The Tools You Use

I pursued my first English degree with the intention of being a science fiction writer. I wrote a lot more in my teens and twenties and my stories were filled with the concerns of a young man: pursuing adventures, making a difference, falling in love. The Bart who wrote then is a very different person from the person who writes blogs and training documents and journalism pieces now. Aside from my additional 20 years of life experience, the tools I use to write have changed as well.

Changes in life

I was a bit more descriptive when I wrote fiction on a daily basis, and I definitely had more of an interest in dialogue. Another thing that’s obvious to me if I take the time to read my earlier writings is how fearless I was in creating worlds, technologies, situations, or people. There were stories to write, so write them! My writing at the time was also, while painfully derivative of many of my favorite authors, was exuberant. I enjoyed writing for the sheer joy of writing.

I don’t write fiction nearly as often anymore–sometimes I’m lucky if I get one complete story written in a single year. Part of that has been a function of my working life: I write for a living  now, and my words tend to be quick, sharp, and to the point–like a scalpel, trying to get the most work done for the least amount of effort.

My work, too, has changed. In my thirties, I started moving from writing science fiction to writing space advocacy pieces–which is to say, writing documents with a specific, real-world purpose in mind. Instead of imposing my emotions on fictional characters, I was trying to get real people to respond in specific ways (i.e., support the space program more vigorously). I was not writing plots, I was writing structured policy pieces. I was not imagining things of my own so much as trying to articulate a specific vision of the future, based on known or speculated-upon technologies.

Changes in tools

Technical writing and journalism are concrete, specific, and instructive. You’re trying to get real people to respond in a particular way in the real world. Theoretically you’re doing the same thing in fiction, but stories are much more about emotion and made-up circumstances. Mind you, such things can be found in some forms of journalism these days, but that is not the sort of thing I write.

Engineering and documentation writing can be especially bloodless: Widget A must fit into Component B if System C is to function correctly. Perhaps more than “bloodless,” the primary use of technical writing is functional: you’re dealing with behaviors: do this, don’t do that, this lever does this, that piece of hardware does that. Unless it is critical for the reader’s understanding, colors and environmental descriptions are not necessary. Sounds, colors, tactile impressions, and smells are also usually lacking–again, unless absolutely necessary.

An editor recently took me to task for not having particularly exciting, emotive, or inspiring prose, to which I can only plead guilty. I don’t do a whole lot of marketing or advocating anymore, so those skills, too, atrophied through disuse. Similarly, the ability (or willingness) to woo, charm, or entice the fairer sex can wither if one does not give those skills the proper attention.

Like any muscle, one’s writing vocabulary weakens when not exercised. Occasionally I’ll get irritated with myself about this and participate in National Novel Writing Month just to keep from going completely stale. Yet my NaNoWriMo drafts remain drafts after that first 30 days of effort, and to date not one of my novels has or is likely to see the inbox of a publisher’s slush pile.

I have not given up on writing by any stretch. And I keep reading books about writing by other, better writers to keep my head in the game, even if my keyboard is not. It’s still hard for me to say if my lack of joy in writing comes from the fact that I do it so seldom or because I am afraid to write or because I sense how awful many of my efforts have been. I recall Ray Bradbury suggesting that a writer should commit to writing one short story a week–given enough practice, there has to be at least one good one in 52 or 104 or more weeks, right? Still, essays like this are the literary equivalent of a self-induced kick in the pants: you used to write all the time, what happened? Damned if I know, but the joy of writing can only be had from the practice of writing, and doing nothing or doing things partially or half-assed is not the answer.

As Prince once sang, “Never let that lonely monster take control of you.”

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