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Dear reader, today marks the inception of “Ideas on a page”, which will, in due course, be a premium only article series dedicated to ways we create and express ideas in long-form. Think of it as an all-access pass into the cutting room floor, where I share my notes on ideation and writing, that have, for one reason or another, not made it to the main newsletter. If you are a writer, thinker or someone curious about the creative process, I’d encourage you to sign up when it becomes available in the next couple of weeks.
My usual essays will still be available for free every second Sunday. The premium edition (“Ideas on a page”) will feature a long form piece each week all for the price of a small cappuccino. Details and links will follow at a later date.
Welcome to Issue #1
I’ve resisted the urge to label this new offering as a ‘writing workshop’ because, apart from it having a mildly patronising teacher-student undertone - which disrupts the conversational flow I like to have with readers - there are multitudes of other great online spaces that do that sort of thing.
This series will instead be catered towards creative ideation.
It provides a no holds barred insight into how I have, as an academic, wrangled with both big and small ideas, across the arts and humanities, in ways that have pushed me through spates of intellectual inertia. Ideas are important because good writing without substance, is like puff pastry without filling.
Today’s issue provides snippets, or a taster if you like, of what I’ll be planning to explore in the next 5 weeks as part of “Ideas on a page”. Each point is accompanied with a one-line takeaway, which is my meek attempt at providing a half sardonic tribute to the general obsession these days with bite-sized content.
Week 1: Composure is creativity’s unassuming friend
Part of my profession (in my day-job), without going into too much detail, involves the application of ideas and concepts to influence public life and communities in meaningful and positive ways. But it isn’t all rosy. The publish or perish mindset is very real in academia. It can lead to a frenetic search for things to research and write about.
One of the key lessons I learnt early on in the game was to engage with every writing idea/topic/concept with composure. Because composure ensures that one isn’t driven by an unfounded urgency to just ‘write about something’ at the first glimmer of a noteworthy topic. Instead let every passing idea breath and roam free in the corridors of your mind. Like new occupants of a house, an idea needs to adjust to its surroundings, before it can feel at home.
Often the very idea of having an idea overwhelms the rational faculties of our mind. The end-product then emerges as a disjointed version of what was originally conceived. Whilst having that eureka moment of triumphant discovery is joyous, a little measured reflection on where this idea fits in your longer writerly journey is imperative.
Practicing composure doesn’t have to be an over-elaborate process. All it takes is the presence of mind to ask if an idea is really energising your voice as a writer and finessing it with purposeful information and meaning. As the great Walt Whitman put it, with all ideas, “be sure but not too sure”.
Think before you qualify an idea as an idea worth exploring.
Week 2: Tactility inspires thinking
Holding a book in your hand, turning its pages and listening to the rustling of paper, is a far more enriching experience than reading something on a screen with a few quick swipes. At the risk of sounding like a luddite resurfacing what is a now a hackneyed saying, screens really detract from the essence of a book. Every book in my shelve is dog-eared and filled with copious amounts of notes. The creative spark comes to those who engage with ideas literally from the source; the more intermediaries you have the less connected you are to an emerging idea.
We could do with less abstractions and distractions. The challenge of course is finding access to a well sorted brick and mortar bookshop in these crazy pandemic riddled times. Otherwise there are online bookshops that boasts a sizable collection. Leave the screen for breezy weekend reads like this one - sorry had to add that qualifier.
Read a book, chuck the screen.
Week 3: Your notebook is an intellectual compass
Notebooks are a well-worn writer’s cliché. But beyond it being an integral part of a writer’s paraphernalia, a notebook is where fragments of ideas and half-ideas turn into cohesive narratives.
Often ideas in their raw state are unreliable guides to finding ones’ argument. They have to be systematically prodded and contested before they are charged with the required intensity. Think of notetaking as a form of ideational-baptism, where random thoughts are initiated into actual themes that provoke and inspire. If you don’t write an idea down, you are stifling it of life and future relevance.
Get a notebook
Week 4: Write for posterity
I’ve come to realise that gifted writers produce works that are worth recording and reading for posterity, like a classic movie with a timeless message. The litmus test to any literary piece is whether it will stand the test of time or wither in obscurity. Often a piece will be more enduring if it pays homage to an element of human nature. It needs to be relatable enough such that it strikes a chord with how we see and experience the world as human beings.
Franz Kafka for example was a master in uncovering the elemental truths of the universe and human behaviour with painstaking intricacy. His work has been immortalised throughout the literary world and it is no surprise why. I was first introduced to Kafka some 18 years ago and I was absolutely fascinated by how his books feature universal narratives of human pain and experience, constructed so delicately, yet unabatedly-sentence by sublime sentence into a marvellous prose edifice.
I vividly recall a particular setting where he describes a billowing shawl of a woman waiting in winter for a train. It was his way of showcasing the undulating nature of time, change and life outcomes as they ebb and flow conforming to certain highs and lows. Kafka’s ideas will always be relevant because they are indestructible against the changing tides of societal and civilisational change.
Imbue your writing with a life that transcends generations
Week 5: Great storytellers dig deep
The greatest storytellers of the world are also the greatest excavators of life - they dig deep into the chaos, darkness and the swamp of emotions and experiences within, to tell a story that isn’t simply a reflection of life but a re-creation of what it actually means to exist. The existential question is ever apparent even in contexts that don’t necessarily, at surface value, demand a metaphysical analysis. These ideas and stories speak to the infinitude and inexhaustible nature of life and living.
To take a popular literary example, Moby Dick, isn’t simply about how Ahab (the central protagonist) becomes obsessed with his need to slay a sperm whale. It is a story that digs deep into the terrifying abyss of "nothingness" that creeps up upon everyone at some point in their lives. Ahab is desperate to find a life purpose and prove to himself that life isn't just a practical joke on us all and that suffering isn't meaningless. Moby Dick (the whale) epitomises a devastatingly real existential crisis that has no real beginning or end. Great storytellers evoke issues that revolve around the core of our existence.
Introspection is your shovel
That wraps it up for today’s instalment and I look forward to exploring the above with you in the coming weeks for those that join me over at the new haunt.
Remember, ideas work best on a page.
I like this idea of "composure" rather than many people's approach as a kind of productivity or life-hacking. Composure makes me take a deep breath and pause--great reminder of how to approach the work.