Writer | Translator | Poet
An Irregular Blog
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September 18, 2020
In his book, "Singing School," Robert Pinsky argues that young poets can learn from old poetry. "Models provide inspiration, which is different from imitation." He suggests a poet create his or her own personalized anthology by typing out poems they find "magnificent." By doing so, Pinsky says, a poet will study a poem through the act of reproducing it. I've mentioned before that writers can use the same technique to improve their writing.
But a writer should not only reproduce another writer's works, but analyze them. The study of other stories/novels/essays, combined with lots of butt-in-chair practice will, in my opinion, do more to improve one's writing than any other method, including books and classes (though don't rule them out entirely).
So find writers whose stories move you and begin to pick those stories apart. Examine the vocabulary, the sentences, the paragraphs and all the way up to the overall structure of the piece. Get or print out hard-copies, so you can make notes in the margins. The goal here is to look at the how of the story to understand why it moved you so.
Once you've done that, one way to carry the analysis further is to find out from biographies and interviews which writers influenced the writer that moved you, then read and analyze that writer's works. Continue this process as far back as you feel like taking it.
For example, I've become a fan of M John Harrison's writing, and have spent some time examining his prose. But in an interview with Strange Horizons he mentions that he learned a lot about writing from the early 20th century writer Katherine Mansfield. So I've started reading her short stories and pulling them apart to see how they work. When I'm done looking at Mansfield, I may investigate which writers she said influenced her to learn even more.
Reverse engineering works for poetry and the written word just as well as it does for other technologies.
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Reducing My Attack Surface
August 22, 2020
There's a concept in computer security called "reducing the attack surface--" that is, lowering the number of vulnerabilities in a computer system by not running a large number of programs or shutting off non-essential services, so that an attacker has fewer potential points of entry.
I got thinking about "attack surfaces" in a broader sense the other day, when I realized that--once again--I'd spent too much time on the internet and not enough writing. A day later, I was driving to the store and stopped at a red light in the right-hand-most of three lanes. The light changed to green and...no one moved. I counted to five. No one moved. The light was still green. As I was reaching up toward my horn, the left-hand car started moving. The other two quickly followed suit, and it was then I realized that all three drivers must have been looking down at their cell phones rather than up at the light.
These two events made me think about ways I could reduce my personal "attack surfaces." The internet (or parts of it, anyway) want us to spend as much time as possible viewing them. Cell phones are one giant attack surface, as it puts the internet--especially those sticky bits, like social media--right by our side at all times.
I've already reduced one major attack surface by having a dumb phone, though in this day and age I pay a price for it, because everyone seems to only want to send me links to cool videos or forms that need to be filled out, or to set up virtual doctor's visits on my phone. But because I don't have a smart phone, I'm often the only person in the waiting room reading a book or the only car who notices when the light changes. (Things I see as advantages.)
For me, part of getting sucked into the internet from my laptop is checking pages to see if anything new has popped up. What are the latest headlines? Any new posts at one of the many blogs I like to follow? Especially with news sites, I often find myself clicking on interesting little side-stories as I scroll through the headlines. My answer to that has been to start using an RSS reader.
RSS has been going through a sort of mini-revival of late, as people decide they want to move back towards blogging and need a way to let their readers know that they've got a new post up; or people who'd signed up for newsletters decide they'd rather not have their email address out there to be monetized. The advantage I've found in using RSS is that I get the headlines of new posts, but no pictures or opening lines (at least not with the RSS reader I'm using, which is just the toolbar widget that comes with Gnome in Debian Linux). So instead of visiting a half-dozen pages and getting distracted along the way, I click one link, look to see if there are any updates (often there aren't), and select only the ones I want to read. A couple more clicks and my browser provides me--in separate tabs--only what I want to read. The whole process takes just a few minutes and helps keep me from spending time surfing when I should be working.
Another thing I've done to keep myself offline as much as possible is to set up my laptop so that it doesn't automatically connect to the internet when I boot up. I have to manually tell it to connect. This means that I can't go online unless I make the conscious decision to do so. That moment to pause has kept me offline on more than one occasion--though to be honest, I'm still having a hard time remembering to drop the connection after I'm done working online.
If it sounds like I'm consciously making it harder to use the internet, I am. The internet is a hydra that I've fought (and lost to) many times before.
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The Boundaries of Genre
July 20, 2020
I've been a fan of M. John Harrison's writing since I first read Viriconium. His prose, his ability to create a "narrative" without a narrative and the fact that he's a genre unto himself have always amazed me. So when I saw this post on his blog about genre and playing with genres, I paid attention. In it, Harrison writes:
Genre is now a contested space. That can give it an interesting tension. You can write it from the inside outwards, away from the genre; or from an outside inwards, towards it.
The whole post is worth reading--it's short but packed with good ideas clothed in beautiful metaphor. (In fact, I recommend you read the whole thing now before coming back here.)
The sentence about writing inward and outward--coming from someone like Harrison--sparked half a day's thought on genre and an artist's vision and how the two interact.
Among my many meditations was a memory of seeing one of Picasso's very early paintings at a museum several years ago and being impressed by how technically proficient he was as conventional artist. It struck me then that perhaps Picasso's particular vision had simply grown to the point that it could only be conveyed by moving beyond the boundaries of conventional painting. He'd learned and familiarized himself with the techniques of his "genre" and used them well, but then had gone on from there into his own vision. That, in turn, made me think that a young painter who was ignorant of the basics of painting and just started "expressing their vision" wouldn't do as well or get as far as someone who already had a grounding in the fundamentals.
When it comes to writing, I take the same view as I did with Picasso: if a writer is going to play with a genre or genres, it would be good for them to have some familiarity and experience with that genre. They should know the conventions, how things "are done" and "not done," and what a reader will expect to see--even if the writer's purpose is, ultimately, to subvert all of the above. To write towards the inside or the outside of a genre, you first have to know where the boundaries are.
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No Bad Writing
July 3, 2020
One of my 2020 New Year's resolutions was to write at least 500 new words every day. At the risk of jinxing myself, I've been able to keep it up so far and hope to finish the year with roughly one-hundred-and-eighty thousand words more than I started it with.
Not all of those words, though, are short-story-, novel-, or essay-related. A goodly number of them are letters, real paper-and-pen-and-stamp letters to family and friends. As I said in my letter-related post, writing a letter requires you to essentially create a narrative on the fly and do it without being able to go back for corrections, which makes it very difficult. As a result, I consider writing a letter roughly equal to writing a short story.
Another sizable chunk of the words I've written so far this year are entries in my notebooks: explorations of characters or tentative plots, meditations on writing and art, ideas that have gotten a hold of me and need to be worked out on paper. On the surface, it doesn't make much sense to consider this writing the same as, say, a novel page. But all writing is communication and to communicate effectively, you must first put your ideas in order, clothe them in the best words, then put those words in the best order to convey them to another mind--even if that other mind is a future you.
And there's always the topic of the writings to consider. I recently had to take care of some personal business (which is why this entry is late) and only had access to my notebooks. During that time, I was able to write down a lot of thoughts and observations of events around me. That material will make my future writings richer as I'll be able to use what I saw (or what it made me think or how it made me feel) to flesh out characters and their interactions in future stories. I hardly see that kind of writing as a "loss" when compared to another couple of pages in my novel draft.
While I try not to let letter and notebook writing completely take over, and more days that not get my 500 new words down as part of a story or essay, even if my ratio of letter/notebook to manuscript writing were higher than it is, I'd still feel I was moving my writing forward. There's no such thing as bad writing.
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This past weekend I was fortunate to be able to attend the Nebula Conference Online. There were a number of informative and interesting panels from which I gleaned valuable tidbits of information, and I took several pages of notes. I also got the chance to watch the Nebula Awards being given out live, which was pretty neat. But the best part of the conference--and one in which I made a mistake by not using more--was the virtual chat rooms. One room I joined the last night included everyone from brand-new Nebula winners to beginning writers. We talked and laughed for over two hours--and the conversation was still going strong when I had to bow out because I was falling asleep at my computer.
As went to bed that night, I realized I missed being involved with the broader SFF community. I missed the conversations and camaraderie and support that came from getting out and talking with other writers. I'm not entirely a lone-wolf writer--I've been part of an incredible critique group that's lasted almost twenty years. But I had pretty much stopped going to conventions and fallen away from participating in some of the online forums I'd once been active in. While there were good reasons to throttle back my participation while I was in grad school, I had somehow continued to absent myself even after I'd graduated.
So I made a conscious decision to change. The next day I reactivated my membership to the online Codex writers' group and signed up for this year's Capclave, a local-to-me convention that will be held (hopefully) this fall. This week I re-introduced myself and made a few tentative posts on Codex. Like someone who has moved away from a city and then moved back, I felt a bit of that newcomer/old hand tension. But that is starting to pass, replaced by how good it feels to be talking with other writers again. I'm also looking forward to this fall, when I can wander the dealer's room and have hallway conversations and sit in those slightly uncomfortable chairs that are a staple of hotel convention rooms. It'll be great. It'll feel like home.
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Just for You
May 20, 2020
Time seems so fluid in these days of stay-at-home that a whole month slipped by without me realizing it.
Judging from the entries in this blog, you'd think I was a humorless, grind-it-out sort of writer. To some degree, I am. But at the same time, writing is as much an art as a craft, so I try to push myself in new directions every chance I get. When I was in grad school, I'd volunteer to write in some genre I'd never tried before. (A Speech? Sure. Nature essay? Why not? Personal profile? I'll give it a shot.) Some attempts were more successful than others, but I learned even from my noble failures.
If you don't have someone or something (like grad school) forcing you to experiment and push in new directions, one of the best ways to do it is to have a side/hobby project, as Austin Kleon describes in his book "Steal Like an Artist." Kleon says that side projects give you something to turn to when you get stuck or bored (something I've mentioned before, as well) and are often where you do your best work, since it allows you to play and have fun. I agree, but would add that you should also have an additional project that you work on just for yourself, one that you don't intend to be made public.
Something like an entire novel without the letter "e" or written all in second-person POV with an unreliable narrator. Or perhaps indulging your love of fan-fic with a story so full of copyright violations that your grandkids' lawyers (and your lawyer's grandkids) would still be in court if you published it. Something completely Dada or Gothic dark or Pollyanna sunshine, if that's what you want in your secret heart of hearts. Some work that's equivalent to your diary in its privateness, yet isn't a diary or journal. Something that lets you experiment and in which you can indulge your every writer's whim. One that could be a complete and utter failure and you'd still never be embarrassed about it, because it will never see the light of day.
Yes, I have a one of these writing projects. Been working on it for years. And no, I won't tell you what it is. It's just for me.
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Put the Laptop Away
April 20, 2020
Every morning when I sit down to write, I reach down to my left and pull my laptop out from the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. About the time I think about what to make for dinner, I unplug my laptop--mouse, backup drive, power cord--and put it back into the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. In fact, whenever I'm not actively using it, I try to keep it off my desk.
My first laptop--and in fact the first computer I ever owned--was purchased in 1995, I think. I don't even remember what brand it was but it finally died around 2001. I bought another, which lasted until 2008. Then a third, which lasted until I went to grad school in 2016 and needed something capable of online classes. (Number three still works and is in the closet, reformatted as an emergency backup to the one on which I'm typing this.) Of those four laptops, only the two in the middle had places/desks where they sat all the time.
I started out thinking that laptops should be put away when not in use, then moved away from that idea, and then came back to it. Part of that had to do with me returning to longhand writing--I needed the space on my desk. Part of it came from the realization that when my computer was always in front of me, I had a habit of using it even when I didn't really need to. With a dictionary in reach, I'd instead type a word and then spell-check it. A quote might get a quick internet search, rather than paging through my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Run to the exocortex rather than looking within or on the bookshelf. I came to feel that I was relying more on the laptop-as-conduit-to-the-internet than on my own brain.
So now I put my laptop away when I'm not using it and at the end of each day. I'm not able to tell you to what degree it may have changed the way I think and write, but I can tell you that it's had an effect. Though sometimes I still hear the laptop's siren song, I'm better able to resist the urge to hop online for "just a second."
Even if you don't decide to take up longhand writing (which I've written about here and here), consider putting away your laptop (or throwing a sheet or dust-cover over your desktop) when you're not using it and see what, if any, changes it makes in your writing (and life) habits.
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The Humble Letter
March 30, 2020
Like a lot of people all around the world right now, I'm having to spend more time indoors and away from other people, and having to make adjustments--to other family members working from home, to not being able to go out like I used to, to random shortages at my local grocery stores. I usually meet a friend for coffee on Wednesdays. This week, we met over the internet. It wasn't the same as meeting face to face, and that got me thinking about the ways we connect to and have contact with other people. One technology that seems to have fallen out of fashion and is now little used, but which could help assuage feelings of separation and loneliness in these uncertain times, is the humble pen-and-paper letter.
Simon Garfield, in his book To the Letter, mentions that many writers consider letter writing to be no less "writing" than their other prose. I agree. It's difficult to put what's essentially a narrative (or at least a structured series of thoughts) on paper for a single reader, using the best words in the best order and doing it on the fly. In addition, once you put a sentence on paper, there's no taking it back without scratching through it (making the change of thought apparent) or starting the entire page again from the beginning. Writing a good letter is a demanding, difficult task for any wordsmith.
But it's also a very human, intimate task. The act of writing to another person shows not only that there's a connection to that person, but that you value that connection strongly enough to spend the time and effort to go through all the steps to send a letter--from hunting down the stationery in the desk drawer to dropping the envelope in the mail. Sure, the same information could be conveyed quicker and easier in an email and sure, the words would be the same. However in this case it's the act and fact of doing something difficult that sends a message as strong as the words on paper. To write is to show you care, and care a lot. In my mind, the fact you do it at all carries more weight than how well you do it.
So while you're whiling away the hours and days indoors, consider taking that time to write letters to all the people who matter to you, be they family, friends, or even just people who have had an impact on your life. Look up the address for that friend you haven't actually talked to for years (it's probably still on your Christmas card list) and catch up. Send a thank-you note to those teachers or professors who taught you something, even if the lesson wasn't on the syllabus. Tell some other writer or artist you admire their work and why--if they don't have contact information on their website, try sending the letter via their agent or publisher. Write a letter, and let the people you care about know you care. It's a difficult, but human thing to do.
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The Writer's Desk
March 20, 2020
Like a lot of writers, I'm very interested in how other writers work. A few weeks ago, I got my hands on a used copy of Jill Krementz's 1996 book, "The Writer's Desk," in which she shows pictures of the desks of fifty-six writers, ranging from John Updike and Toni Morrison to Stephen King and Jean Piaget. Krementz took the pictures between 1967 and 1994, mostly in two blocks: one during the early 1970s, the other in the mid 1990s.
