Writing, what are you doing here?
A frank conversation with a visitor who means business
In a quiet moment when my headphones are tucked away, I hear the door knob twist. A subtle, mechanical click breaks the silence and sends a shiver up my spine. I thought I was home alone.
As the door swings open, an intruder steps in. But I can tell this person has been here before. The gall and audacity to pester me at this moment is unique. I know it's not a stranger, it couldn't be. The speed at which they plonked onto the couch, that's not a casual friend, this someone knows me quite well, and isn't afraid to let me know it.
My uninvited guest sits down and sends all my scattered papers and drafts onto the ground. Half-finished works that define my creative life. My "99 drafts and counting" essay, which is, ironically, unfinished, is swept on the floor along with heaps of helpless haikus and scores of short stories. The intruder seems pleased about the ensuing mess, almost as if those drafts had something to do with its visit.
Writing is here. And I can tell it wants to have a word.
Before it has a moment to speak, I interject:
Hey, hold up. You know my rhythms better than most, and you know this isn't the best time for that conversation. My head still aches from our last back and forth, but enough's enough, let's get into it.
Writing, you often bless me with these sudden overwhelming bursts of creativity that demand immediate attention. I'm honored you consider me a worthy vessel for those messages. I guess the other writers sent you to voicemail. But like…I wouldn't hate a heads-up text.
You know how weather forecasters warn us about storms? Is that a thing you guys do? Incoming flood of creative inspiration scheduled for 6pm. Writers are advised to hunker indoors and tend to their blank pages. Expect showers of prose and vicious word-winds.
And whoosh…it feels like a gale sweeps through the room, taking with it the heaviness that lingered in the air. Gosh, that feels good. I relish in the relief of finally having said the damn thing. With this newfound courage, I plunge deeper to ask the question I've been afraid to vocalize:
Writing, what are you doing here?
I see your beauty but the jitters in my hand are proof I don't know how to hold this cup. Yet, few things feel as good as when we smash clocks and sway, when the distance from the page dissolves and time malfunctions.
Are you jazz? Tell me if you're meant for groovin' and I'll dance along. If you bring the fire, I'll bring the party. Feet tapping the ground. Shoulder bopping off the beat. Head nodding in acknowledgment. Sweet, harmonious notes trickling onto the page.
Are you clay? Soft, malleable earth-stone ready to be sculpted into any shape. The past year whispered, ‘You have a voice, and it resonates.’ A reminder to gaze down at my own hands, and recognize the paintbrush already in my grasp waiting for instructions.
Are you a compass? I wonder where you’re pointing me. Tell me if the path is lit up with the warm, encouraging smiles of my people, or clouded by the shadow of expectations. Can I trust your True North is good for me?
Honestly, you are a shovel. A rugged tool for me to stab and dig the hard ground that hides skeletons and treasures and roots. You help me mine my memories for meaning. It's uncertain work — some days we toil for hours, loosening layers of dirt and the rich ores and jewels elude us. Does it bother you to work on the ground with me?
Speak up, soro soke — let me hear you loud and clear.
You've enriched my life and I want to reciprocate. Let the neighbors curse the day I threw your welcome home party. I want the walls in this house to reek of your favorite meal. But if I don't know what you are, I can't know what you need.
What do you need from me?
I know you need some level of dedication, but are we talking a monogamous relationship or can we see other people? I have other needs that you may not be able to satisfy. I mean, I have bills that need to be paid. Do you want that role? Is it fair for me to pin that responsibility on your shoulders?
Can I take rest days? Or will you nag like my Apple Watch when I fail to hit my goals?
I have an inkling we could do great things together. I see us taking our canvas on tour in different forms: physical books, stage work, multi-sensory in-person events. More formats. Bigger bets. But I don't know… maybe that's delusion speaking. People like when we collab — they read our newsletter, they bought our magazine.
But do you want the job? Do you want to chase dollars or do you just want to play?
You know I have other guests here too, right?
