I’ve written pretty much every day for well over 20 years. On average, somewhere around 1500 words a day. Often much more. I’m not talking about emails or text messages. I mean stopping, sitting down and writing for no reason other than to write. Most of it is stream of consciousness, automatic writing. First thing that comes into my head, devoid of structure and shape. There’s no intended outcome or premeditated piece of communication at work. These are just the words that I have available to me in the order they fall out onto the page.
There are therapeutic and psychological benefits of doing so, and I recommend it to anyone even slightly inclined to take up the habit. Apart from anything else, it clears out the negativity and residual crap you carry around all night and wake up with. Externalising it in the safe environment of a piece of text that nobody else is ever going to have cause to encounter, rather than taking it out directly on the world around you, seems to me a sensible strategy. It also allows for a lot of self-reflection, which has probably saved me an awful lot of money on the kind of therapy where you spend a few years overhearing yourself think out loud so you can say “good lord – is that really what I believe? How appalling…” and change your behaviour and world view accordingly.
I remember my friend Trevor (I have two friends named Trevor – it was the other one) once referred to it as my ‘mental poo’, which, as analogies goes, is both accurate and descriptive – and to my mind, completely juvenile and therefore entirely amusing. For others it’s perhaps rather too visceral, visual and poor taste. But it gets the point across. I get up in the morning and evacuate my vowels.
For years, my daily writing involved and pen and a notebook of some kind. There are good reasons to choose to put aside the keyboard and put ink directly onto a page. The best of these is the extent to which it slows you down and allows for an entirely different kind and pace of thinking which is hard to get in any other way.
These days, I tend to do both. Because I use pen and paper in my daily work, I allow myself the luxury of typing my 1500 words with my morning coffee. Gets it done much faster. Even with only three fingers at work, my typing speed is pretty fast, and it’s a hell of a long time since I’ve had to look at the keys. I remember having to learn to type when I first left school and got a job in a bank. I remember what it felt like to search and peck at the keys, wondering if I was ever going to get any faster at this. God that was a long time ago now. Does anyone these days ever have to learn to type like that? Like, as someone who – if not an ‘adult’ as such, at least into their late teens – can come fresh to an array of buttons with letters on them and think “right, where’s the ‘A’?” I suspect that most people by the age of sixteen are touch typing these days. Or they’re 80wpm on the iPhone. But, so I’ve recently started writing what I like to call ‘my next book’ – and that’s all handwritten at this point. It has its own journal. I carry it around with me, and I even have a favourite pen.
A tiny fraction of what I have written over those 20 or more years has been read by other human beings. Some of it, of course, has been published. A lot has been reworked and shaped into something I can put on this blog, or (back when I had more to say about the plight of the independent artist on the internet) on the New Music Strategies website. But even without some process of external validation, critique or the inevitable feedback, whether vocalised or even consciously given, at some point comes an expectation of ability. If not expertise, then at least competence. You get up on a surfboard every day for 20 years, you shouldn’t expect to find surfing hard. Likewise writing.
And while the words come to me faster than they used to, and they make it to the page or the screen more quickly than when I started, those can be put down to being more comfortable with improvised thought and the process of doing a brain dump (to extend the scatology), coupled with being faster at typing and quicker at scrawling (if not necessarily being particularly more legible than I was at, say, the age of 12). What I am not better at – at least to the extent I would like or expect to be – is writing.
Somewhere along the way, I got out of the habit of writing in public. There were lots of reasons for this. I went through a long and somewhat complex (though probably not interesting) period in which most of the things that I wanted to write about were not things that you share in public. My personal situation radically changed, as did my professional world. There was a lot that was intimate and painful. Then there was a lot that would have simply seemed hurtful, or that would have genuinely hurt some innocent party that I had no intention of causing suffering to. Then there was the stuff that was personal and joyful that I not only wanted to keep to myself – to have some happiness that was genuinely mine – but which also would have caused problems elsewhere.
Things became loaded. There had, once upon a time, been a long period in which there were no complex layers to what I thought and wrote about. I could wear my heart on my sleeve, speak my mind, and there were no personal or professional barriers to doing so. A victimless, naïve essayist. There were, of course, things that I chose not to share. But I was a fairly open book – and it was ultimately a good thing that I was. But in more recent years I had to develop some fairly serious filters. I could still write how I felt and what I thought in my private journal – and there was never a better time to be in this habit – but sharing my life with the outside world was prone to being a bit of a minefield.
In other words, the last five years have been characterised by a small bunch of stuff that I would have exchanged for absolutely anything, and lots more that I wouldn’t have swapped for all the world. Turmoil isn’t all bad by any stretch – and rough seas make for better sailors, etc. but the thing about emotional rollercoasters is that you’re not on the ride alone, so removing the safety belt and standing up to say your bit is probably going to endanger the other passengers. Or at least roundly piss them off.
