- This post describes the creative problem* I had to solve—choosing a fun medium for self-expression so I could stop feeling FOMO—and why Notion solves it for me. - Part II explains how I set up this blog through Notion, with pros and cons. *Contains rich existential angst; does not include falafel
13th May, 2021
In today's utopia/dystopia of tech-enabled self-expression, there is quite a bit of pressure to express yourself. That quiet person you went to school with is now a fashion influencer on Instagram with 400K+ followers and her own brand. Others in your age-group, who gave the same All India exams and went to the same set of colleges you did, have squeezed inspirational stories out of them and seen great success on LinkedIn. (👀 Aviral Bhatnagar 👀.)
"What have you been upto? 😒," you ask yourself.
"I'm not quiet, and I'm a marketer, so I should also productize and sell myself!"
you I realize.
Thanks to the pandemic, we're constantly in touch with online versions of everyone we know—from friends and relatives to colleagues, acquaintances we haven't been spoken to in years, celebrities, and the thousands of influencers we see a few times each day—all of whom are uniformly comparable through their follower-counts. We've never had such an objective metric for judgment, nor so much opportunity to represent ourselves—and look good in the process—to such a diverse audience.
Who am I, though?
'Putting yourself out there' starts with some level of agreement—with yourself—on who you are. To then continually generate representations in line with it seems to come astonishingly easily to some people. I took solace in a characteristically hard-hitting sketch by creator Srishti Dixit, who complains about how hard it is to choose between her several selves when asked to "Be Yourself", and the danger of truly being herself. The other character in the video—also played by Srishti, as tends to be in our self-starring, made-at-home comedy sketches these days—says "Well, just be positive then!"
It's true. One has to bear so much influence today. Of course you feel like influencing back. It's only natural, and all a big headache.
So when you're still trying to figure things out—who you are, what to create, how to do it while also performing at a full-time job—self-expression starts as an experimental exercise. There is regular use of a set of tools, cutting across:
- Mediums—be it written, video, or audio...
- Formats—longform, shortform, autotuned, non-autotuned...
- Tech stacks—from production to publishing, there's a choice at each step. For the written word only, you start producing somewhere, like MS Word, and publish somewhere else, through a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, Wix, or Substack…
- Distribution channels/platforms—to TikTok or not to TikTok? The matter of distribution colours all of the above, and whether or not to live in India.
While this plethora has laid out the richness of human creativity in ways we could never have imagined, it also brings overwhelming choice. Platforms are clamouring to offer ways for creators to monetize their audiences, but you never know what's going to survive—in just a few months, Clubhouse saw a decline in app installs; Substack has been likened to a media pyramid scheme; Goodreads hasn't changed anything in a decade and still thrives.
What this means for the amateur creator like me—who is just starting out, whose creative process should ideally also lead to an improvement in form, and who easily chooses
procrastination analysis over action—is that there are decisions to make.
Decisions, decisions, decisions
Choosing how to create today is burdensome. For years, I thought I would make films. So, when the pandemic rolled around, under the silly influence of Danish Sait and Sarah Cooper and Srishti Dixit, I tried my hand at Instagram comedy videos (among other pursuits).
Just then, Instagram introduced Reels to counter TikTok, which had gotten banned in India a few months before, and my creator friends moved to making Reels because it was being "pushed" by the algorithm. Others tried/mentioned Josh or Chingari because those apps were desperate to cut deals and get users. A few days later, "rasode-main-kaun-tha" went viral, and (well-meaning) Insta acquaintances asked me to make a video on it.
That's when I knew I had to find a better medium. Never before have places of creation been so algorithmic and fused with the act of publishing itself. Imagine if Picasso's canvas kept shape-shifting as he painted, in public, always thrusting its notions of good and bad art at him just as he was getting started. Like him, presumably, I didn't like the idea of subjugating my creative process, however non-existent, to trends. How would I ever get better at a craft if my objective, at every turn, became optimizing for somebody's feed? And if I didn't intend to optimize it for the platform, why use it? Sure, I could just making what I wanted to, but what did I want to make? And what if people thought I was crazy (this has been confirmed, and I'm fine! Woohoo, but for how long?)? What if I get cancelled? What if I get fired?
"Wow, she really meant it when she said this should be in a diary instead..."
It isn't a new idea that the mediums we use affect the message and the messenger. In his 1967 book called "The Medium is the Massage", communications theorist Marshall McLuhan said this: "And so the title is intended to draw attention to the fact that a medium is not something neutral—it does something to people. It takes hold of them. It rubs them off, it massages them and bumps them around, chiropractically, as it were, and the general roughing up that any new society gets from a medium, especially a new medium, is what is intended in that title."
Where does Notion fit in?
This kind of existential angst prompted deep soul-searching. I started reading intensely about creativity, the ego, how technology and the self interact, and the story of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
I came across the concept of Morning Pages in The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron—who talks a lot about one's creativity being a direct channel to God and vice versa 😳. Apparently, three pages of stream-of-consciousness journalling every morning with no filters whatsoever can hammer away at the fears that hold artists like you, me, and Picasso back.
So I started journalling, and almost immediately heard about Notion. Friends described it as “Notetaking on steroids”, “Overloaded with features but with no vision of how it will be used,” and “Great for writing".
I decided to install it, and found pre-existing templates for “Journal”, and within it a “Daily Journal”. Although they might indicate several journal-like features, it's actually largely empty. As someone who had always found it better to write by hand—finding it a more immediate, intuitive connection between the mind and the page, versus a keyboard—I took to Notion surprisingly quickly.
In this case, the famous artist I will name-drop to create the right associations for myself is Saddat Hassan Manto. In his eponymously-titled biopic, Manto says about his preference to write by hand instead of typewriter: "Typing ki shor se mere dimaag ki titliyaan ud jaati hain!" (My brain's butterflies go off because of the noise of typing.)
Quite soon, I was journaling on Notion most of the time. What I loved about it was:
- The inherent emphasis on long-form. Because everything is a page within Notion, its most basic function is to be written in. I didn't bother with templates and databases (although its new open-API features make them appealing). My use of Notion didn’t veer towards lists or any kind of cataloguing, so I was able to focus on creating, and on writing, in Notion.
- The tree-like structure of organizing pages. I found myself linking from thoughts on one page to others within Notion. My journal started to function like a seamless website. On Google Keep, which still serves me to track smaller ideas and lists, I used labels to filter things by types, which can approximate tree-like sorting. Evernote has folders too, but that feels like Windows and, for the brief time I used it, I never actually wrote in it.
- The perfect balance of editing features versus the lack of it. On Word, one sits and plays with fonts. On Keep, you can’t bolden or italicize text, let alone enlarge a block to write long-form. With Notion, I did not overly tweak or regret the lack of things to tweak. I just wrote. Later, the three fonts, organizable blocks, colours, headers, and icons became things to play with, and enabled this very easily customizable site. Unlike dragging things around on Wix, this is fun, personal, purposeful, and productive.
This blog has come to life because of playful fiddling with Notion. Coming across a Marshall McLuhan quote on their site makes it feel like the choice has come full circle. Notion has become the first modern Internet tool I've been happy to use as a medium. With enough time and sticking to, this is bound to make me better at a craft I care about, which is writing and "being yourself". But while choosing Notion has certainly solved one part of the problem—that of inspiring spontaneous yet focussed creation—to extend its use to a publishing tool comes with pros and cons. In my next post, I explain how I'm using Notion as a publishing tool, what comes with it, and what it lacks. I'll also touch upon what the choice means for other mediums and distribution/channels—even though I have no idea.
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