You awaken one of my favorite selves. I know you know that. But Writer Tobi shares a home with others. He struts through the house as if he owns it. We only have one dryer in this home, so he has to take his baggy baroque printed shirts with the Cuban collars, and his cropped slim-but-never-skinny jeans, out of the damn thing and hang them up every once in a while. Engineer Tobi needs his clean fuzz-free hoodies. Ambitious Tobi needs his lucky pair of cream pants. Those guys don’t understand your random visits and razzle dazzle. They crave routines and deadlines, products and scale.
Sometimes, our house is aligned — we all embrace the multitudes within and reject the notion of being pigeonholed into a single identity. But when the going gets tough and time is at a premium, you pull me in different directions, and I’m unsure where to go.
Engineer Tobi wants to hunker down to build an AI app. Writer Tobi wants to learn how to write poetry and make short films. Ambitious Tobi wonders how the hell we’re going to make any real money.
But wait — what if you are my core activity?
Maybe I have misunderstood you so far. I saw you through a reductive capitalistic lens. As though you’re a resource that needs to be mined and mechanized into some kind of profit. I tried to commandeer you with words like “productivity” and “ROI” that are meaningless to you. Like barking at a couch.
You know what? This has been fun, but let's just end this charade. I'm not talking to anyone but myself.
Here’s what I know is true—the writing is me. It’s more me than many other competing activities. This past year of writing has been spiritual — it introduced me to my creativity in a visceral way, and connected me with hundreds of readers. It is life-affirming and non-negotiable.
Writing is the jazz I jam with. It's the clay in my hands and the shovel digging within. It’s not a coat that I can ever take off. I grew up believing the unfortunate lie that the sciences are superior to the arts. That took me on a path — chemical engineering to biotech to software engineering — where I often flexed my quantitative brain, but left the creative guy twiddling his thumbs at home.
But it was awe and wonder that drove me to science. Science class was the playground for imagination. Like what do you mean these characters — these tiny, invisible molecules — dance around all day and eventually collide with their neighbors to birth new characters with new personalities? Or how does a tiny cut on your skin know how to heal itself — snip snip, and a choreography of cells work together to stitch, cover, and tuck the area?
Discovering the feelings science stirred within me — wonder, possibility, a hunger for exploration — mirrored my awakening to the arts. Over the last year, I’ve found the same and much more on the creative coast. Writing won’t fall down from a tree and reveal the laws of gravity to you, but it will warm you, tickle you, draw tears from your eyes, and leave goosebumps on your skin.
So today, embracing writing feels less like a choice, but a natural return to my truest self. It’s admitting what’s obvious.
So what do I do with the tensions?
I harbor a romantic belief that I can resolve the tension between sustaining my art and swelling my wallet. But guarantees are elusive. Water and oil don’t like to mix naturally. But you can force them together with an emulsifier and elbow grease. Anyone who’s ever made a vinaigrette knows this.
In some ways, this is what we do when we task our creativity with fetching dollars for us. You can do it, and sometimes you’ll make an emulsion that’s stable. But it might break under the expectations you — yes, you, the creative, put on it. Or it might break because you’re spending half your week pitching and begging editors, or becoming fluent in the disease that is LinkedIn-ese, instead of writing.
So what then?
Find the notes of harmony. Physics nerds know the idea of constructive interference — basically when you add two waves together, and the resulting wave is as “tall” as if you added the “heights” of both waves.
That’s what I’m trying to do. I started Circle Back Copy — a technical storytelling consulting business that weaves the best facets of my personalities in one. Instead of fielding battles between my ambitious, creative, and analytical selves, I’m trying to harmonize them.
It’s an experiment in keeping my creative and financial emulsion stable. Here’s hoping it holds together, so that Writing doesn’t have another reason to intrude in my space to splatter my unfinished drafts — and the emulsion — right in my face.
Foster is a collective of writers who are united by our belief in the transformative, life-affirming power of the written word.
We’re doing big things in the New Year! Watch this space for details.
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