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Month: July 2021

Writing So That Loved Ones Don’t Have to Kill You

“This isn’t really a smile, it’s the lid on a scream.”
– Julie Goodyear, Coronation Street

If I don’t write things I wilt.

I get moody. I don’t sleep well. I’m pretty sure I get more colds.

It doesn’t have to be anything good, and it usually isn’t. It’s usually the kind of thing that would cause an overnight guest to sleep with a heavy object to hand.

And I don’t mean writing – as in a berets-sporting, turtleneck-clad, I’ve-never-farted-in-my-life kind of writing. I mean waking up to a napkin on your bedside table with ‘growing suspicion of voles’ scrawled in crayon.

But I must write something.

Without it I am a bag of advertising slogans and incomplete thoughts. I can’t process what I’ve been reading. William Zinsser summed it up in Writing Well: “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.

Unfortunately, writing is hard. I don’t know whose idea that was, but we’re stuck with it. Often it’s a Catch 22: you’re a talentless fraud if you write, and you’re a lazy uncreative sack of shit if you don’t.

Writing Process on an Index Card
The (not totally healthy) process…

Even being an advocate for writing is hard. Performing the act isn’t necessary to dream of living in a cave and terrorising hikers instead. As Lynn Truss says in Eats, Shots & Leaves: “It’s tough being a stickler for punctuation these days. One almost dare not get up in the morning.

Some days I can barely face it.

But I sit and I do it. I do it so that I don’t end up keening on the ground, while loved ones beat me to death with sticks – because it’s kinder that way.

Anne Lamott’s effortless words from Bird by Bird do the heavy lifting:

… I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.

Freeing Yourself From Should-Dos

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver

‘I want to do X, but I really should do Y.’ That might be the most stupid and unhelpful thought to ever flit through a person’s mind. We collect shoulds like parasites. I should read that book everyone says is worthy. I should start jogging even though I hate it. I should eat more salad so I live longer.

All of the above are examples of self denial, masquerading as attempts at self improvement. As Brianna Wiest says in 101 Essays That Will Change the Way You Think:

Recognize that anxiety stems from shame. It is the idea that who you are or what you are doing is “not right,” therefore eliciting a rush of energy designed to help you “fix” or change it. You’re suffering because there’s nothing you can fix to make that urgent, panicked feeling go away. It’s a mismanaged perception of who and how you are.

Rejecting a Culture of Self Denial

Learning, exercising and eating well are all vital to health. But there are many ways to do these things – and, crucially, a way of doing them that you would enjoy, that would nourish you.

Some people advise finishing all the half-read books on your shelf, to declutter your mind and demonstrate grit. The assumption being that you will inevitably grow if you force yourself to absorb material that doesn’t engage you.

Lists of Should Dos Converted to Want Too

A simpler and better solution is to remove those books from your life. Give them to somebody you suspect will actually enjoy them, or give them to charity. Now there are no books staring at you accusingly when you walk by.

Some of the books on my Books Log are half finished and then ejected; other books never make it to the log because I put them down almost immediately. Rejecting material that does nothing for you is not the same as rejecting material that challenges you.

Minimise the Necessity to Expend Willpower

If you hate salad, never eat it again. Blend some kale into a fruit smoothie and be done with it. If you need to get a nutrient into your body (art included), find a way that demands the least willpower, while minimising collateral damage.

We use these paths of least resistance with fussy children, but not with ourselves. We think we can will ourselves into becoming a person who craves a bag of lettuce for lunch every day. Because only the weak like to eat fries and cake; the strong eat War and Peace.

Here’s a little secret: you don’t actually want to become that joyless lettuce freak, which is why you haven’t become them already. What you actually want is to be you. So allow yourself.

Turning ‘Should-Dos’ into ‘Want-Tos’

  1. Identify things in your life that snag on your mind like thorns. Anything you’ve been putting off or causes low-level chronic stress.
  2. Realise that each of these things are desires or goals, twisted into a cudgel to beat yourself. Brainstorm an activity that you will enjoy that technically satisfies the goal. If it’s fundamentally unenjoyable, like going to the dentist, pair it with a reward.
  3. Try your solution. If it’s not fun enough to make you anticipate the next time, rethink and try again. Keep going until you’ve had fun and look forward to doing it again.
  4. (One day) Realise that enjoying yourself and being engaged and excited are not mutually exclusive from self improvement. You will not grow by contorting yourself into shapes that were never meant for you.

Setting Up a Books Fund

I have a list of books I want to buy that has been growing for years. Books I know I’ll enjoy but are unlikely to be casual reads. That little bit of added difficulty has one obvious consequence: I tend not to buy from this list very often. I pore over anything from the list I do manage to buy, but getting that far isn’t trivial.

Books are expensive. If they also require even a little bit of effort to digest, you have two counts of resistance working against you.

You can see by my book log shows that I’m always reading something. It’s just that I might not always be reading exactly what I had planned – the things I have good reason to believe I need. Distractions come along all the time. Something shiny, new or discounted, or a recommendation from a friend. It’s also definitely easier to spend £1 on entertainment than it is to spend £11.99 on something nourishing. Propagate that kind of temptation and distraction over years and you start to notice a big impact.

This month my list topped two hundred books. So I started a monthly fund that can only be used to tackle the  list.

The first book I bought using the books fund is this volume of Selected Poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks. I heard about Brooks from Patrick Rothfuss on this episode of the Creative Writing Podcast about a year ago. It’s every bit as stellar as I had hoped: lyrical and powerful and sometimes totally over my head in the very best of ways.

