Embodiment

I recently read a short story called Object Permanence by James Yu and like most of his writing — I’m a fan — this speculative piece makes use of technology to explore themes of identity, society and culture.

In this piece, humans who are landmark caretakers also manage Twitter accounts for their respective landmarks and tweet as them.

Imagine Twitter accounts with handles like @GoldenGateBridgeUnofficial and @EiffelTowerOfficial tweeting “You can’t miss me, unlike that boring span @BayBridge” or “Elevate Elevate Elevate”. This actually happens in the story.

The protagonist of this piece, Zain, is a lighthouse caretaker, who initially starts tweeting as his lighthouse for fun.

Later, he is invited to be part of Twitter’s (fictional) green checkmark program, which he initially turns down because he was “skeptical of any software that claimed to be automatic”.

But a mysterious Twitter representative who communicates only by typing in her Notes app, instead of speaking, eventually convinces him to try it out.

The story is beautifully-written and makes commentary on the farcical nature of some parts of the tech industry, while recognising that good can come out of using tech too.

There was a part of the story that reminded me of some of the things I’ve been reading for my research — embodiment and possession (as in, demon / spirit) — which I found odd, but fascinating.

Thesis

I started drafting my thesis in bed, on my mobile phone, typing it into my Apple Notes app with two thumbs as if I was sending a long text message or an email to someone. 

The blank page feels less intimidating on a phone screen. And 36,000 words seems easier to achieve when the first 1,000 has been written. That 1,000 in turn becomes easier when the first 100 has been put on the page. 

In Biology, we learn about positive feedback loops — when a product of a reaction leads to an increase in the reaction. I sometimes like to think about writing in these terms. 

If I write, the words written make it easier for more writing to happen. 

It’s a heartening way to think about the writing process — the more I write, the more I can write. This gives me the motivation to keep writing… something I’ll admit I neglected in 2020. 

It’s tough to write when all you want to do is curl up into a ball and watch TV to drown your feelings. 

But 2021 is another year and since it seems like things aren’t getting any better, the only thing I can do is bite the bullet and get shit done. 

Flow

I woke up before six this morning and couldn’t seem to go back to sleep. The heart pounding was back and although my eyes had difficulties opening, my brain refused to settle down. 

I got up to work. 

Sometimes when I encounter these sorts of mornings, I write. Other times, I pull up my to-do list and start banging through all my must-dos and some maybe-dos. 

Doing this puts me in a state of calm. The illusion of control slips back into place and my heart starts to beat normally again. 

Focusing on work puts my brain back on a path, where it can still wander, but in safety. 

Sometimes I get to go back to sleep. And when I wake again, it feels as if elves have done my work. 

Could I have actually written this? I think about the stories I’ve written in my half-dream state, about emails and texts I’ve sent. 

The latter can sometimes be worrying. What if I say something I didn’t mean to? But thus far, there have been no faux pas. 

And sometimes I wonder how I seem more competent, more amiable, more efficient in that half-sleep state. 

Is this what people mean when they talk about flow? 

Unconscious

I’ve been dreaming more than I usually do. Lately, the dreams have become aggressive and physical. 

Dreams of trying to catch items before they fall into a deep water-filled hole, having eggs suddenly thrown at me, being threatened by someone much larger and stronger than me. 

In my dreams I soothe arguments between other people and attempt to plead for forgiveness from someone I never even knew I wronged. I dream about post-apocalyptic cities and snakes made out of electricity. 

The last time I dreamed like this, it lasted for over a month and by the end of it, I felt like I hadn’t slept in forever. 

This time feels different. 

Back then, I felt like the dreams took me over, chewed me up and swallowed me. I spent nights wandering, crying, waking up feeling like everything was rotten and nothing made sense. 

These days, I think of it as my unconscious trying to speak. 

Instead of seeing the dream experiences as scary or traumatic, I think of it as another language — the only way my unconscious knows how to make sense. 

The temptation to silence it is palpable. The desire to shut it out is real. But these days, I’m trying to listen. And that has made all the difference.

Unwritten

Sometimes I feel like I’m always waiting for the perfect moment to write the Novel I have in my head. 

I’ll start when I’m done with this project, I tell myself. But when one work project ends, another begins. My so-called masterpiece (only in my head) goes unwritten. 

