Discover more from Not out, but through!
A neurotic interlude
writer slips into swamp of his own creation, returns unharmed; life goes on
Last week I broke from my usual schedule and didn't publish anything. Zeroes of subscribers reached out, concerned.
Behind the scenes, I was festooned in doubt: unsure about which direction to take the blog, frustrated with stalled growth and craving new projects to house the weirder things I want to talk more about.
As usually happens during periods of doubt, there has been an inordinate amount of reorganising notes and little fresh writing. Rather than struggle in silence, I decided to try writing it out, embarrassing concerns and all.
There were three main doubts.
About a month ago, I had just under 200 subscribers. It is a small number, dwarfed by many of the publications I enjoy reading, but reaching 200 does bestow the reassuring "hundreds of subscribers" tagline on your Substack homepage. 199 just won't cut it. A month on, I'm still in the same place, sitting atop the same plateau of doom.
I am mostly happy with what I've published—the last post, in particular, came out of nowhere in about 20 minutes—but these writings brought in very few new subscribers. This is not entirely surprising, as I only share the links once, on the two social networks where I have a meagre presence. But this puts me in a bind. I’m not seeking hordes of fans, but I do want to write for more people.
A second pressure has been growing over the last few weeks. As I rest and re-engage, my energy has been returning. I have no job, no girlfriend and only a few obligations. I've always wanted to be a writer and with no external obstacles in the way, the kettle of expectations has started to boil. It angrily whistles: why is the award-winning literature not gushing forth? Where is the hockey-stick audience growth? (Yes, it feels ridiculous—not to mention entitled—to write this out.)
The third and final pressure has been a strong desire to write about more complex topics: social, cultural, philosophical & spiritual. Not exclusively—sometimes I like to write everyday advice, talk about physical fitness, or just recommend interesting things.
But when I think about going deeper into these topics, there is fear and resistance. All kinds of assumptions about you, reader. You don't come off well.
“It will be too esoteric” — Yet the esoteric and the edges have always been what interest me most, the simple truths shaping our perceptions from just below the surface.
“It's too big a surface area” — Growing the blog will be impossible because the ideas straddle too many themes. Writing about one topic will isolate subscribers who only care about the other. I could update this blog name to something less esoteric, talk only about one topic and start skewering each piece with my trademark takes. But I don’t like this! I enjoy being a citizen of the overlaps.
“It will be too intellectual” — I have to keep it easy so people don't switch off. I need to dull things down, to keep them accessible and produce the cool opinions people want. But this inevitably rebounds, and then I feel unhappy that I'm not engaging with what I care most about.
Somehow, through these judgements, I end up convinced that I need to write for disinterested people with short attention spans, looking for nothing but a drive-by tip. It's an embarrassingly low standard for an audience. It’s strange to feel the pressure of shaping your writings for an audience you don't even want.
The result of this final pressure is that I tried to start another writing project. I tried to cheat on you. I was convinced these ideas could not be published here. I spent a lot of time on them before I asked: why not here? If not here and now, then when? Who or what am I waiting for?
This is not the first time this has happened. But only recently did it become clear that these projects are a way to outrun the fear of sharing something difficult: by hermetically sealing it away, unsullied by sight or expression.
In Four thousand weeks, Oliver Burkeman shares the fable of an architect, who designed the world's most beautiful mosque: "a breathtaking structure, dazzlingly original yet classically well proportioned, awe-inspiring in its grandeur yet wholly unpretentious":
All those who saw the architectural plans wanted to buy them, or steal them; famous builders begged him to let them take on the job. But the architect locked himself in his study and stared at the plans for three days and nights—then burned them all.
He might have been a genius, but he was also a perfectionist: the mosque of his imagination was perfect, and it agonised him to contemplate the compromises that would be involved in making it real. Even the greatest builders would inevitably fail to reproduce his plans absolutely faithfully; nor would he be able to protect his creation from the ravages of time—from the physical decay or marauding armies that would eventually reduce it to dust.
Stepping into the world of finitude, by actually building the mosque, would mean confronting all that he couldn't do. Better to cherish an ideal fantasy than resign himself to reality, with all its limitations and unpredictability.
—Burkeman, O. (2021). Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p79
I make no claim to genius or competence in Islamic architecture, but I do have more than a passing familiarity with the inner sanctum of perfect ideas; shimmering in untouched splendour, never needing to journey into the world of appearance or meet the eyes of another.
At root, I guess it's just so many ways of describing fear. Being afraid of cocking it up, getting it wrong and being rejected. Writing is a special form of nudity, and with it comes the fear of chiselling yourself upon the eternal granite face of the Internet, to be prodded and dissected for eons to come.
