Recommended reading: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

At some level, I’ve always understood deep work—the sort of work where you sit down and focus on your task for 20 or 60 or 90 minutes, long enough finish a difficult task, or make real headway on a big project.

Even when I was quite young I’d use it to get large amounts done on some big project I’d made for myself. Deep work let me create codes and ciphers for securely communicating with Richard Molenaar. It let me create maps of the wooded areas in our neighborhood where we’d play, and then assign fantasy or science-fictional elements to them. Once it let me write quite a bit of scripture for an imaginary religion. Deep work let me create maps and keys for D&D adventures I was going to be DM-ing.

I’ve never quit using deep work on my own projects. At Clarion writing a short story every week entailed a great deal of deep work. Writing an article for Wise Bread was best accomplished with an hour or so of deep work.

For other people’s work—in school, in college, and as an employee—I more often used it to enable procrastination: On any small or medium-sized project I knew I could sit down a couple of days before a task was due and crank through the whole thing in one or a few long sessions of focused work.

Given that it was such a useful capability, I’ve long thought it was kind of odd that I never really honed my capability for deep work. But through the lens of this book, I think I’m coming to understand it now.

I used to think it was because I was lazy. It was only when I quit working a regular job and started writing for Wise Bread that I came to understand that I was never particularly lazy. Rather, I just didn’t want to do stuff I didn’t want to do. Lacking that understanding I did a poor job of arranging my (work) life so that there was a lot of work I wanted to do and only a little that I didn’t want to do. Once I had work that I wanted to do, I jumped right into using deep work to get it done.

Although I take my full share of the blame for not doing a better job of maximizing the work that I wanted to do, my various former employers also deserve plenty of blame. They routinely deprived me and (most of) my coworkers the opportunity to engage in deep work.

First, they tended not to assign people a single top-priority task, but rather a set of tasks of shifting priority. (I don’t think they did it in order to be able to blame the worker when they focused on the tasks that turned out in retrospect not to be the right tasks, although that was a common result. Rather, they were just abdicating their responsibility to do their jobs as managers.)

Second, they were (especially during the last few years I was working a regular job) constantly interrupting people to ask for status updates. (One randomly timed query along the lines of “Are you going to have that bug fixed by Thursday?” which from the manager’s point of view only interrupted me for 20 seconds could easily undo 60 or even 90 minutes of stack backtrace analysis.)

At some level it was clear that the managers understood this, because there were always a few privileged engineers whose time for deep work was protected. The rest of us resorted to generating our own time for deep work by coming in early or staying late or finding a place to hide or working off-site—all strategies that worked, but not as well as just being able to close the door of our office and focus.

It wasn’t all bad management though. There were times when there was no external obstacle to doing deep work, and yet I’d not be highly productive. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve come to understand what was going on here: When I suffer from seasonal depression I find it very hard to do deep work. As a coping mechanism—as a way to keep my job when I couldn’t do the deep work they’d hired me to do—I started seeking out shallow work that I could manage to be productive on.

It’s from that perspective that I found Deep Work even more interesting than the book that lead me to Cal Newport’s work, his more recent Digital Minimalism (that I talked about briefly in my recent post on social media).

The first part of the book is about what deep work is and makes the case that it’s valuable—things that, as I said, I understood. The rest of the book is largely devoted to teaching you how to arrange your life to maximize your opportunities for bringing deep work to bear on the work you want to get done. That part, in bits and pieces, helped me understand myself in a way that I really hadn’t before.

Deep work is the way to get a big or difficult task done, but everybody has some small or easy tasks that also need to get done, so there is plenty of opportunity to make effective use of shallow work as well. Newport lays out the distinction well and provides some clear guidelines as to when and how to use shallow work to do those things where it makes sense, and in a way that protects time for deep work. He also talks about the appeal of shallow work—it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s “productive” in the sense that a large number of micro-tasks can be quickly ticked off the list.

