#48 - one year of writing
reflections + gratitude
There is a line in Mariah Carey’s memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, where she describes writing as her healing, and singing as her survival. ‘It still is,’ she reveals after sharing her history of family violence and betrayal, racism, and psychological abuse during her first marriage with music producer, Tommy Mottola. Her early talent and a desperate will to survive from a ripe and young age fashioned a dangerous and yet captivating motivation to become a singer. Mariah was willing to pay any price to fulfill her dreams, and for most of her career she has held the pleasure of her impressive achievements, ‘unimaginable wealth,’ and the love from her fan base (who she affectionately calls ‘the Lambs’) in tandem with the PTSD of being surrounded by bad actors, and the loneliness of having to part ways with her family.
Though Mariah sits in a small league of generational diva’s, her story of art being her survival is one shared by many artists, and especially those from communities of colour. In a conversation with visual artist, future folklorist and curator, Hana Amani, she shared with me that through the swift changes of her life, when her parents separated, when they left her birth country, Sri Lanka, and were on the move for years before settling in Vancouver in 2010 that ‘the only thing I know to be consistent in my life, is my art.’
When I started this newsletter a year ago, I didn’t know it would end up being a part of my survival. At the time, I was living through caramel as we entered a full-fledge second wave of the pandemic. I could feel the viscosity of our collective pain body everywhere, and it bled from Zoom into my living room, from Twitter onto the sidewalks and from Instagram into the threads of my sheets. Even if I looked away, my sensory antennas were on high alert. The institution I was working with had come to a head and the level of chronic dissatisfaction and anger as a microcosm of the upheaval surrounding us glazed over my tender heart.
Frankly, I have no recollection of setting up this Substack and pressing ‘Publish’ on the first entry that I called, ‘maybe commitment is not death.’ I had no clear direction for the newsletter, no big dreams, and no long-term plan (but lots of angst on what to call it). I just needed to write. I needed a place in the world that I could show up to that was fully mine, and could anchor me to this reality when my whole body was fighting to float away.
The first few months of writing were torture. Every week I would discombobulate, not knowing what to write and not liking what I was writing. The critical part of my brain was relentless, and in the 8-10 hours it took me to write a post, at least a third of the time was spent managing the internal drama. I had set up this structure to support me in establishing a practice, but for awhile I treated it like it was controlling me; a disorienting pattern I have struggled with my whole life. Connecting the newsletter to my survival, even subconsciously, meant that the pressure of it created some diamonds AND untethered some pretty cranky demons, which in my mind is sort of the deal with transformation. Oddly, I don’t regret the process. I don’t know if that suggests my affliction for chaos, or if that is *part* of the madness of art and creativity. Either way, three months into this project, which was a tiny part of the world but a massive part of my own, Ciaran declared that he could no longer hold space for the newsletter. Soon after, the tantrums and my inner child that constantly confused commitment with a loss of freedom, stopped.
There are countless ‘science-backed’ frameworks and well-worn truisms about how to form a habit or become an expert, whether its Maxwell Maltz’s 21 days (which then James Clear of Atomic Habits dispelled), Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, Charles Duhigg’s habit loop, BJ Fogg’s, TinyHabits, or the common literary (but also ableist) counsel to write everyday no matter what and finding an accountability buddy. Not surprisingly, I have read every single one of these books and have tried countless habit-forming strategies. And though I am finally flossing everyday now (thanks TinyHabits!) perhaps we underestimate the urgency and power that feeling like your spirit is going to die can have on your creativity. I guess that would be a hard credo to sell.
Writing is less cumbersome these days. I still think about it all week - and even though I don’t write everyday, I am constantly reading, unpacking, connecting and crafting in the background. I feel more grounded in my capabilities, my voice, and the nature of this space. It is important to me to show up and write in integrity, but I think of the newsletter more as a place to process, rather than to share polished and perfected work. That might change, but right now it works and I love it. Now I usually write on Fridays to shorten the time I spend on each edition, which has helped with making the work feel more sustainable.
