So. As part of my latest attempt in untangling this writing paralysis, last Tuesday I promised my therapist to publish two posts to Substack by the end of today. I had one full week but only started dusting off my writing environment on Saturday. Tinkered with some drafts, captured new ideas, but unable to fully flesh out anything I’m happy to publish. I don’t want the posts to be a stream of consciousness but I guess at this point I have no choice.
I don’t know yet what exactly that I want to say in this post but hey, if the past ever taught me anything, it helps to just publish something, anything. When you’ve fallen off a habit for one month, you’re bound to be stiff and there’s some calcification that needs to be shaved off.
Let’s start here: if we think about writing in three realms: physical, mental, and emotional, I have done enough work on my own to know that I have solved the physical and mental aspects of it. And to be clear, we’re talking about non-fiction writing here.
Publishing is the process of getting things out of your head, flatten the thoughts into a linear form, onto a medium that can then be absorbed by other heads. Ideas and thoughts are fragile and can vaporise as they go through multiple compression and decompression that happen in this process.
At this point, I’m sure that my writing workflow is more optimised, low-friction, and bulletproof than 90% of hobbyist writers out there. I also have more free time and conducive writing spot(s!) than ever. So I know the problem is not in the logistics of it.
It’s been years and I’ve come up with all kinds of writing hacks and exhausted all intellectual workarounds to be able to write more. Mentally, I know how to write well and have definitely thought about communication more than most people.
I know I can start small, I know I need to learn to get more comfortable in repeating myself, and I know I can just lower my standards (how many mediocre content I happily consume every day yet I apply this self-sabotaging lens on my own work). I know I know I know.
Mentally I know all logical solution to this, yet I don’t do.
What the heck is behind the emotional drawer?
Couple of observations of the things that blocked me in publishing more
- I want what I write to be coherent, readable, and not mere rambling. I’m conscious people’s attention span is fleeting. I’m a voracious reader yet I struggle with long articles (usually either it’s badly written or the content is not urgently relevant to me at that point). So I know it’s critical to be very clear about the point I’m trying to make and be succinct.
- I don’t know who this is relevant for. Who am I speaking with / writing to? What am I hoping them to know? Why is this useful? Specifically on this topic of starting and shipping creative work, it does seem to be a common problem, so I know there’s a clear audience if I am able to crack this.
- How does this align with my “brand”? I need to find a way to relate this back to my main thing, and not spam people’s timeline with irrelevant noise. The easiest thing to do of course is to just share what I’ve been interested in, learning, and thinking lately. I know I’m a heck of a curator and learner. That my secret sauce is the breadth of things I have my sight on. But that also feeds into the problem: I have too many things that interests me and I’d like to share, but I also don’t want to fall into doing social commentary for everything — succumbing to the digital narcissism where all my opinions need to be shared and heard. Or worse, to do things so I can share about it.
To summarise: I have enough (perhaps too much of) what to write about, I know all the how, and I can work out the when and the where. The weakest links are the why and the who.
Why I write
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” — William James
I’ve talked about the two functions of writing in the past: 1) to think and 2) to communicate.
At this point, it’s more helpful to think of writing as more of a path and not the output for me. I write to think, then I write to communicate. I know that I need to spend time on the first before I can properly do the second. I know there is no shortcut, I just have to sit down and do it. Once it’s written (aka thought out, articulated, and fleshed out), I can repurpose, repackage, redistribute them. Iteration, iteration, iteration.
Perhaps thinking (and not merely rearrange my prejudices) is indeed difficult. Hence writing (even to think) is painful. To be fair, I do enjoy and have easier time writing to think. But I stumbled when I try to write to communicate.
Technically, I write almost daily. I write to capture ideas, moments, and organise my thoughts. What I struggle with is in sharing, publishing, and repeating them.
In the past I got into several good momentum and streaks, so perhaps I failed to sustain them not because I have legitimate problem around writing but because of the other circumstances. Perhaps I just need to give it another shot and ease back into it. Pace myself.
Basically it helps to think about my writing not as the final product but the fodder from which I can repackage into more digestible and well-received format.
Who do I write for?
This is the part I need to flesh out more. So far I write for myself. I write to calm myself down. I write to find out what I am thinking, I write to find out what I want to know.
But of course it’s great to get feedback and not feel like I’m writing into a void. The solution here is recruit some friends and readers.
Perhaps it’s not that big of a deal as I am playing in my head. Realistically it hasn’t been that long ago, I have published SOME stuff the past 4 months, even in this mini retirement. I’m just legitimately tired, impatient, and mostly guilty because I have not updated the tech newsletter for the past 4 weeks.
Perhaps it’s because I feel I “should” write rather than I want to write. But if we exercised only when we feel like it, we’ll never get in shape.
I think three real problems here
1. I have unhealthy obsession and expectation around being understood, coherent, and articulate. This hurt my ability to ship unfinished thoughts. Though I have put elaborate mechanisms in place to help tackle this, perhaps I just need to get things back into motion.
2. I don’t like to repeat myself. It feels like I’m shouting "hey hey hey look at me, validate me, read this, pay attention to me".
3. I hesitate to move away from my professional identity as engineer and embrace being “just” a writer — a conventionally less prestigious occupation, to explore these less-scientific and non tech-related topics. Even more so, as content creator, or thought leader. All so cringe.