Sharing your words

There’s a lot of vulnerability that comes from sharing creative output with others.

I published a piece earlier this year on what blogs are, and the main argument was that the terminology we use (like “blog”, or “post”) is trivialising and self-limiting. In some ways it’s a follow-up to an earlier piece on getting rid of dates in your URLs, where I make the related argument that they imply ephemerality, and carry a certain sense of amateurishness. They harbour an excuse, before there’s even been an accusation.

I think that self-esteem is a critical issue for writers.

Putting your words in front of others – in whatever form – is a frightening thing. We’re all self-conscious about what we create, and we fear judgement and mockery. Those of us who have a mostly science-centric background also struggle with questions about the legitimacy of creative work. We feel pretentious, self-possessed, and incredibly uncomfortable about using the “a”-word: art.

The consequences are predictable and pernicious.

We keep our words to ourselves, afraid to share them even though we crave the validation of someone else’s approval. Or when we do finally find the courage (or desperation, perhaps) to expose our work to a wider audience, we hide behind anonymity, or pseudonyms.

I understand where the fear comes from, and it’s well-founded.

I couldn’t tell you how many emails, tweets or other shares my articles have had over the years. Before I disabled comments on this site, I’d had over a quarter of a million, excluding spam, and probably more on external sites.

The vast majority of responses were about pieces on tech topics, of course. If I could assemble all the vitriol that’s ever come in, it’d probably make you feel unwell. But the negative stuff was a tiny minority. Absolutely minuscule. The vast, vast majority has been positive. That’s not a unique situation; it’s the normal way of things. That’s something to keep in mind.

The further you move from the low-barrier-to-entry science spectrum of subjects, the better the landscape looks. More affirming; more constructive. A healthier gender balance, even. By the time you get all the way into the community I’ve tentatively entered over the past year or two – that of writing in general, and fiction specifically – you’re in an entirely different place. New rules, new defaults, and new expectations. Sometimes I think the biggest benefit I’ve had from my career shift is just realising that other communities aren’t like tech.

If you’re reading this, there’s a better than average chance that you’re at least peripherally involved in the tech industry. You’re probably also someone, though, who believes that writing is an actual thing. You’re a reader, certainly, and I’m pretty sure that – at least inside – that you’re a writer, too. Maybe that’s why you’re here, watching me as I try to make this new life of mine actually work.

You know the fears I’m talking about. Will anyone read this? Why should anyone listen to me anyway?

What if someone does read this?

You’re worried about what they’ll think. Maybe you’re keeping your stuff to yourself, just on your own computer. Or maybe you’ve been up there on, labouring under a protective pseudonym or three (hey, me too). I understand. Truly.

When I was eight or nine years old, my class at school was told to write a brief story. It could be about anything at all. I dutifully complied. I was a child, and the story was simple: it was about a boy who’s lying awake in his bed in the middle of the night, and he hears a strange noise from downstairs.

He gets up and goes out to the upper hallway, peering down through the railings of the curving staircase, into the gloom below. He sees nothing, and he decides to investigate. As he creeps down into the pitch-black main floor of the house, he realises the sound is coming from the dining room, and he finds the door ajar. Heart pounding, he steps cautiously inside… and to his horror, there’s a pair of glowing red eyes in the far corner, high up on the wall.

They lock upon him – then he wakes up in his bed from the nightmare, drenched in sweat. And then, of course, he hears a strange noise from downstairs.

It’s as cute as it is clichéd. You’ve probably written that one yourself; almost everyone has. I remember being proud of it, yet I hated the idea that I’d have to give it to the teacher, and she’d get to read it. I didn’t even show it to my mother beforehand.

But it was a school assignment, and I was a good boy, so I handed it in and forgot all about it for a couple of days. Friday came around, our teacher arrived with a stack of handwritten papers, and I vividly remember my heart dropping into my stomach. The judgement! The horrible exposure!