It’s been very good for me to be reminded of all these things, because it’s easy to fall out of the habit of using deep work to do big or difficult things. The sort of rapid-fire “productivity” of shallow work has its own seductive appeal, especially in the moment. It’s only after a week or a month of shallow work, when I look back and realize that I haven’t really gotten anything done, that I tend to remember the distinction—and then pointlessly feel bad that I haven’t made any progress on the big things I want to get done.

Deep Work by Cal Newport is a great book for anyone who wants to do big or difficult things. (Also for people who manage such workers, although I don’t expect they’ll want to hear the message.)

Fixed my Clarion journal

Some time ago (trying to fix something else) I switched my web host to run PHP version 7.2, and didn’t notice that doing so had broken the glue code that made my Clarion Journal entries work.

When I did notice that it was broken I didn’t fix it right away. Partially that was because I had been meaning for some time to import all those journal entries into the WordPress blog. (Among other things, that would mean all those entries would be properly included in my site map.) More to the point, it was because fixing it would require debugging and coding PHP, something I hadn’t done in more than 10 years.

Today, though, I got email from a guy who had tried to read my journal and had found it missing, and that turned out to be the kick I needed to go in and fix the PHP code. (The fix turned out to be utterly trivial.)

So, I made the necessary fixes and Philip Brewer’s Writing Progress is once again on-line. (The first day at Clarion is June 3, 2001.)

Running my own server again

A year and a half ago, my brother gave me a Raspberry Pi 3 as a birthday present, suggesting that I should use it to run my own server.

I used to run my own server. A friend who liked to build such things had built it. It had two ethernet ports, one connected to my cable modem and the other connected to my WiFi router, and it was running OpenBSD (then the most secure OS easily available) and was configured to serve as a firewall.

I used it as a server in other ways. I put an extra disk drive (40 GB!) in it where I could store files that I might want to access from elsewhere. (In particular, when I went to Clarion I copied my latest draft of my current story there each evening, in case of catastrophic computer failure.)

It didn’t require much upkeep, but it required more than none—which turned out to be more than I wanted to devote to it. At some point a serious security flaw was discovered in the OpenBSD release I was running. By then most desktop machines had built-in firewalls as did most routers, and I had Time Machine as a backup solution. It seemed safe to give up my server, and easier than updating it.

In the years since then, the use of cloud services has become ubiquitous, to the point that practically everything I do ends up in the cloud—my photos go to both Flickr and Google. I also use Dropbox (where I have Scrivener stash a backup copy of everything I’m writing) and I stash some amount of my music at both Google and at Amazon.

That’s all great—those services are well backed-up, and the servers are very likely running the latest security patches—but I really like the idea of having my own data on my own machines. But I want that without giving up the advantages of having my data in the cloud. Hence wanting to have my own server.

All that as prequel to my brother coming to visit this past week, and helping me get my Raspberry Pi server up and running.

Once the basic install of Raspbian was up and running, I went ahead and ordered a bit of hardware for it. I got a short ethernet cable to connect it to my router, so that it doesn’t have to do WiFi for basic connectivity (although WiFi and Bluetooth are built in). I also got a slightly more powerful USB power supply for it, mainly because I also got a portable USB hard drive that takes its power from the USB port, meaning that the power needs to be available to the Raspberry Pi. Finally, I got a case for it, so that I don’t just have a naked circuit board sitting on my dresser.

This time the hard drive is 1 TB rather than 40 GB.

For cloud functionality I’m following my brother’s example and running syncthing, which has the advantage of being able to handle being behind a NAT and not having a port exposed to the outside world. I’m running it on my Android phone as well and sharing my photos with a third place: my server. The server then shares them with my desktop machine, so they’re available to use. (That’s how I got the photo above: Taken with the phone and then transferred to the desktop within about a minute.)

I’m still sorting out my sharing strategy. I don’t want to share my whole Music folder with my phone, because it would use all the space there. (I’ll probably end up making a folder with an “essential subset” of my music to share with the phone.) I don’t think I want to share my whole Documents folder on my desktop machine, but I’m not sure yet. For the time being I’m sharing a folder I call “Active writing” with the files I’m currently working on, on the desktop, the server, and my laptop. That way they’ll be available wherever I want to work on them.

