0115 – how to write for a living

I’m a pretty good writer by most general standards. Not the best in the world, but significantly better than average- enough for me to have the wonderful privilege of turning down job offers. What role did school have to play in this? Not very much. I got straight A’s for English and GP, but that’s not enough. I didn’t get those grades from my schooling, I got it from reading hundreds, maybe thousands of books. My favourite teaches encouraged me, the syllabus only got in the way.

To this day, I cringe when look at my writing after JC. It’s cumbersome, convoluted. I inherited some of the style of the setting I was in, and it took a couple of years to beat that out of my system. A lot of “everyday” Singaporean writing has that quality. Tedious, longwinded. Many of us spend a lot of time saying very little. (My vomits are longwinded too, but I’m not trying to make any sort of specific point with these vomits- I’m just exploring. When I’m done exploring I will condense the good stuff, best as I can.)

It took several more years of arguing online and over 1,000 blogposts before I think my writing became something that can pay for a HDB flat.

How To Write For A Living

Everybody needs to sell stuff. All marketing is the communication of value. You can try writing and selling your own stuff right from the start- maybe work in an entirely unrelated field, like Einstein did, or Rod Stewart- or you can try to get wok in some sort of writing field (I believe Dickens was a journalist). The challenge is to find an overlap between stuff you want to write and stuff others want to read. (And I guess stuff that people will pay for.) Before the paid stuff, though, I recommend focusing on the overlap of what you want and what others want…

actually this is almost unnecessarily pedantic. What matters is quality writing. Seth Godin is quality writing, and he publishes almost every day. Paul Graham is quality writing, and he publishes a lengthy essay every few months or so. Scott Adams, Marc Andreesen. If any of these guys wrote a book about anything, people will buy it. I think the same applies to many top Quorans, Redditors, Hacker News folk. Write good stuff, and the audience will gather over time.

So how do you write good stuff? The thing about writing, or any other kind of art, I think- is that to get to the good stuff you have to take risks, and when you take risks there’s always the chance that it won’t work out the way you want it to. You have to learn to live with tat. Most successes got there by failing more times than the non-runners even tried. Jordan has a nice quote on this. “I fail… that is why I succeed”. Something like that.

A good way to diminish failure and develop a god-like aura is to have a few trusted folk read our stuff before you release it to the general public. PG does this- it means that you can get very polished stuff. I don’t think Seth Godin does this as much with his daily blog- he just keeps posting, day in, day out. That’s kinda my plan too- I’m playing the quantity game. I’m willing to make more mistakes and fall flat on my face more often, (because the cost of shipping is so unbelievably low- 0) for even a 0.1% chance of doing something that really resonates with people.

Sometimes you know when you’re writing that it’s going to be big. This isn’t one of those times, because lots has been written about this already, and this isn’t particularly punchy, powerful, unique. Don’t care, writing anyway. Sometimes you’ll have no idea. Some people tell me that I lose credibility by sometimes writing nonsense. In the long run of course I want to be progressively less nonsensical, inaccurate, wrong. But I think I’m also not too bothered about being publicly wrong. Correct me.

I rather be wrong publicly and be corrected than be wrong internally… and honestly, I just have an internal predisposition or a preference for this style. This is what works for me. I like it. I’ll change it when I feel like it’s not working- that day may come. In the mean time, I’m trying to make a point about quantity. 1000 x 1000 words, do you know anybody else who’s done this? (Actually, I’m sure there are. I’d like to meet them.)

But basically, write like hell about everything that matters to you, and even things that don’t, and put it out into the world. You’ll get feedback. Just remember not to take it personally- take it as feedback on your work, not on you. And your work is not yours. The worst feedback can be absolute indifference, but I think that’s quite rare if you stick with something long enough, and write about things that you really care about. There are bound to be other people out there who care about what you care about too, and they’ll reach out to you.

That’s the power of the internet, and search- the ability for others to find you. Why bother EVER going out of your way to look for people? I don’t have a resume. I’d love it if I never have to have one, because I have a “long tail resume”- my blog. Want to figure out if you want to hire me? Google my name. This might offend or upset 99,999 out of 100,000 people. I don’t care, I’m only interested in that last person.

