Issue 17: Holy shit! Two cakes!
6 min read

Issue 17: Holy shit! Two cakes!

Issue 17: Holy shit! Two cakes!

This week, two of my favorite writing newsletters touched on surveillance, productivity, and rediscovering the joy in writing. With capitalism’s relentless emphasis on self-optimization and side hustles, I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of tracking every single thing, of gamifying my interests and hobbies in ways that suck the fun out of the activities themselves.

I remember my therapist asking me in one of our first meetings what I did for fun. I proceeded to rattle off a bunch of side projects. She interrupted me, repeated her question, and added, “How do you play?” It was a startling and sad moment when I didn’t have an easy response. In the years since, I’ve been trying to reformulate my answer.

In Yanyi’s latest letter in The Reading: I believed that self-surveillance was good, because surveillance was how capitalist interests had always coerced me to do my “best” work. Without surveillance, how would I measure success? More importantly, without surveillance, how would I prevent myself from predicting and avoiding failure?

In Jack Cheng’s Sunday letter: When I think of why most systems of productivity or organization don’t necessarily work for me – why I’ve rarely been able to fill one journal or planner before moving onto another – it’s because the motivating thing for me wasn’t the system; it was the thrill of trying something new. It was always the joy and excitement of it.

Yanyi recommends taking a writing break, that by doing nothing and clearing space in your life you can “reconstruct your relationship to nothing.” Jack recommends reading books that excite and compel you. Me? I contribute to a Hugo Award-winning project, which is a fancy way of saying that I have started writing fanfiction again.

Archive of Our Own (AO3) is a project created by the Organization for Transformative Works that hosts fanworks, i.e. fanfiction and fanart. It is fan-run and supported entirely by donations. It’s a noncommercial and nonprofit site built in response to content purges and exploitation by social media giants. Its code is open source and volunteers have helped make it one of the most sophisticated tagging/filtering systems on the web. People, overwhelmingly women and queer fans, spend hours writing fics and leaving feedback. I’ve read fics that are both novel-length and novel-quality — all written for free. No one is paid. There’s only a button for Kudos.

I first discovered (real ones know) when I was in middle school and obsessed with Pirates of the Caribbean. It was one of the first places I ever shared my writing publicly and was my first experience writing for a real audience, even though I didn’t use my real name and no one knew how old I was. In this newsletter, I’ve talked about the difficulty of getting your butt into the chair to write. But back in those days, I was actually excited to log onto the family computer (remember those?) and open up a blank Word document.

Last October, partially out of boredom and partially because I wanted to try and detangle my sense of self from my work and the pursuit of visible success, I finally stopped lurking on AO3 and began to write fics of my own. On AO3, I’m just a username without an avatar. I write the trope-iest things, overuse italics, and Oh my God there was only one bed! I’ve participated in fic exchanges and wound up writing 9000 words (even though the guidelines only suggested 5000) just because it was so fun to keep writing. Whether someone’s comment has been a keysmash of asldfa;sldkjf or a multi-paragraph close reading of the fic, it is a reminder that a writer’s job is first and foremost to connect with readers.

The author N.K. Jemisin, who has won three Hugo Awards, writes fanfiction and likens it to “one big giant writing workshop [...] that’s voluntarily joined and cranks on and on.” It's helped her hone her ability to hold readers’ interest and she still uses it to experiment in new genres. I’ve similarly found fanfiction to be not only invigorating and enjoyable, but also valuable for the encouragement it provides and insight into what readers respond to.

Two pictures with a stick figure looking at two cakes on a table. The first represents the artist who looks at the cake and says "aw man that guy's cake is way better than mine." The bottom figure represents the audience and exclaims "holy shit! two cakes!"

Fanfiction really reoriented me around seeing writing through a frame of abundance, not competition and scarcity (capitalism!!). In fanfiction, writing and community are inextricably linked. Friends share works-in-progress, respond to writing prompts, and beta read each other’s stories. Artists create graphics and illustrations to accompany fics. There’s literally a feature in AO3 called Gifts.

The doubt that I find comes with writing — that it’s unoriginal, incomplete, bland, not detailed or researched enough, who am I to tell this story? — dissipates when the purpose is to write whatever hyperspecific thing brings you joy that you think others will enjoy too. As an artist, you may judge your cake against some bigger, fancier cake. But the audience is just excited to eat two cakes! As another Tumbr post says, “sometimes you want cakes of many flavours and sometimes you want Nine Carrot Cakes.”

Jack talks about taking a “pleasure-oriented approach to writing.” Yanyi insightfully observes that play is “the anonymity of not mattering as much as you want.” In fanfiction, I have found both.

After all, who doesn’t love cake?

Shrek yelling at Donkey: "Can I not witness a horrific historical event unfold for five minutes?"

Creative resources

Recent reads & other media

I finished my annual reading goal of 52 books with The Roommate, a fun and steamy romance that focuses on the importance of female pleasure and discusses exploitation in the adult entertainment industry, and Clap When You Land, a beautiful YA novel written in verse about two sisters grieving the loss of their father. Check out my 2020 reading reflection for more book recommendations and meditations on a pandemic reading year.

I loved Meredith Talusan’s memoir, Fairest, a coming-of-age story from her boyhood in the Philippines to her Harvard undergraduate years as a gay man to becoming a trans woman. I've been thinking a lot about Talusan’s response in this interview about writing “unflinching” prose: “If I’m going to encounter something that’s emotionally really difficult, I would rather impose that emotional difficulty on myself than leave room for other people to do it.”

In the last few weeks of 2020, I also blazed through Bridgerton (I’ve read the first 5 books and would recommend them if you’re craving more Bridgerton content), played a ton of Overcooked with my sister, watched the new Mulan (beautifully shot but abysmal script and character development) and played mahjong with my family (preceding The Mahjong Drama).

Note: Book links are connected to my Bookshop affiliate page. If you purchase a book from there, you'll be supporting my work and local independent bookstores!

~ meme myself and i ~

The origin of the Ten Commandments. Dog or squirrel? Obsessed with these puzzle glasses. An accurate (and NSFW) summary of Bridgerton. The most difficult part of being a parent. The only good use of animoji. Iris by Goo Goo Dolls is a terrible karaoke song.

A Tumblr post that says "sir these are my emotional support 120 tabs of unread fanfiction"