Sarah Badat
Sarah Badat

Writing about not writing

It’s been almost five weeks since I last wrote a column for this blog. Buzzing on enthusiasm after my page initially went live, I wrote two columns in my first week and tracked the page hits with the same concern as I would my own pulse.

The initial post-publishing glow lasted longer than I imagined. I spent days emailing links to my page to all and sundry in my address book. I checked for comments online every hour. I re-read each of my posts about a hundred times.

If you’ve read anything you’ve written close to a hundred times you’ll know that around read number ten you start to notice the little cracks in the syntax. The words you chose start to look awkward in the places you assigned them to stand. The sentences start to induce frowns. The paragraphs have you scratching the side of your head as you try to figure out what it is that made you dare to call yourself a writer.

All this merciless mulling prevented me from writing anything new. I started to become obsessed with how my writing was being received: How many page hits? How many comments? How many shares and retweets? I began considering how I could entice readers, get their attention and have them say nice things in the comments section. My column ideas were becoming more bizarre by the day, as I tried to think of ways to delight and intrigue readers.

As I researched news story after news story in attempt to trigger an “AHA!” moment, I came across one sophisticated opinion story after the next. Panic crept close as I read the work of better, more experienced writers. Everything I wrote felt so small in comparison, so disingenuous.

As a regular journal-er, I tried to make sense of my hesitation to write the only way I know how: in black ink on the pages of my Moleskin. I looked at entries from the last month and noticed a common thread. My “inability” to write had caused me to question my own skill (or perceived lack thereof) as a writer. Was this really the job for me?

This question made me curious about other writers’ (in my novice rank) experiences and agonies. I searched for stories by my contemporaries in the hope of finding any small gleam of reflection on own practice. I didn’t find any and it made me concerned that as writers we don’t use the platforms we have to talk about what we actually do, and how it makes us feel to do what we do.

Every word posted by my fellow opinion writers and I represents a little part of our knowledge and worldview, and therefore a part of who we are. It takes immense effort to beat our views into a shape that is presentable to you, the reader. It takes true grace to accept the nasty comments and keep writing.

Just like you at your job, dear reader, we as writers can’t claim to be at the top of our game at all times. We try to present stories that are honest, interesting and thought-provoking, but we don’t always get them right. And worst of all, we can’t bask in the comfort of anonymity, which you so enjoy.

It’s not easy to write an opinion column and share it with you. Bad comments aside, I’d be willing to bet that even the most confident of writers see room for improvement with every re-read, that can sometimes provoke the onset of a pity-party for one.

As our opinions as writers change with time, as we read more and learn new things, our older writing can crawl out from underneath the floorboards to haunt us. Like that Facebook profile picture you uploaded in 2008 that seemed like a good idea at the time but now, not so much.

What the point of this post is, is that as writers, no matter how self-conscious we may feel about our past efforts, what counts is that we made an effort in the first place. There is no such thing as the perfect opinion column. It’s OK to have an “off-day” (or week, or in my case, month). What is important is that we keep trying to write and that we write more about this “trying to”.

Lastly to you, dear readers, before you decide to knock my work with a cacophony of insulting comments, which are in no way intelligent or informed, just think about how you’d like it if I were to come to your office and shout expletives at you from reception. By all means, be critical where you feel it is warranted, but be courteous in your critique. That’s all we as writers ask.

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  • 19 Responses to “Writing about not writing”

    1. Isabella van der Westhuizen #

      Sarah you do not lift whole chunks from critical theory like a few others and for that I actually admire your writing.

      November 12, 2013 at 9:23 pm
    2. Lisa Wiebesiek #

      I loved your post. It really rang true for me. I’m not courageous enough to even think about considering calling myself a writer. Just a small comment: I’m not sure about how you used the word ingenious. Maybe I just didn’t get it, but this is the definition from the Oxford Dictionary:

      (of a person) clever, original, and inventive:
      he was ingenious enough to overcome the limited budget
      (of a machine or idea) cleverly and originally devised and well suited to its purpose:
      ingenious devices his theory, while ingenious, is most assuredly incorrect.

      November 13, 2013 at 9:03 am
    3. Joseph Coates #

      Write when you have something that will get people involved with positive reactions or interesting dilogue to follow. Don’t stress if you have other more important issues to attend to.
      Something light -hearted will set the tone . Get my drift!

      November 13, 2013 at 9:51 am
    4. Mr. Direct #

      Please don’t end up like some of the people on this forum that repeat the same old points over and over again, trying to drill their point of view home rather than contribute reasonable debate.

      November 13, 2013 at 11:02 am
    5. Sarah Badat

      Thanks for pointing out my error, Lisa. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading.

      November 13, 2013 at 11:39 am
    6. Llewellyn Kriel #

      Aah yes, a promise calling for a coach. How one hankers for the good ol’ days when such things were sine qua non. In the meantime, take heart from a 100-time reread of “Desiderata” and “If” . And always, always read, reread and then read again your posts before clicking “Submit”.

      November 13, 2013 at 3:33 pm
    7. russell #

      Write for yourself, from the heart with passion and people will enjoy what you write.
      I do anyway….do continue.

      November 13, 2013 at 3:38 pm
    8. Hi Sarah

      We should talk about the travails of writers more often and now after I have read your piece I really believe I can do more for my own writing. Thanks and I enjoyed it.