Back to school- everything I learnt in school was largely by accident, almost never by design. Mrs Teo showed me what unconditional love and support look like. Mr Koh CH and Mr. J Lai showed me that maths was cool. Ali and Lim showed me that history was interesting. (Low, too.) Wong Pei showed me that chemistry could be EPIC. I love teachers who care. There are few things as beautiful or enriching as a teacher (or a healthcare professional, etc) who truly gives a shit, and essentially takes a pay cut to demonstrate it. Done for now.


0114 – life should be exciting, and we should see it

Say things that matter.

Life should be exciting.

It won’t be easy. Sometimes even waking up is hard to do. But life should be exciting. There’s just so much going on, so much to do, so much to partake in, participate in. There will inevitably be boring, tiresome and schleppy work. But life should be exciting.

The first challenge is to see it. I saw it in primary school (in a primitive sense), which was why I taught myself HTML. Games are exciting, which is why I played them. They present surmountable challenges with a compelling narrative and payoff. But video games are often (so far, at least) limited. They can help you see things differently and open your mind to new possibilities and perspectives (and that alone is worth playing for), but that’s still one step remove from you actively sucking the marrow out of life. From making an active, lasting contribution to yourself and the world around you. To be in Flow in everyday life, and not just in a partitioned activity.

Books and games help with the seeing. Travelling does, too. Writing three. Makes sense to identify what works for you and to schedule it regularly. I have “seen the light” on multiple occasions- it’s absolutely beautiful and everybody else should see it too. But it is never quite enough. It decays over time, over life. Here we reach our first dilemma.

Don’t see -> encounter input/clash idea (through randomness, or on schedule) -> See -> Do

The “see” bit decays over time. Everyday living clouds it. Inner appetites cloud it. Advertising clouds it. The expectations of others cloud it. For me, school clouded it. An interesting parlor game question to explore is- what would life be like if school were not a concern? If grades absolutely didn’t matter, and all that mattered were learning and pleasure. Explore the idea of a school-free existence.

Explore school-free life idea, or assume school is an inevitable reality to be dealt with? Both will yield interesting perspectives, but I have to pick one as I write this. What would life be like if school were not an option?

“Life has a dehumanizing effect”, said a friend of mine when I joked that clubbing was dehumanizing. I laughed at it then and chided her for being cynical, but she’s right. There’s a certain… “entropy” that happens in day-to-day life. It wears you out. Almost everything about the world around you is designed to wear you out, to cloud your inner vision so that you act in accordance with what is desired by others.

What does it mean to be “human”? For the purpose of this exploration, we don’t need to get overly philosophical or abstract or absolute- I’ll just define it in contrast to its opposite in this context. To be dehumanized in this context is to lose your personal autonomy, to become a machine, an automaton following the instructions of others. So to be human (in this context) is to be free to choose, free to act, free to explore and follow your bliss.

Preliminary objections arise- aren’t there people who live and work like automatons, yet are happy? I used to reject this idea altogether. I refused to even consider it, because considering it made me uncomfortable. I was happy to hold on to my cherished belief that you’re either some sort of rogue/renegade/delinquent at odds with the system, or you’re a mindless cog- you just don’t realize it yet. But careful examination (for me- for others this might be self-evident) reveals that there ARE hard-working people who follow routines to the letter and are still happy- in fact, happy BECAUSE of their routines, and not necessarily in a localized, limited, “simpleton” way.

The simplest example that comes to mind is the Olympic athlete, who wakes up at 4am every morning to practice his routines. She does it deliberately, with focus. She strives to improve every single time. She is clear-headed, increasingly precise and develops autonomy WITHIN the constraints of her practice regimen. She develops mastery, and joy. The same applies to musicians, and writers. I myself have sort of felt this feeling on several occasions when writing, and my regimen is sloppy at best.

So this is the pursuit of art (and I think high-level sport has a lot of parallels with art, if it isn’t art itself). An artist holding himself up to a routine for the sake of his art- he’ll be happy, sure. This was the Tiger Mother hypothesis, isn’t it? Force your kids to practice goddamn hard at something- the pleasure will come later, when they figure out what they want to say with their remarkably skilled voices.

What about the laborer? The working class, illiterate laborer, struggling in the fields to make ends meet, that his children might have a better life than him. Is he happy? Maybe yes, maybe no. I’m guessing the real answer is… that the question “am I happy” is a luxury he cannot afford.