Other things are tougher. I’d like to have my own calendar server, but that doesn’t seem easy. I should go back to my post on the google-free option and see what else I was thinking about that I might now be able to implement.

For now, though, I’m pretty happy.

My previous server was rack mount width and maybe four or five inches tall, about the size of a stereo component. This one is maybe 3 inches by 5 inches, rather smaller than the hard drive it’s sitting on.

Applications open for Clarion 2018

I have written a lot about Clarion, the science fiction and fantasy writing workshop I took back in 2001—in particular my Clarion journal and my six-post series on what to do if you can’t go to Clarion.

If you want to go to Clarion—and if you’re an aspiring sf&f writer, I highly recommend it—you’ll be glad to hear that the application period has just opened.

It was one of the most useful things I’ve done to improve my craft. It was also a lot of fun.

It is only modestly expensive in terms of cost, and there are scholarships to help those who in need. It is mostly expensive in terms of time: six weeks. That’s a long time to absent yourself from your job or your family, but Clarion makes very good use of all that time—every minute is well spent.

If you apply, or if you go, I’d be pleased to hear from you.

Busy writing

Because it was so precisely in my wheelhouse, I simply had to submit a story for the Universal Basic Income short story contest Into the Black.

I plugged away at a story most of October. In particular, I worked on it three different times with Elizabeth Shack’s Thursday writing group. And I got a story nearly finished, except it refused to turn into a basic income story.

Finally, about three days ago I gave up trying to twist that story into a basic income story and sat down to write another—even though I only had four or five days until the submission deadline.

It reminded me of Clarion in a way—sitting down at my computer, determined to get a story done in less than a week. At Clarion the motivation was simply that if you didn’t get a story done each week you’d miss out on the chance to get a story critiqued by that week’s instructor, but it was enough. And this made for a similarly strong motivation.

And I’m pleased to report success: I finished a draft on Saturday. On Sunday I read through it and made minor edits and gave it to a couple of first readers. Today I made another pass through it, making changes suggested by my reader’s comments, and then submitted it to the contest.

That was all fun and good, but there is yet more good.

First, the story that would not be a basic income story is nevertheless a perfectly good story. I’ll let it sit for a bit, then go through and remove the failed attempts to twist it into one, and then take a go at finishing it on its own terms. I’m hopeful.

Second, there’s also a fragment of that story that I pulled out and stashed that might well turn into another story. It was part of one effort to twist the story, but it’s really a pretty good idea in its own right, and might make for a whole story all on its own.

So I come out of this with one finished story, one mostly-written story, and a few fragments of a possible third story. Go me!

I am also reminded that I have a couple of finished, critiqued stories that only need a rewrite pass to be ready to submit to markets, which I have been woefully lax about submitting. (My Clarion instructors would be appalled.)

So, with a little luck, in a matter of days I might well have five stories out to markets. Well, not luck exactly: Diligence and persistence are what’s called for.

Rejoice: The sun returns!

The solstice snuck up on me this year. The calendar shows it as being today, which it is if you live east of the United States. But it was actually a few minutes before midnight on the east coast and more than an hour before midnight here.

Happily, Geoff Landis (one of my Clarion instructors) posted a “happy solstice” message on Facebook (with a link to an astronomy site with the details) a few hours before the event, so I was able to appreciate it prospectively.

The longest night of the year has come and gone. I’m glad that’s over.

Why, in just six weeks, it’ll be Groundhog’s Day! And once that happens, it’ll be time start looking for our early spring!

Packing lists

When I was in boy scouts, one of the scoutmasters suggested creating a packing list for camping trips. His key suggestion was to update the list after a trip, adding anything you’d wished you’d had, and thoughtfully deleting anything you’d brought but ended up not using. (Thoughtfully in the sense of not deleting your first aid kit just because no one had gotten hurt on that trip.)

I immediately recognized the value of the idea, but I never really put it into practice, mainly because I was no good at preserving the master list from one trip to the next. That problem was eventually solved by computers.

