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I don't wanna!
me: [to myself] fuck you, i won't do what you tell me!!
“Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” – Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven
Maybe think of this as a “bottle episode”, one where “the artist grumpily steps out of his studio for an angry rant, before sheepishly promising that production has been ongoing and he will have something more substantial to show fairly soon-ish.”
I was in the middle of working on one of the dozens of drafts I have for this Substack, when the thought hit me like a brick to the head, “Fuck!! I don’t wanna do this shit!!” Oof. Yikes. Okay. I have to respect that. It also becomes clear to me that my shoulders have been wrenched and knotted for weeks, that I haven’t been sleeping well, I’ve been feeling tired and grumpy – all of these are clear signs I have been trying to ignore, so I’m grateful to whichever part of me decided to just blurt it out to me. So sorry folks, we gotta do some emergency maintenance here, but you’re welcome to watch if it that sort of thing interests you.
So. I figure I might as well write down what comes up in order to get it out of my system. It’s certainly been a while since I felt like there’s something I really wanna do, so let’s roll with what we got. Perhaps I can find a way to make it interesting and maybe funny enough that I feel it merits publishing. Maybe. We’ll see. Otherwise the fun I have here is just for me, and that’s cool in my book. But maybe also I’ll just publish whatever comes up anyway, because fuck you, that’s why! Lol. Let’s see.
I don’t wanna write some boring crap that I’m not enjoying.
If I find myself saying “oh god who gives a fuck??” in the middle of it, I’m out. Abandon draft. Even though, kinda funnily, at this stage, I have enough of an audience that I could probably assume that somebody somewhere is interested in almost anything I have to say. But the “who?” here is rhetorical, it’s really me being oblique about the fact that I don’t (currently) give a fuck. And if I’m not having a good time, everything I do gets contaminated by the subtle resentment that builds up. I don’t want that.
Navigating this is trickier than it might seem. It can be tempting, once you have an audience, to feel obliged to serve them and to try to give them what you think they want. There are several reasons for this. Part of it can be a kind of survivor’s guilt as a creative – many of us start out in relative obscurity, and never really expect to get much attention for our work – so if and when we are granted this cosmic gift of an audience, well, surely we must work to please them? To demonstrate that we are deserving of the opportunity?
I like how Bo Burnham described the audience/creator tension in his “can’t handle this” rant from his 2016 special, Make Happy:
“I can sit here and pretend like my biggest problems are Pringle cans, and burritos. The truth is, my biggest problem's you. I want to please you, but I want to stay true to myself. I want to give you the night out that you deserve, but I want to say what I think, and not care what you think about it. A part of me loves you, part of me hates you. Part of me needs you; part of me fears you. And I don't think that I can handle this right now.” – Bo Burnham
Wew. I think I’ve seen enough to know that when creators compromise on this, we end up desensitized and burnt out, and sometimes we quit the game entirely. I think that happens when we fail ourselves, when we lose sight of what we love and why we do what we do. It’s a kind of slow creative suicide, and it can be very tragic to watch.
There are other parts to the phenomenon of “audience capture” to get into – and funnily this is something that I have been observing and analyzing ever since I was a child, and have several unfinished drafts about. I’ve often described the pursuit of fame, celebrity, public figurehood, etc as a psychological extreme sport. Part of the reason I’m on the path that I’m on, tweeting and vlogging and writing, is that I want to really understand this game. It’s a sport that I’m drawn to, partially as a curious observer, which in turn drove me to becoming a curious player. I see smart, thoughtful people step into the arena and get beaten up so badly by it, compromising their values, and being emotionally and psychologically devastated.
Public attention has a way of putting you through a totalizing wringer, and through trial-and-error it will find your deepest insecurities and poke at them directly. People get driven insane by it. Why is that? Can it be avoided? Can I find a way to do it better, in a healthy and nourishing way? I still think it’s possible, and a sizeable portion of my life’s work has been about figuring this out – and not as an intellectual thought experiment, but by walking the path myself and reporting my findings. I’ll write more about that in a separate essay, but for now I want to get back to working through my frustrations.
Quickly though, I want to say very clearly to myself, for myself, that I do not want to publish something good if it means that I had to bully and coerce myself to do it. It’s just not worth it. I’m playing a long game here and it’s important to me that I enjoy the process, for its own sake, and also in order to keep playing for the rest of my life.
