During the summer of 2021, I stopped writing novels to write this newsletter instead. It was part of an initiative I called my full-send summer. Now the summer has ended and I am heading back into the process of writing novels—only to find that it’s different this time.
When I was writing my first novel, my life was very peaceful. There was nothing for me to do apart from write, go to work, and live a lovely life. But promoting my book was a very different thing, and over the summer I felt stressed more often than I felt peaceful.
I thought it was a temporary thing—that once my book was out, I’d be able to go back to writing and feeling peaceful. But my life was disoriented during that time, and now I have so many responsibilities beyond just writing (this newsletter, social media accounts, three discord communities, plus I’m editing every chapter of my book and finding photos for them before I send them out each week—which is more time consuming than I realized).
I don’t want to be stressed. I just want to write and have a fun and joyful life. But I also want my writing to be read, and that’s the tricky part. That’s why, inspired by an article by Melinda Yeoh in which she decided to forgo her next big book launch in favor of a more enjoyable fall, I decided to create a boundary that says, “this is how far I will go to accomplish my goals, and I will go no further.”
Because without that boundary, the things I need to do are endless.
Entering into nothing
According to the Christian tradition, Jesus is prepared for his ministry by the 40 days spent in the desert. Before that, the Jewish people were prepared to enter the holy land by the 40 years they spent wandering the desert. Before that, the Buddha was prepared for enlightenment by the seven weeks he spent sitting beneath a fig tree.
The idea employed by these ancient philosophies is that there is a period of nothingness from which all life springs—often using the womb/the desert as a symbol for this nothingness before creation. Think: the void before the Big Bang, the cocoon before the butterfly, the womb before a child.
Artists have long mimicked this cycle, retreating into the nothingness so there is the space to create something new. The artist Adele, for one, famously retreats from the public eye when she’s writing her next album, then she emerges for a year or two to appear on SNL, make all the late-night show rounds, and perform a global concert tour. When her last show has ended, she removes the stage makeup, false eyelashes, and oval nails for which she is known, and heads home to enjoy a more ordinary existence.
Recently, Adele returned to the spotlight after a five-year absence. Since we last saw her, she got divorced, lost 100 pounds, moved to LA, and wrote an album. Now she’s back, ready to release her new album to the world with a Vogue cover aptly entitled: “Adele Reborn.” “I have to sort of gear myself up to be famous again,” she told her interviewer, “which famously I don’t really like being.”
The artist Lorde recently did the same—emerging from a several-year absence with the twin albums Solar Flow and Te Ao Māram—and when she was away, she was away. “Lorde’s phone, set to grayscale, now has no internet browser; she is locked out of her social media apps, with others handling the passwords; and a coder friend even made YouTube inaccessible on her laptop,” she told The New York Times. “Instead, she cooked, baked, walked the dog, swam, gardened—chilled, in other words—while she waited to see ‘if anything else worth writing about happened.’”
These are not isolated incidents: In the late 90s, the actor Daniel Day-Lewis quit acting for three years to apprentice as a shoemaker in Italy before coming back to film Gangs of New York. The rapper Gucci Mane went to prison only to emerge three years later 100 pounds lighter with three rap albums and a memoir ready to publish. Dave Chappelle quit his eponymous show and took a seven-year hiatus before returning to comedy and eventually a six-part comedy special on Netflix. Taylor Swift emerged from the pandemic with not one, but two albums (and another couple albums re-recorded!).
These people are known for their art because that is the only part of them we see. We see the movie, we listen to the album, we watch the comedy specials—we see the art they ultimately create but we do not see them creating it. What we miss of the artistic process is the blank canvas, the blank page, the empty recording studio.
There is a dark, empty beginning before the bright, bustling end of creation. Because in the absence of social media, in the quiet that exists away from the internet, in the stillness that exists when we leave all the noise behind, there is nothing.
And out of nothing comes Something.
I retreated once before. In 2018, I permanently deleted all of my social media accounts and started writing my first novel. Then this past year I emerged to start putting that novel out into the world and picked a few up again.
It was fun. Like Adele finally getting to perform her work for millions of fans in an arena—it was kind of like, well this is what that period of retreat was all for! I may not have millions of fans, but I have a handful of people who are reading my book and my art is officially out in the world and not just part of my inner experience anymore.
But it was also a lot of work. Every day before work I wrote newsletters and every day after work I shut down my work browser only to open my personal one to schedule newsletters, pitch journalists, record podcasts, write interviews, and answer newsletter comments and Twitter messages and Discord conversations. After three years of introversion, this was one year of extroversion!
This is all part of the artistic cycle. It was the summer phase of my art and life in which I awoke from the dreamy yawn of the pandemic ready to be social and travel and build a community and put my work out into the world. But now, with this shift of the weather, I’m ready to head back to the winter phase of my art and life in which there is nothing to do but percolate. To tuck myself away into the nothingness and allow that empty space to inspire my next novel.
