Drawing nostalgia.

I opened my sketchbook today for the first time in a while.

Not to draw. In fairness, I have a couple other random places where I’ve been sketching lately, just not this particular sketchbook. Sketchbooks and I have a relationship similar to the one I share with my books and journals: I often have several going at once, each guided by a different purpose.

But this particular sketchbook has remained unfinished longer than any other. I began it in the fall of 2011, during my second year at Edinburgh. I took it with me to Russia, and to Austria, but I left it behind when I went to Madrid. Maybe it would have helped to have brought it with me.

When I opened the pages today, they crackled. They’d gone noticeably yellow and turned a bit frail. I remember purchasing it in an office supply shop, and it would seem the paper doesn’t hold up as well as my previous sketchbooks did. My highschool sketchbooks are just as sturdy as when I purchased them, even if they are dirtier and somewhat worn around the edges. But then, I used to finish a sketchbook or two a year during highschool. I used to draw every day.

It makes sense that I stopped in college. Sometime in university, I realized I would have to choose between drawing and writing. And I picked writing. But looking at my sketchbook today, I felt an ache in my heart. Not that I’d made the wrong choice, but because I’d ever had to choose to begin with.

I don’t think I’ll ever be the graphic novelist I’d once dreamed of becoming. Back in highschool, I drew enough to be at the head of my peer group. I thought if I kept going, I could become a great artist. Now, I look at people younger than me, and they’re beyond what I ever was. I invested my time elsewhere, and the only way I could catch up would be by taking time away from areas where I have gotten ahead. That doesn’t seem like a smart tradeoff to make.

But it doesn’t feel right to not be drawing anymore. As an outlet, it fed other areas of my life. It made me more relaxed. Inspired me to keep writing. So I’m tempted to find a way, just a little bit at a time, to keep the embers glowing. To finish that sketchbook, and start a new one. And do it again, and again, and again.

Some day, I will start a sketchbook that I will not finish. I hope I never know which sketchbook is my last. I hope I’m still drawing in one when I’m 90. But I imagine this will not be the last time I start a sketchbook and take over half a decade to finish it.

Why blog daily?

What’s the point of a daily blog?

No one’s asked me this yet (to my surprise!), but I’ve been asking it of myself quite a bit (to my surprise!). Blogging every day takes a commitment—not always a big one, but a regularly item on my “to-do” list nonetheless. And yet, the more I work at it, the more value I find in the exercise. Why?

I’ve found that blogging is like an external hard drive for your brain. I can only store so much on my internal memory, and but once I put it into words I’ve effectively off-loaded it, freeing brain space for the next step in my thought process.

I spend a lot of time bouncing around the same half-formed thought in my mind. Sometimes these thoughts are like particularly chewy gristle which gets stuck between my mental teeth, and blogging is like the floss which helps break it free and make it digestible.

(OK, gonna be honest: Not sure where that particular analogy sprang from, but I’ll leave it be for your amusement—I hope.)

Put another way, blogging puts ideas in writing. In the process, they gain form and structure. Along the way, they condense. As my thinking refines, the mental distance between one thought and the next shrinks, making the leap easier to make. Or, to continue the computer analogy, once I’ve gone through one thought process enough, I can compress and archive those files. They’re there to access later, but in the meantime they don’t take up so much space.

I thought it would be too much work to keep this going, but in practice I find it makes me feel better about life. I feel less stressed because I spend less time gnawing on the same thought. It’s like a release valve, but also an archive. If you’re thinking of starting one yourself, I highly recommend it.

Proofing for sincerity.

Do you mean what you write?

A friend of mine recently asked me for help editing a personal statement. We worked on it a little bit, and at one point he sent me a sentence and asked “does this sound too emotional?”

I notice this is a thing when I write, and when other people write. We want to sound convincing, like we really care. But in the end, we come off as the exact opposite. We’re trying too hard. We’re anxious and insecure. We’re so focused on whether or not the other person believes us that we start writing what we think will most convince them instead of what we really  mean: “You can trust us! No, REALLY!!!!” And the result is us, staring at our screen, unconvinced by our own words and hating how fake we sound.

When I’m stumped with my writing, I have a trick I use to help me work past my block. I look at what I’ve written and I ask myself “what am I trying to say?”

It sounds like an overly-simple and obvious question, right? But I’ve found that, most times, the discipline of returning to that very basic question helps me cut through all the pandering and second-guessing and just come right out with it.

So when I’m writing something important, I try to proofread my writing for sincerity. Do I mean the things I write? If I do, and if I say them honestly and plainly (without gushing), then there’s no need to worry about being too emotional.

Proof for sincerity. Say what you mean. It works.

One More Hour

Yesterday, I cleared my list of “work things which absolutely must get done today” at exactly 5:00.

I’d not quite clocked a full day’s work, but it came after several weeks of copywriting churn, and I felt sorely tempted to call it a day. I had some important projects which were too big to start, and a few minor things which I could leave for the morning. I didn’t have to keep going.

But instead of shutting down, I decided to put in one more hour of work.

Now, I’m a productivity freak, but I’m no workaholic. That’s not to say I’m lazy, but I’m too aware of all the things I could be accomplishing if I just turned my timers off. I could go read a book! I could write a blog! I could practice Russian! Each hour of work comes with an opportunity cost: so long as I have fulfilled my client obligations, why not go spend my next hour furthering my own personal projects?

As a freelance writer, this can be dangerous territory, because I’m responsible to myself for my income. If I’m not on top of myself every day for the hours I put in, I won’t hit my financial goals for the month.

But it’s super hard to think this way when I’ve been working so hard, and when (strictly speaking) I don’t have to get anything more done. And even though I get paid for that hour, having put in so much time over the previous weeks, I’m not strapped for cash.

So why work the extra hour?

Small tasks accumulate. And being small, they’re rarely important. Now, many people start off their day with this busy work as a way of procrastination. There’s some big project to handle, and it’s easier to put it off by handling a few small emails first. A lot of the productivity tips I’ve read argue against this habit: start your day by tackling the biggest, weightiest project, because just getting started is probably your biggest hurdle of the day, and procrastination creates a mental weight that you’ll spend most of your day battling against. So I’ve done alright with this: putting the hardest thing first, shoving the small things till later in the day.

Only now I’ve found that this strategy means the small things don’t get done. I don’t schedule that blog for tomorrow. I don’t follow up on those emails. I don’t finish off the final edit on that document.

What this means is that all these tiny little things suddenly become urgent interruptions. Because I didn’t send that follow-up email, I don’t have the info I need to move forward on my writing assignment. Since I didn’t finish editing that document, the person I was supposed to forward it to in another time zone has lost a whole business day waiting for it. And by failing to schedule that blog, I now have to scramble to get it out on time when I should have been focusing on another task.

So my new discipline is to put in one extra hour at the end of my work day to cover some of those smaller tasks. To work ahead so that I’ve not just done what was necessary, but have gone the extra mile. And I’m better prepared for the next day, and more able to handle the big project right at the beginning of the day, because I’ve wrapped up my distractions.

This is not about working yourself to the bone. It’s about thinking ahead to reduce stress and make the next day more productive. Hopefully, if I do this more, I’ll get that hour back in efficiency the next day.

And by the way: Day 8.

I hate everything about Word’s squiggly blue lines.

I don’t know when the squiggly blue lines started.

I only really began to notice them in the past few months, so I assume it must be some kind of update. And because I’m used to squiggly red lines (spell check) and squiggly green lines (grammar check), I figured this must be something similar. As best I can tell, the squiggly blue lines (which the Internet tells me first originated to indicate a formatting error) are now being used as a style check.

As in: Word thinks I should write differently.

Fuck off, Word.

No, seriously. Spellchecker is mostly great. I mean, my spelling is shit, so when I see that squiggly line, I try to spot my error instead of having Word fix it for me, and I think it’s actually improved my spelling. And I appreciate the grammar checker, but it comes with some deep flaws. I know enough grammar myself (and have the Chicago Manual of Style to back me up if I’m unsure), so when I see Word giving me a squiggly green line I know whether Word is correct or not. And frequently, Word is flat-out wrong. But they’re trying, and maybe it does good for some folk.

