How to Fuel Your Writing with Curiosity

An Interview with Eugene Wei


Foster’s Charlene Wang hosted Eugene Wei, who formerly worked on products at Amazon, Hulu, Flipboard, and Oculus. He writes a blog and newsletter called Remains of the Day where he’s known as one of the best technology and media bloggers on the internet. On this call, Eugene talked about combining creativity with tech and business, harnessing curiosity in his writing, and maximizing information in a minimalist way.

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How do you combine your creative background with tech and the business world you work in?

When I was an undergrad, I majored in both Engineering and English. I've always thought of myself as being interested in using both sides of my brain. 

We all have different aspects of wisdom. In Western society, we tend to see language and writing as the highest form of intellectual medium, whereas video and other mediums are treated as less intelligent. But that's a historical legacy of early written culture when literacy was the province of only the intellectual elites of society. 

I certainly love writing. I love it as a medium and a form of expression. But I also think there are ways in which Western society unfairly looks down on intuitive, emotional wisdom.

Every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. Whether it's video or audio or multimedia. They're not all equally good at all things.

Someone I met with recently was telling me, from a book he read, that the conscious part of our brain processes about 60 bits per second of information, but the unconscious part of our brain is absorbing 11 million bits of information per second. 

The intuitive side of our brain, because it's not the center of language, often has a hard time expressing why it knows what it knows. On the logical side of the brain, it's very easy for me to write a piece and explain what my thought process was, and other people can read it and follow it. But if I only tell you what my intuition says, but I can't explain why, then immediately there's some level of distrust.

Many of my pieces start when I have an intuition about something, and I don't know why I feel that way. Writing is a way for me to work out why my intuition is guiding me in that direction. People tend to have a nagging feeling or a little voice in their head. That's their intuitive wisdom speaking to them.

When we say “trust our gut”, there are two levels of interpretation. The first is on a metaphorical level. The second, we're learning through scientific research, is our gut is literally wise. The gut biome has a lot of wisdom hidden in it. 

In my writing, I often start with “oh, everybody's saying X”, but where X doesn't feel like the right explanation. Or I wonder why something happened in a particular way. I get a feeling like there's something to explore there, and I have to figure out why it's that way. My pieces are a blend of first my intuition and then my logical brain works it out in writing. 

What role does curiosity play in your writing?

My writing begins with my own personal curiosity. When I put it down on paper, my job as a writer is to transmit my curiosity to the reader—to have the reader ask the same questions I asked before I started writing the piece.

I measure my curiosity by my intellectual energy toward a topic. George Saunders talks about maintaining an energy level throughout a piece of writing. Even when I go into the editing phase, I think about how to keep the energy level up on a sentence-to-sentence and paragraph-to-paragraph basis. If my energy and curiosity about a topic aren’t high enough, I’m not going to finish the piece.

One example was my piece about TikTok. It was an example of me observing something that went in a direction I didn’t expect. My first thought when Bytedance bought Musical.ly and rebranded it as TikTok was that it wasn’t going to work. They were spending so much on advertising and I thought they weren’t going to be able to break out beyond teen girls doing dances and lip-syncs.

But then it did work. It went against my expectations around social products. It made me curious, and I tried to solve the mystery.

Learning something new when you have no idea how something works is a great way to keep your brain engaged. There are times in your career and life when it makes sense to apply things you already know. But it’s also important to include some mystery or adventure.

How do you maintain energy throughout a piece?

In my writing classes in college, we were taught that writing a short story is a process of constantly raising questions or expectations, then you resolve them at different parts of the story. In fiction, the concept is called Chekhov’s gun: if you introduce a gun in act one, it has to go off in act three or somewhere else in the story. It’s all about narrative efficiency. Everything in a short story should matter. Every sentence, every description should have some purpose or job it’s doing.

I think about my nonfiction writing in a similar way. I need to raise questions that pique your curiosity throughout. As I’m writing, I ask myself, “Why am I writing this sentence? Does it have a purpose in the piece?” 

I want my sentences to be interesting, to keep the reader's attention. In a movie, the director doesn’t just have someone sit on camera and describe the plot of the movie, they have to make it visually interesting and compelling. Similarly, in writing, there’s an aesthetic quality that matters. It can take a long time. Sometimes I can’t find the right sentence. 

George Saunders, again, talks about how when you revise a piece, every pass you take on it is another chance for your intuition as an artist to act on that piece. Every time I reread a draft, I’m giving my intuition as a reader to think about what doesn’t work or what would be better. Then eventually I reach the point where I feel good enough about it and push it out.

If you write on deadline, you don't have the luxury of doing pass after pass, but I do. I always wait until I feel like a piece is ready.

How do you convey maximum information in a minimalist way?

Not just in writing, but in all fields of human endeavor, there are breakthroughs. Many of these breakthroughs in different fields like science and art are compression algorithms.

When Einstein came up with E=MC2, that is a compressed expression of a certain truth about the world. A more compressed and elegant expression of an idea is more memorable. It's the same for my writing.

We're processing so much information from the outside world all the time that we need a compression algorithm to sift through everything. We're constantly identifying patterns in the world. But we don't have to process them from scratch, we can get help from visual stimuli or audio or words we're reading on a page.

When I write a piece, I ask myself, What's the most efficient, yet lossless compression of this concept? I’ll never be able to match exactly what is true, but I can get close to it. Different mediums are better at expressing certain things, so I'm always considering what medium is the best way to convey what I'm trying to say.

For example, I could try to describe a glass of wine I had. If I were to attempt to write about it, I can only get so close to conveying what I experienced. The best way for you to experience what that wine tastes like is for you to just drink it.

Writing is one of the best mediums to work through abstract and complex thinking. If you have to string together a bunch of logic, writing is still a great medium for that. 

People always talk about Amazon and its six-page memos. After everybody's read and marked up the memo, you have a period where everybody in the room debates different things, which is more like a form of Socratic debate. It's like oral culture. That's just as important as the memo itself.

The memo is like a way to force a certain amount of logic and thinking to happen up front, but then that oral debate is the way in which you challenge and stress test those ideas live. When I'm rereading my pieces and editing them, I'm trying to act as my own Socratic opposition. I'm debating myself and trying to challenge my thinking.

I think of writing and editing as similar to coding and debugging. There are advantages to pair-programming or a code review from a neutral person that didn't write the code. The most important relationship in writers’ lives is often with their editor.

What do you think about the creator economy movement?

There's never been a better time to be doing your own thing than in this era. In a previous era, if you started a company and it failed, you might be ostracized from society or ruined.

In the West, we tend to dismiss when someone is tagged with the label “influencer.” Now we call them “creators,” which sounds a little more respectable. But honestly, it's just people doing stuff that interests them.

It's great that there are people who are passionate and putting their work out there. Some of them will burn out, and some will decide it's not for them. But I think it's healthy that people will have that choice, and that the economy will take on a structure that allows a little more for the individual entrepreneur. 

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To learn more about Eugene Wei, follow him on Twitter and visit his website.

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