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Tag: writing

Going Part-Time

Day one of going part-time at my day job. Enormous fortune permits me to take this step, so that I can focus more on writing. I now have afternoons free to work on finishing my WIP.

The first thing I did today after finishing work was go for a walk in the park. It’s a short distance from my house, and is empty except for a few dog-walkers. I moved away from London two years ago, and back then I would have balked at the idea of having so much open space to myself. London has many beautiful parks, but in fair weather they are rammed with people.

Today it was just me, and a little Jack Russell chasing a ball in the distance.

A yet greater fortune to begin this process now, in the full swing of Autumn. My journey to walking cliché is nearing completion: snobby little artiste takes his post-lunch stroll amongst the falling leaves. I see where this is going. He pauses to adjust his beret, becomes transfixed by an interesting knot on a nearby tree. Nightfall comes and still he stares, and eventually the police escort him home. The family don’t fuss, they are used to it by now.

Also, coincidentally, my writing career becomes “official” on Halloween. Coincidence or dark portent?

Wiggling Through by Subtle Manoeuvres

Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life it not possible then one must try to wiggle through by subtle manoeuvres.

Franz Kafka, quote via Daily Rituals by Mason Currey

Kafka’s words, on trying to organise his life around his writing. Kafka’s works are notoriously dark and surreal, but his letters suggest anything but an effortless creative experience. The quote paints a picture of a generally hectic and cluttered life, where the free flow of ideas is staunched.

But closely tied to it is fatigue, and lack of proper rest. The full quote goes on to explain, “The satisfaction gained by manoeuvring one’s timetable successfully cannot be compared to the permanent misery of knowing that fatigue of any kind shows itself better and more clearly in writing than anything one is really trying to say.

Judy Horacek, via BMJ

Following on from my last post, Kafka’s words go deeper into why rest is vital for creative output. Fatigue not only cuts off access to creative energy, but degrades the quality of the small amount that does get done.

But the quote offers no solution, only sober reality: the time will never come when conditions are perfect, when life resembles the stillest lake waters and the vistas of the mind are clear of mist. You have to make do with those subtle manoeuvres: rest in those brief respites between between breaking waves, and when you catch your breath, stumble through the mists, and over months and years, maybe make something new.

Creative Hiatus for Rest

Bill Hayes put out an article at LitHub in January: The Rest Principle: On the Necessity of Recovery, in Fitness and Writing. Taking a course for personal trainers while researching a book on exercise, the critical value of rest in making gains really hit him.

He talks about a gap in his writing career:

In some cases, it’s not just the writing that needs a breather but the writer, too. After completing my book The Anatomist, I wrote virtually nothing for almost three years. I hadn’t given up writing deliberately, and I cannot pinpoint a particular day when my not-writing period started, any more than one can say the moment when one is overtaken by sleep. It’s only after you wake that you realize how long you were out.

My own experience with writing is similar. Some months, I’ll write four blog posts and fragments of three short stories, and a novel chapter, in a weekend. Other times, I’ll go whole months and barely write a thing.

I spend a lot of time researching how to do less, so that I can accomplish more of what really matters to me. Lately it’s led me to Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, Tom Hodgkinson’s Being Idle, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Cal Newport’s model of Slow Productivity, and Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals. (Full credit and appreciation to Austin Kleon, Matt Bell and Ezra Klein for making me aware of these.)

But, like almost everyone, I’m terrible at putting these ideas into practice. What I really want is time to write. Not to become a successful writer (though that sounds great), but to have the time to actually do the act of writing. There’s probably nothing special in that — it’s just flow state. Everyone has something that gives them that timeless sense of being fully engrossed.

But things get in the way. I wrote and edited four short stories I the first three months of this year. But for the last two months I’ve barely touched a writing project. It’s a brittle practice, sensitive to being crowded out by other things that, at the time, seem more pressing.

The ideal would be to have a robust practice, to organise my life so that the stable equilibrium would be a day with inviolable time and energy with which to focus on my writing projects. A disturbance inevitably arises that knocks me from equilibrium, but I relax back to that stable state.

The question is how to build such a life.