Each picture includes a short blurb from the author on how they write, but I was more interested in looking at the items on the desks themselves--the pens and paper, the typewriters, the computers and laptops. In fact, I went through the book page by page, making my own survey of how many writers used which method of writing. Some of the writers stood in front of their desks in such a way that I couldn't tell which method they used. Others had multiple methods on display. Overall, though, nineteen writers said or implied they wrote longhand; twenty-five used a typewriter; six had computers and five had ancient, clunky laptops, thick as pizza boxes. Naturally, there were no computer users among the writers whose pictures were taken in the 1970s; however, even among the 1990s photos, writers were more likely to be writing longhand or a using typewriter (nine and five) than a computer or a laptop (six and five).
Seeing how many writers used pen and paper made me feel vindicated in my return to longhand first drafts. And apparently I'm not the only one who thinks highly of the simplest method of writing. Many of the writers in the book felt the pull of being seen writing so strongly that they had their pictures taken while working longhand or editing drafts, even if they had a typewriter or computer on their desk.
In addition to confirming my love for longhand (and making me covet Rita Dove's chest-high clerk's desk), the book also inspired me to begin unplugging my laptop and putting it away in the filing cabinet when I'm not actually using it. That suddenly cleared space on my desk gives me room to work on other, longhand, writing projects. I have to admit it seems to clear a different mental space in which to work, too.
On an entirely different topic, I also thought it interesting to look at how messy different writers' desks were or weren't, since I feel I have a problem with clutter. Turns out I'm just about exactly in the middle of the road: my desk is messier than some but nowhere near as bad as others. (Poets seemed to have the cleanest desks; academics the most cluttered.) Perhaps, then, my 'problem' is more a problem of me wanting to be neater than I currently am--something I hope I can achieve if I consciously work at it.
Overall, reading Krementz's book confirmed in my mind that my working style is working for me. By switching to longhand and setting daily writing goals and making all the other changes to my work routine I've been making, I'm both more productive and just as important, feel more productive.
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Irons in the Fire
February 26, 2020
About a year ago, I wrote about Jung and his two different kinds of creative neuroses. I'm definitely the kind of writer whose cup is always "overflowing" with the creative urge and so have to deal with it through daily writing. But even I have times where I'll suddenly lose energy on a project, where looking at the tail end of what I wrote the day before gives no hint of what I should add to it today. I look at the paper (or the screen) and after a few minutes of fruitless staring, set it aside or close the file.
And if I only had that one project to work on, I'd be in trouble. However, I try to have several irons in the fire simultaneously, so that if I'm stuck on one project, I can simply pull another out and work on that. On occasion, I've had to look at two or three projects before I found one that I felt like diving into, but I've never had it happen that there was nothing I couldn't productively work on.
This is hardly a new idea. The early 20th Century lecturer Edward H. Griggs wrote in his book "The Use of the Margin" that both da Vinci and Goethe understood the secret "of turning from one form of action to another, without wasteful friction, and making the second action rest you from the first."
Having multiple projects means, too, that each is in a different stage of writing--one just needs to be polished and sent out, one is fully drafted, one is a rough draft, and one is little more than disjointed paragraphs. If I realize that I don't feel like looking at an early draft of one project, I can simply turn to another that requires more editing work. Or if I feel I've gotten stuck at a plot twist in one story, I can turn to an essay instead.
There are downsides, of course, to having many irons in the fire. One is that it's quite possible to have a project peter out part-way through, die on the vine, and never get finished--a problem I admit I'm prone to. Another is that it's easy to run away from all your current projects by "starting" yet another. I try to control this by limiting the number of active projects I can have at any one time. Currently, that's one translation project, two non-fiction projects and two fiction projects, for a total of five. Project number six gets sketched out, but I don't allow myself to actually begin writing it until the appropriate category has an opening.
I do allow for short, pop-up projects--like this blog post--ones I can finish in a day and which don't count towards my total number of active projects. This lets me add even a bit more variety in my usual routine.
As with all writing advice, this may not work for you. But try keeping a couple of irons in the fire and see how it goes. Your productivity may actually increase.
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Forgetting My Phone
February 14, 2020
Lately, I've been forgetting to carry my cell phone. I'll be in the car, a mile from home, when I remember that it's still on my desk. Or I'll get out of the car at the first of my day's errands and realize that it isn't sitting in the cup holder where I usually put it.
There are two possible reasons for this. One, of course, is that I'm getting older and like a lot of older people, becoming forgetful. (However, that's something I don't want to discuss here....)
The other reason--and the one I feel is the most likely--is that my phone isn't all that important to me. As I mentioned in my last post, I have a cheap pay-as-you-go flip phone that I use only for phone calls and texts. I probably make only a call or two a week and in the same time frame, average a handful of texts. Well, OK, maybe I use my phone for a few more things--I set alarms on it and the calculator does come in handy. While my phone technically has a web browser, it's so slow and cumbersome that I never use it.
As a result, I'm not whipping my phone out whenever I'm bored or have a few minutes to kill. I use that time instead to think or read or jot notes in a notebook. I try to use the odd moments of the day to do something that moves my writing forward, rather than mindlessly entertaining myself. This isn't to say I'm immune to the pull of the internet or a smart phone. I can spend hours doing "research" online, if I don't control myself. And I can pick up my wife's smart phone and scroll away an hour--something I've done on occasion. But when I come back to the real world, that wasted time always makes my desire not to own a smart phone all the stronger.
To be honest, were it not for the fact that pay phones have all disappeared, I might not carry a cell phone at all. When I got my driver's license (back in the paleolithic age), my mother handed me half an index card onto which she'd taped four quarters. I was told to keep it in my wallet, so I could call someone in an emergency. I do something similar today. I keep a cut-down index card (weatherproofed with clear packing tape) in my wallet which lists emergency contact numbers, the medicines I take, and other essential information. In a dire emergency, if my cell phone isn't working (or if I've forgotten it yet again) I can always ask some good Samaritan if I can borrow theirs.
I forgot my phone just the other week when I went out to meet a friend. I mentioned it to him as we settled in with our cups of coffee and he replied "You're the only person I know who isn't scared to be separated from their phone." I took (and still consider) it as a compliment.
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Being Low Tech in a High-tech World
January 27, 2020
I recently took a cross-country flight and got to observe first-hand both how behind I've become in relation to technology and the benefits and downsides of smartphones.
When I was young, people watched in-flight movies--you were handed a set of earphones that you plugged into your armrest, and part-way through the flight a screen came down from the ceiling. Everyone on board watched the same movie at the same time, as in a theater. A few years later, things had progressed to seat-back screens where you could choose from several different movies all showing at once. But I hadn't been on a long flight in years, so I was surprised when everyone simply got out their phones and used the plane's wifi to stream movies.
I don't own a smartphone, so I spent the next five hours alternating between writing in my notebook and reading Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim of Tinker Creek." During the flight, the guy in the next seat glanced over at me every few minutes. I'm not sure if he was bothered by the reading light--if so, I'm sorry, sir--or if he was trying to figure out what I was doing. Perhaps he was waiting to see how long it would be before I pulled my phone out, like a normal human being.
When I got to the gate for my connecting flight, it was delayed with no definite takeoff time. Circumstances forced me to stick with this particular flight but while I stood at the gate, I watched probably a dozen people come to the counter, wave their smartphones and ask to be rebooked to alternate airports. They strode off to new gates with new flights. In the end, my connecting flight was delayed an hour.
After I landed, I went to pick up my car. The week before I flew out, I'd printed out directions to my destination using one of the most popular map websites. They were convoluted enough that I had spent fifteen or so minutes on my second flight memorizing a half-dozen street names in the order of the turns I'd be making. Fortunately, after the lady behind the counter handed me the keys, I asked her the quickest way to my destination. She took out a paper map and marked a two-turn route. A route the mapping website hadn't offered at all. This new route ended up being not only easier, but quicker.
So in the end, not having a smartphone was actually helpful on this trip. The passengers on my second flight who rebooked themselves probably ended up arriving later than if they'd just waited. In the case of the rental car, I ended up with a better route simply by asking another human being rather than the internet.
Yet several times during the day I nevertheless felt the tug of wanting to have a smart phone. That makes me wonder how much of our desire for technology is due to the benefits it truly brings, and how much is just a desire to fit in, to be "modern" like everyone else. And in the case of those people who changed their flights, I wonder if having information always at your fingertips doesn't actually foster impulsive, rather than deliberate, action.
I need to ponder these questions further. But in the meantime, I'm sticking with my flip phone.
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Random Thoughts III
January 03, 2020
I've rejiggered this blog once again. It's now on a single page, with the past five years' posts all visible. I felt this would make it easier to see the themes I keep circling back to. (In a nutshell for those who don't feel like a long read: write, submit, repeat.)
This is the season for New Year's resolutions. I suggest you try to set your goals a bit below where you want to be. For example, if you want to do 50 push ups every day, set your goal at 25. Or if you want to write 500 words a day, set your goal at 250. That lower goal means you're more likely to succeed when you first start out, and early successes--even small ones--keep you motivated and help create the habit of taking action. Once you have the habit established, you can always expand your goals when that first goal becomes easy to meet. In the words of the English writer Arnold Bennett, "A glorious failure leads to nothing; a petty success may lead to a success that is not petty."
Writing Statistics for 2019:
- Words written: 105,000+
- Submissions: 64
- Publications: 5, plus runner-up for an Artist-in-Residency program
- Hours of writing-related activity/goal: 794/1040
This is the first year I've kept track of these numbers, so I can't say if I've been more or less productive than previous years. However, I can say that it felt like I had a good writing year and that I got a lot done. Now let's see if I can improve on those numbers in 2020....
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Water, Molasses, Glass
December 19, 2019
There are days when the words come easily. It's as if you're not writing, but being written through by something else. You just sit down and the stanzas or the words march down the page and you haven't even broken a sweat. Knowing how rare these moments are in a writer's life, you're filled with a mixture of amazement and wistfulness--amazement at what is happening; wistfulness at knowing it can't last. This is when writing is like water: it flows effortlessly from you. Write until you can't anymore.
There are days when the words come, but only with great effort. You chew the end of your pen, searching for the next word. You sigh, write a half-sentence, scratch most of it out, then start again, trying to get your meaning straight in your own head so you can get it across to the reader. Working with words becomes real work, and you'd gladly go do something else if you could. This is when writing is like molasses: it is squeezed out of you drop by drop. Write anyway.
And then there are days when the words don't come at all. When you've been staring at a blank page (or screen) for too long--be it hours, days, or even weeks. You worry that your muse has starved to death or gone off to find someone with better writing skills. It feels as if there's something just beyond the end of your arm, keeping you from the words on the other side. This is when writing is like glass: a super-thick fluid whose flow can only be measured on a scale of years and decades. Write. Write anything at all. Write no matter what. Come back the next day and keep writing.
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The Notebook Habit
December 6, 2019
I've written before about the advantages and disadvantages of using a notebook and a pen to write longhand drafts. But a year and some on from that post, I thought I'd re-assess the topic and discuss my current setup.
I carry around two notebooks. One is small--3x5-ish--with a Fisher Space Pen clipped to the cover. This notebook comes with me every time I leave the house. In it go story ideas, thoughts, the details of interesting books I run into, and mundania such as the car's tire pressure and shopping lists. This is the all-purpose "data capture" notebook. Every writer/poet/artist should carry at least this one kind of notebook everywhere they go. You may think you'll remember that great idea until you get home, but honestly, you probably won't. It will drift off into the clear, blue sky if you don't promptly get it on paper.
The other notebook that often (but not always) comes with me when I leave the house is a black Rhodia Webnotebook I tuck into my backpack for sitting at the doctor's office or waiting at the car dealership for an oil change. I also take it with me if I'm doing research or attending a conference or have decided to go write at a coffee shop or the local park. It comes with me when I leave town, along with a fountain pen (or two or three). Into it go longer bits of writing: story scenes, essay explorations, blog post ideas. This is also where I capture any additional "stolen writing" when I have unexpected free time.
Over the past year-plus, I've noted several advantages of using a notebook and pen. As Neil Gaiman says, they are "solar powered. You can drop it or get it wet and probably pretty much all of your work will continue to be there." (He also says that you're unlikely to get distracted because you're working offline--which is yet another bonus.)
For me, a big advantage is that pen and paper are "instant on/instant off." You can start writing faster than any laptop can boot up, stop mid-sentence or even mid-word if something interrupts, and go back to writing instantly when you return.
I've found enough advantage in using a notebook and a pen that I plan to do more of it next year. While your mileage may vary, if you're looking for a way to shake up your old writing habits, a notebook and pen may be just the thing to try.
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More Than Words
November 18, 2019
Looking back at this year's posts so far, I spent a lot of my time writing about the craft of writing and little else. So for once, I'm going to break my endless chant of "Write, Submit, Repeat" to consider some non-writing aspects of the writing life.
It's easy to get so wrapped up in the identity of being a "writer" that you forget the other parts of yourself. Don't neglect them. I mean things such as taking care of yourself. Taking care of your house, your debts and bills, your relationships.
Writing is a sedentary and sometimes lonely pursuit. Writers spend a lot of time just sitting, while staring at a blank page can be terrifying in its own way. Make sure to take care of yourself: get up from your chair every hour or so and stretch. Go out for a walk (or better yet, a jog) every day. The state of your body has an impact on the state of your mind, and keeping yourself in shape will help keep your mind sharp. Taking care of yourself also means being aware of things like drinking too much and doing drugs. Either may make you feel good in the short term, but both are fatal to any sort of writing career.
Don't neglect the things around you. The kitchen needs to be cleaned regularly to prevent bugs from taking over. If you plan to go out in public, you need clean clothes. The car needs gas and oil changes if you want to be able to use it to do things such as getting groceries to feed yourself. It's easy to get so focused on writing that you let things slip, let little things pile up until they become so big you have to drop everything--including writing--to deal with them. (I speak from bitter experience here.) Better to get in a few less words on a particular day to get your teeth cleaned than to be a couple of pages ahead at the end of the quarter and in need of a root canal.
Be sure to take care of yourself financially, too. Read up on how taxes work for freelancers, or if you have a steady job, how your writing income affects your taxes. If you're going to claim writing expenses, be sure to keep good records and receipts in case of an audit. Take some part (I'd suggest ten percent) of all the money that comes into your life, writing or otherwise, and use it to create an emergency fund. Even a tiny emergency fund can be helpful; in a pinch, a hundred bucks is enough to buy groceries or gas to get you to and from work.
Finally, don't forget to take care of your relationships--to your loved ones, to your friends, to whatever deity you believe in. Be a good partner, a good friend, a good person. Spend time with the ones you love, even if that means taking an evening off every now and then. Remember that writing is what you do, but that it's not everything you are.
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October 31, 2019
Two weeks back, I received an email from an editor saying that he wanted to publish a short piece I'd sent him just the day before. I'm proud of the publication, but the point of me mentioning it is to show that it's worth writing short pieces, sending them out, and continuing to send them out until they get published.
Pieces of, say, 750 words or less are often a writer's more experimental work: the attempt at a new style or way of dealing with a character; a foray into a new genre or format. Often short pieces are written just for practice, like a singer running through her scales. It's still worth submitting them, though. They may be less polished, but they often also display a raw, exuberant energy and a quirkiness that is enough to catch an editor's eye.
