Back to Writing: Confessions, Delights and Musings After a Period of Silence
The year 2023 is drawing to a close, and a persistent echo lingers in my mind: ‘I haven’t managed to write anything.’ As days go by and everything in my life changes, the only constant is a blank page on my computer, staring back at me. The thought of diving back into the tumultuous sea of thoughts and words is downright daunting. But I am not ready to wave the white flag just yet. I need to remember the joys that writing once brought me. But what exactly were they?
This is the first of a three-part journey, to explore the gritty reality of writing, its challenges, and how to stay the course when surrender seems the only option.
The Most Sensible Thing to Do is Not to Write.
I recently caught up with an old friend, someone I hadn’t seen in ages. In the midst of our conversation, he casually threw a question at me that caught me off guard: ‘You stopped writing in your blog. What happened?’
I felt a mix of pride and embarrassment at his remark. It’s somewhat heartwarming to know someone out there is genuinely invested in my words, enough to notice my absence from the blogosphere.
But it’s also a stark reminder of my dwindling presence in writing; I haven’t penned a single word since the onset of summer. There’s an unfinished piece, languishing in my drafts for months, unlikely to ever see the light of day. Last year wasn’t any better – my output was merely a shadow of what it used to be.
Do I have excuses? Loads of them, but none that really hold water. For instance, I could argue that this year I’ve been completely absorbed in other matters: moving homes again, leaving a twelve-year stint at a company to embark on a new career path, juggling trips across London, Bogotá, and Europe, and dealing with family affairs from afar. Or perhaps I could excuse myself by saying I’ve been rethinking what I write about – after all, my latest posts were dense, lengthy, and hard to navigate (three thousand words about the virtues of decentralization in production modes? Four thousand more about my issue with the pronoun ‘we’?).
Or maybe, it’s simpler than that. Maybe writing has just worn me out. Writing demands an extraordinary form of endurance. It’s an endless battle with the chaos of thoughts in your head, a relentless struggle to fill the void of a blank page. You wade through an ocean of paragraphs, losing the ability to judge their worth, torn between love and hate for your own creations. And when you finally emerge, hands cramped and eyes strained, the satisfaction is immense yet so ephemeral. Tomorrow, another blank page awaits.
Barack Obama – that great writer who incidentally was president – once said being a writer is like having homework every single night for the rest of your life. He couldn’t be more right.
It’s obvious, the most sensible thing would be not to waste time writing. So why on earth did I start doing it in the first place?
31 December 2017
I am walking. I can feel the irregular contours of the cobblestone streets of Villa de Leyva beneath my feet. The sun dips below the horizon, the sky ablaze in orange and purple. It’s the last day of the year. The town square is a whirlwind of lights and life. A cacophony of car horns, echoing laughter, and the clink of glasses in celebration. Firecrackers merge with the rhythm of rancheras and vallenatos blasting from the shops. The air is heavy, a mix of frying food, beer, and dust. A fine, spicy, earthy dust that gets in my nose, blurs my eyes. I move through a sea of people, stray dogs zigzagging to avoid being caught in the swirl.
I turn a corner and the world changes. I find myself in a quieter, dimly lit street, its solitude illuminated only by a distant lantern and the soft glow of a neon sign. The bustle fades into a hush, the laughter scatters, the cool, crisp air clearing the mixed scents of the celebration. I’ve been so lost in my thoughts that only now do I notice my dad walking beside me, his gaze fixed on the ground, carefully navigating the uneven path. Before entering the square, we were talking about something I can’t quite recall now, and we’ve fallen silent. My thoughts are miles away in London, wrestling with a decision that awaits me. I’m torn between two options (it’s always two options), both seemingly impossible. I’m sure I’ll regret choosing one over the other, but I can’t figure out which is which.
I look back at my dad. He continues his slow, steady pace, his expression serene, his thoughts who knows where. I smile. When I’m his age, I’m sure I won’t care in the slightest about any worries I’m carrying today. Surely, my actions now, or inactions, will not ripple through the fabric of time and affect my future self in forty years.
Or will they?
I’m being naive. Of course, there are regrets that span decades. Don’t we all end up regretting the same things? Not spending enough time with family, not keeping friends closer, dedicating too much time to work? But it’s hard to imagine anything that escapes that rather obvious list of regrets.
Then, a question pops into my mind.
“Is there anything you regret not doing at my age?” I ask my dad abruptly, out of nowhere.
And without a moment’s hesitation, with the certainty of someone who has already pondered this very question, he answers unequivocally: “Not writing. You can’t imagine how much I regret not writing. My mind was always brimming with ideas, so much I wanted to write about, but… but I never knew how. About physics, history, religion. Oh, so many things.”
He closes his eyes and shakes his head with a mix of anger and resignation: “When I was your age, I should have written.”
