The following is a post that I wrote on Aug 6 2014. It had only 750+ words, which wasn’t enough for my arbitrary standards. I’m adding more to it and hitting publish just to get it out.
I think there’s a tempo to writing word vomits that I wasn’t completely aware of before.
In any given instance, I may be in one of two broadly defined states: let’s temporarily call them wet and dry. There are almost definitely many other sub-states within these two states, but wet vs dry will do for what I’m talking about.
When ‘wet’, I have almost fully-formed thoughts that I’m eager and ready to express. Everything is well lubricated. If I need to look for an idea, I simply need to reach out to grab it. Sometimes, I get a little too slippery and everything just slips and slides around without really going anywhere.
When dry, I have nothing. I may have tonnes of raw material at the back of my mind, but it’s too vast, too solid, too vague, too cluttered and messy for me to make any meaning of. Things are painful. There’s a lot of friction, and the stuff that comes out usually isn’t that great either. There’s no soul.
The processing of raw idea-materals
Yes, that’s it. Writing is like trying to express thoughts through a nozzle. The problem is that thoughts come in many different forms, most of which are too bulky, solid or viscous to go through a nozzle. The thinker’s job is to break down these raw idea-materials into thoughts that are manageable, digestible, communicable.
Some of this happens naturally, subconsciously. The mind mulls over these raw idea-materials. It applies a kind of acid to them. In the early stages, it simply struggles to accommodate it. To attempt to grasp the size, scale and quantity of things. This is when you get mindblown by scale and you’re forced to upgrade your mental schemata just to take everything.
But that’s just the beginning. After that you probably want to make sense of it- What does it mean for you in the context of your Lifegame? You take things apart, put them together, flip then around, rearrange them, remix them. Eventually you figure out configurations that please and satisfy you, and you figure out a way to express it in a way that’s useful to you.
So that loosely describes most creative work, I think, and at the very least it describes my struggle to do word vomits. The interesting thing about the word vomits is that I don’t have a specific agenda- I just want to play with thoughts and ideas and express it all through a million words. This has led to some strange situations- sometimes I run out of things to say.
Writer’s block can be caused by many things
Ah, I’m addressing writer’s block. It’s an oversimplistic term that implies that writers either write or they do not. It focuses on just the final stage of the process. Are you writing? If you are, good. If you’re not, why? You must be blocked. Why are you blocked? What can you do to get unblocked?
So anyway. Sometimes I have working material to put through the nozzle. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I run out of the raw material. I used to think that the solution to that is to just keep practicing, to keep writing even when you’re dry. Eventually you’ll squeeze something out, and maybe you’ll get renergised by the process and find that you actually had an entire unused stash of reserve energy and raw material. Sometimes this works- when you know you haven’t been writing.
A workout analogy- if you come home from work and you don’t feel like running or hitting the gym, often you’ll find that showing up at the gym anyway is enough to give you enough energy to work out- and in fact the workout will energise you overall and you’ll feel better. But this advice doesn’t work if you’ve been working out really hard every day already. Pushing yourself harder when you’re already spent doesn’t yield very much. In fact it can damage or injure you in some way, or at least leave a really bad taste in your mouth. Maybe you need a healthier diet, maybe you need more sleep, maybe you need to rest while your muscle tissues heal and regenerate.
Perfect form is good to have, but it isn’t always the critical factor. Similarly, if you get stuck when writing, the problem might be that you’re “not warmed up”, sure. But you might also be overheated. You might also be empty, dry, spent.
I spent quite a bit of my time trying to force myself to do word vomits every day. Sometimes it yielded good stuff, but sometimes it really didn’t, and I would feel guilty and bad for not having written. On hindsight though, I had just said everything that I had to say at that point in time. I should put down the nozzle and go and sit by the glacier. And if I sit and listen- or maybe walk around it, inspect it, even bring a friend around it- I may find that a huge chunk of it breaks right off. And there we have our new material.
All of this is recursive
This is going to get a little meta: I couldn’t finish this vomit while I was writing it. It was tentative. I was just trying on the lens, trying to wrap my head around the idea to see if it worked. I think it does. I think writing is just the final stage of a much larger process of making sense of reality. You need to make observations. You need to pay attention. You need to have hypotheses and ideas about how things work. Paul Graham recently tweeted that you can’t just be an expert in X to be a great teacher of X. You need to also be an expert in all the ways people fail at X. I think that’s really important and useful to meditate on. That there’s two parts to meaningful, skillful expertise. Being good at writing when everything is going great doesn’t mean you’ll be a great writer. You might write one or two great pieces but they might be flukes. The real challenge I think is to have and maintain a process over an extended period of time, ideally your whole life. How do you write in the bad times?
That’s the rub.