In addition, the chances of a short piece getting published aren't really any less than for a long work. Short pieces make good filler, both for magazines and websites. Print publications sometimes have an empty half- (or even whole) page appear due to the length of the other stories/articles in that proposed issue, and so the editor looks for bite-sized works to fill the space. A lot of magazines now have blogs, too, and blogs are voraciously hungry for new content.
Short pieces are more than just filler. There are established markets devoted just to flash fiction and micro-essays, which you can find with a bit of online searching. But don't rule out other venues. Many writers worry about the maximum length accepted at a magazine or website, but you should also check the minimum. As long as your piece is one word longer, go ahead and send it off.
Fling your droplets into the void--you never know where they may land.
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Just One More Rejection
October 11, 2019
I mentioned in a previous post that I recently broke my own rules and submitted an essay to a literary market which charges a submission fee. I also mentioned that paying had set up the expectation in me that I'd receive something slightly better than a form rejection. No such luck. I got the usual "Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately it's not right for us at this time. Please submit again." email.
I feel I've now proven to myself that paying money to have what usually happens to me for free isn't really cost effective. The easy answer at this point would be to say that from now on I'll stick only to markets that don't charge. But having crossed the pay-to-submit Rubicon, I'm not so sure I won't ever send anything out to that kind of market again. I can say, though, that if in the future I submit to a market that asks for a fee, it will be the exception and happen only after thorough consideration.
So (with the right to occasionally violate my own rules) I'm back to sending pieces out to markets that don't require me to pay them. If this means I won't ever appear in [insert the name of your favorite famous literary journal that charges a submission fee here], so be it. If this also means I end up with publications in a few less established, sometimes ephemeral, literary magazines or websites, so be it, as well.
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More than One Muse
September 27, 2019
Get a bunch of writers together and they'll quickly begin asking each other about their writing habits. One question that often comes up in these conversations is whether or not they listen to music while they write. I generally don't. But on the rare occasions when I do, it must be instrumental music, or there's little chance I'll get any work done.
If a song has lyrics, I get sucked into listening to them. I want to hear the rhyme scheme, follow the narrative, see how the chorus fits with the other lyrics. This may be because I also write poetry but for some reason, lyrics cause my muse to get all mixed up and distracted and I can't write. I've stopped many a playlist in mid-song for that very reason.
That isn't to say that we, as writers, should never mix our muses. There's a lot we can learn from the other arts. Back in September 2018 I mentioned using history as a source of inspiration, plots, characters and details for your own writing. But music, too, can provide these things--especially if you pay attention to the lyrics. Warren Zevon was, in my opinion, one of the best "story-teller" songwriters of the late 20th century. Listen to "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner" or "Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)" and an entire plot will unfold--with a beginning, climax, and resolution. Or try listening to Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" for beautiful, economical word choices that convey a profound depth of emotion in just a few lines. A follower of Calliope can enrich their writing by studying Clio and Euterpe.
The same goes for all the other muses--a writer can learn from them all. Astronomy or architecture, dance or comedy or tragedy; all are sources of stimulation and ideas for a writer. Just don't try to mix them simultaneously or--like me--your muse may get all mixed up and distracted.
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September 6, 2019
I don't submit to literary markets that charge a submission fee. I've read the various justifications -- it keeps down the number of inappropriate submissions; it costs money to run a literary magazine/website; the fee is roughly equal to what a writer would pay for a postal submission anyway. If you're interested, there's a great discussion of the issue of submission fees here.
The reason I don't submit to markets that charge fees (and my thoughts echo some of the discussion that I linked to) is that I feel it changes the relationship between writer, editor and the work. Coming from the fiction-writing world, I'm used to Yog's Law, which says that money should flow toward the author. I shouldn't be paying the editor--however indirectly--to consider my submission. Postage, on the other hand, is merely a cost of doing business borne by the author: I pay the postal system for getting my submission to an editor. The difference between the two payments may be subtle, but to me it's an important one.
However, I recently violated my own principles and sent an essay to a literary market that charges a fee. I'd written the piece specifically for that market, a market that wouldn't open again for several months. I finished the essay and it was only after the market opened back up that I discovered they charge a submission fee. I had a choice: take the piece elsewhere and hope I could find a fit for it or send it to the originally intended market. I chose--just this once--to pay the fee. I also convinced myself that I wanted to see how the process worked. Perhaps I was being too critical of something I didn't understand, and experience would help. (If that's not a justification after-the-fact, I don't know what is....)
As of today, I'm still waiting for a reply so I can't say if my current opinion on submission fees will change. I'm guessing it won't. But I can tell you, though, that paying a fee has created the expectation in me that if I'm rejected, I'll get something slightly better, something slightly more personal than the standard "Dear author, thank you for your submission..." email. (After all, I did send them money, right?) This is an example, to a small degree, of the sort of change in the relationship between author and editor that I think comes from charging a submission fee.
I'll post more about this topic once I've heard back from the market.
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The Baby and the Bathwater
August 09, 2019
I've been working on a non-fiction book project for almost a year now--making outlines, focusing my thoughts on the topic by working on the introduction, reading books and research papers and drawing up lists of potential interviewees. And now I think I'm going to have to scrap much of it and start over again from the beginning.
As horrible as that sounds, I'm not sure it's a bad thing. The research had mushroomed exponentially, with over thirty books (and counting) to read and annotate, and several hundred bookmarks of background research and other articles, all stored in my browser in little file folders. In addition, the project had stalled at least twice.
The stalls should have warned me that I was doing something wrong. But I've never written a non-fiction book and I wasn't sure of my method--this despite reading books about writing non-fiction--so I tried to convince myself that perhaps I just needed to work harder and put in more hours. Yet I still felt like something wasn't quite right with the project.
Then I received several great pieces of advice at the Kenyon Review Workshops. Our instructor, Rebecca McClanahan, told us that it was best to not research first, but to write out your questions: What do you want to find? What don't you want to find? What do you hope to answer? On another day, she said that when writing, it was good to start with the following questions: What do you know? What do you expect? What do you need to learn? She also suggested we write our way into research--to write first, then plug the holes in our knowledge.
Right there, in class, I realized I'd been going about my book project the wrong way. I'd been focusing on research rather than writing. Or rather, I'd been researching to clarify what it was I wanted to write about. So after I got back, I sat down and over a couple of days wrote a short essay in which I asked myself questions and stated my opinions and discovered where I needed to do more research. The essay as it currently exists is a hot mess--I will have to go through and edit it several times to refine the questions and clarify points. However, for the first time in almost a year, I feel as if I have a "through line" that connects the entire book project. I've come to realize many of the books I'd collected for research will probably never now be used, and that there's an entirely different set of books I'll now have to find and read.
It's hard to admit--even to yourself--that you've been mistaken, and every writer has to find their own way of writing and research. I feel a bit chagrined I've spent several months at what will probably end up being fruitless work, yet I'm glad I've learned a better way of working that I think will allow me to move ahead on this daunting project.
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Some Practical Thoughts on The Kenyon Review Workshops
July 19, 2019
I got back last weekend from the Kenyon Review Literary Nonfiction Workshop. I'm still processing much of the writing-related information I sucked up like a sponge over those seven days, and it may be some time before I'm able to verbalize what I learned. In the meantime, though, I thought it might be useful for those who have been recently accepted (or are considering applying) to discuss some practical matters surrounding the workshops.
If you get accepted to one of the workshops, you'll be given an address to a web page which contains information about how to get to Gambier and what to bring and what kind of accommodations to expect, depending upon what level of lodging you decide to take--dorm room or apartment room. (I paid for the apartment room and so can only speak to that experience.) Overall, the information on the web page is quite good, yet there are a few items I'd like to add:
- Bring coathangers. There were none in my room, and some of my classmates also said they had none. Coathangers helped me keep my shirts from getting all wrinkly.
- Be prepared for the possiblility of no microwave. The pictures of the apartments on the Kenyon Review website show a microwave in the kitchen, but there was none in my apartment. This wasn't a problem for me, but it might be one for other people.
- Consider bringing some snacks/basic food items to keep in your room. Meals are provided in the College dining hall, but only at certain times. If you're in the thick of an assignment and want to skip a meal, your dining options in Gambier are limited.
- While laptops are listed as "optional," they're essential. I'm a longhand writer, but quickly realized that if I was going to get my daily assignment done and have a hard-copy to give to the instructor (she asked us to provide one for each assignment), I was going to have to work on a laptop. Bring one.
- Bring a thumbdrive, too. I found it easier to copy my work onto a thumbdrive and then use one of the desktops in the computer lab to print, rather than emailing the work to myself or using Google Docs. Then again, I'm lazy and didn't feel like having to log into both the computer and an online service.
- Your cell phone may not work. The information web page mentions that cell service can be spotty for some plans. Many of my classmates had no problem with their phones, but I had service only in certain locations on campus and then sometimes only for a few minutes in those locations. I merely sent emails from my laptop instead of texts.
- Yes, do bring a flashlight or keep your cell phone handy. I chuckled when I saw a flashlight on the packing list, but Gambier is on top of a hill and they do get pretty good thunderstorms in the summer--though the power never happened to go out the week I was there.
- Bring/Get Quarters for your laundry. There are several places on campus to do your laundry. I used the laundry underneath the campus bookstore. However, there are no change machines in that particular room. Fortunately, there's a bank next door to the coffeeshop on campus and they will gladly give you a roll of quarters in exchange for a ten-dollar bill.
And finally, you'll be busy, very busy, during the week. Don't expect a lot of downtime. I brought both a book to read and workout clothes. I only managed to work out once and never even opened the book. One of my classmates brought a bicycle to use on the local trails and got in a total of two short rides. Kenyon prides itself on being a workshop where you produce new work and so you'll spend the bulk of your time writing--you may even loose a bit of sleep getting your assignments for the next day finished and printed out.
I hope these thoughts help. If you've been accepted to the Workshops, congratulations; if you're applying, best of luck. You'll learn a lot and the experience is well worth it.
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Ideas and Energy
June 24, 2019
Lately, I've been mulling over the difference between creative ideas and creative energy. Ideas seem to be the divine inspiration part of being a writer, and not under conscious control because they come from the muse. Having creative ideas seems to be as much about being open to them as it is about developing them yourself. There are techniques to "generate" ideas, and I've used some of them with varying success but my best ideas have always seemed to just come to me, often when my mind is engaged somewhere else. (The unbidden arrival of ideas is the reason I always carry a pocket notebook and a pen with me wherever I go.)
Creative energy, on the other hand, seems to be the thing that gets a writer from the germ of an idea to completed project. It's the drive and discipline that get you sitting in your chair, fingers on keyboard (or in my case, gripping the pen), working. Unlike ideas, I do believe that creative energy can be cultivated. Cultivated by the practice of writing every day and by honing the craft of plot and character and dialogue and description, down through the most basic tools of writing: grammar and punctuation and word choice.
It's possible I'm wrong and creative energy and ideas both come, in fact, from the same place. But if they are distinct and different, any writing project becomes a two-step process. First there's the idea. Then there's the hard work to make the idea into a fully realized story. The first part is out of a writer's control, the second well within it.
I'm not sure yet where these musings will take me. However, I promise to bring you along as I try to figure out what follows from the idea of creative ideas being different than creative energy.
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There Will Always Be a Gap
June 3, 2019
Like a lot of writers, I wish I was more productive. At the end of the day, when I look at what I hoped to accomplish and compare it to what I actually did accomplish, there's always a gap. I wish didn't exist and do everything I can to increase my productivity. Nevertheless, that gap is always there.
Productivity has been on my mind over the past few days because of an article I read last week. I'm a big fan of Austin Kleon and a recent edition of his newsletter contained a link to an article in Glamour about why Danielle Steel is so prolific.
The short answer is that she works twenty hours a day. Twenty Hours. A Day. And that's not some I-got-a-deadline or the-muse-is-puking-all-over-me writing spurt. She lives at her desk. According to the article, she survives mostly on toast, decaf and miniature chocolate bars, and only goes to sleep when "I'm so tired I could sleep on the floor." Steel says, too, that there are times she'll write for twenty-four hours straight.
Twenty-four hours pegs the productivity scale. Every minute of an entire day at the desk. No writer could be more productive than that. Yet for all my writerly desire to do more than I'm currently doing, I found myself thinking "that sounds like pure hell." Now, I admit it would be impossible for me to write for twenty hours. I need at least seven hours of sleep a night. I have a bad back that forces me to get up from time to time. And there's always plenty to keep me busy around the house. But even if I could write twenty hours a day, I don't think I would want to. It just doesn't sound like fun.
Steel says she writes as much as she does because she enjoys the craft of writing. I love the craft, too, but for me part of being a writer is also going out and gathering material by meeting people and reading (which is something Steel says she doesn't do while she's writing). By spending so much time at her desk, I feel that she's actually missing out on not only gathering raw material, but missing out on life itself.
I wish Ms. Steel well, but her writing life seems too pinched and narrow for my liking. But having seen and rejected the theoretical pinnacle of productivity, all that remains is to simply make peace with the fact that, for me, there will always be a gap.
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Hobbies and Camouflage
May 10, 2019
When non-writing people think of "writing," they generally imagine something like a scene in a movie -- the author's pen scratching across sheet after sheet of yellow legal pad or fingers dancing on the keys of a laptop. But a lot of the actual process actually has no outward visible sign, because it goes on in the writer's head. To an outside observer, the writer is just sitting there with a pen and notebook and a cup of coffee, scribbling the occasional sentence or two. Because it doesn't fit with the image of "writing" many people have, it often gets misinterpreted by non-writers as not working.
This, in turn, leads to writers being interrupted at the exact moment their muses were about to resolve that one perplexing plot point that had them stalled for weeks, or just when it was about to reveal the idea that would take that half-finished essay in a beautiful and entirely new direction. "Since you're not busy, could you...?" has brought many a work-in-progress to a screeching halt. (Just ask Samuel Taylor Coleridge about that.)
One way to mitigate interruptions is to use camouflage. Scatter papers across the table--spreadsheets with lots of numbers generally look impressive--and move them around from time to time as if you were searching for something in the data. Or buy a newspaper and just turn the page periodically (though to be honest, it's easy to get sucked into actually reading the articles if you're not careful). Make it look like you're doing something else, and most people will leave you alone.
A better solution, though, is to take up a hobby, especially a handicraft. Keeping one's hands busy has two benefits: it's an outward sign that you're "working" in a way most non-writers accept, and there's something about repetitive tasks that stimulates the muse. I've met more than a few writers who knit, for example.
It doesn't even have to be a hobby--simply keeping one's hands busy is often enough to give the muse a safe space in which to work. Some of my best ideas have occurred while I was doing the after-dinner dishes. I keep a pad of paper and a pencil in the kitchen to jot down random thoughts when they appear for that very reason. (Damp hands don't smear pencil they way they do ink.)
It's a shame that writers have to hide their real work behind "work," but in an age when busy-ness is the mark of virtue, it seems to be the only way to avoid both censure and the inevitable "Since you're not doing anything right now..." interruptions.
