Category Archives: Writing

The horror of reality

To Arikia-

Haven’t written a poem in days

months years

In fact never wrote a poem

A poem by its nature is perfect

If perfection is not arrived at,

A poem it wasn’t

Process pulls you in a plethora of

possible ways

Bully ways, bullish ends

Ways and means committees

The song starts like that and not like

that

Too much coffee consumed,

Yesterday pizza pounding the temples

Of his body,

His recrimination

Against himself

Against interpretation

Who knows how harmonious

This can all get

Can it get wet

Can it stay dry

Is there a choice in the matter

I see there is a lot on your mind,

But is there anything in it?

I can’t imagine.

The horror of reality is

everpresent for those

who have eyes to see with.

-Umbrellicus Ginjericho Bizerko

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A writer’s perspective

Writers’ block is something different these days. It’s not just the fear of putting things on the paper and having them stand there in the physical world, to be dissected or dismantled or ignored by readers at some point in the future. Most blocks today aren’t about writing, but of having to deal with the immediate response of people reading one’s writing online.

I haven’t wanted to blog in almost a year. The web isn’t a safe place for writers anymore. Animosity toward “the media” as a whole has been so amped up by government propaganda that readers are open firing on “the messengers.” The user experience for reading online text is so uncomfortable that readers are even less able to differentiate between individual writers than 10 years ago when blogging was just starting to go mainstream. There is a detachment between the text and the people who created it in the minds of most readers. They hate “the media,” or “the liberal media” or “the conservative media,” so they lash out everywhere they can with their ill-informed opinions, not considering that “the media” is just a group of individuals with wide-ranging qualities. If someone says “I hate Americans,” and you are one, you say hey, that’s not fair. There are shitty members of the media just like there are shitty Americans, ones that damage the image of the group to outsiders. And then there’s everyone else. The ones who have to avoid people who think in binary terms.

Some readers of “the media” latch onto articles like toddlers grabbing a toy a few years too advanced for them, slobbering all over it without understanding what it does, and then throwing it aside, not caring if it breaks. The poor toy. That wasn’t how it was meant to be enjoyed.

One of the first interviews I conducted was with Bill Keller, the then-EIC of the New York Times. He described his role as being “a political chew toy.” I didn’t really understand what he meant back then, but I do now.

What if we could write knowing our content would go only where it’s respected? What if we could publish without having to worry about being objectified, insulted, threatened? We pretend like free speech is something that exists here in the United States, but let’s be real: if you can’t write about a touchy subject without having to worry about someone finding your personal information and burning your house down, are you really free to speak? I haven’t experienced a fraction of the abuse some writers have, but it hasn’t stopped me from developing an aversion to the whole system, a system that is mainly designed by men who crave control of the public consciousness.

Life as a writer has been strange all-around, but over the past few years it’s been downright unbearable. Once I met a guy at a party who was studying journalism at a big journalism university here in NYC. I told him I’m a journalist too. “Oh, what do you have like, a blog or something?” “Yeah.. or something.” Sometimes I don’t even want to engage anymore. When I walked away, and someone clued him in that my portfolio extends beyond a blog, he Googled me and came back full of compliments, wanting to get closer, to know me more. Sorry, but I saw you the first time, and I don’t actually want to know you at all.

If you’re a writer and you don’t guard yourself well, people behave like they are automatically entitled to your time, as if you’re a public utility funded by taxpayer dollars. Maybe we should be, because the alternatives are sure as hell not working, but we’re not, which makes our time ours. Sometimes, unprompted, they immediately dump their saddest story or deepest secret on you. I usually listen with inescapable empathy, while I think to myself, I didn’t ask, and I really don’t want to know. Being the bearer of secrets is a responsibility, a parasite that we’re forced to then carry around until we can find a new host. But it seems the machine that used to accept our burdens is only accepting parasites from corporations now. Freelance journalists are left to try to drown their parasites with trusted others in dimply lit bars, and they usually come back.

Usually when I tell people I’m a writer, they immediately try to exploit me. They want attention, they want “press” for their super cool new company that’s going to change the world because it’s the Uber for ___ (insert whatever bullshit people don’t actually need here). Why do they assume that their desire to know me, a New York writer, trumps my desire to be left alone? I don’t like to lie to people, so I just excuse myself and let them think what they want. It was worse when I was at Wired. That affiliation transformed me from Arikia Millikan into Internet Magazine Editor ID # 1835103. I have 150,000 unread emails in my inbox to prove it. To so many people, writers are a tool, a stepping stone, a weapon. Nobody asks us if we consent.

