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.
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.
I made very little progress on fiction this year, which is okay.
In years past I was kind of defensive about my lack of fictional productivity—I think because I’d bought into the idea that a fiction writer writes fiction, and if I’m not writing, maybe I’m not a fiction writer anymore. But my experience is that making myself write something that I don’t want to write is no fun, nor is it particularly productive.
So of late I’ve just gone with it. On days that I feel like writing fiction I take a stab at something—I’ve started two new stories and worked on several old ones over the course of the year, in addition to working a little on the novel. Essentially none of that work has borne fruit in the sense of producing a finished story, but none of it was wasted either, in the sense that I did it because I wanted to, and only kept at it as long as I was enjoying it.
I don’t know whether I wrote more or less because I gave myself permission to write only when I wanted to, but I definitely enjoyed it more.
I did a bit more writing for Wise Bread this year, all concentrated toward the end of the year. Posts that appeared in 2016 were:
I’m pretty pleased with all of those. The first one did quite well in terms of reads, getting a pretty good response to my tweet “It bugs me when people mock millennials for not following the game plan that worked for the boomers.”
As a bonus, none of them is a listicle.
I wrote a typical amount here on this blog, averaging perhaps a post a week.
A big reason I didn’t do more writing this year is the amount of time I spent doing other things. I spent a little more time this year than in recent years with the local Esperantists. Jackie lured me into joining her on some of the volunteer stewardship work days she’s doing as part of becoming a Master Naturalist. The biggest was movement—that will get its own “Movement in 2016” post.
As a side note here, because although it’s not writing it is a creative endeavor, I bought myself a drawing tablet for the computer. (I got a medium Wacom Intuos tablet.) I’ve produce my first painting with it, and a second is almost done. I’m thinking I’ll share paintings here on the blog from time to time, but I wanted to get these 2016 review posts done first.
I don’t normally suggest a soundtrack for posts, but for this one I recommend that you listen to Da Vinci’s Notebook singing “Kingdom in the Sky.” Open that link in another tab and let it play while you read.
For almost ten years now I’ve been writing about personal finance and frugality for the website Wise Bread. A few months ago, the founders emailed the senior writers to say that to celebrate their 10-year anniversary they were inviting all of us who started in the first year, together with our families, to Disneyland.
What a great gift! Jackie and I flew out last week, spent two nights in the Disneyland hotel, and spent two days in the theme parks.
Even better than the theme parks was the chance to meet the admins, some of the other writers, and the Wise Bread staff! These are people I’ve been working with for 10 years, but had never met except through their posts and email messages.
Nice swag bags were delivered to our room—snacks, Disney name tags and lanyard wallets, big Disney insulated cups, and heavy-weight hoodies with both the Disney and Wise Bread logos. Mine also had a Mophie powerpack! (There’s a local-to-my-hometown connection between Mophie and Kalamazoo which this an especially welcome gift, totally aside from the fact that my old Motorola powerpack had given up the ghost just before this trip, which meant that I really needed one.)
We also got a pair of 2-day hopper passes for visiting the theme parks!
The evening we got there was the staff/editor/writer dinner at the Catal restaurant in downtown Disney. Jackie and I ended up sitting down at the end of the table with the editors Janet and Lars and their spouses, and enjoyed much fascinating conversation all through dinner. (Also a nice—if rather young—pinot noir that Lars somehow managed to end up paying for despite everyone else’s best efforts.)
Around the middle of the evening, Lynn (one of the founders) called me to join her closer to the middle of the table so she could make a little speech thanking all us writers for joining Wise Bread and sticking with it all these years, and giving us each a “gift appropriate for a writer” which turned out to be the Mont Blanc pen in the photo above. What a generous and appropriate gift!
(A photo of that moment was posted to instagram—I tweeted it—but it seems to have vanished. My tweet no longer even has the link to where the photo used to be. What’s up with that? If it resurfaces, I’ll post it here.)
The next morning was breakfast at Goofy’s Kitchen—a breakfast buffet with Disney characters posing for photos and parading through the dining rooms. We sat at the same table as Will, who had some very kind things to say about me to Jackie.
We spent the rest of the morning at the Disneyland theme park (having done the California Adventure theme park the previous afternoon).
After various rides and attractions and lunch (and a good bit of walking—important to Jackie and me), we decided that we were about theme-parked out, and decided to spend the warm part of the afternoon walking in the gardens outside the hotel and sitting by the pool. Jackie wrote some postcards.
We took a bunch of pictures, some of which are good enough to share. I gathered those in a Flickr album I called #wisebread10thdisney after the hashtag the admins wanted us to use for our Instagram posts. (Or you can go to that hashtag at Instagram and see everybody else’s photos along with those of mine that ended up on Instagram.)
However, I got one particularly good shot of Jackie and me that I wanted to share:
How much fun were Jackie and I having at Disneyland? This much fun.
Thanks to the admins at Wise Bread! Hey, shall we do our 20th anniversary celebration at EPCOT?
Like most of my friends, I’m distressed and depressed about the prospects for our country.
