Why I Write (and Why I Don’t Write)

Back in February, I attended my first Walpole family reunion as an adult, and therefore as someone remotely capable of enjoying family reunions.

I’ve already had my disillusionments about “family blood” and “family pride.”  Too many family gatherings can just be self-congratulatory about how amazing your ancestors were (this reunion, for the record, was a great and fun gathering). Still, I think there’s some value in understanding what kind of genes and what kind of moral legacy you’re dealing with. Whether you’ll be right to continue or end a trend in your family line depends on that knowledge of your family’s past.

This time around, I got the chance to engage some of my fellow family history nerds in the past of our little clan. And, of course, as a die-hard Game of Thrones fan, I was keen to learn about the Walpole family’s sigils and house mottos. It turns out that we have a cool one.

“Fari qua sentiat” – “To speak what one feels”

– Robert and Horace Walpole family crest inscription

The Walpoles really dodged a bullet there. We could have gotten something really objectionable – there’s no telling with these Norman conquerors and their mottos.

While I don’t know what exactly what “Fari qua sentiat” meant for these Walpoles, I do know what it means for me. And it means a lot.

The Call to Write

Integrity is a state of full harmony between your inner values and your actions. Just like a building has structural integrity, so does a personality. It turns out that clear and forthright speech – speaking your mind – about what you’ll value and how you will act is a good sign that you’re working toward that integrity. That integrity helps you get through existence in one piece – literally and figuratively.

“Fari qua sentiat” is what I want, and who I want to be. For somebody as skeptical of “family legacy” as I am, the motto of my distant English Walpole relatives fits pretty well with what I want out of life.

Writing and speaking truthfully change me. It has set me free from a lot of my own worst self-deceptions. It has helped me to shed the self-defeating ideas I’ve gained from others. Writing has made me more confident. Writing has helped me to engage with new ideas actively, and not just passively. It’s helped me to orient myself clearly in the world, stake out my strong beliefs, and communicate how those beliefs are constantly changing and growing. I feel most free, most alive, and most fulfilled when I’m writing truthfully.

The Existential Fear of Writing

You would think that having recognized my deep need to “speak what I feel”, I would have no trouble sitting down and writing. Not so.

I’ve frequently talked about writing, called myself a writer, set out to write something, and then have not written anything at all. I’ve spent much of my life forming ideas and promptly hiding them away or arguing fruitlessly about them, but certainly not communicating them out in the open. In the past several years, I’ve become more intentional about creating publicly, but I still will go for months without a word.

Regardless of whether I call it writer’s block, lack of inspiration, “being busy,” or “other goals,” what really keeps me from writing is fear. Because if you haven’t noticed yet, speaking and writing what you feel and think is scary as hell. It’s likely to get someone, somewhere to call you a heretic, a fanatic, insensitive, unacceptable, impolite, improper, unintelligent, naive, degenerate, or reprobate. You’re almost certain to be misunderstood, even by the choirs you are trying to preach to. And the closer you get to home with things that matter, the more likely the critics are to be people whose opinions can cut deep – your family, your friends, your coworkers, your role models.

I don’t normally admit that these fears drive my stretches of silence on this blog. The truth is that my various excuses for fear have cost me months and years of speaking what I feel – which means that they’ve cost me that many of years of a more fully integrated “me.”

Why I Return to Writing

“‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me'”

– Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven”

So, what do I do about all of this existential dread of writing pulling against all of this my desire to speak what I feel? One existential fear counters another. What brings me back to the blank page: the existential fear of not writing.

I feel like I’m adding to an invisible burden when I gain any kind of wisdom or insight but don’t write about it. It may be true that there are few original ideas. Much of the new is a remix of the old. But the ways I experience the world will never be experienced by anyone else, and occasionally I may actually have a chance to say something that makes me and/or someone else a better and more human being. Do I let the words that would do that work just die by suffocation? Or do I get them out of my head and into the world? We all have that thing – some people say it’s the drive for immortality – that tells us that our vision cannot and must not die with us.

Making your values real – gaining integrity – is the most important decision humans have to make every day. Every moment, actually, is the a choice between creating a division or harmony between your inner world and your outer world. Evasion of the responsibility to integrate the two and to incarnate your most important values into your everyday existence will lead you to a very dark place.

The author Stephen Pressfield frames this decision to create or not to create (which, if you think about it, is close to “to be or not to be”) as a battle against something called “Resistance.” Resistance sums up every part of the existential fear of creating I talked about. What happens when you lose that battle to Resistance, or fail to fight Resistance to begin with?

“You know, Hitler wanted to be an artist. At eighteen he took his inheritance, seven hundred kronen, and moved to Vienna to live and study… Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I’ll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas.”

– Stephen Pressfield, The War of Art

Avoiding that place of meaningless is a major motivator for me to do my work and write (even when it’s past 2 AM, as at this current writing). I don’t want to be Hitler. Moreover, I definitely want to be James Walpole. Fortunately, I’m starting to love the process of fighting this battle every day. This human thing can be an end in itself. I may actually learn how to shoulder my burden and write out what I think and feel truthfully.

The War of Art

“Fari qua sentiat” wouldn’t be on a crest – a literal shield for, you know, battle purposes – if speaking what you feel was easy. It is a battle, and you’d better carry your damn shield. You’d better remind yourself every day of who you are and what you do. You’re one those people who speak their minds.

Everyone who speaks and writes their mind shares that “fari qua sentiat” spirit. To the extent you do, I consider you an honorary Walpole. Let’s hold each other accountable to speak and write what we feel, cousins.

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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