I’ll admit it: I’m trying to write a novel. Actually, if I may be so bold – I’m trying to finish a novel, or at least something loosely resembling a first draft of one. It’s difficult, of course, not least because it will be the first time since college I’ve written a piece of fiction and actually completed it. I’ve found that the most daunting thing is not the actual process of writing, but the anticipation of sharing that writing. It’s the uneasy feeling that once I finish this thing, I’m supposed to do something with it, rather than simply feel accomplished, print it out and admire its weighty finality. As I draw closer to the finish line it’s harder and harder to write, mainly because the closer I get to the end, the closer I get to putting it out there. With that comes criticism, likely rejection and potentially crippling self-doubt. Once I share it and face the music, I worry this novel will cease being something I care for and become something I can’t stand. All writers face this decision: do we push our precious little hatchling out of the nest and into the harsh world? And if so, when?
This idea of putting things “out there” is the focus of the always-insightful David Sedaris in his new short video for The Atlantic, “Advice to a Young Writer.” Sedaris is currently promoting Theft by Finding, a hilarious and poignant collection of diary entries I read earlier this fall. A huge Sedaris fan as a teenager, I lost track of his work somewhere in the late-00s, but Theft by Finding reminded me why I loved him so much. His wit, his ear for absurd dialogue and his amusing self-deprecation are all well known, of course. But the depth of his writing comes from his keen understanding of humanity, his empathy, and his way of capturing the beauty of the everyday. Nowhere are these qualities more prevalent than in his diaries.
Theft by Finding inspired me. I’ve never been one to keep a diary, and I’m still not – at this point, I’m a bit too scattered and self-conscious to write down my thoughts every day. But it inspired me to write more often for writing’s sake, without an end goal. It’s a harder thing to do than it sounds – to simply write what’s floating around one’s head. And as Sedaris notes in his Atlantic video, it’s even harder in the Internet age, as one feels a compulsion to immediately share anything and everything with legions of followers. “I meet a lot of young people now and they say, ‘I just want to get it out there,’” Sedaris says. “There’s a lot to be said for not getting it out there.”
It’s good advice – and not just because for new writers, the work won’t be ready yet. That “out there” can also be a distracting source of pressure for a writer. While the community and encouragement of social media can be beneficial, the downside is that we’re tempted to share creative projects prematurely, and we become infected by the mentality of “what will people think?” rather than following our creative instincts.
Most of what I’ve written in my adult life has had an immediate audience – creative writing and essays for college and grad school, and later articles for online audiences. But while writing this novel, I came to the realization I should have years ago. I found that what I love most about writing is its interiority – the deeply focused feeling of writing the world within one’s own mind, not the feedback that comes later. The “in there,” not the “out there.” Truman Capote, who I always trust in these matters, said it best: “The greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”
I sometimes find myself fantasizing about the pre-Internet age, a time before immediacy and over-sharing became the norm. Though I can’t quit the Internet – I rely on it wholly for my livelihood – there’s an allure, isn’t there? Imagine the Internet, as we know it, gone. It gives one a sense of freedom – I would have so much time! I would be under less pressure, with fewer distractions! There’s been a lot of discussion about how the Internet has changed the nature of work, with employees expected to always be available and connected. But it’s changed the nature of creativity, too, due to social media’s fast-paced culture of sharing and fighting for relevance. Other people are accomplishing more, and you must keep up. They’re sharing, so you have to, too. But we don’t have to – we just need to know when to resist.
In his video essay, Sedaris encourages young writers to keep a diary, not to share it with anyone and not to even read it themselves for at least one year. It worked for him: reading Theft by Finding I was struck by how, even in early entries, Sedaris’s voice shines through already fully formed. He’s thoughtful but resolutely not careful about what he writes, and the result can sometimes turn the mundane into the beautifully off-kilter. “Mom was in a terrific mood and talked about her father, who was an alcoholic but a cheery one,” he writes in an entry from 1989. “Whenever Mom or Aunt Joyce came home late with friends, he’d get out of bed and cook for everyone, make spaghetti sauce, pies, anything anyone wanted. He’d fill the tub with water and let ducklings splash around in it. As a teenager, mom was allowed two sweaters per winter, but she sweat so badly she ruined them in no time.”
Sedaris offers a good reminder that taking time to shut off the feed and get lost in one’s own thoughts is not only beneficial, but essential for a writer. It’s certainly true for me: the more I learn to resist the nag of “getting it out there,” I can feel it: I become more creative and focused. At the university level, we should likewise encourage students to practice this: to write without having to worry that it’s pithy or clever or meaningful enough to show all of their friends and acquaintances. They need to know that the process of spilling it onto the page can be enough. That’s the secret, I think, to surviving as a creative person in the Internet age: recognizing that the “in there” is worth just as much as the “out there.” Maybe more.