MJD 59,396

This entry is part 17 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

I’ve developed two obsessions through the pandemic that I think will persist long past the end of it, probably to the end of my life: tinkering and story-telling.

On the tinkering front, I’ve built out a nice little science-and-engineering workshop over the last year and acquired more skills in less time than I expected to, since I don’t have a high opinion of my own hands-on abilities. As I’ve mentioned before, this is still hard to write about because while the doing is fun, getting to interesting things to show off and talk about will take some time. It’s good enough fodder for tweeting though, and I’ve been maintaining several fun ongoing threads about electronics experiments, my rover project, and 3d printing. At some point, I hope I’ll be able to write essays about this stuff, but right now it’s only coming together at Twitter level. Overall, tinkering has been the easier journey, I guess because I’m an engineer by training, so I am not really starting from scratch. Though all my old knowledge feels rusty, I think I did hit the ground running when I started around August last year.

Storytelling has been the tougher journey. In many ways, it’s very like tinkering, except with machines that run inside human brains. It is very unlike nonfiction writing. I’ve made more progress on exploring storytelling theory than in actually telling stories. But one of my breakthroughs was realizing that storytelling as a skill is orthogonal to writing skill, and the latter even gets in the way. One way to short-circuit the writer brain is to use cartoons, and I’ve done 2 comic-format stories so far this year: Space Luck and Comet Bob. I’ve also managed one prose story, Non-Contact, though it’s more a world-building design study of an idea than a fully developed story, kinda like the design study prototype I built for my rover early on. I am not yet sure what my storytelling medium is — words or pictures.

Together, these two obsessions are driving what I think is the biggest pivot not just in the life of this blog, but in my own adult life. It’s a lifestyle shift, and I’m still coming to grips with the cascading effects on other aspects of my life. Storytelling tinkerers, I am discovering, must necessarily live a different kind of life than essayist-consultant-observers. So I’ve unwittingly set up a certain narrative tension in my life that’s going to resolve itself one way or another. It’s a different headspace, as lived from the inside, and presents a different picture when viewed from the outside. Switching between nonfiction and fiction modes, or between management consulting and maker-tinkerer modes, is very disorienting, but not in an unpleasant way.

One interesting thing about both is that they are behaviors that can get you put in more of a box than the sorts of thing I’m better known for. Storytelling and tinkering are both play-like behaviors that have a lot more disruptive potential than most “serious” behaviors, but they look harmless and are easy to put in a box and ignore. They are the quintessential mostly-harmless human activities. The median tinkering project or story is entirely inconsequential. Net likelihood of impact, zero. You either enjoy the safe, marginalized obscurity of the boxes you get put in, or you’re playing for the one-in-a-million shot at making history. I’m not sure what I’m aiming at with either activity. Probably both outcomes in proportion to their actual probabilities.

At any rate, it’s nice to have some obsessions going. It makes me feel strangely young again. Obsessiveness is naturally a young person’s mode of being. To discover it again in middle age, in a somewhat mellowed form, is something of an unexpected gift, even if the precipitating event of a pandemic makes it something of a gift from the devil.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Hey, congratulations!

    It makes me happy to hear of your coming into a couple of deep interests, especially if they are things that you hadn’t expected of yourself.
    I also have the opinion that narrative manipulation is the single most powerful tool for change (or stasis) amongst the various members of our species.

    But as you say, even if narrative is the water we swim in, the chances of any one storyteller having a noticeable effect out in public is vanishingly small. Which should not be taken as discouragement, in my view. How successful do you suppose Jesus felt during his own lifetime? You’ve got to play the long game.

    That is to say thanks for the storytelling insights, since it happens that I am pursuing a story project of my own, even though I’m aware of having very little talent for it. All the better, probably.

    Re: your previous post, I’m still trying to figure out the 5-second hero conversion that happens in Gilgamesh. Either there are several of them, or the model doesn’t apply to that particular epic. It still has amazing staying power as a story though.
    My inclination is to write off that particular story strategy as a cheap trick for wowing audiences at competitions, and not feel obliged to use it necessarily.

    In a somewhat related vein, I’d recommend John Gardner’s ‘Grendel’


  2. R V Abhyankar says

    When you decide to narrate a story even though it is a fact statement, you recollect the small details of the event that makes the story interesting. It also develops your capacity to sense notice the minute details about the event and the related emontions