when the vision isn’t manifesting
can we struggle cheerfully when things aren't going as we hoped?
“I'm in love for the first time
don't you know it's gonna last?
it's a love that lasts forever,
it's a love that has no past”
– Don’t Let Me Down (1970), by Paul McCartney and John Lennon
When I started this Substack, I had a compelling romantic vision for what I wanted it to be. I wanted to write ~20 really beautiful “essays about everything”. They would be symphonic and resplendent, each one somehow implying the others, and everyone I admire would admire them in turn for their searing transcendent quality. I had it all worked out in my mind. It was going to be beautiful. But as I approach roughly 2 years of working on them, frustratingly, I have had to come to terms with the emerging reality that I’m probably not ready to manifest this particular vision particularly soon. (I’m always open to the possibility that it could all come together in a startling crackle-boom of a lightning strike, but I’m not counting on it any more.) It feels very much like I’ve been struggling to lift more weight than I can handle, or like I’m playing a video game and trying to beat enemies that are over-levelled for my character right now.
Depending on where I’m standing, and what my mood is like that particular day, it can feel either like buoyant hopefulness or harrowing hubris just to believe in myself as a creative. Typically it feels like a mix of both. I do believe I’ll get it someday, and that I have a lot of the prerequisites I need to make it happen, but I’m not so hopeful anymore that I’ll have it all worked out within a year. It might take maybe 10 years. Hopefully 5 or less. Making predictions in this domain is perilously difficult, and past a couple of good-faith passes, not even very productive. It starts to resemble being a day-trader of one’s own soul– which is the exact opposite of what you’d want if you’re serious about playing long games. Psychologically, I have to hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and get on with my day.
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nobody ever loved me like she does,
oh, she does, yeah she does
I recently watched the first episode of Get Back, Peter Jackson’s documentary of The Beatles, about when they were working on their 12th album in 1969. The Beatles gave Jackson over 60 hours of video and 150 hours of audio to sift through. Jackson, who had taken about 5 years to make the Lord of The Rings movies, spent 4 years poring over the documentary footage to edit it down to ~7 hours. (Wow!)
I found it deeply gratifying to properly witness some of the Beatles’ creative process. I particularly admire Jackson’s willingness to really take the time to have us simply sit with the Beatles as they struggle through their process. It’s the thing that’s so often lost when things get reduced into a 3 minute long training montage, where our beloved protagonist struggles and fails a few times before succeeding. It’s rousing, inspiring, and, unfortunately, a total misrepresentation of the wintery isolation of enduring failure after failure with no sign of success.
When people talk about the Get Back documentary, I’ve found that they often remark about how amazing it was the way Paul McCartney came up with Get Back near-instantly, out of seemingly nothing. And it certainly was magical. But what I found even more compelling is a much more tedious earlier bit when they're struggling unproductively through Don't Let Me Down, seemingly for hours if not days. You get to see The Beatles– widely acknowledged to be some of the most successful songwriters in history– grasping at straws, chafing at each other, grumbling, failing.
channeling divine inspiration…
is the easiest part of being an artist.
It's the most visibly impressive, it makes the showreel, everyone applauds. But it's when artists struggle with stuff that's not working that I find really impressive– almost precisely because nobody is impressed. It looks like failure! The magic is gone and you’re left with all the wrong words. To me, that is the crucible in which real artists are forged. Even as I write this, it’s easy for me to find examples people pointing at McCartney’s stroke of genius, but it’s hard to find people pointing at the preceding struggle. I think it’s because it doesn’t seem noteworthy. You watch it and there’s no a-ha moment. It just looks and feels like a bunch of sludge that’s going nowhere. It takes patience and persistence to work through the frustration without any immediate reward for it.1
I find myself thinking back about my own sludge. I have tens of thousands of words worth of notes, drafts, observations and so on that will hopefully all come together to make it work. But currently, it is a bunch of sludge. Now I’m thinking of how, even to piece together the Get Back documentary took someone as skilled as Peter Jackson – who project managed THE LORD OF THE RINGS – 4 whole years to do! There’s just a lot that you have to sift through, a lot of possibilities to experiment with, and a lot of it will be unsatisfying, frustrating, annoying at the start. Magic doesn’t come easily! It takes effort to get to effortlessness!
“Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”― Teller, of Penn & Teller fame
“Alright, but what if magic takes time that I can’t afford?”
In my present circumstances, I feel like I don’t have the luxury of ‘going dark’ for 4 years without anything to show for it publicly. Why? There’s a lot to dig into here… one branching path I could take is to say that this is about financial security. That I need to be publishing things so that I keep selling books so I can pay my bills – but I think the truth is that even if I were given a million dollars, I would still be struggling with some form of this.
Though it would be a little bit different. I am currently at a midpoint between “unknown nobody who’s trying to write in his spare time to see if he’s even a writer at all” and “established author who has total financial freedom to do whatever he likes”. Even being at this midpoint has changed some things for me, revealed some things to me. There are some things that I used to worry about, like “will I ever find my voice?” or “will I ever make sense to anyone?” or “will I ever break free from my current circumstances?” — I no longer worry about these things. They’re “solved problems”.
But there are some new concerns that I didn’t have before. When you’re a relative nobody, there’s a flavor of freedom in it that you don’t really appreciate while you have it. You can be anyone, do anything. You can contradict yourself completely, without any concern for continuity, without thinking “how will this be interpreted in relation to my previous work?” You lose that when you become successful past some thresholds. You can try, of course, but it gets substantially harder. There’s a relevant line that Peter Jackson says to Stephen Colbert in an interview about the Get Back documentary:
“At the end of The Lord of the Rings when Frodo says, ‘We set out to save the Shire, Sam, and we did, but not for me,’' I started to project that. The Beatles changed the world, did all this, only to realize that there’s not really a place for them. They want to perform to 300 people, they last performed 3 years ago to 60,000. You try to sell 300 tickets to a show, you gonna have 60,000 people queuing up the street. What they want to do, is not practical. They’re suddenly realizing, what we want to do, we’re the biggest band in the world, we have a very simple thing we want to do, we just want to be a rock n roll band, we can’t do it. The world has no place for us anymore. I get that feel from it. It’s a bittersweet feeling.”
Yeah, that’s one of the bittersweet things about success. There’s a destructiveness about it. It destroys what came before. I’m not anywhere close to The Beatles, obviously, but like Vanessa Carlton said in White Houses, I feel so far from where I’ve been. And I do wonder, all the time, if part of why I’m not moving forward faster is that I’m still not done grieving all that I have lost. Elsewhere I’ve said that all serious projects are projects of grief… that’s a topic to ruminate on another day.
“Maybe you were all faster than me
We gave each other up so easily
These silly little wounds will never mend
I feel so far from where I've been
So I go, and I will not be back here again
I'm gone as the day is fading on white houses
I lie, put my injuries all in the dust
In my heart is the five of us
In white houses”
– Vanessa Carlton, White Houses (2004)
The other thing about some small measure of success that I find kind of tiresome is this weary sense of obligation. A part of me will confidently, assertively recite some shpiel that goes like this: “If you’re lucky enough to ‘make it’ in some way, you shouldn’t make demands, you shouldn’t ask questions, you should just shut up and do what is expected of you and be grateful for the opportunity.”
