4 Weird Side Effects of Learning How to Write
A few months ago, several years after beginning this column, I finally learned how to write, the last piece of the puzzle being someone showing me how semicolons work.
They make sentences; look smarter.
It turns out that writing is one of those skills that really changes the way you think. One obvious way is that in the years since I started writing for Cracked, I've noticed all sorts of changes in the way I perceive the world.
"Who's the cutest little listicle? You are! You are!"
But it goes beyond turning everything into surprising lists of badass mind blowers. Indeed, if you yourself have learned how to write comedy articles or novels or even just really great text messages, you'll have experienced the same thing -- the surprising ways learning to write changes your life.
Regular Conversations Sound Banal
Conversations in movies and books are filled with snappy banter, people constantly telling razor-sharp jokes or perfectly capturing their character in a few words. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of writing dialogue-heavy pieces in my time here at Cracked, which has the same issue: people talking in a funny but horribly unbelievable manner.
"Forsooth, this is a pretty unlikely way to begin a sentence."
Conversations in the real world are nothing like this, filled with awkward pauses and words like "um" and "uh" and "derrr." People mishear things all the time, or misunderstand them entirely. Awful jokes are commonplace, and nearly everything uttered is completely banal. Listen to a conversation someone else is having on a bus sometime. The most trite, straightforward observations are repeated as if they're great pieces of wisdom, and everything is dramatically oversimplified. I don't know if I've ever heard anyone say something about politics that wasn't completely wrong, and I'm constantly having to interject and correct them.
"Sorry to interrupt, but ACTUALLY, a single-payer health care system has a number of advantag-"
The weird thing about this is that the same must apply to conversations you yourself are in, even though you don't notice it. There's something about being invested in a conversation, trying to come up with your own jokes and clever insights, that must distract you from how trite everything you're saying is, and you're generous enough with your friends to overlook the same missteps when they make them. Or you see but choose to ignore them, like laughing at your boss's jokes for the sake of professionalism.
You'll Read a Ton More
I've always read, in the sense that I could find out what I wanted to watch on television hours in advance and could navigate train stations without having to resort to hand gestures. I'd even occasionally read books, rather a lot when I was a kid, but then trailing off to two or three a year by the time I became a grown-ass man whose cultural tastes leaned more toward modern artistic forms.
"Yeah, video games used to be made mainly for 8-year-olds, but they're a lot more mature and dark now. Like for 14-year-olds at least."
Even the books I did read came from a pretty slim selection of genres. I'd typically find one science fiction or fantasy author I really liked and read everything he or she wrote, which I gather isn't an uncommon pattern for elbowy young men to fall in to.
Even if it did lead to my regrettable Star Wars novel phase.
But in the years since I started writing seriously, I've been reading a ton more, something like 15 to 20 books a year, of a much broader variety.
The main source for this newfound interest in reading is to see how different writers working in different formats do things. One of the most humbling experiences of learning to write (or learning anything, really) is how not easy any of it is, how every detail conceals thousands of smaller details. Now I'll read short stories and translated works and books that have crazy things like footnotes or subtext in them. (Which are totally different things, I was surprised to learn.) I've even reread a lot of those terrible books they made us read in school, and it turns out that a lot of them are actually really good and interesting and not boring at all like they'd taught us.
This is basically the worst possible environment for instilling a love of literature.
A non-trivial side benefit of this is that it's super useful for getting references certain people like to drop in conversation.
"AHAHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHHAA! GODOT! Hehe hehhe heh heh. Heh."
"I Godon't get it."
Your Old Favorite Novels Are Now Awful
A side effect of that side effect is that all that extra reading with a newly learned eye takes away a bit of the magic of books, and at minimum will make you a far harsher critic. Once you've sunk your teeth into writing a bit, learned some of the common pitfalls, like overusing cliches, and busted your ass to send them packing, they'll stick out like a sore thumb when you see them in other people's writing. The same applies to stock characterizations or clumsy prose or any other flaws that you might have once sailed past.
Rereading authors you once loved is a particularly enlightening experience. The thriller and adventure and fantasy novels I once read now look awful to me. These books were once a pretty enjoyable part of my adolescence, and that they've been forever ruined by my growing brain is bittersweet, to say the least.
"Also, wrestling was fake, Santa was your dad, and your dad was an actor paid for by the scientists who actually bred you."
You're Never Not Writing
Perhaps the most common piece of writing advice offered to young writers is to "write what you know," and for good reason. The activities and experiences and fetishes you know firsthand are going to be the ones you can describe with the most confidence and in the most detail, which will make for a far more vivid and readable end product. And once you get into the habit of this, you'll be constantly surveying your real life for things to write about. I don't write a ton about my real life here (only a few colleagues at Cracked know that I'm actually a 12-year-old Malaysian girl), but even I do this to some extent. My bedbug column was based on my own bedbug scare. My transit rules column was written after getting kicked off the bus for having bedbugs.
And the autoanalrodentation one was based on a different time I'd gotten kicked off the bus.
But even if you don't write comedy articles, instead dedicating your time to writing something horrible like academic literature or poems, you'll find yourself doing the same thing. Everything you think gets laid out as if you were about to write it; you're always framing arguments, stanzas, and jokes in your head. You'll end up with the equivalent of hours-long lectures on a variety of subjects, tucked away in your head, ready to be inflicted on anyone foolish enough to stand still around you.
As a side effect, this is incredibly valuable, and I honestly think it alone is worth learning to write. Being able to put your thoughts and emotions into words has established therapeutic effects. Simply being able to assign a label to an emotion or verbalize what's happening around us makes us feel more in control. And then of course there's the long-standing theory that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. Being able to explain, paraphrase, and summarize a topic is a superb way of furthering your understanding of it, suggesting that the act of writing about a topic is very much a close cousin to teaching it.
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