Fuck Around and Find Out

The more you fuck around, the more you’re going to find out – a basic concept eloquently illustrated by a man with a graph. 

Austin Kleon shared this TikTok clip a while ago and captioned it “The creative process.” It is the simplest summary of creativity. You fuck around with an idea to find out what works and what doesn’t. 

Whenever I fuck around, I find out what I already knew but insist on forgetting time and again. I rediscover that novelty is always exciting, coming up with many ideas is much more thrilling than nurturing one, structure sucks and it’s far easier to start a new project than finish an old one. 

But whether I’m lacking self-discipline or I was just born this way, the challenge stems from an insistence on fitting a mould that wasn’t made for me.

Giving yourself permission to break away from the conventional and invent your own framework is something every creative must learn. Yet despite several years of writing experience, I’m still learning to trust my creative instincts and not rely too heavily on the affirmation of others. Whether that affirmation arrives via explicit praise from my peers or more implicitly through how closely it resembles what other art has come before. 

Not even my blogging or newslettering has been safe from such doubts. Taking inspiration from a range of content writers, I have tried several times to impose semi-rigid formats on myself. The goal was to create a familiar structure, easily replicated time and again, to gain your trust as a reader. The intention: every time my name pops up on your screen, you know what you’re getting. 

Only every time I outline a template for my writing, I become quickly dissatisfied shortly after its implementation. I find far more joy in creating structure than working within it. 

With this in mind, I’m going to try and throw out all attempts at a singular repeatable format and see what comes. And so I wanted to use this post to share a bunch of random things that have interested me in the past few weeks…


Why Even Bother?

Many things bemuse me, but nothing bemuses me more than those who met my younger self and found him so likeable that they remained his friend long enough to meet the man he is today. Having known the boy so well, I find it hard not to think he was deserving of at least some of the scorn he reserved for himself.

However, for all his many faults that I struggle to forgive, I must lend him credit where it’s due. He had an unshakeable belief in his own writing abilities. As much as he loathed who he was, he was utterly in love with what he could do.

In life, he was quiet and terminally gloomy. On the page, however, he was confrontational and confident. At the time, his chosen form was hip-hop lyrics, emulating the rappers he often had on loop. And like his (ill-chosen) heroes, he could brag about his verbosity in one song and then be thoughtfully introspective in the next. He could shine a light on the darkest corners of his mind, and that perpetually nervous child got to be a tragic romantic figure.

Many who read his songs said they were good, but they wanted to hear them. Only he couldn’t perform very well. His voice could not match the confidence of his pen. There was no joy in the performance, either. This wasn’t the right path for my younger self.

His inability to perform his own lyrics didn’t hold him back, though. Blissful denial played some part in this. A greater part, however, was played by his best friend at the time.

Whenever he finished typing up a song, he printed it out on cream-coloured paper and folded it to fit inside the pocket of his school blazer. Then, the following school day was spent eagerly waiting for it to end. Once the final bell rang, he and his best friend would meet under the willow tree beside the school gates. There, he would share with her his newest verses. At the time, her enthusiasm for his words was all he had needed to feel content in his craft.

Back then, his talent was about the only thing he truly believed in. Perhaps if life had been less miserable, he wouldn’t have bothered trying his hand at writing at all. He might have stuck to filling his hours with video games and television.

When did that young writer lose his stubborn belief in his abilities and become the ever-doubting perfectionist that is me?


Recent Reads, Smiling Friends, Pingu Random House and more

Collage of recent reads (from left to right): The Martian; The Word for World is Forest; Windhaven; Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness; What It Is; Art Matters; Sum; Forty tales from the afterlife; The Road; Open Water

Issue #19 of my fortnightly newsletter went out yesterday. It’s loaded with a wealth of great content, including what I’ve been reading, watching and some of my favourite things right now.

You can read it now on Substack and get future issues like it straight into your inbox by subscribing.


Recent Reads #3: Short (but not exactly sweet)

Here are the other three recent reads I wanted to recommend, which aren’t really linked in terms of form or content. The most apparent similarity between them is that they’re short. So that’s what we’re going with.

Sum by David Eagleman paperback cover

David Eagleman

There’s no evidence that suggests there is an afterlife or what the afterlife looks like if it does exist. So, neuroscientist David Eagleman embraced the infinite potential offered by this unprovable concept and wrote 40 completely different post-death realities.

