Selfishly Writing

— OCCASIONALLY AND INEVITABLY, someone will ask me why I don’t pursue writing as a career, or suggest a litany of magazines I could submit to, or tell me I should workshop my material with a group. Many of my friends are very successful in the traditional sense, with well paying jobs in engineering and flourishing side projects. It is natural that this is where their mind goes — and I love that this encouragement is how they tell me how much they respect my writing, that they believe I deserve more from it. But my writing is not one of my side projects, rather, it is a thing I do so that I can continue living, similar to eating, showering, or socializing. It feels odd to give up my control over my own breathing, just because I could be paid for it.

I had a voracious appetite for books as a child, and since books were often too long to be vetted by my parents, they were a way I got exposed to the nuances of the adult world probably earlier than they realized, reading about a dramatized Cleopatra’s escapades with Mark Antony in a thousand-page volume I was proud of myself for conquering. Books were a way I learned about life and people. There were the traditional kid books too — all sorts of fantasy novels that I used as a magical escape.

I was extremely fortunate to have an excellent English teacher in middle school, Mrs. Wenngren, who noticed my desperate, ambitious efforts in her Oral Interpretation elective and asked my parents to move me into the honors English program. My parents, like many immigrant parents, had not known how kids were placed in these classes or skipped grades; it was assumed that there was a system in place that was to be trusted — fortunately in the case of Mrs. Wenngren, this was true. If it was not for her careful observation and encouragement at a critical moment, I don’t think I would be where I am now — or who I am now. Surprisingly, I never felt I had an English teacher who challenged me that much in high school; I have never improved as dramatically as I did in middle school English. My later literature analysis felt like, frankly, the standard bullshit. I got better at the technical minutia of writing, especially its organization, but not so much the core of it — how to properly articulate thoughts so perfectly and poignantly that another person can understand your thinking, without you even being there; all they need are the words you leave behind.

It was around this time that I also started blogging on Tumblr, and started writing long journal-like posts about my life and experiences — sometimes a more literal storytelling of my adventures and fantasies, sometimes these more abstract essays written by a teenager trying to figure out what it all meant. As books were an escape, writing was also an escape — it is how I process, then and now, bad things happening, it is how I calm down; I have endless phone notes of my written ramblings after a fight or some upsetting event and I feel like it all leaves me, the pain and worry; it’s all locked into the words, and I can sleep.

I’ve always been reluctant to commercialize my writing, to “pitch” it and “sell” it and “workshop” it. I know that this is a way to get better at writing, but I am arrogant, egotistical, and selfish about it. Of course, don’t get me wrong, if someone out there “discovers” my genius and a book deal falls out of the sky into my lap I will happily take it. And curiously, this is actually how most writing opportunities have happened for me. It is the one thing I didn’t have to try so hard at— or at least, if time and effort was spent, it never felt like trying. I submitted things here and there and won awards on occasion, I was recruited to the MIT blogs (after my application was rejected), I field occasional requests for collaborations and submissions and Spotify bios. These are all small things of course — nothing I’ve ever been paid for, except for small cash prizes from one or two awards and my MIT Admissions job.

But is it so wrong, to keep writing the one thing that is mine? My other efforts in this world are so beholden to other people — parents, teachers, professors, bosses, investors, customers, landlords. My writing is sometimes to other people, but it is always for myself. Writing helps me understand things better, helps me process, helps me vent, helps me communicate. The voyeurism is that I let other people watch (read) this intimate process, and it gives me a little extra spark when I hear someone else got something out of it.

I think there is a practical aspect too — we know that in all the arts, from painting to performance, there are many people who try and try and try, and never get the success or recognition they deserve, or worse, receive it post-mortem. If that’s the case, why bother? I don’t mean this in a pessimistic way, but simply that, I like my day job; I find fulfillment in my hobby; I don’t see the need to ruin it with concern about submissions and rejections, deadlines, bosses, agents, publishers, subscribers, landlords. And there is so much professional writing out there that is so bad these days (have you ever read a Forbes article?) Like all the arts, professional success in writing is not necessarily an indicator of quality. We are all aware how steep competition is, how readership dwindles, and frankly how rigged and racist the system can be, from publishing houses to newspapers to media conglomerates. I respect, greatly, all the incredible artists who have dedicated their lives to trying for this success in such a strange system, who have even attempted reform. It’s just that I choose not to; I choose not to do anything I don’t feel like doing, I choose to go with my instinct rather than careful research; I choose to react rather than plan. I choose to be selfish, and this is the one place I can get away with that, and it works for me. Critically, I also don’t desire much, other than a place to write and maybe a handful of readers.

One day when I am a really seasoned engineering professional, maybe I can write one of those books about “the industry” and be pleased with myself. But for now, please don’t feel sorry for me. I think it’s a beautiful thing, the freedom I have, the fact that someone, anyone, bothered to read this far down a page I prepared. It is something we share, you and I, this freedom: I, the freedom to write, you, the freedom to read.

Freedom, in this highly constrained world, is something we choose to take for ourselves, in all our purely selfish pursuits.

MIT grad, robotics engineer, mixed. A place I write.

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