A programmer, among other things

I’m a programmer by trade. I’ve been a working professional for going on 9 years. Not long after I started, I became a programmer by nature as well. Programming is a part of who I am. I live in the tech world, both online and off. Many of my friends are programmers and that is the primary thing we share in common. I program for fun, to relax, when I can’t sleep, when I’m procrastinating. I dream about programming. Not all the time of course. I don’t mean programming is exclusively who I am and what I do. But to most who are not programmers and perhaps don’t understand, it would seem that it takes up an obscene portion of my life. That’s pretty much right.

But tonight when I couldn’t sleep, my thoughts turned to other things. I started to think about what else I might be. If I could no longer be a programmer, what’s the next thing that would consume me? I thought, “whatever it is, I should write about it”. And then it became obvious.

I love writing. Having something good to write about brings me so much enjoyment. Stringing words together in ways that are cogent, eloquent, tactful, concise, persuasive, approachable gives me just as much personal satisfaction as developing elegant solutions in code. Not feeling inspired to write makes me annoyed with myself and I feel guilty. Being inspired or compelled to write on some topic, and not being able to formulate thoughts gives me anxiety.

I think about writing. What I mean is that I take all of my writing seriously. I think hard about almost all of the writing I ever do. Being a vocal citizen of the internet means I communicate via text a tremendous amount. For most people, even those who end up typing as much as I do, it’s probably safe to assume this isn’t a huge cause for concern. For me, it’s great, and also a burden. I am preoccupied with being able to express myself well through writing. It takes up an obscene portion of my life.

I have 3 separate blogs. I saw no other choice, because I wanted to control as much of the context for the audience of my writing as I could. I’m on twitter a lot (understatement). Even with only 140 chars to fill, I often quibble and even agonize over the composition. I write to craft thought-provoking streams of consciousness that span multiple tweets. I write to craft helpfully descriptive messages to my coworkers via emails, or more likely Yammer. I’m even on google plus, and other random places on the web, crafting huge paragraphs of text that I’m sure no one will read, though I’m often pleasantly surprised. While you’re waiting for me to hit Send in an IM, I’m editing and re-editing, rethinking and reformulating, reconsidering and sometimes not posting at all because it didn’t meet the approval of some stern internal critic.

As an aside, I realized with some chagrin that one of the reasons I don’t really dig facebook, other than my usual pretentiousness, is that I don’t feel the audience would really appreciate how much time I took to craft my posts. I don’t mean outwardly appreciate it mind you. I’m not looking for verbalized critical praise from my FB folks, or anybody really. This is a completely subjective and internalized feeling that nobody gave a shit. And so I rarely share there. My internal writer made me stop.

That’s another thing. It took me a long time to refer to myself as a writer. Even to myself. The truth is I still don’t feel comfortable saying it to other people. Being a writer, as in “I am a writer”, is quite a weighty thing. To me, and people like me, it carries with it a sense of mastery and accomplishment with language that for the longest time, I didn’t find myself worthy of. Even trying to apply the label to myself, I immediately started to create tiers, of which I was the lowest of the low. If I dared to call myself a writer, I must surely be the basest form of such a thing as this.

But that only served to provide further evidence. Who but a writer would take such a thing so seriously? I was given this quote by a good friend of mine; the first person I knew personally who I believed when they called themselves a writer.

A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. ~Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades

This quote stuck with me, even though at the time, 15 years or so ago, I had no idea that I would turn out to be a writer. But the case started building really early.

In high school, I ended up in english class for gifted students. I thought this was super weird as I hadn’t done anything to achieve it. But whatever, I had friends there too. We were given creative writing assignments. Write whatever you want as long as it’s completely made up and it’s an actual story. Characters, narrative, beginning, middle, and end. I sat paralyzed in front of the blank page and panic started to build. My friends started scribbling furiously. Filling paragraph after paragraph without breaking a sweat. Did I mention we only had 30 minutes or so?

