Permission, Uncertainty & Solitude

My first message today was from Paul Jarvis. You'd be wise to subscribe to his weekly essays which are brief and useful for creative and independent people. His latest is about doing things on our own without seeking permission. The key line is this:

We've traded gatekeepers for gurus, and continue to seek permission and guidance to do what we want to do with our work.

Instead, we should ask the following questions:

  • Did we create something that other people want to buy from us?
  • Do those same people want to keep buying or can we find new people to also buy from us?

I replace "buy" with "read" but it's the same thing and gets at an idea I have about Twitter.

I got off Twitter last summer but went back on in January to promote my writing. The account hasn't taken off. I don't take the time to curate and promote it. I've been advised to build an audience. Twitter seemed one way to do that, but I'm unwilling to devote the effort to it.

I need to put the effort into learning how to write better. I don't have enough energy to do both.

The second message, from Leo Babauta, entitled The Deep Uncertainty Of Meaningful Work tells of a man wanting to embark on a big project, "But he kept putting off starting." Hmm. "He was like a million others who want to do meaningful work: write a book, fight for those who are powerless, create a startup.... We put off doing this work because of deep uncertainty" (emphasis mine). Yeah, that sounds familiar. Babauta says, "The key is to open up to the deep uncertainty of meaningful work."

The third message, from Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism, is about solitude, which he defines as "a subjective state in which your mind is free from input from other minds." Solitude, it turns out, is necessary for creativity. No surprise.

Though not surprising, it's helpful to hear the following:

  • "all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone,"
  • "conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius"
  • "solitude is a prerequisite for original and creative thought" (Newport, 95-97).

The permission to create is ours to give. We can choose to open up to uncertainty rather than close down. And we need solitude, time away from the input of other minds, in order to be creative. Not a bad trinity of messages to received. They're worth keeping in mind and even more worth to act upon.

Mostly here, I'm writing to remind myself.

Inconvenience & Intention

"...intention trumps convenience" (53)
"...the inconvenience might prove useful." (65)
— Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism

I'm typing this in Writer: The Internet Typewriter, a distraction free editor that requires me to remember codes to set formatting and hyperlinking when I post these things to the blog. It's wildly inconvenient compared to the ease of Microsoft Word or Google Docs, but I use it anyway. Part of the motivation is that it is distraction free. I'm typing plain text onto a blank canvas. There are no menus, there is no grammar check, there isn't any good sharing system (though the guy who develops it may add that last "feature"). It's just a way to put words on the screen the same way a typewriter puts words on paper. The only difference is that I can use backspace, delete, copy, paste, and undo. That Writer is distraction free is the big draw for most users. I'm more into the inconvenience.

Using something intentionally inconvenient sounds like lunacy. Maybe it can be, but in this case it puts the focus on intention and in that way the inconvenience proves very useful indeed. Because I can't format anything in this editor and since I have to remember markdown codes and symbols in order to have things format correctly on the blog, I am much more intentional about the writing and about prioritizing clarity over anything else. There is work that can be done without such focus but writing as well as I can demands it. Convenience too often subverts that kind of focus.

I only have a minute left to write. The ziti is about to come out of the oven. I took some time with that too. Boiled pasta, grated cheese, made some sauce, mixed and poured all that in a baking dish. I could have grabbed some already made from Wegmans but I like the inconvenience. It's useful and tastes pretty damn good.

Process Stories

There are many reasons why I'm not being read by millions. First, I've got a lot to learn before I reach that kind of an audience. I need to learn how to write better (I always need to learn that), how to serve an audience, and how to get the word out. I read a great short piece by Damon Krukowski and was struck by what a fine writer he is, how he does things that I almost understand but can't yet make happen in my writing. I've been reading Dani Shapiro and there's an art and grace to her work that is clearly the result of having put in the work. I need to put in a lot more work before I reach millions.

There are other reasons why I'm not yet a household name (outside my household and that of my mom), but the one I'm thinking of today is how interested I am in process stories. I'm loath to look back and count, but my guess is that I've published at least fifty stories about how I work, tools I use, and even times of day when I'm most productive. It's not that I'm so full of myself (though I am too full of myself more often than not) as much as I love these kinds of stories from other creators and want to tell my own. Austin Kleon often talks about his processes and shares what he has learned of other people's work. Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and Natalie Goldberg have written books about process and I've read each of them multiple times. In the words of the great philosophers Depeche Mode, I just can't get enough.

Were I to meet any of these writers I so admire, I would ask them to tell me about their days. When did you get up? Did you make coffee? Do you stay in the house or go out? Do you need to write first thing or does it wait? I'd want to see their writing spaces, ask what word processor they each use, and know what they do about their phones and other distractions. I'd want to know every detail.

There's an entire network on cable (probably more than one) devoted to watching people cook. There should be one on which we watch people write. I want to just see them at work. Ohhhhh, so they keep their back to the window. Interesting.

It's a wonder I'm not a television exec.

