Microscopic truthfulness


My favorite book is If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. I’ve written about this charming, effusively encouraging and insightful book before and was reminded recently of her championing what she called “microscopic truthfulness”.

Good writing or art or communication of any sort should be characterized by a detailed and exacting commitment to accuracy. Details matter. Our brains can absorb so much and have evolved to find patterns and grasp nuance. The effective artist will take advantage of the audience’s ability and eagerness to fully inhabit and imagine sensory and emotional details. We miss opportunities to deeply connect and make our message resonate if we don’t embrace the fine points, if we stick to mere generalizations.

Hemingway gave similar advice about observing intently and communicating in detail:

Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had.

Details matter and give meaning and energy and interest to what would otherwise be forgettable and lost in the wash of information that rolls over us every day.

Craft a routine for creative spontaneity

I’ve often taken pride in a seat-of-the-pants approach. With Indiana Jones as a model – “I’m making this up as I go!”winging it seemed a virtue.

With age, though, I’ve developed an appreciation for order and structure and routine. And I’m far from disciplined in actually applying order to my daily life.

We expect creativity to be mysterious and ecstatic, and we wait for it, hoping it will grab hold of us. We delay, waiting to be inspired.

But it’s been my experience that waiting for inspiration leads to a lot of doing nothing. What if it’s the other way around? What if routine and structure, showing up and taking action regardless of your emotional state, were what summoned the muse?

Here is William James as quoted in the excellent book, Daily Rituals, by Mason Curry:

“The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.”

Interestingly, at the time James wrote this he was struggling with the misery of indecision he describes.

As a new school year is beginning, it’s a great time to craft a fresh, new routine for your days. Create a structure of when to arise and exercise and work and eat and read and play and when to turn the lights out. Stick to the schedule. Automate easy decisions, taking them out of your brain and opening space there for more challenging, creative endeavors.

Routine can spark spontaneity. Make a plan, show up consistently, and see if inspiration notices your pattern and begins showing up, too.

Inspiration will jilt you. Move on without it.

From Erin Rooney Doland‘s chapter in the excellent book, Manage Your Day-to-Day:

Leigh Michaels, prolific author of more than eighty romance novels, once said that “waiting for inspiration to write is like standing at the airport waiting for a train.” Conditions to produce one’s craft are rarely ideal, and waiting for everything to be perfect is almost always an exercise in procrastination.

Inspiration will leave you in the lurch and repeatedly break your heart. You still will love it and long for it and put up with its philandering ways. And you will wait and postpone good things in hopes that it will arrive any moment now.

The best way to summon it is to ignore it, play hard-to-get, and just start doing your work, whether you feel like it or not.

I aim to write something every day. Some days I wait and wait, longing for even a tiny nudge of inspiration, and the day gets late with no love from the muse. Then I just have to start writing something to keep that daily commitment, even if I’m sure what I write will be lame or trite or completely unoriginal. This is one of those posts.

Inspiration did not arrive, but I did.

Write what you want to read

I’m reading The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson now. (Thanks to my friend, Jesse, for the recommendation.) It’s an epic fantasy novel (1,000 pages in this first of a planned ten book series) and not my usual reading fare. But I’m immersed in it and marveling at the compelling narrative and level of detail the author has created. Years ago, before the movies ever came out, I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and felt a similar level of awe at the marvelous world an author can create.

Intrigued by this young author’s career, I found this interview with Sanderson and appreciated his approach:

I can only speak from my own experience, which may be abnormal, but I really feel that the times where I worried too much about the market were the times I wrote my worst fiction. And the times where I wrote: “this is what I want to read — this is what I’m passionate about,” I wrote my best fiction. And so that’s what I would advise.

