The Essays I Have Not Published
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.” — Henry David Thoreau (1854)
where do we go now?
It’s been almost 6 months since I published my first Substack post, We Were Voyagers. It was very satisfying to write, and it flowed so easily! Putting aside my two ebooks, Friendly Ambitious Nerd (2020) and Introspect (2022), it was the first essay I’d written in years that I was really happy with. It felt good to write something essay-length again, after spending most of my recent years either firing off machine-gun salvos of tweets, which come quite naturally to me, or tediously carving larger mind-palaces, which in comparison are all-consuming and take large swathes of time.
Since then, I’ve been ruminating about what my second Substack post would be – I expected that I would be firing them off week after week – and I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been stuck. It’s so strange; writing essays was once the easiest thing in the world for me. I used to write one almost every day, it was my favorite thing to do. But as I think about it, I realize that I do know what’s up. My standards have been steadily rising over the years. My audience has grown substantially, too. So I’ve come to expect more from each essay. I’m no longer “some random unknown guy writing cheerful nonsense”— my stuff now implicitly has “from the author of FAN and Introspect…” appended to it. So I feel like there’s some “reconceptualization” work that needs to happen before I can get really unblocked.
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I don’t want to be all solemn and pompous about things; I think I will always have a cheeky, cheerful energy in my writing because that’s who I am. But I’m also reminded that in all things there are growing pains to be endured at the crossing of thresholds, and we gotta face them and work through them if we want to make it to the other side. (Amusingly, this is a substantial part of what Introspect was about. How quickly I am given the opportunity to put my own ideas to the test! Thanks, universe.)
Now, I have already multiple blogs and notebooks that I routinely dump incoherent wordvomits into, so I know that producing raw textual output is not the issue for me. But I want my essays to be coherent, compelling, meaningful, useful, pretty… and on top of that, I’d like them to elegantly weave into a greater whole. Is that too much to ask?! I think not… but it might be unrealistic to expect that happen quickly.
In the grander view, I believe that I am more than willing to take my time to achieve the larger goal, but day-to-day, if I go too long without publishing, without sharing anything with the world, I start to feel stale, stiff, cold, detached, disengaged. So there’s a negotiation that needs to happen between my “larger” self and my “smaller” self, so that we can both be happy. This post, it turns out, is me doing this negotiation. So let’s negotiate.
the pantheon of wojaks
“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.” ― Neil Gaiman, American Gods
At first I wanted to write a post about memes, folklore, religion, video games, maybe titled “Memed Into Existence”, or “The Pantheon of Wojaks”. That started to feel like a sprawling Overproject, and thinking about it started to get tiring, and so I shelved that for later.
One of my favorite games, is a Japanese role-playing game called Breath of Fire II (1994), and it has a plot where there’s an evil God who gets his destructive powers from his believers – the more followers he has, the more cruel and evil spectacles are created in his name, the more powerful he gets. I think there’s something to this –there’s a battlecry in Warhammer 40k that goes “Blood for the Blood God!”, and I feel like there’s something about social media outrage, and what I describe as demon-summoning, that follows the same pathways.
There’s also stuff here about the Society of the Spectacle, and The True Believer, and what it even means to be religious, what it means to believe something, and to practice those beliefs. I’d also like to write something about superheroes and cinema, and about shopping and consumerism. Something also about fanfiction being the truest fiction, Glup Shitto being the realest Star Wars character. It’s all connected. I just haven’t quite figured out how to frame it yet.
seeking switchboard operators
“I don’t have problems. I have friends.” – Clarence Avant, The Black Godfather
Having shelved Pantheon, next I started thinking about writing a post maybe titled “Seeking Switchboard Operators”, which would be about Friendly Ambitious Nerds throughout history. Part of the idea there is to refine the ideas in FAN, and also make it accessible to people who don’t want to buy the book. I’d write about Erasmus, and Mersenne, and Max Planck, and Gertrude Stein, and Clarence Avant, and Brian Eno, and how they each functioned as switchboards for their respective scenes, cultivating rich networks of creativity.
I started researching the history of switchboards and telephones (as one does), and I got delightfully sidetracked into reading about the invention of the telegraph, and how they laid the telegraph wire across the Atlantic ocean… sorry – I suppose I should ask myself, what’s really interesting here? What’s the mystery? What’s the story? The question I suppose is why aren’t there more of us out there? Well, probably because it’s hard. It’s not a pre-existing role that you can step into, this is a role that you have to create over time. I’m quite anxious about making this post exceptionally good, because it’s meant to be an introduction to my book, and there I fall into this funny loop of a trap where “well, then the essay will be better than the book, so I should update the book first…” and at that point I typically give up working on the essay. But I’ll be back. I always come back. And I’ll get it done eventually.
pave the desire paths
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” – Donald Hebb (1949)
For the most part, I like my creative process. I like that my mind seeks out interestingness the way it does, deranged and hypomanic. Which brings me to another essay that I want to write about Desire Paths, both as a concept and as a way of life. What’s a desire path? It’s a path that’s created by people using it, rather than by top-down design. It’s an emergent, user-created phenomenon.