That said, I have two thoughts there- one is the sense of purpose he must have, knowing that his struggle means something. It’s still a kind of art- his art is his daughter, who will go to school and learn her numbers and live a far more comfortable, blessed existence than he. When you have something to live for, something to fight for, then the pitiful struggle of everyday life can still be do well meaningful.

I don’t want to blame anybody but myself for what I’m about to say- but I felt neither pursuit applicable to me when I was in school. I did not see how it was art, and I did not see how it was related to my survival. I often tried to believe it- I’d psyche myself up about it, and I’d listen to my parents warn me about my future failure in life if I didn’t study… but I don’t know, it never worked for me. Somehow, deep down I didn’t quite believe it, it never felt real.

I do remember working as “casual labour” in Shangri-La Hotel, and I also remember working at the Singapore Airshow in 2010 to earn money to buy a ticket to watch Paramore. I also helped my dad with the family business (industrial waste disposal). I served NS, working as a storeman, then doing BMT, then a signals course. And, of course, now I’m doing marketing for ReferralCandy, running Statement, writing for Poached.

Am I happy? Human? Yes and no. But way more yes now than when I was in school (most of the time). What’s the difference?

I enjoyed working at Shangri-La. I got to learn about the hotel industry first-hand. See the underbelly of a large hotel- chefs, housekeeping. Management. I got to see some cool events- rich people getting married, corporate events, school proms. I got to hear kd lang perform at a charity auction. I got to see lots of people’s wedding montages. I even served chocolate to a bunch of old white men at a meeting between Boeing and Rolls-Royce, and I listened to a lecture by the London School of Economics. Also got to witness some Entrepreneur of the Year thing, some commonwealth thing. Saw a local media event where I bumped into a photographer friend of mine- MDA or journalism or something. I remember thinking that the culture felt a little toxic, vacuous.

When I worked with my dad, I got to see the underbelly of the industrial “scene” in Singapore, or at least some of it. Ever been inside a incinerator? I have! I’ve seen cars crushed into boxes, trash being compacted, felt the heat of our rubbish being burned. Recycling facilities. What’s the waste management like at a large religious festival? I’ve seen it. How do you talk to people of different socioeconomic classes? How do you work with foreigners, people you don’t share common languages with?

At the Singapore Airshow (back in 2010), I enjoyed witnessing how the managers managed. I remember at some point the overall I/C (a very intelligent, educated guy) sat us all down and thanked us (ah bengs, mats, ITE students) profusely, sincerely. He told us that the show wouldn’t have been possible without us. I remember feeling a bit of pride then. It was a great feeling, worth more than the money. I built friendships with some guys- fleeting, because we knew we’d never see each other again- but it meant something to me. It gave m a little more faith in humanity. The same applies for a lot of the fleeting relationships I built with fellow NSFs.

You do build friendships in school too, and that’s often touted as one of the benefits. But you build relationships anytime and anywhere you work with others on something, especially something that’s “real”, to be consumed by a general audience rather than a hyper-specific, artificial construct (teachers, students). You build friendships playing in a band, organizing gigs, even blogging about politics. I dropped by UTown a few weeks ago to catch Nassim Taleb, and I remember being rather surprised after the talk when I was walking around and surrounded by students chit-chatting about their lives. These folks (I have to resist saying “kids”) were my age or older, but I can’t relate to them very much anymore. My colleagues are a decade older than me. I’m married and I own a home, I pay a mortgage. Our ages might be identical but our concerns have diverged significantly.

It’s certainly my fault for not having the “right” attitude, but I learnt very little in school that was actually useful to me, or more importantly (in this pragmatic dog-eat-dog world) of value in the marketplace. School teaches you to be replaceable, not unique and outstanding, and this is a source of anxiety because it’s good for the system… at your expense.

Cutting up the vomit into two here, at 1.6k words


0113 – If I can become a smoker, I can build other habits, too

Alright this is the first word vomit I’m doing in quite a while. How long has it been? Feels like 2 or 3 weeks. I can’t check right now. I paused for a while to do summaries of my first 100 vomits- 10 vomits per summary, and I did 6 or 7 of those. Why the summaries? Well… I knew that I wanted to be able to get a quick glimpse or grasp of all 1000 vomits at the end, and reading through all of them from 0001 to 1000 sounds rather tedious, tiresome.

