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9 Jul 2023 | Self-expression, Writing

This is not quality writing. Yet.

(This was originally published on Substack where I used to write before it came to light that the owners of the platform cared more about free speech no matter what and less about giving far-right writers a platform on which to make money.)

Since joining Substack a few short weeks ago and since starting to follow a small number of writers here, I have noted the great quality of writing that is curiously* in abundance there. My writer friends who have migrated here with me recently have noted the same.

There is nothing particularly interesting about that. At least on the surface. The quality of the writers others follow does seems to be easy to agree on, otherwise they wouldn’t have many followers, which is where I am at the moment. More on this later, and an explanation of why the featured image I’ve chosen here is relevant, if you haven’t already worked it out. Hints: rusty and not worked on → worked on, shiny and noticeable for the right reasons.

(* I say curiously because there’s currently a distinct lack of clickbait titles or listicle titles. Only titles and excerpts which are sparking my curiosity and I find myself reading and thoroughly enjoying each and every piece. In this age of online “content creation”, this is unusual.) (Shame about the Nazis, though)

There are a number of underlying points to unpack here, however:

  • Comparison of others to self
  • (Perceived lack of / undeveloped) Skills and abilities
  • Competitiveness
  • Definitions of success
  • Anxiety

Continuing my Tl;dr keyword summaries…

Tl;dr keywords: see the bullet points above

For sake of examples, I’m going to refer to Brian Klaas here as an example of “quality writing” simply because at least one of my friends and I have started following his writings and agree he writes exceedingly well. The Mr Kipling’s cake of writing, if you like. I didn’t know who he was until finding his work here. Yes, I live under a rock. Near a forest. On a hill. Alone. In rural Ireland with its national population of a paltry 5 million souls (locally about 1000). Hence “the hermit” part of “The Hermit Coach” (My then titled Substack)

Firstly, with those friends noting aforementioned quality, I immediately went to a mental space of saying “Your writing is also great.” My confused face followed and a pause as I internally computed why they felt the need to point out that quality is high (they implied their writing wasn’t as good – I checked), followed by whether me thinking my friends’ writing is great means I think my writing is crap AND also, “why they are implying their writing isn’t as great?”. My inner self building a hierarchy of comparisons like:

{my abilities} < {friends’ abilities} AND {career writers OR journalists} (or something like that)

Yes, I do over-analyse things at times. I’m definitely not the only person with this curse. If you’re not cursed that way and have never suffered the anxiety of battling an almost endless supply of internal “What if?” scenarios, then consider yourself at least relatively blessed.

Saying “The quality of Klaas is high” implies, to me, that one is comparing one’s skill & ability in converting learnings and understandings to explanations and teachings by way of constructing sentences, grammar in at least text format in order to get an idea across to others is not as good as his.

It also, in my humble opinion, indicates a sense of competitiveness – at the very least with yourself to be better.

Lets face it – much of the world we exist in encourages competition from the moment you’re old enough to step into playschool/kindergarten). Possibly earlier. Even without going into the arguments and theories of epigenetics and memories of our ancestors…

Competitiveness leads naturally to comparison. We learn to compare ourselves “naturally” to others as we learn we get more rewards for being better in some way than the other. Progress.

A good thing to a point – you might want to read Pauline Harley’s article here on doing 1% less to combat the hustle culture’s view of 1% more every day to find this thing called “success”. (Whose success?) Do more, yes. Learn more, absolutely. Question everything. But be mindful of burn out – that helps no-one. My view: oscillate between doing 1% more and 1% less to find your happy place, your even keel, your place of balance where you are thriving with flow balanced with rest, recuperation and recharge in your own ways. It will take some oscillations over years but work on it to find that space with tolerance between too little and too much. Note the part in Pauline’s piece there, “Carl Rogers, a psychologist and one of the pioneers of humanistic psychology, first put forth the idea of the ‘real’ self and the ‘ideal’ self” – also note the bit about “congruence”. This is where your balance will be and where your flow exists.

Is this way of thinking helpful? Not really.

For a start, if we look at some sources of Klaas’ career, for example The Washington Post’s bio for him (which should be reliable enough!) we see that he has a number of degrees – bachelors, masters and a PhD from Oxford Uni; he is a professor of global politics at a university in London, has written a number of books on politics, and is a regular guest on a number of internationally renown media outlets and advises NATO, the EU and some international NGOs.

So yeah, his writing skills are probably going to be a bit better than yours, and certainly than mine. Currently.

I can’t speak for you, but am I ever going to get to that level of skill? Probably not, not at my age now. I did get a degree in International Relations, though, so there’s that. But again, that way of thinking isn’t helpful either. Not feeling able to shoot for the moon will certainly result in never leaving the ground. It’s the equivalent of “I’m never going to get to that level, so why bother?” As I believe I have read about the mentality of people working in the inner circles of Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google (aka FAANG) etc – shoot for the stars, because even if you miss, you will probably still reach the moon, or something like that.

