Art is meaning plus craft. It can’t just be one or the other. Meaning is what you need to say; craft makes meaning legible.
Craft is prosocial. Craft is selfless. Craft isn’t ego; craft is what you do to make contact.
Junior year HS was a weird one. My English teacher threw a book at my head. (He was reciting Lady Macbeth’s monologue at the time, but still. Not okay.) His fear tactics made my writing better by a certain rubric: The Carverian school of minimalism. Don’t get me wrong — I like Carver and love Lydia Davis. They do things I wish I could do. But it never occurred to me, at 16, that I was allowed to aspire to sound like myself. Besides my terror of bad grades, I was also painfully ashamed of my too-muchness (ah, how grand to be a teenage girl in 2006) and thought that “writing well” was supposed to feel like being strangled by a corset made of razorblades.
I didn’t stop to ask if “lean” was all I wanted to be. It wasn’t about finding my voice, but not even realizing my voice mattered enough to find. (Fun fact: My common app essay was about learning to dial back my “windswept prose.” The first drafts were overwritten AF.)
I met Annie* during my sophomore year of college. Annie is, to this day, one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. She did humanitarian work — the real, helpful, respectful kind — and she was a great writer. She was also compulsively verbose. We were assigned to edit each other’s work by a professor who happened to be a retired war correspondent. Even then, I had an inkling as to why. We both knew something about trauma.
I could have been a dick. I could have assumed bad faith, punished her for showing off, poked holes with my sanctimonious red pen. Instead, I just asked her what she was trying to say. I didn’t flatter myself with lies about how I was the savvy, disciplined one, with my hard little sentences and batshit Napoleonic rage. I just figured that since we both wanted to write, we both wanted to communicate something.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between elitism and trauma. When you don’t want people to know what you’re talking about, including yourself, you may start to speak in ciphers. I did, and it pissed people off. They thought I was trying to show off. I was trying to hide.
I think I would have loved words even if I hadn’t used them to push people away, but I won’t pretend my trauma didn’t complicate the act of writing for me. My nickname in elementary school was “Walking Dictionary.” A sort of backhanded compliment: I was good for something, sometimes, as long as I stayed in my lane.
I worked so hard to shear myself of “bad” writing habits in my late teens and 20s. In the process, I may have gone a bit too far. Now, as an adult, my project is managing that fear of showing off. I don’t really plan to become a maximalist, but want to give myself license to look fancy every now and then. My allergy to being seen as an elitist tryhard is more of an internalized misogyny thing than an America Fuck Yeah! thing. I’m American because I resist authority and spit on Confederate statues, not because I stopped using five dollar words.
Anyway… These days, I try not to judge my feelings. I try to journal when I know I won’t have time to craft. Journaling is brave because it’s a declaration of self worth, a way of establishing that your thoughts and feelings have dignity and deserve a fitting place to rest. Even if they’re a little gross and sleepy-looking. Later, you can decide which of those thoughts are worth crafting into something you want to be seen.
*Name changed because I’m considerate like that.