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April 19, 2019
The 17th-century Philosopher Blaise Pascal had a section in his Pensees in which he laid out his famous wager. He argued that it was better to act morally, because the answer to the question "Does God exist?" is not knowable through reason and because the potential gains/losses (eternal salvation/damnation) were far bigger than the cost (forgoing some pleasures) if one was wrong.
So what does this have to do with being a writer? Well, it struck me the other day that many writers have made a sort of Pascal's Wager: the tradition of "paying it forward" to other writers.
Writers at all stages of their careers often help out newer and less experienced writers by giving them information, warnings, and advice. They give introductions and try to connect writers to editors/publishers who they think might have something in common. They blurb each other's books, even when the beauty of the writing in that book makes them jealous. (Though to be honest, that's exactly the book you want to blurb--the one so good you wish you yourself wrote it.) They attend each other's panels at conferences to show their support and email each other congratulations when a new story or book gets published.
Doing all this implies a belief that helping another writer doesn't necessarily hurt one's own career. It implies a world view in which writing is not a zero-sum game, and one in which improving the lot of one writer improves the lot of all writers. That's not to say that the writing world is perfect--we have our furious (and sometimes pointless) feuds and hates and petty jealousies, just like any other group of people. But overall, the writing community is a great one to be a part of, simply because of all the good things that go on within it.
"Great," you say. "So what does this mean for me?" Well, if you're just starting out in writing, it means that you can and should ask questions--lots of them--and listen carefully to the answers you receive. There are many writers out there who want to help and they won't steer you wrong on purpose. If they say there's no secret handshake and that getting published is a matter of hard work and perseverance and luck and timing, they mean it. If they tell you that you should be professional in all your interactions with editors and other authors, they mean it. And if they tell you that the only way to get good at writing is to write a lot, they mean that, too.
For those further along in their careers, it means going to conventions whenever and wherever you can and talking with other writers who may come to you with questions. It means giving them the best advice as you see it, and maybe even setting aside the pride generated by being asked enough to say "I actually don't know a lot about this. You should talk to X," then doing everything to introduce the two.
So, fellow writer, pay it forward as much as you can. The costs are little but the rewards great.
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A Discussion of Q
April 4, 2019
In my last post I mentioned Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's On the Art of Writing but only described it in passing. Yet if I could only recommend one book on writing, "Q" (as he was known) would be it.
That's a heavy weight to place upon a slim book, but On the Art of Writing can bear it. The book itself is a collection of lectures Quiller-Couch gave at Cambridge University in 1913-14 on writing and English literature. In his lectures, he is a font of advice and suggestions: writers of prose should practice verse as well, writing should be appropriate to the audience and situation. It should be accurate, and here Q suggests that a writer use the concrete word to the abstract one, use active and transitive verbs, and prefer the direct word to what he calls the "circumlocution." He's also the ur-source of the famous writing quote "Murder your darlings," meaning to get rid of that beautiful sentence that you just love but which doesn't actually add anything to your piece. Finally, he recommends writing verse and prose that could be sung or read out loud and still be pleasurable.
As for style in writing, Quiller-Couch feels that it's similar to manners. A writer owes it to a reader, he says, to think of the reader's comfort and convenience, and in such a way as to respect the effort the reader is putting forth to read and understand one's writing. Beautiful prose, though, also requires an ear able to detect two things: the single, right point of emphasis in a sentence, and the interplay of vowel sounds within and between the words.
Q hates jargon, which he believes comes from two sources: an author's laziness or his timidity. Jargon is used to mask inexact thinking or to dodge responsibility, and here Quiller-Couch prefigures Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" by more than thirty years.
He also provides his own list of "working books," which is far shorter than mine. Were he limited to three books, Q feels he could teach writing using only the King James Version of the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare and Homer. It's hard to argue with that list, because all three are gems in the crowns of both English literature and poetry.
And all this advice is given with humor and wrapped up in that luscious late-19th/early-20th-century prose style that I love to read. As a writer, reading Q's little book is time well-spent.
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A Writer's Bookshelf
March 14, 2019
I talked earlier this year about the writer as reader--that a writer should read as much and as broadly as possible. The books writers use to enrich their minds and to stimulate their art may be transient, moving onto and off of writers' bookshelves and into and out of their lives. But what about "tool" books: books that stay on the shelf for reference purposes, books that discuss the craft and business of writing?
As with any almost every other aspect of this art, personal preference affects which books the writer chooses to use, and so I can't give a canonical listing. However, I thought it might be useful to list the writing- and business-related books I've got sitting on my bookshelf, and to explain why it is I use them. Here goes:
- Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain -- I was fortunate to discover this gem early on in the process of learning to write. I still feel it's one of the best books on the art of fiction.
- On Writing Well, by William Zinsser -- My favorite book on writing nonfiction.
- The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White -- This little book is either loved or hated. I love it, and try to re-read it every year.
- On the Art of Writing, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch -- One of my favorite books on writing. "Q" discusses the creation of both poetry and prose, and provides suggestions for writing clearly and forcefully.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition -- It contains everything you ever wanted to know about the mechanics of punctuation, usage, proper quotation, citations and formatting.
- A good dictionary -- Choose your own. I also suggest John McPhee's Draft No. 4. After reading it, I stopped using a thesaurus.
- A good book on English usage -- I tend to be formal in my writing, so I use Fowler's Modern English Usage, but I've also heard good things about the fourth edition of Garner's Modern English Usage.
- How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling, by Frank Bettger -- I mentioned this book a couple of times in last year's blog. It's been a great help in improving my organization and tracking my productivity as a writer.
- The Success System that Never Fails, by W. Clement Stone -- This book may be hard to find, but it provides several valuable techniques to improve motivation and achieve goals.
- How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, by Arnold Bennett -- Describes how having a plan and sticking to it, day-in day-out, can add up to great achievements.
- The Richest Man in Babylon, by George Clason -- The faux-biblical language can be annoying, but it contains good advice on handling income and building wealth.
That's my tiny writer's bookshelf. If you have tool books that you use regularly and would like to suggest, I'd love to hear from you--I still have plenty of room on that shelf.
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Empty Cups and Silent Muses
February 27, 2019
I believe it was Jung who described the creative urge as a kind of neurosis, and said that it expressed itself two ways. In one, the artist filled up with energy like a cup filling with water, then emptied himself all in one burst, and so had to wait until the cup refilled before he could go back to work. In the other, the artist had a cup of creative energy that was full but the incoming energy overflowed the rim, and so had to be dealt with constantly.
I'm firmly the second kind of artist. I write every day, and have a minimum daily word count. Paradoxically, though, there are times when I--like the first kind of writer--feel my cup has run dry. So how does someone who's a daily writer deal with those times when they feel they have no creative energy, when the muse has gone silent?
One method is, of course, to take page from the first kind of artist and take a break from writing, be it for a couple of hours or a couple of days. This has worked for me from time to time. I get up and do the dishes and a couple of loads of laundry and suddenly, the problem that had left me at a dead end resolves itself and I can sit back down and pick up writing where I left off. Or sometimes, I'll purposefully and consciously schedule a day in which I don't write at all, but run errands or spring clean the house or sit on the couch and read. But so far, the longest break that hasn't been forced upon me by circumstances has been about two days. Then the urge to write overpowers me.
The most common method I use is to simply just continue writing. Sometimes I stick with my current project, knowing that the muse will take what I've written and return it back to me in a better form later. Sometimes I pick an entirely different project--or no project at all--and write, knowing that even if the muse isn't around, the writing I do do is practice that will make me a better translator of her inspiration into words, and that the pages I've written will become the raw material of some later story or essay. This is the writerly equivalent of scales on the piano or a bit of noodling out a new melody.
As for you fill/empty-type writers, I'm afraid I don't have any practical suggestions for what to do when the muse doesn't seem to come back as rapidly as you'd hoped. Perhaps try writing "dry," since I believe it's possible to go back and forth between the two types of writer (or even to be both types, depending on the project and genre). In any case, have confidence that the muse will return and that the cup will fill up again. Because it will.
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February 13, 2019
I can't remember exactly where or when, but I vaguely remember once being told by an older, wiser writer at a convention, "I have two hobbies: writing and submitting." I remember, too, the shock of realization. My conversational companion was right. Writing and submitting are two entirely different things, with different processes and procedures. Yet both are required to be a published writer.
Submitting has its own rules, based on the genre and the markets themselves, personal preferences, and even the law of averages. This last rule is the simplest and easiest to define. It's this: more submissions means more publications. This isn't an absolute rule, but it's generally true. I can attest to its validity, though--the years in which I've made the most submissions have also been the years in which I've had the most publications. So the more often you submit, the more likely you are to be published.
As for the middle rule, personal preference determines which markets you're going to submit your piece to. All writers have certain magazines and websites that seem to share their sensibilities, and which they enjoy reading. Naturally enough, those magazines should get preferential treatment when submitting.
Personal preference also determines how many and what tier of magazine to submit to. Some writers will only submit to their four or five top-tier markets, and if the piece doesn't sell, into the trunk it goes. Other writers submit until a piece sells, no matter how small the publication. One kind of writer ends up with a short, but more "impressive" bibliography, while the other has a longer list of publications in smaller or possibly less well known venues.
The markets and genre also have an impact on submitting. Submission guidelines are editors' statements of what kind of stories they publish, what they like and dislike, and how (and when) they want you to submit to them. Follow those guidelines. Follow those guidelines even if you're convinced the New Yorker will be so impressed with your sword-and-sandals story that they'll bend their guidelines just this once for you. Editors are busy enough people as it is--don't annoy them with stories that make it obvious you didn't read (or willfully ignored) their guidelines.
If you're a writer who hasn't yet sent out any of your work, think about your favorite magazines and websites and what kind of publishing history you want to have. Then make a list of places to start submitting your work to and begin your new hobby. Good luck!
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What is a Classic?
January 23, 2019
In my last post, I recommended reading classic books. This, of course, raises the question: What is a "classic?"
Naturally, each genre has its own set of classics, so some of what a writer should read depends on what they write. This isn't to say that one should only read in one's own genre, only that a mystery writer, for example, would likely read a slightly different set of classic books than a literary novelist or writer of Westerns. If you're not sure which books are classics in your genre, ask another writer or try that endless font of information, the internet.
The other kind of classic is harder to define, but generally it has two characteristics: age and universality. Classic works are often older works, ones that have survived the winnowing of time. Nothing is better for blowing away the light chaff of books than a few decades. Pick any time period from antiquity to fifty years ago and you'll find many books that are still recognized by name, while a thousand others have passed out of all memory. If the title (or author's name) of an old book still brings a shock of recognition, it's quite possibly a classic.
The other characteristic is universality. A classic book speaks not only to one individual's experience, but to the human condition in general. For example, Homer's Iliad describes events of the Trojan War, and of Achilles' experience in particular. However, it also speaks to the entire human experience of war; of fate and of anger, of revenge and grief. Reading the Iliad twenty-five-hundred-odd years after its creation, I still found myself shocked by its familiarity and nodding in agreement at the echoes of things that happened when I was in the military. And the universality of Shakespeare's works is perhaps the biggest reason why they're considered classics.
So, having talked with others, looked for books that have both age and universality, and come up with a list of potential classics, how do you choose which ones to read? That I can't tell you. It depends on your personal interests and inclinations. Everyone's picks will be different. So choose a few titles that look interesting, or that you've always wanted to read but somehow never got around to reading. And pick a few more you know nothing about for the serendipitous joy and insight they might bring. Then get reading.
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The Writer as Reader
January 10, 2019
A very happy 2019 to everyone! New years bring New Year's resolutions, and one of mine is to read more books. I got an early start and over the holidays finished both Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio," and Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." Anderson was one of my always-meant-to-read-someday books, and it had been so many years since I'd read "Fahrenheit 451" that I'd forgotten much of the plot. I felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend after a long time apart.
I not only enjoyed both books, I learned a lot from them. "Winesburg" deals mostly with the interior lives of the inhabitants of a small Ohio town, and in reading it I realized that it's possible to write a compelling narrative in which not a lot physically happens. In Bradbury, I came to see how a master writer uses beautiful metaphors and descriptions to hold and move the reader.
At about this point in my blog posts, I usually say something about how I found this or that "useful" and add that you might want to try it in your own writing life. But reading, and reading classics--both inside and outside your field--are so central to learning to be a good writer that this is one of the few times I'll say you must do something. If you wish to be a writer, you must also be a reader.
The careful reading of classics is, in my opinion, even more important than reading "how to write" books. Classics provide everything from inspiration to skeleton plots for your own work to examples of the successful use of just about every writing technique that exists.
So read, read a lot, and read the classics. Use those waste moments in line at the bank or before the movie not to scroll through your phone, but to get another page, another paragraph, another line through your eyes and into your mind. You'll be a better writer for it, I guarantee.
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December 17, 2018
While I'm not certain how big an effect serendipity has in real life, I believe it has a big effect in literary life. Recently, I've twice run into the idea that a writer should be able to encapsulate their work in a single sentence--the first time in an article about screen writing, the second in a book about speech writing. (If you aren't reading about the writing of genres other than your own, you should be.) And taking the hint from the universe, I began to consider if this would have any benefit in both fiction and nonfiction writing.
I haven't yet tried the idea with nonfiction writing, so that discussion will have to wait until another time. However, just the other day I began a new short story and felt a little lost as to which of several possible directions it was going to take. You see, a character had done something unexpected and so I'd had to throw out my original idea for the plot. How to re-plot a story that's already begun? I decided to try writing a one-sentence description.
I can't say that it gave me everything I needed to immediately pick up and carry on with the story. However, it did allow me to automatically reject several possibilities I'd been considering. A couple of minutes of brainstorming on the remaining ideas, though, and I had a new plot that seems to be working out well.
I also haven't tried this technique on a still-unwritten piece, and so can't say how a one-sentence description might help or hurt the writing of it. But it might be something worth trying when getting ready to start a story. I think if nothing else, it might help focus your mind on where you want the story to go (and ultimately end up).
Stats for the year: Here are my writing stats for 2018. Fifty-four submissions (roughly one a week) with two pro sales, two other placements (one poem and one translation), and one submission still waiting to hear back from the editor for a final yes/no. That works out to roughly a 10% acceptance rate. Can't give you the number of words written due to editing and such (and a master's thesis), but it felt like I was much more productive in 2018 than I have been in a long time.
Here's wishing everyone a good year (writing and otherwise) in 2019.
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December 6, 2018
The month of November somehow got away from me. A bad cold and visitors and Thanksgiving and a short vacation ate up the month since my last post. Nevertheless, I still got some writing done and some submitting, and got a number of very nice rejections (and even one re-write request). So it was an eventful month in many senses of the word.
One of the assignments we were given in our last semester at Johns Hopkins was to create a writing career plan. The plan was supposed to cover not only the projects we intended to work on after graduation, but our goals in aspects of the writing life such as networking, social media presence and professional development. Down one side of the page was a one-year time-line of actions we were going to take in pursuit of those goals. I wrote up my plan, turned it in--and then ignored it for three months after graduation.