All being well, I will have at least 10 years left on the planet. If my genes and family’s history are anything to go by, I may very well have 20-30 years. If I stay in Ireland the rest of my life, I have about 15 (or perhaps nearer the time, 18 years) before state retirement age. That’s quite a long time. I/we don’t have to stop attempting to generate an income doing what we thrive in at that point either.

Here’s an exercise for pen and paper, back of an envelope / napkin style:

Draw a horizontal line with the ends marked by little vertical lines, like an elongated H eg

|———————————|

Label the left marker “born”, the right “die” (morbid it may be but take a rough guess based on your personal circumstances). Label it “exit” if it helps, or “slope off”, or anything else you like. Give it a number. I’m going with 70, optimistically. Bearing in mind the abuse I’ve given my liver and lungs in the past, 70 would be grand. I might get all some of those garden projects built by then.

Mark another vertical line somewhere along that line to denote “today”. You may be closer to one end than the other, or more in the centre. Work out your rough estimate of how long you have left. Trust me, thinking about how long you have left on the planet is… interesting. If you have goals and some tendency towards leaving a legacy, it’s sobering.

Think about all you have lived, breathed and done in section before “today” and apply how long that feels compared to the section after “today”.

There’s still time after today to work on developing the skills and experience you want to achieve by simply doing. am reminding myself of this as much as you, dear readers.

I am reading a book on learning to create that which you feel you want to create by way of self-expression be it music, dance, painting, sculpting, crafting, spoken word, writing etc. The essence of its message even half way through is that if you wish, for example, to write well is to write. All the time. Whenever you have an idea, a moment to yourself or a self-allocated time (like I do here on a Sunday).

We all know this consciously – learn by doing. And keep doing. Relentlessly. Regardless of comparison to others abilities or perceived success. JFDI, eh.

This is not quality writing. Yet.

Or is it?

Currently, because of the learned addictions to comparing myself to others – it’s a hard habit to kick, but I work on it – I feel my level of writing ability is relatively not “quality”. I don’t think it’s entirely awful either.

I have written a handful of articles on LinkedIn in the past which also didn’t get much attention (as far as I know. To be fair, it tends to be the lurkers that end up being coaching clients in my experience. That’s the cautiousness of introverts for ya!) Past that, I haven’t even written in private journals except in particularly dark times and even then didn’t find it particularly helpful. The ever popular pastime for many mindful motivators, journaling, made me more depressed at one point.

So now I have had what I rate as quality prompts from my writing coach to help me release my desire and curiosity for self-expression from the shackles of the learned perception of humility, I’m writing.

That this is my third week in an unbroken row is significant for me. Significant that I made a mental priority appointment with myself to sit down and tap away until I get a “good enough” piece in a few hours no matter what. No perfectionism here. It’s exhausting chasing that. So exhausting I wouldn’t bother, like I haven’t for years.

Now that I’m doing it, it doesn’t feel a chore and I am enjoying it regardless of whether anyone likes it or not. I still think relatively (pesky comparisons again) that my writing is somewhat immature and leans towards sarcasm, somewhat childish humour (I was basically brought up on the surreal humour of Spike Milligan, Douglas Adams and Monty Python mixed with “Yes, Minister”). I have a tendency towards ranting sarcastically at things I feel offence or distaste towards. This is not me entirely – I know there are sides to my thinking and discussions with some people which are much more based around the beauty and fascination of the world, people, aesthetics, spirituality, philosophy and politics. The online world hasn’t seen this as I have used (ranty) humour (“humour”?) as a form of self-defence. Unhelpfully.

I am conscious that I am still comparing my writing skills and quality thereof to my peers, and wider to the likes of Klaas. But I am also mindful to remind myself that of course my abilities aren’t as good as theirs as they’ve been doing this for years and have much practise and feedback from their audience. They have also learned to not too much of a flying monkey’s hat about that feedback where they can filter “helpful” from “not helpful” – a skill in itself. Learn by doing and filtering.

I am also enjoying books like an audiobook version of “The Elements of Eloquence” by Mark Forsyth, which is narrated by a stereotypically slightly sarcastic British voice (not unlike mine own) which details some great grammatical writing tricks to create better reads. I must relisten to it and actively makes notes on the tools, and how Shakespeare stole used ideas from other writers.

All I ask is that you bear with me on my journey of learning to hone and polish (see, that’s why the rusty to polished classic car photo is relevant! Geddit?) my skills in self-expression as there may be (I hope) things in this brain and heart which may be of value to share with you in time.

PS as I’m sure you were curious, here’s a picture of an AI generated flying monkey’s hat. It must wear a hat pin to secure such a wide-brimmed affair when soaring through the forest canopy although it does look suitably crumpled and dirty.

Flying monkey hat

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