That brings me, long-windedly, to rest. Hayes writes:

Don’t work through the pain; it will only hurt. Give yourself sufficient time to refresh.

I suspect a lot of the stops and starts with my writing ultimately stem from chronic burnout, a lack of patience, and not being connected enough with my body to recognise when to stop and recharge.

Our life has been hectic the last few months, to say the least. Supporting my family through some hard times, working at a tech startup (which inevitably leads to working some nights and weekends), buying a house, my partner changing jobs, and ongoing health issues, have all taken a toll.

Whenever I get a spare few hours, a lull in the storm, I dive for the keyboard. For maybe an hour, I manage to convince myself that I can write an entire novel draft in a week, before life crashes over me again. I can do it, if I just arse-to-chair and force it.

But I’m not sure who wants to read something written by a mind that’s letting off the smell of burnt toast. Sleep deprivation can produce similar symptoms to being drunk, and impair attention, arithmetic ability, episodic memory, and working memory. Long-term burnout is even more insidious, lowering your baseline cognitive performance, so that you’re not only underperforming, but your ability to think about how to fix the problem is also shot.

Having read, Hayes’ article, I’m wondering whether it’s better to make the decision to not create anything for a while. There’s advice everywhere from creators about the discipline of grinding out your work, even if you’re not in the space (see Mason Curey’s Daily Rituals for plenty of examples). It’s about forming the habit, it’s about discipline.

But what’s the advantage of discipline if you’re barely present in the moment, existing on fumes?

This isn’t an announcement of abandoning creative pursuits, but it’s important to note this counterargument on what to do when times are tough. I have a note above my monitor that says “Stop. Breathe.” Hayes is arguing for us to listen to that more often:

My rule of thumb in fitness training is two-to-one: for every two days of intense workouts, a day off. However, “in cases of sustained high-level output,” according to my manual, full recovery may take longer. This is what had happened with me creatively. I needed a really, really long rest.

Writing Longhand

Like millions of other people, I would have Neil Gaiman’s babies (we’d sort out the mechanics). His world-renown literary works aside, he also gives a bloody good interview.

Tim Ferriss recently reposted a 90-minute chat they had a few years ago. I recommend listening to the whole thing, and any other Gaiman interview you can find (there are lots on Youtube, like this one with Amanda Palmer).

Story bloat driven by word processors

What really grabbed me today was Neil’s comments on writing longhand. He always writes his first drafts out in a notebook, and it affects not only his process, but he has observed it affecting others, too.

I’ll be paraphrasing hereon, but you can read the full transcript here.

Neil notes that before PCs with word processors were mainstream, he edited an anthology of short stories. Then, the word counts averaged around 3,000 words. Only a few years later, with more computers around, he edited another anthology, only to find that the average word count has more than doubled.

On a computer screen, words are cheap. There’s no paper or ink to waste. There’s no selection pressure on the choice of words — just use them all. I wonder if short stories are fundamentally more difficult to write by computer than by hand. Does the brain process the task in a measurably different way?

Gaming environments for success

Neil has a well-known writing habit: if he doesn’t write then he is free to do nothing, but he is only allowed to do nothing. In minutes, doing nothing tends to lost his charm, and he so he writes. Procrastination is short-circuited.

But he also does something else. Neil produces his second drafts by copying his longhand manuscripts onto the computer. When he does this, if he realises he doesn’t need a page or so, he just doesn’t copy it up. Instead of deleting a whole chunk of digital copy, feeling like he’s losing work, he in fact saves himself the labour of transcribing.

This approach of using technology, environment and ritual provides an environment where Neil maximises his chance of doing the things he’d rather do. It doesn’t have to always work, it just has to be better than the default state.

Chris Clear posted something similar recently:

Prime your environment to make the next action easy.

First drafts are just meet-and-greets

In any case, Neil doesn’t try to catch lightning in a bottle. Even the master doesn’t spit out perfect prose right away (though I suspect his first go is usually still disgustingly good). I’ll close out with his thoughts on what first drafts are for.

… Nobody is ever meant to read your first draft. Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames … it is you telling the story to yourself.