In this essay I want to weave in things about trade networks, and about how wealth is created through trade… and as is often the case, part of me feels like I should spend years reading and researching — about the history of trade, the Silk Road, maritime trade, how religions have spread around the world that way, and maybe some riffs about money and currency for some reason. That could probably be an entire book. So the challenge for me becomes, how do I compress and channel that magnificent yearning down into to a short, brisk little essay? The compression, it feels to me, is 80% of the battle. I know from experience that actually writing the essay will be comparatively easy, once I know how to wrangle the yearning into something manageable, without killing it in the process.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
I have a post I want to write about my experience being born and raised as a Singaporean, culturally Hindu, and how that context is quite different than the more globally prevalent and influential Western-Christian worldview. (Even most atheists, I find, in rejecting Abrahamic faiths, tend to have a ‘god-shaped-hole’ – this will take much longer to explain.) This connects back to The Pantheon of Wojaks, such that I’m not sure if they’ll be separate essays. I’m not quite decided about the tone. There’s a part of me that wants to write an almost overzealous angry post about how Descartes is the source of almost everything wrong in the world today, but that seems overwrought for a written post. It’s more of a funny rant to deliver in person. Most writing has a seriousness baked into it, it’s part of the medium. So maybe this will have to be a comedic post. I don’t know yet. We’ll see. It feels important. “Better spend years on it” type of important. Well, we’ll come back to it…
the adjacent possible
“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible...” ― Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life
One of the things that made We Were Voyagers really come together for me was that I had a bunch of quotes in mind even before I started writing it. Similarly, there are a whole bunch of quotes that I like about imagination and dreams, and I’d like to work them into a post. This feels very similar to Voyagers, though, which is why I’m hesitant to work on it right now. I don’t want multiple back-to-back posts about the importance and power of imagination. That feels like something I could bring up obliquely in other essays, before I feel like the time and mood is ripe to address head on. So maybe I’ll write this one after writing about a dozen other essays first. Or maybe I won’t write it at all. We’ll see.
you are already monarch of your life
““You will never have a greater or lesser dominion than that over yourself... the height of a man's success is gauged by his self-mastery; the depth of his failure by his self-abandonment.” – Leonardo da Vinci
This is one of my talking points that I habitually return to, and I think it deserves an essay treatment. I’d like to explore the idea of personal sovereignty, and how people simultaneously desire it and flinch from it, live in denial of it, and often resort to “shadow sovereignty” instead, well-captured in the phrase “revenge bedtime procrastination”. I’d also like to talk about the broader societal fascination with monarchy, and celebrity. I have a thing I want to write about the concept of the Royal Touch and how we still enact it with celebrities. I might use writing this post as an excuse to finally get to reading The Sovereign Individual. I would talk about Jungian ideas of shadows and integration – that’s something I got into in passing in Introspect but I wasn’t quite satisfied with. Here I find myself thinking… “voyagers… then monarch? seems a little bit ‘too soon’, surely you should pick something else first?” And maybe there’s something to that, or maybe it’s just my ADHD eager to hop over to something else. Well, hop away…
thinking is easy, information architecture is hard
"The length of a book doesn't increase linearly; it increases exponentially." – Gretchen McCulloch
Earlier I asked, “how do I compress and channel that magnificent yearning (to write a book) down into to a short, brisk little essay?” And this question is one of project management, and of information architecture. If I were to get profound about it I would say it’s one of the biggest challenges of life, in that we have infinite desires and limited resources. So everything we do in life is a compromise. How do you compromise artfully, in a poetic and skilful way, such that with a few thoughtful choices you express more than you can say? There’s a lot of interesting things to be said here about different tempos, different scopes, the art of framing (the frame is a useful constraint if you think beyond it).
The magic junkyard idea is intertwingled with the desire path idea in ways that I haven’t yet fully expressed, or even perceived, and I’m quite excited to continue to get to know these ideas better. Revisiting this, I find myself thinking… this is probably where its at. Maybe not THIS particularly, but “voyagers… paths… junkyard” seems like the right order, more or less. So I think that’s what I’ll go with.
But wait, there’s more!
Whenever I make a list of ideas, I always end up with more than I expect, or intend. All the other ideas lounging about lazily in my head get excited to see that there’s some sort of party going on, and they want to be included. How could I say no?
Nobody deserves anything — this would be a post about morality, the frames we inherit about self-worth, social worth… “the ayy lmao post”. Not sure about the title yet. Again, big sweeping questions about how we figure out the point of anything. I’ll probably get grumpy about narrow utilitarianism and talk about navigating via heart-eyes. I feel like I might also want to fold in some riffs about cultivating optimism – real, embodied optimism, not the platitudes that people pay lip service to – in the face of seeming meaninglessness.