Once again, writing this out reveals it to be a rather extreme and unreasonable person. If I witnessed somebody else saying that, I would be like, “Whoa, hold up, what’s going on here? Are you okay? Who hurt you? What happened?” And this is a big part of what I love about writing – I can experience real emotional, psychological, physical relief just from seeing with my own eyes which of my thoughts and feelings actually correspond to my current reality, and which are runaway spirals. This particular ghoul looks to me like a Scarcity Sprite – a grabby, anxious being, terrified. Of what? Terrified of… coming across as ungrateful, out-of-touch, selfish. Terrified of losing or squandering the opportunity that Fortune has granted us. It’s likely an emotional flashback of some sort. And that’s something I expect I’ll have to sit with and meditate on. As I revisit this, a small part of me shyly raises his hand, like a kid in a classroom, and says, “It’s okay if you lose everything, I’ll still be your friend.” And, excuse me while I take a moment to be utterly obliterated. 🥲
creativity amidst mortality
Let’s rewind back to “I don’t feel like I have the luxury of going dark for 4 years without anything to show for it publicly”. Earlier I said that one concern is that I need to achieve some material success, so that I can provide for my family, and feel some relief on that front. But there are other concerns. Even if I did have all the money I could ever need, I would probably still worry about “wasting time”. A part of me feels like I need to stay visible not just to sell books, but to maintain some semblance a relationship with my audience. Actually, even that doesn’t feel like the “final” answer. Ultimately the final constraint on everything is our own mortality, isn’t it? Part of me agonizes about “wasting” years of my life on something with nothing to show for it.
But another part of me also knows that nothing is truly wasted creatively if you haven’t given up. There’s always a move. You can find a new angle. To see that, you have to be gentle with yourself. I’ve always found it easier to reassure other people of this than myself – I do believe it’s true, so it’s not like I’m bullshitting other people – but I find it challenging to convince myself of this truth when I’m inside my own head, or at my desk, moving my drafts and notes around.
Also, regarding the mortality thing – even then it depends on how you’re framing it. If you do truly great work and you share it with others, it’s possible for that work to outlive you, and for other people to continue on that work. But that’s not really what I want to think about right now. It’s a compelling thing to fantasize about from time to time– it can be both inspiring and overwhelming, excruciatingly meaningful – but for the most part I’m currently trying to solve a writing challenge at the scale of a decade rather than centuries. I want to focus on the smaller dominos first, so I don’t end up spiralling into the clouds with my flights of fancy.
i wanna do all the things
i wanna surf all the channels at once
I feel like I should say something about tweets? I do tweet a lot, but tweets don’t really feel like they move the needle on the essays I want to be writing. That’s me maybe being a little too harsh on myself. Tweeting for me is thinking out loud, which is good practice for figuring out what resonates and what doesn’t. But it’s something like less than half the picture, which I tried to explain somewhat in my previous essay The Tavern and The Temple. Tweeting is a very important, load-bearing part of my creative process, but it’s insufficient preparation for the work I want to be doing.
I find myself thinking about good video games – you need good story, and you also need good gameplay, and you also need a bunch of other things to all come together in concert. Being able to make great food alone is insufficient to create a great dining experience. A great movie has great writing, great acting, great cinematography – it’s the gestalt of all of the things. Writing good tweets can be part of the process of writing good essays, but there’s more to it. And beyond “mere” writing, there’s the presentation, the framing, the sharing, discussing, the entire gestalt of the reading experience.
if i can’t write 20 perfect essays (yet)
i can at least write 200 good sketches
I’m trying to empty my cup to see my reality for what it is. Looking back, all of this is me going in circles trying to figure myself out. It’s a kind of performance art, and I do know that it will be useful to some people, even if it isn’t necessarily the thing that I personally most want to actualize with my writing right now. I do trust that eventually I will write the beautiful essays that I see in my mind. But in the meantime I feel compelled to do something. I think what needs to happen – and I’ve brushed up against this thought several times, but I’m not sure I’ve said it out loud with feeling and really meant it – is that I have to reconceptualize Voltaic Verses from “twenty polished essays” to something like “two hundred good sketches”. This is a necessary intermediate stage I believe I have to work through.
A part of me has been flinching from that framing, because it worries that if I “lower my standards”, I will end up writing mediocre fluff that isn’t very compelling or useful. This strikes me as an outdated fear, but it’s a real one, so let me take a minute to talk about why the fear exists at all. I already have a writing project called 1000wordvomits which I started in 2012, and a lot of it is tedious, slovenly, chaotic… and generally speaking it’s stuff that I wouldn’t particularly share with a mainstream audience.