People often ask me how I have managed to write every week for a year (save a few weeks I took off in the summer), and I usually reply that I earned my flow. If you have read up on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work (but also, sidenote, he sadly died two weeks ago), you know that flow is achieved at the delicate intersection of challenge and ability. Making a public commitment, and not knowing who actually reads this newsletter is the right challenge ingredients for me. If I knew it was only my friends reading this newsletter, I would slip under the guise of love and acceptance. Still, my abilities needed some work, because while I have always been a thinker and seer, I have never really been a ‘writer’ as institutions and social media would define it.
As a child, writing in a journal became too risky after my mom found it, read it and scolded me. So I started to write in my head, which I often still do. Sharing my work is both a desire for an unspoken connection, and a way to throw some energy into our cultural consciousness. It is hard to know what will happen to the Internet (are we calling it Meta now? I hope not), and if platforms like Substack will endure but I love the idea of one of my nibblings finding this place one day.
I did earn my flow, yes, but it would be deceptive to not acknowledge how crucial and essential my community has been in holding this space for me. Not to make this a cheesy Oscar awards speech, but I can’t quite capture the gravity that every heart, every email and text message sharing what resonated with them, every IG shoutout and friend share, every donation to the cause, every comment, every view, and every encouragement to keep going has supported me to keep going. I am a very fragile person. Angry and flaming, but fragile. And I need you.
The other day, my friend A was telling me that her and our friend S were at a club talking about my piece on Going Grey, and in imagining this scene I became so overwhelmed with shyness that I did not respond for over a week. I am NOT great at receiving, but your love in it all the forms it has taken has been so meaningful and life-giving to me. Also, I am a Leo moon so I legitimately need the validation.
In looking back on some of my past work, I am tickled that ‘I do and do not dream of labour,’ ‘the friendship renaissance,’ and ‘on dating white dudes,’ had the most reception. I loved writing about Frank Yang, and staging an advice column. Sharing amateur poetry was probably the most vulnerable. And my ‘TikTalk on TikTok,’ hilariously led me to be interviewed by Nora Young for CBC One. I doubled my subscribers, and while I am a very average marketer, I know that my way of growth is a steady pace.
I also know my writing sweet spot is in holding complexity, but I can struggle with wrapping up pieces neatly, which I think comes from a deeper sense of experiencing reality as emergent, evolving and never fully known or complete. And I hear melodies in my writing. I’ve noticed how some weeks are more jazz and EDM, and others are more R&B. Some pieces feel like stacks of cubes, and other times the wave of the current draws you to shore. In this way, writing also feels like composing, painting, listening.
Really, the most delightful part of writing for me, like life, is being surprised by it all. Of letting my curiosity and desire to travel down poorly lit and mysterious alleys fall onto the page. Sometimes I type words that I didn’t even know I knew and I am momentarily filled with the mystical wonder of artistry, and the distinction between creating as ‘I’ and being a vessel for ‘It’. Unlike Mariah, for me writing is play and play is my survival.
As someone who needs data to construct confidence, this past year I proved to myself that I can take on a larger writing project. The average book is ~75,000 words, and I am fairly confident that I have written that many words through 48 newsletters. Yay me! I don’t need to write a book, but I like knowing that I can if the right story or topic drops into my dreams. I would love to write a film or TV show but I need more practice with fiction. In January, I will share the next iteration of Afternoon Dreams, which is still baking but will most likely be going deeper on one topic, bringing some consistency to the format, and adding more audio works.
Until then, thank you thank you thank you.
Currently reading Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong, and so far I have really enjoyed her perspective on the 1992 LA Riots and their specific impact on the Korean community, and the very definition of minor feelings, which Hong elaborates on, but is succinctly summarized by ‘when American optimism…contradicts your own racialized reality
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