The latest Openbeta email includes this quote from Czech author Milan Kundera –
Everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down into the streets and shout: we are all writers! One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and lack of understanding will have arrived.
Imagine a forest full of birds. It’s summer time and the cacophony is drowning out your thoughts. The birds are seeking out mates and the loudest and sweetest ones will win out, first. There will be some that will not find a mate, but most will. But every bird tries it’s best, without regard for the others. After all, it’s life and death and the continuation of the species at stake.
The same is true for twitter and Instagram and YouTube. A million content-creators and influencers and writers and thinkers all want to sell you their ideas. Not their wares, ideas. Not passion as is the case in birds, but ideas. These birds of the Internet are part of the cacophony that Milan Kundera warns us about, but even in the drowning noise, there is a message and we can hear it and respond to it. Thus, there is no universal deafness. We can seek out the message through word of mouth and search engines, through hashtags and link dumps. It gets noisy, but we build on top of the noise to make things clear for ourselves and others.
But we do not as yet lament, because we, the people who sit just outside the noisy streams of the walled gardens, know that the Internet is vast and needs more voices. Voices of those not heard till now, voices of those who can bring a fresh perspective. So no, Milan, there is hope as yet, and noise as yet to be made.
I’d like to ask the opposite – how are dreams ever known to us?
I get fairly vivid dreams every once in a while. Sometimes, I can correlate them to events happening around me – some tension I’m focused on, some happy occasion that’s around the corner, etc. But most of the time, my vivid dreams are out of the blue. I meet acquaintances I’ve not seen in forever, I go to places I’ve never been, and once in a while, my wife stars as a detective in a story-line I have no way to make head or tail of.
But to me, these are not because our brains are trying to hide something from us, as Matt alludes to in his post. Dream narratives are when, according to me, our subconscious is able to surface ahead of our conscious mind. Our subconscious is always there, ticking away, firing off a million connections that make no sense whatsoever. Every once in a while, we have a eureka moment, because some connection is triggered that makes perfect sense to the conscious, and needs to be surfaced.
See, I think that our bodies do somewhat act as “a bundle of parts of competing systems”, but not knowingly. When we’re focusing on something, or going about our daily lives, the primary objective that’s driving our thoughts is survival. This can be of any order – from the most basic physical and ‘where will our next meal come from’ to a much higher level, such as thoughts about the future and metaphysics. But all this while, our body is going at its functions. Just as we don’t forget to breathe, we don’t forget to think in the background. It’s constantly happening. When we have a sudden urge to pee, it’s because our body realizes that we’ve been ignoring this function since some time and an alarm needs to sound. Just like that, when a great idea comes to us, it’s an alarm that some section of our brain sounds to let us know that the connections it recently created make some sense.
But when we sleep, our survival is in the background. If our minds were still preoccupied with urgency, we wouldn’t be able to sleep. So it is either that we’ve resolved the day’s urgencies, or our mind is overwhelmed with them and needs a break. For either reason, we sleep, and when we do, our subconscious’ plays come to the front.
Now, does it always happen that when we need to pee, or need to get up for an important meeting, our mind triggers a bad dream sequence to jolt us into waking up? I don’t think so. However, when those events happen, our mind does use vivid imagery, or fantastical scenes to inform us in its own way that we’re dreaming and need to get up.
As for the last question that Matt asks –
How could you even begin to design an experiment to figure out how stories unfold in our dreams?
I think the way to do this is to give yourself some tension. One time, drink a jug of water before going to sleep. Another time, worry a lot about some upcoming event and see how your dreams are different than when you had water.
I’d like to close by one of my most interesting dreams (there are a few I don’t think I’ll ever forget). As a child, I used to read Tell Me Why before going to sleep. On this particular occasion, I asked myself the question – “what’s the last topic covered in this book?” The answer was a three paragraph explanation of termites. I read it, went to sleep, and woke up in a dream where we had returned home to find termites infesting everything, from the large Eucalyptus tree outside, to every cabinet and drawer inside. It was not a scary dream – I saw it all matter-of-factly. Despite having read a single explanation about termites, and seen just one image about their handiwork, the vividness with which my mind recreated a termite invasion was amazing to me. It wasn’t out of any malice or urgency either. It was just the last thing my mind processed.
Have you ever seen people using a Moleskine notebook in public? You can see them using a fancy pen or pencil, writing in beautiful cursive, making excellent sketches, drawing straight lines without scales, right into their beautiful overpriced notebooks. It’s a gorgeous and truly scary sight.