What I do have though, are the pieces I’ve written in stolen moments. 

In a two-hour frenzy the night before a submission deadline. Scribbled into my notebook in between tasks. Punched hurriedly into my phone in the wee hours of the morning before I roll into bed. 

Early last year, a friend told me that “version one is better than version none” and that has stayed with me. 

So instead of that Novel that I’m waiting for the perfect moment to write, I have — in version one — shitty novels and short stories, unformatted scripts and half-baked articles. I procrastinate by writing songs and social media posts. 

I’ve come to accept that my capital-N-novel is a fantasy. And it serves its purpose — to give me hope, to keep me going, to wrap myself in on nights when real life feels too much to bear. 

Meanwhile, I send my polished version ones out into the world and somehow, some of them have found homes.

Hallyu

I’ve been obsessed with South Korean culture lately. 

This obsession began by accident when, during the MCO (lockdown in Malaysia), Ming showed me the intro to Mystic Pop-up Bar and asked if I wanted to watch it. I thought it was a documentary about a themed bar, so I said yes. 

A minute into the first episode, I realised I’d been duped. But it was already too late. I was hooked. 

After Mystic Pop-up Bar, Ming convinced me to watch Crash Landing on You and then It’s Okay to Not be Okay. And my initial fascination gave way to full-blown obsession.

As I read more about hallyu and began thinking about it from a media studies perspective, I became curious about the concept of soft power. 

South Korea is so open, compared to China. It has access to Western media and culture, but has managed to hold its own as well. Just think about how different Parasite (2019) is, compared to other award-winning movies. 

So, as a distraction from my actual research (on pornography in Malaysia), I’ve been reading The Birth of Korean Cool by Euny Hong.

In it, I came across this term: han, which according to Hong is an untranslatable word that’s used to describe “a culturally specific, ultra-distilled form of rage”. 

For some reason, I found the idea of this rage-as-result-of-suffering that’s passed down through generations inspirational. Apparently, it’s how South Korea has developed so quickly in the last 50 years.

Research

Time is passing like a bullet train with no stops. In a month — just 30 days — it will be the new year, the beginning of the third decade in this millennium. 

2020 has been an especially anxiety-ridden year for me, and possibly, for many others too. 

The first movement control order (lockdown) in Malaysia happened in the middle of March, when work was just beginning to pick up. 

But as my clients lost revenues and my other businesses were unable to operate, I had to stop work and suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands. 

I decided that this was my opportunity to go back to school — something I’d been considering for a while but never found the time to get around to. 

Right after Jacob died, slightly dazed with grief, I started filling out forms. It was an impulse taken too far, just over two months into my Masters course and it still feels surreal. 

Especially because my research involves scouring the Internet for sex media… ahem, pornography. 

Keeping track of what’s happening in the sex industry is now considered productive work for me. 

They say time flies when you’re having fun. I guess 2021 is going to come (pun unintended) in a flash. 

Criticism

I take “killing my darlings” too far. In fact, I sometimes wonder if I have any “darlings” when it comes to my writing; I often feel as if my words become someone else’s once they materialise on a page. 

This is probably one of the reasons why I feel divorced from my work. Not only do I mostly write for clients, but when I write for myself, the piece doesn’t feel like mine either. 

I write, because I enjoy the craft of it. Twisting and turning a story, an article, a song, round and around — figuring out how to shape it into its best form. 

Sometimes I totally fail and sometimes I could be better. But once a piece is out into the world, it no longer occupies the same place in my heart. It suddenly feels less mine and I’m ready to kill it, if required. 

How did I get this way? 

Being a journalist made me heartless, I think. 

When you need to get a one-sentence tweet, 100-word email and 300-word article out 30 minutes after an assignment, you stop caring about whether your writing evokes such and such an emotion. 

Your writing becomes functional, not a part of your personality. 

I remember in the early stages, crying in the toilet because I didn’t get the right angle, because my lede wasn’t strong enough. Being told that I was a bad writer, that my work sucked, to redo an entire article from a different angle. 

Back then, getting harsh criticism felt like the worst thing. I guess the good news is that now, the criticism can’t get any worse. 

Disorganised

I’m not an organised person. 

