(Still planning to work on this talk, but here is the first iteration, as presented to Noisebridge earlier this evening. Video should be available in the coming months.)
Hi my name is Quinn, I’m a writer, I write everyday. Some days more than others.
I am not going to tell you how to be a good writer. That’s impossible in five minutes.
There’s one thing they say can’t be taught even if you take years, and that’s how to open a vein. I figured years might be the wrong approach, and I’d see if I could do that in five minutes.
First off- writing is a risky business. More than you realize. When I say I’m a writer I mean I’m a thrill seeker in emotional hellholes. I’m like Steve Irwin but for the inner demons of humanity instead of crocodiles. There’s a reasons so many of us drink ourselves to death and eat gun barrels.
But let’s say you still want to write. What does it mean to open a vein? To explain it without doing is kind of impractical, but let’s call it caring so hard that you use words to force other people to care, often against their will.
Meet the enemy: the blank page.
The page is an impenetrable barrier, and we writers spend our lives trying to tear it down to get to you and hide behind it all at once. This is why we’re kind of nuts.
Words are barriers and conduits. Horribly and wonderfully, they are for the most part all we really ever have of each other.
Seeing as I am a writer, I have all sorts of complex writing tricks. I can make text sing, I can make it dance, I can obfuscate and explicate in even parts. None of that matters if I don’t care about my topic. You will be able to tell.
Another warning: When you are doing it right, when you are writing from your heart, it will never be good enough. There’s not a point where it’s finished, there’s a point where you can’t go on.
So what is writing from the heart, writing in your own blood? It is saying what you mean because nothing less will do, and nothing less will help. It’s always expressing out of desperation. Because you need them to know.
Here’s a list of motivations for writing that don’t make very good writing. This makes you boring, so boring usually you know somewhere in your heart that you are boring. And we all do this. We all do this most of the time. <slide>
But lets turn that on it’s head and see the reasons that make you bleed.
…wanting to get the things out of you before they eat your head, wanting your mother to love you, wanting to know for sure that you really exist, wanting to not die of the shame of knowing your mediocrity wasted the precious and finite moments of the lives of those you love, or even that you hate, or only believing you lived when you look back and see your bootprints on the hearts of as many people as possible…
It’s telling the naked story of why you care.
You’d think it’s something that takes a long time to do, that you fret over every word. But consider how you’d tell someone you loved they were in danger. It’s precise, it’s tight, it’s not more than you need and sure as hell not less.
It’s running 26 miles to declare ‘We have won.’ and then falling dead. (That guy knew how to punctuate.)
Another warning: You can write about it or you can talk it out- talking out your feelings and verbally telling your stories is great for productive group therapy, not so good if you want to write about it. I need both, so I’m learning to write first.
If you think this doesn’t apply to your python documentation, you may be right. But it probably applies as soon as you’re explaining. We think tech writing has no blood in it, but when it’s good, it has a bit. It’s there whenever you care.
Consider this opening about plate tectonics:
The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The continents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude- a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea.
My editor for years at wired, Kevin Poulsen, helped me find how to convey what I cared about, and therefore make you care as well. It’s a lot about trust. When I don’t bleed on the paper It’s because I don’t trust you the audience to get it, won’t trust you with my pearls, my heart, or to understand the importance of my arcane knowledge. It’s arrogant as well, to think you cannot possibly get the stuff in my head.
Here’s the beginning of a piece on software defined radio, where you might not think you’d find my heart, but it’s there:
Matt Ettus has the sly smile of someone who sees the invisible. His hands fly over the boards of his Universal Software Radio Peripheral, or USRP, snapping them together with an antenna like Lego bricks. Then he plugs in the naked boards to a USB 2 cable snaking to his Linux laptop.
After few minutes of normal Linux messing around (“Takes forever to boot…. Haven’t got the sound driver working yet….”) he turns the laptop around to reveal a set of vibrating lines in humps and dips across the screen, like a wildly shaking wireframe mountain range. “Here,” he explains, “I’m grabbing FM.”
“All of it?” I ask.
“All of it,” he says. I’m suddenly glad the soundcard isn’t working.”
Radio is that bit of the electromagnetic spectrum that sits between brain waves and daylight. It’s made of the same stuff that composes light, color, electrical hums, gamma radiation from atom bombs, the microwaves that reheat your pizza.
So if you want to write, if you want to really write, ask yourself, why do I care? Why is this important enough to risk humiliation, ridicule, hope, life, love and madness? And when you answer that, you will know how to make us care.