There’s an added side-benefit- when you do 100 vomits of 1000 words each, you’re going to forget what you had written in the earlier vomits. I kinda did, at least. Doing reviews and summaries allowed me to revisit my older thoughts and get a sense of the emerging bigger picture. Most importantly, they’ll keep me from repeating myself too much- I can congeal my earlier thoughts, revisit them if necessary… but I get ahead of myself.

I’ve been doing more reading, too. All of Paul Graham’s essays. I found this guy called Tom Albrighton- a freelance copywriter with a background in literature. Wonderful thinker, lucid mind. I’ve been reading a bit of Marc Andreessen’s old blog too- you actually gotta use the internet wayback machine to access that. I’ve been reading some Ribbonfarm, which I think has given me an appreciation for Big Infrastructure, Big Corporate, etc as ideas and concepts deserving of attention, study and reverence at the scale of nations and empires. The Gervais Principle has been something I’ve allowed to bounce around my head, but I’m starting to alrrady find it a little limiting. Not sure if it’s because I’m just misunderstanding it. But no matter, really. It has been useful to me. I might read some of the source material.

I also curated @hellofrmSG for a week. I volunteered to do it over a month or two ago because I was frustrated with one of the curators at the time and was convinced that I could do better. So that was what I spent my morning and evening commutes doing instead of writing. It was somewhat interesting. I think I learnt to be a bit more precise in my claims. Made a few new acquaintances, identified a few new people I want to follow on Twitter. But I think I’m going to be laying low on Twitter for a while. Interestingly I don’t quite have the same energy for social media that I used to.

Which brings me to cigarettes. I have been on a path away cigarettes ever since I started work, but I had relapsed a few times- then I was smoking only before and after work, then I was buying a pack maybe on the weekends, then I stopped buying packs altogether- and I had this really nice run of almost 2 months I think where I was 99% off cigarettes- bummed one from a friend at poker, 2 or 3 from a friend at a party of sorts- and kinda regretted it both times. My body started getting quite used to being smoke-free, and it felt good. Breathing deeply, seeing brightly, skin supple not dry, mouth clean and fresh.

Then 2 days ago I bought a pack- I really just wanted one cigarette- and I knew I shouldn’t smoke but I felt like doing something naughty anyway- but I hate bumming from people I don’t know. So I bought a pack.

It was a slog! I didn’t really enjoy it anymore. I finished it anyway, because I’m silly like that, but I don’t plan on buying another. I don’t even feel like I might want to. I’m too conscious now of the damage that cigarettes do to my teeth, nose, lips, gums. I stepped outside my bedroom to go to the toilet and my living room just stank of stale smoke, it was horrible. I hate it. I’m aware now of the clear distinction between a smoker’s life and a non-smoker’s, and the former is really nothing to aspire or look forward to. A smoke-free life is brighter, clearer, fresher, calmer, smoother (once you get past the initial shocks).

Now here’s what really gets me about all this- very little of any of this has to do with conscious choice. There was no magical point where I decided to stop and stop forever. It feels more like a renewing loop, where I sorta test this idea and it works, and then I do the opposite and it fails, then I try it again… turns out I’m actually quite a slow learner in some respects.

I’m so fixated on this partially because of my health, but also because I think there are clear correlations in habit formation and cessation… by which I mean to say every person is obviously unique and different in terms of how we’re wired, but our unique wiring seems to be somewhat internally consistent… no I don’t need to make such an unnecessary claim. All I’m saying is- I’ve made progress in quitting Facebook and quitting cigarettes. In both cases I relapsed several times, but the overall graph of my usage over time has been diminishing and that counts for something. The question is how do I apply this to other parts of my life?

If I can become a smoker, and I can become a Facebook addict, then I can also become a hyper-productive person, I can also be fit, I can also learn to be less socially abrasive. The challenge is to slog through it. I don’t know the details of the struggle, or the nature of it. But I am progressively, increasingly confident that I CAN be more than this (used to think I couldn’t), and they I WANT to be (used to be convinced that it “wasn’t the life for me”). So I believe I can, and I believe I want to. I need to next figure out how. I think that’ll involve environmental, situational changes and careful, regular evaluation of my mental state. I started to see that cigarettes were screwing up my health (I’m coughing and sniffling as I write this, ugh), that facebook made me petty and jealous, and both of them made me edgy and anxious.

I won’t change overnight, and there will be relapses, but I’m sticking to this. Ok I’m at work.