Which pokes at an implicit assumption I haven’t articulated: at some point some part of me started thinking of this Substack as some kind of showreel. I wanted it to be great, and wanting something to be great can be the biggest obstacle to greatness. John Mayer has a relevant quote about this:
“Whenever I want to write a big song, I can’t. Big meaning spatial – the huge glacially large space inside of the heart – and that’s when I get writers block… because I try to write a song to fill the entire galaxy. I’ve never gotten a song that way. But if I write a song about something the size of a glass of water, and I do it right, I notice a week later it’s got the universe in it. Right? So I’d rather have the universe in a glass of water, than try to make a glass of water fit in the universe. […] You’d have a better time if you pick a microscopically small detail and work that for an hour-and-a-half or two hours.” – John Mayer, in conversation with Zane Lowe
To be fair to my past self, I did anticipate this – I thought I wrote it in an essay, but it turns out I only mentioned it in passing in I don’t wanna! – but I did talk about it in a a couple of tweets, where I framed it as, “this isn’t a fancy gallery, this is an artist’s studio, full of mess, there’s paint everywhere”. I’ve known for a long time that my best stuff always happens “kinda by accident”. But it’s not by pure random chance. There’s a tension between “keep in mind what you want to be doing” AND simultaneously goof off, mess around at the periphery, take random walks. I learned this while writing loads of blogposts back in the day, and I learned it even harder while tweeting. And yet, I do think that each time I cross some threshold of success, I have to learn it all over again. A part of me always feels a little embarrassed by it. But so be it! So be it!
There’s something funny and humbling about how, even after about two decades of writing, I don’t really have a lot of clarity about my own creative process. I take solace in the fact that someone like Meryl Streep has said “I’m so inscrutable to myself” about her own process. Which isn’t to say that I think I possess Streep-level talent, but rather that I’m relieved to learn that one can possess Streep-level talent and still be a mystery to oneself.
And I’d like to think that some mystery keeps things exciting, compelling, interesting. Wouldn’t it be boring if creativity were a completely mechanical, predictable, “solved” process? There’s something magical about somehow transcending the bandwidth limitations of communication to convey something profoundly universal. I’m not going to argue for ignorance, I think it can be good to learn as much as we can, but it’s important to not get swept up in the pretense of knowledge. Real humility is having the honesty to know what we know and feel what we feel, and to not pretend to know what we don’t.
So in fact, I suspect that Streep being a mystery to herself might be why she is so staggeringly good at what she does. I believe she is a mystery to herself precisely because she does not pretend to know what she does not. Yes, I am convinced that Meryl Streep is, within the context of her creative process, a goddamn Socrates. And I’d like to try, in my own way, in my own context, to do the same. Why not try?
let the idea drive
I also find myself thinking about a conversation between Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle, where Dave is talking about how it’s the idea that drives the car:
Dave: “Like, if I had an idea, it’s the driver. It’s like, “Get in the car!” – I’m like, “Where am I goin’?” – the idea says, “I dunno! Don’t worry, I’m drivin’…” and ya just get there.
Jerry: The idea’s driving.
Dave: Sometimes I’m shotgun, sometimes I’m in the fucking trunk, but the idea takes you where it wants to go. And then other times, there’s me, my ego. and I go, “I should do something.”
Jerry: I should be driving!
Jerry: …and that’s not good…
Dave: …because there’s no idea in the car! It’s just me. That formula doesn’t work.
Jerry: If the idea’s in the front of the car, honking, Let’s go! Pulls up in front of your house going, ‘Let’s go!’ [That’s how it works].
Dave: That’s exactly right.
Jerry: You’re in your pajamas,
Dave: “I’m not ready,”
Jerry: “I’m not ready!”
Dave: “You can go like this.” “Where are we going?” “Don’t worry about it, you’ll see!”
I laugh again with recognition upon rewatching it. So many times that I’ve written something good, I hardly feel like I was there at all. I felt like a witness. I was shotgun or in the trunk. And every time I put myself in the driver’s seat, it doesn’t work. I have hundreds of pages of drafts, dozens and dozens of drafts, all of which have me in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t work. I have to let the idea drive. So much of my creative process is really about me having to learn and relearn, over and over again, how to get out of the driver’s seat and let the idea drive.
