A Writer, Perceived
Winner of the People’s Choice award in the Non-Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2021
I used to view my identity as a superimposed timeline, each stage sequential and exponential. Childhood, high school, university, and then (if I was lucky) a middle-class job and marriage and I’d have a couple of kids huddled inside my perfect white picket fence delusion. Every stage would streamline towards something next, some mythic destination that I never really had the words to define; a destination that would posit, perpetually, my Meaning.
And then I had an existential breakdown and deferred my semester at uni.
What happens when a body, hurtling along its impetus, unexpectedly comes to a halt, and the head has to catch up?
I took time off for an assemblage of reasons, the most salient being that I just simply felt no longer present in my learning- or whatever that was meant to mean. I had mental health stuff to deal with, and I supposed that a couple of months away from my ‘life’, or more what I perceived my life should be, would be an effective reset. And then I would go back to uni and be mentally really well and get up at 6am every day and go for a run and drink water with ice cubes and lemon slices in it and be a HD level student, etcetera etcetera.
But mostly, I wanted to read and write simply for the sake of it.
I had the right intentions. I was to redefine my concept of productivity; learn to exist without an external implication of a mark, a grade, a categorical demarcation of the value behind what I write.
So, why haven’t I been writing?
I could offer you plenty of vague, throw-away answers: imposter syndrome, fear of failure, a void of motivation symptomatic of the inevitable, collective disillusionment with neoliberalism. There’s an element of truth to all of them.
But it’s not that I haven’t been writing; my notes app littered with ramblings can attest to it. It’s just that I haven’t really completed anything.
In Western capitalism, we perceive knowledge as, and via, its written end point; a product that is tangible and perceivable; the semblance of the idea. The writer is liquified from their selfhood, and then re-moulded into words; and the words thus become commodity apt for another’s discernment and consumption.
Once I stopped studying, or stripped myself of that décor of student or writer, I no longer perceived myself as valuable to the capitalist mechanism, and on a micro scale, as a point of interest to those around me.
Because as expected, I had to convince myself that even a break had to be tinged with that scrumptious capitalist imperative to keep producing, keep upskilling, continue multiplying the layers of myself as worker/student/creative that are identifiable and utilisable by the external onlooker.
So once I was no longer demarcated student, did I cease to fully exist? What am I if only for my interiority, if not for others perception, without something palpable to show for my presence? Of course, this is a melodramatic way of casting things, but it’s still stuck with me to some extent.
Because even right now writing this I’m plagued with those question of why would I even write all of this down and would this actually be meaningful for anyone – does it have value?
I think I wanted to be writing not because it’s something that I genuinely enjoyed doing, but as some kind of virtue signalling that hey! I am interesting! I am creative! Look at what I create! I had conceptualised writing as this singular, all life-determining, all life-therapizing venture, but rather than this being a motivator, it raised the stakes of my hobby to something too impenetrable to actually confront.
Only once I recentred my view of writing away from being a destination, and more as something with Meaning embedded all throughout its process, was I able to actually muster the motivation to start again.
I think I’ve been hurtling towards some pretence of Excellence for so long, to be the best at something, to create something without termination, without limitation, that I’ve failed to recognise that excellence has no predicated end point.
To define Excellence as immortalisation through the things we create or write or affect is simply ludicrous. Acknowledging my life’s insignificance in the passage of the next several decades or centuries isn’t self-defeating. It’s pragmatism, and I don’t think that it is mutually exclusive with optimism.
Nothing I could ever write- or let alone think- will ever be entirely new. And I admit to the irony of saying this.
But my favourite book is mostly likely entirely different to the person sitting across from me on a bus whose favourite book is something beyond even my realm of recognition but if it vests just so much significance to their ontology then it is still just as valid and important. What I’m trying to say is that whatever I write or do in general won’t be ground-breaking to every single person in the world right now or at any point in the future. But it doesn’t have to be.
What I’m trying to accept is that the act of writing, creating, just generally doing, is in itself magnificent, even if it is only meaningful to me.
We have to recentre a concept of Excellence away from its standing as a visible, tangible conclusion, to be incessantly driven towards. Meaning is a rolling, evolving thing. A brainstorm, or even the lightbulb moment of an idea’s creation, is just as powerful as the end product- even if it still only exists to its creator. Something doesn’t only begin to possess meaning when another person determines there to be so.
I have viewed meaning-making as an object, a finite destination. I’ve craved Excellence because I’ve made it synonymous with Meaning, and that within all my disarray about who I am, I’ve searched for some kind of idea of it via what I make tangible of myself; the words I use to represent myself by, intelligible upon my body and from beyond it. I’ve thought writing to be a self-actualisation, but only in the embodiment of another’s perception. But I think this self-actualisation could instead be a coming to know myself.
And I don’t want to pose this as some self-gratifying monologue as if writer’s block is something that I – and I only – experience; but I’m wary of homogenising all human experience. Still, inevitably, capitalism is at the root of my disenchantment. So long as any creative endeavour is evaluated by its destination, and the usefulness of this destination as commodity, the creator’s existence will be precarious at the whim of their audience’s perception.
And I suppose if I’ve learnt anything from this period of reflection, it is to create – and quite frankly exist – foremost for myself. And realistically, I know all of this and I’m repeating it now to convince you (or maybe me) that I do know all of this and it makes sense theoretically but the practice is what I’m working on still.
But hey, I’m trying my best. I think that’s all we can do for the time being, and I think that that is ok.