Tongue-Tied

I used to think that writing, of all the myriad creative pursuits in existence, was one of my admittedly few latent skills. My parents encouraged the poised pen in my hand as much as the paintbrush in my older sister’s. I spent countless hours contentedly scribbling and eventually typing all manner of poems, short stories, diary entries, and meandering prose. But for the past few years I have struggled to come to terms with, what I consider to be, a crippling inability to articulate my thoughts.

I’m not sure exactly when I realized that I was not a great writer; I think my first inklings of ineptitude arose in college. I was the lone art history buff amidst a sea of English majors. I liked reading and writing, but I never independently pursued either as much as I thought I should, what with the multitudinous responsibilities of burgeoning adulthood. At some point I stumbled upon the opportunity to write a monthly column in a local magazine about my life as a line cook in the hospitality industry, but what first gave me titters of vain excitement at seeing my name in print devolved into a weirdly apathetic anxiety from deadline to deadline. While my best friend, a hilarious and extremely articulate English major, offered to read my work before submission, I hoped for additional support and an editorial sounding board from the guy I was dating. He was also funny and silver-tongued (I have a weakness for such qualities), and he could write circles around me. He was also a little bit lazy, and quick to crankiness when anything superfluous to the bare minimum of work and school demanded his time and attention. Whenever I asked him to read something I wrote, he found excuses not to or blatantly procrastinated until I gave up and turned my assignment in. I knew there was something he wasn’t telling me, and one drunken Sunday evening I confronted him about it with slurs and accusations. He got frustrated, and finally blurted out that while he thought I had good ideas, I didn’t have the fundamental skills needed to write well.

Though that incident happened many years ago, it still affects me, and I still think about it whenever I sit down to write anything, whether it’s an academic paper, a blog post, or a run-on sentence riddled with commas, like this thing I just wrote. Since I returned to school for my master’s back in 2013, I’ve turned an increasingly critical eye to any string of words I cobble together. I second guess myself at every turn, and obsess over fixing poor writing habits I believe I’ve hardwired into my brain. For example: The tendency to be overly verbose and craft unnecessarily long clause after clause. I thought such flowery, elaborate language was poetic, but it turns out that mostly it’s just vague and lacking in substance. Graduate school hammered the principles of basic rhetoric into my head, which in simple terms couched straight-forward exposition; or, to paraphrase several of my professors, “tell me what you’re going to prove, prove it, and then tell me what you just spent the last 10 pages proving.”

And I know what you may be thinking, that the venue determines the content and its structure, that an academic paper is not a poem, or a blog post, or a press release. And you’re right. I know that. Objectively, I know that despite my misgivings, every page I conquer improves my writing, if only a little bit at a time.

Perhaps I’m just feeling low and generally inadequate, and attacking my writing is an easy, go-to meal for my internal imposter monster. I am now fully immersed in the job hunt, since my fellowship finishes at the end of June. And, infuriatingly, I feel less qualified than ever as I sift through the meagre postings allotted to my field. No matter what I accomplish, I’m not two seconds from the finish line before I berate myself for not accomplishing more. Even in the midst of a project, I have a hard time truly focusing in on the task at hand, and constantly find myself thinking of the 10 other things I should have already done.

I know I told myself that I would stop making this blog a dumping grounds for my negativity. I resolved to make it less Debbie Downer.

In truth, when I sit down and think it out hard, the real demon at play here is my inner critic. Ugly and mean, it latches on to every diffident quiver that pulses from my psyche. My lack of self-confidence is what holds me back, and boy, that’s the most frustrating realization I’ve probably ever had. It blankets every choice I make and step I take, and while I occasionally find glorious moments of unshackled freedom, they are fleeting.

But I digress. At this juncture, the writing I’ve pursued professionally to date is disappointing. I’ve become so hyper-critical and unsure that everything I craft comes out strangled, clunky, and lacks flow. I’m unpacking it here because I want to officially acknowledge the extreme of over-editing oneself. I don’t eschew the necessity of clear, cogent writing, or the need to edit. I just want to take it back a step, and let my natural voice come through a bit more. Even academia could benefit from some looser lips, some ascot disheveling (metaphorically speaking, of course).

 

Current reads: Though I’m close to the end, I still haven’t finished Wild Sheep Chase. Instead I picked up The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike. His lexicon is inspiring. I’ve also been re-reading one of my favorite graphic novels, Y: The Last Man.

Current Jam: “Bat Face Girl,” Hotel for Strangers