Humor just for me, by Holly Theisen-Jones

There’s a certain category of joke called a “three-percenter,” the sort of joke that’s only going to appeal to 3% of your audience, but that will really, really appeal to them. (Part of the appeal is knowing they’re in the select group that gets it.) You have to be careful using them: At the first sign that a piece is full of inside jokes that they’re missing, the remaining 97% of your audience is gone.

Still, it’s worth embedding the occasional three-percenter in your humor, because for its select audience a three-percenter can really make a piece. What’s best, though—what’s comedy gold when you can pull it off—is a joke that feels like a three-percenter, but that feels that way to the whole audience.

With that in mind, let me say that My Fully Optimized Life Allows Me Ample Time to Optimize Yours by Holly Theisen-Jones is the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. Sitting alone in my study, still tired after cranking out three sets of twenty kettlebell swings, I laughed so hard I could barely breath. The whole thing read like one three-percenter after another, with me being in the 3% the whole time. Gloriously, hilariously funny. Even the lists of trendy superfoods in the smoothies were funny.

So now, the question is: Is this a humor story with six dozen three-percenters and I just happen to be in the 3% for all of them? This is possible. Perhaps even likely. But maybe the audience is a bit bigger than that.

At 3 pm, it’s time to hit the gym. After years of research, I have engineered the most efficient possible workout, which is a single, 100-pound kettlebell swing, followed by four and a half minutes of foam rolling. (See my e-book for step-step instructions)

Source: My Fully Optimized Life Allows Me Ample Time to Optimize Yours – McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Let me know if you’re in the 3%.

Writing and moving

I still struggle with the tension between time spent moving and time spent writing, even as I come to recognize that the tension may not even exist. So I love this post by Katy Bowman, on being A Writer Who Moves, A Mover Who Writes.

Culturally, we still hold the belief that the relationship between time and productivity is direct. As if writing consists solely of the output of words, your typing speed being the indicator of how long it would take to write a thousand-word word article (ten minutes) or a novel (one week). But of course, time spent coming up with ideas and themes, and organizing and reorganizing these threads in our minds, is also “writing.” The trouble is, we’ve come to see sitting at a desk as an integral part of the writing process. We imagine the mulling, the idea-forming, the organizing, the process—the creativity—can occur only when the butt–chair circuit is closed. I (and researchers) have found the opposite to be true: movement can be a conduit for creativity.

Today I will live this truth: I will move and I will write.

Adjusting my morning routine, maybe

The natural movement people I follow continue to broaden my perspective on what constitutes natural movement. Fairly recently, in her podcast, Katy Bowman pointed out that dilating and contracting the pupil of your eye is a natural movement.

Most people spend most of their time at just a few lighting levels—dark (however dark they keep the room they sleep in, which often isn’t very dark), medium (ordinary indoor light levels), and bright (ordinary outdoor light levels). Katy suggests that there may be some benefit in experiencing the whole range of light levels, from in-the-woods-at-night dark to full-sun-at-midday light—and most especially everywhere in between.

It’s an idea that appeals to me, and I’m inclined to copy her and go outdoors while it’s still dark, and take a walk during the time from just before dawn until just after sunrise.

Taking such an early morning walk would be a change to my daily routine, and whenever I think about adjusting my daily routine I like to compare it to that of Charles Darwin. He was so productive for such a long time, I figure his is a touchstone for a successful daily routine. So I went and checked and was very pleased to see that Darwin’s daily routine included a pre-breakfast walk of about 45 minutes.

I’d previously copied some elements from Darwin’s routine, but I hadn’t taken that one. I’ve been spending that time at the computer checking email, Facebook, and my RSS feeds, and chatting on-line with my brother. Those are all things that are probably worth doing, but maybe they don’t need to be the very first things I do in the morning.

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while, but spring has been cold and damp and not really conducive to early morning walks.

This morning I took a test walk, strolling around Winfield Village and in the Lake Park Prairie Restoration in the half hour before sunrise. It was very pleasant.

sunrise from prairie

Summer work

I was making some notes, trying to organize my thinking about how I wanted to spend the summer. My first draft looked something like this:

  1. Finish my novel
  2. Work on my parkour strength/skills
  3. Do some running
  4. Go for some long walks
  5. Get in some bike rides
  6. Practice taiji in the park

It’s not a bad list, but as soon as I started playing around with it, I noticed that there’s a lack of parallelism. Specifically, the first item was a goal, while the other items were activities.

So I changed it, turning the first item into “Work on my novel.”

I think that’s better. I think having a goal to “finish” my novel has been an obstacle to actually doing so.

