Developing a voice amid the chatter

Today, I thought a lot about voice, how I use mine, and what I want to say, in relation to what everyone else uses theirs to say, and how they go about doing so. (I will not equate voice to style here — that would have to be an entirely separate post, but likely won’t be.)

Does anyone else feel like the internet has turned writing into something much different and kind of worse than what it used to be? I feel that way a lot of the time. I enjoy reading novels about writers in different times, and thinking about both the author and his writer character and how the two are reflections of each other (see: Tropic of Cancer). When I think about those stories, I am left to think that it is too easy to be a writer today. The internet creates a low barrier for entry when it comes to the written word, and it seems like most people think literacy is equivalent to knowing how to use language.

I think of all the writers I admire, and how they clearly thought about their words, instead of just their stories. But much of what I read online focuses too often on the story, rather than the craftsmanship and effort required to make words dance on a page. I am not claiming I make words dance on pages, but I am acknowledging that it is possible, and that it is what I strive to one day be able to achieve. I do feel like this problem is more prominent in fiction and poetry, but I am going to stay general in this post, in fear of spiraling into too many specifics and having my point lost (to myself as much as to others).

I feel like much of what I read on the internet is a complete abuse of the English language. I do not feel that I read much quality writing online, and I think many people who want to write do not respect the language in which they are writing — ESPECIALLY if it is their first language.

I have been moved by pieces of writing. I take notes on things I read that are precise in describing something larger than the compilation of their words. None of these passages were in self-published books or blogs. Feeling this way, I hate that I have a blog — I insist it is a mere sketchpad — but I really don’t know how else to try engage with the writing community as someone who is aiming to learn and improve.

I seldom admire the work of others outside of what I see officially published, and I seldom feel I receive useful criticism of my work. This is not always the case (I have had people say very insightful and helpful things about my writing, and I appreciate it —more than I can accurately express—every single time.) But I don’t know—  I want so badly to improve that it hurts when it seems like other writers don’t take language as seriously. I also want so badly to be eclipsed by the writing of others who are within my reach. I want to respect my peers and to learn from them. I want to feel like someone else out there cares about word choice and punctuation in a way that keeps them up at night. I don’t think this is too much to ask from those who call themselves writers.

I would like to wrap up this essay, by saying that I do not think I am much of an essayist — I think I am more of a poet and fiction writer, if I can allow myself (just this once) to be bold enough to state that. I put a lot of thought into things I write, and the words I choose, and how those words can be misinterpreted by a reader. I like looking up words before I use them, to see if I am using all three of one word’s definitions in a way that has a nice, overall meaning, regardless of which definition the reader (if there is one) is thinking about when they read what I wrote. I do not know if I do this enough, or if I am at all successful at it, but this is what I strive to do.

I don’t know how often people think deeply about what they read, and I don’t think anyone has much of a reason to think deeply about what I am saying — mine is just one small voice in a sea of muffled voices — but I try to use my voice thoughtfully, and consider what I am trying to say, and have it always mean something important to me, while respecting the English language as the medium through which this all happens.

So I will not apologize to anyone at the end of this because this is not my first language. This is my language, and I hope my voice can do it justice.

Passion, or the lack thereof

I used to go to bars and ask people what they were passionate about; it was part of my quarter-life existential crisis. To complete strangers who happened to be sitting next to me, I would say: what are you passionate about, and what gives your life meaning? Almost everyone started with a stammer. Then they supposed this and that.

This was comforting.

When I thought about my own passions, I came up blank. I had fleeting interests, but I wouldn’t call them passions. I figured I was just going to live a long, droning, passionless life. I just was. I tried to accept that.

But a stranger’s stammer before an ‘I suppose’ gave me hope. Passion must not be everything it is cracked up to be, and perhaps, I am thinking about it wrong.

I had just graduated from Georgia Tech with a master’s degree in analytics. I was working at my current version of my dream job, in a city I had never lived in before, and in which I knew no people.

I was a data scientist at a startup that specialized in transforming and analyzing healthcare data. I liked my coworkers, but I was not passionate about the work. My passion for data science fizzled out when I started getting paid to be in one place for the same forty hours every week.

It wasn’t the monotony — not yet — it was the promise of a future of monotony. In the past, when I felt this way, I could count down to the end of a semester, or the end of my internship. I enjoyed waiting for the next thing, knowing there would be a next thing. But now I had made it: I was done with school, and had a great job in my field. There was no next thing that I could count down to.

I felt stagnant. I wasn’t working toward anything anymore — I was working for a paycheck. Life felt hollow and hopeless, and it wasn’t because of the day-to-day, but because of the bigger picture.

How does someone go about designing something as large as their own life? I thought about all of what was wrong in mine, and what I needed to change. I talked to whoever would talk to me. I thought about what I was interested in. I wrote it all down. I let it consume me.

When I say 2017 was the worst year of my life, it isn’t an understatement. I had been in school for the last twenty years, and then I was tossed out with a smile, a congratulations, and a degree, and told, simply: go.

There was no ground under my feet.

After months of thinking, and talking, and writing, I realized I wasn’t passionless, and that I wanted more for myself, from myself. I decided to leave my dream job, where I was growing stagnant, and move back to my city, my home: Philadelphia.

I do not think that office life is for me — at least not at this point in time. It tends to become too much of the same thing too soon, and I am passionate about learning new things.

I am passionate about learning, reading, writing, communication, and thinking and ideas and design and poetry and variety in my day-to-day and I want to feel like I am living my life, and not like it is passing me by.

