Writing: A Process for Untying Knots
For my nine-year-old, the transition into the new school year has been difficult.
There’s a lot of change. His sister has moved to middle school, making this his first school year without her, and two of his favorite teachers from past years have also moved on. He’s in a new grade with a new class model. He’s spent the summer playing with his closest friend, but now that friend goes to a different school.
The types of relationships that he depends on — relationships that help him find level ground and recalibrate when frustrated — are either missing or truncated. He looks around and feels lost. But the bigger struggle is understanding what specific part of this change upsets him, because he — like any nine-year-old boy undergoing a ton of change all at once — struggles to name his feelings.
So we often wonder if a sudden outburst of anger is due to a current situation — a frustration with Roblox or a decision we’ve made for dinner — or if it’s something that’s built up over the day, milling through his head, eating at his patience, poking at his brain until he’s just too tired and tapped out to control his emotions.
We don’t know. And, to be honest, he doesn’t know. Not at that moment. Not yet.
A Forgotten Post
A few weeks ago I published a blog post about one of my favorite places in the world and how it’s slowly changing into something I don’t recognize. I wrote it over months, revisiting it, tweaking it, making sure it was capturing every angle. The topic had become very complicated, at least in my head.
I wanted to do it justice. I wanted to sound intelligent, but also emotional. I wanted to talk about both sides.
But even with that level of preparation, I hid my head. I posted it and then braced myself. I wasn’t sure where it was going to land. If it was going to land.
It didn’t. The post itself didn’t get much of a response, even after “ICYMI”ing it on the following Monday. So I resigned myself to what felt like failure. That the topic wasn’t important, or that it wasn’t as inspired as I thought it was. That it fell flat. That was that.
For a few days, I felt bad about it. And despite Kerrie telling me that I shouldn’t build my worth around how much people liked something I wrote, I still felt bad about it.
For real. I still do, a little.
A Forgotten Lesson
Then, a few days ago, I was reminded of a retreat I had attended in 2013.
It was a content strategy retreat, for independent and independently positioned content strategists, where we shared ideas and compared notes and pushed each other to open up and collaborate. To further our understanding of the industry a little bit, and also to get a bit of context around our own practices.
And while it was great to immerse myself in the industry with some of the smartest people I know, it was also formative in how it positioned the act of writing itself. In answering a question about writing industry-specific blog posts, I offhandedly commented that writing to me is less focused on the final product and more focused on the process of organizing my own thoughts.
That the thing you read on this blog or in a book or in a work document isn’t really the work. It’s just the documentation of that work.
I don’t actually write to be read. I write to better understand myself. Writing, from the dawn of Black Marks on Wood Pulp, to my almost obsessive focus on documenting and publishing methodology, is a trusted method toward personal comprehension, where I can begin to organize and make sense of concepts that otherwise roll around in my head like so many metaphorical boulders.
So when I have those down moments — when I begin to wallow in the uncertainty of whether or not a blog post is successful or not — I forget the reason I started writing it in the first place.
I was focused on trying to sound intelligent but also emotional. I was focused on talking about both sides. But that wasn’t really the point, was it?
Nah. The point was that I needed to write myself into an understanding. I needed to know why I was emotional. I needed to know which side I landed on.
I needed to figure out, somehow, why my gut twisted when I read about that specific instance of gentrification (but not about other forms of it) and why I was so fired up about this mountain (but not about other mountains) and why this specific section of my own personal nostalgia was grabbing a much larger percentage of my processing power.
I needed to write my way out of whatever it was I was feeling. Publishing it was always secondary.
Some Forgotten Knots
It turns out, after a few attempts at getting people to notice my post, I forgot about it altogether.
I forgot about its “performance,” which is good because that way lies selfish introspection and misaligned assignment of self-worth. But I also forgot about the topic itself. As if throwing that post online had lifted it completely off of my mind.
I had worked through my struggle, and I had put a name on my feelings, and I had aired them out and now I was able to move on.
This is where we’re at with the nine-year-old. We try to help him. We try to help him understand that anger and fear are okay. That he’s safe. That he’s loved. But we can’t begin to know what’s happening until he says something out loud.
To take the story in his head and spill it out for us.
It’s slow going, but we’re making progress. And that’s all we can start with. Progress. Understanding the process, spelling out the problems, and piecing things together, one by one. The talking, the apologies, the understanding don’t matter as much as the process of owning those thoughts and frustrations and making them real.
We so often see writing as a communication method for documentation or entertainment or emotional manipulation. For other people. For the ones doing the reading. But there’s also a certain bliss in knowing how it affects those of us doing the writing, allowing us not just to remember things, but to untie the knots. To understand our own stumbling blocks, and to ease us for a bit.
To allow us to forget. In seeing the scope and organizing our thoughts, we can free up space. And with that, we are able to let those thoughts go. Until the next time we need them. Later on. If ever.