I often find it hard to think in linear time. I could make two appointments at the same time on the same date and think that it’s two different occasions.

My files — both physical and digital — are “organised” in a system that only I know how to navigate and use. 

Actually, if I’m being honest, it’s not much of a system. I just upload files into arbitrary folders, with not very descriptive names and rely almost totally on the search function.

Now that I’ve begun work on my Masters thesis, with the aim to eventually (maybe?) pursue a PhD, I am told that having everything organised is half the battle. This means that I’m half a battle behind.

Reading, I can do. Writing, no issue. Keeping things organised — the bane of my existence. 

The good thing is that there are resources for this. 

People have written things about this. This article on organising papers details a system of filing and note-taking that makes sense, while being simple enough to maintain. 

I also learned about the Rhetorical Précis Format, which seems especially useful. 

I love the fact that people wrote about how they’ve done things, and that what they’ve written are now becoming a guide for me. Perhaps this is why #LearningInPublic matters. 

Too much

Writing — for myself — has been one of the hardest things to do in the last six months. Sometimes I find myself sitting in front of the empty screen, wanting, but not being able to channel my thoughts into words.

Because they’re too much.

How do I even begin to talk about grief when it still feels too wordless, too free-formed to be pinned down and controlled?

How do I write about my inability to sleep, or my desire to drink, or my difficulties staying focused?

How do I untangle the knot of emotions left behind and string them up into a proper train of thought?

Sometimes I wonder, am I still a writer if I’ve only been writing for money? For work, for clients?

Am I still a writer if my personal projects have been on hold?

Am I still a writer if the process feels difficult? If putting 200 words down on a page feels like squeezing water from a rock.

So I write things people ask me to. I write about artificial intelligence, ageing societies and journalism in Malaysia. I write when I have to, when it pays the bills. I write in other people’s voices.

You’re still a writer if you keep writing, I tell myself. So I keep writing.

And perhaps one day, when my too-muchness becomes easier to bear, I’ll write for myself again.

Education

In an article about thriving in a complex world, Thomas Oppong writes that  we should “embrace things that require serious effort but will help you grow”.

“The effort alone can make you better — no matter the outcome. Even if you fail, you win because you are demanding more of yourself.” he wrote.

When I decided to further my education this year (during the COVID-19 movement control order), I considered pursuing an MBA. And then I thought about researching the future of journalism.

They both felt difficult. But would they truly stretch me, I wondered.

Eventually, I began work on and later submitted a research proposal on “pornography” in Malaysia. The work was brutal — mainly because I was exploring concepts that were completely new to me.

I read about “the body” (not a physical thing, apparently), about how anti-sex discussions are really discussions about sex (first foray into Foucault’s writings), and how modernity shapes cultural narratives.

Half the time I didn’t understand what I was reading, and even when I did, I found that I lacked the vocabulary to write down my understanding of it.

When I was finally done and hit Send on my Master’s application, I felt like a different person.

And isn’t that the point of education?  

Debauchery

At an event that I spoke at this year — I was sharing my experience as a freelancer during COVID-19 — someone “porn-bombed” the Google Meet where the event was being held.

That person did it at least three times, using different accounts, jumping into the call each time someone kicked him out.

He (I assume, based on voice) hijacked the screen share and had his computer open to Pornhub’s home page. Amidst the sea of shocked voices, he said one thing, “Why are you guys reacting this way? This is normal.”

And yes, sex is normal. Sex is part of our biology. Like eating and moving and growing, sex is a part of what makes us alive. But somehow, we see sex in a different light.

It’s something private, sometimes illicit, generally improper to talk about. Why?

Why is it okay to talk about it in some settings, but not others? Why is some sex “bad”, or “wrong”, or “over the top”?

What is it about sex that’s so incendiary? I mean, great sex is usually incendiary in a good way 😼… but what about the topic makes it so controversial?

It’s something I have on my mind a lot, so when I started my first podcast in 2016, I chose this subject that I have endless fascination for.

Almost five years later, I find myself exploring the topic of sex again. As a second season for the podcast, yes, but also, as a potential thesis topic.

Does this make me a pervert? Totally debauched?

Maybe, maybe not. But more importantly, does it matter? And so what?