My oldest pack lists go back to 1992, when Jackie and I took a vacation in London and Wales. Our itinerary was complex, because we were driving to St. Louis and spending the night with my mom, and then flying to London from there, and reversing the process for the return home. The pack list for that trip has things broken down by stages:

  • Worn to St. Louis
  • Carried to St. Louis and worn on plane
  • In carry-on
  • In checked luggage
  • Left in St. Louis, for return drive

The key, though, was that instead of making the pack list on paper, I put it in a file on my computer. Then, the next time I went on a trip, the file was still around. I used it as a starting place to make my next pack list.

I’ve kept the basic format for twenty years now—stuff to pack, sorted by bag. At first I editing the old list for each new trip, but I long ago started letting old lists hang around, and eventually came up with a file name format to include the destination, the number of days, and the season. When I’m planning a new trip, I can quickly look through the old pack lists, find one with some overlap in terms of season and duration, and then use it as the basis for a new list. Because text files take up essentially no space, I’ve let old lists accumulate (in a small way—I’ve got a dozen or so).

Those old lists came in handy again just recently, as we’re preparing to move into our summer sublet. As it happens, I have an old pack list for a multi-week summer outing in furnished digs: my Clarion pack list from 2001. I’m having to adapt it—I don’t need the books by Clarion teachers that I was bringing to get autographed—but it’s not only a good guide, it’s a tested guide.

I strongly recommend making pack lists, and then keeping your old lists forever. You never know when you’re going to take a similar trip.

Clarion 2001 poster

clarion-2001-poster-framedAll the writers who taught at my Clarion did readings at the Archives Book Shop, a local bookstore in East Lansing. To advertise the readings, the Clarion office folks printed up a poster with the names and dates. And, as one of our little perks, we each got a copy signed by all the writers (and by our special guest editor).

I’ve had this poster for more than 10 years now. I always meant to get it framed so I could hang it up, but it was one of many things that I kept not getting around to. But for some reason, this past week it suddenly seemed to be the thing to get around to next, so I did. I measured the poster, went to a local shop that sells ready-made frames in standard sizes, and picked up a frame the right size. It was just what I wanted (simple, black, wood frame), but instead of a proper hanging wire, had some crappy metal bracket for hanging the picture, so I also had to buy a kit with some screw eyes and picture hanging wire, but that was cheap.

It still took a couple of days to get it all put together—picture in frame, screw eyes in frame, wire strung between screw eyes—but now it’s done.

I’m pretty pleased. Maybe having it up will help inspire me to keep at my fiction.

Click through for a picture big enough to read all the details.

Genevieve Kierans

Genevieve at the Clarion Reunion meeting in 2002.
Genevieve at the Clarion Reunion in 2002.

I just learned that Clarion classmate Genevieve Kierans died earlier this month.

It was great to have her in the circle at Clarion. Nobody was nicer or happier than Genevieve, and her critiques were always gentle and often incisive and useful—and often different from what everyone else had to say. It was nice to know that she was somewhere ahead in the circle, when you started getting a lot of “ditto what the last three guys said.”

She’d already had ALS back in 2001, and wrote a number of stories that drew on her experiences with disability. Where she excelled, though, was in telling the story of a callow youth growing into being an adult. Each one of those stories left me with a “How does she do that?” feeling, and I’ve more than once gone back to reread one, trying to tweeze apart the structure of that particular character arc.

I’m sorry not have had the chance to read more such stories.

Applications open for Clarion 2013

Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers WorkshopEvery year there’s a new Clarion class. Every year I’m a bit jealous of the new batch of students getting to study with the new batch of teachers.

There’s a little overlap this year—one of the anchor teachers, Kelly Link, was my instructor for week two. The others I haven’t studied with, but I’ve met some and read their work and would jump at the chance to study with them.

But you can’t go back to Clarion. (And, to be honest, you wouldn’t want to. Going to Clarion is a transformative experience, but that sort of transformation only happens once.)

I’ve written a good bit about my own experience at Clarion, besides keeping a daily journal while I was there. A year or two ago, I also wrote a series of posts on doing Clarion at home, if for one reason or another you couldn’t go.

But really, if you have a choice, it’d be much more fun to do Clarion at Clarion, if you possibly can. Head over to the Clarion site to apply.