Buff and rebuff

I haven’t posted since November. A lot’s happened since then, including a new job and a downpayment on our first house.

I’ve spent a lot of that time editing, rather than writing. I’ve focused on my backlog of short stories, dusting them off and buffing them until they’re like glass. The oldest of the stories was written over two years ago. Even in that relatively short span, I’ve changed as a person, and that change is reflected in each draft of the stories.

First drafts are always unrefined, anyway. It’s like firing a bow and arrow while blindfolded: you’ll settle for shooting in the right direction at first. As Joyce Carol Oates said:

“Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor.”

Two of the stories only needed tightening, though I’ve managed to shave them down by around 30% each. The other two required a complete overhaul; they’re barely the same stories I started with.

I’ve been submitting them, with no expectation of acceptance, taking the long view. I’m racking up the rejections already.

My short-story submission statistics so far this year (I use Duotrope to handle my submissions)

In terms of writing activities, I’ve done nothing else for almost three months. Every morning for around an hour, and in the evening when I can squeeze it in. It’s put me in an entirely different headspace: every word counts; misplaced punctuation reads like a bullet fired through a china-shop window.

It’s very different from my usual get-it-on-the-page, word-vomity method of writing fresh material.

What’s really been impressed on me is that revision can create a definite sense of peace and solitude. Like those model ships that people build inside bottles. But it can also be a bottomless pit — there’s no natural end to the process.

“A work of art is never finished, only abandoned,” remarked Paul Valéry (though there seems to be some controversy over who actually said it).

When to draw a line under a project is one of the hardest things to get right. Working on a lot of short stories in sequence seems like a good way to get better.

I’ve never revised any piece as much as I’ve revised these stories. I’m sure I could recite them from memory by now. I might even get an acceptance if I keep it up.

Harnessing Creative Bubbles Before They Burst

I live with frequent brain fog. I’m not sure why. Could be chronic stress, bad sleep patterns, over-dependency on caffeine to function, general anxiety. Who knows.

What I do know is that I only get about an hour a day of clear thinking, if I’m lucky. It’s difficult to compare between individuals, given natural variations in energy levels and attention span, so let’s be specific.

Most of the time I function just fine: I can socialize, run errands, exercise, do admin, and perform the less intellectually demanding aspects of work. But anything insightful, thoughtful or creative is walled off behind a snarl of vines, iron wool and vertigo.

As a rule, the wall comes down once a day.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern in what triggers the spells of clarity. They just come, leaping from the shadows, unbidden and grinning.

Sometimes I’m lucky, ready at my desk or a quiet corner or a train. I can drop what I’m doing and take to the keyboard or a pad of paper before the wall is thrown up again.

Other times, I’m not so lucky. Maybe more often than not, I can’t possibly take advantage of the clear spells, like when I’m in the shower, out on a run, or during a conversation.

Catching the tails of creative bursts over a week usually produces a sprawl of notes like this… (see half-baked wisdom point #2 below)

Recently, I’ve had more free time and a rested mind, so I’ve been able to catch the clear spells more often. Maybe half the time.

In more usual circumstances, I’m a caffeine-addled, sleep-deprived, anxious mass, carefully groomed to look like a high-functioning adult. I might catch a clear spell once a week.

I’ve tried to use my recent ample free time to maximise the number of usable clear spells. I’ve experimented, and come up with five things that work for me that I think are worth noting (and I stress: they work for me; this is not advice).

Today’s Nuggets of Half-Baked Wisdom

1. Scheduling: I hate schedules, but they work. This is advice that’s been repeated again and again by creatives in every medium. See Daily Rituals by Mason Currey for dozens of examples. If you want to create, or even to think, it’s never going to happen if you don’t set aside time for it. That’s the bare minumum. Like condoms: better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

2. Notepads, notepads everywhere: I’ve heard one person say they keep a waterproof notepad in the shower. I haven’t gone that far, but I do have notepads stashed everywhere else now: in my pocket, my coat, my bag, beside my bed, beside the treadmill. It might not replace access to a journal or keyboard, but the little snippets and notes build up.

