Writing in the morning

I know that I need to write in the morning if I’m going to be productive at fiction. Even just 20 or 40 minutes of early morning writing gets my head into the story space, and once it’s there I’ll continue to have story ideas through the day.

I’ve had trouble making this work since I started teaching taiji. For most of the year I need to start getting ready early enough to be out the door no later than 8:40 AM. I’m only gone for a couple of hours, which isn’t such a big hole in the day, but it’s big enough that it’s made it hard to get in the necessary early-morning writing session.

But after months—years, really—of not getting my fiction writing in, I’m taking a fresh stab at making an early-morning writing session happen.

I started a week ago so I could test-run the new schedule and get the kinks worked out before the last week of August, when the first fall taiji session starts. So far it’s working pretty well. I got my early-morning writing done every day except one, and that day I managed to get in a good writing session in the afternoon.

The obvious thing to do, of course, would be to just start even earlier. That isn’t easy because I’ve put together an early-morning routine that I’m finding really satisfying:

  1. Do a tiny bit of mobility work first thing.
  2. Weigh myself and check to see what my Oura ring says about my sleep.
  3. Sit down at my computer and record that info.
  4. Drink some coffee.
  5. Do the Daily Jumble with my brother and my mom.

After Jumbling and a couple of cups of coffee, I generally have breakfast, after which is my window to get some writing done before taiji.

What I’m doing differently is simply that I’m trying to start breakfast no later than 7:00 AM (ideally a little before), so that I can finish before 7:30.

I need to leave by about 8:40 to be sure I get to the Rec Center in time for my class, which gives me a generous hour to write.

If I manage that—spend enough time writing to get immersed into the story space of whatever I’m working on—then my brain gets started working on story problems. All through the rest of the day I’ll have plot points, possible story twists, clever turns of phrase, bits of dialog, and so on, popping into my head.

Until I start writing, none of that happens. It’s actually kind of awkward when I don’t get a chance to write during the day, and then try to squeeze in a writing session late, because then I’ll be getting those ideas while I’m trying to go to sleep.

Actually, it turns out it can be kind of awkward even when I do what I’m trying to do. Two days last week I skipped the group taiji practice session, but on Friday I did pretty much just what I’m planning to do going forward, and the result was that my brain was fairly fizzing with story stuff at the point I was getting set to head out the door. That’s fine for the summer practice sessions where I’m just a participant and not in charge of anything, but when I’m the teacher it’s my job to be fully present and mindful in the class, not in my latest fictional world.

It was okay this time; my fizzy brain had settled down by the time I was in the car ready to drive. But it’s another thing to take into account as I calibrate this new routine, which is why I wanted to have these couple of weeks for a test run.

Still, if I want to get fiction written, it’s best to get started early. And for a week now, I’ve been managing it. (And as a consequence, have finished a draft of my first new short story in a long time.)

Worked out an images workflow

I mentioned a few days ago that I’d got my microblogging working about the way I wanted. There was one exception to that: my “images” workflow.

There’s pretty good “media library” functionality built into WordPress, but I’ve always found it a bit too blog-centric in how it works to be a good general solution to images hosting.

I was a Flickr user from way back, but when the new owners ruined it I decided I should host my own images, and ended up going with Lychee to provide self-hosting functionality.

Lychee works great, but it took me a while to sort out how to integrate images hosted there into my blog.

Here’s what I’ve ended up doing:

  1. Upload images to images.philipbrewer.net. The Lychee software lets me keep them private or make them public, and it lets me organize them into albums. It also produces an RSS feed of all my public photos.
  2. If I want to use one of my photos in a blog post, I select the photo in Lychee, click on the share button, and select “direct link” to get a link to a .jpg file. The default is the full-size image, but I can edit the link to get a link to a medium or small image if I prefer.
  3. In my blog post I insert the image as usual, except instead of selecting the image from my media library, I click “Insert from URL” and paste in the link I acquired in step two. If it’s the main image for the post I also paste it into the “use this image” field in Open Graph (a WordPress plugin I use to generate the metadata so that links shared in Twitter and Facebook use the image I want). If I want to, I can also specify the Lychee page for that image as the target URL if you click on the image.

