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You’d listen to yourself if you were somebody else

Early on in the semester for my Introductory writing class, I like to bring in motivational and inspirational quotes from other disciplines. I’m looking for examples of strong writing that also offer an opportunity to segue into discussing the work of writing.

For example, when I talk about the process of revision with students, I bring in Max Weber:

“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.”

Writing can feel that slow. It’s hard, focused work, and I tell my students that they need to respect the process and prepare themselves for the slowness of it.

But it’s not always easy to take your own advice

I recently chucked out about 40 pages of a script draft. I was treating a character as a throwaway gag, but I realized there was more dramatic and comedic value in bringing them into the story properly.

Normally it feels a little easier to toss pages aside after an exciting discovery like that. If I kept going without making the changes, I’d only wind up doubling back and starting over again as soon as I typed FADE OUT.

So why not save myself some effort and get going with that new version now?

But I’ve recently started a new semester of teaching. I have a new baby in the house. I have a child starting kindergarten. I’m starting to give some of my bandwidth to the promotional side of the writing project I worked on for the past year. I’m learning to re-wire my brain so I spend less time fighting against it. And so on.

There’s momentum for my writing, but less of it. I have less energy, and I need to spend time learning new ways to adapt.

Take the new baby (Button). Before, I started pushing myself to get up earlier to try and carve out an hour to an hour and a half of solitude for coffee and work before the rest of the house would wake up. Now, Button usually starts stirring mid-way through that time.

At that point, I bring him downstairs so Dena can get some more sleep. Sometimes Button will fall back asleep quickly, but sometimes he just wants to wiggle. Other times he demands to be held.

Austin Kleon offers artists with newborns the advice to “find a one-armed miniature version of what you do.” Not everything I have to do is easily accomplished (or workable) while holding a baby, but most of the time I can shift gears. Re-prioritize, or break something into smaller tasks.

Totally sensible, but my brain says “Nope.”

I fight, resisting the need to change. I deny that I should lower my expectations for myself. I tell myself I need to hustle harder, sleep less, and juggle faster.

In an episode of Jocelyn K. Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast, she talks about the very kind of impulse I’m fighting against and gives it a name:

When you commit to a schedule or a workload that you intuitively know at the outset is unrealistic and is destined to result in overwhelm. And then later on, you beat yourself up when you are unable to meet that schedule. That’s productivity shame.

When you set an incredibly challenging goal for yourself without creating any structure for emotional support or accountability, and then you blame your failure to meet those goals on a lack of personal willpower. That’s productivity shame.

I’ve been trying to introduce some other ideas into my head to populate my brain with counter-arguments against that inner Productivity Monster.

Image of Sam the Eagle with the caption 'The Productivity Monster is a lot less intimidating if you imagine them as a Muppet.'

For example, I read Atomic Habits by James Clear, where he uses a great example to demonstrate the idea that small changes and tiny, consistent actions can still lead to big results:

The impact created by a change in your habits is similar to the effect of shifting the route of an airplane by just a few degrees. Imagine you are flying from Los Angeles to New York City. If a pilot leaving from LAX adjusts the heading just 3.5 degrees south, you will land in Washington, D.C., instead of New York. Such a small change is barely noticeable at takeoff—the nose of the airplane moves just a few feet—but when magnified across the entire United States, you end up hundreds of miles apart.

Small actions can lead to big results if you add enough of them up. It sounds logical enough. So lately, my Write Sprints have gotten shorter, but they’re more consistent than they have been in a while. I’m not having any days where I can knock out 5+ pages, but I’m having more days where I wind up with 1 or 2 new pages of material.

Close up, that effort doesn’t feel like much motion at all. And it can be frustrating to feel like those little drips of writing aren’t connecting into a larger, coherent whole.

But there’s no point in measuring just one day

You can’t write a screenplay or a book in a single day. Anything you can completely finish in a single hour (or less) probably won’t be the thing you hold up as an example of what you’re capable of.

Reading and listening to the work of others reminds me of the idea that you need to take the long view with finishing a larger project or building up a habit.

There’s one quote about writing (and geology) gets used in the second day of the semester. It’s one I like to refer back to throughout the semester as a thematic pedal point for the class:

“When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.”

-John McPhee (from Annals of the Former World)

It’s a reminder to students that great things can come from humble beginnings: That which was once deep in the lowest part of the surface world, through time, pressure, and imperceptible movement, rose high above all else.

That the only constant on this planet is the act of change, and that how any situation looks at the moment is only temporary.