I’m not going to back away from the fight. I hope and expect we will use the tools and tactics that the Republicans so ably demonstrated to block as much evil as possible. I also hope we’ll be much more strategic than they were. They seemed more interested in making the Obama presidency a failure than in advancing their own agenda. The Democrats may prove more capable at making some progress—letting the Republicans “succeed,” when they’re doing something we’d also like to do.
Having said that, I must say that distress and depression are not a good look on me. Nor are anger and bitterness. And those are the things I find when I watch the news, listen to the radio, read articles on politics, and increasingly when I read my Twitter and Facebook feeds.
So, while not backing away from the fight, I do hope to back away from the outrage. That’s going to mean changing the way I interact with both news media and social media.
I’m going to follow fewer links—so often they go to articles calculated to produce outrage, and I don’t need more outrage. It’s a fine line, because there has been and will be much that is deserving of outrage. Yet: I do not worry that I will suffer from outrage deficiency.
My hope from this is that I will gain many things: time, attention, equilibrium, equanimity. These things will be used: For movement, for family, for study, and for my work—writing (both fiction and non-) and joining Jackie in her volunteering at local natural areas.
Yesterday Jackie and I walked at Forest Glen. The leaves are mostly down, covering the ground so thickly that some places it’s hard to find the trail. But with the leaves down, you can see much further into the forest:
Christa suggests three starting places: food, movement, and stuff—adding that the proper course to take is a spiral, coming around to the same points over and over. She is right—where you start means little—and yet, her course is so completely different from my own I thought it might be worth pondering those differences to see if they told me something useful about what I’ve been doing, and about how I’ve been writing about it.
As anyone who has read my work at Wise Bread knows, I’m all about the power of frugality as a tool for living a life of full of exactly what you most want: Basically, I started with the “stuff” piece. I probably have a hundred articles on various aspects of figuring out the difference between needs and wants, covering your actual needs, identifying and focusing on those few wants that matter most deeply to you, and dealing with others who care how you satisfy your wants.
Christa’s third piece is about movement, and that is where my writing at Wise Bread falls short. In fact, I’ve really got exactly one post that’s right on topic. The editors gave it the unfortunate title of Get a Great Workout for Free With 11 Simple Moves, but it’s straight-up natural movement advocacy. Before that, I had some good stuff on how walking and bicycling for transportation were frugal and healthy, but it had a pretty limited perspective.
I think I need to write some more pieces on both food and movement for Wise Bread. I can certainly write a new Wise Bread post on how to eat paleo on the cheap. (Not that I eat a paleo diet, but there’s a lot of overlap between what’s expensive in my diet and what’s expensive in the paleo diet.) Maybe I can also write some more movement pieces. What should be the focus, I wonder. The frugality of natural movement for exercise? The frugality of staying healthy? Or the luxury and splendor of being a fully capable human? I guess I’ve done that first one. Hmm.
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:
Finish my novel
Work on my parkour strength/skills
Do some running
Go for some long walks
Get in some bike rides
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.
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 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!
For various reasons, my fiction output has been small.
I didn’t finish the novel, which a year ago I thought was nearly done. What happened was that, as my rewrite approached the end, I realized that the end I had was totally wrong for a novel.
The ending in the zeroth draft was full of implications, which can work great in a short story—the reader ends up knowing that things are going to go a certain way, without the story actually walking them through all the scenes to get there.
A novel is different. Those scenes should be there. As as I started to write them, I realized that things would not go as I’d implied they would. So I would have to figure out the new ending, and write it, and then go back and change a whole bunch of stuff that had set up for the ending I’d previously implied so that it instead would set up for the ending I ended up with.
I haven’t given up on any of that stuff, but I haven’t done it yet either.
I’ve played around with several short stories, but only finished one. It got some pretty good comments from the Incognitos, but I didn’t come away with a good plan for finishing it and submitting it to editors.
I should finish it and submit it. It’s clear in my own mind that no simple rewrite would make it a much better story, so I should just fix the few minor things that readers spotted and get it out to markets—they’ll either buy it or they won’t. But I haven’t yet.
I’ve written quite a bit here on my blog. Since the posts are all right here, I won’t bother linking to them, except to say that my story structure article continues to get the most visits by more than an order of magnitude, and that my post Katy Bowman: The Michael Pollan of movement was by far the most visited this year (because Katy shared it on her Facebook page).
Only one of these articles is a flat-out listicle (which almost everything that Wise Bread publishes these days is), so I consider that a win.
I pitched several other pieces that I think would have made great Wise Bread posts. A couple got turned down by the editors, and a couple got send back with the suggestion that I somehow turn it into a listicle, and I declined to write the article along those lines.
It’s my smallest output at Wise Bread since I started writing for them, but that’s okay. I’ve said most of what I have to say on frugality and personal finance.
My income from writing for Wise Bread is down a lot, but has—much to my surprise—been replaced to a considerable extent with money for teaching taiji.
Taiji (and movement in general) have become more important these past few years, to the point that this year I almost changed the title of my annual review post to “Writing and movement in 2015.” Instead, though, I think I should write a “Movement in 2015” post, which might become an annual tradition of its own.