On Feeling Discouraged
Commonplace Newsletter #55
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If you look through past issues you will see that the writing here is always a reflection of where I am in life. Can it be any other way? The process of writing has a therapeutic way of making me see sense and gain a better perspective, but the impetus to write itself is a product of anything that I feel strongly. Either good or bad.
Sometimes you are pulled upwards when a gentle breezes moves the lightness of your spirit on a summers day. Sometimes you are propelled forward by the gravity borne from the weight of the chip on your shoulder. Motion borne from emotion. Today is one of those latter days, I’m afraid, one of those chip-on-the-shoulder days. No point trying to shy away from it. The only way out is through, as they say.
Why vs How
[What follows will probably read as ungrateful griping and entitled whingeing. But bear with me. I am going somewhere with this. The point is to catalogue the mentality of discouragement from my personal experience. I want to offer a glimpse of the thought process of being on the precipice of giving in and then pulling yourself together. Such things usually happen behind closed doors and remain internal and unspoken about. We should do what we can to change this.]
I’ve been discouraged for a while now. Weeks. A hint of it is here, if you’ll excuse the egotistical nature of quoting myself:
You have the calling, or the curse, depending on how you look at it. The short-attention span, mimetic, dopamine-driven current world of noise and chaos and triviality is not particularly amenable to your dreams. And though that probably gets you down, you still can’t fully stop writing and just give in. If that’s the case, then the only way out- as far as I can tell- to to accept that absurdity and blindly carry on towards mastery of the written word.
~ Why Write, The Workshop #02
This is of course a huge note-to-self. A paragraph you might stick on the refrigerator, the corner of the monitor, or save as a background. ‘It all might seem pointless but don’t give in.’ Cute. And true, as far as it goes. But it rings hollow when the discouragement really has its hands around your neck.
The earnest question of ‘why should I bother when seemingly no one cares?’ is met with the blunt rejoinder of ‘because’ and the whole thing devolves into a stalemate. The Nietzschian Why that supposedly trumps any How begins to fade when it is not bolstered by affirmation. If the Why is not reinforced by reality, by success or positive change, then it becomes increasingly less compelling. And eventually the How of circumstance and hardship supplants it. And then a new Why is needed, or the Why-less world of nihilism looms.
And my Why feels weak right now. Why continue to pursue trying to make a living as a writer? Because it’s possible/ because I am good enough to achieve it/ because there are enough people out there willing to pay for what I have to say. These mainstay reasons of mine feel like not so much pillars to lean on but straws that I am clutching at. Reality is not bearing them out.
Now what’s interesting is that I have no problem in regards to belief in my own ability. I can of course improve endlessly, but I believe I have talent and skill enough to write professionally. The problem then comes not with my belief but with the audience, with the public.
[Again, for those who don’t get it, what I am doing here is writing out the discouraged thought process in the moment, and then later I will undercut it.]
This is why I write disparaging pieces about social media, about the nature of audiences and about the lowest-common-denominator, metric-chasing world of ‘content’. The problem is the ecosystem, the ecology of writing.
Now, temperamentally I am predisposed towards saying ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ I assume problems are my fault because I have found this to be psychologically healthier than the inverse, even though contemporary discourse is based on grievance and argues the opposite case. Taking responsibility gives you agency and prompts you to try and change the things that it is possible for you to change.
This situation does not feel like one of those cases. The ecology of writing might be irreparable, at least in the kind of timescale that I would like. My corrective efforts have made zero impact.
See, social media as we know it has existed for a decade and a half. Plenty of time to change taste, to change habit, to remove old perspectives, to change consciousness even. No one reads anymore. The few that do read, engage in ‘reading’, the books being merely a pretext for an open page and bare leg Instagram post. ‘Look at me, I’m ‘reading’ in a deckchair with a cocktail/cigar/whatever prop resonates with my chosen subculture.’
The words on the page are read but they don’t go in. The act of reading itself is performative, a synecdoche for intellect or worldliness or earned leisure as opposed to a thing done for itself, for the unboadcasted joy of it. Everything is a signal. It’s impossible to shout and listen at the same time. So the books go unread in the true sense, they are merely strip-mined for content and quotation, if they are regarded at all.
And I speak out about it, Cassandra-like, and no one but the small diehard core of my readers cares, and nothing changes and I become discouraged. I ‘add value’ online but it’s not the right value because it’s an uncomfortable truth. The truth is that social media has killed culture in the same way that video killed the radio star.
And so my readership, my earnings, dwindle far below the professional, even the subsistence level. People are too content-brained, too far gone down the rabbit hole of spurious Internet nonsense to either understand or give a damn about what I write about every week. This is what I tell myself.
I want to help people, genuinely, and the most helpful advice I can give for a would-be writer, a would-be reader, a would-be decent human being and good citizen is to deactivate all social media accounts. But no one wants to hear that. And so I think: why bother? If my dream of writing essays, stories and novels for a living must be predicated on gaining popularity or appealing to the content-brained and become content-brained in turn, why bother? This is what I tell myself.
‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’
The above grumble about the ecosystem is what I believe. It’s not exaggerated or said merely for effect. I believe it to be true. I believe centralised mass social media was a mistake and it has resulted in a mass dumbing down of both culture and its participants in a way that has never before been seen in human history. The death of the blogosphere and its possibilities is a tragedy. We collectively allowed the well to be poisoned for the vague possibility of virality and attention. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Silicon Valley silos.
Whether we did this cynically or because we were duped, this is nonetheless what happened. And my efforts to navigate this system without becoming a hack seem futile. And yet I’ll go on. I don’t even know why, but as much as I want to stop writing and posting and live a solely offline life, I can’t. Discouragement is never enough. The feeling of futility, of frustration, of shouting into a void and banging my head against a brick wall is never quite enough. Perhaps on some bone-deep level I know that you are only entitled to your labour and not its fruits. Perhaps the labour alone is enough. Sometimes I think this is a rationalisation, but the satisfaction of each completed piece gives just enough energy and hope to get the next one done. This happens every week.
Perhaps- never having achieved anything of real note in my life- perhaps, this is all a lesson in the sheer amount of time and persistence and failure and heartache success takes. I could just be a wide-eyed optimist who is only now coming face-to-face with the toll that achievement requires. I don’t know. It’s possible.
Now, I would like to end with a rousing conclusion but my mood hasn’t really changed. I still feel discouraged but there is now an undertone of resolution, of bloody-minded obstinacy, of defiance. This tends to be what introspection brings me. Maybe there isn’t a happy ending to this story. Maybe I never get to where I want to go. It’s possible. But happiness isn’t the point. Success isn’t the point. Being alive is all that there is. And if you are alive, I figure, you might as well commit to something- anything- just to see where it leads you. I’ve tried the stagnant, aimless alternative and it is far worse than being discouraged can ever be. Something, even something bad, is better than cold and empty nothingness.
Might as well commit to something. And writing is the thing I am committed to. Maybe I wish I weren’t, but I am. Which is why I go on. And as long as there is still one person left reading my work, I will continue to go on, come what may.
Because, it’s better than the alternative. We must imagine Sisyphus happy. You know, I realise that I never understood what Camus was saying until I started to write.
Until next time,
Thanks as always for reading. It’s hugely appreciated. In these screen-mediated times it is easy to forget that there is a real life person at the other end of this newsletter, giving up a few minutes of their free time to read my words. I am grateful for you doing this.
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