Does writing need an audience to have a point?
“The inclination to exchange thoughts with one another is probably an original impulse of our nature. If I be in pain I wish to let you know it, and to ask your sympathy and assistance; and my pleasurable emotions also, I wish to communicate to, and share with you” — Abraham Lincoln, February 11, 1859
Last week, I wrote an article entitled “Writing is keeping me sane” in which I talked about why I feel that writing on Medium is beneficial to me. It contained this sentence:
“There is never any serious doubt in my mind that sitting down and writing and posting stuff is the right thing to do”.
Going back and re-reading the article after publication with a critical eye, this sentence struck me as not quite right; as though it might contain a kink in the logic of the argument made. It took me a while to figure out why.
Writing is re-writing
Although I don’t aim for perfection when I publish my work, I still spend a good amount of time drafting, re-drafting and editing it. Hemingway was bang on the money when he said that “the only kind of writing is re-writing”!
Well — my work needn’t reach the dizzy heights of Hemingway, but I want to write sentences that read nicely and nudging them into a form I’m satisfied with takes time. The version which finally reaches readers’ eyes is usually a country mile away from my first draft, which is essentially an uncontrolled brain dump where I’m shooting (or writing!) from the hip. The re-writing process channels that original untamed rush of energy and brings logic, style and structure into the work.
That the sentence quoted above survived all the re-drafting, re-reading and editing is revealing. I do not consider it an oversight; I must have meant what I said. The article concerned itself with the question of whether writing was a good investment of my precious lifetime (answer: yes) — yet this sentence also specifically mentions the act of publication as being a part of the process. There’s the kink in the argument, the unanswered question left hanging: if I didn’t publish my work — would I still consider this kind of private creativity a good use of my time?
Public vs. private writing
Of course, writing which is never published can still make sense and serve its intended purpose. The obvious example of this kind of confidential writing is a diary. The thoughts and feelings committed to these private journals are probably intended by the author to remain secret forever. For them, the act of writing serves as an emotional release, or as an aid to help them clarify and order their thoughts. Indeed, my own diaries remain packed up at the bottom of a drawer in my apartment and will probably never be shown to anyone.
Yet almost all other forms of writing — from graffiti to books to reports to love letters to political manifestos — derive their raison d’être from being made available to others. As the Lincoln quote above so eloquently points out, the wish to share one’s own thoughts and feelings — whether through speech or the written word — is an urge that runs deep in the human psyche. Why else has social media been such a runaway success? Precisely because it taps into that raw instinct to speak, to express oneself, to tell a story*.
The paradox of publication
And so I now admit: the sense of purpose and satisfaction which I gain from writing on Medium is in large part due to making the work available for others to read.
Isn’t that terribly vain? Isn’t it unseemly and drawing attention to oneself unnecessarily? Shouldn’t I just keep my head below the parapet and my thoughts to myself rather than offering myself up for criticism and scrutiny? There are plenty of people out there who don’t hold with the modern culture of disclosure — and they are absolutely entitled to their opinion. But for others, like me, to write and publish is to satisfy an urge that can feel as natural and as necessary as eating or sleeping.
Yet as natural as the urge to write and publish is, it is a strangely paradoxical activity. It can be terrifying — especially if you have taken risks in the writing, i.e. by transgressing certain societal rules or expectations. Even handing one’s work over to a trusted confidante for review causes a certain amount of anguish! It is your creation — your baby — which you are putting out into the world, after all. There is a distinct feeling of concern for its welfare and fear of the hurt which you will feel if it is rejected.
Pressing the publish button, stepping over that line, means dealing with the fear, being aware of the possible implications of the work and accepting them. For you want the reward: for your writing to fulfil its purpose to reach the eyes, the mind — and perhaps even the heart — of another human being.
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*Had he lived in modern times, I’m pretty sure Abe Lincoln would have been a prolific tweeter.