – opening our doors to strangers and inviting them in. But as this world became more populous, the barriers began to go up; people retreated inside their walls. There was a sense of “now what?” The community lost its vibrancy and vitality and began to stagnate. People drifted away and for whatever reason weren’t replaced by new virtual friendships.

Perhaps that was one reason my own outlook went through a change. At one time, this new-found virtual world assumed such importance for me that it almost eclipsed the real world. These connections made with friends around the globe felt deeper and more significant than the connections with most of those around me, immediate family excepted. But even family belonged to a different world. It seemed that blogging gave an opportunity to sidestep the facade that many of us maintain – knowingly or unknowingly – and connect at a deeper, more intimate level. This led to something of a crisis in my own life, albeit one that I kept mostly hidden in the everyday world. This new-found persona was locked in combat with the “old me”, and I spent 18 months having counselling to try and resolve the struggle and allow both sides to live in harmony. But in the course of this, something strange happened. I was beginning to realise that, attractive as the possibilities of this “new me” were, I couldn’t ignore the old me and the real world. I was neglecting my job big-time; my whole focus had drifted into something that, looking back now, seems almost a fantasy world. I made a decision that, whatever else, I needed to make a real effort to take work more seriously. After all, there were bills to be paid and a family to support. 

Without meaning to, I banished my muse. It happened in a dream; I was in a room full of people, and there were two of me, as two distinct people – the old, familiar me, and this new person, almost a stranger, whose motives and potential actions scared the old me rather. In the dream, I was looking through the eyes of the old me, and for some reason, without being aware of any motivation, I suddenly lashed out at the new me – and he vanished, in a flash of light, as in some magician’s trick. He never reappeared. I kept the blog going for some while after that, but it was never the same. Eventually I closed it down, but not wanting to abandon writing completely, I started another - this one. It was never the same though; no community of friends, no real purpose in writing; my heart had gone out of it.

So I’d lost the drive to write. But where had that drive come from in the first place? When I began blogging, it wasn’t out of any burning desire to communicate or to express myself; I certainly didn’t feel I had any writing talent. It was more a matter of curiosity, and a desire to be part of something interesting and exciting. To begin with, I was perfectly satisfied to post just a short simple paragraph based on some observation or experience from the day. But as time went on, and I read more blogs and gathered more readers to my own, I found to my surprise that people seemed to appreciate what I had to say. I began to try and craft my words more carefully, and people seemed to appreciate that too. I was hooked – but not actually on writing itself, rather on the recognition that came from writing. I’d post something in the evening, then rush downstairs in the morning eager to see what comments has appeared overnight (as most readers were in North America, UK overnight encompassed their evening). Coming from a background of science and engineering, I was something of a geek – a techy, usually only becoming verbose and excited over intricate technical details. Never in a million years did I imagine I’d find people calling me “a writer”, yet here they were, many of them genuinely good writers in their own right – even some professionals. I even got a mention in the Washington Post.

There was a dark side though. It raised my expectations of myself by an order of magnitude. Suddenly I was censoring, editing, word-smithing, anxious to maintain a standard, and more to the point the recognition that resulted. There was good and bad in that – I think my writing did actually improve, but there was a cost, in that more and more I became dissatisfied with what I wrote. Where once I might have posted a spontaneous paragraph giving raw expression to something, now I edited and rewrote so much that the original emotion was left on the cutting room floor.

It was probably that developing writer in me that enabled me to continue writing long after I’d so unceremoniously kicked out my muse, my alter-ego. I guess that in order to answer the question of why I stopped writing, I have also to address the question of why I banished him.

If I’m honest, I guess it was fear – fear of where he might lead me. I was starting down a road going in a radically different direction to that which I’d been following for the previous fifty years. This wasn’t just about writing; I was uncovering aspects of self I barely even knew were there. Things that had lain dormant in my psyche for decades; creatures left to slumber were beginning to stir. I was afraid what might happen if they fully woke up and began flexing their muscles.

Some time before all this, I’d seen something similar happen to others. At that time, I was studying counselling at evening classes, as a precursor to try and shift career into management development. Odd choice for an engineer, I know, but that’s another story, albeit perhaps linked by those dormant aspects of self. Although originally I was only doing this because it was recommended as a first step, I found an unexpected affinity with the precepts, especially of Carl Rogers’ “Person Centred” approach. There were a couple of people on that course who unexpectedly quit part way through. Although no reason was given, my guess is that, like me, they’d realised they were going down a path which led somewhere that, from the perspective of where they then stood, they were scared to be.

Who can say whether those choices – theirs and mine - were good or bad choices? Exploring new paths, to continue the metaphor, might be exciting and lead to wonderful new lands, or they might lead to a back-breaking tumble over a cliff edge or drowning in a swamp.

Perhaps that exposes another reason why I stopped writing. Life on the edge is exciting; safe is boring. Without fully realising what I was doing, not for the first time in life I opted for safety, living in a comfortably upholstered rut. There’s little worth writing about there.

Five years down the line, life continues to be largely comfortable. Maybe some discomfort wouldn’t go amiss.