Things are settling down. In fact, more than at any point I can remember in the last five years, I feel like I have settled upon a ‘new normal’ with some sense of stability (though I am still kept well and truly on my toes at all times), and so I’m ready to open up again. A bit. Which is not to say that I’m going to inundate you with my problems or share every emotion as it passes unfiltered. But I can begin to speak my mind with the kind of confidence that I started New Music Strategies with over a decade ago and with which I started blogging in 2002.
But, so… What’s my mission now? Now what?
There are still loads of things that I’m not going to talk about. Things that I may tell you about if you ask, or that I’ll decide to keep just between me and my journal. But for the first time in a long time, I see no reason not to start writing here again. Only, like – this has actually kind of been the case for a while now, and I’ve not been able to get started. I’ve written and abandoned long pieces. I’ve culled and I’ve deleted. It just didn’t seem the right way back in, and even if I did write something I liked, I didn’t feel I could back it up with more.
There have been blog posts. Occasional missives from safe territory. But nothing resembling a commitment to regular writing and publication.
And, weirdly, I didn’t feel there was anything particularly going on to discuss. Which is, of course, absurd on the one hand given how much travel, how much interesting stuff passes across my desk and all of the amazing things that I come across under the banner of Music Tech Fest. Not to mention the radical lifestyle change I have undergone. I live in a forest in the north of Sweden. I have dogs. A barn. A snow blower. I grew a beard and learned how to use some tools. I have an incredibly formidable, brilliant, successful and beautiful partner. I have a son who has graduated university, married and is entering the world, finding it difficult, but perhaps not hugely more so than I did at his age. I am doing things that I have never done before, and have expanded what I consider to be my ‘comfort zone’ by quite some profound margin.
And yet, when I think ‘what shall I blog about?’ I consider what I have been doing. I walk the dogs. I listen to records. I look at the sky at night. I read books. I have become very interested in the idea of routine and ritual. And I wonder if these things are blog-worthy. I have very little to add about the state of current affairs other than to voice my enthusiasms, fears and frustrations into the echo chamber of my like-minded Facebook and Twitter spheres. And I have no desire particularly to engage with dissenting voices and differing opinions because, as I speedily approach the 50 year mark, I feel more and more strongly that I have come to my beliefs about the world for what I consider to be sound reasons and I have made decisions about my life that I am comfortable with. I didn’t always eat meat, but I do now. There was a time I might have been convinced by economic arguments that I now have no truck with whatsoever. I have little patience for things that I consider to be motivated by greed, selfishness or bigotry. And I prefer not to spend time defending those positions because of the kind of people you are often forced to encounter when doing so.
So – given that on the one hand, nothing ever happens, and, on the other, that much of what could be said to be happening is none of your business, and, plus I don’t have any strong opinions that I particularly want to debate with you, then why write in public again? Because I can’t help but think that this all adds up to some kind of authentic and possibly relatable human experience, because I think that I have some things to share and I am interested in saying them out loud in the hopes that you might feel that what you think has been articulated and understood, because I like to write things that other people read, and because why not?
I might have become good at thinking out loud and typing rapidly over the past 20 years of writing, but I did never get good enough, to my satisfaction, at writing for the benefit of other people. I had the occasional piece that I was pleased with, one or two that I’m particularly proud of, and a whole lot of other stuff that might just as well have never seen the light of day. And that is something that I would like to get better at. I don’t expect poetry every time I step up to bat, but I’d like my strike rate to improve. Especially if I’m not just going to write a blog but also have the audacity to go around trying to get books and articles published – and particularly if I’m going to do that outside of the context of a university professorship, where you have the luxury of standing on the shoulders of giants whose quotable words imbue their context with authority and an air of intellectual rigour you might not lay claim to yourself.
But I’m out of practice. Social media has taken and condensed most of my best potential essay ideas in a fiercely intense cycle of relevance, topicality and enforced brevity – and file the rest under ‘life is complicated’. So I need to just start. To write and to hit the publish button, conscious that someone else might read this. And then there’s something more at stake. And the words go beyond self-indulgence and pressure valve therapy, and into the realm of communication.
And as communication, the words I choose will be different. Imagined audiences, however vaguely conjured, shape the writing. I don’t imagine what I have to say will reach the same people in the same ways for the same reasons. I’m quite a different person these days, and so, I imagine, are you. But we’ll see where this takes us. Read along, or ignore if you prefer. I won’t be remotely offended if you rapidly lose interest, or I’ll do my best to conceal it if that turns out to be wrong.
And, all this said, we’ll see how long it takes me to follow it up with anything substantial.