I’ve never been able to buy a Moleskine notebook. I’ve often come across them in shops and stores, but every time I flip through the well weighted, elegant pages, which can give you paper cuts all day, I realize that I’m not worthy of a Moleskine. My handwriting is terrible. My ability to sketch wouldn’t save my life! Besides, the most important thing I want out of any notebook is the ability to scribble random ideas, or write small notes into. I want to just dump chicken scratch and small paragraphs in, without having to worry about elongating, or writing perfectly. Do I furiously scratch out words as I’m writing? All the time.
Would I ever want to use a Moleskine for that? No.
It got me thinking – do we sometimes treat out blogs as Moleskine notebooks? Do we worry that we must only present our best writing on them, instead of just putting our ideas out there, perfection be damned? Yes, we do. We write entire posts and then save them in drafts, only to forget them forever. Either we’re not proud of our writing, or we’re not sure if it’s the right time to publish them, or we’re unnecessarily being perfectionists. Whatever the reason, what happens when you open your blog the next time? You come to the homepage, or the admin dashboard, and what do you see? The drafts? No. That’s a hidden page somewhere, totally ignored. So we move on to the next idea, and then the next, until our creativity is stifled and our spirits dampened by the lack of publishing. Why do we do this? Because the home page of our blog, at least in our minds, is a public space, and on it, only our best work should be displayed. But this is not true. CMSes allow two states – logged in and logged out. When you’re logged in, your blog’s home page is, in fact, not a public space, but a private one. Most of us do not realize or understand this, let alone capitalize on this simple idea.
I learnt about this problem in 2017 and solved it for myself. I want to share the idea with you, dear reader, so you can also stop moleskinning your blog. I’ve alluded to me writing this post before, specifically mentioning a key aspect of my solution – that when you see my blog’s 2018 archive, you see 25 posts, while I see 59. Yes, that’s thirty four posts that are not sitting tucked away in a drafts folder, but active and alive on my blog, albeit only for me.
Here’s how – this plugin on WordPress can set the default visibility of every new post you create on the web to Private. If you’ve never done this before (and I had not, till I discovered this solution), go ahead and manually try it now. When you change the visibility of a post to Private, WordPress immediately changes the save prompt from “save as draft” to Publish. You can finally get it – you can hit that Publish button and get that sweet, sweet rush of publishing something, but you can also get the freedom to read your post after some time, catch a few errors, a sentence you don’t like and such, and finally, when you’re happy with it, you can publish it publicly, which, by then would be a much smaller cognitive step than publishing it for the first time.
Side note – I’ve long recognized that seeing your blog posts on the front page of your blog, with theme and all, is a much different experience than writing and editing inside a text area and then publishing it. The feel is different, your eyes move differently to that beautifully set font, but most importantly – your mind responds differently.
I’ve tried hard to capture this feeling. A few years ago, when I found out about front end editors, I tried every single one I could get my hands on. One of my favorite ones was Barley. It was very well built, and a charm to work with. But front end editors come and go. Besides, the mind’s response to an editor is still that it is just that – a workspace. Even in the look and feel of my blog’s theme, the words seemed to flow differently when they were in edit mode.
I’ve been excited about Gutenberg since it was announced. But when I installed it in beta, it was horrible. However, the first release was actually quite good for me. For some reason, when I turned on SSL on my blog, one of the Gutenberg JS files crapped out (probably something to do with bad caching) and I can’t use it any more for post creation. I’ve gone back to the Classic Editor for now.
Coming back from that long winding side note, when you’ve published a post to private, go your blog’s front page and just read. Be a consumer. Be a reader. The first time I did that, I found two spelling mistakes I’d made towards the end of my post. It’s so much easier to do that when your mind is just casually glancing at words instead of trying hard to be creative and write. The second time I did it, I was able to find a few sentences I hated reading and edited. Immediately after I made the edits in both the cases, I changed the settings to set the visibility to Public and published my posts. I’ve even used this process to sit on a post for a few days, slowly edited it every day, till I was ready to hit publish. Of course, you need to be careful to set the time and date of publishing to the current time and date instead of the value it’ll actually be – the time when you first hit Publish.
You don’t have to use the plugin. Whenever I’m on the WordPress iOS apps, I just head to the Post Settings section and quickly set the visibility to Private.
As I said before, stop moleskinning your blog. It’s not a perfect, pristine place which must always reflect the best work you’ve ever done. It’s alive. It’s a creative space where your ideas should stare you in the face so you can always work on them, and when they’re presentable, you can show them to the world. If you don’t ever want to, that’s fine too.
p.s. I let this post marinate on my blog in private mode for one night. According to WordPress, I have edited it twelve times after the initial publish. ?