I still don’t feel like I’ve gotten to the full truth of it. And as I revisit this upon reread, it’s so funny to me that I talk as if I expect to. But that too is the hopefulness and the hubris of the creative – it seems like you have to believe that you might get to the full truth of it, even if a part of you knows you never will. You have to try. Because when you play your cards right, when the stars align, then you too might get a chance to channel some divine inspiration – and everyone will praise you for the beautiful work that, you might feel in your heart you were kind of just a witness to. But you did have to tend to the process that allowed the idea to drive. Elizabeth Gilbert has some great riffs on this. I like to joke that you get the blame for anything bad that your creative daemon does, so you might as well take the credit for the good, too. Just be careful to be loosey-goosey with it all, so it doesn’t ruin you either way.
dancing again with the threshold guardian
So what’s next for me? One thing I do know is that, in the short run, I do feel good whenever I publish anything. For me to publish something I have to overcome my own internal resistance against publishing. I have to solve that puzzle, I have to either persuade or outwit the threshold guardian that is my fear, and that guy is vastly stronger and more powerful than me.
Tweeting comes very easily for me, though even there I’m compelled to acknowledge that I don’t actually tweet every single thing that comes to mind. I often cancel tweets halfway because I’m not feeling it, either deleting them or sending them to drafts. From time to time I go through my twitter drafts looking for material that feels like it ought to be expanded into essays. That’s some of what my process is like. It sure seems to me that I might have to come to a deeper, clearer understanding of my own creative process in order to get to the next level of creation that I am struggling to climb towards.
There’s a part of me that’s worried about falling into the following cycle: What if I inadvertently make a habit of overpowering my internal resistance against publishing mediocrity, to feel good about publishing in the short run, and it results in me maybe spending a couple of years publishing mediocre work that I’m not proud of?
This feels like a very real fear that was present in my body, but now that I say it out loud, it loses some of its hold on me. First of all, it’s not easy for me to overpower my internal resistance. When I look at everything I’ve published on this Substack, everything has something in it that I’m proud of, even if it’s unpolished. Second, I am no longer the same person I was when I was writing hundreds of unedited wordvomits. I am a better writer now, and I know from experience that even if I somehow actually did publish another two hundred unedited wordvomits, it would be better than most of what I’ve written so far. Third, I don’t want to publish mediocre work. I want to publish stuff that I’m at least moderately proud of.
… and last of all – amusingly – I totally ended up abandoning this essay, right above this paragraph, before returning to it almost by chance, two weeks later. The resistance got me right when I thought I had maybe cheated my way past it. It’s extremely tricky like that.
That’s one way of thinking about it. Another way – which I think is healthier – is that I decided to give myself a little breathing room, to get some distance away from the headspace in which I wrote the earlier iterations of this post. Some of my best writing happens in one sitting, but the kind of writing I’m trying to do here happens in layers. It’s a collaboration between different versions of myself. I’m still learning how to do it. I’m still fumbling as I find my footing. I’m still banging into all sorts of walls and getting tangled up in all sorts of knots. But you know what? This is the truth of who I am right now. And I think I can be at peace with that.
I’m reminded of two things, which are the same thing. One is from the 6th Vogue interview that Billie Eilish did, when asked what constructive criticisms she has for her fans, she said “…maybe trust me?”
And the other is from my friends’ Nat and Martha’s excellent documentary about unschooling, Live and Let Learn: “It's really hard for us to trust kids because as kids we were not trusted… but what if it turns out that we could have been trusted all along?”
I’m reminded as well of how then men sorting through Isaac Newton’s papers were allegedly dismayed at how Newton would make lots of seemingly unproductive copies, which struck me as a profound misunderstanding of the creative process. I could talk about this for hours. I also like to talk about the Apple I, and Beyonce, and Lady Gaga’s parking lot show.