But the blue underlines are ridiculous.

It’s like having a particularly anal snob standing over your shoulder while you write, correcting every word choice. “Take out that adverb. Don’t use that phrase. I think what you really mean to say is…”

I didn’t ask for your opinion, Word, go away!

Language is fluid. The more casual the medium, the more freedom we should have to express ourselves. But this style checker nonsense is like saying we should all write in the most stiffly formal tone at all times, and I worry that instead of suggestions people will start interpreting these as rules to be imposed upon the rest of the population.

Stop Big Brothering me, Word. I like the way I write.

250 words.

I read once about a guy who wrote his first novel 250 words at a time.

Every day, he sat down and wrote 250 words. At the end of a year, he had a novel.

“Gee,” I thought to myself. “That sounds doable.”

So I did: in 15 months, I wrote about 125,000 words. At the end I had a very poor draft of my first novel. It hasn’t progressed much in the two or so years since, but it still serves as a reminder of what I can get done with a little bit of effort each day.

I spent this past weekend at WordCamp US, and one of my favorite talks was by Chris Lema on finding your voice through blogging. Mostly I thought he was fantastic because he was saying a bunch of shit I already believed. But I also liked his talk because it reminded me to get back into blogging.

I’ve heard people talk in the past about doing a daily blog. And every time I’ve heard them describe it, I’ve thought “Nope. No way. Not every day. I can’t do that.”

But then the other day I remembered the 250 words, and how I made it my mission to keep going, day in and day out, for fifteen months, with only a handful of missed days in between.

I wrote in airports. By hand on the back of any paper I could find. On days when I literally fell asleep at the keyboard and woke to find the remnants of transcribed dreams.

I wrote every freaking day, and even though most of them were shitty words, they taught me more about writing than all the not-writing I’d done for years prior.

So it’s not a novel this time. It’s my blog. And daily seems like a lot, and I’m worried this is just a lot of bravado talking. But 250 words? That’s doable.

Day 1.

Staking reputation

Toward the end of my year abroad in Russia, I started the rough draft of my first novel.

A book I read inspired me to start writing 250 words a day, and I found this goal so achievable that I kept at it. Next thing I knew, I’d developed a streak. By the end of the summer, I started feeling excited enough to tell other people what I was doing.

It felt really pretentious at first. I mean, just say this out loud for me: “I’m writing a novel.”

Well? Are you? Because if you aren’t, I bet you just felt like a total douchebag.

Well, I don’t like being a douchebag. It goes against the image I have of myself as a pretty decently alright person. But since I’d started telling people about my novel, my only recourse was to actually go write my novel.

So I struck a bargain with my reputation: in order to live up to my public image, I had to write every single day. As long as I actively worked on my novel, I could talk about my writing as an honest person. If I didn’t, I couldn’t.

Fifteen months and 112,925 words after I began, I finished the first draft.

As it turns out, I really hate having any sort of disconnect between my stated and revealed preferences. This makes for an incredible motivator, though, because I want to be the kind of person who follows through. I don’t want anyone to think of me as someone full of hot air, who talks bigger than she delivers. So even though talking big is scary—because it opens you up to the possibility of public failure—it’s worth it if you get stuff done. You make yourself accountable to your own ambition.

A few weeks back, I read possibly the most cynical article ever written about the motivations behind people’s Facebook statuses. Apparently, according to the author, we’re not supposed to share good things about our lives (unless we can entertain our readers in the process). Apparently, achieving something you’re proud of is irritating to other people.

So let me just say: there’s a lot of shit going down in the world, and a lot of it ends up on the Good ‘ol F.B. But the one thing that makes all that worthwhile is getting on to find that some actual friend or other has something good going on in their life. Something they’re working toward. Something they’re willing to talk about—at the risk of everyone thinking they’re a pretentious asshat.

So if that’s you out there, quietly trying to do something awesome but too afraid to share what it is, I encourage you to make it public. Let others know you’re trying. It might help you succeed—it might even help them succeed.

I’ll start: I’m writing a novel.