Looking back at my 35 year old self – #4

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. [I wrote this section in French – and translated it afterwards]. 

17 december

ll y trois ans, revenant de Chine, je pleurais après un dîner de collègues, épouvanté par la paresse et la bêtise. Je ne devrais donc pas me sentir triste de ne plus y travailler. Sans doute est-il injuste que, travaillant et faisant plus, je sois payé tellement moins qu’avant – mais le bonheur que j’y trouve remplace bien celui que je trouvais à ma paye.

Je pensais sur le chemin de retour du cinéma, que je n’ai jamais vraiment cherché à m’enrichir matériellement – mais que je souhaite offrir à ma famille la gloire qui vient du devoir rendu, du souci social, ou de la réussite culturelle. Lisant les Frères Karamazov, j’étais fasciné par le personnage d’Aliocha – que j’ai lu par la suite décrit comme un idiot. J’aspire depuis longtemps à une certaine naïveté – ironie, peut-on aspirer à la naïveté ? En me disant que l’argent viendra bien.

Peut-être d’ailleurs par l’amour : mon père, ou Philip me soutiendront si les choses vont mal. Et quand je serai vieux, m’aimera-t-on toujours ? Bah, peut-être, et si non, eh bien je serai toujours heureux alors de repenser aux belles choses que j’ai faites.

Encore faut-il les réussir. Je réfléchissais aujourd’hui à l’ambition – je le suis sûrement – et à ce qu’on appelle le succès. ‘What did you achieve’, pourrait-on demander, mais la réponse, comme l’enseignait Alain, dépend du point de vue. Pour certains que j’ai connus ici, sauter une brochette de chinoises sexy, sans doute, représente un ‘achievement’. Pour moi, c’est plutôt d’approfondir l’amour conjugal. L’un n’est pas nécessairement plus noble ou meilleur que l’autre. De même, linguistiquement, je n’ai pas ‘réussi’ à passer un examen – mais les dés étaient faussés d’emblée, dans la mesure où je devais moi même, en partie, déterminer mon niveau.

C’est la difficulté où je me trouve, mais aussi la liberté que je me suis donnée : j’opère dans un monde où je détermine moi même les critères du succès. Et je crois depuis que j’ai réussi le concours de l’Ecole Normale – puis de l’agrégation. Ayant réussi les concours les plus difficiles du pays où j’ai grandi – mais ensuite, un peu vague et perdu quant à ce que je veux faire – et finalement, décidant de migrer, de me convertir, et de lancer une initiative entièrement nouvelle. Est-ce que je réussis, où est-ce que, depuis ma thèse non soutenue, je suis en fuite d’un échec universitaire ?

Une chose est claire en tous cas, dont je me souviens très nettement : que j’enviais, parfois, Alexis, d’oser la carrière qu’il a choisie ; et que j’enviais Alain de vivre de ses scénarios, plus que je n’ai envié quiconque à la Sorbonne, enseignant à Henri IV, ou directeur de département à l’ENS. La liberté créatrice, c’est à cela que j’aspire depuis très longtemps. Et je ne devrais pas, donc, compter comme un échec d’y toucher ces temps-ci, bien au contraire.

Evidemment, c’est difficile. Il y a la difficulté d’être payé peu, et la frustration qui l’accompagne. Il y a la difficulté d’avoir peu d’argent pour payer tous ceux dont j’ai besoin pour m’aider. Il y a l’incertitude complète quant à l’avenir. Et puis il y a, plus radicalement, la difficulté de la liberté, cette peur de ne pas être dans la bonne route, car il n’y a pas de route, car il n’y a que des chemins possibles sur l’océan, des îles nouvelles à découvrir.

ll y trois ans, revenant de Chine, je pleurais après un dîner de collègues, épouvanté par la paresse et la bêtise. Je ne devrais donc pas me sentir triste de ne plus y travailler. Sans doute est-il injuste que, travaillant et faisant plus, je sois payé tellement moins qu’avant – mais le bonheur que j’y trouve remplace bien celui que je trouvais à ma paye.

Je pensais sur le chemin de retour du cinéma, que je n’ai jamais vraiment cherché à m’enrichir matériellement – mais que je souhaite offrir à ma famille la gloire qui vient du devoir rendu, du souci social, ou de la réussite culturelle. Lisant les Frères Karamazov, j’étais fasciné par le personnage d’Aliocha – que j’ai lu par la suite décrit comme un idiot. J’aspire depuis longtemps à une certaine naïveté – ironie, peut-on aspirer à la naïveté ? En me disant que l’argent viendra bien.