Usually, I write about people namelessly, as anecdotes to make whatever point I’m making, or just to stretch the blogging muscles. Sometimes they see a post and assume that it’s about them. Usually it’s not, but sometimes they’re right. Either way, someone is out there feeling entitled to qualify my literary perspective. They say: I can’t believe you made me sound so dumb, or so mean. They try to argue with my perspective, if it didn’t align with theirs. They attack me like it’s my fault for observing them acting a certain way. I want to tell them: have you instead considered not acting like that, if you don’t want to be seen as someone who acts like that? But usually I just wind up feeling censored. Inspiring a transformation in one person is never the goal with my writing, unless it’s a personal email addressed to them. If you want to play muse in a writer’s work, whatever, but don’t then go to her with hurt feelings because she saw something in you that you wouldn’t include in your conference biography.

People are so used to having Instagram filters, they forget what reality looks like.

Usually I’m mined but other times, when I meet someone randomly and they inevitably ask what I do, and tell them I’m a writer, they immediately go on the defensive. Like I’m a paparazzi who has somehow telepathically magnetized them over to me at a bar just so I can pry into their life. I then have to explain: I don’t do that kind of writing, I’m at a bar, I’m not working right now, I would never care enough to write about your Wall Street dealings to write about you even if I was paid. In fact, I would quit my job if I was forced to write about you. People are my favorite subject to write about, but I have no desire to write about most people on anyone else’s terms.

Increasingly, that’s what journalists are being asked to do in the professional world. The publishers sold out, the editorial walls have crumbled, or were never built in the first place online, the way they once were with print media. Advertisers feel entitled to demand journalists attention and coverage in ways they define with demands. I may think the more interesting angle is about how your company is destroying the rainforest, but my editor may tell me the obvious angle is to write about what a philanthropist the founder is. Why does anyone wonder why journalism is declining?

Most people don’t know the difference between PR and journalism. Even less people will be able to define in 10 years, as the new generation enters the arena. One time I was at a party for a big, trendy media company, and I went up to the VIP lounge to escape the crowd. I wound up talking to a woman who was about my age when I started off interning in the NYC media world. She was telling me about her job, how she reads the press releases and then she writes them up in fun language. I asked her where she finds stories outside of press releases, and she looked at me with bewilderment. It had never occurred to her that story ideas came from places outside of press releases. I think that was the moment I really lost faith in the industry.

So that’s it. That’s where I am right now, and I don’t care what anyone thinks about it. This is my dismal perspective, sponsored by no one. And I am entitled to it.

Renegade childhood pen acquisition

This morning I woke up in my friend’s apartment in Osaka, happy to be here. I made some coffee and decided to write by hand in my journal, to add to the 3,000 or so pages I’ve filled with fodder for future stories in recent years. Pen selection of every entry is a delicate process, subject to several variables. The thickness of the ink is dependent on my environment—am I on a bumpy train and require greater precision? Am I writing while leaning on one arm on a bed and need something with low resistance so my hand won’t get tired? Or is there a desk so I can use a thicker, felt-tip pen with a feather-light touch?

I picked one from the arsenal and decided yes, it would be the one for today: a Pilot P-700 Fine with a marbled pattern on the pen casing.

When I was in elementary school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the school would host seasonal sales. Cookies, wrapping paper, and other various items from catalogs, the school would give to the children to peddle to our families, neighbors, and whoever else we could convince to buy, in exchange for points that could be redeemed for prizes. An ideal American business transaction: convince child laborers to flip stuff that had no value to them to adults, in order to receive things kids would actually want that were of exceedingly less monetary value. But I was never allowed to participate. These sales were, my mother explained, a scam, exploitative, demeaning, or some other reason (she never really explained her decisions for such things in a way I could understand as a kid), and she wouldn’t have me involved in that racket.

Every year I would watch with jealousy as the prizes came back to reward the burgeoning entrepreneurs of the class. I wanted some fucking prizes too. By fourth grade, I decided to take things into my own hands. I can’t remember what I sold or to whom, but somehow I snuck that catalog behind my mom’s back and sold enough goods to amass approximately 500 points by the end of the allotted time period. I turned my order forms in to my teacher after scouring the rewards sheet for the thing of most point value to my 9-year-old self.