And it’s kind of odd that I’ve been thinking that way at all, because I’ve always enjoyed the actual writing part of writing. I’ve never been one of those “author” types of writers—the ones who don’t want to write, but only to have written. I’ve always liked all the phases of writing. I like starting something new, when I have a clean slate and haven’t made any mistakes yet. I like the phase of cranking away on something, putting the words down. I like the phase of revising, getting my raw words closer to the story I’d envisioned. They’re all good. So why have I found it so hard to work on my novel these past many months?

Perhaps I have tricked myself into replaying my perpetual struggle with the things I merely wanted to get done, as opposed to the things I actually wanted to do. It’s a problem I had all through school, and then all through my career. The things I needed to get done were always the hardest.

Since I quit working a regular job, I discovered that I am way more productive when I do the things I want to do and put off the things I just want to get done. This makes some things problematic—the taxes come to mind—but overall it’s been an effective strategy.

I have other thoughts about trying to be more productive this summer—this actually started out to be another “daily routine” post—but I’ll save those thoughts for another time.

For the rest of this morning, I’ll just see if I can quit worrying about finishing my novel, and instead spend some time working on it. And maybe squeeze in a run, along with some strength training.

Bad meditator

I’m a bad meditator. While writing this piece, I was briefly tempted to claim to be the world’s worst meditator, but I’m sure that’s not actually true. At least, it’s not true if you include the people who don’t meditate at all—they’re worse than me. Even among the people who have a regular meditation practice there are certainly people who are worse at it than I am. Well, almost certainly. But probably not very many. I’m really a very bad meditator.

For one thing, I haven’t taken my meditation practice seriously. For a long time, I just went through the motions, not even really trying to meditate. In my taiji class, the teacher included a period for meditation, so I “meditated.”

Even just going through the motions of meditating, I quickly found some physical benefits to standing meditation, but the more subtle benefits—the insights into my mind that meditation is supposed to provide—eluded me. This was not a surprise; I did not expect much benefit from a practice that was as slipshod as my own.

(As an aside, I should mention that there are also physical benefits to sitting meditation. They were not as obvious to me, mostly because of my own foolishness in viewing standing meditation as a successor to sitting meditation, rather than a complementary practice. This kept me from giving my sitting even the rather feeble effort I gave my standing. Even so, I eventually perceived the physical benefits of sitting meditation as well.)

Only after three or four years did I begin to find the other benefits of a meditation practice. In particular, I felt like I began to acquire insights into the mechanisms of attention. (At around that same time, I read an article about Steve Jobs that talked about his meditation practice, saying that, “Sitting zazen offered Jobs a practical technique for upgrading the motherboard in his head.”)

One thing that made a difference for me was attending a free meditation workshop by Mary Wolters, a local yoga instructor. Her guided meditation sessions were excellent—sitting rather than standing, 30 minutes rather than the usually 10 minutes or less that we did in taiji class, and (probably most important) separated from the effort of (both learning and doing) taiji—I found that I actually was meditating.

Having begun to perceive the benefits of meditation, I find myself wanting to do it more, but have not yet found a way to add it to my daily routine, except as part of my taiji practice, which is good, but not enough. (And I hesitate to spend more class time on meditation, on the theory that the class should take advantage of there being a taiji instructor present to focus on the movements, whereas we could all meditate successfully on our own.)

Still, even if I haven’t added time to my meditation practice beyond what I do in taiji, I have at least added meditation to my meditation practice. It’s a start.

Noveling along

I’m making steady progress on my novel rewrite. Since getting back to work on it back on the solstice, I’ve put in a nice block of time nearly every day. (Besides Christmas Day, which I took as a holiday, I think I’ve missed two other days.)

The first third had already been rewritten back in the summer. I spent the first couple of days reading through that part and making minor edits. Happily, the edits were in fact minor. I fixed typos and minor sentence-level errors like poor word choice. I fixed the sort of scene-level errors that can only be spotted on a close re-read, such as saying something that I’d just said in the previous scene.

Once I got through that first third, progress slowed down quite a bit. The middle third of the novel had some serious structural problems. It had too many locations where too little happened. I’d already figured out that I needed to collapse that into two locations, and I’d taken a first pass at identifying which things happen in location A and which in location B, but now I had to make all that work.

That turned into kind of an odd mix. Sometimes I could just fix the name of the location and otherwise leave the scene alone. Other times the scene needed to be completely rewritten, because the action was only appropriate for a location that the characters no longer visited. (The latter was more work, but the former was worrisome in its own way—if the exact same thing could happen in the exact same way, perhaps my characters and locations were overly generic.)