3. Strategic drug-taking: Calm down, I’m not onto mescaline… yet. But I’ve started taking caffeine at scheduled times to optimize its effects, giving a small kick without overloading me or causing a crash later. See books like Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, for the science. And if I’m stressed and too rigid to move, a wee dram of whiskey greases the wheels.

4. The Gaiman Method: Neil Gaiman says his writing method is simple. He sits down at his desk to write, and it doesn’t matter if he produces nothing. But he’s only allowed to stare out the window. He’s free to do that all he likes, but eventually his mind gets bored and starts making stories. Crafting an environment to induce boredom not only removes opportunities for procrastination, but actually incentivises your mind to invent its own distractions.

5. Don’t Force It: Probably the most important of the five. Everything has limits: we know when we’re too tired to go on, when our limbs are twisted to breaking point, when we’re about to lose our balance. Nothing good comes from pushing too hard. I’ve found that once I managed to make use of a creative spell, I often tried to squeeze it for all it was worth. But ultimately, what came out of it just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, because I tried to climb a mountain in one leap.

Formative Artistic Influences

I’ve been thinking about influences. We are the sum of our experiences, and the media we consume and interact with are a part of that. It also matters when we do the consuming: in our formative years, things become more deeply ingrained, set us on rails that inform our adult interests and reference points.

As a child, my favourite film was Jurassic Park. I was the typical dinosaur-obsessed little boy, who collected fossils and wanted to be a paleontologist. At one point I ran a fan-site and made trailers and videos on YouTube. It was the first thing I really cared about, enough to teach myself video editing, web and graphic design.

Source: Pocket Lint

In high school, I watched a handful of films over and over. Die Hard, especially. I once watched the first three Die Hard films every day for an entire summer holiday. I like having background noise, usually something that I recognise. I learned early on that I’m easily distracted by sound, and that controlling my the sound in my environment is critical for me to focus.

I came to books relatively late. We didn’t have books in the house, and I didn’t have any friends who read. I liked the library and I did read a fair amount, but it took me time to discover the kinds of books I really enjoyed. I was about 15 when I started to come across things that stayed with me: Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction, John Steinbeck, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman.

Source: Goodreads

When I was nearing the end of high school, Lost was airing its final seasons. Lost is packed full of references, often hidden in the background. Films, books, philosophy, religion. I spent years exploring as many of these references as I could, enamoured with the mystery of the series. The themes, such as destiny and deep mystery, fuelled my reading appetite for years.

My tastes have wandered many times since then, as my reading log shows. I’ve gone through phases of classic fiction, some pretty dry non-fiction, and many other things. However, those initial influences are still there, underneath it all, subtely informing how I process everything.

I came to my first passion through a film. My drive to write came through reading, which I in turn came to partly by following references in TV and other books.

I’m sure that I’d have come to books and writing at some point; my parents say I was born bookish. But it’s interesting to wonder at how slightly different formative experiences might have changed my trajectory, delaying and accelerating my development – or even setting me on a different set of favourite themes entirely.

Calming a Chaotic Mind with Mess and Morning Pages

I’m typically a tidy person. Not as extreme as some in my family, who keep all surfaces clear at all times (just stuff everything into a cupboard!). But, I’m tidier than most.

Recently, my usually orderly office has descended into chaos.

When it comes to personal space, chaos is a relative term. To some, the above would look ordinary, but it’s a stark contrast to my usual minimalism.

A person’s desk tells you something about them, as much as their wardrobe or their bookshelf. But a single viewing of these things might not be reflective of their full self, or their steady state. We all know that our wardrobe will reflect the fact that we’re going through a bit of a phase, so why wouldn’t your workspace?

Right now, I’m out of equlibrium. It’s not a crisis, but it is a time of change. I’m looking for jobs, we’re thinking of buying a house, a chapter of our lives is closing.

My desk reflects both the disorder in my mind, and my attempts to process it and take action. I make notes, I write in my diary, I doodle. I write random scenes from stories I’ll probably never finish, and scribble a lot of lists. It all contributes to a resolution.

Update on Morning Pages

Part of that process is Morning Pages, the famed technique from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I spoke about it and the rest of my journaling process in an earlier post.

