Lost in a Sea of Words

Published: Nov 1st, 2021 · Nonfiction

Why I Write

Chapter 2

O

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

I struggled to pitch both my newsletter and my writing for almost a year. What you’re reading is easily the third or fourth iteration, if not the fifth or sixth.

I tried straightening my tie and selling myself like a car salesperson might push you to test drive an upgraded unit with the “luxury package.” It didn’t take long for me to remember that I hate being sold things, and that I hate selling things even more.

I experimented with describing what each issue of my newsletter would include in painstaking detail, but quickly realized that most people stopped reading before they finished the first sentence.

I toyed with listing facts about myself and all the interesting things I’ve done, do, and plan to do in an effort to tempt people into following my work. Then I remembered that I’m not that interesting and nobody wants to read a glorified resume in their free time.

One day I had an epiphany—I need to share why I write, not who I am or what I do.

Story is in the subtext.

I spent a long, steaming shower thinking about why I write and condensing my thoughts into a single sentence. One true sentence that Hemingway himself might be proud of. Here’s what I came up with:

I do not know why I write.

I wish I could say that I was a prodigy, like Tiger Woods, and that I’ve been telling masterful stories far beyond my years since I was four years old.

I wish I could say that I had a near death experience, and through my struggle to survive, the universe gave me a clear sign that I’ve been put on Earth to create stories.

I wish I could say that I’ve been plucked from the masses by a distinguished mentor who recognizes me for my innate, though unrefined writing skill.

But I can’t.

I cannot say those things because they are not true. I am going at this alone, and I have not taken the typical writer’s path.

English was the class I dreaded in school growing up. It was the only subject I didn’t excel at. To this day, spelling is challenging for me—I’m one of those people who can never remember if it’s “their” or “thier.”

I’ve always been an eager consumer of well-told stories. When I was a kid, I read books like The Boxcar Children, The Junie B. Jones Diaries, and Harry Potter. I played through video game campaigns like Pokemon and Zelda. I watched movies like The Land Before Time, Finding Nemo, and Dumb and Dumber (yes, I believe this to be a well-told story even though my wife doesn’t agree) so many times that I had every scene memorized.

The first story that tugged at the strands of my soul was Where the Red Fern Grows. I read it in the fourth grade in a single day, and when I finished, I questioned my own existence for the first time. I can vividly remember that moment. My family was in our three-row SUV driving from our home in Broomfield, Colorado into the Rocky Mountains for a weekend of skiing. We were engulfed by a snowstorm and crawled westbound on I-75 toward Summit County. When I read the final paragraphs of the book describing the red fern that had grown over the graves of Billy’s dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, my neck tingled and a wave of chills ran up my spine and into my temples. I cried in the backseat and slouched down so that nobody could see me. Even as I write this paragraph nearly twenty years later, the same chills are reverberating throughout my body and my vision is blurred. That story changed me.

And then I stopped reading for a long time. I think I stopped because the honesty of Where the Red Fern Grows hurt me. I was afraid of what I might feel if I read more books. I was at that age where kids blossom into adults far beyond the maturity their elders give them credit for, but I wanted to hide from reality just a while longer. I wanted to know the truth, but not the whole truth.

My fear was validated when, in the summer of that year, I ventured into our backyard looking for my childhood dog, Ariel, and found her dead on the side of the house. She was lying on her side and had shit herself. I watched as my dad wrapped her in a blanket and laid her body in a plastic storage container. Later that day I helped dig her grave in my grandparent’s backyard. My grandpa and I carved a headstone out of wood and burned her name into it.

I grew up a few minutes down the road from my grandparent’s house, which sat on an acre and a half of land and had a red barn in the backyard. In the summers, I rode their green John Deer lawn mower around the property once per week to cut the grass. I never went back and looked at Ariel’s headstone after we buried her, though I thought of her often. Even when I passed within feet of her grave on the lawn mower, I couldn’t bring myself to look.

I recently asked my grandma if Ariel’s headstone is still there. She told me it rotted a while back and that she replaced it with a bush.

My refusal to read led me to become an early adopter of SparkNotes. I was privileged and had my own computer as a ten-year-old in 2003. From 5th grade through high school graduation, I did not read a single book assigned to me in school. I cheated by reading online summaries and got by with Cs in English while excelling at math and science.

