Changing the Rules

I have been busy in my head of late assem­bling a (hope­ful­ly small) col­lec­tion of new rules for myself vis-à-vis blog­ging (in par­tic­u­lar) and mak­ing stuff for the inter­net (in gen­er­al). This has been fun, excit­ing, a lit­tle mad­cap, but most­ly sober­ing. I am real­ly crap at per­sist­ing in mak­ing any­thing, online or off, almost entire­ly due to an absence of dis­ci­pline in my inter­nal life, with an over­whelm­ing amount of mun­dane life com­mit­ments piled on top.

My life is not going to mag­ick­ally become less crammed full of demands and com­mit­ments. Far from it. In two months I will be done with grad school and back home work­ing full-time once again, in a demand­ing posi­tion as head of two depart­ments. So it will do no good to wait and wish for things to calm down. Instead, I need to calm myself down, to tame my mon­key mind and re-devel­op, from square one, the “mind like water” that David Allen speaks of. And after way, way too long spent most­ly just feel­ing sor­ry for myself and/or pan­ick­ing, I am at last climb­ing out of my rot­ten rut and mak­ing a real effort to dust myself off and get charg­ing for­ward.

So here are, in no par­tic­u­lar order or rela­tion to each oth­er, sev­er­al new rules or para­me­ters I intend to imple­ment and enforce for myself. I don’t expect any mir­a­cles to hap­pen as a result, but if I put in the effort, I do expect them to be the first steps down the path to a more bal­anced, pro­duc­tive, and cre­ative expe­ri­ence of liv­ing.

  1. Make stuff. I have to lead off with this, because it is the eas­i­est thing to com­plete­ly lose sight of. How many times do we (and I include myself as the poster child for this) get lost in a for­est of incred­i­ble-sound­ing tips and tricks and tools and meth­ods and oth­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty porn, and nev­er end up mak­ing a damn thing? That’s right, too many. I fan­cy myself a cre­ative per­son — a writer, if you will — and I have let too much moss grow on my tired back. Even while my world is in flames around me, I am tak­ing up my writer’s torch again and start­ing once more to write myself to safe­ty, or at least to sense. While I have quite a range of writ­ten projects in the off­ing, per­son­al blog­ging is the most imme­di­ate, and offers the most direct path from effort to com­ple­tion and grat­i­fi­ca­tion. So here we go, and no stop­ping. Even if it is crap (and when isn’t it, real­ly?), it still needs to ship. The lights are com­ing back on.
  2. No more com­ments. This one has been a long time com­ing. The only hon­est rea­son to allow com­ments on a blog post, even mod­er­at­ed ones, is sim­ple: the blog­ger needs to prove to him­self or her­self that peo­ple are read­ing their stuff. I will with­out hes­i­ta­tion admit that is what I have looked to them for as long as I have been blog­ging. I’m not say­ing I am beyond that now — I crave atten­tion and affir­ma­tion as much as ever — but blog com­ments are hard­ly the way to get that in any mean­ing­ful degree. I have a lot more to say on this point, but we will have to save that for future post. For now, it is enough to announce that I’m switch­ing them off.
  3. Build up a reserve before launch­ing any­thing. Too many times over the past, well, whole life, I’ve had an excit­ing idea, done some ini­tial burst of work on it, then imme­di­ate­ly dashed about to friends, fam­i­ly, and the cute barista to get them all to take a look at it forth­with. Even when the response was enthu­si­as­tic and reward­ing, my cre­ative sta­mi­na was so low that, in every case, my out­put rapid­ly fell behind my self-imposed expec­ta­tions, and I just gave up and quit. This time, before I light up a neon sign point­ing to my lat­est endeav­or (yes, there is some­thing new in the works), I want to make sure I have the shelves stocked, so to speak. Tak­ing the extra time and effort to stack up a few weeks worth of con­tent means I can open the dig­i­tal doors with plen­ty for folks to look at (and judge if they want to keep com­ing back), and might help me cement the habits I need to keep mak­ing stuff at the same pace once the thing is live.
  4. Work in nine­ty-minute blocks of time. This is entire­ly behind-the-scenes to my read­er­ship, obvi­ous­ly (unless I opt to set up a live web­cam of my “writ­ing process” but that thought is incred­i­bly nau­se­at­ing to me), but I still feel it is worth men­tion­ing. I have only just begun to try it, but I agree with my guru Mer­lin Mann so far: nine­ty min­utes is a good, sol­id chunk of time, and I think it is fea­si­ble to shut down the nat­ter­ing dis­trac­tions of Face­book, Twit­ter, and real life for that long and real­ly knuck­le down on one thing, make real progress, and then break before I start rab­bit-hol­ing or fall asleep. I’m going to start set­ting a timer, and we will see if such a self-imposed con­straint can help me push out of the lethar­gic bub­ble I have been drown­ing in.
  5. Embrace the tools I need to suc­ceed. Yes, this trans­late to new stuff — tools — and this is still dif­fi­cult to jus­ti­fy, even to myself. Most of me thinks I should just hun­ker down on the back steps with a Mole­sk­ine and a Mont Blanc and write a whole new world. And some days I will still do that, I hope. But so much of the writ­ten work I intend to do is bound for elec­tron­ic for­mats, it makes more and more sense to work at a key­board, and while record­ing words in elec­tron­ic form is among the most basic of tech­no­log­i­cal tasks, there are also such things as tools that real­ly, real­ly work; that give me every­thing I need, noth­ing I don’t, and then get the hell out of my way and let me just make stuff. I have a good start on this (Scriven­er is still my cor­ner­stone, roof, and foun­da­tion), but I intend to exam­ine what tools will real­ly and tru­ly assist me in my work­flows, (pos­si­bly) go ahead and get those tools, and then for­get about every­thing else that is out there for a god long time. Obvi­ous­ly much more detail on this point will appear in future, as well.