When the day came for the prizes to be delivered, I waited patiently while the big ticket prizes were delivered to the kids with hyper-competitive parents who probably dumped hundreds into the catalog just so their kid could be the class winner. When the small package was placed on my desk, it was a triumphant moment. I unwrapped it and my little hands, for the first time gripped that which, 20 years later, would help to draft the culmination of my life’s work: a Pilot P-700 Fine pen with a marbled pattern on the pen casing.

That pen, nobody could borrow. I had my decoy pens for that, and still do. No, the Pilot was my professional tool. It signified sophistication and professionalism. I remember the feeling when it ran out of ink after pouring its contents on the pages of my notebooks: the slow death of an old friend. I kept that empty pen in my desk for years even though it was useless; it became its own memorial. Whenever I use the new version, I remember what it meant to me back then: defiance, self-sufficiency, creative endeavor against all obstacles.

You may classify my association with this pen, something many would easily discard, as overly sentimental. But if the objects in our lives are symbols, what better reason to posses them than the direct memory link to the moments in which they were acquired?

image

On editor’s block, the corrosive effects of the advertising industry, and the dismal state of journalism

gonewriting
This weekend a friend gave me something I needed very badly. It was something I never would have bought for myself, but didn’t have the audacity to ask anyone for. And he just knew, and he could, so he did. If you ask me, that’s the way gift-giving should be done, not in the context of some capitalistic ritual.
This friend was an instant friend, the kind of friend I don’t need to use falsities or filters with. He is also one of the original architects of the internet. When it comes to publishing, and most other stuff, I trust him. He knows my style, knows my flaws, knows that I care deeply about improving the condition of this world if it is within my reach. So when we got up to leave his favorite Ukrainian diner, and he asked me to something, I listened.
“Just write,” he urged me. “No matter what else you do, just keep writing.”
So I am. This is me writing.
As he and others have aptly noticed, I haven’t been writing much lately, for publication, and there are three main reasons for this. Better to be a writer who writes about writing than a writer who doesn’t write, I suppose.
For one, I have, not writer’s block, but editor’s block. I used to publish something every day, for fun, for justice, and for the sake of writing. But when you spend so much time editing and processing and publishing other people’s work, your own becomes but a shadow of a priority, the last thing on the to-do list. I enjoy helping people publish the best possible version of their writing, so it’s easy to feel that I am doing something meaningful *enough*. I am not immune to the illusion of productivity. In working behind the scenes, like a ghost, with authors whose ideas I support, and who have a bigger megaphone than I, I have been able to feel content in a way. But, as my friend told me the day we met, if I don’t act now while I’m young, I could wind up content—or worse, married. I’ve luckily dodged the later, but the former is a work in progress.
The second reason I haven’t been publishing much lately is that the process is unpleasant on the whole. Publishing tech still sucks, despite all its promise, and writing professionally involves doing many (IMO) degrading things that have nothing to do with writing at all. Sometimes by the time I “sell” my writing, my initial idea has been bent so far away from its original orientation that I don’t even know how to write the new thing it is supposed to become.
My ideal editor just says “Yes. Assigned,” to good ideas, and offers the support to help elevate a work from draft to ready-for-publication quality. That is the kind of editor I have always tried to be. I still know a few good ones, and they are prepared to ditch the click-driven jobs they hate and work with me on the kind of writing we believe should be produced as soon as the option presents itself.
Our publishing industry in the United States, in its current iteration, doesn’t incentivize the publishing of ideas that are worthwhile of being discussed in and of themselves. There is a capitalistic undercurrent to almost every form of paid writing that selects for things that exploit the reader using all the original tools of captivation (comedy, sex, violence), refined into the art of public manipulation as described by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew. This is, of course, until you’re able to break through to the literary level in which you can write whatever you want because you’re a “thought leader.” But by that stage, you probably don’t need to be paid to write. It’s probably more of a hassle invoicing through the archaic payment systems in “modern” media than to just call it a trade, your work for their platform. I find it a serious conundrum that the people who should be writing the most, are the least incentivized by the industry to do so.
An essay shouldn’t be a vessel for ads. It should be a tool of transformation in and of itself.
Finally, and frankly, I am disgusted by the state of the world. As I have observed in my travels over the past three years to 30 different countries, the dismal state of human affairs is directly connected to the state of the publishing industry—globally, but driven by the failings of the American media.
I have made my career out of creating jobs for myself and other within institutions I wanted to believe were good and just and shared my ideals for producing the kind of journalism that fuels democracy. But it has never taken more than a month inside each institution for me to understand the flaws, the poor decision-making, and ultimately, the greed that corrodes its editorial goals in practice. I have made it my hobby to usher talented individuals around the industry, plucking them from toxic institutions and placing them in places that are at least a step up, where they may have the opportunity to gain control. But something always stops them from truly breaking through.
If my experiences over the course of my career in media, which include founding and operating a media company, have led me to one conclusion, it’s that the advertising industry is a plague on the journalism industry, and on humanity itself. I won’t contribute to it any longer (in so much as that’s possible while still remaining connected to my peers on the internet). And I don’t need to.
I’ve tested my limits of existence and I know what I need to survive in this world, and it is not much. I won’t waste a day of my time doing something I don’t believe in. And who on the publishing side wants to work with a journalist who can’t be bought and owned? I’m not good for your business models. But that’s OK because I’m creating new ones.
If only the our government took care of us all so we could focus on improving the world through our art. Absent that in American society, we must rely on each other.
So I will write. But I won’t write for the advertising industry, or for capitalism. I will write for my friend, and for fun, and for justice. I will write. No guarantees on what about, but I’ll keep doing it.
And if I don’t, I don’t. But the only way I’ve ever done anything in this life is by lighting a fire under my own ass. So here’s hoping.

