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.

Why Do I Have to Sleep, Again?

I hate sleep.

I nev­er feel good about sleep­ing. I can nev­er shake the feel­ing that, if I did­n’t have to capit­u­late to this par­tic­u­lar weak­ness of my vile body, there is so much I could be get­ting done. But I am — inescapably, habit­u­al­ly — exhaust­ed, and so, I am told, must there­fore sleep. This seems a rot­ten way to run a rail­road, and so I spit upon it. I spit on sleep.

Of course, I will still do it: I have to. But I sure as Frith don’t have to like it.

All Things Must End (Even This Year)

And so anoth­er year comes to a close, and with it the first decade of this much-vaunt­ed third mil­len­ni­um.

A lot has hap­pened in these ten years. Some build­ings got knocked down by hijacked air­planes in 2001: that was quite a dire start to the decade. As a result — or using that trag­ic event as a thin excuse, if you pre­fer — the coun­try of my birth has been at war in far-away lands ever since, as well as hap­haz­ard­ly slap­ping togeth­er an end­less and impo­tent cul­ture of fear in our own part of the world.

The end of that year saw the end of a long but future­less per­son­al rela­tion­ship for me, but I entered the new year full of hope, and in Jan­u­ary of 2002 I found the love of my life. In 2003 I got mar­ried to her, and after a brief year of lov­ing cou­ple­hood we became par­ents togeth­er, and then three years lat­er it hap­pened again, and now, three years lat­er, it is hap­pen­ing yet again. (I’m real­ly not sure how this keeps hap­pen­ing.) Mar­ried life, fam­i­ly life, has been a lot of things, but most­ly it has been real, and that is good.

My pro­fes­sion­al life, too, has cov­ered a lot of ground in these ten years. At the start of the decade I was just becom­ing a low-lev­el man­ag­er at a Barnes & Noble store. Four years lat­er I made the leap, neces­si­tat­ed by the recent birth of my first son, to a soul­less cubi­cle job shuf­fling through thou­sands upon thou­sands of mort­gage files and prepar­ing them for archiv­ing in a vast gray ware­house. That near­ly destroyed my soul, but for­tu­nate­ly I was res­cued, thrown a life­line, and I escaped to the tiny data­base sup­port team in the same build­ing, where I was able to learn a whole set of skills I had no idea I would ever encounter, and far more impor­tant­ly I was able to work with a group of peo­ple who real­ly cared about each oth­er, and made work­ing togeth­er some­thing joy­ful. I will always miss that aspect of that time.

But the voice of voca­tion was not silent in my life, despite years of neglect on my part, and in 2009, with the sup­port of my wife, I final­ly set foot upon a path I had been pulled toward for quite some time: the study of canon law, prepara­to­ry to a life work­ing as an expert in the inter­nal law of the Catholic Church. I am now in the midst of my first year of grad­u­ate stud­ies in this area, hav­ing left all my gain­ful employ­ment behind and thrown myself on my local church for the sup­port of myself and my grow­ing fam­i­ly; I can hard­ly say how grate­ful I am that they have been so will­ing to catch me and hold me (so to speak). It has been an excru­ci­at­ing­ly chal­leng­ing time for my fam­i­ly, but the light is start­ing to shine bright­ly through the clouds once more, and there is much to hope for in the years ahead.

And now the decade is over, and in the morn­ing a new one will dawn. What will the next year, and the next ten, hold for me? I cer­tain­ly could have pre­dict­ed very, very lit­tle of what tran­spired over these past three thou­sand six hun­dred fifty-two days, so I won’t even pre­tend I have a clue what to expect from the com­ing three thou­sand six hun­dred fifty-three turns of the globe. But I am sure hop­ing that I can make a sim­i­lar­ly san­guine report to each of you at the oth­er end of this decade, too.

Hap­py New Year, every­one. Don’t stick beans up your noses.

NaNoWriMo Post-Mortem

I actu­al­ly tried it.

It was a doomed effort, of course, from the start; all odds were stacked against me, as were com­mon sense and human decen­cy. But I rather sus­pect that this is the case for a great many NaNoW­riMo par­tic­i­pants. That’s the point, I sup­pose: you don’t have time to write, but you try any­way.

So I tried, and, unlike last year — where I gave up about ten days in and just past­ed all my pre­vi­ous work on my mem­oir into Scriven­er to see what my total project word count was, then wan­dered off to get a drink — in 2010 I start­ed with a fair­ly con­crete vision of what I want­ed to write and how to write it, and I kept push­ing all the way through the month.

My basic premise: the essen­tial arc, and many of the spe­cif­ic details, of my own expe­ri­ence of sem­i­nary and the lost years that fol­lowed — but made much worse. Every his­tor­i­cal moral lapse would be ampli­fied, every missed oppor­tu­ni­ty for moral lapse would be seized, and more than a few less than stel­lar moments would be imag­ined from the ground up. I approached it more or less as mem­oir meets lad lit, with a mot­to — “as bad as I nev­er end­ed up being” — as my touch­stone.

I can­not pre­tend that I got far enough to real­ly have a full appre­ci­a­tion for what craft­ing a lengthy work of fic­tion means or entails. But I think I can say that I was able to explore some new modes, to stretch myself as a cre­ative writer, and those exper­i­ments were both reward­ing and instruc­tive. For instance, I had nev­er attempt­ed to write a sex scene before. I haven’t even read that many of them, so giv­en that my prin­ci­ple lit­er­ary exam­ples are The Can­ter­bury Tales and Amer­i­can Psy­cho, I con­sid­er it doubt­ful at best that my numer­ous for­ays into that bit of genre over the course of the month were any­thing short of banal. But it was still high­ly enter­tain­ing to take a stab at it (so to speak).

But it was chiefly a fruit­ful expe­ri­ence, in two prin­ci­ple respects. First, it got me flail­ing away at the key­board again, freewrit­ing (which I have not done in far too long) an just let­ting the words flow. And sec­ond, it was very much, as intend­ed, a way to sneak up on my real mem­oir project from a dif­fer­ent angle. By treat­ing them as fic­tion, I was able to write a few scenes from my his­to­ry that have daunt­ed me for years. If that is all it takes to get an hon­est mem­oir writ­ten, I’ll keep work­ing on this crap nov­el as long as need be. I am sure I can make this char­ac­ter of mine get up to some more mis­chief that will make me smile, even if no one else ever sees it.