Just yesterday and today I’ve been working on a bit that had (in an earlier draft) been written to be chapter one, to be followed with the story running along in two alternating threads, one present and one a flashback. I was pretty pleased with the chapter as a first chapter, but here in the middle, it’s all wrong. In particular, it has several bits written to establish the characters and their relationships. Those bits need to go, which is hard because they’re pretty good bits. Worse, they really ought to be replaced with references to stuff that happened earlier in the book—except that some of the bits they reference never got written.

So, that’s my task for tomorrow—spot those references, then go back and make sure that there’s actual text that establishes that aspect of the character’s relationship. Then decide which of the references should be edited to refer explicitly to those events and which should just be plucked out.

Writing this pass is weirdly different than writing a first draft. I spent a lot of mental effort trying (and often failing) to resist the urge to go back and edit as I went along. Now that I’m in the edit phase, my problem is just the reverse: each time I come upon something hard like this, my urge is to say, “Oh, I’ll leave that for the next pass.” Except that there is no next pass, at least not until my first readers come back with comments.

Still, steady progress is good. I’m about half-way through the middle third.

The final third, where the text draws heavily from the previously existing short story, will no doubt be yet another different experience. I’ve already gone through that part fixing stuff in the sequence of events and adjusting for how the characters had evolved in the writing of the novel-length work. At this point I really have no idea if I got most of that right, and that (having already been rewritten once) it will be like the first third, or if it will be like this middle third, needing major work. I know there’s be some significant new writing that needs to be done—I have a list of scenes that I’ve realized are missing—but beyond that I really have no clue how much work is sitting there needing to be done.

I’m can say that I’m happy with the draft up through this point. If I’m as happy with the second half, I’ll have no hesitation about sharing it with my first readers.

Hey! I wrote a novel!

It kind of snuck up on me. I hadn’t realized how close I was to being done with an entire draft.

After a couple of awkward starts, things had been going along pretty well until about spring. That’s when I started drawing more directly from the text of the short story that had been the basis of the novel, pulling the scenes from the short story and slotting them into the right spot in the climax of the novel. Except that process went very badly. They didn’t fit well. The tone was wrong. The characters had drifted. I kept finding small off-hand remarks to set up some thing or another, and realizing that in a novel there should instead be a whole earlier chapter to set that thing up. I kept finding that once I’d written those scenes, there was nothing left of this scene. It was such a struggle, I became discouraged. Progress ground almost to a halt.

A couple of times I got back to it, grabbed a scene, and reworked it—deleted the one-line remark and added the earlier chapter, reworked the interactions so that the characters were true to how they’d developed in the novel up to there, added full-blown scenes where the short story version had just had a brief reference that the hero had done something. But I found all that work hard and not much fun, so I kept not doing it.

Since moving to the summer place, I’ve been trying to reestablish a habit of daily writing, figuring that it should be as easy right now as it will ever be.

Today is my birthday, which I took advantage of by choosing to set my schedule exactly as I wanted—I got up, did a little social media stuff, had breakfast, read a little, then sat down to do some writing. I spent a good long while on one scene, because it had a lot of compressed action that needed to be more fully worked out in a novel-length work. Then the next scene went very quickly, because it was short, and then the next scene went quickly, because it was just about right in terms of tone and character. And then I realized that it was the last scene! I had finished my novel!

There’s a whole lot left to do, of course.

Although I tried to get the set-up stuff inserted as I went along, a lot of it is missing, or only present in vestigial form. I have to fix all that.

Probably a bigger deal, there were many little clever bits that might have set up something neat, but didn’t, and many short turns down side roads that seemed cool, but that didn’t end up leading anywhere. I need to locate each of those and think about whether it does lead somewhere—and then make sure that the “somewhere” it leads to is actually in the text and not just in my imagination. The others, of course, need to be ruthless pared away.

Most important, in the writing of the book I’ve finally figured out what it’s about. That too needs to end up in the text, and not just in my head. In particular, there’s a lot of economic and political stuff that kept showing up in my brain to be stuffed in the book, but didn’t all show up at the right points, so ended up getting stuffed willy-nilly into whatever corner happened to have a bit of space in it at the moment. Those bits need to be pulled out and carefully tucked into the right corner, now that I can see the whole thing and can figure out where they really go.

So, a lot of work to do—but it will be a lot of work on a novel! A novel that exists! A novel that I have written!

Monomaniacal multitasking

I’ve long struggled to balance the need to be somewhat monomaniacal (in order to complete a large project) and the need to perform at least the bare minimum necessary tasks of everyday living. This struggle is made all the harder by the realization that multitasking is a terrible strategy for getting things done.