I don’t wanna repeat myself in a dull, dreary way.
Not all repetition is bad. In fact repetition is inevitable, and what great artists do is they find a way to be repetitive in a compelling and even exciting way. There’s really a limited set of things to talk about, just as there are a limited set of keys for a pianist to choose from. Yet music can be fresh, fun, surprising… even in its familiarity. There’s repetition that’s interesting – coming from a new angle that feels fresh, significant, meaningful – and there’s repetition that’s dull and dreary, recycled pablum.
What’s the difference? Can I explain it? Let’s try. I think a lot of it has to do with the intentionality you manage to bring to the table. I’m reminded of an old video of a jazz pianist, Kenny Werner, giving a masterclass and talking about what he calls effortless mastery. And there’s a moment where he confidently brings his entire hand down across multiple keys on the piano, which of course makes a big, discordant, jangly boom sound. And he says, “listen to how beautiful that sounds.” I truly think he changed my life with that. He helped me see that it’s the judgement, the criticism that an individual brings to their work that kinda ruins it. I’m rewatching the video now as I write this, and I find myself thinking, oh jeez, so my issue here is not repetition itself, or “boring crap”, but really my state of mind in approaching my work. Ah, crap, I even wrote a whole book about this, and I’m here again! It do be like that. And real humility, I think, is about seeing the humor in this, letting go of anger and frustration and resentment, and settling down again to do the work of remaking love.
“The thing that makes it sound good is your love and acceptance of it.” – Kenny Werner
I find myself thinking… abs are made in the kitchen, championships are won on the training ground, and a sustainable body of creative work is built on a foundation of the creator's psychological self-acceptance.
Revisiting past thoughts on boredom and repetition makes me re-realizing that what I need to do for myself here is the meta-work of searching for fresh nuance that I’m missing. It’s telling that this was a “waking thought” – it’s the sort of insight that’s obvious to me until I start worrying about bills and other minutiae.
I don’t wanna play defence over-preemptively.
Specifically, I mean that I don’t wanna contort myself in tedious overwrought ways just to try to avoid being misunderstood by someone who is motivated to misunderstand me. Life is too short for that, and past a certain threshold as an author or creator if you’re not careful you can end up spending all of their time playing defence, and what a miserable life that becomes. You can see the graveyard of creative souls that have been destroyed by this, and as I insinuated earlier, naively or otherwise, I intend to not join them.
I guess the thing I want to say here is that… being able to think defensively is an asset for a creative. It’s a significant part of why I’m good at what I do; how I’ve been able to avoid most unnecessary drama. I’ve just made it a habit to think through whatever I’m doing or saying, and interpret it through an antagonistic lens. I’ve described this as “redteaming”, or “redteam literacy”, after the military practice of having a “red team” play the role of the enemy in war games.
But while I’ve sermonized about the utility of being capable of redteaming, I don’t want to spend my life doing it all the time. That’s not fun. I had to grapple with this repeatedly when working on my book Introspect. The more ambitious a work, the more glaring its errors and omissions. “What if someone points out the inadequacies in my work?” I reminded myself that everybody can point to flaws and imperfections in their favorite works, and that this doesn’t diminish their love. And I also experienced a great relief when I decided to just do it myself – at several points in the book, I made some clear statements about the book’s weaknesses, what I wish I had been capable of doing, and so on.
If you take redteaming to the extreme, then the only logical move is to not do anything at all. Lots of people choose this option, and it makes me very sad, because these tend to be disproportionately the thoughtful people who actually have interesting perspectives worth sharing, work that would be beautiful… if they only made it. We are impoverished by the absence of all the creativity that is locked up behind such reasonable, understandable fears. So… for me to be the change I want to see in the world, I have to be capable of redteaming, but also more importantly be capable of accepting and loving my imperfect work, and be daring enough to put it out into the world and be accepting of whatever happens as a consequence.
Sidenote: It’s funny for me to read these words as I write them, because I remember being an arrogant, insecure, know-it-all teenager who wrote with much more bluster than I typically do now. People often say things like “Oh, I was an idiot back then,” but I’d actually say that I was right about a lot of things as a teenager. I just typically didn’t get the delivery or framing right, I’d be overly bombastic, dramatic… but I was right! Directionally speaking. I envy that kid’s daring, though maybe part of it came from a place of ignorance. Writing this makes it clear to me that I have accumulated grief, sadness, pain from the mistakes I’ve made over the years, and I don’t think I’ve honored that as much as I could.
