Tag Archives: ignite

How to Open a Vein redux (text as written)

(Numbered by the minute. Tip for other Ignite speakers: I used text to speech to time the talk, which worked pretty well.)

0. Hi my name is Quinn, I write for a living. Some days I write more than others. I am not going to tell you how to be a good writer. There’s a lot of people much better at teaching that than I am, and it can’t be done in 5 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- done right, writing is a risky business. 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? Imagine for a moment a man with a gun to the head of your mother, and he’s going to shoot her if you don’t tell him exactly how your mom makes you feel,

1. really, all of it, the ambivalence and the irrational adoration and how that irrational adoration sometimes pisses you off. And he can tell, and you know he can. And your mom’s right there. That’s a little like the vulnerability of writing from the heart.
It is not just telling a factual truth, but your very own truth. I write because I like to tell the truth. It makes me more sure of my own existence. When I find something strange in the world, something you may fear or hate or just not know about, and I make you understand it, you are closer to me. Sometimes you can borrow passion on a subject from a person, but only if you care about the person. You never escape empathy, either you have to have it for yourself or for them. You never get away from confessing that you care, which means confessing not only that you can be hurt, but exactly how to hurt you.

2. The first barrier to good writing comes from the schoolyard, the first time a bully finds out something tender and teases you, and you learn you can be shamed by your peers, you learn to live in their heads to keep yourself safe, not your own. And you cannot write from anyone else’s head. When I don’t put my heart in my writing, I’m being insecure, and I’m talking down to you because I don’t trust you. Specifically, it’s the self protective arrogance of still not wanting to let the teasing sting, not wanting to take this risk that when I get off this stage tonight someone is going to say “That was inappropriate”, or “You’re just wrong.” or “We just don’t like that sort of thing here in New York, could you cease to exist now?” But none of that is as important as telling you how to get your meaning from your heart and your brain out your fingertips.

3. Start tonight, by blurting the truth to someone, pick a truth, and blurt it, come what may. and when you’ve walked off that cliff, you can rephrase it, to make damn sure they understand what you’re trying to tell them. Not to make it better, but to make damn sure they understand what you mean. A couple warnings: 1) When you are doing it right, 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. 2) For many people, 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 for writing. You can talk away your thunder. It’s cathartic and fun but it’s not writing. If you think all of this doesn’t apply to your python documentation, you may be right. But it applies as soon as you’re explaining. We think tech or science writing has no blood in it, but when it’s good it does. It’s there whenever you care more than you fear.

4. 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, a broken heart, and madness? And when you answer that, you will know how to make us care. Words are barriers and conduits. Horribly and wonderfully, they are for the most part, throughout our lives, throughout history, all we really ever have of each other. They are the semi-permeable membranes of our minds, through which we touch and shape and do violence and love one another. Make them count. Write the truth. Thank you.