Julia asked me to write about my relationship(s) with writing for our "reflective thinking" seminar. I took her literally.
Writing and I grew up together. When we were very young, I was the quieter one, content to listen to Writing's stories every evening. Writing was a great caricaturist with a facility for taking on the voices of a wide variety of men -- and they were mostly men, these authors we read (aside from that one brief episode of Laura Ingalls Wilder). My own voice was a little scary; I wrote well, but I wrote weird. Thick descriptions, allegories, strong emotions, complex sentence clauses. I learned how to dumb down my writing until it looked like a correctly-spelled version of the other elementary school students; because it didn't look like the writing "everyone else" did, I thought for the longest time that my writing was wrong.
In contrast, Writing -- when he read -- was right. So smart! So much to teach me. I couldn't hear the other students during recess, or the teacher during class, or my family around the dinner table. Lipreading yielded information only after a hard-won fight, and I'd often find that information was useless: lip gloss flavor trends, 5th grade dating gossip, parties I'd never be invited to. Writing, in contrast, held high-quality thoughts in easy-access format. And so Writing became my primary information source, my connection to sharp thinkers and their broadcasts. They'd talk one way, I'd listen; there was no way for me to talk back. I thought that all their thoughts were always just as polished as their printed words. Reading revisions, diaries, and other things that pulled the craft of messy writes and rewrites apart was a great revelation when it happened. I was an archaeologist, extrapolating patterns from the output of artifacts because I felt (and was) so far removed from the living humanity that produced them.
I did eventually start writing -- not writing back, because all these authors were long-dead or far away. But I was writing. In middle school, a wonderful English teacher told me (through deeds more than words) that yes, my writing was weird -- but that's because my writing was good. I had never met a living person before who wrote things like I wrote; I only met them pressed into flat pages, slipped into a shelf. Writing -- in both input and output -- became even more of my world as my most understandable form of human contact. It was a stranger to grasp and cling to and escape in. Writing -- both input and output -- was my ticket out; Writing would whisper me the answers to class in the evenings, and during the days I would raise my hands and shout and write and pour out all I'd learned from him in demonstration of my worthiness to leave, to learn, to get into a magnet math and science high school, to engineering college.
I started blogging in college; I don't know why, and it doesn't matter. My blog was always something that I did for me, not for an audience to monetize or get some reputation capital for. I let my ugly and uncertain self hang out in type; it was the arena where I found exactly what I lacked, the place where I could find and show my weaknesses because it was the place that I was strongest in. My blog became notes for my future self. As I stretched out into the world, made friends, made things, made trips across the sea, I walked with Writing. Still my tie to information, still my place of safety, still the thing that I could use to reach through into other people, still an easy way to shut myself off from the world, protect myself from onslaughts of exhaustion, still the easiest format to understand.
And so writing is -- and has been -- an old friend. I am playing fast and loose with sentences here, switching tenses and personifications of Writing, deliberately snarling up the messiness of it instead of laying out clear thoughts because that's how I know Writing and that's how Writing knows me; like all relationships, it's tangled up in contradictions and half-interruptions and thoughts that fade out, never complete, don't quite make sense.
That's why it was so disconcerting for me when I saw Writing with a suit on for the first time. "I'm Academic Writing!" he proudly proclaimed, strutting around in a hideous tuxedo with a paisley cummerbund.
"You look awful," I said.
"I look professional," he said.
"You don't make sense," I said. "This journal paper is just indecipherable. It'd just be easier if you used normal words like normal people and why are you wearing that tie?"
"Because," Writing said impatiently, "I look professional." And then he handed me a pair of heels. "Here, put this on. You'll need it now to get a job."
This wasn't the Writing I knew. I avoided him in those moments, gritted my teeth through formal dinners. I carried out small rebellions, wearing sneakers underneath my dress, carrying a backpack rather than a purse, whatever I could do to break the feeling of constraint. I was just waiting until evenings when we got home and he changed into pajamas and was the Writing that I knew and loved and had grown up with and we could drip ice cream all down our chins while I blogged and he did a one-man radio show drawn from the Classic Science Fiction Collection and it was -- just... connection. Friends. How else would I reach people if not through Writing?
It got bad, though. Even the informal bits. I felt more and more like I "had" to write, or nothing would count. (If the world reached me through Writing, and I only reached the world through Writing, then if I didn't write down an experience, it felt like it didn't exist.) A backlog of unwritten experience nagged me with the guilt of non-being, non-counting. Writing wore ties more and more often; I was a graduate student now, and Writing always wore ties in grad school. Writing nagged me to write more. Writing was always due. Writing always needed citations. Writing was really good at making me feel guilty.
I started hanging out with Drawing, Writing's cousin from California who did organic farming, taught yoga, and never wore a paisley cummerbund.
"He's an old friend, but I can't stand him any more; I need to take a break" I told Drawing one afternoon. Drawing nodded and continued playing "Blackbird" on his guitar. I stopped writing for a summer.
I don't think Writing noticed I was gone.
And then I came back and we had one of those Awkward Reunion Moments.
"Hi," I said.
"Hi," said Writing. And then: "You know, you don't have to wear a tie."
"And you aren't always nagging me; it's just that sometimes I can hear it that way."
"And sometimes I read things from people who have bad ideas and poor modes of self-expression," Writing said. "It doesn't make me happy either. They write like that. But you don't have to."
"I can be weird?" I asked.
"You can be weird. It's weird in a good way. Sometimes people will look at us funny."
"And I'll keep hanging out with Drawing."
"As long as I can come along. We'll figure it out. There's this thing people are calling Comic Books, or sometimes Graphic Novels, where Drawing and I together..."
"I've seen them," I assured him. "We'll try it. We'll have no freaking clue what we are doing."
"Excellent," he said.
"And sometimes you can wear a cummerbund."
"Sometimes. And sometimes you can use citations."
"Sometimes. And I can just call you Writing; I don't need to call you Academic Writing."
"That'll be our secret, though, because other people still think it makes them sound good."
It's been better since.
(Note: I don't think this piece is good yet -- even if I intend to scramble boundaries and framings here, it's still too confusing and long to do that well. There are good bits here, and many not-so-good bits, and I think of this as material I can pull from and revise and polish in a later piece someday more than "it's finished and magnificent now." But it answers Julia's question by showing just as much as telling, and I'm going to ship it.)