I don’t wanna follow my plans if I’m not feeling them.
And I believe that I have some really good plans! They’re not quite complete – can anything ever really be complete? – but I’ve been thinking very hard for a very long time and I have all these good ideas about what a bunch of good essays would be. And it’s not just in my head, either – I have sprawling volumes of drafts and twitter threads that circle around these ideas. And… I just don’t feel like writing any of them right now. I know I’ll get to them eventually, and probably in interesting and surprising ways that I don’t expect. But I don’t want to… do homework. And that’s what a lot of my essay plans feel like right now. Homework. My last day of school was in 2009, and it’s been 13 years since and here I am sitting around feeling frustrated with a bunch of homework that I’ve assigned myself. Gosh.
Some of it is really lucrative homework, too! There are essays that I could write that I’m confident would sell a bunch of ebooks and get me a bunch of consulting clients. That money would help me take care of some real-life frustrations I’ve been living with. And even if we take money out of the equation – I wrote my books with a lot of love and care and passion, and I’m confident that getting those books into more people’s hands means helping more people. I regularly get lovely DMs from people about how my books helped them with their personal struggles. Wouldn’t I want more of that? Of course i would. Also I’m very selective with my clients, so it’s always a joy because I get to help people who are doing interesting, meaningful work.
All of the potential outcomes are good. And yet, the painful truth for me to admit to myself is that I don’t want them. Not right now. Why? Why am I saying no to doing a relatively teensy bit of gruntwork, when the rewards are so great? And, oof, I’m getting an emotional flashback here – I remember being a teenager, angry and confused and upset with myself, jabbing my finger at myself in the mirror accusingly, asking “Why won’t you fucking study? What is wrong with you?”
So here I get the opportunity to do things differently this time. I’ve been around a little bit, I’ve picked up some life experience, worked in some healthy environments, am supported and nourished by healthier relationships. So what will I do this time? I will say… “Alright, no worries. You’re not obligated to do anything. What would you like to be doing instead?”
And here my immediate response is to flinch, squint, doubt. What would I like to be doing? Have I earned the right to ask myself that question? Am I allowed to answer that question, when I have all these responsibilities and obligations that aren’t being met? And here my wiser self – a patchwork self, interwoven with borrowed love, wisdom and compassion – says, absolutely, yes. You are important to me. Your needs are important to me. You don’t exist as some mere commodity-resource to be thrown into a meat grinder so that utility comes out the other end. You matter as a human being. What would you enjoy?
And just hearing this – from myself – gives me this immense sense of relief. It took me a long time to get here, and I know from this position of clarity that I will definitely be back here again. My wish for my future self is that I approach the next time with even more gentleness, even more compassion, even more patience and kindness than before.
But alright, so what’s the answer to the question? What would I enjoy? I find myself reaching for another old tweet:
I want to be free. I want to slam the page with zest and gusto. I don’t need a break from writing, I’ve been writing all my life and I can do thousands of words a day, no sweat. Putting words down isn’t the hard part. The hard thing about hard things is always managing your psychology. So I guess what I’ve been shyly, anxiously, trying to get myself to see is that I need some tenderness from myself so that I can feel free to be the bad motherfucker I know in my heart of hearts that I’m meant to be. It do be like that.
Is there something slightly off about the above phrasing? Maybe. But I’m past caring at this point. I said what I said, and maybe I’ll explore the additional nuances at some point, but for now I’m rolling with it, be it cringe or whatever.
I don’t wanna be corrosively frustrated with myself.
I’ve explored this earlier, but I’m coming back to it because I think this is the heart of the whole thing. There was a time where I’d have said something like, “the author’s life is one of infinite frustration,” and I’d have thought that that was a rather poetic thing to say. Well – there’s some truth to it, but it depends on what precisely you mean by “frustration”. I think there’s an interesting, even pleasurable frustration that comes from trying to solve a puzzle. You can get a taste of that that playing Tetris or Sudoku. How do these parts fit together? What’s the way out? Where’s the right place to stand?