The problem is that it hasn’t been easy to give anything up. Over the summer I learned what it takes to be successful as a novelist and it is a full-court press. I wax poetic when I think about Dan Brown dutifully printing press releases and mailing advance copies to big publications. How quaint and easy that all seems!
Today, it feels unending. Like I need to become a Twitter celebrity and a Discord networking guru and put a newsletter out every weekend to become the next great American novelist—because that’s what it takes to get noticed by readers and garner the attention of The New York Times and sell the film rights to Hello Sunshine. And I do believe that is true to some extent.
But I’m an introvert, and that is not actually my goal for my life—nor do I intend to take that path to get there. When I look at what I want to achieve, I don’t think: I want to write 20 books in the next 20 years and serialize them all via Substack and be a full-time serial novelist! I think: I want to write one masterpiece—maybe two or three—and I want to live a beautiful enough life that I am inspired to create them.
That means I need to step away from the internet—away from the distraction and noise, away from the Tiktok mania and Discordtopia and NFTs-are-taking-over-the-world frenzy. Because the internet is a bright, dazzling thing that can easily lure its adherents into an all-consuming awe. But all that inspires is reaction. And I’m ready to get back to creation.
Still, I’m no Adele. I know I can’t just retreat for five years and expect everyone to remember me when I debut my next book—nor do I want to. The thing about the internet is that it connects people who might not otherwise meet. And though I have some amazing friends in real life, very few (if any) would lay on the floor reading all day. And I like that I have that here.
I can’t help but think of first-century priests who used to attach a rope about their waist before entering into the innermost sanctum of the temple—they needed to maintain some connection to the living even as they ventured into the mysterious realm of the dead. I feel the same need to keep a rope about me, an umbilical cord connecting me to the outside even as I retreat to the inside.
For me, that’s my newsletter. I’ll keep sending out weekly chapters and bi-weekly newsletters because writing is my whole thing and I absolutely love that newsletters are bringing blogging culture back. But I’ll be slacking off on just about everything else. I won’t be spending my leisure time on Twitter or Discord. I won’t be pitching my newsletters or marketing my novel on the weekends. I won’t even be writing my current novel on any kind of schedule.
I’ll still show up at all of these places from time to time, just as it’s still fun to attend a good party now and then. But I don’t want to sacrifice my art, or my life, to keep striving for its improbable success.
I’d rather do the more important thing, and write.
Emerging with Something
What will I do with all that empty (head)space?
I’m going to read books and do yoga and study Buddhism. I’m going to immerse myself in surrealist art and books by Helen Oyeyemi and Haruki Murakami and Kafka. I’m going to research and write articles about futurism and fantasy and fandoms. I’m probably going to be obsessed with the new Adele album and immersed in the new season of His Dark Materials. I’m going to travel to the ocean, to Singapore and Indonesia.
I’ll be dipping my toes into the fantasy world and writing for a LitRPG project that will help me expand my writing abilities, learn more about working with a writer’s room, and see how NFTs could contribute to the future of art and publishing. I’ll be co-founding a cryptocurrency summit that will launch at the Sundance Film Festival this year. I’ll be moderating and learning from a panel of serial fiction authors at FanX next year (more info coming soon).
My goal for this period in my life is to feel completely peaceful so I can feel completely creative. I want to get my brain to think differently so I can explore new parts of my imagination. I want to try new things and expand what I think is possible for my creativity and my life. I want to dream up whole new worlds and create them with my words.
I’ll be working remotely from Costa Rica this winter, and when I’m done with my workday, I won’t be slaving away on newsletter drafts or scheduling out my social media—I won’t be trying to keep up with the relentless pace of the internet. Instead, I’ll be diving into the ocean. Because somewhere, immersed in that underwater world, I’ll be inspired to write the Utopian novel I’ve been dreaming about—and maybe some other things too.
And I’ll emerge from this period of nothing, with Something.
I’m curious: what things do you give up when you’re in book writing mode? What things do you keep?
Thank you so much for reading and I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving!
P.S. In two weeks, I’ll be interviewing an author who works part-time to pay the bills, so that he can work the other part-time writing webnovels. In so doing, he is able to support his art and be fully creative, without the burden of trying to make a full-time living from his art. See you then!
An experiment with other noir novelists
I'm trying out this BookFunnel thing. The idea is that several writers get together to share each other's work in the same genre, and in my first 15 days, I’ve already met 63 new newsletter subscribers because of it (thank you so much for downloading my book chapters! It really means a lot to me!).
This month the theme is Noirvember, which is certainly a good fit for my novel. If you like my book you might find other haunting things you like here: