Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Writing Habits: The Dark Side

So, this friend of mine tweeted a link to someone’s prescriptions of how to write more: A Chapter a Day… I responded “Gregor advice - not my cup of tea. Especially the mornings part.” And one thing lead to another, and since I’ve written a book, what do I have to say about it? So here we are.

First, I’ve got nothing against what Gregor has written. He made an honorable new year’s resolution, and is trying to get himself to keep it. His advice is probably good and suitable for many people. Stop procrastinating. Use mornings. Write something each day.

One thing I will fault him on: He didn’t emphasize that these are things that work for him (presumably), and your own mileage will probably vary, if mileage you have and any desire to increase it.

Again, no reflection on Gregor; what he’s said is roughly normal, I assume, and it’s probably all good. But for me it’s damn Mary Poppins, cheerfully but firmly telling me how to do things so nice and right. Practically perfect. Cloying. Saccharine. Smiling church ladies happily living the straight and narrow, anxious for you to join them in their sweet, blissful surrender to the true path.

Makes me ill.

For me, writing is a much darker proposition. It involves intense fantasizing and serious mental momentum issues, along with obsessive categorizing and polishing.

And I hate mornings.

With that buildup, I obviously must now delve those dark spaces.

Mental Momentum

I have a very hard time getting myself going. On anything. My task-switching time is huge. I like to tell myself that’s because I have an over-average amount of mental state, keeping more things in mind at the same time than most people. But on reflection, that’s probably not true; otherwise I wouldn’t need the categorizing.

If I manage to pull myself away from whatever I was doing before, sometimes (not always) guilting myself into starting some actual work, I usually end up initially playing solitaire. I’ve played 1000s of games of solitaire. (And I win 18%. I think that’s high.) (And it makes no statistical difference whether you pick things from the deepest stack – I checked. Over 1000s of games.)

Once I tear myself away from that, and actually open a file of stuff being written, I usually start by doing small edits, like fiddling with commas, or splitting/joining sentences. This gradually progresses to larger and larger edits: rewriting phrases, moving paragraphs, changing inline lists to bullets or vice versa, and so on, until finally I imperceptibly segue into writing brand new stuff.

By then, I’m engaged. Hooked. My head’s embedded in what I’m doing. The only thing that interrupts me is the need for bathroom breaks. Hours on end I go, often deep into the night, until I can’t see straight any more – and even then, some of my best (well, funniest) writing happens when I’m groggy; apparently the filters are further down then. I just keep going – unless I get interrupted by something scheduled at some specific time that I really want to do, a Person from Prolock, as it were. Like right now: I was just told by my phone that it’s time to go to a Tai Chi class.

OK, I’m back.

Anyway, you can see why starting right up in the morning before phone calls, all chipper and perky, is not my cup of tea. I am not one of those people who can write between conference calls. I can’t even read between conference calls. My wife reads during commercials on TV. I can’t do that, either. I play solitaire.

Obsessive Polishing

I rewrite / edit / tweak everything. Always. Often. Continuously.

I have this basic rule: Did I enjoy reading that? If not, fix it. Is the content as correct as I can make it? What questions would I have about it that would need clarification? Beyond those, and more often than not, it’s something like: Is there something odd about the sentence structure that’s awkward or inhibits understanding? Something about the cadence, causing it not to fit with the content? Something about the paragraph structure?

Paragraph breaks are a great emphasis tool.

As illustrated. Anyway, I don’t necessarily think about any of this consciously, though. I just read it and usually tear the crap out of it.

Then I switch it all to another font, so the line breaks are in a different place and it just looks different, and go through it again. It’s amazing how many things show up when you do that.

(Posts to this blog tend to have less of this than my other writing.)

Intense Fantasizing

I am always imagining presenting what I’m writing to an audience. My writing is in no small part a transcript of what I would like to be saying – a perfect transcript, since it’s a presentation where, if I like, I can rewind time and change the way I said something.

I fantasize about such talks frequently. I lay in bed thinking about them. I rehearse them standing in line, sitting in an airport waiting for a plane, everywhere. In fact: The one thing that can get me going writing, fast, in the morning is having such a reverie and coming up with a particularly great way to get something across, a super analogy, a simple but clear diagram, something really good. Then I can’t wait to get it captured.

If such a brainstorm happens late at night, the only way I can get to sleep is to at least capture the essence on paper. Otherwise I’ll just lay there going through it, over and over, sleepless.

Obsessive Categorizing

I simply can’t keep track of long lists of stuff. My mind isn’t built for it. This definitely includes masses of technical detail. Oh, I can remember bunches of stuff, but it takes ages for me to memorize it; it’s not a natural act.

A result of this deficiency – and I definitely count it as such; it makes me rotten remembering names, for example – I’ve learned to compensate by getting pretty good at boiling things down to something that captures the correct technical essence in a very few concepts. This may result in many fewer words, or it may result in more; the additional words may be needed to express an analogy, for example.

One result of continually having to boil things down is absolute frustration with most marketing materials. They're obviously written by people who really want (or should want) to do this, but don’t fathom that you actually do need to understand the technical part before you can express it simply.

I built this into one of the chapters in In Search of Clusters, by the way, where I talk about two kinds of people: People who can remember lists, and me. Or at least people like me. I spent a while polishing that explanation (of course), so I invite you to take a look there.

The End

So ends this tale of mental deficiency, obsession, and fantasizing, a tale far from the sunny realms of most “how to get things written” soliloquies. Again, I’m not saying such things are bad. They’re good. Too good for me. Too good for me to take seriously, anyway. They doesn’t match my mental constitution.

I always did have a soft spot for Goth.

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