Discover more from Wandering the Grey
so you're a writer now?
When I decided to hop off the hamster wheel of corporate work, I knew that would startle some people. A few puzzled looks here and there, a risen eyebrow or two, and a double-take just to confirm that they heard correctly. A shocked friend asked “You can just get up and leave?!” This is par for the course. The prominent voices in work culture do not evangelise sabbaticals. There is talk about work/life balance but that’s different. What if your work was reasonably balanced from a time perspective but painful and draining? The hustle culture of tech today preaches doubling down and sprinting faster, not taking breaks to breathe and question the purpose of the race altogether. The older generation of workers preached stability and loyalty. My parents took vacations and holidays, but to them the concept of pausing work indefinitely is as bizarre as filling a bucket of water with a teaspoon.
In their understandable bid to grasp what the hell I’m doing, people ask all sorts of questions:
“So you’re taking some time off to travel?”
“You’re just going to wander until you run out of savings?”
“Won't you get bored?”
The answer to these questions is a partial yes. Yes, I’m going to travel, to wander and to explore. In some ways, I hope I will be bored. I know modern life has told us that we must quench and extinguish boredom whenever it rears its ugly head. That we are unable to poop without TikTok. But I think this is deeply mistaken. Boredom can be a blessing, it forces you to remove the shield of low-amplitude noise from your mind and hear your own thoughts clearly. Silence can speak loudly if you’re curious to listen. If you have nearly-infinite time, then what things do you choose to do? What will you miss? Who will you miss? What won’t you miss? Your answers will often surprise you if you’re honest with yourself. Moreover, I promise you that I was bored out of my skull at work. So work is not necessarily the solution.
Once in a while, someone quips: “So you’re a writer now?” I find the questions underneath that simple inquiry more interesting. What do you hear if I tell you that I’m a writer? Maybe you think I’m someone who has a way with words, that I stare at a blank page and words magically begin to assemble themselves in tight, neat arrangements that make sense? Maybe you consider me arrogant enough to believe people want to hear what I have to say? Perhaps you see a voyeur, an armchair critic who sits at the sidelines, opining while never producing anything “real” of tangible value?
But being a writer is none of those things. It’s purging my soul to find meaningful things to say and velvety ways to deliver them. It’s reaching for the forceps on my desk, each keystroke prying my insides further apart and showing you my abdominal cavity, hoping you find something you like inside. It’s walking to the well with a bucket and hoping to God that there is water in it. It’s choosing to live a life riddled with anxiety and self-doubt.
Every writer I know seems to struggle with the label. The weight of expectation and self-imposed perfectionism is no joke. Imagine living with the fear that your best work is in your past. Is this why so many famous writers were alcoholics? The struggle is real. This is my third or fourth reincarnation as a writer. In previous lives, I wrote blogs about football, technology and even got paid to write science articles. I never had the courage to even consider doing it as my main job. Always shunted to the side as a play thing because I saw myself as an engineer or a scientist. Or because I thought only truly exceptional writers had a chance to make a living that way. In a world where a barely-adolescent CryptoBro will confidently tell you Dogecoin is going to the moon, and will mean it unironically, why am I questioning myself so much?
When it comes to writing, I have many fears. I’m terrified of creative famine, that I will till and toil the land, and that there will be no tangible harvest. That the writing gods who blessed my hand will leave my house, that I will open up a blank page and hope to swirl together words in my usual way, and nothing tasty will arise. That I’ll be left with a bland soup of words that anyone could’ve written.
I’m also scared of mediocrity and irrelevance. The achiever voice in my head tells me I must “make it big at this thing” whatever that means. But do I need to have a large readership to feel fulfilled? What if I’m read by fewer people but my words connect with them at a much deeper level? Would that make the art any less important? Is it the journey or the destination that matters? Some days, I worry that my written work will wilt and die in obscurity. That my works will be gathered and burnt not because they’re controversial but because their value as heat would exceed any emotional connections to them. Those are the days when it’s hardest to write.