Peut-être d’ailleurs par l’amour : mon père, ou Philip me soutiendront si les choses vont mal. Et quand je serai vieux, m’aimera-t-on toujours ? Bah, peut-être, et si non, eh bien je serai toujours heureux alors de repenser aux belles choses que j’ai faites.

Encore faut-il les réussir. Je réfléchissais aujourd’hui à l’ambition – je le suis sûrement – et à ce qu’on appelle le succès. ‘What did you achieve’, pourrait-on demander, mais la réponse, comme l’enseignait Alain, dépend du point de vue. Pour certains que j’ai connus ici, sauter une brochette de chinoises sexy, sans doute, représente un ‘achievement’. Pour moi, c’est plutôt d’approfondir l’amour conjugal. L’un n’est pas nécessairement plus noble ou meilleur que l’autre. De même, linguistiquement, je n’ai pas ‘réussi’ à passer un examen – mais les dés étaient faussés d’emblée, dans la mesure où je devais moi même, en partie, déterminer mon niveau.

C’est la difficulté où je me trouve, mais aussi la liberté que je me suis donnée : j’opère dans un monde où je détermine moi même les critères du succès. Et je crois depuis que j’ai réussi le concours de l’Ecole Normale – puis de l’agrégation. Ayant réussi les concours les plus difficiles du pays où j’ai grandi – mais ensuite, un peu vague et perdu quant à ce que je veux faire – et finalement, décidant de migrer, de me convertir, et de lancer une initiative entièrement nouvelle. Est-ce que je réussis, où est-ce que, depuis ma thèse non soutenue, je suis en fuite d’un échec universitaire ?

Une chose est claire en tous cas, dont je me souviens très nettement : que j’enviais, parfois, Alexis, d’oser la carrière qu’il a choisie ; et que j’enviais Alain de vivre de ses scénarios, plus que je n’ai envié quiconque à la Sorbonne, enseignant à Henri IV, ou directeur de département à l’ENS. La liberté créatrice, c’est à cela que j’aspire depuis très longtemps. Et je ne devrais pas, donc, compter comme un échec d’y toucher ces temps-ci, bien au contraire.

Evidemment, c’est difficile. Il y a la difficulté d’être payé peu, et la frustration qui l’accompagne. Il y a la difficulté d’avoir peu d’argent pour payer tous ceux dont j’ai besoin pour m’aider. Il y a l’incertitude complète quant à l’avenir. Et puis il y a, plus radicalement, la difficulté de la liberté, cette peur de ne pas être dans la bonne route, car il n’y a pas de route, car il n’y a que des chemins possibles sur l’océan, des îles nouvelles à découvrir.

***

Three years ago, after coming back from China, I found myself crying after a dinner with colleagues, terrified by their laziness and dumbness. So, I shouldn’t feel sad not to work there anymore. It is probably unjust that, as I work and do more, I am paid so much less than I used to be – but the happiness I’m finding replaces what I used to derived from a salary. 

I was thinking, on the way back from the cinema, that I never really looked to get materially richer – but wished to offer my family the glory that comes from fulfilling your duty, social concerns, or cultural success. As I read the Brothers Karamazov, I was fascinated by the character of Aliocha – whom I later heard being described as an idiot. I have aspired, for a long time, to a certain naivety – irony, can one aspire to naivety? Telling myself that money would come somehow. 

And that may be through love: my father, or Philip, will support me if things go badly. And when I’m old, will people still love me then? Bah, maybe, and if not, well, I can still derive happiness from looking back at the beautiful things I did. 

But then, the hard part is succeeding in those. I was thinking today about ambition – and I am ambitious, for sure – and what people call success. ‘What did you achieve’, someone could ask, but the answer, as Alain used to teach, depends on perspective. For some I have known here, shagging sexy Chinese women counts as an ‘achievement’. For me, it’s  about deepening married love. One is not necessarily more noble or better than the other. In the same way, linguistically, I have not succeeded in ‘passing’ an exam – but the dice were skewed from the start, since I was responsible for assessing my own level. 