It’s something I use to remind them that no matter where they come from, or how they feel about their ability as a writer, given time and effort, they too can rise up.

Right now, it feels like it would benefit me to look at my work and my efforts as if I were one of my own students.

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Current Mental Conditions vs. The Mental Forecast

It was a Saturday morning, and my daughter had been awake for forty-five minutes. By that point she had already peppered me with questions about what family birthdays are in which month, fourteen pieces of Star Wars minutiae, and three requests to look at her baby pictures. That’s when Dena texted from upstairs that our son was awake and needed his diaper changed.

Somewhere between closing the snaps on his pajamas and heading back downstairs to start toasting bagels, I looked over my to-do list. That’s when I had The Thought:

“It’s 8 a.m., and the productive part of my day was over an hour ago.”

A few months ago, this thought would’ve locked me in for (to paraphrase the words of The West Wing’s Charlie Young) a “low self-image day.” That to-do list would’ve been set aside, and lethargy would have taken over.

But not this day. This day I thought about the difference between the current mental conditions and the mental forecast.

Even if you hyper-schedule your day, you still don’t know exactly how you’re going to feel a few hours from now, or if the reality of your day is going to match your plan. Unless, that is, you decide that your interpretation of your current mental state and the outside forces acting on it are a prediction of what’s to come, and you live out your self-fulfilling prophecy.

At any given point, our mood is a snapshot of the current conditions. It’s useless, at best, to assume that how you feel now is how you will feel in the future.

Like any good forecast, you need to look at other conditions that hold influence over you.

Because unlike the weather, you have options to head off a storm front moving in inside your head. You need to be able to take that moment to step back and clearly see what you’re looking at when you look at your mental state.

This isn’t just for people with depression. Every person makes predictions about what might happen in the future, but the only information we have is what we can see and hear in the present. Any person might make a bad prediction. While my depression doesn’t create a unique problem in that sense, it does make it harder to differentiate between the current conditions and the forecast.

But I’m learning.

I ate my bagel. Had some coffee. Washed some dishes. Gave my son a bath. Wrote the first draft of this post, and got a lot of other boxes checked off in my to-do list.

And a big part of why the day didn’t stop at 8 a.m. was because I’m learning to be a better emotional meteorologist.

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On continuing to try

Out for a run this morning, I watched a helicopter seed spiral out of a tree and land on the concrete.

Nothing will come of that seed. It has nowhere left to go.

But the tree has hundreds more seeds to drop, just waiting for the right breeze.

Any one of them might land somewhere that it might take hold and sprout, but the tree needs to keep producing seeds, regardless of where each one lands.

And that’s what I want to think about when I try to remember the importance of valuing the process and the habit of work instead of only valuing the end results.

Because a helicopter seed can spiral gracefully no matter where it lands.

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Clean Your Plate

Picture yourself in a restaurant.

The server hands you a menu and lets you know they’ll check back in a few minutes to see if you’ve decided on what to eat. You look over the available options and make a choice.

When the server returns to your table, they ask if you think you’re ready to order, but then offer you an additional menu. Specials the chef thought you might enjoy, they say.

Do you stick with what you picked from that first menu, or would you rather take a moment to see if there’s something better available on this new list?

Now imagine that server returning every few minutes with another supplemental menu. Each one unique. Each one with at least a few options you might enjoy.

You start thinking about if you need to come back to this restaurant again soon, because you can only eat one thing tonight, and you’d better make a decision soon, because you’re only getting hungrier.

But there are just so many choices, and the server refuses to stop providing you with more options.

Picture from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie with quote from the blog post

It’s absurd, right? Total Buñuelian nightmare. You’d never go to that restaurant willingly.

But you might be doing just that, except it’s not with what you eat. It’s with the other things you consume.

What is your intention with your attention?

You make choices, moment to moment, about how to spend the finite amount of attention you have. When you choose to act based on your intention, you need to navigate the pathway between that intention and satisfying the desire that lead to that intention.

Let’s say you want to watch a movie, the movie is on Netflix, and you have a Netflix subscription. What greets you when you load Netflix?

First, you get an ad for whatever movie or tv series their algorithm thinks you’re likely to enjoy right at the top, filling most of your screen. Then you get a set of similarly-formatted lists; rows and rows of colorful pictures to entice the eye.

While the top one is most likely the list you populated with choices you intend to watch, you’re also presented with an array of options aside from what you told Netflix you have an interest in.

