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Writerly Ambition (TWOS Days 2 and 3)

Aug 12, 2020

I’m 30 minutes into this video of the Sami people herding reindeer across the Arctic. Apparently, reindeer are considered partially domesticated due to indigenous people like the Sami who continue to rely on reindeer herding for survival. I ended up doing more research on domesticated animals in general. The Wikipedia page has a “purposes” section for each animal that was domesticated through history. It’s interesting to see because as time goes, domestication goes from being something that is highly purposeful, with animals like dogs, goats and cattle, to something that’s not, like hedgehogs. I don’t know enough about history to say when, but it feels like there was a turning point in history when things stopped happening out of necessity and started happening “because we can.”

There’s likely some larger cultural shift that occurred when capitalism became the largest driving force on the planet and consumption became the norm, but I’d rather not think about it too academically right now. More than anything else, this trend of consumption or the pursuit of more can be linked to the environmental crisis that faces the entire planet. And in a society built on creating more, shifting the narrative to focus on individuals is the best way to distract people from the fact that enormous industries are the ones creating this crisis and really the only ones that can stop it.

I’m tired. I feel like every day is a laundry list of problems in the world that all feel super urgent and important. Not paying attention is a privileged approach. But I don’t know if I have the brainpower to pay attention to everything at once. There’s an enormous fight for racial justice still going on. The USPS is in trouble and so is democracy in America. The only candidates in the presidential election are horrible people and the system is corrupt. Beirut has been destroyed and there are country-wide protests. Mauritius is on the verge of losing everything due to an oil spill. Belarus is the site of political instability as a result of a false election. And all of that doesn’t even start to broach the existential threats of a global pandemic and impending climate emergency.

I’ve been spending a lot of time on TikTok. The algorithm is immensely powerful, and has been really good at detecting my moods and showing me the exact type of content that I want. Lately, that’s been a lot of cat videos, dumb humor, and the occasional piece of political content. Somehow, it manages to keep me pretty informed and teach me things about the world, so I don’t feel like I’m fully shoving my head into the sand. Maybe I am, but I’m also trying to continue to educate myself, share as much as possible and donate whenever I can. I know that everyone hates the government now, but I’ve been writing a lot of letters to Congress using Resistbot, even though it’s highly likely that Nancy Pelosi will ignore me anyways.

I failed to write 1000 words yesterday, only getting to around 500. So, to keep things going, I’m going to write 1500 words today. That doesn’t include the 500 or so words that I’ll end up writing for my newsletter as well, I think.

The reason that most people participate in this thousand word challenge is usually to work on some longform project. For many, that’s writing their novel or memoir or whatever book that they see fit. Clearly, I don’t have anything of the sort in the pipeline, which is why I’m word vomiting into this blog for a week.

In general, I’m starting to really think about what I want to get out of writing or where I want writing to take me. I know that I’d like to improve as a writer, and be able to “paint with words.” In terms of craft, I feel like I’m skilled at conveying certain ideas clearly, but not necessarily in a way that is as artful or beautiful as I want it to be. My favorite type of writing is when someone who has experience writing poetry writes a personal essay. In these pieces, you are witness to not only the beauty of an experience being shared, but also a web of intricate metaphors and delightful language. The experience is powerful and immersive. Right now, I lack the command of the English language to be able to write like that. I use too many qualifying words and don’t diversify my vocabulary enough.

I attended an interesting session where Mary HK Choi (one of my favorite people) was talking about her process in writing and how quarantine has made it really difficult to be productive at all. I couldn’t relate, because I don’t think I’ve ever written this much in my life, with possible exception of the times that I was writing college essays. I wonder if there’s a fundamental difference between fiction writers and nonfiction writers. I’ve always thought about writing fiction, but it’s never truly called to me or felt relevant to how I operate. The only fiction that ever felt like an attainable goal was the post-modernist The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. That’s not to say that I think that I could write a masterpiece like that book, but it operated differently than the average novel, often opting for things like definitions of words to develop the characters, rather than a more traditional story. Reading the novel felt like piecing together a body of evidence to uncover a story and the rich inner lives of multiple characters.

