Why I Stopped Writing for Two Years
We are all human, all too human. Error, paving the road of progress as we pilgrim towards enlightenment. If only there were a guide. Someone to draw attention to the unseen and provide us with insight, outside of our experience. In 2018, one such guide appeared, profoundly impacting my life and the way I see things. His name was Vico Biscotti. Our collaboration became the catalyst for a powerful internal transformation and ended in an experience of writer’s block, which lasted two years. This is that story.
Often the grandest elaboration and unfolding of events can be found in the essence of their beginning. Vico first reached out after I wrote an article on my experience in the Medium Partner Program. I was excited about the prospects of building a full-time income on Medium, but Vico, although glad of my results, expressed his disenchantment with the platform. I went on to empathized and understood his concerns given that the article we were chatting over had gone from earning $0 to $100 and back to $0 in a week.
My interest in Vico grew as I explored his writing and read an essay written about commenting sincerely within the Medium community; connecting with his level of self-consciousness and concern about being misunderstood. It’s reassuring to know there are people out there who genuinely care about how they are perceived and their effect on others. It was evident that we were both picking up what the other was putting down, or were ‘on the same line’ if you will, so it wasn’t surprising that a mutual following ensued.
Our desire for social connection is of primal importance. Matthew Lieberman, a scientist and author, uncovered the neuroscience of human connections in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect; explaining that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water. In an interview with Scientific American, he talked about how, in our everyday social interactions, “we have a profound proclivity towards trying to understand the thoughts and feelings [of those] we interact with. [And], although not perfect at gleaning the actual mental states of others, [it]gives us an unparalleled ability to cooperate and collaborate with others — using their goals to help drive our own behaviour.” And, as my interaction with Vico continued to unfold, that’s exactly what happened.
Medium, as a platform, supports an incredibly diverse community where all kinds of people come together to share and read stories. However, not all town-squares are created equal and, in the expression of ideas, thoughts and opinions, voices get lost in the noise. Algorithms amplify those of us lucky enough to meet the criteria, while the rest of us are left to write in obscurity. It’s a tricky problem, one that many social platforms are currently trying to figure out, so I appreciate that it’s not going to be solved overnight. That said, it does exist, and when a problem exists, especially on the Internet, you can be sure that everyday people are working on its solution.
In April 2018, after publishing a 20,000-word essay that swallowed three months of my life and a good deal of sanity, I was eager to engage with the Medium community. I was looking for something or someone. People, I suppose, who were on a similar path to mine — people with an aim and who had goals and expressed them. In short, I wanted to understand who a person was, the templates and beliefs around which they constructed meaning, and what they were aiming at. I was tired of the How to, Listicle, What I Learned- type pieces. I wanted more of the writer and less of the self-help vomit that blurred one into the other. I had fallen for the trap of expedience and wanted a quick way to sort through people and figure out if they were worth following. And, far from being consciously aware of it, I began to struggle in a little Samsara of my own creation.
The great thing about the struggle of being human is that usually, somewhere out there, another human shares your struggle. During my search for a solution, swimming in circles, I came across a post written by Vico, promoting various authors, and their work of the past month, that he thought interesting and noteworthy. It was a great way of encouraging conscious online consumption, and I told Vico as much while asking whether the monthly issue he had been writing helped him to discover more writers who were on a similar path to his own. If you refer to our discussion, it’s evident that my engagement with Vico was motivated. Recognising that his goals were somewhat aligned with mine, I sought to join forces with him and solve our respective problems. And they were respective, at least, that’s what I thought.
I wanted to develop a method by which to discover the journey a writer was on, making it easier to decide whether or not to follow them. Vico, on the other hand, was concerned with solving a more practical problem. The apparent biased and sometimes irrational behaviour of Mediums algorithms, which forced writers to play the game of quantity or “trendiness” to gain visibility. Even still, he recognised the value in my proposed “introductory article” that performed like an About Me which writers could use to explain who they were and draw attention to their work. In the end, we recognised that the problem(s) with the algorithms and design of writers’ profiles could only be solved by Medium and that our solution was simply a patch. And yet we agreed to persevere, deciding to continue our discussion via email, furthering our collaboration and its potential.