I continued to consume stories throughout the next seven years, but not in the written form. I fell in love with movies and TV shows. My parents were relaxed about letting me watch whatever I wanted to watch. In the 5th grade, I went to my friend’s house for a sleepover and his parents asked my parents if I could watch The Matrix. They said yes. After that, I never had to get permission to watch a movie again. They let me make my own decisions so long as I told them what I was watching and was willing to discuss it after.

I loved comedies like American Pie, European Road Trip, and The National Lampoons. Partly because they had topless girls in them, but mostly because they made me laugh. I rewatched The Bourne Series, Bad Boys, and Indiana Jones on a monthly basis. Every night from when I was in fifth grade through high school graduation, my family gathered in my parents’ bedroom to watch TV together. We loved sitcoms like Friends, The Office, and How I Met Your Mother, but the shows we looked forward to the most were dramas like 24 and Dexter.

In high school I played so many video games that, at one point, I was top ten in the world for Xbox gamer points. I was good at online play, but where I excelled was beating campaigns. I liked working through the stories and solving puzzles. If I were born ten years later, I might have made a living as a professional gamer, but back then, gamer points didn’t earn you money like they do today, they cemented your status as a nerd. When I left home for college, I sold my Xbox account on Ebay for $400 and haven’t owned a video game console since.

I found a good group of friends in high school who shared my love for video games and movies. Once we all had driver’s licenses, our weekend routine was to pick up a pizza from Dominoes and rent a movie from Blockbuster. I think we were among the last dedicated Blockbuster customers before the company went bankrupt. This was the time in my life when I started to fall back in love with stories that were real. Stories that Heminway would have deemed “true.”

For years, I sheltered myself. I hid behind idyllic sitcoms, fantasy-themed video games, and thrillers that were exaggerated just enough, I could convince myself they weren’t real. Now my friends pushed me to search through film history and experience the best films ever made. Stories such as Schindler’s List, Brian’s Song, Legends of the Fall, Braveheart and The Shawshank Redemption reminded me of what I experienced when I read Where the Red Fern Grows, only this time, I wasn’t scared. I wanted to face reality. I thrust myself into it.

My journey back into reading and writing occurred soon after. Public schools in Colorado had annual standardized testing each spring. I don’t think individual scores were released, and if they were, I never bothered to look at how I did. Their purpose was to grade teachers and administrators, which affected the school’s funding. Needless to say, none of the students cared about the tests, but the teachers desperately wanted us to.

There were tests on each subject and the ordeal took up an entire week of school. The amount of time allotted to each test was about twice as long as even the slowest students took to complete it. Once we finished, the only thing we were allowed to do was read a book. No phones. No video games. No music. We weren’t even allowed to draw on a piece of paper. They told us these rules existed to prevent cheating, but they were kidding themselves if they thought anyone (even the good students) cared enough to put in the effort to cheat.

For the first two years, I sat in silence after I completed each test. It was agonizing. Sometimes I slept, but even a young body can only sleep so long hunched over onto a wooden desk. To some extent, their plan worked. I took my time on the tests because all that awaited me upon completion was mind-numbing boredom.

Finally in my junior year, I couldn’t take the boredom anymore, so I caved and picked up a book. It was the first book I’d cracked open and intended to read cover-to-cover since I was ten years old. Since Where the Red Fern Grows broke my heart. I searched online for the “best book” and filtered out anything that was more than 300 pages. The one I settled on was The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.

My taking up reading was bad news for Colorado standardized testing because I got so hooked reading the story, I was literally the first person to finish every test I took that year. All I wanted to do was read. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but on some of the tests I skipped reading the questions entirely and selected the answer that seemed the most succinct and plausible.

The Alchemist lit a fire inside of me. I loved it. I thought—I could do this. I want to do this. That week I opened a word document on my computer and started writing my first novel. I can’t remember what it was about and I never finished it or let anybody see it, but I wrote over 100 pages and worked on it most evenings until I graduated high school.