Of course I know it is all fine and dandy to spout some half-digest­ed pro­duc­tiv­i­ty tid­bits I’ve picked up from some pod­cast. I still have to prove — first to me, and then to you — that I can step up and put some or any of these wor­thy rules into last­ing action. For now, it’s just more talk from a chron­ic under­achiev­er who is rapid­ly run­ning out of chances to get it right.

I need to buckle down

Oh, to strike out bold­ly, suck­ing in deep ded­i­cat­ed draughts of knowl­edge and digest­ing rapid­ly and ener­get­i­cal­ly, then turn­ing and plac­ing with both hands, as far out into the world as I can reach, my own craft of words and think­ing. This is my goal, this my desire: to light a fire in my own bel­ly that will know no quench­ing, to burn with ideas, to labor long and fierce­ly into the night and before the sun ris­es, to be a schol­ar who admits no dis­trac­tion until his work is done. I want to punch myself in the face so hard I cry for a week at the ache of it, to slam my fist against weak flesh and bone and wake me up to the plow­man’s labor I need to have set my hand to years ago.

What? Yes, I want to be a writer, and I have many avenues of that craft that I want to chase my words down, herd­ing them like rabid preg­nant cats, cor­ralling them into the shape of sto­ries, his­to­ries, insights, and truth. We know how dear­ly I still want to tell my sem­i­nary sto­ries, the sto­ries of my jour­ney of faith and reli­gion, and noth­ing would bring me more sat­is­fac­tion than to see that project con­sum­mat­ed, per­fect­ed, and chas­ing around in search of a prof­itable avenue of pub­li­ca­tion. That day will come.

The now of my writ­ing, how­ev­er, is the now of my career — my voca­tion — in canon law. I have not emerged as a stun­ning schol­ar in this my cho­sen pro­fes­sion as of yet, and I rec­og­nize cer­tain sig­nif­i­cant lim­i­ta­tions that will prob­a­bly con­tin­ue to bar me from the high­est flights of my field. But that does not mean that I have no con­tri­bu­tion to make, and if I can amend even one of those innu­mer­ate lim­i­ta­tions — my fail­ure to apply myself to my work — then I know that there is a depth to my God-giv­en skills and tal­ents that will tear a hole in the veil of obscu­ri­ty my habit­u­al indo­lence has drawn over my aca­d­e­m­ic years. No more of this. It is way past time to put to proof my asser­tion that I have been worth edu­cat­ing. It is time to emerge from the shad­ows where I have been laz­ing and throw my mono­grammed hat into the schol­ar­ly ring. It is time to read hard and heavy, and to pen some jour­nal arti­cles, like a boss.

And the hard­est part is going to be, with­out any doubt, shut­ting out the cycle of dis­trac­tion I have bur­rowed my metaphor­i­cal ass into over these past sev­er­al years. Yes, I mean Face­book, and Twit­ter, and LinkedIn, and Goodreads, and Tum­blr, and all the many, many dis­trac­tions that the on-line, plugged-in life I have embraced is built around. No, I don’t want to sev­er myself from any of those tools, for I believe they are tools both valu­able and need­ed. But they are also addic­tive, and my infat­u­a­tion with idle­ness has latched me deep into them, a latch I must break if I am ever to be weaned from the Mobius loop teat of social media to the harsh but health­ful rations of dis­ci­plined self-appli­ca­tion to my own men­tal and cre­ative work. (Ridicu­lous hash of metaphor, I know, but what­ev­er, you get my point.)