Everyone likes to be heard and understood. Although the problems that Vico and I were trying to solve appeared to be different, they were, in fact, the same. They both shared Listening as an integral part of their essential nature. Our desire was to be heard and to understand. Vico desired a better algorithm and home for his writing. My desire was to understand the person behind the voice, writing on Medium. We wanted to be listened to and to listen to others. It’s not hard to understand why we were approaching the problem in the way we were. As someone who wanted to listen, I was concerned about who I was listening to and what I was reading or listening to, while Vico was concerned about being heard and whether he was read or listened to at all. We were approaching the problem from opposite ends, and, if we were to collaborate, a bridge would have to be built.
Our initial plan was to explore the idea of an “introductory article”, or profile article as it became known, intending to create an author biography, history, plans and recap summary of their work. By doing this, a feedback loop could be created, allowing not only ourselves but others to gain a better understanding of who we are, perhaps even discovering an aim towards which we’re progressing. The result is that the writer would attract readers who deeply understand and support who they are and their journey. I believed that the execution of the profile article would also solve Vico’s problem, as the article would attract a genuine audience that grew and supported the writer themselves, relying on organic growth over algorithmic promotion. Vico liked the idea and thought that it had a place, however, expressed some reservations.
The problem Vico had with the profile article wasn’t so much with its utility but rather that he didn’t think anyone would be interested in reading it — except for a handful of close followers. He argued that people need a story and in addition, the recap part of the article wouldn’t capture attention very well either. Questions were also raised about how authentic a writer could be when consideration was given to the delicate balance of our professional and personal selves. I had expressed the importance of transparency and honesty as formative when writing the profile article, as it was meant as a true reflection of who the writer was and what their plans were. Vico, quickly becoming my guide, brought my attention to the danger of sharing your plans. He then proposed that we write our own versions of a profile article for insight and publish them for some feedback from readers.
The thing about Listening is that in order to listen, you must first be in a position to listen. It’s of interest to note that at the time, after finishing my self-absorbed essay of self-discovery, I felt compelled to engage with others. Lieberman points to fMRI research which shows that “whenever we finish doing some kind of non-social thinking, the network for social thinking comes back on like a reflex — almost instantly.” After an intense three months of non-social thinking, I was drawn back towards social engagement, and, it could be argued, after expressing myself, was re-oriented to listen. Less than a week after I published my essay, Vico and I began our discussions. Except I wasn’t ready to listen. An idea discovered while writing my essay became part of my psyche and clung to me so voraciously that it remained with me and was carried into the collaboration as legacy.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of — namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography; and moreover that the moral (or immoral) purpose in every philosophy has constituted the true vital germ out of which the entire plant has always grown.” Now, I think it’s safe to say that if anything ‘gradually became clear’ to Nietzsche it will come as an earth-shattering surprise to you. I thought it was beautiful and terrifying at the same time. And it influenced my desire to create the profile article, thinking that it would benefit others to do the same; inspiring a more conscious approach to writing. If we were more aware of what kind of plant we were growing, then perhaps it would be easier to grow the whole garden.
The catalyst of my experience came while I was reflecting on my collaboration with Vico. Our conversations had been in-depth, covering much more than I have expressed here, with a distinct dynamic emerging. Focused on solving our problems, through an exchange of ideas, we began to build a bridge between them. Once built, it appeared as though I marched directly across and tried to convince Vico of all the benefits of writing a profile article exactly how I envisioned it. Convinced that ‘my way’ was the right way, I proceeded, almost involuntarily and unconsciously, as if possessed. The dynamic was such that I believed I had something to teach Vico, that he could obtain great value from expressing a totally transparent picture of himself online, and that it was the only way the profile article could ‘work’. And then, subtly, like the first few stones that fall down the mountain before an avalanche, the signs of Change began to appear.
In the interview, Lieberman talks about an area of the brain called the “medial prefrontal cortex” which activates when a person reflects on themselves. Paradoxically, it’s also the same region of the brain involved in “allowing the beliefs of others to influence our own. The more active it is when someone is trying to persuade you of something (e.g. wear sunscreen every day), the more likely you’ll be to change your tune and start using sunscreen regularly.” It touches on speculation in social psychology “that the self is a much more social phenomenon than it intuitively feels like from the inside.” The “research suggests that the self is more of a Trojan horse, letting in the beliefs of others, under the cover of darkness and without us realising it. This socially-influenced self helps to ensure that we’ll have the same kind of beliefs as those people around us, and this is a great catalyst for social harmony.” And that ‘event of change’ is what was experienced next.