During the doubts, I ended up returning to an essay I'd skimmed years ago. It's The Conscience of Words by Susan Sontag:
The qualities that make a given writer valuable or admirable can all be located within the singularity of the writer’s voice. But this singularity, which is cultivated in private and is the result of a long apprenticeship in reflection and in solitude, is constantly being tested by the social role writers feel called on to play.
It's clear to me that there are still hangovers of trying not to stand out, to avoid being associated with weirdness. To play a role to caters to the mainstream, that deflects unnecessary attention. As much as I resist it, the images that pop into my head are of being bullied for looking different in school and finding ways to avoid that intolerable, hovering threat of humiliation.
Each Substack publication is also dressed in a particular way. Some safe and uncontroversial. Some twisted and ambiguous. When I think about the authors I most enjoy, they're all in the latter category. These are the same people I cheer on as they plunge into the weeds. Seeing them in action I feel, for a short while, like I have full permission to proceed down any alley I choose.
Sontag points out that it’s these individuals who drive the whole enterprise of literature:
Writers — by which I mean members of the community of literature — are emblems of the persistence (and the necessity) of individual vision.
She warns repeatedly about trading nuance for sound bites:
But it’s one thing to volunteer, stirred by the imperatives of conscience or of interest, to engage in public debate and public action. It’s another to produce opinions—moralistic sound-bites on demand.
...a writer ought not to be an opinion-machine. As a black poet in my country put it, when reproached by some fellow African-Americans for not writing poems about the indignities of racism, “A writer is not a jukebox.”
The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation. Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification.
…Another problem with opinions. They are agencies of self-immobilization. What writers do should free us up, shake us up. Open avenues of compassion and new interests. Remind us that we might, just might, aspire to become different, and better, than we are. Remind us that we can change.
This call to nuance is perhaps the part that resonates the most, as I see so much of our thinking tainted by a kind of simplism and knowingness; the belief in 1) simple, single causes and 2) the conviction that we already know what those causes are.
The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences. It is the job of the writer to depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture. It is the essence of the wisdom furnished by literature (the plurality of literary achievement) to help us to understand that, whatever is happening, something else is always going on.
It is these qualities that I most seek out in other authors: not canned opinions, but a robust opposition to simplification and a willingness to explore both "the foul realities" and "the realities of rapture". To carefully step into a relationship with the ideas that can reform our vision.
What does all of this mean for the blog? How was any of this interlude relevant to you?
Most of all, I will continue to share everything here; the serious, the fun, the practical and the esoteric. I will continue to be who I am. Instead of wasting time crafting content to your assumed needs, I will trust in your imagination and intelligence, not to mention your freedom to walk away if it's not for you. This singularity of output is also a great kindness to myself, as grooming multiple, concurrent projects is exhausting.
To help explore this wider territory, there are two new formats I want to explore:
One valid reason I often wanted "the other project" is that certain ideas do need lengthier explications; perhaps more suited to a book than a blog. But seeing people likecarefully tease apart the fabric of the Machine over at , nothing is stopping a literary luddite like me expressing lesser-honed ideas.
I like the idea of arcs—a series of posts exploring a wider theme, tracing out a stretch of a wider circle. Slightly less formal than a series, perhaps; a meandering commentary. (This disclaimer is more for me than you, terrified as I am of missing The Key Point or not having read The Book That Changes Everything We All Knew About That Topic.)
The first arc, on burnout, our relationship to work and perhaps the whole enterprise of productivity will kick off soon. There will likely be a couple of book reviews thrown in, as I've been busy learning as much as I can about how I ended up here.
The arc afterwards will likely be an exploration of the many ways we seek the depths: a kind of critical spiritual commentary, untangling genuine transformative practice from hype, and separating powerful ideas from the false hope that promises an escape from our limited, fallible condition. I don't know where the edges of these arcs are, but I trust that I'll feel them under my fingers as I start writing.
Besides writing, there are many other small joys I come across each week: essays, people, products, and music, that I want to recommend and share.
Many writers publish "roundup" posts each week or month, and I am a big fan of them. I am going to experiment with this format, probably fortnightly at first, and sent out on the weekend—best accompanied by coffee and croissant, or your preferred delivery vehicle for butter.
There is something liberating about just getting to share things that excite me, without needing to wrap them up in prose. Two good examples of this kind of roundup are Tim Ferriss' Five Bullet Friday and, more recently, ICYMI by.
You don't have to do anything else to receive these. It's all part of the package, and will seamlessly slip into the warm buttprint that my posts have already left in your inbox. With this uncomfortable metaphor, I bid you farewell.