I know I can write. I know I can read. I know I can think. I do not know that I am able to sit down at a key­board or a writ­ing desk and just read through page after page of sources, com­pre­hend and syn­the­size their con­tents, and turn to put my own thoughts in an order­ly fash­ion upon a page. I do not know that I can hold myself to any task, I do not know that I can keep myself focused on any­thing that does­n’t have a “Like” but­ton attached to it some­where. But I want to believe that I can do these things, and since I have (for good rea­son) no more faith left in myself as a pro­duc­tive and ded­i­cat­ed per­former of any task, I have no path oth­er than actu­al­ly doing these things — and then doing them again, and again, and again: of con­vinc­ing myself and those I love that I can tru­ly car­ry myself for­ward into a tomor­row in which I star not as a dis­ap­point­ing lump, but as a vital and dri­ven artist and aca­d­e­mi­cian who does­n’t sit in dream of projects he would like to start, maybe some­day. I want to start being some­one who starts projects, tack­les them day after day, and com­pletes them. That is how dras­tic I want this to be.

Messing up the blank page

Of all the many many ter­rors which life seems to hold for me, few are as par­a­lyz­ing as a new blank note­book. That is why I have so many of them: I love note­books, I am drawn to almost every­thing about them, and I pur­chase them almost (but not quite) com­pul­sive­ly. But most of the time I can­not bring myself to spoil them with my clum­sy imper­fect words.

Lent is com­ing again this week. I say ‘again’ because it seems like we just had it a year ago, and I did­n’t get around to writ­ing a jot about it then, despite a seri­ous knot of thoughts on the mat­ter and mul­ti­ple attempts to com­pose them. Fall down, get up again, right?

This year I am more inclined than ever before to approach Ash Wednes­day as a New Year’s sur­ro­gate: this is the time I want to tack­le some of the (many) things about me that I know need to change. And a lot of that change is going to involve this new note­book I am already dar­ing to mar with line after line of scrawl­ing words in Pelikan 4001 Königs­blau ink.

What shape will my Lenten ambi­tion take? Cer­tain­ly a return to the most ele­men­tal activ­i­ty for a writer — writ­ing — and with it a renewed effort to shift my iner­tia from con­sum­ing stuff to mak­ing stuff. There are a few facets to this, the expli­ca­tion of which I will attempt to drag out over the next few days, but this time I feel, more than ever before, that I am attempt­ing some­thing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly chal­leng­ing and achiev­able: a sus­tain­able move away from indo­lence (and the resul­tant self-loathing) toward a life of dili­gent self-expres­sion in my cho­sen medi­um. Will it work? We’ll all have to stay tuned to find out.

A Moan about a Meme

I ful­ly real­ize that this is an odd thing to feel strong­ly about, par­tic­u­lar­ly with all that is going on in the polis right now, but I real­ly hate the lat­est viral meme that is mak­ing the rounds on Face­book (and per­haps else­where) in seem­ing­ly tire­less iter­a­tions. You’ve seen the one I’m talk­ing about: four or six hasti­ly-select­ed pics gleaned from an image search arranged on a black back­ground with a pro­fes­sion or inter­est group for a title and a pro for­ma series of cap­tions pro­gress­ing from “What ___ thinks I/we do” to the con­clud­ing “What I/we real­ly do.” Some do a bet­ter job than oth­ers of cov­er­ing the most well-worn stereo­types of the giv­en group, but none, for me, have done any­thing ter­ri­bly well.

I don’t want to fault any­one for get­ting their yuks where they can find them: laugh­ter is a healthy and indis­pens­able part of a bal­anced life, and any­one who knows me knows I crack up at (almost lit­er­al­ly) the drop of a hat. But, boy, I just find the thing any­thing but fun­ny. I can tell it is sup­posed to be fun­ny; the intent at humor is unmis­tak­able. But in ver­sion after ver­sion that pops up in my news feed I can­not see past the thrown togeth­er nature of these paste-ups, the evi­dent haste with which the cap­tions were com­posed, and the lead­en plonk of the punch line, if it can even be called that. And the over-the-moon enthu­si­asm that peo­ple seem to respond to these with only adds a fur­ther lay­er of baf­fle­ment and iras­ci­bil­i­ty to my own reac­tion.