I studied math and computer science in college, but in my free time, I took it upon myself to study the classics, like Hemingway, Tolkein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then my now-wife got me re-hooked on contemporary fiction, like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. I’d read the first three Harry Potter books as they came out when I was a kid, but during my hiatus from reading, four more books were published that I had the delight to catch-up on.

I never took a writing or English course in college. I thought about enrolling in one every semester as an elective, but then I’d read the course curriculums and psych myself out. Ironically, I thought that I needed to practice writing on my own to hone my skills before taking a course on it. I worried I wasn’t any good, and more importantly, I had a 4.0 GPA that I didn’t want to mess up. I knew I could ace any of my engineering courses, but I lacked confidence when it came to creative work. Math and physics are objective, but I imagined grades on creative work could be subject to opinion. Even if what I wrote was good, I’d risk getting a bad grade because it did not match the taste of the teacher. I ultimately let my obsession with a perfect GPA get in the way of me pursuing writing earlier in life.

Despite this, I spent a lot of my free time in college reading and writing. I never went to a single party in college—even though I attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, which is known for being a party school—but I wrote a lot. My school had a writing center where you could book time with graduate students to read and edit your work. It was intended for students taking writing courses, but they didn’t check, so I’d sign up periodically to get feedback on my stories.

After I graduated from college, the next five years flew by. I got a job at a tech startup. That company was acquired by a company in London and I spent a good amount of time traveling for work. I got married. I adopted a dog. My wife and I traveled all over the world, usually in search of remote, multi-day hikes. We bought a house.

I had every intention of making time to write, but it became something I perpetually planned to start focusing on in the near future. I had my job, my family and friends, and my health. I could have made time to write, but my priorities were elsewhere. I was obsessed with coding and spent most of my nights working on side projects, like personal websites, this GOT AI that went viral, or the fantasy football AI company I started with two of my friends. I wrote semi-regularly, but it’s what I’d do when I happened upon a few spare hours and there was nothing else to do.

My wife’s mother is a life coach and each New Year we do a journaling session with her on how we want to shape the next year of our lives. I listed writing as one of my top goals for several consecutive years, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I finally turned that goal into reality.

Now, here I am, writing stories and hosting a newsletter to distribute them.

This brings me back to the question I posed for myself earlier: why do I write?

It’s frustrating that I cannot think of a satisfying answer to such a basic, fundamental question, but I do not know why I write.

Here are a few guesses.

I do not care about attention, but there is probably some truth to the fact that I would someday enjoy recognition for my writing. I do not like that I feel this way, but it is true. I think writing is one of the few ways an introvert like myself can stand out in a world dominated by extroverts.

I’m the type of person that plans out and rehearses social interactions in my head before they happen. I run through scenarios of how conversations might go so that I feel prepared. So that I don’t freeze up. So that I don’t say something wrong. Then when they’re over, I replay them in my memory and think through all the things I should have said or done. I think that I like writing because I get to control the entire world. I know exactly what’s going on in every character’s head and all I have to do is sit back and watch how they react to the situations I throw them in. And when I want to perfect something, I can go back in time and change it.

I have explored many careers and hobbies in my young life—just ask anyone who knows me. The career paths I’ve ventured down include investing, medicine, academics, golf, music (guitar and vocals), cooking, software, and now, writing. I go deep into topics and become obsessed with them, usually for a year or two. I redefine myself around them. And then I lose interest. What was once exciting and unexplored becomes formulaic and over-explored. It becomes a job. The creative element disappears. Storytelling is the only task I’ve found that hasn’t grown stale and predictable with time and exploration.

When I write, I instantly fall into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as a state of “flow.” I lose track of time. I am comfortable. I am free. There are no confines which I must live within. Anything is possible. It is my happy place.

If I was forced to give one answer as to why I write, it would probably be that I feel an insatiable desire to understand. I want to understand myself. I want to understand the meaning of life. I want to understand the universe. And I’ve learned that some things can only be understood or communicated through story. I think the sheer complexity of this task is what keeps me coming back. I know that it’s not something I can solve. I know that I will never boil it down to a formula. That’s not the goal. It’s something I can dedicate my life to.

Now that I’ve embarked on one of the great journeys of my life, I hope you will join me on my quest to explore and understand.

Perhaps together we will uncover why I write.

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