That being said, I was very steeped in this genre. You can say what I wanted to read was very naturally an outgrowth of what a lot of what the fandom wanted to read because I was one of them. That’s why it worked for me. And I’m sure there are a number of people who are writing to their passion, and it just doesn’t end up catching on. I wrote 13 books before I got published, and at the end of the day I decided I would rather keep writing and never publish than give up writing or go do something else. And if I reached the end of my life and had 70 unpublished novels, I’d still consider myself a successful writer. That decision has driven me ever since and it’s worked out for me. -Brandon Sanderson

He’s writing what he wants to read and seems as if he would be content if he was never published.

That’s a good formula for work in general, not just writing. Make things that will delight you. Do your best, not for the chance for advancement or to impress bosses or to win some sales competition. Be awesome in all that you do whether anyone else notices or not. You will notice. And you will delight in the intrinsic rewards of work that shines regardless of any extrinsic rewards.

And that approach is more likely to produce quality work that does resonate and connect with others in a more meaningful way than trying to figure out what will sell.

“How do I move the needle?”

I enjoyed this video about screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s writing process shawnblanc.net linked to today:

Black, who wrote the screenplays for J. Edgar and Milk, has a richly complex, yet clear and beautiful process for putting together his screenplays. Watching him lay out all those note cards on that giant table sparked memories, happy memories, of working on a research paper in college. I wrote an honors thesis in a religion class my senior year and used a similar process where I researched like crazy and then sorted my note cards like I was playing a delightfully challenging game of solitaire. I would rearrange and discard and rethink and see it all eventually unfold into a meaningful narrative that flowed logically and came to a satisfying conclusion.

Black has a clear commitment to digging deeply into a subject, doing meticulous, even excruciating work, and taking his time to let the story come to him. And he’s willing to let go of ideas he loves to better serve the story.

I find a similar workflow works for me in light table view in Keynote. It’s the digital equivalent for me of a table full of note cards. Analog or digital, there’s much to value in a process where you can see the big picture of a story or a project or an idea and make connections and rearrange and discard to better serve the narrative arc.

Do the hard work. Dig deep for details. Spend the time necessary to know your stuff. Then zoom out and find the big picture. That zoomed out perspective might show you a completely different direction than you had originally expected.

Of course, the big picture, the point of your work, has to begin and end with “Why?” Black says just this at the beginning of the video:

“That’s where I start, taking an idea, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, and figuring out why. Not just what you’re going to tell, not that it’s entertaining or interesting. But why are you telling that story? What is the purpose of that story? For me it’s always, How do I move the needle? How do I change the culture? Now.”

We all want to “move the needle”, to do something worth talking about, to make a difference. I’m inspired to invest in a crisp, new stack of note cards and get busy crafting a story worth telling.

Note to self

I’m rereading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. It’s the kind of book that you can open anywhere and find something worthwhile to ponder. My copy is filled with yellow highlights, and I marvel at his prolifically quote-worthy (and tweet-worthy) insights into the challenges of living an excellent human life.

What makes this book so remarkable, I think, is that he was not writing it for anyone but himself. He had no intent to publish what was the private diary of the most powerful man in the world. Instead of filling this journal, though, with the people and events of his life, which certainly would have been of great historical value, he instead wrote of his efforts to master his own mind and live in a virtuous, excellent way. The philosophical value more than makes up for what was lost to history.

Meditations is a sort of extended “note to self” wherein he is clearly talking only to Marcus Aurelius and chiding and encouraging and reminding himself of what should be his focus. There are sentence fragments galore. Some make no sense to me, and others are as starkly profound as anything I’ve read.

Uninhibited by what others might think, Aurelius was free to write with a remarkable rawness and candor that would be unlikely if he were writing for an audience.

This site is my attempt to somehow publicly share a sort of note-to-self journal. I keep a private journal (using Day One), and I find my writing there is not nearly as well thought out as what I post here. Being aware that someone else might read this (hello, lone reader) forces me to craft my thoughts with more care and intention.

Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. -Paul Graham

But I don’t want to come across as some pretentious expert with answers and solutions for all. I’m far from it. Yet I want the kind of candor and directness that Marcus has in writing to himself.