This is a design choice. Your interaction with Netflix is not crafted with the purpose of helping you follow through on your intention. It’s designed to lead you toward discovery.

You know what’s on the menu. You know what you want. But why don’t you look at our specials, just in case there’s something else you might enjoy?

Compare this to the actions that went with watching a movie on DVD. The advertising, selection, and viewing processes had more distinct separations.

Maybe you went to the store, or to a video rental outlet, and made your choice about what to watch. When it was time to watch the movie, you put the disc in the machine, and only that movie was available to watch.

When the disc would first load, you’d see trailers. Sometimes you could skip them. Sometimes you couldn’t. But one thing you were never able to do was switch what movie was about to play. The advertisement wasn’t linked to the immediate act of consumption.

You were still going to watch the movie you intended, even though you had to see trailers and commercials first (just like at a movie theater, where you lock in your intent with the purchase of a ticket).

Think about the goal of each distribution mechanism. A movie theater wants you to pay for one movie and stay for its duration (and maybe buy some snacks and drinks). A video rental store wants you to pay per movie you watch and bring them back in a timely fashion (which encourages you to watch the movies promptly).

Most streaming services don’t charge you based on how much you watch, and there’s no physical media to return. Their interest is in keeping you paying a regular subscription fee, and the best way to ensure that you want to stay subscribed is to create the feeling that you will continue to find new content worth watching.

A digital service has more interest in helping you discover new menu items, than it does in making sure you clean your plate because you loved what you ordered.

This push toward discovery over intention also holds true with the shift from physical media to streaming media in music.

Open up a music app and check to see if the first screen is your saved library, what you last played, or if you see suggestions of other artists or playlists you might like.

Sidebar: This also relates to the promotion of The Playlist over The Album, because it’s a way of rapidly introducing you to more artists instead of focusing you on any particular musician or group.

Now look at a news site. Individual articles still have a prominent place, but there’s often a sidebar with popular links, or links to additional articles interspersed with the text. You may read your way through a single article, or you might wind up with 18 open tabs and no time to scan them all.

There are tools to combat this, like Reader View in Safari or services like Instapaper and Pocket, that remove extraneous links to aid you in focusing on what you intended to read.

But these are additional tools on top of what was designed and presented to you by the news source. These are workarounds to assert your intention instead of the default.

These design decisions are about fostering hunger instead of enabling satisfaction.

This is not to say “DIGITAL BAD!”

There are some amazing things that have happened due to the proliferation of new distribution methods and channels. In particular with video streaming services, there are new outlets for a more diverse set of storytellers and types of storytelling.

And the ability to access this material easily, quickly, and (relatively) cheaply is a boon for many reasons.

But the design decisions behind how we interact with these services are antagonistic toward user intention. These interfaces can easily turn you into a digital hoarder, always hungry, and rarely satisfied.

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The kind of person who owns grapefruit spoons

One day, my wife and I made the decision in a Crate & Barrel to buy grapefruit spoons. We even went and bought several grapefruits and ate them with those grapefruit spoons.

But it never became a habit.

We moved several times after that, and the grapefruit spoons always came with us, but they mostly stayed in the drawer.

It’s a minor thing. A pair of small, serrated spoons that take up an almost unnoticeable amount of space.

But that’s just it — almost.

I know the spoons are there. I know they’re not being used. I know we intended to use them, and now we hang on to them long after the seriousness of the intention has passed.

Buying the spoon wasn’t just about the utility of the thing, but the identity it created.

I’m the person who makes a healthy choice and eats a grapefruit in the morning regularly enough to require specialized flatware.

The purchase came ahead of the identity. The desired identity came ahead of the work of becoming that person.

And it leaves me with three options:

  1. Do nothing constructive. Keep the spoons and feel annoyed every time you notice them. Regret the purchase and the desire to have that identity.
  2. Abandon the spoons. Chuck them out, and decide that either the identity wasn’t that important or grapefruits (as an object) aren’t that important.
  3. Do the work to own that identity. Buy some grapefruit. Eat the grapefruit.

Lately I feel aware of the other things in my life that feel like grapefruit spoons, and that it’s time to make some choices.

Option one doesn’t feel healthy or wise. Option two has its merits, since reducing attachments and commitments allows for more focus on what’s left behind. But option three has its merits, as well.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for everything, but sometimes you need to confront where choices have to be made.

Because it feels better to see yourself as the sum total of what you choose to do, rather than to just feel the accumulated weight of the things you held onto and left unused.