That’s the difficulty where I find myself, but also the freedom I gave myself: I operate in a world where I define the criteria for success. And I believe that, since I passed the competitive exam for Ecole Normale, then agregation – having succeeed at the most difficult competitive exams of the country where I grew up – but then, becoming a bit vague and lost as to what I wanted to do – and finally, deciding to migrate, convert, start a completely new initiative. Am I succeeding, or is it that, since I did not defend my PhD, I am fleeing away from academic failure? 

One thing is clear at least, which I remember very clearly: that I used to envy Alexis, at times, for daring the career he chose; and that I envied Alain that he lived off his scripts, more than I ever envied anyone at the Sorbonne, teaching at Henri IV, or directing a department at ENS. Creative freedom, that is what I have aspired too for a long time. And I shouldn’t, therefore, count as a failure that I have been touching to it these days, quite the contrary. 

Of course, it’s difficult. There is the difficulty of being paid little, and the frustration that comes with that. There is the difficulty of having little money to pay anyone I might need for help. There is complete uncertainty towards the future. And then there is, more radically, the difficulty of freedom, this fear not to be on the right road, because there is no road, because there are only the possible paths on the ocean, and new islands to discover. 

Looking back on my 35 year-old self – #2

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. 

15 december

 

Today, I was happy when I thought of this journal – I would be writing tonight. I also felt confident, and balanced, this morning. I made a plan of going to Wuhan and Changsha. I’m having appetite for the future again.

Two years ago, I was in the hot springs at Rye, resting my eyes and body among the hills, in the warm water. Yesterday, other Hamer scholars organized a trip to the local hot springs. I didn’t go. A trip to the hot springs with Hamer scholars would not be the most relaxing experience – busy bus, crowded springs, and – who knows – dumb conversations maybe. Still: why is it that I’m so bad at taking breaks, why is it that I feel guilty taking pleasure, and would rather sit, in work productive or sterile – spending as much, sometimes – for few results, and further burn out.

 

 

How did I relax recently? Yesterday, I spent four hours with Hao Mingliang – wonderful guy – but speaking Chinese all the way. Before, I sat at the cinema café reading about Nanjing – in Chinese – and I paused after seeing him at a Bubble Tea place inside the shopping mall – reading Chinese. These ‘pauses’ are nothing but ways of making me work that much further; not actually pausing.

Even when Philip came, apart from excessive sleep, I didn’t pause much. Only when we went inside the aquarium did I – and it made me cry – watching dolphins and fish. Then I had a moment of pure restfulness.

Writing this text is restful though – but I wouldn’t have thought of it that way necessarily. I have developed a habit of calling all sorts of activities as ‘work’. My step-father once told me ‘you call reading novels work’. To some extent, it was – I was in a literary stream at school – but he had a point. I called it work to protect my study from the dumb requirements of entertainment, that my family was pressing on me. But now that I’m older, I might actually get more ownership of my pleasure, and stop calling so many things work – just insist I have different forms of pleasure.

By calling everything work, I can’t relax. I also can’t work very well, or at least, fit in ‘paid work’. During this stay in Nanjing, I was remarkable at networking and studying, but only made 800 yuan from a TV show, living off my scholarship. I studied and I networked heavily, but did I work?

In the field I’m in, it is remarkably difficult to discern what is work, and what isn’t. After Ecole Normale, I have been used to having a ‘status’, and getting money for what I am, rather than what I do. Maybe that’s acceptable for me – but is whatever I do while I receive this money therefore work? And am I working myself to death for too little a sum, out of status consciousness?

When I prepared for exams, at Ecole Normale and before the aggregation, anything for the exam was work, with a clear result: I would get a lifetime job and salary. When I wrote my PhD and taught classes, both of these things were work. But already, I started writing novels, and reading books to inform them – and that was work as well. Then when I moved to Australia: there was film work, there was exhibition work, writing was work – and so was teaching, and so was my job at the Department of Primary Industries. Now Marco Polo Project is work. Work, in all its forms, has taken over my life, and I can’t relax, have a beer, wind down.

A few things help me get through. TV series do the trick – especially with Philip. But I’ve watched through Dexter and Gossip Girl, True Blood is coming to an end, and there’s only three more seasons of Glee to come. I think I might stop watching after these. But how will I rest then?

I’m planning a short trip down south: that’s a first step. Maybe, I will give myself a ‘relax’ budget every week, that I will spend on things that make me relax. So that I can rest better, sleep better, and be more vigilant when awake.