I wish I hadn't. For one, not using my career plan caused me to abandon the reading list I'd created for myself. Two of the books I'd put on that list, Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit and Sull and Eisenhardt's Simple Rules have motivated me to come up with my own personal version of Robert Heinlein's 5 Rules of Writing. Since then, my productivity has more than doubled.
Setting aside my plan also meant that I missed a deadline to apply for a writing program I was interested in attending. I could argue that the act of putting the writing program into my plan made it flow out of my memory and onto the page, but that would just be an excuse. And in any case, I would have been reminded if I'd looked at my career plan sooner.
A career plan doesn't have to be as formal as the one I wrote for school. It can be as simple as a list of magazines you aspire to be published in, and how you're going to make that happen. Or it may be just a commitment to write so many words a day or to make so many submissions each month.
The true value of a career plan may, in fact, lie in the simple act of creating it. Coming up with a plan forces you to examine what you hope to get out of the writing life. There are as many different careers as there are writers, and someone who's happy to just write and then put their work up online for the world to see will have a very different career plan than someone who's aiming for the New York Times bestseller list.
So take some time this month to think about what your ideal writing career would look like and write down a plan to move yourself towards those goals. Be sure to pull it out and read it each month during 2019 and to take action as your plan dictates. I think you'll be quite happy with the results this time next year.
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Grist for the Mill
November 6, 2018
I intended to have a blog post up last week, but life got in the way. I got called for jury duty.
I spent several days last week sitting in a room with a hundred other people, reading and snatching bits of time to write longhand between trips to the water fountain and the bathroom. Every now and then the head bailiff would come into the room and call a list of names to be prospective jurors. One morning, they called me. I trooped into a courtroom along with a number of other people to go through the voir dire process, which determines if a person has any biases that might affect the trial one way or the other. Then the selection of the actual jury began. In the end, I was not picked and was sent back to the waiting room, where I sat the rest of the day. On Thursday afternoon, all prospective jurors were finally released for the week. And like that, I was done.
Most people would see jury duty as a massive pain in the neck. I didn't. Don't get me wrong, I would much rather have been home with a cup of coffee and my laptop and the couch upon which to take a nap. I would have preferred not to have irritated my bad back with hours of sitting in padded (but somehow still uncomfortable) chairs. I was glad, though, for the experience. I made notes--not of the details of the cases or the questions we were asked as prospective jurors--but of the sights and sounds and smells and my feelings in and out of the courtroom and waiting room. On one hand, my weekly word-and-hour count was lower than I liked but on the other hand, I gathered valuable experiences and materials for future writing.
I write a lot about the act of writing, but part of being a writer is a matter of attitude. All experience, be it positive or negative, is worth observing and making notes upon. Have a fender-bender on the way to the store? Once you've exchanged insurance info and everything is taken care of, pull in to a nearby parking lot to jot down how it felt and sounded, your thoughts and emotions during and afterward. Get a new puppy? Play with them and have a good cuddle, then sit down and describe the warmth and smell of the puppy's skin, how your heart melted when it wriggled a little deeper into your lap and fell asleep. Then keep those notes somewhere safe, where you can pull them out years later if need be. Life, for a writer, should all be grist for the mill.
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October 19, 2018
Earlier this week, I took an entire day away from writing. This may sound surprising coming from Mr. I-always-wish-I-was-writing-more, but I'd let things pile up around the house to the point where I could no longer stand it. Dust bunnies were evolving into dust rhinos under the furniture. There were multiple stacks of books that had yet to be sorted into donate and sell piles. And I couldn't find anything in the pantry, since I'd just been sticking cans and jars and boxes wherever I could find room. I was beginning to feel guilty about neglecting my domestic duties. So I "downed tools" and knocked those (and several other) tasks out, then went back to writing the next day with a much lighter mind.
It's easy to lose the balance between the writing life and ordinary life. We not only need to be writers, we need to be healthy human beings who maintain our relationships and fulfill our duties to our families and communities. Writing is full of dichotomies: we're both artists and businesspeople; we spend a lot of time alone in our heads and write in private, but then send our stories out in the hopes they'll be seen by the largest possible audience.
Take some time to think about yourself as a whole person and not just as a writer. Exercise and eat well and go to the doctor to keep yourself healthy. Get up from the computer (or notebook) to spend time with your family and friends. Get out and be active in your greater community. Pay it forward by helping other writers. Take as long as you need--the muse will still be waiting for you when you get back.
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September 27, 2018
A credo is a statement of one's guiding principles and comes from the Latin for "I believe." While most often used in a religious or political sense, there's no reason why a writer can't have a credo about the craft and business of writing. Here's mine:
A Writer's Credo
- I realize I am not entirely in charge of my fate. No one is required to publish what I write. I must earn the privilege of publication by producing the best work I am capable of writing and then submitting that work.
- I will focus on what I can control. Epictetus wrote that men should only concern themselves with what is within their power to change. I will do this in relation to my writing, focusing on what I can control: the quality of the writing and the number of submissions. Each piece I write will be the best I'm currently capable of producing, from word choice all the way up to the overall organization of the work. Even the best writing, however, adds nothing to the world if it remains unseen. Therefore, having produced a piece of work, I will submit it to the appropriate markets.
- I will never stop learning about my craft. I will read books on writing and attend such conventions and classes as my life and funds allow. Most important of all, I will write daily, because as Jacques Barzun has said, all good writing is ultimately self-taught. I take the sixteenth-century printer Christophe Plantin's motto as my own: Labore et Constantia (Through Work and Perseverance).
- I will be professional in all I do. The process of publication is an interaction between an editor and a writer in which both parties share an equal dignity. I will read the magazine's or website's guidelines before I submit to see if my work is appropriate and if it is currently open to submissions. I will format my manuscript in accordance with the guidelines, or in the absence of guidelines, use standard manuscript format. If rejected, I will remind myself that rejections are the dues paid by every writer; if accepted, I will work with, rather than against, the editor to improve the piece and make it fit the magazine's or website's voice and style. In my communications with an editor, I will always be polite, professional, and prompt.
These are my beliefs. So may they be until the day I permanently lay down my pen.
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History--Another Idea Generator
September 20, 2018
In the past few weeks, I've shifted from reading business books to reading history--Sherman's Civil War memoirs, a Chinese book called Guwen Guanzhi--and that's got me thinking about how useful history can be for a writer. The potential uses I see include:
Pre-packaged Plots. Human history is filled with events, both great and small, that can be used to form the nucleus and plot of a story, including science fiction and fantasy stories. Marriages, alliances, wars, travels, explorations--all are potential source material useful for creating a plot. Whether you're looking for a single event or a long sweep of centuries, a potential plot line can be found in just about any history.
Ready-made Characters. Along similar lines, many earlier histories, especially Greek and Roman ones, tended to focus on how a single person dealt with the important events going on around them. These history-biography hybrids provide descriptions of their subjects' characters, down to their habits and quirks, their likes and dislikes. (In the case of Herodotus, he sometimes did this with entire peoples.) Change the name and gender as necessary, and you have a ready-made character to drop into your plot. Another possibility, good for both a plot and a character, would be to take someone who was only a minor player in some historical event and make them the main character in a story about that event.
Other benefits are harder to describe in two-word phrases. If you intend to set a story in a particular historical setting, reading histories written during and immediately after your selected period will give you background knowledge about the setting. That, in turn, will give your writing extra depth--even if what you've learned never makes it onto the page. (Though to be honest, just about any time a writer knows more than what they put on the page, the writing has extra depth.)
Finally, while you don't want to consciously imitate the writing style of a bygone era, reading history written in and around your selected time period may also give your prose just an echo of the sound and flavor of the writing of that time--especially the dialog.
So if you're stuck for ideas or want to improve a work in progress, pulling a history book from the shelf and leafing through it might be just the thing to do.
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September 6, 2018
The world makes it hard to be a productive writer. There are so many things that vie for a writer's time: the siren song of email and internet "research;" the desire to get up and make a cup of coffee rather than face a half-written page that seems to be going nowhere; the mundane tasks of cleaning and laundry and shopping.
And writers are their own bosses in a field where there's no control over whether or not they'll be paid for the work they've already done. The only thing we, as writers, can do is set goals for ourselves and stick to them. How then to make sure we keep on track towards our writing goals?
One possible way is with a "success indicator." I mentioned a couple of posts back that I'd been reading W. Clement Stone's "The Success System That Never Fails." Stone owned an insurance company and before that was himself an insurance salesman. Because a salesman's success, like a writer's, can be measured in sales, I realized that some of Stone's advice also applied to writers. Towards the end of the book, he recommends creating a "success indicator," a concrete, measurable standard by which to judge whether you're moving towards or away from your goal (whatever that may be). For insurance salesmen, it was the number of calls and interviews made each day. I decided that as a writer, the best success indicators are time spent on writing-related tasks and number of submissions. My logic was simple: write more and submit more, and you'll be a more successful writer.
So I printed up a couple of index cards with boxes for me to check off each half-hour actually spent writing/editing/researching, an area to comment on why I didn't make my goal for the day, and spaces at the bottom to total the hours worked and number of submissions for the week. My goal is to have all the boxes checked--meaning I've achieved my writing goal--and to hit my target number of submissions by the end of each Friday.
If nothing else, I figure using the success indicator method will enable me to see if I'm moving towards my goals or away from them (and in the case of the latter, why). So whatever your goals--be they writing or otherwise--coming up with your own measurable success indicator and then keeping track of it seems like a good way to help you achieve those goals, and worthy of a trial. Good luck.
Update: After a month of logging my internet usage, I discovered I averaged 48 minutes a day, exclusive of answering email. Even allowing for a decent fudge factor and accounting errors, I'd charitably say I was just at or under an hour per day. The hydra may not be slain, but it's at least staggering a little.
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On Bumper Stickers and Beliefs
August 23, 2018
A few posts back, I mentioned that I had a philosophical disagreement with Google over the forced use of https. Several more revelations about the company's practices since then have caused me to sever my last (and only) tie to them by changing my email provider. I wrote a long, multi-page draft of a post enumerating in detail my reasons for leaving gmail behind.
This is not that post. After reading what I'd written, I decided not to use it. But not using the post got me thinking about writers and their beliefs--specifically, how private should a writer be about their political or religious beliefs?
As with any group of people, there's a broad spectrum. Some are very vocal online about their beliefs. Many other writers comment on current political or social controversies, and so reveal their beliefs over time. Some (and I'm one of them) try to keep their personal and writing lives separate, and rarely if ever comment on events of the day.
Do I have political and/or religious beliefs? Of course I do, and I'm sure that they come out subtly through the themes of the stories I write. My friends and family know what they are. But as a writer, I don't discuss them.
But then again, I don't put bumper stickers on my car, which might be a good metaphor and guide for a writer when deciding what/how much to say publicly about their beliefs. Some people's cars are decoupaged with bumper stickers that go back for decades, showing not only how they feel about issues but who they voted for three elections back. Other people have only one or two bumper stickers, indicating their deep belief in select issues. And a few people have no bumper stickers at all.
Internet posts are similar to bumper stickers in that they can be well-nigh impossible to remove, and can be seen by a large number of people. So if you, as a writer, are looking for a way to decide whether or not to weigh in on some current controversy, ask yourself if you'd be willing to put your position on a bumper sticker and slap it on your car, where it will remain for the next ten years. If the answer is yes, then post away. If not, you may want to let the post sit overnight, and re-visit the question of posting in the cold light of morning.
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Keeping On Schedule
August 3, 2018
My best friend keeps a daily schedule in which he breaks down each 24-hour period into thirty-minute chunks. He even blocks out sections for "sleep" and "work." I remember being a bit amused the first time he pulled his schedule out, and saying something like, "Wow, that's tightly packed." I also remember him replying that he'd never get anything done without it. At the time, though, I thought that half-hour blocks was cutting life a little too fine.
But now I'm beginning to wonder. For one, my friend is incredibly productive, able to manage multiple, simultaneous irons in the fire. And I recently began re-reading W. Clement Stone's "The Success System That Never Fails." In it, Stone mentions Frank Bettger, a salesman whose productivity skyrocketed after he started keeping meticulous records on how he spent his time. This allowed him to see where (and when) he was wasting his time, and to cut those activities out.
Like a lot of people, I sit down every Sunday evening and schedule the coming week out in a "Monday--clean, Tuesday--laundry, Wednesday--shopping," sort of way. But I've never gone beyond that level, since any task outside of writing has to be done in the afternoon. But as I mentioned in my last post, I'd been having problems spending too much time on the internet and planned to limit myself to a single hour per day.
Such a defined limit, mixed with what I'd read in Stone's book and my friend's meticulous schedules, has moved me to try a daily scedule for myself. So far, it's been ad-hoc: an index card each day to keep track of half-hour blocks between 9am and 6pm. And right now, I'm merely noting down what I'm doing, rather than scheduling in advance, because I don't yet know how I'm actually using my time--something I feel I should know before I begin making changes. (I'm also hoping that, as it did with my eating habits, the act of observation will naturally cause me to improve my behavior.)
So I'm going to roll this new experiment into the already ongoing attempt to limit my internet use. I'll report on the combined results in a month.
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Slaying the Hydra
July 19, 2018
I shall from now on shape my life around writing instead of squeezing writing into my life whenever I can. -- Ted Hughes, in a 1956 letter to his sister
Let me begin by acknowledging that I know I'm lucky to be able to be a freelance writer. Many of my struggles are different from someone who's trying to write while holding down a job, or who has family or other responsibilities that require them to fit in writing where- and when-ever they can.
However, one struggle I think I share with many writers is that hydra called the internet. I've had to go to great lengths to prevent myself from wasting too much time randomly surfing. This, even though I agree with Cal Newport that the internet should be used for information rather than entertainment, and so try hard to only go online for research purposes.
But it's in research where I now appear to be falling down. As I've mentioned before, I don't use the internet before noon so I can do my writing in the morning; instead, I note down what I need to research and keep going. My writing now rolls along until twelve p.m. And then I often quickly plow through my email and find the answers to my writing-related questions in a very short time. But recently, I've found myself spending hours afterward doing more "research" on topics such as "best fountain pen inks for left-handed writers" or "text-only browsers."
While many of these searches are technically work-related (or I can justify them to myself as such) because they have bearing on my writing and how I do it, I also have to admit that some of these searches have been "info-tainment" on my part. And the time I've wasted on this sort of "research" has occasionally rippled through the rest of my day, leading to workouts started later than I'd planned or chores that had to be pushed off to another time.
It looks like if I want to get my productivity back to where it had been, I'll need to cauterize yet another head of the hydra. I'm going to have to put limits on not only when, but for how long I use the internet each day. So as of this posting, I'm limiting myself to one post-noon hour per day of internet time.
I'll let you know how well this self-imposed internet diet worked (or didn't) in a month. In the meantime, wish me luck.
