I’m behind on my writing. For three days I’ve posted nothing. Despite the back-date on this post, it’s really January 19th.
This is not new. It has happened before. I’ve dealt with it. Poorly. But this time I’m going to deal with it differently. Better.
Before I write about the new way, let me describe the old. I’ve dealt with it in one of these ways. First, I’ve bitched, castigated myself, spurred myself to work, and caught up. I’ve done that a couple of times this year already. After doing that enough times, I realize that I’ve fallen too far behind to catch up. So I accept the loss and start. After doing that a few times I think fuck it, and that’s it for a long while.
Eventually I come back to my love of writing, and I wish I’d found a way to muddle through.
It might be different this time (and I hope it is) because of waking up, the book, and the act and my further reflections on free will and conditioning. From this perspective here’s what I see: My writing has always been a conditioned act. The words come out because I have elaborate, well tuned machinery that makes words come out. Like right now. Here they come.
When I stop writing, (when my writing machinery breaks down) I’ve got other machinery that gets me going again. But when that machinery breaks down there’s no machinery to fix it. Or if there is, then when that machinery breaks. Somewhere in the chain of turtles there is a failure.
So unless I happen to wake up, observe the problem, and deliberately craft a solution, I will continue to not write until something triggers my “start all over again” machinery. Then, as conditioned, I will start all over again.
The wheel of karma!
When I write, here’s the way I write. I put words down on paper. Then I rearrange the words. Then rearrange them again and again. And then one of two things happens: I say “done” and press Publish. Or, more usually, I don’t. Either I go on to write and never finish and finally quit, or I get distracted and start to write something else. Either way, the process grinds to a halt, as above.
There’s no process other than “just do it.”
I’d like for me to do the writing, wide awake, all the time, but I’m very far from being there. Instead, I’m going to create a process and monitor it closely. I want the process to reliably result in me writing and publishing the things that I want to write. I’d like to sit down each day, pick a topic, write on that topic, be done, and press publish. The challenge is getting from something like where I’ve been to something like where I want to get to.
That’s where Barbara Baig comes in. She says: you need to break any complex task into discrete skills, and practice the skills. Practice, not performance, is a key. And not just repetition. Deep practice. Deliberate practice.
She divides writing skills into two families: she calls one “Content Skills” and the other “Word Skills” and she’s written a book on each, link may be provided later. Or you can Google. I’ve written about this before and then fallen asleep on myself. So again! Wake up!
Here are the skills that I think that I need to develop:
First: generating topics. I do that all the time, but I do it in a random, uncontrolled way. I’ve got lists of topics, mostly in parts of my brain that don’t talk to each other. So for topic generation, I’ve now got a Google Doc called Topic List. I plan to collect all my random topic ideas there, and use it to organize them.
Second: picking a topic. This is a problem because my current topic-picking process is unstructured, even random. So the picking a topic skill includes reviewing my topic list, prioritizing it, and then choosing the one that I feel most interested in writing about.
Third: two inch picture frame. Everything in the world is connected to everything else, and part of my joy in learning is finding out about those connections, and part of my joy in writing is writing about them. But the process makes any piece of writing unbounded. So the skill is keeping what I am writing about manageable. Annie LaMott in "Bird By Bird" talks about a two inch picture frame. The next skill is constraining the topic, so that it does not become the entire world. I need to work on that one a lot.
Fourth: generating or collecting ideas on the topic. This is one of Barbara Baig’s content skills. I’m good at finding ideas, but bad at organizing them in ways that let me refer to them easily when I am writing. TBD: find ways to improve that skill.
Fifth: organize the ideas. That’s related to the two inch picture frame. Some ideas may deserve an essay of their own. Great, if so. Add to the topic list, and just make mention of the idea. And in that case, if essay A mentions topic B, then the entry in the topic list for B can have a link to essay A so that when the more detailed writeup is done, then I can link back.
Sixth: write a summary. I suck at this, but it’s the key to the two inch picture frame and to avoiding scope creep. In this case it’s “I’m behind on my writing. It’s TK days since I’ve posted anything. This has happened before and I’ve dealt with it. Poorly. But this time I’m going to deal with it differently.” So that’s the story. How am I going to deal with it differently. To do that I have to say how I’ve dealt in the past. And onward.
Seventh: Write. Now we’re out of content skills and into word skills, and here I could get better, but I need less word skills practice than content skills practice. The proof: by struggling through a disciplined content-skills process while writing about it, I’ve managed to get from the first sentence down to here with almost no breaks, no digressions, no distractions.
A few additional points. I decided to write my drafts in Google Docs rather than directly in Blogger. This has an advantage and a disadvantage. The disadvantage is that the formatting doesn’t always translate cleanly which means I have to go back and clean it up which then means I’m tempted to go down the hole editing and never finishing. I have a theory on how I can handle that with a markdown plugin I use, and I’m going to save it for another post.
The advantage is that I can post-mortem my writing by using a very cool Chrome add-in called “Draftback.” And that’s another topic for another post.
And that, as they say, is that.