Here, for example, is an image I took yesterday:

The utilities right-of-way past the U of I research fields is mowed until you get to the solar farm, but after that there’s a long stretch of tall weeds. Not impassable, but not a path either.

Pretty much everything works the way I want it to now. The images are hosted on images.philipbrewer.net, I have access to small, medium, and large versions of the images, and an easy-enough way to include them in a blog post.

Two things that could work better:

  1. A one-click way to get the link for the images pasted into all the right places in a new blog post, so I’m not having to go back and forth to make the image block, get one link, paste it (usually twice), then get the second link, and paste that one.
  2. A one-click way to get a srcset, so that my pages can be more automatically made responsive.

Still, after a bunch of posts where I was testing things out, in which things didn’t work quite they way I wanted them to, I’ve now got things just about set.

Thursday writing group

Local sf writer Elizabeth Shack has been doing the work of organising a few writers to meet Thursday evenings at a local coffee shop. It’s not a critique group; it’s a writing group. There’s a few minutes of conversation and sharing of news, but the main point of the event is to do the usually solitary writing in a slightly less solitary environment.

I’ve been twice now. (I’ll be going again this evening.) I’ve been highly productive both times so far.

I think Elizabeth would be pleased to have the group who shows up expand. (This sort of thing works better when there are enough regulars that when one or another person has to miss a day there’s still a group.) She’s got a contact form on her web site, if you’re a local writer and want to express an interest in joining us.

On Oliver Sacks

On Oliver Sacks: his writing process, how he used notebooks, and his views on creativity. Via Field Notes.

Where making is driven by association and memory, birthing “needs ‘incubation’” and is marked by intuition. But before we hasten to assume that he valued the latter type of creative work more highly than the former, he lists Darwin as an example of a writer who makes and Rilke as one who births, which strongly suggests that he saw the two not as a hierarchy but as distinct, complementary forms of creative work — Darwin was, after all, one of Dr. Sacks’s great heroes.

Source: Inside Oliver Sacks’s Creative Process: The Beloved Writer’s Never-Before-Seen Manuscripts, Brainstorm Sheets, and Notes on Writing, Creativity, and the Brain

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

Back to the novel

I’m back to work on my novel, and my brother gets some of the credit, for pointing out something that I had not considered.

Last summer, I was feeling especially good. I was feeling fit, both mentally and physically, and enjoying life. I noticed that, the more time I spent outdoors, the better I felt. I had a lot of guesses about what might have been going on. Maybe I was feeling better because I was getting:

  • Extra movement (I was mostly outdoors either to walk or to run)
  • Extra time spent in the prairie and the woods (walks in nature are known to improve mood)
  • Extra fresh air
  • Extra alone time (I ran by myself)
  • Extra together time with Jackie (we did many long walks together)
  • Extra light (full sun at noon on a clear day is over 100,000 lux)
  • Extra vitamin D (a pale guy like me can make 10,000 IU in just 20 or 40 minutes)
  • The placebo effect (just doing something can often make you feel better)

I was inclined to credit the extra vitamin D (which probably helps mood). I have gone so far as to get my doctor to order a vitamin D test along with the other blood tests for my annual physical. (We’ll see how my vitamin D levels held up over the long dark winter. If the results are interesting, I’ll post them.)

I was describing all this to my brother, who said, “I think you were feeling great during high summer because you had made plans and you were executing on them. You made a plan to walk the rail trail and did that, and then made a plan to go to France (for the Esperanto conference) and did that too.”

That sounded very reasonable.