This teeny book will take you no time at all to read, but it’s full of so many ideas that I refuse to believe anyone can put this down and not feel at least a little astounded. The book also left me feeling creatively inspired, it’s great imagination fuel.

Some of these inventive tales also inspired a great deal of existential dread.

The first tale, “Sum”, presents an afterlife where you relive all your experiences, but they’re categorised, grouped together and then you live them one-by-one. To illustrate what I mean, you sleep for thirty years, read magazines on the toilet for five consecutive months, vomit for seven hours straight, and so on. It’s the kind of story that makes you question how you’re spending your time.

Meanwhile, “Circle of Friends” presents an afterlife populated exclusively by the people you remember. I look at the people I’m fortunate enough to have around me. If this were the world I discovered after my passing, it wouldn’t be so bad. However, never meeting a new person is a sad thought, which was a reminder for me how much I do genuinely like meeting new people.


Recent Reads #2: Graphic non-fiction

Continuing from the previous post, here are three more books I’ve read recently that I recommend.

All three of these books are not your typical non-fiction works. They’re closer to graphic novels, but even that’s an inadequate description. You’ll see what I mean…

Seek You hardback cover

Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness
Kristen Radtke

Potentially the best thing I’ve read all year. Kristen Radtke’s Seek You is not your typical graphic novel. In fact, graphic novel feels like the completely wrong description. It’s akin to a documentary but recorded in comic form rather than film.

Loneliness is an epidemic not being taken seriously enough. We need connection. We are social creatures, and our natural state is to have community of people around us. But our culture has changed. Now we aspire to live alone, and it’s to the detriment of our health.

This was the book I most needed to read when I was struggling with my own mental health and loneliness back in the early days of summer. It’s also what I desperately wish I could have read in 2018 when I was studying my Master’s and was writing a play about loneliness.

Radtke inserts her own personal narrative alongside scientific research and investigative journalism. She also includes a huge section on the research of Harry Harlow, whose monkey experiments — whilst horrifically unethical — fundamentally changed how we raised young children forever. If I could go back in time and give my younger self an idea for a play, it would be to write a theatrical take on Harlow’s research and how he mistreated both his subjects and the women in his life.

I’ll come back to this book one day. In fact, I suspect I’ll return to this book many more times in the coming years. The feelings it evoked were powerful and the questions it poses to our culture are important.


Recent Reads #1: Great science-fiction

In addition to my yearly roundup of favourite reads, I’d like to write semi-regular reading posts like this one when I’ve read a handful of books I’d like to talk about.

Originally, this was an excessively long post covering 10 books. But I’ve dropped discussing The Right to Sex here because I’ve already reviewed it, and I’ve chopped up the other nine across three posts.

For the first three, I’ve decided to group all the science-fiction novels I read together…

The Martian paperback cover with Matt Damon

The Martian
Andy Weir

When a book is described as “hard sci-fi”, I’m immediately put off. Stories with compelling characters are what draw me in, and a plot heavily reliant on talking about real science sounded like a snoozefest to me. But I had been assured that The Martian was a different kind of hard sci-fi, and I’m delighted to say those who recommended the book weren’t wrong. I loved this novel.

The protagonist Mark Watney is a funny, loveable guy with an infectious pragmatic optimism. When we first meet him, he’s alone and stranded on Mars. From the outset, his situation seems impossible to survive and it only gets worse. Describing something as a page-turner is such a tired cliché, but Weir does tension so well that I found myself speeding through the book because I was so eager to see how Watney survived the latest disaster.

I also loved the book from a craft perspective. We get Watney’s first-person POV via the logs that make up most of the book. But we also get a broader view of the narrative thanks to third-person perspectives from the Ares 3 crew and the people at NASA. It’s a style I’m keen to attempt in my own fiction writing.

How The Martian came to be is also an interesting story. From giving chapters away for free via his website to serialising the novel on Amazon to eventually signing a book deal and making the bestsellers list.

I’m making no commitments, but serialising a novel is on my checklist of things to do.


John’s Journal: One Year Later

Screenshot of the John's Journal newsletter archive on Substack, showing the titles of issues 16-18.

A little over a year ago, I started a newsletter. At first, I sent it out the end of every month from August to December in 2021. Then starting this year, I increased the frequency to fortnightly. (Let’s just ignore July and August, though.)

