guy, wash your glasses

Any random lifestyle influencer can tell you to wash your face (and become spectacularly successful with that important, if somewhat obvious, piece of advice). But how many will remind you to wash your glasses? Two? Three? I’m going to own this niche.

If you haven’t already guessed, my New Year’s resolution is to enter the lifestyle influencer game myself. I’m not staking my claim on dirty lenses entirely, but they’re a start. To be your best self, you’ll need clean windows, clean laptop screens, and clean smartphones, too. So I’ve got plenty of material to cover in future books. If I can get my Instagram off the ground—mostly me with sparkly clean glasses (#wokeuplikethis) but occasionally “candid” shots with unclean glasses to be vulnerable and authentic—I’ll parlay my success into paid corporate speaking gigs. I’ll just tell them the isopropyl alcohol is a metaphor for Millennials. Or tariffs.

Don’t smudge my vision, haters.

Welcome to another year of mavening with yours truly. Let’s take this opportunity to reassess. Why do I write this? Who do you read it? Is the point here “writing advice”? Unless that advice is, first and foremost, “go write,” it’s probably not going to help. David Milch, creator of NYPD Blue and Deadwood, used to tell his writing students that “any time spent thinking about writing is wasted except when one is in a room writing.” As someone who thinks about his writing more than he sits in a room doing it, this notion struck me like a wet cattle prod. Now, if I catch myself thinking about how I’m going to write something, I either start writing it that way immediately or drop the line of thought altogether before it consumes itself like Ouroboros.

Moldawer’s Axiom: Save it for the room.

There has to be a balance between planning the work (or, worse, optimizing the planning of the work) and actually doing the work. In 2020, my resolution is to maintain that balance and I urge you to do the same. Establish a consistent writing practice before wolfing down any more tasty tips. In fact, in 2020 I prohibit you from reading any week’s Maven Game—or anything else about the craft and vocation of writing—until you’ve written something for the week. What’s fair—an hour? One measly hour spent writing before you read about writing? Do you think you can keep that commitment this year?

OK, here’s the advice, but only read it after you’ve written something yourself. Michael Lopp, VP of Engineering at Slack, writes about the pain of remodeling:

[You] start wondering, “Are they going to fix that?” Defects. Partly completed work. Small dents. Dings. As you start to finish, you can see everything that is not quite right.

This puts me in mind of Jim Dillon’s story from a few weeks back about taking his car into the body shop. As an experienced woodworker, Jim couldn’t help but see the many tiny deformities in the factory finish of a brand-new fender. The same thing happens whenever I read something I’ve written or something a client has sent to me for an editorial pass. The dents and dings overwhelm my capacity for higher-order thought. They actively inhibit my ability to take the material in as a whole and improve on it. So caught up in minor imperfections—two hyphens instead of an em dash is a particular pet peeve—I can’t see the big picture. Then, by the time I’m doing fixing them, I’ve got nothing left in the tank.

As writers, the big picture should be the only picture we care about. Any good editor can clean up imperfections. They don’t need your expertise to do so and you don’t need theirs to share yours. Isaac Asimov wrote hundreds of books in his lifetime and his manuscripts were riddled with errors. He knew his time was better spent writing more material. He left it to others to clean up the mess.

Crucially, this philosophy makes sense even if the clean-up crew is you. Lopp’s contractor offers one approach:

[He] whipped out a roll of blue painter’s tape and gave us the following instructions: 1. You are going to see everything that is wrong with our work from now until we’re done. That’s fine. 2. When you see something that needs attention, mark it with this blue tape. 3. We will fix everything that has the blue tape.

The next time you get caught up in buffing out all the dings and dents instead of actually writing, try this discipline: highlight the problems instead of fixing them. In blue. Then keep reading. Force yourself to stay at 30,000 feet while the fires of creative inspiration still burn. Use your energy to make additions and changes that matter before it runs out. Then and only then, polish. Or hire a pro. Otherwise, you’ll spend your writing session copy-editing and end with very little in the way of new ideas and interesting connections to show for your time.

(Speaking of polishing, post a selfie wearing smudged glasses with hashtag #instamaven for 10% off my new brand of eco-friendly disposable lens wipes, “Glasswipes.”)