It’s late on a Monday evening and I’ve hit a road block. I’ve got 2000 words of woolly, politicised bullshit in front of me and I have no idea what to do with it. There’s a point buried in there somewhere but it’s kind of hard to work out what it is. And believe me, I know bullshit when I see it; I wrote it, after all.
It’s not an uncommon problem. I know what I want to say but somehow when I get it down on paper it feels disjointed, vague and a little melodramatic. I lack some background knowledge and I’m missing some critical references, so the ideas that seemed so strong and original a few hours ago now seem like the lonely rants of a Yahoo comment troll. This evening has largely just been a waste of ink.
And yes, I still write with a biro. Sometimes. It forces me to go forward; it frees me from the tyranny of the backspace. Why delete a sentence when you can violently rip the whole page from its bindings?
I’ve resisted that urge today, but now when I read it back I’m not even sure what I was trying to say in the first place. Something about Brexit and big data. Possibly. But what’s my point, here? What’s my central thesis? It mostly just looks like words, and not even very good ones.
It’s at around this point that it hits me, the real problem with the piece; I’m trying to write an essay when really I should be telling a story.
It’s a bad habit I picked up in university. Back then, pretty much the only things I wrote were academic essays. The formula became almost second nature to me: first, the background reading, then formulate the argument, then draft the thesis, arrange the references and write a summary. The summary becomes the introduction. The introduction becomes two paragraphs. In the first paragraph I say what I am going to say and in the second I say how I am going to say it. Next comes the detail, littered with a few strategic references to make it look like I read more than I did, and then finally I conclude by basically restating all the things that I have already stated twice in the previous two thousand words.
Back then, it was an entirely appropriate formula. It even worked pretty well for the research pieces I picked up for a bit of extra cash in my mid-twenties. But here, now, it just doesn’t wash. I’m not trying to write a journal, or an encyclopaedia, or a textbook, or even the answer to an exam question. This is not intended to be a collection of essays. Neither do I have aspirations to write a white paper.
What I am trying to write is a blog; a kind of personal testimony, a perspective on the world I see and a window into the world in which I live.
Or, to put it another way; it’s a narrative, not a dissertation.
So now, as I read back the awkward, childish words of my failed commentary on the state of democracy and The End of All Things, I realise that the problem with my argument is simply that it is an argument at all. There’s no debate here, just a lonely rant. I have no expertise on the subject matter and no way of independently verifying the information without investing considerable time and effort – and let’s face it, I can barely be bothered to spellcheck this.
I’m not trying to change the world – I’m not even trying to change your mind – and I really have very little to offer other than my own slightly cynical take on things (ok, I admit it, I didn’t invent cynicism either). It might divert you for a few minutes of your day. If I’m lucky, I’ll have a conversation about it one day. You might even leave a comment.
And that’s it. The internet is a graveyard of false information and fake news stories, bigots, trolls and snarling gremlins. There’s no point in pretending otherwise.
So if you, like me, are an occasional writer, and as such you suffer the occasional frustration of not quite being as smart as you think you are, sit back and take a moment. Close your eyes, clear your head and ask yourself:
What story are you trying to tell?