writing & working
unearthing space to breathe
In honor of reaching 50 essays on this substack (wow that’s a lot of thoughts uploaded to the internet), I wanted to write a little meta-post on writing
Writing is an act I do alone but when I’m writing I feel less alone. I’m writing on the bus through Chinatown, watching the lines spill out of Good Mong Kok Bakery. I get terribly carsick. I’m eating an Italian ice on the grass, head lolling back like a child — summer in SF is syrupy in the day, freezing at night. Running with you on the pier, my heart feels like it could burst. When I write I metabolize my inputs from the world. How I felt in those moments: Ecstatic. Tired. Quiet. Alive.
There are some people who live majority of their life in the past or the future and not the present. E says that acquiring a regular, stable state of happiness is pretty easy if your mind is 90% focused on the present. Damn. I think I live 50% of my life in the past. But I’m working on shrinking that down.
Unexpectedly, writing has made me more present. The quality of my attention is sharper, cleaner. I listen more closely. The world zooms in, feels realer, more intimate. A freckle, a bell tolling, a moment unraveled.
Presently: I’m working, writing, sleeping, eating, living.
People ask me all the time how to prioritize writing while working. I tell them my mantra is to just keep chipping away. I open up my document and write one sentence. I close the browser. I collect things in my day: on notes app, on voice memos. Ordinary things, textures, conversations, singular words. Later that weekend I wake up early and write.
The right question isn’t whether you have enough time to write — because there is logistical time for anything you properly prioritize — the actual difficulty is allowing space for beauty, inspiration, and general insight. That requires so much space. It takes space between stimulus and response to hear your own voice clearly. To trust it. Direct it. To appreciate incremental improvements in quality, to develop good taste.
It’s true: some hobbies die when you start working. I spend too much time in my to-do list and emails and Zoom. I lose things like a snake molts, shedding the blanket of the past. But I don’t want to lose writing. I don’t want to lose beauty. I don’t believe you have to sacrifice writing to work. And you can still be great at your job while pursuing an interest intently. But in return you must be disciplined in creating space for creativity. Treat creative endeavors with as much importance as a job. Create writing groups. Set up rituals. Make time. Be paradoxically systematic in your life. View writing as an internal occupation.
Humans like to complicate everything, but I think devotion is simple. It means turning up humbly again and again to the mat. Practice. Presence. Effort. That’s all there is. I unearth myself through writing: all my fear and doubt and yearning and wonder. And once I get to the tension point when it feels hard and effortful and I’m beginning to write nonsense and I want to give up, I take that as a sign that I simply must write some more.
Some notes on writing:
From the legendary jazz musician Miles Davis: it took me years to play like myself. Finding your own voice takes a very long time. It’s okay to emulate people you admire, to iterate, and to change your style.
The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, Michelangelo said, It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.
You already have everything you need to start writing. To start writing well, you need to take all your raw material and halve it and then halve it again. Restart. Reword. Rethink.
Everything is available material. Ordinary moments are made divine by the fact that they are happening in this particular moment in time.
Harness momentum. When I feel like I want to write something, I drop everything and do it then and there. If I wait I always lose the thread.
Set up a good fermentation environment for your ideas. Tighten your inputs, give yourself longer time frames. Have patience. I liked this post by Nat Eliason
As Thoreau writes, “Know your own bone. Gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still.” Keep returning to what you think you’ve said well and dig even deeper. Say it again, only better.
Some boring and *very realistic* routines I set:
On Sat or Sun when I first wake up I don’t check devices at all and I write for an hour by hand. Free flow thinking, and I circle all the important ideas that come out of it
I collect ideas I want to write about during the week on Pocket, Notion, Are.na, notes app, voice memos but I don’t pressurize myself to even start a piece until the weekend
I read every night. This is potentially the most important thing to do.
I edit on Monday or Tuesday nights, and if I’m feeling the perfectionism cramp I just send the substack to readers as long as it passes a minimum bar of personal quality control
I try very hard not to miss more than 1.5 weeks of writing this substack
I remind myself often that not every piece has to be perfect to be visible. And not every piece has to be relatable or read widely to be good. That makes me feel free.
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Books on Writing I recommend:
From Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg:
Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whle bodies. I call this ‘composting’. Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect exeprience, and from the decomposition of the thown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds and old steak bones come nitrogen heat and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories
Tangentially, I also think writing is related to developing your own taste:
Susan Sontag: There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion — and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It's rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.” The sought-after interior designer may not mind gas station coffee. The prolific composer may not give a damn about how they dress.
French song of the Week