It’s 11pm on a Thursday night. I don’t have work tomorrow because it’s a public holiday, Hari Raya Haji. I’d like to spend some time writing word vomits before I go to bed. How many word vomits can I write in a short amount of time? I believe my record for writing a vomit was about 15 minutes. How many words per minute is that? 1000 / 15, which is… 200 / 3, about 70 words per minute? Gosh, that’s really fast. I think that was back when I was trying to get my vomits out without thinking at all about what I was saying. It might be interesting to spend a few minutes to write that quickly. That would mean finishing this vomit by 1115pm. And it’s already 1102pm. Oh dear. Well, let’s just keep going and we’ll see where we end up.
(It’s kind of cheating to be talking out loud, but is it really? And does it really matter? Actually we can elaborate on this to find something interesting. What does it mean to talk out loud when writing, and how is it different from actually writing? I suppose the distinction I’m really trying to make is – is it filler, or is it not? Filler is whatever you’d remove on a second pass while you’re editing. The thing is, as soon as I’ve said that, I know that it’s not entirely accurate. It’s not as simple as removing “umms” and “ahhs”. Sometimes the filler thoughts provide structure, and if you try to remove them, what remains is quite incomprehensible. In which case I suppose you’ll just have to restructure the whole thing – which is a lot more work than you expect when you first set out to write a first draft. But that’s just how it is. You can’t gripe or complain about it – that achieves nothing. You just have to rework it over and over again until it’s right, or until it’s good enough for you to abandon and move on.
Another thing is, there are no real signals for you to follow. No external signals, anyway. You don’t know in advance if anybody cares about what you’re working on. When you’re writing a novel in isolation, you’re not going to get any of that yummy external feedback and social validation that makes it so fun to sit on twitter, for example. You have to somehow find a way to be driven from within. And why is that hard to do? It really shouldn’t be. Is it true or is it not, that I am the most interesting person in my life, to me? I think it’s true, at least relatively speaking. So why don’t I care more about my own opinion? Why don’t I care more about my own approval? Why not try to create work that I personally find amusing, compelling, interesting, gratifying?
I suppose we tend to think of self-gratification as this sort of arrogant, narcissistic thing that should be stamped out. But as I’ve been wanting to point out with my essay-in-progress on taste – isn’t all good art rooted in self-gratification? Not a cheap, sugar-and-drugs sort of self-gratification, but a deeper, more profound self-gratification. When you gratify your deeper, fully, whole-r self. It can be done, that’s what artists do. I want to say “That’s what Shakespeare and Da Vinci did”, although to be fair I haven’t researched them enough to say that definitively. I’m sure they also had broader ecosystems that they participated in. They didn’t do what they did as purely intellectual exercises. They were men of the world, and they lived in the world, and they had worldly concerns. They too had to put food on their tables. They too had to find ways of earning a paycheck while simultaneously serving their art. This did not diminish their art. If anything, it probably elevated it. I think that’s what Stephen Pressfield would’ve argued. You have to work with the constraints that you are dealt, and when you are artful about it, your constraints are precisely what give your work the context it needs to be embedded in the world. You can’t work on things in a purely abstract sense. Surely even “purely abstract art” operates in a worldly context, where it says “I am different from this, I am exalted, I am profound,” or whatever.
Anyway, it’s not like I’m in the business of creating abstract work. I want my work to be concrete, to be significant, to be meaningful to people. I want blood and guts and emotions. I’m thinking about what one of my colleagues wrote on a status update on LinkedIn. He’s experimenting with doing that whole “write a series of sentences with some sort of emotional conflict and payoff and takeaway” shtick – and to his credit, I think he’s doing a pretty good job of it. So much so that I’m starting to wonder if I’m missing out on something. I haven’t been writing word vomits for some time, and I’ve been trying to figure out why that is – at least at the back of my mind. And I suppose at the heart of it is – it stopped being interesting. It stopped being exciting. It started to feel like a tedious, burdensome thing. And as I write now, 80% done with a single vomit, one out of an intended thousand, I find myself thinking that there’s no way that could actually be true. It’s a false sort of perception. It’s like thinking that you’re too tired to exercise. It’s a trap.
The truth is, writing gives me life. Writing shakes the dust off my bones. Writing is a conduit for me, thinking through my fingers. It’s how I make sense of myself and the world around me. And as I scan the words that have passed through my fingers these past 10 minutes – and I do this almost sub-vocally rather than visually – I know that I have improved. I have gotten better at playing with the symbols we call alphabets, and arranging them into words, sentences, paragraphs. Maybe I am ready now to re-read Bird by Bird, and to get into a more rigorous study of language and its effects. I’ve always known that this is what I’m supposed to do with my life. I’ve always known that this will be my deepest love of all. And I can feel it. I can feel it calling. When I move fast and I don’t overthink things, I sense that there is a rhythm to all of this, there are colors, there is light.