I am taking time to do this, and maybe this is Stage II of my quarter-life crisis, but I think I am making progress.

My passions never overwhelmed me, and so I thought they weren’t there. But they were so fundamental to who I am, that I didn’t notice until I reached an all-time low. Then I stopped, and I thought, and I wrote, and now I am here.

Caricature

Prompt: a written caricature of a coworker

He asks me how old I think he is, and he is old, but not elderly, and so he is the type of person who puts you into that sort of position, where he asks you how old you think he is, knowing that he is old. I think this question says a lot about him, and I think he has considered that as well.

I say he is between twenty and eighty, giving an extravagantly wide range, and he laughs and says something about the ‘twenty’ comment, as if to take the start of my range as a compliment about his appearance, which is still fairly smooth and seems healthy, although he has aged himself in other ways – ways that place my honest, unspoken guess closer to the range’s other end.

He went through a divorce. It took ten years. He talks about it, and I listen, and so he talks about it more. They were too perfect together, and so they drove each other crazy. He is crazy now, but perhaps less so than before (although he feels no better for it). She was controlling, he says, and manipulative, but I am sure he had his fun as well.

There are those who thrive in chaos, and take pride in their ability to remain calm, and he is one of them. He focuses on details and procedure. Meticulousness distracts him from the constant ache being otherwise without purpose and control; it eases an anxious mind’s own chaos. Aboard the Titanic, he would stand tall and alone and read aloud the protocol of how to properly drown and/or freeze to any of many clusters of panicked loved ones writhing within earshot, rather than acknowledging that he too is going down on a sinking ship.

He was a chemist before some accident in a lab. It didn’t leave him disfigured, as far as I could tell, but it turned him away from the field. This time, he spares the details to those who haven’t asked, more resolved about this life shift’s outcome.

He works at a computer now, diagonal from my own. He analyzes lines of code, looking for points of failure. He is good at this – so good, that he has been forced to practice mindfulness to avoid turning his skills inward. He has read books on the subject. He has read and highlighted and taken notes in many books on many subjects while lying in bed unable to find sleep.

He offers me a book on meditation, able to infer the speed of my thoughts, but not the thoughts themselves. The thoughts themselves he attempts to decipher through ticks on faces and body language cues, but I am unconvinced that he can read them well.

He holds his mouth slightly open, on an inhale, holding breath while I talk, always reaching for his chance to speak. He doesn’t get much joy out of hearing himself speak, but he can’t help but explain something more about something else. I pause, and he starts. I cut him off to finish a thought. My words hit him, and he stumbles, before he begins again.

Holiday

Prompt: write a bad holiday story

First, the strings of lights, both still and sparkling. The tinsel, red and gold, criss-crossing, and balanced with silver bells on red ribbon. Pine cones and poinsettias to fill gaps in evergreen. Then, the ornaments are unpacked from their containers, unwrapped, and one by one strategically placed on branches.

The simple ones are hung first: the matte red spheres with silver glitter, and the silver spheres with red, all with different patterning, and made by one of four sets of hands some years prior. The glitter on maybe half wears slight smudges where a tiny, impatient finger tried to gently test if glue, still white, had dried

Then the fun begins: the reminiscing. There is the crystal rocking horse with the blue cursive words “Baby’s First Christmas ‘91,” and a porcelain cherub, sleeping soundly, wearing a Santa hat with the same message, but in pink and for a different year. There is the ceramic wreath decorated with a ceramic bow and ceramic boughs of holly. There is the felt Santa face, slightly chewed, and missing pink from his left cheek. There is the snow person family – mom, dad, and children now – each with a different color scarf.

I pick up my favorite and give it a shake: a snow globe like a locket with a picture from when we went ice skating at Rockefeller Center. Our first time in New York City as a family. Their first time on ice skates, knees probably already bruised by the time the image was snapped. I give the globe a second shake, and tiny flecks of white come down in front of our unknowing smiles. I place it on a strong branch toward the front.

There are the Russian dolls, each hand-painted with one name, in a line, rather than concentric. There is the tissue paper and pipe-cleaner reindeer made in Girl Scouts whose stubby legs make the animal look more like an antlered dachshund than a reindeer. There is the nutcracker (with working jaw), who is tattooed underfoot with the words, ‘Do not use to prepare food. Paint toxic,’ and there is the memory of how we laughed at that.

I take the angel out of her box last, always last to take her place: a tradition to signal significance in the decorating of a tree. But this Christmas is different: minus one. The older is watching TV, almost present, but with attention fading in and out. The younger asks if dad will be home to bake cookies. I lie he is helping Santa get presents ready, and she knows it is a very important job. He lost his eight months ago, and still the holidays crept up day by day.

Last Christmas we stayed up listening for boots and hooves and ho ho hos on the rooftop until we fell asleep. This year we hear boots on the front porch, and a fumble with keys. Daddy’s home! He stumbles in. I make eye contact, and then he makes eye contact back, eyes with more a glaze than a twinkle. Late again. But in the nick of time! He takes the angel from my hands, reaches up.

Time slowed or froze, and so did I, and then the crash and the crunch of ornaments like dry, dead leaves beneath a heavy gait. There was nothing save the smell of pine or gin as he tried to stand back up, our angel still in hand, but being crushed to the ground for a final defeat as he rose, pine needles, shards of red, green, silver, gold, and glitter sticking to skin and clothing.

Time passed. I picked up their pieces, and threw them all away. They were beautiful, but it was hollow. We had new traditions now, or at least some things had changed.