On the writer as a project manager

In my Linkedin header, I identify as a writer and educator. I never studied business, or anything resembling business – yet over the past ten years or so, I realised I have done a pretty decent job at project management. Though the skills required are not exceptionally original, I certainly saw that not everybody did well at it. I’ve reflected quite a bit on this unexpected skill, and came to realise that project managers and writers have a lot in common.

1) Situation A to situation B

A fiction plot takes a protagonist, or a set of characters, from situation A to situation B. That is exactly what project management is about: where are we at, where do we want to go, and how do we get there?

2) Who’s doing what?

The most central element of project planning is breaking down a big vision into a set of tasks, and assigning them to different people, trying to match task with character. This is what writers also do. And as for communication, writers have to figure out not just action and characters, but also voice and point of view: at all times, be very clear who’s doing what, what they know, what they see, and how they would describe whatever is happening.

3) Writing is a skills

Project management requires producing a large number documents – beside the project plan itself, there is web-copy, collaterals, team briefings, minutes, and endless emails and text messages. Writers are, generally, rather good at writing. And we make a pretty decent job of producing all of these business documents. Generally, we even manage to get our point across rather well.

What should we get from this? 

Teams and businesses are often looking for an ‘admin’ person, or a ‘business manager’. The best match may very well be a writer, someone who will listen to the story, and turn that into clear, structured written material. So if you’re looking for a new staff member to support project management, admin and strategic support – get a writer in there.

 

On the desire to share

What would the French moralists have to say about this bizarre desire to share everything – and rather than keep our unwanted manuscripts in the back of boxes inside drawers, publish them online. Some absurd hope that someone will stumble upon them, and find some gold in them?

Writing as entrepreneurship

A first book has two potential sources: boldness or boredom.

From an economic perspective at least, writing is bold. It is about putting a lot of effort into a venture that is most likely to fail. Writing a book is risk taking, driven by a vision, in the hope of an uncertain, but disproportionate reward.

Writing, in short, is best compared with entrepreneurship (hence my irritation with ‘pay the writer’ discourses, which I believe used an incorrect category) .

An alternative, of course, if that people write because they have nothing better to do, the cost is low, and they might as well try. And maybe, that is also true for entrepreneurs.

On truth

as

The question remained since, haunting me. “I don’t believe in a single truth,” my father repeated, “but individual perspectives.” The sophistic position, hiding under a veil of humility. My cousin – a criminal barrister – put it more bluntly: “I can’t imagine how anybody would be presumptuous enough to become a judge.” Especially when defending people pays so well.

My ongoing commitment to writing has to do with a yearning after truth. But again, this is a blurry concept. There are truths about the past – historical explanations. These are notoriously difficult to reach. Sources are unreliable, memories change, we don’t have any foolproof model of causality, and our conclusions are likely to be incomplete. Yet we have a fascination for heroes of past truths, detectives or adventurers, Miss Marple and Indiana Jones.

Another type of truth is predictive. The voice of the prophets, Cassandra, retrospectively vindicated, or not. How much of it is self-fulfilling, and how to gain trust in time, here lies the debate.

Finally, there is effort at articulating truth about the present, clumsily trying to describe the world around us, uncover its patterns of causality, and – yes – make a judgement about the relative relevance of its various elements. Then, clumsily, try to cristallise it in words. Does that qualify as truth? And does this kind of truth have a history?

On dailiness

Since the beginning of this year, I have made a shift in my writing practice. I used to believe that I should block off moments to execute a piece – short story, novel, essay. Ideas would bubble up under pressure, a form emerge, and the writing come together. External deadlines would help, and I should set up a calendar based on competitions and calls for stories.

Now, I write a page every day, and publish it myself. I have no further goal. This is not ‘a project’. Projects involve a tension, an anxiety. I imagine a future state where the piece is complete. I sense the future piece. I draft it in my head. I make a plan. I know where I’m going before I even start. In this new daily practice, I am not tensing towards a future. I am present.

Projects entail scarcity. I set a goal. Reaching it requires something I miss. I establish what that is, and I labour to get it. Daily practice engenders abundance. From hollow spaces in my day, I breed new thoughts, new sentences, new writing. Over time, they grow, fall, mingle, form a rich humus, where new flowers bloom, fast, rare, beautiful.