A big part of writing fiction is seeing the world through the eyes of different characters. I’ve never felt like anyone has truly known me, and I find it difficult to imagine that I could ever truly know another. Because of that, the concept of writing entire characters and how they react in different scenarios seems impossible. Unless every character was more or less a clone of myself, I doubt that I would be able to believably represent anyone else. And beyond that, I wonder if I even have an understanding of myself that exists beyond how others perceive me. Maybe my obsession with an outer gaze is why I’m sharing all of this publicly.

That’s part of it, but a greater part is my recent intention to be more vulnerable with my writing. If I think about the pieces of art that resonate most deeply with me, they’re the ones that show the depths of one’s being, things that normally wouldn’t be shared. When I first started writing with any sort of seriousness, I had no direction in terms what I wanted to do. Reading a lot of great essayists helped me to refine my vision, though it’s still pretty hazy. David Sedaris is a god-tier essayist known for his humor and absurdist outlook on life, yet his best work involves diving into the darkest moments of his life: the deaths of his mother and sister and tracing the ripple effects through his other siblings and his father. And through it all, he maintains his humor, which prevents you from feeling pity, instead opting for sympathy and understanding. Hanif Abdurraqib does something similar, though he uses music and culture as a lens. Abdurraqib’s career consists of beautiful poetry and essays covering a wide variety of artists. Yet, he can use his mastery of words and his knowledge and connection to musical artists to explain the pain of losing friends to suicide.

So, I write to find a unique point of view and I write to grow more comfortable sharing parts of myself and my experience. The unique point of view will develop as I wrote more and hone my craft, and the latter might require some therapy to help me figure some things out. Right now, I alternate between going full funny guy and full philosophical introspective guy. In rare moments, I’m able to bridge the gap, but I’d really like to find a way to consistently bounce between them more seamlessly. The reality is that there’s an enormous amount of philosophical introspective people out there, but often their writing isn’t very interesting. And often, writing with humor in it isn’t seen as serious or as important. I want my writing to express who I am, in its entirety. The humorous part of me is core to who I am, but so is the thoughtful aspects.

On a more material level, I have some goals that I’d like to achieve that I’ve never really thought of as realistic. They are to 1.) have something published in The New Yorker and 2.) publish a book. Obviously, these aren’t easy things to do and likely are a shared aspiration of every pretentious person who has ever written a personal essay. I’ve wanted to write a book ever since I was a little kid who would voraciously tear through every book in the library. I loved books with a deep passion and wanted to contribute to the libraries that had always been so good to me. In high school, I read way fewer books, but I started reading articles online, most notably The New Yorker. It was a level of pretentious that appealed to me, especially when I wore my go-to outfit of a button-down shirt under a V-neck sweater. I loved the unnecessarily eloquent prose and the illustrations on the covers. Later, when I dove deep into illustration, I aspired to illustrate a cover of the magazine, which seems like an even less likely goal.

There’s something about the literary world that’s appealing. Essentially all long-standing institutions are deeply problematic in some way or another, but certain publications tend to outlive and outweigh that, continuing to offer great content built on the shoulders of giants. And the whole time, they seem to be struggling in the face of a more technological world. It’s a sharp contrast to the newness and vastness of tech companies that continue to sprawl in every direction, consuming nearly every aspect of our lives. I obviously work for a sprawling tech company, but I’m interested in entertaining the interplay between these two worlds. I have no intentions of leaving my career path any time soon, but I’m interested to see what it’s like to try and get writing published and how smaller publications survive.

At the same time, part of me wonders if I have a right to contribute to smaller publications. For aspiring writers, any type of publication can be the step towards a paying career as a writer. As someone who is doing totally fine financially, I wonder if submitting work is taking away opportunities from people who are less fortunate and could really benefit from every chance at publication. Though, from what I’ve seen, most things that I would submit to won’t have any pay. This is a source of trepidation for me, but I can also see it as a reason my mind is inventing to make me avoid actually submitting my writing anywhere.

This is all to say that I’m going to figure out this writing thing. I’m in the process of trying to join a writing group, which I don’t really understand, but hopefully I’ll find people who know how any of this works and find some direction.

Dear God 2000 words is so many. If you’re still around reading this, then I salute you. A lot of these things I’m writing are things that I’ve never told anyone, or never even really said out loud. This is becoming an exploration of what I really want and how I could spend much of my time in the future, which is weird to think about. If you have any thoughts, either about how the literary world works or creative hobbies of your own that you’re interested in pursuing or anything else, let me know! DM me on Twitter or email me at hey@niksethi.com.