I’d loved the assignment. It was so unusual, and it awakened parts of me that I’d never even known were there, but it just wasn’t what school was about. Arithmetic and reading and sports; absolutely. The annual Christmas play. Trips to museums and outdoor centres. But this… this was something else. Something not-school. Something that felt less like learning from the teacher, and more like discovering something about myself.

Honestly, it frightened me.

A couple of sheets of ruled paper (blue lines, pink margins), an HB pencil (red and black, hexagonal cross-section), and some time, and then this thing came into existence. A thing that had never happened, but felt like it could have. A scary thing, at least to my young and immature mind.

Our teacher handed back our stories, one by one. Moving around the room, the stack in her hands growing ever smaller, until it was gone.

Your stories were all very good, she said. You’ve all done well.

Everyone in the class had their own sheet or two of paper sitting in front of them – except me. There was a brief moment of silence.

There was one story I particularly enjoyed, she said.

I believed completely that she’d just misplaced my tale. I knew my mark had already been recorded in my file anyway. I moved an unrelated sheet of paper ostentatiously into my binder, as if it were the missing piece of work.

I’m going to read that story to you now, she said.

A part of me knew. A part of me maybe even expected.

But it was a theory, put forward purely intellectually; a possibility. It bore no relation to the actual, everyday reality I inhabited at the time. I wasn’t prepared to consider anything else, so really I wasn’t prepared at all.

The teacher – whose name was Miss Daly – began to read.

Everything faded out, except her voice – and she told the story well. She gave it power. I knew every word, but it was like hearing it for the first time, just like when she’d read us Fantastic Mr. Fox not long before.

It couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes, but I have no concept of how much time had passed. After moments or hours, she delivered the final sentence (which was properly in a paragraph of its own) with a suitably dramatic flourish, and then she casually walked over and returned my tale to me without another word.

I slid it immediately into my binder, staring at the desk fixedly, making eye-contact with no-one. I could feel the attention and the curiosity all around, but if I didn’t actually see it, I could pretend it wasn’t there. Thus, I kept my composure. I’m still a little bit proud, even now, that I didn’t cry.

So, yes, I know how the fear feels. The whole thing happened again in high school, in similar circumstances. I should have seen a pattern, and I should have listened to the voice that knew – and maybe even expected – but I didn’t. I wandered in the wilderness and found a different career, and I think a lot of the reason for it was misplaced shame.

If I have one truly heart-breaking regret, there it is. Twenty years down one road, just to find my way back to another.

It doesn’t do to hide from your own words. But I know why we do.

Whenever I publish something, there’s a part of me that sits in that classroom again. I put the piece online, or submit it to the relevant publication’s editor… and then the stories are being handed out again, the stack shrinking sheet by sheet.

It never goes away.

I won’t sell you a platitude; it doesn’t get easier. It starts to feel more natural, but that’s a different thing.

Here’s my view, though: I don’t think it should get easier. I think the fear is a signal. It’s a measure; a sort of weathervane, if you like. It tells you how much you care. The words you’re most afraid to share are those you care about most.

They may be your joy, your pain, your dreams, or something you’ve made in the hope that it’ll touch others, but when you get right down to it, they’re your truth.

That’s why you’re afraid. That’s why I’m afraid. Because it really, really matters to me what you think of these words of mine.

You should maybe think about that next time, when your cursor hovers over the Save button instead of Publish. Consider how the fear you’re feeling might actually be telling you to proceed, instead of retreat. Fear is a tool of survival, but not always in the way you think.

Because this stuff matters, damn it. It’s the only stuff that does.

You know what to expect. It won’t be easy – not ever – but that doesn’t mean it’s not natural, and right. You wouldn’t be afraid if those words didn’t want to get out. And would it be so bad, really? You already know how it’ll go.

There’ll be that familiar, terrible moment of silence.

(There was one story I particularly enjoyed.)

And then someone will start reading.