Today I'm happy to have heard Chris McDougall, author of Born To Run, Natural Born Heroes, and the forthcoming Running With Sherman describe his process on The Consummate Athlete podcast. McDougall can't write first thing in the morning. Instead, he screws around all day — feeding the chickens, goats, sheep, and donkeys, riding his bike, walking and running with friends, answering email, and calling in for podcasts. Then, at night, having gotten all hyperactivity out of his system, he sits and cranks out work until one in the morning.

This is great!

What excites me is that I could never work that way. I'm a morning person. After dinner my brain turns to sludge even without bourbon. There's just nothing there. (It has been argued that there isn't much there to begin with, but I'll leave that for another time.) In the morning I'm ready to go, can't wait to start. I'm just that way.

As I push on this writing thing, I get nervous that successful writers work so differently than I do. I find myself thinking, maybe I should... There's something to be said for learning from other people's methods — I don't have everything worked out — but the point is to craft my own methods. I'm not going to spend the morning feeding animals (it's not that involved a process to feed two cats and a dog) because I need to start the day with the pen in my hand, the keyboard beneath my fingers, ideas appearing on page and screen as if by magic.

I'm working on the reasons why a million people aren't reading this post. One thing to work on is refining my process. Every time I read or hear of another writer's methods, it inspires but also relieves me of the worry that I'm doing this thing all wrong and should give it up. That's good because because I don't have any kind of future in developing television networks. None whatsoever.

Twenty+ Ways To Be More Writerly

Adapted from C.M. Mayo. I'm not so great at these and might be posting them here mostly as a reminder to myself. Do as I say and as I try to do.


Give up TV and social media. I'm 80% on this. Maybe 70%. I am less healthy in every way and write less when I'm regularly watching TV and checking social media. This I know.

Turn off phone notifications. The only notifications my phone makes are for texts and actual calls. Pro tip: shut off mobile data and you'll hardly ever look at the phone when out of the house. Even better, leave the phone home. My phone is more than a time-suck.

Avoid drama and gossip. I work in a dramatic school. Often, standing in the hallway, I hear gossip begin, wait a moment, then say something like "oh, I forgot," rush back into my classroom and look busy doing something so I escape that nonsense. Gossip is bad storytelling and a terrible writer's habit.

Ignore the news (more drama and gossip). I subscribe to two newspapers and should switch to weekly magazines, but I am weak. I'm trying to check the news no more than twice a day, but not succeeding. The news doesn't give me good ideas for writing.

Choose sports wisely. Go to sporting events, don't watch them on TV. Good Lord the commercials suck out my will to live and write.

Read and answer email twice a day. Checking email more than twice a day is crazy. And yet I've probably checked it a dozen times today. More fool me.

Minimalism & Organization

Attend to piles. Set a timer. Piles of bills, mail, articles, and magazines are obligations that suck energy and time from writing. Set a five minute timer and be ruthless at recycling and throwing away, then go back to writing.

Use a paper planner. It's flexible, doubles as a writer's notebook, and isn't a phone.

Minimize possessions and wear the same things. My older daughter is teaching me how to declutter. I'm okay wearing the same basic uniform to school daily. Easier than picking out clothes.

Stop shopping and spending. Ann Patchett turned me on to this. I'm reading Cait Flanders The Year Of Less and have kind of slipped into this. I write more if I spend less because I'm not so tied to a paycheck.

Everything in its right place. No searching. Keys and wallet in the drawer, watch and pen on the stand, phone on the charger, Radiohead song stuck in my head. Keep the house picked up too. Yeah, I need more work on this.


Drink only with friends. Every glass of bourbon signals my brain that I'm done writing for the day. Since I have a day job, I can't afford to give up my night writing times. Sometimes I still do.

Drink water. It's the quickest and healthiest thing. It's also inexpensive out of the tap. I'm terrible about this. I like water while I'm drinking it but want anything but water when choosing what to have.

Cook meals as a break. Crank the music and bop around the kitchen. Totally enjoyable. Also saves money and, if I make lots, is lunch for the next couple days.

Get good sleep. Early to bed, early to rise really is the best advice. Sleep when the sun is down and rise in time for sunrise. Mornings are ten times more productive than evenings for me.

Thinking & Feeling

Let go the past unless it's fodder for writing. Yeah, I suck at this. I ruminate on things and obsess about what has already happened. Total waste of time and a drain of my energy. Lots of work to do here.
Let go the future. Plans are for suckers. Goals are for losers is a good idea even if Scott Adams is a turd. Do things instead of planning them. I have a lot of work to do here too. Too many plans for writing, not enough writing.

Run your own race. Don't envy other writers. Also, though it's fine to try and emulate others, I have to accept who I am and how I work.

Be Writerly

Use the commute. I'm listening to podcasts on my short commute. I haven't tried audio books but that's the next step. One more way to surround myself with writing.

Always carry pen, notebook/planner, and a book to read. Duh.

Do Morning Pages. For me, nothing beats starting the day writing. Nothing. It makes me more likely to think, see, listen, and act as a writer.