What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just write down some bullshit and get it over with? I had time to kill while I pondered this, so I read some of the… ahem, “narratives” that my friends were spewing forth. I was disappointed. Here I was, a high school kid, focused in the maths and sciences, who didn’t even *like* english and literature classes. And I found myself turning my nose up at the schlock I was given. I didn’t even know enough to think the word “schlock” at the time. But indeed if I had known it, I would’ve reached for it instantly.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized why I had been paralyzed. I couldn’t write because I wasn’t inspired by any material. And I find it uncomfortably difficult to turn out writing I feel doesn’t meet some minimum bar. This was as true then as it is today. But back then, I actually chalked it up to the fact that I must not be creative. I started to internalize the bullshit about being “left-brained”, and so creative writing and art and music must be just “not my thing”.

Literally for the rest of my high school career, I did increasingly worse in language arts classes. That day in gifted english, I did actually manage to churn something out. I was first and foremost a good student, you see. But it took no small amount of anguish. You can imagine it being infinitely more frustrating because I didn’t really understand where it was coming from. And after that incident and a few more, I kind of gave up on the part of school that involved writing. I didn’t turn in work for english classes, and I failed more essay assignments. My senior year, I came this close to not graduating, even with a three point something grade average, solely because I had cut too many english classes. A lot of times, I skipped only english and showed up for the rest of them. My excuse was that it was first thing in the morning, and I was tired.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I started my journey to becoming a programmer, and found computers, that this was able to change. It turns out that writing with pen/pencil is “not my thing”. I can’t stand it. It feels clumsy, and it doesn’t go fast enough for me to spill things out of my brain and onto the page. But when I got a keyboard; when I learned to touch type; when I learned how to edit text swiftly and deftly. Oh man. All of a sudden, writing became a joy. I had thoughts flowing out of my fingers with ease (okay maybe not ease). And when I read it back to myself, it didn’t suck. I edited a few things and read it again. And it sucked less. I kept following this impulse, and eventually, my short, stubby digits turned out something that received the highest praise I ever give myself for something I wrote. I don’t mind if people read this.

The weight lifted off my shoulders was immense. I started to feel like a whole person. One who could be analytical and logical enough to be a programmer. But also had some form of creativity. By god, I was well-rounded! Of course, these days, my whole view is more nuanced, and I hope more balanced. I realize that I’m not an artistic writer in some traditional sense. I write for writing’s sake. I don’t sit down and write novels or seek to get things published. And my shoulders aren’t completely free of sandbags. I’ve still got that inner critic who makes writing anything much harder for me than it should be. I also realize that this is okay. I don’t get near as much anxiety around my writing and whether it meets some objective definition of “good” or not. I still agonize over it, because that’s part of my process. But I like to think it’s in a mostly healthy way.

Most importantly, I realize I may never really produce anything of note as a writer. I may never be gainfully employed as a writer. I may even lose my shit, quit my cushy programming career, go try to be a REAL writer… and fail miserably. And that’ll probably be okay too.

Sometimes I like to write. Sometimes I like to program. Sometimes I try not to do either of those things for as long as I can stand it. Cause sometimes in life, you gotta mix it up.

One thought on “A programmer, among other things

  1. Love it man! I too, really dig writing. I write all the time, so much so most of it just ends up in some random text file sitting on the desktop. A lot of the other bits end up in various blogs, zines or whatever. I’ve been fortunate to find others that have given me avenues to write more and get it out where people will see it. That’s always a kick. Sometimes people love what I write, sometimes they hate it. Sometimes I get kudos and people hit the “Like this” button or other times they post “kill Adron” videos on Youtube. Either way, I write, and totally get where you’re coming from.

    As for facebook, I second that. Kind of a shitty place to write. Also the vacation from all the things I do – which I love, I try to take and can relate to what you wrote “for as long as I can”. At some point I feel like I’m going to just collapse, explode or implode if I don’t get back to work creating; writing, coding, playing music or such.

    Anyway, read it, dug it, well written. Keep doing it, I’ll keep reading it. Cheers!

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