      November 13, 2013 at 3:49 pm
    9. chris #

      @Lisa and Sarah,

      ingenious = clever, resourceful

      ingenuous = artless, inexperienced, naive

      Disingenuous (your replacement word) = dishonest, insincere,

      Sarah, I believe your original choice (ingenuous) was contextually appropriate.

      Moleskin sounds better than Moleskine, but they probably don’t bind with mole skin.

      November 14, 2013 at 9:01 am
    10. Zolani #

      The problem with good writing, such as that by you Sarah for example, is that it orphans the writer almost immediately it moves it’s quarters from the moleskin nest of its nurturing to the public space of textuality. Each subsequent readerly intervention on Sara’s part becomes just a new writing, with hardly any bearing on the value of the original once it leaked out of your moving fingers. It is really no longer it that you are worried about, not how or whether it will be received, but the anxiety is of the symbolic erasures that come with violence of being (mis)read and that often results in hallucinatory imagination of pairs of scissors floating menacingly towards your writerly fingers. I’m not sure it’s proper to call it castration anxiety, unless of course Freud still has dibs on the meaning of fingers. Every time a good writer reads her writing it seems to me that it is with an unconscious fantasy to recall it, to protect it still from the reckless eyeballing of accountants, politicians, housewives and serial killers who now have a right pronounce on it at whim. Good writers never finish the work, they simply abandon it at some point. Thank you for letting yours go. It’s a great piece.

      November 14, 2013 at 9:30 am
    11. Ilza #

      You received 8 uplifting responses. Hopefully it encouraged you to keep on trying.
      Take note of Mr Direct’s opinion.
      You are young and sensitive but ‘go girl’ – don’t give up.
      I’m not a blogger and I couldn’t find the insults among the previous comments but I suspect you should develop a thick-skin if you want to be a writer.

      November 14, 2013 at 9:34 am
    12. Lauri-Anne Veitch #

      The word in the column is “disingenuous”, also spelled (or spelt) disingenious:
      – not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does.
      “this journalist was being somewhat disingenuous as well as cynical”
      synonyms: dishonest, deceitful, underhand, underhanded, duplicitous, double-dealing, two-faced, dissembling, insincere, false, lying, untruthful, mendacious

      This is probably still not the correct word to have used?

      Otherwise, reading your column was of value to me: as an art student and teacher, (and aspiring writer), I know the pain of putting yourself out there on display. It is difficult to learn how to express oneself fluidly, while being self-critical – attempting to present only the valuable material, leaving the rest at home for private contemplation, to accept valuable criticism and to ignore destructive criticism. It is a balancing act, and one worth attempting to master. I agree wholeheartedly with your request for everybody to please mind their manners. That is part of self critique and of the attempt to present only material of value to the world.

      November 14, 2013 at 12:10 pm
    13. Writing about not writing was good work Sarah.
      Please don’t deprive us of your thoughts.

      Let us, the readers. be the judges.

      November 14, 2013 at 1:03 pm
    14. Alexx Zarr #

      Form and function, where lies the balance? If form is perfect writing (if there is such a thing) and function is the quality of the topic, there is probably some shifting equilibrium between the two. I can admire great writing for its sake, sure. Maybe that is art. But ordinary writing with great content / subject matter is less art and more utility.
      Seems to me that it is in the nature of some to be “critics” no matter what the balance between form or function may be – so write, enjoy the support when it comes, and don’t take criticism personally, no matter how it is tossed at you.

      November 14, 2013 at 1:55 pm
    15. dineo #

      I identify a lot with what you have said. My line of work requires me to write a lot and most of the time when I read what I have written, it just looks kind of “bizarre” and wish I could have written it better. I believe that we are our own critics and that helps us to shape our thoughts and sharpen our writing skills.

      Good article Sarah.

      November 15, 2013 at 11:33 am
    16. Rory Short #

      If it is honest and spoken from your heart, nothing could be more interesting to me as reader.

      November 17, 2013 at 6:19 pm
    17. Charlotte #

      HI Sarah … a tip:
      It often helps after deciding (depending on what grabbed your attention or sparked a reaction), what you’re going to write about, to set yourself a deadline and discipline yourself to meet it.

      Here are two useful quotes:
      “Inspiration never comes by sitting about and waiting for it: It comes unsolicited when you are already hard at work. Good writers are rarely temperamental. They know that writing is like a job, like cooking or stockbroking, and they apply themselves to it without display or fuss.” ( from: “Teach Yourself to Write” – K.Betterton)
      Peter de Vries, the American writer was asked if he waited for inspiration to strike before he wrote.
      He said: “Yes. And I make sure it strikes at 9 o’clock every morning”.

      November 19, 2013 at 12:59 pm
    18. Chris #

      Thank you Sarah for this timely post. I write a weekly column for a community newspaper and I totally identify with everything in your article. I’ve never really been a writer, I sort of stumbled upon it late into my tertiary education so I still don’t even feel comfortable calling myself one. It’s kind of comforting to know that there are other writers who share the same anxieties.

      November 19, 2013 at 3:55 pm
    19. Tasneem #

      Lovely post. I wish I could write as well as you do!

      December 4, 2013 at 10:23 pm

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