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What We Leave Behind II
June 15, 2018
One of the interesting side-effects of returning to longhand writing after many years away is that I can now see all the "extra" work that goes into writing--the crossed out words, the arrows and inserted sentences, the paragraphs that died on the vine and will never make it into the next draft. When I used to write everything on my laptop, all that work was more or less invisible. I could go back and change a word, leaving no trace of my earlier choice. A flex or two of my fingers put new words exactly where I thought they should go; the same for paragraphs, which could be cut or repositioned with equal ease.
But being able to actually see the amount of work I put into a draft has had an interesting effect on my writing. As I mentioned back in February, the act of observing something (ex. calories eaten, sodium intake) often causes the decline in the amount of that which is observed. The same has been true, in a sense, with my writing. My first drafts are getting tighter, my word choices more exact. I've become a much more concise, and hopefully precise, writer.
Returning to longhand writing has had both benefits and costs. I've found I get more actual writing done with pen and paper. In the past, I scribbled notes to type up later. Now I can get first-draft words on paper, saving time and skipping an intermediate step. It's also been good for getting in "stolen writing" while waiting in doctor's offices or in odd moments. But I've also had to spend time improving my previous near-illegible handwriting, and the speed and volume of my writing has decreased (temporarily, I hope) as I adapt to a new way of doing things.
Writing is a highly personal act and as writers, we all have a favorite method of composition. As I've found, though, giving up the "usual" way of doing things and changing a writing process that I'd used for over a decade has been beneficial to my writing. I've been pleasantly surprised by the results, and can offer this bit of advice: whatever your writing process, it may be good to break with your current routine and try something new.
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Random Thoughts II
May 29, 2018
The early 20th-century Chinese writer Lu Xun created short essays that he called Random Thoughts, which were similar to the suibi that had been written in China for centuries. In honor of both Lu Xun and suibi here are a collection of short thoughts on various topics:
I recently stumbled upon a talk that Neil Gaiman gave at Microsoft back in 2005. While the entire talk is interesting, I was particularly attracted to his discussion of his plotting and writing methods. Here's a link to that section of the talk. I started writing well before home computers were common and I've recently become a re-convert to writing first drafts in longhand, so Gaiman's comments on his pen-and-notebook method resonated with me.
Google will soon be marking all non-https websites as "Not Secure." As Dave Winer points out in this blog post, there are several downsides to Google wanting to make the web "safer." I, for one, don't plan on purchasing a https certificate just to win the approval of some corporation. As Winer notes in his post, "Google is a guest on the web, as we all are. Guests don't make the rules."
Pliny the Elder said "There is no book so bad that some good cannot be got out of it." There are also good books in which a single sentence, passage or paragraph makes the entire book worth the purchase and reading of it. I recently read Cal Newport's "Deep Work," and for me the single passage that struck me most forcefully came on page 161: "Schedule in advance when you'll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times." I'm most productive in the morning, so even before I read "Deep Work," I'd quit checking my email before noon so that I could write. But often in the process of writing, I'd stop to do a bit of online research and discover, an hour later, that researching had become recreation. So now I don't use the Internet before noon, either. If there's something I want to research, I make a note on on a pad of paper on my desk, then "batch" my research during the afternoon. This also helps me to follow the advice contained in a single section heading on page 209: "Don't Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself." Two sentences out of an entire book, and yet my writing productivity has soared because of them.
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May 16, 2018
A few weeks ago, I came home from a trip to the bookstore with an armload of new books. I laid them out on the carpet to enjoy the sight and feel of them, and the three across in the top row were a volume about invisible inks, one about the Italian Futurists, and a collection of Edmund Morris' essays. I picked up the one about invisible inks first and flipped through it. Then I did the same with the one about the Futurists. As I was setting the second book down, I wondered idly what the Futurists would have done with invisible inks. Poetry with hidden words? Clothing that changed color based on temperature or when splashed with the proper reagent? No matter what they did, they probably would have had all sorts of absurd fun with the concept. Picking up the third book, I wondered what sort of essay Edmund Morris might have written about the Italian Futurists and their crazy, color-changing clothes.
It was only later that I realized I'd stumbled upon an idea generator of sorts; that the juxtaposition of these disparate volumes had caused my mind to look create unexpected and un-looked-for links and connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.
I haven't yet tried the exercise a second time. However, if you feel you're stuck for ideas for a story, you're welcome to try pulling three random books off your bookshelf and to dip in and out of each one until the ideas begin to flow.
To change topics entirely -- Well, that was embarrassing. In a fit of end-of-grad-school fatigue, I mis-dated my last two April posts as belonging to March. The dates have been corrected.
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How to Steal a Story
April 30, 2018
Unlike plagiarism, which is a literary crime, stealing an entire story -- if done correctly -- is an ancient and honorable tradition among writers. Stories get stolen all the time and some writers will even admit to the theft.
Now, let me begin by explaining the proper way to steal a story. First, you have to find a story to covet. It should be one that moved you when you read it; the kind of story that sticks with you, lingering in your mind long after you've shut the book. That's the best kind of story to steal.
The problem is that a nakedly stolen story is easy to spot and is bound to get you caught. If the story moved you as a reader, no doubt it also moved someone else, and many people will recognize it. So there's no sense in trying to copy the stolen story directly. You might as well try to walk off with the Declaration of Independence and hope that nobody notices.
So having stolen a story, you have to disguise it, give it a new coat of paint and file the serial numbers off. You do this by changing everything you can about the story. Switch the protagonist from male to female, move the setting from Europe to Mars. Add another character (or two) and change the critical, climactic event that overwhelms the protagonist. If you do a good job of disguising the object of your theft, the story you end up with will bear no resemblance whatsoever to the orignal story you stole.
In fact, a perfectly stolen story does nothing more than evoke the spirit of the original in your mind, and spurs you to create something so new, so different that the resulting story is totally unlike the one that caused it to be written. Inspiration, rather than plagiarism. That's the only way to steal a story.
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And So It Ends
April 30, 2018
I'd been nose-to-the-grindstone for two months, editing my thesis drafts, discussing ideas and changes with my advisor. Then in a single week, everything changed. My final draft went before the committee on Monday; Thursday I got their comments back. I made a couple of minor changes that evening, got my thesis printed and bound on Friday. Saturday, I turned it in to the program director at the student reading. And just like that, I was pretty much done with graduate school. Now that the semester is over, I'm just waiting for them to mail me my diploma. Five years, two masters degrees, and now I'm suddenly no longer in school. I gave myself a week to relax and celebrate, but as of today, it's back to real life and real work.
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April 06, 2018
Stephen King says it's important for a writer to also be a reader, and is famous for reading wherever and whenever he gets a chance, such as while waiting in lines and before a movie starts. I agree with King, but feel it's equally important to develop the habit of writing wherever and whenever one gets an opportunity. The practice of stealing moments to jot down a couple of sentences builds the writing equivalent of quick-twitch muscle fibers, forcing the writer to clearly marshal thoughts and get them on paper. Used as a stimulant, time pressure can be used to improve prose style.
But the words written down in stolen moments can't simply be left on the paper. To be useful, this practice writing has to be examined to see where it's weak or where an unclear thought or imprecise word has crept in. These paragraphs, written while waiting for my car's oil change to finish, were covered in cross-outs that have been removed in editing. I hope that as I improve in the practice of stolen writing, the number of cross-outs will decrease.
Learning to write exact first drafts also helps also in the editing. The closer the words in the rough draft are to their intended meaning, the fewer changes needed in revision. As with target shooting, the stolen-writing writer's first-draft slogan should be "Aim small, miss small."
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Keeping a Daybook
March 20, 2018
Merchants sometimes keep a daybook--a book in which they record transactions as they happen, so they can be transferred to the formal account books later. For almost a year now, I've been keeping the literary equivalent. Each day, I note the weather, important events, and even mundane items such as whether I worked out that day. It's been a rewarding practice in many ways. For example, I can tell you that on December 22, 2017, it was cloudy and unusually warm (in the mid 50s), that I walked for 45 minutes on the treadmill at the gym, and that in the evening I went down to DC to have dinner with my wife.
But my daybook is more than a simple diary, because I also use it to record ideas for stories and articles and essays, to capture snippets of conversations overheard, and to ask myself questions about plot points and characters. Philosophical thoughts are written down. Habits are built through keeping track of my daily progress toward my goals. It's single place where I can capture information on many different topics on the fly as the day goes on. Some people use apps on their phone, I use a black, hardbound notebook.
I can't say whether one method--digital or analog--is better than the other. But I can say that the act of keeping a daybook has been beneficial. It might be something to consider in your own writing life.
The end of graduate school is rapidly approaching, and I hope to be soon re-vamping this website. As the new pages go up, please let me know what you think of them.
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February 15, 2018
The Chinese call essays suibi, which can be literally translated as "wandering brush" or "following the brush." In classical Chinese literature, suibi are often collections of short, miscellaneous articles--the report of a particularly enjoyable party, a description of a recent antique purchase, an analysis of the literary allusions of a two-hundred-year-old poem. This time around, I'm going to embrace that miscellaneous quality to give a collection of random thoughts this time around:
I've been a big fan of commonplace books for a long time. In fact, the first article in my Digital Renaissance Man series was about keeping a commonplace book. Besides their use as a source of quotations and inspiration, commonplace books can reveal a lot about your personal interests and priorities. Examining the topics you've created inside your book, as well as how many entries you have in which category, shows where your interests lie and how deep those interests are. For example, I naturally have quite a few entries about writing and poetry, but it turns out I also have quite a bit of material related to government and motivation/taking action. So I'm apparently quite interested in these topics but wasn't aware of this until I cast an eye over my commonplace book, looking at it on the level of a whole work and not just a collection of thoughts and quotes. If you keep a commonplace book, it might be worth it do do the same and see what unexpected insights it might give into your old mind.
To control something, you have to be aware of it in the first place. For example, when I decided I wanted to lose weight, I started counting how many calories I was eating each day. At first, I just noted the numbers down. But after finding out from the doctor how many calories I needed to eat per day to reach and maintain my target weight, I continued counting calories, stopping when I hit my goal for the day. I lost 20 pounds over the course of six months. And at the beginning of the year, the doctor said I should reduce the amount of sodium I was eating. So I added sodium counts to my daily calories count. And sure enough, the amount of sodium I was putting into my body went down once I saw how much I'd been eating. So as I continue to try to get rid of bad habits and replace them with better onces, it seems that keeping track of my successes and failures will be an important part of the process.
The days are definitely getting longer. And even though it's still as cold as it was in the dead of winter, that extra bit of light is a fore-taste--a promise perhaps--of the spring to come.
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What We Leave Behind
January 8, 2018
The wallpaper on my computer is currently a picture of the tomb relief of a nameless member of the d'Aluye family of France who died sometime in the mid-1200s. He lays there, hands clasped in prayer over his chest, his chain-mail gauntlets and coif turned down. Probably a crusader, the first thing my wife and I noticed was that the sword on his hip had a Chinese hilt. According to the Met's Cloisters gallery in New York City, he may have bought/acquired the sword in the Holy Land. While his name is gone, I was able to take his picture in the Cloisters seven-hundred years later. Looking at the image got me thinking, though, about what we leave behind in the world.
As a writer, I realized the only things that might linger on in history after my death are the words I've written. So I sat down and wrote out my bibliography as of January 2018. Looking at it (it's posted up top with the other permanent links), my bibliography is both bigger and smaller than I thought it would be. Smaller, in that it's really not that long for someone who's been writing as long as I have. Bigger, in that it covers more genres of writing than I assumed I'd written in.
It seems to me that as writers, there are two ways to have an impact on the world through our writing: quality and quantity. Quantity--the number of times we're published--isn't entirely within our own power. It relies on things such as chance and editorial preference. Quality, on the other hand, is something we can control. Isaac Asimov wrote that authors should have integrity and always produce the best work they can. I agree. In the end, I may not leave behind a large body of work. But I'll do my utmost to make each and every piece in it as well-written as I can.
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Time Management and To-Do Lists
October 25, 2017
In my February entry, I mentioned how I'd started using a timer to be more productive by pretending I was back in school. One thing I didn't mention was which tasks I do during those periods I'm "in class" and how I choose them. For a long time, I was a devotee of "time management" systems such as David Allen's "Getting Things Done." But I always seemed to end up spending as much time managing my time management as accomplishing my tasks. So I set all those methods aside and worked out my own system.
My method is simple: I keep a master list of tasks to which I add items as they come up or I think of them. For big tasks that have multiple parts ("Revise Master's Thesis," say), I follow David Allen's suggestion and break them down into smaller steps. Then on Sunday night, when I plan out my week ahead (you do plan out your week in advance, right?), I transfer tasks from the master list to my calendar. I generally put down three per day, to allow for the inevitable things that end up changing what we intended to do that day.
Each morning, I prioritize the tasks on my calendar by simply asking myself which one I would be happiest to have accomplished at the end of the day. Then I sit down and do that task until it's done. I repeat this with the next task. Eventually, I run out of either tasks or time. If I run out of tasks before time, I turn to my master To-Do list and pick something else to work on. If I run out of time, on the other hand, the undone tasks become the first ones I tackle the next day.
Simple as it is, this is the system that works for me. Feel free to experiment with it and see if it improves your productivity.
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The Guide and the Trail
May 22, 2017
In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott suggests a writer should write a minimum of three hundred words a day. While she doesn't come out and say it, I assume she doesn't mean three hundred words of stream-of-consciousness free writing; rather three hundred words of prose that moves your current fiction or non-fiction work forward, or which improves some part of your writing craft. Three hundred words with a definite purpose. This makes sense, because there's a difference between wandering and making a journey. Both can be difficult or pleasant by turns, both can be revelatory experiences; but only one has a definite goal in mind, a definite ending place that gives a sense of satisfaction when it's reached.
Writers are guides, taking readers through the landscapes that the writers themselves have created. You have show them the sights, get them to feel what you felt when that sudden plot twist happened, to ooh and aah at the same beautiful vistas that moved you; scaring them, enraging them, getting them to think and feel in turn. But a guide needs to have a trail--they can't just wander aimlessly. And while the trail may never leave the woods, may never come to a lodge or a road or a town or civilization of any kind, it still has to have a starting and an end point and move from one to the other; and the guide has to know how keep the audience interested and engaged in the scenery around them.
So when you sit down to write your three hundred words, make sure it's to further a stated goal of some kind, even if the goal is just to get a character's background straight in your mind, or to get better at writing dialog or describing the world that you're building. But don't let it be (or become) aimless writing. Aimless writing should only be a pleasure to be indulged in after the hard work of cutting the trail, pounding markers along the way, and preparing and smoothing the ground for the feet of the reader is done. Aimless writing is for when you're back at the lodge, your feet by the fire, warmed in your soul by the feeling of a day's work well done.
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Back to School
February 13, 2017
I graduated from high school over thirty years ago. Yet, I've come to discover that going back to school, in a sense, is making me healthier and more productive, both at work and around the house.
I had been scheduling my workflow around "days." Clean-the-kitchen day. Clean-the-bathroom day. Vacuum-and-dust day. I'd write in the morning (since I know I do my best work then), and spend the afternoon alternating between writing and things that needed to be done around the house. Problem was, I'd often spend the afternoon alternating between "research" (i.e surfing), working on other projects and madly trying to get the "day's" housework done before my wife got home that evening.