You can’t moralize away a load-bearing coping mechanism — I finally quit smoking cigarettes in 2022, it’s been about 4 months since I stopped. I used to be a habitual daily smoker since about 2007. I made a couple of attempts to quit, and finally succeeded. I have a perspective on addiction that I think is somewhat novel and surprising, and maybe even somewhat offensive to people who have a more abstinence-focused AA-style approach.
A love letter to language – Not sure about the title… but basically an ongoing remix of Bertrand Russell and George Orwell about the importance of being rigorous and truthful with one’s utterances. I have a few twitter threads about this, usually written in frustration when I see people being irresponsible with words. I don’t want to be a language cop… but I want to help people see with reverence the power that we wield so carelessly. (thread)
Focus on what you want to see more of – somehow this has become my Central Tweet. I’ve received many versions of this idea from many different sources, one of the earliest that stuck with me might’ve been Steve Vai’s “The level of achievement that we have at anything is a reflection of how well we were able to focus on it.” The idea of writing this essay kinda feels like work, though. It’s kinda amusing how I don’t feel like focusing on this right now. It might be more fun to frame this as “You can just ignore stuff”. I like how that feels kinda cheeky, and I get to express my frustration with how people seem to be so bad at ignoring stuff.
“How I think when I think about tweeting”, remixing Alice Mazzy’s programming post. Seems like it would be fun to try and articulate, because I’m not actually sure what I think, and I won’t know until I try to write it down. So there’s a fun bit of mystery in there.
Haters are fans too. I want to do a big sprawling post about status and status regulation. I’d talk about how people pay lip service to curiosity but are actually afraid of it. There’s a lot of research and reading I want to do in this space, I might do a “research review” post about what everyone else has written about it. Again, this is something that can swallow up years of time, and I want to have something published before that. I also want to do a post titled Attention Whores – I’m not sure if it’ll be the same post, but I’m putting it in the same bullet point because it feels related. This should interplay with Focus in interesting ways.
Do 100 Things. I already have a post on my blog about it, I could/should probably just update that… I’m conflicted about this one. I guess I bring it up to say that I want to do a Substack essay about ambition. Something less “instrumental” and more about the nature of ambition. “Ambition is not about accolades” is a good title from one of my youtube videos. I might riff on that. I haven’t figured it out yet. “Inhabit questions” is another good one, and together with “Practice good reply game”… these three riffs make up the central structure of Friendly Ambitious Nerd. I “should” have essays about these, for when people ask me about them. But I don’t feel like doing what I “should” be doing. So, again, it seems like most of the work is in attuning myself to what I feel like I want to write.
Scenebuilding. I have a Roam page about [[scenes]] that I think is due for a lot of massaging… that feels like it could have a whole book come out of it, or a series of posts, but I’m not sure what yet. It needs to be chewed on for it to reveal itself.
so there you have it
“...if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don't even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is-- excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it would be better for his health.” – Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
I don’t really owe anybody any explanations except myself. So this is me explaining to myself why I haven’t published a second post on my Substack in 6 months — despite me having long known in my heart that I want to be a writer, and that writing essays is a very useful, fun, interesting thing for a writer to do. You don’t have to write essays – you can just write tweets and books, as I’ve done these past few years – but I want to write essays. I just want them to be good.
I have no interest in writing things that I do not enjoy, and I’ve spent enough years trying to fight that impulse to know that it is a futile endeavor. Writing for me is a kind of ritual invocation. I’m very precious about it, bitterly stubborn about doing it right. I constantly feel a stirring, an aching, a yearning, for something bigger, bolder, more ambitious, more grandiose, more magnificent, something that cannot be contained in a series of tweets, and yet something that’s accessible enough that I can share it with people and say “read this now!”
And I know, I know… I give people advice about creativity all the time. (Ugh.) If you want to make good stuff you have to get comfortable making bad stuff. I know!! And if I’m honest with myself, I don’t spend nearly enough time making bad stuff. I don’t necessarily have to publish any of it. Really, what’s been happening is that I’ve been stewing on all these interconnected ideas in my head to the point of anguish. It’s so funny in retrospect. I literally struggle to sleep because I feel these ideas thrashing about my mind. It’s been a huge relief just to write them out here. Now that they’re out of my head, I can walk around them, inspect them, prod at them, and ask them what the hell they want from me. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.
If you liked this post, I bet you’d like INTROSPECT, which is an ebook I wrote about figuring yourself out and becoming who you are. I also tweet a lot.
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Man that ayyyyy lmao meme is exactly what I’ve needed. Understanding things conceptually is good and all, but the image of the whirlpool and the hydra make it easier for me to remember I hang out around that hydra too much and my life could use more whirlpool :)
I can't tell you how reassuring it is to see a writer you admire and enjoy grappling with familiar problems. It's a celebration of the half-baked, and I can't wait to read these as they come into fruition