How to balance the authenticity a note-to-self approach with the benefits of writing for others? It’s a worthwhile challenge to attempt. Squelch the self-consciousness of being observed yet write with enough awareness of an audience to focus my thinking more sharply.

My imperative sentences are addressed to myself. “Do this…” “Think in this way…” Those are directed at me, and if a reader finds some value as well, excellent. But if I am the only person who derives any benefit from sharing my notes-to-self online, if this effort moves me just a little further along the path toward living a better life, that is excellent, too.

Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 9.49.47 AM

screenshot from my copy of Meditations

“Resistance”: Using fear to find your way

This afternoon I made a trip to the backyard hammock. I had survived my daughter’s 7th birthday Frozen slumber party and was looking forward to a quiet day. I picked up my old Kindle e-reader, the one with no touch screen and no apps. I usually read on my iPad mini, but reading in a hammock outside is a Kindle occasion.

The book that happened to be at the top of the list when I powered the Kindle on was Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Such a great read. It’s the ultimate kick in the seat of the pants for anyone who wants to get something done but who keeps not doing the thing they want to do.

Pressfield is a novelist (his Gates of Fire is terrific), but The War of Art is non-fiction and non-B.S. It’s straight talk about the battle we all face when confronted by the desire to make something meaningful or to live a nobler life. He names the force that opposes our efforts the “Resistance”. From the opening pages:

“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”

The greats are great because they mustered the will to overcome this Resistance. The greats didn’t wait on inspiration; they put their butts in their chairs and did work, whether they felt like it or not.

Instant gratification, comfort, pleasure, pain-avoidance of any sort are all forms of Resistance. Beating Resistance is a daily undertaking. It’s not a one and done kind of battle. Pressfield encourages us, though, to use Resistance to our advantage:

“Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North – meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing.

We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others.

Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”

So, search yourself and explore the grand plans of your imagination. The plans for the kind of person you would like to be and the dreams of the work you want to do. Find where there is the most Resistance, those things that seem to be too much of a stretch, where the fear of action is greatest. There’s your calling. Head in that direction.


The daily grind, the daily find

A year ago I committed myself to sharing something daily on this site. It didn’t have to be a well composed, lengthy essay about weighty matters. It could have been something small I had found or something I was trying to learn more about. I was fine with reaching the end of a night and simply posting a quotation or link just to fulfill my commitment to sharing something every day.

Often, that attempt to post some small item led to more searching and insight than I had expected. And I loved surprising myself with unanticipated output, with creative pursuits that wouldn’t have been given a chance except for my humble attempt to find just one little thing to share every day, to keep that commitment. I had a blast and looked forward to what would surprise me each day.

I kept that commitment for several months and felt, eventually, like I had accomplished a goal and could go back to posting sporadically. My posting was feeling more like a daily grind, a burden to come up with something worth sharing.

I realize now that I miss trying to fulfill the daily writing commitment. My life seemed clearer, more intentional when I had this tiny task every day. My brain was on a regular search to find something worth writing about. I’m reminded of Leo Buscaglia whose childhood was enriched by a father who expected every kid in the family to share at dinner each night something new they learned that day. Leo said he often would rush to the encyclopedias right before dinner, desperate to find something worth sharing.

The quest to better understand and better experience life is speeded along by an effort to express, to articulate, to share.

I don’t presume to have an audience (thank you lone reader, this one’s for you), but my target audience is myself. I write to know myself better, to figure things out, to see what I have to say. To write the internet I would enjoy reading. Secondarily, I write to my young daughters, who have no interest now in any of this. But, maybe someday they will find some value buried in here.

Even if I’m writing for myself alone, I owe it to myself to be as awesome as I can be. Sharing every day will produce a lot of bad writing and banal ideas. But bad could lead to okay. And okay might eventually produce something pretty good. The road to awesome is paved with a whole lot of mediocre, but mediocre action is better than no action.

So, brace yourself, lone reader. I’m back to the daily grind.

Neil Gaiman’s main rule of writing

From Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing:

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.” -Neil Gaiman