Experience vs. documentation

I’ve been back in the US for a little over five months now, but it feels like only yesterday that I was crossing the Pacific, all choked up because I had just accomplished the most difficult thing I have ever set out to do. I’ve never felt more healthy, more alive, than I did during my year of circumnavigating the globe. And I go back to those places every day in my mind.

It may happen when I open the fridge, or lace up my shoes. Suddenly, I’m opening the fridge in the apartment I rented from a techno DJ in Berlin, or lacing up my shoes to leave my bungalow in the south of Thailand and hop on my motorbike to go exploring. And for a split second, I get lost there, and I smile to myself before being jolted back to the task at hand. I will always have the memories of that year, and they will forever change the way I see where I am at any given moment in my usual life.

The other day a friend asked me if I was writing the whole time I was traveling. I was. I was writing every day. I filled notebook after notebook with descriptions of places and experiences and bizarre encounters with characters of all walks of life. Then he asked me how I balanced experiencing life with documenting it—the greatest challenge of any travel writer. And the truth is, I didn’t and I don’t. I have too much energy right now, in this stage in my life, to possibly stop living and experiencing everything long enough to document it all properly.

But I know that some day I won’t. Someday I will be anchored to places I haven’t yet been by circumstances I can’t anticipate. I will be slower, and my joints will ache. I’ll probably still want to stay up as late as I do, because anyone who knows me knows my night-owlness is pathological. But my late-night forays probably won’t involve romping through the desert or scaling rooftops to watch the sun come up in the distant future. Someday I will have more time on my hands than I will know what to with, and more responsibilities than I ever wanted. I will finally be bored. Or, maybe, ideally, someone will offer me enough money to compel me to stop experiencing and sit my ass in a chair long enough to write something of worth. It is then that I will travel back around the world in my mind, and properly document all the events of my crazy life that I’ve been meticulously archiving via a system of notes and letters to my future self.

I don’t balance experiencing with documenting; I stockpile experiences and prepare for the balance to come via the entropic forces of nature.

In the mean while, I’m writing a book proposal. I’ll keep blogging. I’m building a platform that allows do-ers like me to write more, better, faster, and be heard farther. That way if I do become a cyborg and I never have to stop experiencing, or if I get hit by a bus before I’m 30 or whatever, I’ll have said enough of what I wanted to say by then. And there’s always this wagon wheel of a blog.

Follow my adventures abroad on Beacon Reader!

Hello, friends! Today I launched a new blog on Beacon Reader. Beacon is a new publishing platform created by Nick Jackson and co which allows readers to directly fund their favorite bloggers. I had the pleasure of working with Nick on Longshot Mag Issue 2 and know that, much like most of the people who stayed awake for 48 hours straight to produce a magazine and website, he cares about the future of publishing and isn’t afraid to innovate in an industry which desperately needs it.

