by Eric M. Witchey
Desperate Writer: “Hi! My name is Eric Witchey, and I’m a writer.”
Chorus: “Hi, Eric.”
I was in graduate school studying theoretical linguistics when I decided to attend my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily if you have a different perspective than mine, the meeting was at a church, and the church was full of in-your-face Evangelical Christians who took it upon themselves to attempt to convince me that my only hope was to embrace the only higher power that was worth a damn—theirs.
Yeah, I now know that’s not supposed to happen, but I didn’t know it then.
So, my exposure to their 12 step program was very short. I was desperate, so I went to three whole meetings before I choked on their attentions and assertions.
I decided to break my bad habits my way, and I immersed myself in work. I traded one addiction for another. I’ll talk more about that problem in some other post.
About my fifth day rededicated to my new focus, I was sitting in a linguistics class in which we were exploring the relationship between vocabulary acquisition processes and their possible implications for brain structure (Ugh). That’s what theoretical linguists do. Anyway, in that class, I learned about the relationship between recognition vocabulary and working vocabulary.
It wasn’t a new idea for me, nor is it a new idea for you. We all have the experience of learning a new word then suddenly seeing it on billboards, in books, in newspapers, and in blogs. It’s like, “Wow… Nobody ever used that word before, and now everybody is using it.” Of course, that’s not really what has happened at all. The only real change is in our brains. We have learned to recognize the pattern of the new word. Later, if we practice with the word, we begin to be able to use it in normal conversation. It enters our working vocabulary.
We learn new words all the time. We add them to our recognition vocabulary. Then, with use, we add them to our working vocabulary, which means they have become part of our fluency in the language. Frustratingly, we can always recognize more words than we can comfortably use.
Back to grad school.
My new addiction to work, and perhaps the fact that the concept described above came to me during one of those first, blissful days of post-withdrawal health, left me with a predisposition to see the vocabulary acquisition concept functioning in my life with every new idea to which I was exposed.
Go figger. You use the same brain to learn words that you use to learn everything else. For example, you can see and understand how a clown juggles three balls long before practice allows you to do it yourself. Same concept.
So, it wasn’t long before I started to feel depressed.
Okay, the bliss of newly found health probably wore off, too. However, that’s another post. The important thing here is that I noticed a pattern. It went like this:
- I learned a new concept. Yeah! I’m brilliant!
- I suddenly saw the concept reflected in life all around me and realized that everybody else on the planet already knew it. Boo! I suck! I’m sooo far behind.
- I practiced using the new concept in order to catch up with everybody else. Yeah! I’m doing okay!
- Just when I got caught up, I learned a new concept. Yeah! I’m brilliant!
- But wait… The new concept shows up everywhere. Everybody on the planet already knew it… Boo! I suck!
The pattern repeated. It repeated again. What a bloody rollercoaster. Pretty soon, I could see that it would never end. Everything I tried to do would always suck. This turned out to be especially true for my writing.
Fast forward 25 years and thousands of hours of learning, practicing, and publishing.
The bloody rollercoaster never ended. It just kept on and on and on. The thing has been relentless. I swear, it was like no matter how hard I worked, I could never ever catch up.
And that’s the point this convoluted post is trying to make.
Writers learn new techniques all the time. We learn to recognize a new pattern for creating an effect in the mind of the reader. For example, this sentence opens with an introductory element offset by a comma in order to create a transition that marks an example of a point being made in the text. We recognize that pattern and begin to see it around us in use. Then, we practice it. Eventually, our hands can produce it without the intervention of careful thought. We express ourselves through the pattern without considering the pattern itself. The pattern becomes part of our working fluency.
However, we also always experience a gap between what we can recognize and what we can execute. The gap never goes away. The more we can execute, the greater the potential we will encounter new patterns we will learn to recognize. Once you can juggle three balls, you can see how it might be possible to juggle four or five.
Over time, our recognition and execution skills both improve, but the gap between what we can recognize and what we can execute always exists. It never gets smaller. Not ever. No matter how skilled we become, the gap is forever.
So, everything we do sucks because we can always recognize our failure to execute.
In fact, if our writing stops sucking, we’ve stopped learning.
And that brings us back to the early days of my recovery. In spite of the good intentions of the not-so-helpful Christians at my first meeting, I eventually learned that recognizing my addictive tendencies and understanding the potential benefits of clean living were very different from actually living without self-medication. No matter how detailed my understanding of a drug-free life became, the reality of the physiological underpinnings of my abuse meant that living clean was existence in a state of constant discomfort. With practice, discomfort became the proof of my health. Later still, I embraced the discomfort so completely that it became comfortable.
Writer lesson learned?
If I wanted to survive as a practicing writer, I had to learn to embrace the gap. Trust it. Believe in it. Feed it new patterns. Practice and improve. I had to learn to recognize that the important thing is not that my work sucks. The important thing is that I know I am improving because what I write sucks in different ways as I improve.
We’re all stuck with the same brain whether writing, juggling, or getting clean.
Embrace the suck.