Throughout our collaboration, there were moments when Vico and I got to know each other more and understand who the other was. After expressing interest in what Vico’s plans were with writing, professional or otherwise, he supplied me with a detailed picture of who he was and where writing fits into it all. It was incredibly illuminating and further intrigued me. What would happen in Vico’s story, and where would it go? I thanked him for sharing it, appreciating its honest nature. It was a glimpse of what I had imagined a profile article to look like, and it had the intended effect. I wanted to know more, and my interest in following Vico’s journey grew, understanding his struggle more deeply. And yet, he held reservations about sharing it publically, concerned about the conflict it might create between his professional and personal identity. It was understandable as Vico and I were at opposite ends of life; myself 26 and he, 49. For him, a legacy had been created and was at stake, while I hadn’t even started, still in the throws of overcoming my inner Peter Pan.
My odyssey of self-discovery was as close to ‘where I was up to’ in the journey that I could think of, and so I sent him a link to the essay I had just written, almost hoping he wouldn’t read it. One section explores the divide between our professional and personal selves, so I thought that, if nothing else, perhaps Vico could find some value in that. To my surprise, he read the whole thing, which was impressive, not only because English isn’t his first language but also because it’s such a twisted wreck of words that to make sense of them one almost has to be insane. It’s as good an example of ‘non-social’ thinking as you can imagine and was written during a period of intense self-reflection, so my medial prefrontal cortex was merrily ablaze directly before I entered the collaboration with Vico. And, upon publishing it, reflexively sought to temper the experience; which is when Vico and I began our discussion. However, there was enough of my Self left for my Ego to cling to, and, clad in armour, I set forth to conquer the other.
That’s when I began to think about what Nietzsche had said, reflecting on what I had been saying, and then it hit me. Had I actually been listening to Vico? Or was I simply trying to win him over to my belief and template? I decided to go back and re-read his emails, letting go of my desire and really trying to understand what he was saying and where he was coming from. Astonished, I found myself agreeing with everything he said, from the length of the profile article to its content, the danger of stating one’s goals and plans, to the value of having a conscientious attitude. I had crossed the bridge and understood what Vico was saying, and, stripped of armour, stood naked and vulnerable, my Ego exposed. It was a moment compounded by another realisation, as the mountainside began to move, the ground sliding under my feet with rocks flying past me, my conviction weakening. And, to make matters worse, I had learned this lesson before, or, at least, that’s what I had thought.
In my essay I featured a quote from Jordan Peterson, taken from an interview with Joe Rogan: “Well my sense is, is that if you want to change the world, you start from yourself and work outward because you build your competence that way. It’s like, I don’t know how you can go out and protest the structure of the entire economic system if you can’t keep your room organised.” When I read that it made sense to me and there was a part of me that thought, ‘well, I wouldn’t be so stupid as to make that mistake.’ — but then, after publishing the essay, I marched straight out and started a project to change the structure of Medium and even how its writers wrote on the platform. Achieving neither and also failing, thankfully, to change a friend. You could say that perhaps I had understood what Peterson said intellectually but didn’t have an experiential understanding of it. In other words, I hadn’t made it indelible through action. After all, “Wisdom is knowledge, acted upon.”, a quote I now understand.
So what happened? Well, I was quick to inform Vico about my revelations and while doing so, inquired about an article he had recently published which I mistakenly thought had been written about me, concerned I was the ‘20-something guy’ he referenced. In it he expressed his dislike of being exploited and I, Ego crushed and Self humiliated, believed I had exploited him — far from a collaboration, it felt I had used Vico’s energy for my own ends. The article wasn’t about me, however, because of course it wasn’t. Vico would never write something so blatant and hurtful, even if I thought such an expression was justified, it was a complete oversight of character and indicative of the state of doubt I was in, having experienced an Ego death. Vico reassured me several times and remained enthusiastic for the profile article, which he thought could still be useful, even though I had lost all desire and motivation to complete it. And that’s where things ended. After a few more emails, Vico published a profile article in his own way and I stopped writing.
