fighting the shoulds
I’ve recently seen someone on Twitter saying that they like seeing all these people writing on Substack and figuring their life out in the process. It does feel like that when I’m writing here.
I used to be stressed about writing because it felt terminal; like I had to believe in what I’ve said until the end of time. But I realize now that that is just another form of writer’s block, another form of preventing myself from saying what I think.
The antidote to that is publishing weekly, a form of self-confirmation that I have something interesting to say every week. The good and interesting thoughts need to be pulled from me like carrots from the soil, and they won’t be pulled on their own. So when I publish every week, I pull the carrot. Or, as James Altucher would say: I train my idea muscle. I think that the result is inevitably becoming more interesting as a person.
Where’s the fun in writing essays for yourself and never showing them to anyone? How do you know you will have enough time to improve your writing skills privately and then start publishing? For me, there has to be some stake in it. I have to risk something. Otherwise, it’s not that interesting.
I did not publish anything for a long time because I wanted to write a lot and published only 10% of that. The reasoning is that you filter out your bad writing by doing that. But that made me lose interest in writing. I was trying to be someone that I was not. I was listening to Hemingway, who said, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the waste-basket.” I was stuck in “shoulds”. I should this; I should that. I write the best when I stop thinking about “shoulds” and just relax.
Also, there’s another problem with writing, and I’ve discovered it in my own, perhaps because of consuming too many thought misleaders on Twitter. The problem of trying to pontificate. Giving advice. Trying to sound more impressive. I don’t like that, so I want to minimize that. I don’t really have it all figured out. And also, it’s easy to give advice and more difficult to follow it.
Another “should” that I followed was preventing myself from writing about writing. Having fences like that, in my thoughts, never works well. Not only because saying “don’t think about the pink elephant” will have the obvious effect but also because I essentially add unnecessary weight for myself, something that I need to think about all the time instead of just relaxing and writing about what is the most interesting to me. It’s like having a prison ball attached to one’s mind.
Writing about writing became a no-no once I read an essay from a writer I admire (TJB) complaining that the fakest “online content creators” are full of ideas about writing and little else, which is true to an extent. Like how content creators in the note-taking space only write about note-taking without doing anything interesting with their notes. What’s funny is that my rule that I should avoid writing about writing is also obviously a “should”. The truth is that I do enjoy reading writing-related essays and what my favorite writers think about writing. It’s one of my favorite things to read about. So I don’t know why I valued the opinion of TJB instead of just listening to my intuition.
I think people can detect when you’re holding back in your writing, and there’s also a negative effect on the writer. Because as you’re writing, you know you’re holding back and suppressing some thoughts. When you’re being withdrawn, self-censoring not only drains out the censored thoughts but affects other thoughts because of the energy that is spent on suppression. The mind learns that it can’t be free.
It’s funny how we usually consider ourselves works in progress and see others as set in stone. If they do something bad, it’s just a part of their character. It’s a pattern of their usual behavior. When we do it, it’s because we are tired or annoyed by someone or something. I think we do that because we want to categorize other people. Put labels on them to make it easier to characterize them. The world is complicated, and we think it’s more ordered than it is. MBTI having 16 types of personalities is just one example of collective cope for that. We want everyone to be legible, but the most interesting people are illegible and uncategorizable.
Reading my past journals has taught me that even if I don’t especially try being consistent and even if I’m under the impression that my beliefs often change, in reality, it’s much more consistent than I think. But there’s danger in being too consistent with one’s beliefs out of concern for one reputation, as belief consistency is usually regarded as something virtuous.
There’s an Endowment Effect at play with writing. Because you have written about something, you are more likely to be possessive about these thoughts and less likely to let them go if the time for that comes. After all, people will talk about your writing, usually thinking you still strongly believe in what you have written. In reality, each of my essays is like a snapshot of my thinking at that point in time. There are no guarantees it won’t change in a week.