But there’s this darker, more ominous flavor of frustration, which comes from “What’s wrong with me, why haven’t I solved this yet?” And that’s where things start to take on a more tyrannical, corrosive flavor, and the conflict goes from being an interesting curiosity to something that rots and festers. I want to get better at noticing when I’m in this loop, and get better at leading myself out of it.
While I’m down here, I want to ask myself, “What am I threatening myself with here, anyway?” Is it that… If I don’t write… I will… be a failure? That seems kind of dated, vague, comical. No, whatever it is that I’m threatening myself with is a little subtler and more sinister than that. I don’t feel like a “failure”. I know that, in several important ways, I’ve already achieved more than I had ever hoped was possible. Do I worry about being… a “waste”? That doesn’t seem right either, I love to talk about the importance of goofing off, messing around. What is it?
What am I afraid of? How precisely am I holding myself hostage right now? I know that when I publish, I’m happy, and when I don’t publish, I’m unhappy, and maybe that’s something I should revisit and reexamine, but for the most part I think it’s quite reasonable for me to let that simply be a core load-bearing pillar of my psychology – if the result is that I publish stuff, and I like writing, why not? The sinister part is when I start to be harsh with myself for not having published, and then that spirals. Y’know what, I’m going to leave this as an open question, publish the post, sleep on it, and then I’ll write my thoughts in the comments.
So, after all that… what do I wanna do?
Look, I know how this works, I prattle about it all the time! I know that you can’t get very far by merely steering away from what you don’t want. If you’re not careful, you end up fixating on the bad and that leads to more bad. I truly believe this, from experience and study. You have to steer towards what you do want. So let’s take a moment to talk about what I want.
I want to have fun.
I wanna enjoy myself. I wanna rediscover and explore my curiosity. I want to disregard my plans, maybe even foil them for a bit. I want to investigate something that I don’t know anything about, and don’t feel any sort of obligation to find a “correct” answer to. I want to surprise myself. I want to cut class and run away and do something crazy.
I’m rewatching a video I made in 2020 about unlearning coercion and I find myself feeling gratitude (that I made such a video that I can revisit now), some embarrassment, some amusement… like, oh, I’m here again. But I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out! Kenny Werner might say that it’s like brushing your teeth – it’s not something you do once and you’re done with, you have to continually do it again. As Ursula Le Guin said, love has to be remade all the time, made new. This applies to love for the craft, too. Love for the art. Love for life itself. As with a marriage, you can’t take it for granted and assume it’ll just always be there. It must be attended to.
I want to reinhabit the joy of writing.
When things get messy, I think it’s wise to go back to the most fundamental questions. Why am I writing? What is writing doing for me? Because you could very reasonably ask, “Why not just quit?” And when I see that I have to laugh. Me, quit writing? I love writing! What’s happening here is an outpouring of accumulated and unaddressed frustrations, but I don’t intend to make a regular habit out of it. This sort of thing happens for me every few years or so, mostly. What I want is to fall back in love with the joy of writing. I remember going through a spot of this when I was working on Introspect – it started to feel like a slog, overwhelming, painful, and I started questioning myself – am I really an author, am I just a pretender, blah blah. Look, I finished the book! Readers love it! I love it! So it’s clear to me from my experience that those doubts are a part of my process, and not a destabilizing, existential concern.
Why did I write it? I’m tempted to search for George Orwell’s answer (he wrote a great essay titled “Why I Write” that I’ve referenced a few times…) but fuck that, I’m not here to write a book report about George Orwell, I’m here to write what I think. There are a few parts to it. One is the sheer pleasure of figuring stuff out, solving mysteries and puzzles, arriving at elegant phrasing, concepts, ideas. Two is the opportunity to connect with people, to relate to them, to be interesting, funny, useful. And maybe a third – which you could see as a composite of the first two – is writing as action, writing as a way of behaving in the world, as a tool of influence. This is a tricky thing to get hung up about, and I think my recent misery was a consequence of overdoing it. Being overly worried and anxious about “how will my writing reshape reality?” Bro, forget about that, and just write about what you think is exciting, interesting, compelling, and share that with the people you most eagerly want to reach.
Yeah, I think that’s all for now. This post could be better with a bunch of editing, but honestly, I’d rather publish it as it is. If it was tedious, my bad. I do not care. Toodles! <3