Old journal entries and the paradox of maturing writing

Recently, I was talking with a friend and thought of an old LiveJournal entry I had made my junior year of college. LiveJournal, which still is a thing, though deeply changed, is a blogging platform founded in ’99 that was popular for groups of friends journaling, blogging, and sharing fanfiction. My LiveJournal page operated as a journal and blog, often mingling the (deeply) personal and philosophical.

This particular entry was about the struggle of getting up some days, opening your eyes and solving the “why get up” question. I think a lot of us have been feeling this lately, whether from the quotidian, home-bound nature of working situations or the genuine horrors and hardships of the moment, from job losses, to dead family, to months of uncertainty.

As I reflected then:

I ask myself why I fight. Why I continue to live out days steeped in the same despair and angst. I never find an answer. Instead, I lose myself in the pattern of my life, a pattern arrayed to defend me from such dangerous questions. I have to limit my scope to be happy. Looking beyond the bounds of the “norm,” daring to desire something beyond the regular patterns framed by society, only leads to nausea, a sickness derived from life’s sheer futility

Unfortunately, I don’t find much comfort in the entry, basically advocating getting lost in one’s daily patterns–a pattern that is likely skewed or broken for many right now, leading to this questioning.

Nevertheless, I don’t want to dwell on that today. It is an important topic, but revisiting this old entry, I found myself sucked into a document of other entries, where two things really struck me.

First, how confident and unqualifying most entries were. They flowed out with a flourish and kept going. They made big claims, ignored huge assumptions, talked about deep truths with nontechnical glibness. They were more naive and less self-aware than my current writing. They hedged less. They did not go into deeper explanations, digressions, or intellectual genealogies to the same extent. They were less careful.

But on the other hand, the writing was much less heavy and much more lively, even raw. It also had a more transcendent quality, a reaching or over-speculating that was refreshing and exciting. It wasn’t worried about being “correct” or professional; it was about thinking through things.

It was less like a product and more like a process.

And in some ways, that can be bad, as it is messy and over-sharing, possibly more sure of itself than it should be. Even smug or self-centered. Navel-gazing, not considering its audience as carefully. As some composition scholars may term it, it was “writerly” prose, writing for the writer, and not “readerly” prose, writing for the reader. But I also really liked it. Or at least parts of it.

And so I come back to three larger observations.

First, how much easier or less stressful that kind of writing is. As someone moving to write as part of a living, I am constantly haunted by the specter of “the reader” when I write, a misty figure who always seems excessively invested in picking through my writing to find every possible shortcoming. Writing without that reader, even reading that writing, is liberating.

Second, I thought of Ira Glass’s famous thoughts on the “taste gap,” the uneven development of taste and ability:

Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

As time has gone on, I think I let a lot of my creative writing go to the side because it did not feel good enough, or more perniciously, I would start a project and abandon it because I thought I would never be up to the challenge. If I feel the work is bad, so will they.

Though I think this is somewhat inevitable as Glass describes it, and as he suggests, we should just work through it, producing more writing. And on the other side, I think we may be throwing less spaghetti at the wall because we get better at making it. Writing that goes through our self-criticism gauntlet is indeed better–more informed, polished, and mature–but it’s a hard process, leaving lots of dead documents.

But conversely, I thought about Albert Camus revisiting his old writing and finding it refreshing, filled with a life and sensuous poetry that his more current writing lacked. It inspired him in his unfinished final novel, The First Man, to return to a similar style.

The style of the novel feels closer to some of his earlier essays, like in Nuptials, different from the deliberately sparse writing in The Stranger and the expressive yet restrained writing of The Plague, especially in passages like this:

He could breathe, on the giant back of the sea he was breathing in waves, rocked by the great sun, at last he could sleep and come back to the childhood from which he never recovered, to the secret of the light, of the warm poverty, which enabled him to survive and overcome everything.

Albert Camus, The First Man

Camus’ writing always has a depth, poetry, and a sensuousness, but it got more careful as he got published. Those early essays are a bit stumbling, over-extended, and unduly grand, but they have a certain intensity to them. A rawness. Just look at the opening few sentences of The Wind at Djemila:

THERE are places where the spirit dies so that a truth may be born which is the spirit’s very negation. When I went to Djemila there was wind and sun but that must wait. What has to be said first is that a great silence reigns there, heavy and without a crack. The cries of birds, the furred sound of a three-holed flute, the stamping of goats, murmurs from the sky–these are so many noises which made up the silence and desolation of the place.

Albert Camus, “The Wind at Djemila,” Nuptials

And it doesn’t let up much from there.

But finding that balance between the sometimes naive, exploratory confidence of immature writing and the careful craft of more mature writing seems essential. While they seem somewhat contradictory, I don’t think they are. I don’t know where the reconciliation occurs, but I think it mingles the hot fire of younger emotions with more reflective hindsight, somehow allowing both to breathe and inform the page.

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