A meditation on recreational essay-writing

Posted by – December 2, 2015

Writing is one of those things I really enjoy, but has become such a mentally and emotionally complicated activity that I find myself shying away from it, or stopping in the middle of without finishing. Note that the problem usually isn’t distractions or laziness, but my own mental dialogue getting in the way.

From the technical (Should I write a long comment on this guy’s blog or write a blog post? A forum post? A tweet? A Facebook update?) to the practical (Should I write in Finnish, since I am Finnish and often think about Finland-centric things? Perhaps I only think about Finnish stuff because I write in Finnish? That’s so insular.. But do I really think I have an audience anyway, so what does it matter what language I write in?) to the psychological/philosophical (Who do I think I am to write at all? Have I really examined my reasons for this mental exhibitionism? Should I write anonymously? But isn’t that kind of cowardly? Everything I write is shit, but then again it’s the only way to get better.. But better for what? Don’t I already hate most of what I read anyway? Why add to the trash-heap?), doubts and insecurities undermine the whole effort.

When I was in school, I used to enjoy writing in school publications. Unbelievably in retrospect, the first one we started out of our own initiative in elementary school (ages 6-11 for me) with my best friend at that time. Published fortnightly for about three years, except during holidays, it featured absurd humour, true and invented schoolyard happenings and music reviews. My friend’s mother photocopied them, we sold issues for two marks each and were read with interest which we stoked with manufactured scandals. It was a lot of fun, and our main hobby.

Then at the next stage of school (12-14) there was a real school paper run like a club by the Finnish teacher. Enthusiasm among the staff was much lower, as it always is with official things, and it wasn’t that much fun, but it was still one of the better things that happened in that school (which occupies a pretty horrible place in my memories). At that time I also blogged, before that was really a thing. Those writings have mercifully disappeared both from the Internet and my recollection.

Then in upper secondary school (15-18) there was quite a flourishing of publications while I was there: an official school paper for school credit which I wasn’t involved with; a leftist political paper, in one issue of which I wrote half the articles (the editor wrote the other half); an amazingly high-quality popular science publication where I wrote two articles that somehow still haunt me today, someone having run into them and telling me about it or asking about them; and a cultural review. This in a school of 600 pupils! I could say “those were the days”, but of course now I’d have difficulty reading through those things for embarrassment. Still, it was a great thing to do, even if we only did it in hopes of fame and recognition.

That’s what most writing of that sort is for anyway. I figure it like this: writing on social media is group signaling (this is who I am) and writing seriously in blogs or unpaid publications is personal signaling (look at me, I’m so smart). I tend to agree with Samuel Johnson (who I was partially named after), who said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” So I really should place all those columnists-for money who I despise above myself. That’s something I struggle with. But I digress..

After that I started another blog, on LiveJournal, and later another on hardwick.fi. There I wrote some hundreds of posts, but often personal, which doesn’t really count. It was at this time that matters of audience started bothering me. Sometimes I’d write about mathematics or chess, and know that very few people would be interested. The language question is another surprisingly intractable problem. Writing in Finnish vs. English feels different, it comes out different and in terms of audience they’re compatible in one way – Finnish people have no problem reading English at quite a high level – but in practice Finns are biased towards reading Finnish language stuff, so it’s attractive to make use of that connection.

Perhaps most serious of all is the problem of honesty and intellectual climate. When I was younger, I had no idea how stupid I sounded and didn’t care if people thought badly about me because of what I wrote. Now I am very aware of the sensitivity and strength of people’s judgments. Most people in my life I meet very seldom face-to-face, the only connection being indirect communication on the Internet (meaning, not even personal messages but public posts). I worry about alienating them the way I see people doing all the time on social media. As I write, there is even a signaling war over what type of Facebook profile picture one should have in the wake of the terrorism that occurred in Paris last Friday night. On Twitter I write in Finnish about my stupid and hateful political opinions and have turned off lots of people I know and like, and attracted people I don’t know and probably wouldn’t like.

I don’t think these limitations are necessarily a bad thing (we would all be monsters if it weren’t for concern over appearances), but I want to find a way to live with them and still express myself somehow and practice thinking & writing. There’s always anonymous writing, which I’ve done quite a bit of in the past few years, but unconnected to myself it just disappears into nothingness, which ultimately I guess I just don’t want to happen. These days I just read a hell of a lot on the Internet. I’ve already read over 5000 blog posts this year, and God knows how many comments. It’s a great world out there (really!) and I would like to be a part of it.

One has to compartmentalise. Right now I’d like to get back to writing in Finnish on my blog, rather than write these long Facebook posts in English when I’m not too tired (I don’t understand how anything gets done either in hot countries or by people with young children). Forgoing a potential English-language audience is too bad, but it’s a safe place to practice. If I ever write anything good I can always translate it.

2 Comments on A meditation on recreational essay-writing

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  1. Olli says:

    Seuraan Vartiaisen twiittejä ja sinä olet varmaan ainoa vastaväittäjistä joka on ollut tehtävän tasalla. Vaikutat valistuneelta ja humaanilta tyypiltä, jolla on paljon tärkeää ja vähemmän kuultua sanottavaa. Jos joku on loukkaantunut twitter-feedistäsi niin hänen kyllä sietäisi hävetä.

    Kirjoittamisessa pitää kai keskittyä itse asiaan ja unohtaa ulkonäköseikat (paitsi jos joku on omasta mielestä oikein hyvin sanottu, niin se pitää poistaa, koska muiden mielestä ei ole) ja omien motivaatioiden murehtiminen. Itsensä unohtamalla pääsee kuulemma flow-tilaan.


  2. sam says:

    Kiitos kehuista! Koen itse asiassa olevani aika lähellä Vartiaista etenkin siinä mielessä että hän on sekä autenttinen (kertoo suoraan mitä oikeasti ajattelee sekä miten arvioi muita) että avoin (kuuntelee mitä muut oikeasti sanovat, välttää demonisointia). Ehkä siksi hänen kanssaan on mukavaa vastaväittää.

    Olet varmaan oikeassa siitä että noin syntyy parasta tekstiä, mutta se on erittäin epästrategista. Käytännössä on pakko pitää mielessä keskustelun ja maailman realiteetit, tai sitten jättää julkaisematta osa siitä mitä kirjoittaa. Ehkä parasta on vain editoida huolellisesti, ja sitä yritänkin tehdä.