I also spent a lot more time than I intended sitting at the computer, not moving, which isn't good for my bad back. Sure, I'd bought a cheap kitchen timer and set it to go off every thirty minutes, but it always seemed to ring just as I was getting into the thick of some work, meaning I either had to ignore it and continue on, or get up mid-sentence.
The idea came to me when I read an online post from an acquaintance in which she said she had started taking twenty-minutes breaks from her writing to clean the house, and discovered she got a lot more cleaning done than she expected. For some reason, I was reminded of those ten minute breaks to change rooms between classes. So I decided to go back to school.
The first thing I did was set my timer for forty-five minutes. During that time, I'm "in class," working on, well, work. When the timer dings, I reset it for fifteen minutes and vacuum or clean the showers or fold clothes, or whatever I can get done around the house. At the end of fifteen minutes, I go back to "class" and work on writing. About 11:30, I go to "gym" by working out, then eat lunch. At 1pm, I'm back in class until 5. Then I go home from "school" and start dinner. After dinner is my time to do whatever interests me, or maybe get a little ahead for the next day.
Errands that have to be run are bundled together on one day and treated as a "field trip," in order to not spend too much time away from "school."
I've been amazed by the results and really feel that I now accomplish much more than I used to. If you're looking for a way to get more done during the day, you may want to consider creating a "school" of your own.
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Not Resolutions, But Habits
January 5, 2017
The new year brings many resolutions--I'm going to lose weight/save money/exercise more/write every day. And many of those resolutions go by the wayside in just a couple of weeks, if they last that long. The reason is that many people make resolutions, not realizing that what they are actually mean to say is, "I'll develop the habit of..." For example, "exercising more" really means "exercise every day." This is a habit, rather than a resolution.
So how does one build a habit? There are countless guides on the Internet, and a quick search is bound to find a dozen good articles on the topic. But I'd like to also offer my personal method of building habits. I start by deciding exactly what habit I want to cultivate. Otherwise, there's no way I can set a goal. Once I have a final goal, I pick a daily goal that moves me towards building the habit I want to cultivate. The daily goal I pick is impossibly easy--reading a single page of a book, or ten push ups or writing just one paragraph.
It seems silly to set such easy goals, but I've found that a number of small successes builds a habit quicker than hit-or-miss attempts to reach more ambitious goals. Repeated small successes build momentum. And remember, these goals are minimums. I'll gladly do more if I can. The idea is to build the habit by doing the action every day. And if you want to do something every day, smaller goals make that more likely.
Once I have my daily goals set, I make sure I do them every day--even if I have to stay up an extra few minutes to accomplish them. (This is another reason for keeping my daily goals short.) I don't allow myself to go to bed until I've taken care of my daily goals. It's important not to miss a single day--it takes several weeks of doing something daily to make it a habit.
Here's a real-world example: When I set my daily goal for practicing tachygraphy, I decided it would be a single sentence. So writing "I'm too tired to practice tonight," was all I needed to accomplish my goal. Some days that was all I wrote. Other days, I wrote more. But I wrote something every day. I've been practicing tachygraphy now for almost eighteen months, and the habit is firmly established. All by setting an easy daily goal, and sticking to it.
Whatever method you use, good luck in building new habits in 2017.
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Beginning at the End
December 26, 2016
It seems that the workload of my current graduate school has put a real crimp in my ability to write blog posts--nothing since the last break between semesters. And now that this semester is over, I finally have time to get some thoughts down.
I've been thinking over the past few days about the upcoming new year and its associated activity--new year's resolutions. Why is it we wait until the beginning of a year to decide to make changes in our lives? Why not at the end of a year, so that we can enter the new year already changed? Doesn't that make more sense?
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that it's better to round out the year with changes, like a businessman finalizing and examining his ledger to see the year's profit and loss, so he can plan accordingly for the future. So here's what I plan to do before the new year starts:
- Purge my files, both paper and electronic
- Make a backup of my home directory, to include browser bookmarks
- Delete all my current browser bookmarks and the files in my home directory
- Sort through my physical books and set aside those I haven't read yet so I can decide whether or not to donate them
- Do my annual goals exercise to set my goals for the coming year
By backing up my home directory, I'll still be able to find something if I really need it for school. And sites that I visit often will find their way back into my browser bar and bookmarks list. But for the most part, I'll be going into the year purged of the cruft that naturally seems to build up (especially on the laptop) over the course of a year.
I am also going to try to develop or expand several habits this year: writing more daily, expanding my knowledge of tachygraphy symbols, reading more of Plato's philosophy, and learning chess. My plan is to take a single, small step to improve, but to do a step each and every day. This means each step will be small--work my way through a single chess problem or read one single page of Plato--but cumulatively, I hope they'll make a difference in my habits. It's worked so far for shorthand--I allow myself to write as little as a couple of sentences, but have only missed 14 days of practice this year and have filled more than half a notebook.
I wish everyone a happy, successful 2017. See you again next year.
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Life, Five Minutes at a Time
August 21, 2016
The house was a mess, there were papers all over my desk, and my to-do list was longer than it ever had been. I was putting so much work into my semester that I'd neglected a number of essential tasks. But once the semester was over, I'd have a whole month to get done all that I wanted to--and more.
I now have roughly a week left before school starts again, and while I've accomplished a lot, I haven't done all that I wanted to do. Some of that was circumstance--visits with friends and unexpected trips. The greater part of the failure, though, falls on my shoulders. Instead of clearing my to-do list, I let other things pile up while I was taking care of old tasks.
But yesterday, while trying to take care of some things around the house, I had an epiphany. Though it took me hours to accomplish all the items on my list, many of the tasks themselves took only five minutes or so. I realized then I could have spread all my work out over weeks, five minutes at a time. Instead I'd let them pile up and now had to deal with them en masse. And if I didn't make a change, pretty soon I would have another whole day's work ahead of me.
The reason I'd let things build up was simple. I'd been busy or tired at the time, or it was the end of the day and I just didn't want to deal with the task. But yesterday I decided that I'm going to work to get better at taking care of things immediately. To hang my coat in the closet as soon as I come through the door. To pay the bill and file the stub the same day it comes in. To stop for a moment and tidy up a counter- or table-top instead of letting a week's worth of magazines and print-outs pile up on it.
Taking immediate care of trivial tasks is no new thing. It was the Romans who first said "Hoc Age!" and we have been reminded of the principle by everyone from Samuel Johnson to David Allen of "Getting Things Done" fame. The only thing that's changed is that now I've had a demonstration of what happens when you don't take care of the little things right away. The teaching was there all along--I just had to be in the right state of mind to receive it.
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The Sincerest Form of Learning
May 21, 2016
Individualism and creativity are the touchstones of the modern world. We're expected to be be unique (yet somehow remain within the bounds of what's currently acceptable), and continuously drawing new creations forth from ourselves.
This includes writers. We're supposed to have an individual, unique voice, and not supposed to "copy" any other writer--no trying to sound like Hemingway or Faulkner or Kipling. However, developing your own voice as a writer takes quite a bit of time if you have no one by which to guide your practice.
In the Renaissance, students always had a guide because they learned to write and developed their prose style by copying the works of other writers. Literally copying--as in taking a text by a recognized master of prose and writing it out, word for word.
Today, many would consider this plagiarism (though that's only the case if you actually try to publish what you've copied). Many would also say that learning to write this way is counterproductive at best. "You'll end up sounding like a poor copy of Kipling (or Hemingway or Faulkner)." But this is only a valid concern if the student isn't aware of the reason behind the exercise. The purpose for copying the writings of a master stylist is not to sound like him, but to see just how he achieved his effects. It's imitation with an eye towards "reverse engineering" a master writer's text and incorporating those techniques into your own writing. Your style remains your own, but it carries within it some of the stamp of a master writer.
This method of learning how to write fell out of fashion in the late 19th and early 20th century. Yet a few modern writers used it to learn how to write, and to great effect. Jack London copied out--by hand--many of Rudyard Kipling's stories just to improve his own prose. Hunter S. Thompson typed out word-for-word copies of both "The Great Gatsby" and "Farewell to Arms" when he was a young writer. And neither London nor Thompson could be called "bad copies" of the writers they used to improve their skills.
So if you wish to improve your writing style, I suggest finding an author whose style you like and buying one of their books. With a stack of paper at your elbow, open up the book and begin copying--by hand--page one. Then page two and page three and so on until you've finished the book. It may take six months, but if you pay attention to how the words you copy out are put together, you'll have learned more about prose style than you would have reading a half-dozen writing books.
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Simple is not Easy
March 11, 2016
A friend and I were recently talking and he mentioned that many problems we face in life are actually simpler than we think they are. "But," I replied, "simple is not easy." He agreed and we moved on to another topic. But that exchange has come back to me several times over the past week. "Simple is not easy." It's a simple matter to say that in order to quit smoking, one merely has to stop putting cigarettes in their mouth and lighting them. But doing so is definitely not easy. It's the same with just about any bad habit we're trying to break--it's a simple, but not easy, matter. Drinking too much? Simply stop drinking. In debt? Simply stop spending money on non-essential things. Waste too much time on the Internet? Simply close your browser. All simple things, but not a one is easy to do.
So how then do we do what is simple? I wish I had an easy answer, and I'm not being facetious. It seems to me that part of doing what is simple but difficult, especially if it's trying to break a bad habit, is to have awareness in the moment of your actions. To realize when you're reaching for the pack of cigarettes or the bottle of scotch or the cookie when you're already full. That awareness gives you a moment in which to consider your action in light of what you're about to do and what you truly want to be doing, and to act so that it aligns with your true desires. A moment to reconsider and pull your hand back from your pocket or the bottle or the cookie.
Another part of doing what is simple but hard is a matter of willpower and imagination. Imagination so that you can see yourself as you want yourself to be once you've achieved your goals. "When I don't smoke/drink/eat/spend too much anymore, I'll..." That image of your future successful self and the feeling of accomplishment that you know will come when you reach it are what motivates you. Willpower is what actually gets you there, the bridge between where you are now and where you want to be. A study I saw yesterday said that the old belief that willpower, like a muscle, could get tired is now in doubt. I think willpower doesn't get tired--we do, and justify our bad actions by saying that our willpower has run out. And while I don't believe that willpower can get tired, I do believe that we strengthen ourselves to keep using our willpower by exercising it. Every time we don't light up or buy a new pair of jeans we don't need, we get better at using our willpower and less likely to give in to our desires. Our willpower doesn't get stronger--we do.
So here is my simple but not easy answer to self-improvement. Imagine where you want to be. Be aware of the actions that will move you in the wrong direction. Exercise your willpower to stop yourself from doing those wrong actions. Take every opportunity to consciously do actions that strengthen yourself in the use of your willpower, and then use that increased strength to keep moving yourself toward your goal.
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January 27, 2016
Among the many changes I made last year, I set my robots.txt file to
prevent search engines from automatically indexing this site. If you
were to Google my name, you'd get a listing, but no details for this
site. I'm hard to find online. In fact, I know of one person who told
me that they'd tried looking me up but were hesitant to click on the
link because there was no description of the contents. I am, as
Epicurus would say, digitally "living in obscurity."
As a writer, being hard to find ought to be a handicap. Marketing
wisdom says I should be doing everything I can to put (and keep) my name
out there for potential readers to find. By that logic, I'm committing
And I won't say that perhaps I'm not. However, one of the reasons I
decided to revamp this site back in 2015 was that I was posting just to
keep "new" material out there so that I'd stay "fresh." I started
posting not because I had anything to say, but because I felt I had to.
After a year of living obscurely online, I have no idea how many
readers a day/week/month/year I have. And to be honest, I'm not
concerned if you're the only other person reading this. I decided to
begin posting when I found something interesting enough that I had to
tell other people about it, or if something moved me to post.
Hopefully, I've traded a larger readership for posts that are more
engaging and interesting, exchanging quantity for quality.
Quality will always find an audience--even if that audience is grown only by word of mouth. And on balance, if my posts aren't worth reading, all the better that they be hard to find.
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January 3, 2016
January is here, and with it the season for resolutions. In reality,
there's nothing special about the beginning of a year as a season to
take up a new habit or to try to break an old one. You can (and should)
do that any time you feel the need to change your life and not wait
until the calendar tells you the time is "right."
But tradition is a powerful force, so I'm going to talk about
resolutions and specifically, the first one I hope to make and keep.
I'm of the opinion that starting small is the way to go when it comes to
habits (which is what we're really talking about when we talk about
resolutions). So of the many habits I want to create/break, I picked
the one I thought was most important to me and will concentrate on that
until I feel I've mastered (or at least gotten better at) it before
moving on to the next. Assuming I succeed, that success will feed into
the next habit I intend to work on, hopefully cascading on and on until I
don't have a single bad habit left. (Boy don't I wish....)
Like a lot of people, some days time seems to get away from me. I
sit down at the laptop to check my email and do the usual round of
online reading, look up and discover that it's almost lunchtime. Or a
new magazine arrived in the mail and a few minutes of "just skimming the
articles" turns into an hour. And when I come up for air, not a single
thing has been crossed off my to-do list. Of course, I knock out the
easiest and quickest to get some forward momentum. But by then there's
dinner to prepare and so the big things end up getting done after dinner
or worse yet, pushed off until the next day. The cycle repeats until
Friday, when I'm scrambling to do things I should have gotten done days
Of course, I know exactly why I'm behind. I let myself get
distracted and that diverts me from my original purpose. "We break up
life into little bits, and fritter it away," Seneca said in his letters
(Number XXXII). A fifteen-minute break becomes an hour; cleaning the
kitchen becomes an afternoon spent re-organizing the pantry. And that's
why I run out of time to do the things I originally intended to do.
Ironically, if I stuck to my list, I'd still have the time for long breaks and organizing the pantry--but after
I completed all my other tasks. As Benjamin Franklin said, "If you
would have leisure, you must use time well." So that's my first
resolution for the year--to learn to use time well. Or at least, better
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December 9, 2015
I completely understand the concept: because I've lived almost half a century now, a single year is less of a percentage than if I had only lived four or five or ten, therefore a single year seems shorter to me now than when I was younger. That makes rational sense. Yet experientially, it still feels like this year has flown by. I started out as a graduate student at St. John's College, reading and writing my tail off. Then suddenly, I graduated. My life as it had been briefly came to a screeching halt--no more papers to write, no more books to read. Then it was time to begin filling out application papers to another graduate program; followed by waiting for an answer. In between was the usual fare of life--a couple of illnesses (some short, some longer), a death in the family, weekends spent with my wife and friends. And in the twinkling of an eye, the year passed.
So what's the reckoning for 2015? What have I gained besides another candle on my birthday cake? A degree. A good friend. A special anniversary with my wife. The opportunity to further my education at another school.
And what have I lost? Being a student at a school I will always love. My last grandparent. That tiny portion of strength and health which departs as a consequence of growing older. The irrational belief that my life was somehow special to the universe simply because it is special to me.