It wasn’t that I consciously decided to stop writing, what writer does? The phenomenon of writer’s block is a strange problem with complex causes, and my experience of it was no less. It was always my intention to express something about my collaboration with Vico, which I attempted. However, after a few thousand words, I was no closer to an elucidation of my thoughts. I tried to explore why we ‘follow’ anyone in, What is a follower, following? and got no closer to a resolution, thoughts left suspended in draft. My life was also changing, and a move to Melbourne overshadowed the last days of our collaboration, bringing my country sabbatical to an end. And yet, beyond both of these, the single greatest cause of my inability to write was a paralysing mental construct, forged of words, binding me in a state of inexpression.
As an amateur philosopher, it was in my interpretation of Nietzsche, combined with the words of Peterson and my own experience that I came to the following conclusion. If I was involuntarily and unconsciously expressing my autobiography, through my writing, then it followed that contained within it was a moral (or immoral) purpose of which I was perhaps unaware. It was a thought that shocked me, especially in light of Jordan Peterson’s words and my recent experience. What intention did I have expressing certain lessons learned, proclaiming that I had overcome them, in How-to articles? I doubted the sincerity of my words, worried that I didn’t know myself well enough to catch their manipulation. Who was I to teach anyone anything? And, if I couldn’t share my experience and what I’ve learned, then what was there to share? I felt like nothing I had to say was worth saying because, at its foundation, I was unconsciously and myopically trying to convince others to think and conform to my way of thinking and doing. I had illuminated the Samsara of my own creation and drawn another.
Returning to Matthew Lieberman, who has guided us throughout this essay, and following his thoughts on the self as a socially created phenomenon, he goes on to say that “[we] learn best when [we] learn to teach someone else, rather than to take a test. Learning to teach someone else is prosocial and relies on the social networks of the brain. We had no idea that these networks could promote memory, but now we do. We ought to be doing much more peer learning, particularly age-staggered learning.” Here, Lieberman is referring to childhood education; however, the same thinking can be applied to all walks of life, at each stage. When we learn something new, if not expressed, I believe that we’re at risk of not learning it at all, or at least, forgoing the chance to make it indelible. We’re all on a path towards enlightenment. Truly, I believe that it’s the highest aim toward which we all stumble. And, whether achieved in this life or the next, we have experiences that draw us closer to it and an understanding of ourselves and others. And those experiences are worth sharing.
Expression is the key. That’s what I learned. It’s not about teaching anyone anything; it’s about sharing what you have learned. In doing so, you might become a guide to someone, but that’s not what’s important. Liberation is found in the understanding that we’re all in this together. And by expressing ourselves, we’re in a better position to listen to and understand, others. If you’re unsure about what to express, don’t be. You will know what to express and when. Whether by words or action, we all know what we’ve got to do. There wasn’t a moment in those two years when I didn’t know that writing this essay was the thing that I had to do. Sure, I avoided it and told myself that I had to ‘figure things out’, but there wasn’t a sudden realisation that inspired or motivated me to attempt it again. I knew that it was what I had to do, so I started writing it.
From there, I found the angle for the essay. Expression was missing from the story because I had lost the ability to do so. And, in a way, I already knew the whole story. In my drafts, there’s one that’s titled ‘Writing: A method to improve your listening ability’ subtext, ‘Expression through writing leaves you open to impression’. It’s dated two years ago; before I started talking to Vico about collaborating and before becoming once again, lost in Samsara.
Our stories are important and their expression vital to our physical, mental and spiritual health. Doing so allows us to empty, after which we can drink the elixir of life. In Buddhist philosophy, the state of Nirvana is described as a “blowing out” or “quenching” and perhaps the same idea can be applied here. Through the expression of ourselves, we become aware of the states of non-self and emptiness. It is only after the “blowing out”, or expression, of ourselves, that we can experience emptiness and adopt an attitude of deep listening. We begin to see ourselves in others and hear our words in their expression, a mutual understanding grows, and we learn to love. Travelling along our path towards enlightenment, although fundamentally alone, we have each other with whom the experience is shared, guiding ourselves in the journey. As an old Aboriginal proverb goes, “We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.”
This story was inspired by my collaboration with Vico Biscotti. Thank you, Vico :)