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.


  1. Wow! My first response is so jumbled in my head, I cannot put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) sufficiently. Several things want to be said, anyway, so here goes:

    You've hit upon the key to good writing: write what you know and write without fear or censure. As a teacher and editor, those are two of the most important concepts I have to keep reminding writers with whom I work. Until I read this, though, I generally thought it was something I failed to do as a teacher or something the struggling writer just needed to get over. Your eloquence about what happens to many of us when we write was spot on. And therein lies the conflict which indeed often stops a would-be writer from moving forward or hinders the writer at nearly every turn,

    There is so much more I want to say, but cannot get my thoughts to coalesce. If you ever feel like writing, do so. You have a gift that when shared is both fun and enlightening, at least for this reader.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  2. This post is filled with a lot of information, and if I took the time to share comments on each, I'd fill up your comments section with tons of paragraphs. As someone who stumbled across your blog all those years ago, and was one of those people who had an appreciation for your own unique voice, I can empathize with that push-pull that invariably accompanies any new discovery. I think I found you by way of Laughing Knees or Whiskey River, or maybe it was Fragments from Floyd or Hoarded Ordinaries, (can't remember now), and it's even possible it was through the gaia online forum. Way back when, I was blogging under Brain Crayons. These days, I still blog under a pseudonym, although there are a rare few folks that have managed to marry my online presence with my real-life name.

    For me, it pretty much starts and stops there. Much of what I write about, when I write, ends up being tied to life lessons I've learned along the way, which invariably ends up pointing to pieces of my history that I'd prefer not to discuss in a public forum (in which my real name is attached). I've gone back and forth, over and over again, about attaching my real name to my blog, and even though I've danced dangerously close to that line several times, in the end, I always seem to opt out ... primarily for two reasons, (1) my history intersects with others, and their story is not mine to tell, and (2) some of what I write is so piercingly personal, that it is hard to be that vulnerable to the people that I actually interact with on a daily basis.

    The best writing is done when you are able to be authentic, but when your need for privacy, or in some respects, self-preservation, is teetering on the balance ... well, it changes everything about the equation. Life has taught me that there are some people in the world that will discover and exploit your weak spots, and it is this knowledge that sometimes ends up silencing my voice. Of course, as you discovered yourself, there are also those people in the world that offer encouragement and support, and welcome you at your most authentic; that invite you to let go of your defenses, and communicate freely. Finding the balance is something we each have to do in our own way.

    Wishing you nothing but the best, as you step forward in whatever way works for you. Rather than say "welcome back", I'll simply end with a heart-felt "hello" and a genuine smile. :-)

    note: I see that blogger appears to want to assign "anonymous" even though I've provided a link to my WordPress blog ... not sure why that is happening ... ntexas99

    1. ooops ... looks like it shows anonymous in the preview pane, but actually does end up including the link to my wordpress blog ... sorry about that ...

  3. And now I discover another contributory factor - getting stressed about replying to comments! Well, not really stressed, but when someone takes the time and trouble to comment, I want to give something back in return, and do so before time has rolled on too far.

    Alexandrite woman, thank your a number of things - for getting me writing again, for giving me a reason to believe I actually might be able carry on doing so, and for reminding me of the writer's mantra: write what you know; write every day; write from the heart.

    ntex, so good to hear from you again :) You know of course that it was your support that first made me believe I actually might be able to make my writing more than just keeping an online diary?

    You've reminded me too that blogging under my own name has some other consequences I didn't mention earlier. Although in the past I opened up about some aspects of personal experience, there were great swathes of my life about which I kept silent - as you say, each person's life intersects with others, and it's not my place to tell their story. So I guess another reason I stopped was that, as my focus swung back to the world of everyday interactions, so more of those things that occupied my mind were things I chose not to write about - at any rate, not publicly.

    Now, if I can remember how to drive blogger, I'll add you both to my blogroll; no promises, but it would be good to keep in touch. The world may have moved on, so I don't suppose I can expect to recapture those "good old days" of blogging ten years ago, but I do value and miss the kind of conversations we had back then...

  4. How wonderful it was to read this post. I am going through a psycho-spiritual crisis which is telling me to let go of blogging. When I read about your experience, I found so much of it that chimed with my own experience. To my dismay I found that even in my private diaries I was 'tailoring' was I was saying, as if writing for my readers. What I need is to be totally honest, brutally so if necessary, so that there is no hiding place for my ego. I was not being knowingly dishonest; just ignoring what I was feeling and thinking at my deepest level.

    I have not closed down my blog site because I know only that I must withdraw from writing for the foreseeable future. What lies in the unforeseeable future I cannot know, by definition. Your current post has been not only informative but also supportive. My deepest thanks for that.