Taken on balance, the good definitely outweighed the bad this year. I have no room for complaint and much room for gratitude and thankfulness. May 2016 be the same--for all of us.
On a housekeeping note, as of January 1, 2016, this page will become "Last year's page," which means that anything currently on "Last year's page" will disappear. So if you're planning on downloading or saving anything you saw there, you'd better do it now. The links for my Debian USB guide, Digital Renaissance Man and Worth of a Penny PDFs, however, will remain permanently on the current year's page for your continued downloading pleasure.
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Productivity Advice from Seneca
November 6, 2015
I just finished reading Seneca's letters to Lucilius, marking passages that strike me as being worth taking to heart. There was more good advice in those pages than I could write in a year's worth of postings. But a couple of Seneca's sayings stand a little taller in my mind and I thought I'd share them with you. They both have to do with productivity, in a sense. While many people think that "Productivity" is a modern concern, mankind has always been interested in achieving as much as he can. Not only at work, but in the limited time he has on this planet. Seneca gives his short-term advice in letter number CI, where he says that we should finish the day's tasks as if there literally was no tomorrow. "Let us balance life's account every day.... One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time." (Seneca, "Epistles," trans. by Richard Gummere, Loeb Classical Library)
Seneca's long-term advice has to do with values and living in accordance with them. In letter number CIV, Seneca argues that we have to decide what is important to us and work towards those goals, even if that means setting aside some other parts of our lives. "If you set a high value on liberty, you must set a low value on everything else." In other words, because we can't do everything, we have to choose what to ignore. Therefore, some tasks will be left unfinished, some books forever unread, some recipies never tried, some parties never gone to. However, this shouldn't be a cause for regret. First of all, it's a simple fact that as temporally limited beings we simply can't do it all. Secondly, once we get rid of the superfluous, what we do do is then (or should be) in accordance with our values. Life is ultimately about these sorts of tradeoffs--go see the daughter's soccer match or stay at work in the hope of a promotion? Watch the latest episode of a favorite show or begin that novel you always meant to write? A weekend doing nothing or one of volunteer work? Beer or water?
Of course, the hardest part of living according to our values is often discovering and admitting to ourselves what our true values really are.
On a totally different topic, a short story I wrote was published in the anthology Hides the Dark Tower. "The Long Road Home" tells the story of Wang Haimei, a "tower diver" who explores a Mount Everest-sized, abandoned building on an alien world. But as Haimei stuggles to return to safety after her gear is sabotaged by another diver, she discovers the building might not be abandoned after all....
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Renaissance Data Security
October 1, 2015
There was an article two weeks or so ago in the New York Times about Jana Dambrogio, one of the conservators at MIT's libraries, and her study of how letters were sealed before envelopes were in common use. She's created a Youtube channel where you can watch her demonstrate various methods and I highly recommend taking a few minutes to watch them. Some are quite intricate and it seems to me that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for someone who intercepted the letters to open and reseal them without the intended recipient knowing.
Seeing these clever ways of sealing a letter made me aware of how often we assume that our ancestors were somehow simpler, less intelligent, and less wise than we are. But humans are creative and we always seem to--through trial and error, if nothing else--come up with the best solution we can with the materials at hand. Doubtless, if our ancestors had had envelopes of the type we have today, they would have come up with other, equally ingenious ways to keep prying eyes out of their correspondence. And doubtless, our descendants will look back at the methods we use now to secure our data and emails and think of how curiously quaint, but clever, they were.
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Reducing Information Density
September 4, 2015
An interesting confluence of events has led me to consider the idea of drastically decreasing the amount of information that I consume, especially online. I'm not going to cut the Internet cord entirely, but I do intend to reduce the amount of time I spend checking RSS feeds, surfing, and "research" (which always seems to slide oh so painlessly into surfing).
The first element in the equation, so to speak, was my beginning to read Seneca's letters to Lucilius. In the second letter, Seneca admonishes his friend not to read too many different books, but rather to "...linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind." And later that the "...reading of many books is distraction." The same could be said of the Internet. It's an embarassment of riches when it comes to interesting facts, tidbits and information. But to be honest, how much of what we read online is entertainment compared to what is truly useful or necessary to know? When I got thinking about it, I realized that I'm more often merely distracted than informed by what I read.
The second element in the equation was the fact that my seven-year-old laptop began dying. The battery life was down to under an hour, and increasingly, it overheated and shut down even before the battery ran out. It was time to get a new laptop. But when I went to transfer over my files from one computer to the other, I had to confront all the digital detritus that I'd collected over the years. Ebooks that I intended to read someday. Browser bookmarks that I'd forgotten even saving and whose links were now long dead. MP3s and pictures that had been backed up to multiple locations long ago. And yes, even a few (OK, more than I want to admit) aborted attempts at essays or stories or poems. Even after I deleted as much as I dared, I still faced a huge number of files to transfer over. So I gave up trying. With the exception of works currently in progress, I'm starting fresh and all those old files will stay on the thumbdrive where I stashed them. If I need a link, I'll have to find it and bookmark it all over again. Same with the ebooks and any other downloads. And RSS feeds. I'm currently at two (down from five), and since one of the websites has decided to go to a pay-after-so-many-views model, soon I will have only a single RSS feed to look at.
I already only check my email once a day, so I'm hoping that I can do something similar for Internet research. I'm going to try to have an "Internet hour" in which to do all my online tasks. Outside of that time, if I think of something I need to look up, I'm going to write it down and it will be looked up during the next Internet hour. I'm hoping that this will give me the time and motivation to concentrate on more important things, like reading and writing and translating and all the tasks that come with having a non-digital life.
But what about missing something important? As I discovered when I cut down on the number of times I checked my email to just one, there's rarely anything thats so time-sensitive that 24 hours will put you entirely out of the loop. And if it's truly important--like a family emergency--I'll probably get a phone call rather than an email. So, sure, I won't be Mr. Current-events, but I may end up having a more considered--rather than a merely reflexive--opinion on what's going on in the world. And that's a tradeoff I'm willing to make.
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Similia Similibus Curantur
August 15, 2015
I've been thinking lately about a previous post, the one where I mentioned how Gandhi told a friend not to give up his books unless he reached a point where he felt that they were hindering him from doing something he wanted to do more. After some rumination, I realized that what Gandhi was saying, in essence, was that his friend's desire for books would never go away, but that it would merely be supplanted by a different desire that would be stronger than the desire to keep the books. That made me pause and think how often our desires conflict, what it does to our inner lives, and what--if any--use we can make of the fact.
The idea of conflicting desires isn't new, and according to Buddhism, is one of the reasons for suffering in the world. We want the promotion, but we also don't want to do all the hard work it would entail. We want to be fit and thin, but also want the jelly doughnut on the counter and don't want to go jogging today. Our lives are full of conflict between long- and short-term desires, with the short-term usually being the "bad" one, the one that gets in the way of our long-term goals.
So what if when you set up your goal, you not only imagined what your life would look like, but you also took a moment to feel the excitement and sense of accomplishment once you'd achived that goal? You'd desire that feeling, wouldn't you? You could then use the desire you felt about achieving that goal to make choices along the way. A combination of "starting with the end in mind" and desire. This could help you to check other desires that might get in the way of achieving your goal. For example, you say to yourself, "I want to be healthy by the end of June," and think about what your life would be like if you'd already achieved your goal--you'd jog every morning, eat more fruit and salads and less pie. You could then take a moment to feel the emotions of success and pride and accomplishment. This would increase your desire to achieve that goal. Afterwards, whenever you saw pie and wanted to grab a piece, you could use your desire to be healthy by the end of June to fight the desire to eat the pie.
A desire fought by desire, and then overcome by that desire. An interesting thought.
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The Worth of a Penny
July 5, 2015
Several years back, I got interested in the concept of "thrift" in the Victorian sense. I read Samuel Smiles' book on the power of saving money, "Thrift" and did some further research, which led to a 17th-century pamphlet by the writer Henry Peacham called "The Worth of a Penny or a Caution to Keep Money." In it, Peacham describes ways of losing money, saving money, making money, gives the history of the word "penny," and even lists what a penny would buy in the 1640's. I went to the Library of Congress and managed to get a photocopy of the pamphlet, which I transcribed. I had a vague notion of doing something with it "someday." And there it sat on my hard drive, until this morning.
One of the interesting things about Peacham's pamphlet is the use of the phrase, "penny wise, pound foolish." "The Worth of a Penny" remained popular well into the 18th century, making it quite possible that a young printer with an interest in thrift by the name of Benjamin Franklin read Peacham's work. Speaking of the poems he used in the 1747 Poor Richard's Almanac, Franklin said "I need not tell thee that many of them are not of my own making." Could the same be true of Franklin's now-famous maxim, which appeared in that same issue?
Like my other longer-term projects, I made the link to the full text of "The Worth of a Penny" permanent. It's in the upper left-hand corner. Enjoy.
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Begin with the End in Mind
June 19, 2015
I just finished creating a PDF version of my "Digital Renaissance Man" Series of blog posts and as I was working, the old saw of a question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" popped into my head. I jokingly told myself "I wanna be a Digital Renaissance Man," but it got me thinking about achieving goals and how to actually accomplish them. Like a lot of people, I say "This year, I'm going to get fit/learn to play chess/buy a house/become a millionaire/write that novel." And like a lot of people, I seem to run out of steam part-way through the year and move on to something else. "I'll go better next time."
The problem seems to lie in the way we go about our goal setting. We start out saying "I'm going to do X or become X" but never imagine what we'll look like when we get there. So perhaps it's better to ask ourselves, "What would I/my life look like if I was healthy/played chess/owned a home/was a millionaire/had written that novel?" and then work backward from there. "Well, if I was healthy, I'd be exercising every day and eating more fruits and vegetables." OK then, if you were healthy what exercises would you be doing every day? "Well, I like walking and pushups, but not situps. So I'd be doing the first two and maybe flutter-kicks instead." And how would you get more fruits and vegetables? "Well, I'd have to start substituting fruits for the snacks I've been eating, and probably buy salads more often at work." Already you have a better idea of what exactly you need to do than if you merely said, "I want to be healthier this year." So try picking a goal--one of your easier ones to start out with, perhaps--and imagine yourself already having achieved it. Then work backward from there and see what happens.
The permanent link to the PDF version of my Digital Renaissance Man Series of blog posts is on the upper left-hand side of this page.
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Some More Thoughts on Simplicity
June 5, 2015
As I mentioned in my first post of the year, I've been thinking a lot about simplifying my life materially as well as spiritually and mentally. To this end, I've been reading quite a few books and websites about minimalism. Many discuss the feeling of relief one feels as the number of his or her possessions decreases. Some, however, seem to focus more on the act of purging items, rather than the philosophy behind minimalism. At least one book and one web site I've read actually recommend a specific maximum number of possessions. The very arbitrariness of any stated number was emphasized to me by the fact that in both the book and the website, there were items that "didn't count" as part of your possessions and discussions such as whether five pairs of socks counted as one item or five.
This seems to be taking the wrong approach to simplifying your life. In "The Value of Voluntary Simplicity," Richard Gregg tells of a conversation he had with Mahatma Gandhi. Gregg mentions that he's having a hard time getting rid of his books. Gandhi tells him not to give up his books as long as he derives inner help and comfort from them. Gandhi continues by saying that it is only when we desire something else so much that we no longer feel attracted to an object or when it gets in the way of us achieving something else that we should give it up. This to me is a much more sensible approach, since the whole purpose of simplicity is to make life happier and easier to live, rather than working to merely pare down to some arbitrary target number of "things."
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When in the Course...
May 12, 2015
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one man to explain a five-month silence, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that he should declare the causes which impel him to not post. In a few words, Graduate School. I've just graduated, and my last semester at St. John's College was so busy that I didn't have much time to spare for non-school activities.
I was also perhaps too ambitious in my first attempt at a post for the new blog. In mid-January, I started a long essay on personal principles and how you should pick them and follow them. I wrote four pages before the essay stalled. And just about that time, the amount of reading picked up at school--Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, followed by Plato's Republic--neither of which are light or easy books to read. I got swamped and distracted and frustrated and let the essay drop and never had time to work on something else. I apologize for the silence that ensued.
But now that I'm back, instead of an essay, I present to you the first of two special PDF downloads. Have a look at the upper left-hand side of this web page and you'll see a new link to my "Creating a Command-Line-Only Debian Linux USB Drive" tutorial. I've decided to turn my two most popular posts--the USB guide and my "Digital Renaissance Man" series--into PDFs for free download. There'll be permanent links on each "this year's" page so that they don't disappear like older posts. I hope you find the USB guide useful. The "Digital Renaissance Man" download will be ready shortly and I'll post again when it goes up.
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January 1, 2015
For some time, I've wanted to live a simpler life both materially and spiritually.
Some of this desire comes from the readings I've been doing at St. John's, some from the simple fact that my wife and I are now living in a smaller apartment than we used to. At St. John's, I've been reading the thoughts of great men like Plato and Shakespeare and Bacon and Einstein, and I've come to realize that all of them did their greatest work without the benefit of modern technology. They spent their time reading, thinking, and writing, rather than surfing the Internet or throwing up blog posts to keep their name out in front of the public. I've also been reading Petrarch's "De Vita Solitaria" and come to realize that the life he describes is exactly the sort of life I want to be living. I want a life more like Thoreau's and less like a blogger's. When asked about not having an email address, the computer scientist Donald Knuth said that email was "...a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration." Like Dr. Knuth, I want to wrestle with big questions and if I'm going to do that, I need to reduce the demands on my attention--including the distractions of technology.
In addition, towards the end of 2014 I looked at this web site and realized that I'd been putting up new pages without taking down any of the old. Some pages had been on the site for a decade. One is, in fact, closer to twenty years old and went up as part of the early Internet's "free website" craze, back when banner ads were a new thing. As I stepped through each page on the website, I came to see what amounted to a labyrinth of dead links, stale content, and monthly updates added mostly out of a feeling of obligation. I came to realize that I had been updating my website not because I had something to say, but because I felt I had to. So I'm going to start over again from scratch. This time around, I'm limiting this site to a single page. One page of HTML with a link to the previous year's page, just in case you remember something I wrote earlier that you'd like to go back and read again. At the beginning of each new year, the current page will become "last year's page" and the old "last year's page" will be taken down. This website will ultimately consist of only two, ever-shifting pages, embracing the idea of the ephemerality of knowledge.
I'm also going to post not on any schedule, but when I feel I have something to say. That might mean multiple posts a month, and then nothing for a couple of weeks. Or perhaps I'll tick-tock along with regular updates and then throw in a long essay or translation. Supposedly, if you want to be noticed and/or become famous on the Internet you always have to have something fresh for the reader. But having "always something fresh" was leading me to post on a schedule, no matter what. This time, I'll be the master of my web page, rather than the other way around, and post when I want to, not when the calendar says I should. And perhaps by posting less often, it will free my muse up to create better writings. Or so I hope.
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andrew (at sign) andrewgudgel.com
This page last updated on 20200918.