I feel like writing is magic. It’s the old magic, the original sorcery. Because I can not know what I think, sit down and hit the keys, and suddenly, ideas come up.
Like today, I was unsure what to write about, and all I had was a line that kept turning over in my head. So I sat down to write, stream of consciousness. What follows is what I came up with.
Normally, I wouldn’t stop there, but I wanted to illustrate my point about magic. This is what I think of as a pre-draft. It seems like this idea wants to be several things – maybe a launching point about generosity vs. capitalism. Or about the generosity of the creative act. Or a lament for the early days of the internet. Or a bitch session about my own dissatisfaction with my schedule and routine.
Or maybe it wants to be all of those in a long, wandering essay that I tie up in the last paragraph. But in any event, I got nearly a thousand words of starting points off an 8-word sentence.
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“Somewhere along the line, we lost our way.”
That line played itself over and over in my head while I was on my walk today. Was it from a poem I read once? From a song buried deep in the lizard part of my brain? Or was it just a truth I felt deep in my bones that I knew in the way one knows one is tired, the way you know that you have missed a turn, the way one knows they have, indeed, lost their way?
It’s like that sometimes. Sometimes I have an idea, a theme if you will, and I want to explore that, and so I work out a narrative around it because I don’t understand things I can’t tell stories about.
Other times I have a story I want to tell, and it works the other way – I tell a story, and a theme presents itself. Sometimes I can tell the same story twice in a row, and a different theme shows up each time. It’s as if I’m not in control at all.
And then other times, it’s like today – I just get a line, and I have to figure out what to do with it.
“Where does this fit?” I ask myself.
What do I do with it? Is it the opening line in a novel? A short story? The apologia by a character for missing their son’s school play? Or is it just a thing I notice about the world around me?
Because it does seem as if, somewhere along the line, we have lost our way. I think Merlin Mann was onto the same sort of thing when he said that it seems like we have lost the recipe for America. But it isn’t just politically – it is pervasive. We all seem to be lost, wandering in the wilderness. A bit dazed, a little confused, somewhat weary, but cautiously hopeful that, around the bend, just over the hill, it will all be back to right again.
At least, that’s how it’s been for me. I was talking to an elementary school principal the other day, and she told me that the last “normal” school year was the one that started in the fall of 2018. Of course, I knew that, but hearing it in that context was staggering.
But I think we lost our way a long time before that.
I was thinking about Instagram this morning. It was once a cool way to show your friends a picture you had taken.
“Here, look at this cat I saw lying in the sunlight. Here is a cool sign I saw in a shop window. Check out the way the light refracts in this pool of water in the parking lot.”
It was generosity. Sharing. It was hopeful.
“Here is a thing I made. It’s for you.”
That was before it was bought by Facebook. Before the rise of the influencers, and back before Facebook sought to extract every possible click and pageview, sought to own every second of your attention. And way before Stories and Reels and who knows what all.
Back then, it was just generosity.
But we seem to have lost our way.
It shouldn’t surprise me. The same thing happened to us bloggers.
Around the turn of the century, blogging took effort. You had to find a host. And you needed a CMS, or you had to know how to write HTML, or you needed an HTML publisher. There was friction.
So those of us who did it did it because we had things we wanted to share.
Here are my thoughts about this thing I’m excited about. Here is a cool thing I found. Check out this article – I think the author is a moron.
There was no real way to monetize in those days. Some people were trying banner ads but losing their asses at it. The blogs were acts of love.
But in 2003, Google developed Adsense, where anyone with a website could put a bit of code on their site and get paid when people clicked their ads. Now, the goalpost changed. It wasn’t about love anymore – it was now about getting clicks. Attention. Views.
It was a short jump from there to corporations developing walled gardens where we still wrote for love, but they made money from the advertisers. I’m looking at you, Social Media.
It seems we have lost our way.
Or maybe it was my anger at how the comments on a cooking forum I belong to have suddenly turned political, with commentators managing to find grist for political jabs in posts about fruitcakes and cranberries. I sometimes think that even Gandhi would despair for humanity if he had spent time in the comment section of Facebook.
It’s also probably that I personally feel adrift as well. I have not had a full weekend at home since August sometime. My life feels chaotic, adrift, and unmoored. This time last year, I was writing an 800-word post every day on my blog. These days I count it a success if I get a post a week up, all the while recognizing it would be easier to not. Since starting the new job, my schedule has been off, and my routine has not yet settled. This frustrates me.
I don’t know what the line means, in other words. I just know that I know it, deep down, in my bones.
“Somewhere along the line, we lost our way.”