But I’m also worried about what happens if I don’t write. At the end of my life, how could I look myself in the mirror and explain why I didn’t publish more? What, because I was scared? When has that ever been an acceptable reason not to do something? I’ve moved continents twice and that didn’t faze me. When has my gut ever let me down? It is abundantly clear to me that a life well-lived for Tobias involves more writing, not less. Writing that gets bolder, more vulnerable and more uncomfortable, because therein lies the growth. How can I leave this planet without giving it a real go?
The beauty of writing is that it allows you to time travel. While my body will not survive forever, my words can outlive me and maybe even provide perspective in the future. There is something awfully seductive about producing creative work that outlives you and moves people even when you’re not here. Imagine taking a cross section of the world and seeing tiny little lamps burning in people’s hearts as they read your work. Is this why people want to have children? So they can see their “work” in three dimensions crawling, moving, and running through the world? Perhaps it’s tugging at my narcissism. I mean isn’t all creativity a testimony to one’s vanity? If I thought my writing was awful, surely I would hide it like an unwelcome pimple?
Yet somehow I’ve believed in the story that perhaps I too can write publicly, hitting “publish” and waiting anxiously to see if my ramblings resonate with online friends. I too can feel that heart-pumping rush when a stranger tells me that I’ve described a feeling they’ve felt for years but could never articulate. I too could slip into that hallucinogenic feeling of flow, where time falls to the wayside and my Apple Watch begs me to stand so I don’t die of a fatal deep vein blood clot. And yes, damn it I can have those nights where it’s 2AM and I’m desperately trying to sleep before my 8AM flight but my mind refuses to quieten down; instead, it chooses this very inconvenient moment to form new potent paragraphs and I’m forced to open my Notes App to journal them down before these hasty thoughts leave me forever.
People think I just sit down and essays happen. I have this beautiful affliction where words, ideas and thoughts visit me unannounced and demand that I stop whatever I’m doing to attend to them. My door is never knocked to see if I’m home and I am never asked for my opinion for a better time to visit. They just show up, threaten to leave if not given the right reception and I am compelled to accommodate them.
Some days I clean my house, light some cedar wood candles and wait for them to arrive. I do my stretches, sip some coffee and prepare to produce my best work. And they flat out refuse to visit. They shrug their shoulders and taunt me. In defiance, I rebel. I’ll show them I don’t need them. I go for a walk, come back and I turn on my writing playlist. Maybe Jorja Smith can will some magic out of me. But nothing slick enough comes out and so I’m forced to append this too to my drafts.
This is the beautiful affliction of being a writer. A life lived populating the drafts section of your phone. A life lived feeling the guilt of never having given enough time and effort to your craft. A life lived wrestling with the label of being called a writer — doubted by everyone, including your own self.
So am I a writer? Do I feel compelled to describe myself with this label? Does it scare me to admit that this is really the thing that I’m supposed to be doing with my finite time? Am I scared because it feels so good and I’m worried it might end someday? Am I holding back so I don’t get hurt by it?
Or am I simply a writer because I enjoy writing? Is there much more to this? Is a writer simply someone who has asked whether they are a writer? There is no certification for this kind of thing. Am I not a writer because I’m crazy enough to publish my thoughts on the internet for people to ponder? Am I not a writer because I spend too much time thinking about how to construct alliterative triads? Or because I even know what those are?
If I say I’m a writer, what does that say to other parts of myself? I remember back in secondary school, you were either a “science-y” person or a humanities person. A silly distinction that obviously doesn’t pertain to the real world. But there are tiny relics of this kind of thinking in my mind. I went to college to study chemical engineering. Anybody who consciously makes that kind of decision is either a masochist or a nerd. Perhaps I’m both? But I always wished I could’ve had a more blended college education that pushed back on the macho-manly myth that history and literature are silly folly but math and physics were the important stuff. I wonder what I’d be doing today if I had that opportunity.
In any case, I have convinced myself that I must use this talent for something. Today, I have no idea what that might be. If I twiddle my thumbs and ask the ether, I will hear nothing back. But if I probe the universe ever so gently and intentionally, maybe she will give me an answer?