Setting Aside a Money-Pot for Books

My partner and I have an allowance. For our joint finances we use the Starling banking app to allocate pots of money for things like groceries or health expenses.

My allowance is usually just a lump of unallocated money that I can fritter as I choose. It sounds appealing, because it gives a sense of freedom. But it also sets up an incentive to maximise instant gratification over long-term fulfilment. It can also turn you into a miser, counting pennies and going for sub-optimal purchases that don’t achieve your goals. It sets up the situation where you have to expend mental energy to recommit to things at the moment of purchase.

I’m fortunate enough to not have to choose between explosions at the cinema and a history book. The system I have constructed just makes it seem like I do.

Enter my new books fund. At the beginning of the month, I set aside enough money for one non-discounted book per week. It goes into a pot within my account, separate from the main balance. A full-priced paperback in the UK averages around £9. So I round up and throw £10 a week into the pot.

This way discounts on other things won’t tempt me, and I can add things from my list on a regular schedule. It may be the same money, but what I’ve done is removed the component of mental effort. I don’t have to make a decision about what to buy because I’ve made that decision ahead of time, in bulk. I can still buy whatever books I want on top of this fund, but this way I know that I’ll be making steady progress towards reading the things I think I’ll find the most satisfying in the long run.

Learning through Reflective Journaling

I read a lot. I like learning and I like problems. But my biggest problem, and the lesson I’ve constently failed to learn, is that I forget almost everything. I’ve read whole shelves of books I couldn’t tell you a single thing about.

I don’t have the best memory in the world, but as memories go I think mine is pretty good. Yet I have this problem just like many other people. Simple aptitude for recall isn’t the problem. The problem is forgetting to think about your future self. It’s not being mindful of the fact that you are, despite your lofty estimations of yourself, an ape. You might be holding a macchiato, but you’re still an ape.

From an evolutionary perspective, there is actually benefit to forgetting most of everything you experience. Only a handful of things are worth keeping, namely those that might increase your chances of staying alive. As Matthew Walker explains in Why We Sleep, this process of pruning out the unimportant stuff is one of the crucial operations carried out when you sleep.

Using How Memory Works to Your Advantage

Despite every pop-sci documentary I’ve ever seen, human memory does not function like a computer hard drive. On a hard drive you can dump anything you like, in any format you like, with as much or little organisation as you choose, and the drive will faithfully store it all with equal fidelity.
Our brains aren’t like that at all. If you put crap in, you don’t even get crap out. You get nothing out at all. Because the human brain is an expert at filtering out crap – except advertising jingles, of course.

As James Clear explains in Atomic Habits, retaining semantic knowledge (facts and arguments and philosophies) requires structure. That means at least some form of processing of that information, and recitation. Turning it into a story that means something to you is a powerful tool used by champions of memory contests (they had a good section on it on the Memory episode of Netflix’s The Mind Explained).

You need more than the willpower to remember something. You also need to avoid overestimating your faculties. Countless times I’ve failed to consolidate my understanding of a concept, because it seemed so ridiculous that I would just forget something so important and useful. I would then promptly forget it, left with only the vague impression of having had known it.

My Reflective Journaling Setup
My Reflective Journaling Setup

My Note-Taking System

So I’ve decided to start fixing that. Finally.

I’ve adopted a method that incorporates two aids to good retention: recitation and storymaking. Inspired by David Sedaris, Austin Kleon and Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky’s Make Time, I’ve committed to a combination of stream-of-consciousness and reflective journaling:

  • A book of lists. I make a new list each day, in the style of Make Time: split into my daily highlight, my must-do tasks, and my might-do tasks.
  • Keeping a reflective logbook of noteworthy things from the previous day. They don’t have to be “important”, just noteworthy to me. Graduating my PhD program and having some great pancakes are both on the list.
  • Each morning I make an entry in a journal. This is the big one for me. I’ll do a full post on this separately, but it’s another thing I pinched from various other people (I came across it via Austin Kleon, but the concept is covered extensively by Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: Morning Pages. It’s just a page a day.
  • I still keep a standard diary for stream of consciousness outlet, which I leave to whenever I feel the need.

Progress So Far

I’ve built this system over the last few months. I take no credit for it, it’s a mongrel of other people’s excellent ideas. It’s just my take on it. I do it all longhand, in different books that I keep close to hand. I also keep index cards on my desk to jot down fragments as they occur to me, to be written up in full the next day.

From all this, I can collate some ideas of what I want to work on creatively, and what I write on here. It’s not a comprehensive personal Wiki, but a system of highlights and triggers, to activate the right neural pathways that reinforce a memory. This means I can summon what I’ve been thinking about and learning recently and combine it in new ways.

I’ll also be using the system to generate my recommendations that will feature in my newsletter, once I get it off the ground.

The Power of Revision

The aspect that is easiest to overlook is the importance of revisiting what you’ve written. No tool will give you the ability to write something down once and then file it away forever, and still give you the benefit of better recall. The whole point is to generate a resource that you can continually immerse yourself in, like Sherlock Holmes’ Mind Palace, only… well, really it’s just a big pile of actual filing cabinets full of paper.

The point is that you’re extending your mind beyond the scope of the neurons inside your skull. I would argue that it’s not a second brain. This kind of note-taking system isn’t a knowledge bank itself, but rather a way of capturing proccessing-in-progress, in paper (or digital) form, rather than relying on your crap short-term memory.

I’m not sure if it’s something I’ll maintain, or how effective it is. But it’s at least a bit effective – this post wouldn’t be here otherwise.