By Minnow Park
I was listening to an Ocean Vuong interview the other day, and at one point he said he isn’t comfortable calling himself a writer. (If you don’t know his work, his novel just sold one million copies in 40 languages and he’s a MacArthur Grant recipient.) In the interview, he said he'd much rather see his work “as the result of living rather than a career or a purpose for living.”
“When I was a younger writer, I was in New York and all my friends wrote everyday, and they were obsessed with word count and page counts. And I realized that this was a condition not of being writers, but being in capitalism.
That so much of how we value our work was already predetermined by the culture of capitalism and I saw progress weaponized against each other, even in cordial conversations.
That took a lot of love and excitement out of the writing process for me. They would have contests where they write a novel a month, or write 30 poems in 30 days. And it was very ecstatic and very beautiful, but I couldn't do it.
I just felt like I was interrupting my own thinking just to have a product. And so I developed a different way that was much more comfortable to me, which was to take walks and to ask questions and to think.”
At first, I felt annoyed knowing how much he’s accomplished in something he doesn’t want to identify with. There are millions of tortured writers toiling everyday and not getting a hundredth of the success he’s gotten. I thought about this for days after and realized my annoyance was at myself for forgetting why I started to create in the first place. He was the latest reminder of what happens when you write for the culture of capitalism and not for connection.
If I’m honest, I think I wrote for the culture of capitalism from the beginning. When I got interested in writing, I read about writers like Vuong’s friends and how many words they wrote per day, how long they kept it going, and how they made a lot of money after sending an email promoting something they offered. I read about how if I wanted to do that I had to find a niche, “add value,” publish a newsletter every week, post on social media every day to create a flywheel of customers and profits, etc. I was to turn writing into a factory with my words as an assembly line.
Maybe that’s why from the moment I uttered to myself that I wanted to write, a barrier went up in my mind that stopped me from sharing anything I wrote. At first I blamed myself for being lazy and undisciplined, and for being unable to make writing a consistent habit. But later on I realized the writing that moved me and that I wanted to write wasn’t the kind of writing I was told would succeed. Because what was the point of putting out writing that wasn’t optimized for pageviews, audience growth, and revenue? What would I have to show for all that effort? What would my writing be worth?
And so it took me three years to sign up for ConvertKit and another two years of paying for it without using it until I finally sent my first email. Looking back, what felt like a barrier of imposter syndrome was actually a protest against conforming my writing to this culture of capitalism. I didn’t want to write the way I was being told I should be writing.
Vuong’s reaction to all this was to go take a walk, and, while walking, to think and ask questions. It almost feels too simple to be a reaction at all, but by getting up from his desk and walking out the door, he was creating a different kind of culture – one that he wanted to live in. One where you are wrestling with rough ideas, facing your self doubt, and bringing your whole self to your writing. This isn’t a culture of capitalism but a culture of connection. Living in this kind of culture means letting go of metrics, best practices, and profits and focusing on telling the truth about something real that makes the reader feel seen and heard.
This culture of connection creates writing that answers the question Kazuo Ishiguro asked in his Nobel Lecture: “This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”
The culture of capitalism weaponizes us against our creativity. Every time we try to write, there’s a voice questioning us, “Who do you think you are, wanting to write?” And if we manage to write something it dismisses us with, “You’re not good enough. Just stop trying.”
I call that voice shame, but there are many names for it: The Resistance, The Censor, writer’s block, imposter syndrome. And if we listen to it, we look around for reassurance and certainty rather than doing the work of nurturing a creative practice.
I spent five years wandering around and looking for reassurance that my writing wasn’t going to be the utter failure I believed it was going to be. And when you’re that desperate, it’s easy to buy into the myths the culture of capitalism promotes.
It wasn’t until I read these words in Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” that I found the courage to start writing for connection and not metrics.
Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of. Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done. If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability.
It’s been three years since I started my blog, Upstream. I’ve tried to write to the emotional center of things. Sometimes I haven’t, however, and have written pieces I thought would add value or gain more readers. What I’ve learned is writing that makes someone feel less alone and writing that is successful don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
I don’t know if I’ll ever earn a living from writing like Vuong, Ishiguro, or Lamott, but I do know writing has made living much more worthwhile.
I recently wrote a piece about my Dad. I had been wrestling with it for a year and a half, spending a good chunk of that time avoiding working on it because I just didn’t know how to write it. But right around this past Father’s Day I had a breakthrough and finished the piece. The conversations that followed publishing it have been life giving. Even with people I’ve just met, the piece allows us to start at the same depth of vulnerability I have with my closest friends.
Conversations like that are the start of relationships that can lead to projects, businesses, and life-long partnerships. Clients have invited me to coach them because of words I have written. Friends have reached out and shared their story because they found permission after reading mine.
Connection and empathy don’t mean we have to be poor and starving. The possibilities are endless if, as Lamott says, we become conscious, hone our voice, and write from a place of insight and truth.