When You're Afraid You're Writing About the Wrong Things

When I lived in Silicon Valley a few years ago, I got the chance to see a model of Charles Babbages' Difference Engine No. 2 at the Computer History Museum. The Difference Engine would have been the first computer, if Babbage had been able to get the funding to build it in the 1840s, but he never got the money he needed to build it. In the early-00s, someone decided to take Babbage's designs and see if the Difference Engine could have been built with Victorian technology. The experiment worked so well that they regularly did demonstrations with Difference Engine No. 2 at the Computer History Museum. 

Seeing that thing working was glorious. Leave it to a Victorian to make math stink of engine grease and roar like a textile factory. At the time, they said the exhibit was temporary. The person who commissioned it needed to reinforce their living room before they could take it home, and they were loaning it to the museum while the work was done. That was eight years ago, so we'll see if that actually happens [EDIT: The day after I finished this post, it was announced that Difference Engine No. 2 is being returned to its owner.], but it felt tragic to me at the time that so few people would have a chance to experience Difference Engine No. 2, so I wrote a poem about it and sent it off for criticism. 

About a week later, I got the criticism I asked for. Most of the complaints were technical, and I made the changes and asked for a follow-up. About a week later, I got the criticism I asked for. This time I was a little uneasy. There were even more suggested changes this time, and I was losing track of what inspired me to write the poem in the first place, but I knew that sometimes inspiration is just a spark, and I was trying to write for an audience not myself, and most of the complaints were technical, so I made the changes and sent the poem back. About a week later, I got a note telling me that they weren't sure why the suggested changes weren't working and asked me to tell them about the poem and why I was writing it. I wrote back and told them about Babbage and my experience at the museum and my desire to translate the experience of whirling numbers into poetry. About a week later, I got a note telling me that they weren't sure why anyone would be interested in writing a poem about that in the first place.

In retrospect, the person critiquing my poem was probably trying to say that the subject wasn't for them. Instead, I heard "computers and math are not suitable subjects for poetry, and it was very wrong of you to try." Faced with a perceived choice between authentic expression and the craft I loved, I chose the craft. I spent a year after that writing about things that I thought were more acceptable subjects for poetry, more literary things, things I knew the poet I sent the Babbage poem to (who I greatly respected) would appreciate, slice of life things like the people around me were writing--Buddhist prayer flags flying off a Berkeley balcony, Silicon Valley's previous incarnation as fruit orchards, a story a Middle Eastern refugee told me on a BART ride. The response to these poems was better, but I felt dead inside and eventually stopped writing poetry. I didn't write poetry for years. 

It's sad when anyone stops creating, but what was especially unfortunate about the way I handled this situation was that if I had been persistent I would have learned that I didn't have to choose between my craft and authentic expression. And I didn't have to enjoy writing poems like that alone, either. There are tiny but enthusiastic fanbases for poetry with a speculative bent--even in the literary world. At the time, though, there were so many things telling me that writing about things that weren't me was the right decision. My craft was improving--because that's what craft does when you do a lot of writing--and thinking about what lights other people up instead of what lights me up felt virtuous and professional. (A professional writer writes for an audience instead of themselves, right?) So, I thought that I was genuinely making myself better and doing the world a service by giving people what I thought they wanted. 

It hasn't been pleasant coming back from that, and it wasn't necessary, so I'm going to say what I wish someone had said to me then: 

If you think that you are ordinary, you're wrong. Everyone has a sideways rolling planet somewhere in their sky, and when you are caught in a morass of cliches and think everyone has the same ideas as you, and you've never had an original idea, you'll thank your lucky stars for that odd ball side of you because it will have the map out of the bog.

If you have one oddity--an unusual enthusiasm for McDonald's shamrock shakes or an encyclopedic knowledge of moss or a talent for getting crows to give you money--and you think this is a private, guilty thing that isn't really that important, and it's probably best if you don't talk about it too much because the people around you don't care about it as much as you do, you're wrong.

If everyone who says they love you prefers to pretend that the person or thing or idea you love doesn't exist, and you think this is okay because there are so many other things out there to write about, you're wrong. 

If you think that benign tolerance is the most enthusiastic acceptance you can hope for, you're wrong.

If you think that because you can pretend to be like everyone else, you owe it to the people around you to pretend so they won't feel uncomfortable, you're wrong.

If you think that you're young and inexperienced and have a lot of changing and growing to do before you can reasonably expect anyone to appreciate you or the things you make or do, and you'd best listen to your elders and write what you're told, you're wrong.  

Whoever you are, whatever your thing or person or idea is, there are people out there who are dying to find you just as much as you're dying to find them.

If you haven't found the others yet, your world is too small.

So, shoo!

Go looking. Go!

Find the others.