Ulti­mate­ly, I sus­pect, the ire that this meme’s explo­sion has aroused in me is pro­jec­tion on my part: I’m mak­ing this cycle of trite­ness the whip­ping boy for a very real rage that has almost noth­ing to do with it. What am I real­ly angry about? My fail­ure to make things. So while yes, I sin­cere­ly think most of these things are crap, and unfun­ny, uncre­ative crap at that, I am painful­ly aware of how I am spend­ing my own pre­cious time — look­ing at these things and get­ting pis­sy about them. And deep down in my murky depths I am already seething because day after day, month after month, near­ing year after year, I am not mak­ing any­thing of my own, crap­py or oth­er­wise. I have become sunk deep in a rut of con­sum­ing for far too long, and my diet (to bela­bor the metaphor) has been far from healthy to boot. I have been unable to push myself to find the moti­va­tion to climb off my back­side and get scrib­bling. I guess there is only one way to fix that:

I need to climb off my back­side and get scrib­bling.

Unspreading

I attend­ed a doc­tor­al defense yes­ter­day at my school. Ours is not a huge fac­ul­ty, so there are less than a hand­ful of these excit­ing events each school year. I try to make it to all of them that are in lan­guages I can com­pre­hend (so, the ones in Eng­lish). After three years of this, a def­i­nite behav­ioral pat­tern has set in for me. I always sit alone, I always bring too much stuff with me, I always take a great num­ber of ran­dom notes (more than I do in any of my cours­es), and I always have some sort to of mini-break­through moment that has noth­ing to do with the for­mal aca­d­e­m­ic dra­ma being enact­ed on the stage before me.

Yesterday’s epiphany du jour was this: I have too many blogs. Now, I real­ize that every­one read­ing this already knew that, and have known that with great clar­i­ty for a long long time. And I knew it, too, at a cer­tain lev­el. What I did not do was admit it, to myself or any­one else. I was deeply com­mit­ted to the notion that I need­ed to keep cer­tain spheres of inter­est quar­an­tined from each oth­er in my sprawl­ing online pres­ence. The end result was a huge tan­gle of redun­dan­cy on mul­ti­ple sys­tems that result­ed in almost com­plete ces­sa­tion of any actu­al writ­ing and posting—the activ­i­ty that was pur­port­ed­ly the whole point of these shenani­gans.

I had spent a con­sid­er­able amount of ener­gy this sum­mer try­ing to map out the dis­tinct spheres and ‘brands’ of my two main per­son­ae: the cre­ative writer and the canon­ist. These two modes, each a very impor­tant por­tion of my inte­gral self, could not, I had long decid­ed, be allowed to inter­min­gle. This was less about me as the writer and more about my imag­ined audience(s): I could not imag­ine most of the read­ers of my sassy Float­ing Egg prose want­i­ng to even see my researched analy­ses of canon­i­cal top­ics, nor did I think the churchy souls at whom I was aim­ing my Prairie Canon­ist work would take well to the often-irrev­er­ent ran­dom humor I have so long delight­ed in here.

I can­not com­ment on whether these fears were ground­less or not: the sub­se­quent paral­y­sis of my writ­ten out­put ren­dered the point moot. There were no read­ers to object one way or the oth­er, since I was giv­ing no por­tion of my intend­ed audi­ence any­thing to read. I was no longer a writer, it seemed, but mere­ly a blog col­lec­tor.

And so it was yes­ter­day, as I opened my project folio to the attempt I had made this sum­mer to make sense of this dual­ism, that I said: Enough. I am the per­son I am, I have the assort­ed (and at times seem­ing­ly-con­flict­ing) inter­ests that I have, and I write what I write. There was sim­ply no legit­i­mate rea­son for me at this stage to attempt to jug­gle so many dif­fer­ent organs for my own work, espe­cial­ly when doing so was ensur­ing that I was pro­duc­ing no work any­way. And besides all that, were my var­ied writ­ings real­ly as incom­pat­i­ble as I had con­vinced myself they must be? Prob­a­bly not.

And so I am in the midst of an over­haul of my online land­scape, this time focused on prun­ing back rather than break­ing ever more ground for future hypo­thet­i­cal cul­ti­va­tion. The first stage I am focus­ing on is the main one: this blog. Giv­en the exten­sive his­to­ry of The Float­ing Egg as a fun­da­men­tal part of my per­son­al brand, there was no ques­tion in my mind that this site was not going to go away. Instead, my efforts as A Prairie Canon­ist have been port­ed over here. I am keep­ing the two modes dis­tinct (for now) by means of con­trib­u­tor names. Of course, being that I have plunged into this quite impul­sive­ly (sur­prise!) I am build­ing the air­craft in flight, so the look and feel of the site will be in flux for a (hope­ful­ly) short time while I shake things out and work out the kinks of my new con­cep­tion of what I am about here.

But then—for realsies this time—I am going to write some words, and then let you read them (with the least pos­si­ble effort on your part). And then we’ll go from there.