If you go to my blog page (http://www.beaconreader.com/arikia-millikan), you can see a video I made in iMovie cutting together clips I shot on the road. I realize I should have filmed in landscape, not portrait. SORRY, I never claimed to be a videographer. But I guess I should add that to the box of tricks this one-woman show packs. I’ll work on it.

Anyway, I’m going to write about my journey on Beacon. So far I’ve been to Canada, Iceland, England, Spain and France and have met and been hosted by some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known. This world is bursting with fascinating humanity, and I can’t believe I allowed myself to be confined on one continent for so long.

If you want to support me in my travels and innovation in the publishing industry, please subscribe to my Beacon Reader blog. It’s free to sign up and only $5 a month after that, and you get access to all the content on the network, not just my blog. I’m not generally a fan of paywalls, but 75% of your contributions will go to me, and I’m a fan of not running out of money while halfway around the world.

I want all my friends in the United States to know that I miss you very much, and I’m writing this blog for you. So I hope you read it! You know you’d happily spend $5 to buy me a shot at the Larry Lawrence while hanging out with me (as I would you), but since I can’t be there to do one with you, I’d love for you to put it towards my writing. Ultimately, I will do that shot in a foreign land and it will lead to more stories for me to write for you.

Thanks! XOXO <3

On exquisite isolation for literary purposes

Growing up as an only child, I spent a lot of time alone.

I was the youngest person in my class, and therefore the last person to get my driver’s license in November of my junior year. In high school I kept a hand-written list of phone numbers tacked to my bulletin board. Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons I would go down the list, contemplating the likelihood that each number could provide an escape from my teenage prison. Methodically, I would pick up my translucent, purple cordless phone, hold my breath, and dial.

Occasionally a friend would drive over and pick me up, and we would gleefully attempt all the debauchery we could fathom (which usually amounted to no more than a car ride in search of phantom parties casually mentioned in notes passed by boys desperate to impress us). Most nights though, I would sit alone in my room with my books and my TV/VCR combo and my journals.

It was in these moments of agonizing boredom and loneliness that I began to really process the world. It was also in those times that I allowed my mind to spiral into the pits of despair, taunted by the false certainty that everybody else was out doing something exciting and I was the only girl in the world steeped in isolation. Other factors compounded what some might call “normal teen angst” and at times I resigned into pure hopelessness, unable to anticipate the freedom that I now enjoy, certain that I would be alone forever.

So I wrote, and I poured all my anger toward my oppressors, my disbelief at the lack of justice in the world, my innocent but burning desires into the blank pages that I would hide in the deepest crevices of my 100 square-foot bedroom. My mother would periodically hunt them down and read them, then use their contents as evidence for why I should sit and stew in loneliness for my own protection. “You’re your own worst enemy,” she would say. One day after I discovered this violation I burned an entire journal and buried the ashes in the backyard (since igniting any type of flame, including the stove, was an offense punishable by further imprisonment). “Never write anything you don’t want other people to read,” she would taunt me, dismissing my outrage. Even at age fifteen my insomniac habits were fully-formed and I would stay up all night writing fictional tales of the life I imagined I was supposed to be living at the moment while catering to an imaginary audience of nosy and sadistic adults.

When I left home for college at seventeen, my writing habits stayed with me. I would pour over journals with all the bottled-up intensity of a shaken jar of kombucha, reflecting on my youth and disregarding all lessons of discretion my mother had advised. The only person I cared about reading what I wrote was her because she was the only person with the ability to censor me in the pre-production phase of writing. After a few successful stints with literary pseudonyms, I finally decided to live my life as an open book (which isn’t to say that I don’t have my secrets but they’re only secrets because I haven’t gotten around to writing about them yet).

I never set out to be a writer. It’s always just been something that I’ve compulsively done. But now that I am a writer, I won’t permit those moments of torturous youth to have been in vain. Though I am now surrounded by friends who gladly remedy my slightest twinge of loneliness with the greatest of adventures, I make it a point to isolate myself every now and then, mining that past agony and tapping into it only so much as to benefit my current productivity. It’s taken a while to hone it, and I’m sure I haven’t yet completely, but I’m getting closer. I think that soon I’ll be able to control it entirely, whereas once it controlled me. It’s washing over me now, and it’s divine.