I’m quite proud of how the newsletter has evolved over the past twelve months. In the early days, I emulated Austin Kleon’s weekly list of 10 things to help me get started. But I’ve since moved on and have been experimenting with a format I can call my own. And whilst I suspect the changes have not yet come to an end, I feel closer to finding a structure that works well for me than ever before.

My small community of readers have offered consistent positive feedback, which I’m very grateful for. I’ve quite often been impressed by how well certain issues were received.

As it’s been a little over a year, I thought I’d look back and highlight some of the newsletter’s best moments. I figured it would be a little celebration for first-day readers and a good introduction for new subscribers.


The Progress You Can’t See

Five journals next to each other, dated from June 2021 to September 2022.

It’s my birthday, and I have (unwisely?) been thinking about progress.

Despite appearances, I consider myself an ambitious person. Not in a monetary sense, I have no aspiration for wealth. I don’t even think people should be allowed to get rich. Power isn’t something I seek for myself, either. And fame is very much not for me, thank you.

But there is quite a lot I’d like to do with my life. There are books I want to write. Plays I’d love to see put to stage. I’d like to help others realise their own creative visions. I hope to teach in some capacity in the future, whether as a career or something on the side. And whilst I used to be certain I’d never marry or have kids, I’ve since warmed to the idea of both.

In this year’s birthday poem, I looked back at the past 12 months and found cause for pride. However, with my vision for the future clearer, it’s easy to recount the past year with a little sorrow, too.


Twenty-six sentences on turning 26

Today, I reach my 26-year breathing streak. Approaching another year closer to my last breath, I recount the past year in search of pride. What do I find? There are the advertisements I wrote, which appeared in the country’s most widely read newspapers. Let us just not name them, nor elaborate on how banal the copy. For a travel magazine, I wrote about amazing destinations across the globe without ever boarding a plane, or even leaving my chair. This was the year I got to say, “I am a copywriter.” Hurrah, I have acquired another label that tastes foul on my tongue and is deafeningly dull to my ears. But I guess it counts as a survival skill in this world of consume, consume, consume. (Not that I’ve found anyone who will pay me to help the world gorge itself to death.) Fortunately, I have made honest coin serving drinks to patrons of the performing arts. Although the pay is little, the reward is great.

Let work not dictate the terms of achievement, however, for the real pride lies in what is given freely without hesitation. I have volunteered my time liberally to others and have only regretted time I squandered whilst alone. This year, I wrote letters to family and friends, and I penned a tale that only I and one other would understand. I witnessed an exchange of vows, the engagement of two I hold dear, stood beside my pals who graduated, celebrated a new boy soon to enter the world, and I danced until every inch of my body ached for days. And this year, I committed my days to the page, memories etched in black ink. Every penstroke carries the hope that there will be more. It was a year where self-affirmation stood equal to self-deprecation. The mirror man and I are not yet friends, but he has mellowed and eased up on his cruelty. And though my chronic singledom persists, I am fortunate to surround myself with loving friends. It is a privilege to be a side character in the extraordinary stories of the most extraordinary of people.

Sixteen-year-old me had set some strict goals for my 26-year-old self. And I had vowed that if I were unsuccessful, I would immigrate to the land of the unliving. If I were to honour my younger self, you would be reading my final words. You can rest assured that you haven’t heard the last from me.


Redirecting my creative energy

After much inactivity, I finally managed to send out a new issue of my newsletter.

Here’s a general update taken from the newsletter’s writing report:

On Tuesday 12th July, I tested positive for COVID. I would continue to test positive until Sunday 24th. The illness and isolation, matched with that disgusting heatwave that hit parts of Britain with 40-degree temperatures, completely derailed my July.

I lost work. I lost what passed for a routine. I lost motivation. And at times I thought I’d lose my will to live.

The COVID symptoms were not so terrible, they were mostly gone after a week. But I was not prepared for how torturous the isolation would be.

During that time, I could not bring myself to blog, write fiction or poetry, or send out a newsletter. All I could manage was to write in my journal. Even if it was just to complain about my isolation. But amidst the whining, I found some clarity through thinking on the page.

A lot of creative energy has been misdirected towards the wrong kind of writing for me. I spend too much time thinking about what I can turn into short-form content, drafting and scrapping so many blog posts, rather than searching for stories. And telling stories is what I really love.

So, I’m going to spend August focusing on writing stories. I’m going to write some fiction, but I want to have a go at writing more personal stories too.