This requires trust. Trust in the process. Something will come. Not if I simply stand still and wait. I have to move, even without a clear end point. I listen to my internal rhythm, I follow my inner compass. Then I look back, and I understand.

This requires flexibility. Halfway through journey, I can change, take a turn, step aside, or jump. It is acceptable. Over time, through this daily repetition, I change.

On the dimensions of writing

Since the beginning of this year, I have written a post every day, following the same process. I have a large notebook, and write a full page by hand. Then I type it into wordpress, editing as I go, publish, and circulate.

Speed is of the essence. Drafting takes about ten minutes, the whole process no more than thirty, short enough that the task allows regular commitment. Over time, posts accumulate, the notebook fills in, and patterns emerge, pet themes, structures and recurring concepts. I can hear myself think.

I enjoy the process of handwriting. Not only the sensual physicality of it. There is an irreversible quality to tracing lines over paper. I can strike, I can blot, but I can’t undo. Digital word processing is more elusive. On the page, I can feel the balance of the piece better, I am halfway through now, the end is in sight, I have to pivot.

In about ten minutes, over one page, I write about 250 words. If I rushed, I could probably double the rate. From a reader’s perspective, there is a tight connection between time and word count – a longer piece will take longer to read. For a writer, this is a very loose relationship. With practice, sketches become faster, sharper. Until suddenly, the flow stops on a word, or the closure of a paragraph. Minutes pass, nothing grows.

The words we write have a mysterious dimension. On the page, in front of me, they exist as a physical thing, a trace of ink over paper. If I close the notebook, they disappear. Their thin-as-thin third dimension vanishes. As I go back through my past notes, reading them in turn, they flatten. My segmented, daily pages become one continuous meditation, unidimensional.

On business books

Last week, I received a new book in the mail: Alex Ostervalder’s Value Proposition Design, a quasi A4-sized illustrated volume in landscape format. It attempts to provide organisations with tools to develop products and services that match customer demand. The book is divided in four colour-coded sections: canvas, design, test, evolve, and offers a series of graded activities to the reader.

Value Proposition Design explores an innovative model of blended publishing. A website offers extensions to the book, including an online test, printable blank canvases, and further exercises. The paper version originally combines text, images and diagrams, is clearly written, and quite an enjoyable read. It sold remarkably well too.

In spite of all these qualities, I doubt if Ostervalder would ever make it to the guest list of a Writers’ Festival. In cultural circles, business books are dirty. They hover halfway between noble writing and instruction manuals for vacuum cleaners.

My first job in Australia was with a strategy unit in government, and I’ve since done my bit of project management. I realised that the skills required in these ‘office jobs’ were exactly those I developed as a novelist. What is the precise sequence of steps required to take a set of characters from A to B? And what is the best way of conveying this information to a reader, so that they understand the complexities involved, both cognitively, and emotionally?

Whenever I enter a bookshop, I leaf through the pages of novels on the front shelf. Few capture the complexities of our contemporary world with such elegance as Ostervalder. Few pay such attention to form. Few shed such a clear light on our present context. Yet I keep returning to the fiction shelf with more reverence, excitement and anticipation than I do when I browse through the business section.

On conditional and absolute needs

In the comment thread of a presentation on slideshare, I read the following: “Thank you Grainne. It is very interesting, but I need to know where it has been published? Conference, journal, etc? Many thanks.” This message was sent from an English University two years ago, and never received a reply.

Academic institutions impose a number of constraints on scholars. Career progress depends on published research, and the process of peer-assessment includes strict referencing guidelines. These and other requirements certainly constitute a hassle. They slow down the production and dissemination of knowledge. Yet this does not suffice to make them evil. Setting structures to moderate haste may count as a form of wisdom.

More concerning is academics representing these arbitrary constraints as absolute. Not ‘I would like to acknowledge your work, make you part of the conversation, and for that, I need to gather the details required by the process.’ Just – ‘I need to know’.

Yesterday, I was talking with two colleagues about a potential joint project, which involved practical applications. The conversation then lingered on publication opportunities in a peer-reviewed paper – ‘it’s part of what we’re supposed to do’, said a colleague. ‘It’s not part of my KPIs’, I replied. ‘I’m not in a tenure track, nor am I interested in one. I don’t have to do it.’

We live surrounded by many demands, most of them conditional, but presented as absolute and universal. Let’s clarify the difference, always. Articulating a clear if-then may be the first step on our path to freedom.