Steven, of course, had his own idea about what I might next plan and then execute (“I think you should make a plan to write an essay for the Belartaj Konkursoj”), but I knew that the most important thing to work on is my novel.

So, I’m back to work on it. Starting with a plan.

In its broadest outline, my plan is simple.

I had stalled out because I’d realized that I’d gotten the end of my novel wrong. So, I’ll fix that.

I’ll spend a couple of hours brainstorming the ideal ending of a novel along the lines of the one I’ve written, and then I’ll write the ending to that novel.

Then I can back up and rewrite the beginning so that it leads the ending I’ve come up with.

I’ve known this would be what I’d have to do for a long time. It seemed daunting six months ago, because I’d just rewritten the first part, and the idea of doing it again seemed excruciating. But now, I think I can face it.

I’m more than a little excited about writing the ending from scratch. I’ve got lots of stuff to work with—heroes I like, menacing characters for them to deal with, danger, complexity.

And, if I don’t remember all the details about exactly who was menacing in which way or why, that’s entirely okay. I’ll figure out just what sort of menacing most suites the ending I come up with. Then I can go back and diddle around with the menacing in the middle and at the beginning to make it match.

It’s got all the excitement of starting work on a new novel, with just a quarter of the work!

Play versus practice for diverse natural movement

In looking for ways to fill my day with diverse natural movement, one tactic I keep seeing suggested is play. It’s a compelling idea. More play will likely boost both the diversity of movement (because play is like that) and the quantity of movement (because play is fun).

I’ve been hesitating, because I already struggle to balance my desire for diversity with the worry that maximizing diversity will make it hard to improve any of the many things I want to improve at. I worry that play will put a heavy thumb on that balance, toward diversity and away from focus.

It’s a big deal, because we know how to get good at something: deliberate practice, as described by Anders Ericsson in a 1993 paper that I’ve talked about before. (For reference: Deliberate practice is a cycle of performing your skill, monitoring your performance, evaluating your success, and then figuring out how to do it better.)

One of the points that Ericsson makes in that paper is that deliberate practice is very different from other activities like work and play:

Work includes public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards. Play includes activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable. Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance.

I will grant Ericsson his point in the case of work: If you’re getting paid, you’re probably not going to be creating opportunities to focus on the areas of your performance that are most in need of improvement; rather, you’ll try to maximize your use of skills and abilities you’ve mastered, so you can produce your best work as quickly as possible.

In the case of play, however, I beg to differ. Or rather, I observe that when Ericsson provides examples of “play” in the paper, he’s mostly talking about competitive and especially team-oriented play. Just like with work, the conditions—trying to win, trying not to let your team down—similarly incentivize arranging things to maximize your use of skills and abilities you’ve already mastered.

Serious competitive play is only one kind of play, though. There’s a lot of play that is only notionally competitive, as well as play that’s explicitly cooperative. These other sorts of play are at least as common as serious competitive play.

In my experience, these other sorts of play are full of deliberate practice.

I once saw a kid trying to jump a skateboard onto a low wall. In the time it took me to walk past (a minute or two), the kid repeatedly rolled his skateboard in a big loop tangent to the wall, attempted to make the jump, failed, and set up to try again. I don’t know how long he was going at it before I arrived or after I left, but I’ve rarely seen a more perfect example of deliberate practice: He was performing his skill, monitoring his performance, trying to figure out how to do it better, and then trying again.

In my experience, play involving a group people of various skills levels very often includes specific instruction and specific encouragement for the less-skilled players to learn and then practice a new skill. “You don’t know how to do a vault? Well, here’s one way. Try it a few times.”

So, I think I’m going to quit hesitating to emphasize “play” as a way to fit more, and more various, natural movement into my day. Like that kid on the skateboard, I’ll try to include some deliberate practice in my play. Of course, I still have my essential quandary: How do I thread the needle between focusing on one or a few things without losing the diversity? But that’s a problem for another day. My play can include as much focus as I choose to include.

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.