So, I was interested in the recent post by J.D. Roth, Moderators and Abstainers: Two Approaches to Balance and Temptation, which argues that there are two kinds of people: Those who can achieve a moderate balance versus those who lurch from excess to excess unless they go for a zero option with regard to the things they’re prone to overdo. Of course, it immediately made me think of my recent conversation with my doctor about how addiction was the right model for thinking about diet and weight loss.

More than that, though, it made me feel pretty good about how things are going for me right now. It’s still early days, but I’m feeling like I’ve found a pretty good balance between productivity and fitness. I’m getting my writing done, and I’m getting my exercise in. Rather than finding myself doomed to lurch from regular exercise (and no writing) to lots of writing (but no exercise), I’m having pretty good success with a schedule that includes both.

I’ve been working my way toward this for a long time. As far back as 2008 I wrote Being Routinely Creative, where I argue that rather than constraining your creativity, having a firm schedule protects the time you need for creative pursuits. It took me a while to find that post, because I had been conflating it with the even earlier 2007 post Scheduling Time versus Scheduling Tasks, where I make a related point praising the value of blocking out chunks a time (as opposed to the then-recent time management fad where you instead organize your work around lists of “next actions”).

One key for me has been the realization (really, the re-realization, because I’ve known this for a long time too), that the writing has to come early in the day. Once I’ve started writing—once I’ve gotten my brain in the story space—I can take a break for exercise (or whatever), and then return to writing later in the day. Starting with exercise is much less effective. After exercise, I feel like I’ve accomplished something, which blunts my urge to be productive. I’m also often tired. And, if I’ve had to go out to exercise (such as to the Fitness Center or the Savoy Rec Center), it seems only reasonable to run an errand or two on the way home, which has the effect of postponing the start of writing even further. The result, far too often, is no writing at all.

One concern I have is that the block of time that I’m protecting for my writing falls right in the middle of the early morning hours when it’s cool enough to exercise outdoors during the hot days of summer. But I can’t work up much worry. At this point in the winter, I positively yearn for a long afternoon too hot for vigorous exercise.

Oh—and this post would not be complete without a shout-out to Jackie, who performs so many of the necessary tasks of everyday living for both of us, freeing me up to do far more of my creative work than would otherwise be possible. (And who somehow does it while also doing her own creative work.)

Not yet tracking wordcount (novel update)

After several abortive efforts to track daily wordcounts on my current novel project (dating back almost two years), I’ve not resumed doing so over the three or four weeks I’ve been back to work. However, I have been checking the current wordcount almost daily, and recently passed 30,000 words. (It had been slightly under 20,000 words when I got back to work in late December.)

My best guess is that this novel will come in at around 80,000 words, so I’m now solidly in the middle. I have a pretty good idea how the ending goes, so things are moving along pretty briskly now. I have three or four key things I need to set up. The rest of what I’m up to is pure fun and games—my heroes playing around with cool stuff, getting into and out of trouble. (Of course at this point, they’re getting into trouble faster than they’re getting out of it.)

I’m of three minds about tracking wordcount as a productivity measure.

First of all, I think it’s at least theoretically useful data to have for planning purposes. If I know how fast I write, I’m in a much better position to estimate how long something will take me.

Second, I find it somewhat useful for motivation. Many’s the time I’ve sat down for a short writing session late in the day to get at least a few dozen words written, so I don’t have to enter a zero in my spreadsheet.

However, third, I find that it’s sometimes demotivating. When I’ve missed several days, I find it so depressing to enter those zeros, that just doing so is an extra hurdle that’s hard to get over, even when I’d otherwise be ready to get back to writing.

The main reason that I’ve not yet gotten back to tracking is point three above. Secondarily, I’ve held off because the wordcounts would have been misleading: I’ve slotted back in some text that I’d earlier pulled out because it was in the wrong place, or to accord with shifting visions of the novel.

Still, something over 10,000 words in something under a month comes to around 400 words a day. That’s not very fast writing—and yet: 10,000 words a month is plenty fast enough to write a novel-length text in less than a year.

Essentially all the pre-written text is back in now, so at this point it would not be misleading to start tracking words again, if I’m confident that any little productivity glitches won’t become self-reinforcing downward spirals. I was still doubtful when I started this post, but now that I’ve finished it, I think I’m ready to get back to tracking. (In fact, I have just now resurrected my old tracking spreadsheet. Let’s hope doing so doesn’t cause a bunch of demotivating thoughts.)