I plan to use this blog as some kind of meta-journal on how my process of journaling changes over time. So, an update on how my morning pages have changed recently:

Only a few months ago, I was writing several full pages per day, just after I woke up. I was fizzing with ideas and consuming a lot of content. If anything, the morning pages barely let off the excess steam.

Now, I write a few sentences at best, in big hand, sprawled over several leaves of the notebook. It’s a purge of the disjointed things rattling around in my head. I’m consuming far less, chewing on what I’ve taken in this year, and on some big decisions.

Soon, it’ll probably change again. That’s part of the point of keeping the journal: besides the content, the form of the pages are a very clear indication of my shifting states of mind.

Committing to Play: Tapping Creativity

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

– Mary Oliver

If you let it, the chaff of life will crowd out your true purpose. Without conscious curation, life falls onto default rails, and and it is possible to spend years on what is fundamentally unfulfilling.

Over 10 years ago, when I was 19, I finished my fourth novel. I was surprised to find it wasn’t obviously a steaming turd, so I decided to try and get a literary agent. (An adorable story, involving me writing my age on the cover letter, as though to assure them I wasn’t actually three toddlers in a trench coat.)

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury’s gloriously messy workspace. (Image Credit: this Medium article about Bradbury’s recipe for a good life.)

Some of my friends laughed at me, for writing nerdy fiction for nerds, and for aspiring to anything loftier than a birthday party at All Bar One.

I wasn’t quite old enough to realise that friends who laugh at you for trying to grow are not friends at all. Nonetheless, I didn’t have time for their crap. As Ray Bradbury famously said:

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

I read every guide on the publishing business I could find, and started querying.

A year later, I signed with an agent, delirious with excitement.

It didn’t go well. By the time I was 21, we parted ways and I set out to publish the books independently admist the self-publishing revolution. It was 2013, the crest of the ebook gold rush.

Literary agent's letter
I still have the original letter from the literary agent who offered to represent me.

I released five books over three years, and featured in a series of short story anthologies. My degree and subsequent PhD gradually took over, and the writing got pushed onto the back burner. I was satisfied with what I’d accomplished, so I let it slide further and further back, until it became not something I do but something I used to do.

More recently, with my doctoral studies coming to an end, it looked like I would finally have the time and energy to return to writing in a serious way. I couldn’t help wondering why I had stopped in the first place. I’d had a great time, after all.

Except, I have a journal that says otherwise. It tells a totally different story. As a friend of Greg McKeown once said to him:

“The faintest pencil is greater than the strongest memory.”

Looking through that journal, the signs of burnout are obvious. There had been ups and downs, but it’s clear that, at some point, it had simply stopped being fun. I suspect that juggling it all meant that I ended up treating it like a chore, rather than something I enjoyed. And something with a long payoff horizon is unsustainable if you get no enjoyment from it.

The key to avoiding burnout in doing what fulfils you is to have some fun with it.

The key is play.

The ideal work is that which feels like play. We’re socialised to think the opposite from a young age. Ken Robinson has a spectacular TED talk about the school system killing creativity (see below). I remember first watching the talk in 2015 and emphatically agreeing: play and exploring are vital to self-actualisation (see Maslow’s Pyramid).

Then I proceeded to grind away in a playless desert for years.

Being aware of a fault doesn’t automatically change your behaviour. Habits are difficult to form deliberately. As explained in this Freedom article, “According to a 2010 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it took study participants anywhere from 18 to 254 days to carry out an eating, drinking or activity behavior habitually, with an average time period of 66 days.”

Maintaining the space and time for play requires commitment.

Sounds odd. Committing to play.

But in the modern world, that’s exactly what it takes. Greg McKeown talks about this very thing in Chapter 13 of Essentialism: subtraction. Cut away all the non-essential chaff of life, leaving the single thing you want to use your energy on (more about that here).

McKeown quotes what is apocryphally attributed to Michaelangelo, which I’ll paraphrase here:

When asked how he accomplished the feat of carving his masterpiece, the statue of David, Michaelangelo replied: “It’s easy. You just chip away everything that doesn’t look like David.”