We keep walking. The street is now steep and dark, with the shadow of a giant mountain looming on the horizon, and above it, the black sky dotted with pulsating bright stars. We’re both silent, me shaken by his confession. His regret, initially surprising, now seems so evident, so obvious. His words are so sincere that for a moment, I can feel the same void he feels. And from that void, a beacon of light emerges, perhaps a gateway to liberation for me – perhaps for both of us.
My mind is jolted out of the quagmire it was in before, seeing everything clearly, and now it thinks of only one thing:
I must write.
The Three Joys of Writing
That end-of-year conversation with my dad was a powerful catalyst, propelling me into a writing fervour. Over the ensuing four years, I penned around 115,000 words, filling 71 blog entries. Collectively, these could easily span a book of over 400 pages. However, there is no book to show for it: Those who’ve followed my blog will recognize the wide array of topics covered, ranging from space exploration to the complexities of violence in Colombia, from the intricacies of epistemology to the dynamics of financial markets. The sheer breadth of subjects compelled me to create a catch-all category I whimsically named “Observations,” a home for the miscellanea that defied neat categorization. As someone with a penchant for order, admitting that this category has become the most populated on my blog is a source of both amusement and mild dismay.
I often wonder if channelling all those hours of writing into a singular, focused theme might have birthed a book – a more prestigious and tangible artifact than a blog floating in the digital ether.
But for me, writing was never about meticulous planning or clear-cut objectives; it started as an indulgence, a trinity of pleasures I uncovered in those countless hours in front of the computer screen. The genesis of this realization came in the immediate aftermath of my dad’s heartfelt admission.
The first joy is creation: the realization that something exists in the world purely because of my will and effort. Word by word, I wove sentences, then paragraphs, crafting pieces that now exist out there – some imperfect, others refined, all as tangible as a collection of clay figurines. (They exist though I don’t know for how long; one of these days the server where they rest melts and goodbye to the 115,000 words, but for the moment, let’s say they exist).
I acknowledge that, in what must be an exercise of pure narcissism, I find it most delightful to occasionally go back and read some of those entries I wrote a long time ago. Not because the quality of the texts amazes me — although I do delight when I come across a well-crafted phrase. Nor is it because my own observations dazzle me — although I do feel proud when I recognize that I had an original idea. It’s just that, over time, I can distance myself from what I once dedicated hours and hours of work to, and now I can better appreciate its existence as something external to me, something that is, in a way, independent of me.
Although we never met, I am convinced that Roberto Bolaño was thinking of me when he stated: “Every writer, even the most mediocre, the most dishonest, the worst in the world, has felt the shadow of creative ecstasy.”
But the creative process in writing is painstakingly slow. Let me illustrate this with an example: typing out the two thousand words of this text might take me about fifteen minutes, but the journey of bringing them to life, from a nebulous idea to their final form, spanned around fifteen hours. It’s a staggering 60-to-1 ratio between the mechanical act of typing and the intellectual labor of crafting and refining the narrative. It’s as if I wrote sixty different versions of this essay before settling on the one that resonated enough to share.
The essays that I finally publish on this blog are just the most recent iteration of a game that begins when one or two rather vague ideas cross my mind. These ideas are always very fragile; as soon as I try to give them life in the form of words, they tend to fade away. However, when I manage to catch some and put them on a blank sheet, I start to play with them, moving them from one place to another, trying variations, correcting, and making changes; I write something that I then erase and then write again.
The second joy in writing is akin to assembling a jigsaw, one that only reveals its true image upon completion. Its pieces, with blurred edges, constantly change shape and color. You start the game with only a couple of them, but then, slowly, they fall on your head, one after another, more and more. And it can be a most cruel game, because always, without exception, you fall in love with some of those pieces — those sentences you write and tell yourself “what an ingenious phrase”, “what a precise formulation”, “what a profound idea” — but then, after struggling with them for hours, you realize that you will never be able to fit them anywhere. Reluctantly, you excise these beloved pieces, a necessary sacrifice for the greater coherence of the text.
Writing is assembling a jigsaw in solitude: an intense, personal challenge. I immerse myself in this world, losing myself for hours or even days in cafes and in my study, with only the company of my computer and a steaming cup of coffee. Creating this personal sanctuary, a space where my thoughts flow freely, is a privilege I deeply cherish, one that many might envy. Yet it is not this self-imposed isolation that that captivates me most about writing. The third joy I find in this craft lies not in the seclusion from the outside world, but in the unique connections I forge with family, friends, and strangers through my words.
When I was a more frequent writer, it was common that when I bumped into friends or colleagues, they would comment on what I had published the previous week or wanted to debate the most provocative ideas I had recently exposed. Whether it was a praise, criticism, or just an acknowledgment of having read my work, each encounter reinforced the feeling that, through this blog, I was establishing connections beyond the superficial.
After all, writing in a blog and sending words to navigate the internet’s vast expanse, is nothing more than the contemporary version of that classic comic strip of the castaway trapped on the tiny desert island. In the cartoon, a castaway — bearded, skinny, and lonely — carefully places a handwritten note in a bottle and casts it into the sea, harbouring the illusion that someone will find it and, perhaps, respond.