accepting the mishigas

In response to my essay a few weeks back about how the easy way is actually the hard way, Nancy Larson, author of The PARDA Process, wrote to me about the difficulty of writing and publishing her first book:

That last project frequently found me weeping as computers fried, printers crashed, hiring and firing editors, etc. It was truly awful. I’m glad it’s done, mind you, but it was hard. The writing is (relatively) easy; it’s all the ancillary things that went with it that almost drove me to the edge.

The writing is relatively easy? THE WRITING IS RELATIVELY EASY

Nancy’s right. Once you’re at the keyboard and underway, writing itself isn’t all that bad. Usually. But, just as any fighting force is dwarfed by its support team—four thousand helpers joined the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae—the artwork itself represents only part of the commitment to the work of art. You have to accept all that and factor it into your planning or you’re going to make yourself miserable.

Yes, we become more efficient in how we work over time. Less yak-shaving, as a programmer might say. But there’s a point of diminishing returns. It’ll never be anywhere near one hundred percent tappity-tap. There will always be a substantial amount of what you might call The Mishigas: thinking, planning, organizing, researching, switching from Word to Scrivener, starting over, regretting starting over, going back to an old draft, switching from Scrivener to Word, giving up on writing altogether, reading a great book and deciding not to give up writing after all, now where did I put that file and was it in Word or Scrivener format…

This is the mishigas of writing, and it never ever goes away no matter how many cumulative weeks you’ve spent on the best-seller list. When we don’t accept the mishigas, we suffer. Refusing to believe that all this craziness is an intrinsic part of the creative process, we drive ourselves crazy expecting the impossible. We set grand goals that we could never really achieve in one human lifetime and then beat ourselves up for not staying on track to achieve all of them in a timely fashion, i.e. prior to our own deaths.

Oh, it’s so easy to be seduced by the easy. As a reference librarian I order self-help books by the score for patrons. I scour web sites for writing tips and easy ways to keep my house organized. Unfortunately, few of them deliver on their promises. Slowly, I’m coming to peace with the fact that there truly are no shortcuts. Consequently, it’s becoming somewhat easier to step back and assess whether doing the hard work for a particular goal is worth the effort.

This is wisdom. Nancy is accepting the reality of writing as it is instead of writing as we all think it should be, one day, if only we read enough books or use the right software or find the right teacher or online course. We won’t be able to check all the boxes.

Instead, let’s check one box on our creative bucket list. Just one. Better, let’s work steadily toward that one check and be content with that state of enbucketment as long as it lasts.

Have you ever seen the expression “to take pains,” as in “Humphrey took pains not to lead the hunting dogs athwart Lord Chumpelford and his men”? Take pains to do your work. If it isn’t occasionally boring or frustrating, if it doesn’t feel like you’re wasting your time doing this or that, if you don’t suspect that the rest of the world is moving on without you while you fiddle with nonsense when you should be done already, you’re not doing it right.

Plod. The plodders will inherit the earth.

I was not a good student. I rarely sensed that I excelled relative to my classmates. That said, there came a point in high school when I realized that I played clarinet pretty well. I hadn’t gone out of my way with it or anything, but the old licorice stick came easily to me and I’d ended up ahead of most of the section. Eventually, I started to pin some self-worth to the ability and, while I still didn’t practice regularly, I started private lessons.

One day, I arrived early to my lesson to find a guy in his fifties or sixties sitting in my chair. He had a blue-collar look—bristly moustache, meaty hands, calloused fingers—and he held his plastic clarinet like a hammer or a saw. After he’d packed up and left, I asked my teacher why an old guy like that would bother starting the clarinet. (As you can imagine if you read this newsletter regularly, teenage-me was insufferable.) Starting an instrument in middle age made no sense. He wasn’t going to enjoy the prestige of being First Chair in his high school orchestra or anything like that. He’d certainly never have the opportunity to go pro. Would he really be satisfied squeaking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for the rest of his life?

Except, he wouldn’t be squeaking for long. Whenever I arrived, I’d catch the end of the guy’s lesson and, lo and behold, he got better steadily. Soon enough, he’d caught up to me, and I began to feel self-conscious about starting to play until he was out of earshot. I’d always assumed that practicing daily and doing the assigned work were like vitamins: good for you in an abstract way but ultimately unnecessary. No, practice and effort were like steroids. They worked, fast. Natural talent had gotten me to a certain level without much effort. For more, diligence and humility would be required.

My freshman year, I auditioned for and was accepted into my college’s elite orchestra. At the first rehearsal, I sat down next to the other clarinetist and took a look at the sheet music. It was like a foreign language. I raised an eyebrow at her as if to say, “Are they kidding?” She didn’t even acknowledge my existence. I looked back at the music. There were markings and notations I’d never even seen before. I looked down at my clarinet with an out-of-body sensation as the conductor raised his baton. Was this really happening? Over the next hour, I made a few half-hearted attempts to play notes, but mostly I mimed: I had no intention of coming in at the wrong moment and revealing the depths of my ignorance. Throughout the ordeal, I kept wondering: How the hell did I even get in? Nobody could be expected to go from where I was at my audition to the level required by this music.

Except, someone could. That older guy had taught me that. Someone could get to this level with steadfast commitment and plenty of hard work. Someone could learn to play as well as anyone else in that room.

Someone could, but it wasn’t going to be me. At the end of the rehearsal, I packed up my clarinet and quit the orchestra.

I’m dyeing here, er, dye hard

The Japanese firm Somenotsukasa Yoshioka has produced textile dyes since the Edo period, but until the fifth-generation head of the family, Sachio Yoshioka, took the reins, the company operated like any other modern dyer, whipping up its colors in test tubes. Easier, faster, and cheaper, synthetic dyes satisfied four generations of the Yoshioka family, but Sachio came to the decision that nothing made in a lab would ever compare to the hues traditional artisans could achieve using traditional methods. He has since devoted decades of his life to re-discovering and perfecting these lost arts.

In this extraordinary series of short documentary films, we are shown how much effort goes into, for example, coloring a single sheet of paper for use in a religious ceremony. It’s a beautiful red, but wow—every time you think they must be finished, another step in the laborious process is revealed. It’s anyone’s guess how someone first discovered these techniques without an inkling of organic chemistry. Today, we live with such an abundance of color—on our bodies, buildings, and screens—it’s easy to forget what history makes clear. Color is the real treasure at the end of the rainbow and people will go to any lengths to achieve it, up to and including theft, murder, and war.

It was eighteen-year-old chemist William Henry Perkin who revolutionized the craft of dyeing when he accidentally synthesized mauveine, the first synthetic dye. Historically, purple was so difficult to achieve—a minuscule amount of dye required a vast quantity of sea snails of the family Muricidae—that it became the de facto and then official color of royalty. In Imperial Rome, an unsanctioned purple accent on your toga could be a criminal offense. Perkin’s fortuitous accident made purple, and eventually every color, cheap and easy. To go from scarcity to abundance of any resource so quickly is never an easy transition, and the Victorians understandably went a bit bonkers with Perkin’s new shade. It’s easy to forget because we know them in black and white, but the Victorian world was saturated with mauve; their Edwardian successors were completely sick of purple by the time they came of age.  (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, Simon Garfield’s Mauve is a purple-hued page-turner.)

Sachio Yoshioka turned his back on the convenience of synthetic dyes. He finds profound satisfaction in mastering the craft of natural dyeing, of doing things the hardest possible way. Is it true that the colors he makes naturally are truly superior to anything possible with synthetics? Maybe, but I do know that the quality of his lived experience as a craftsperson is.

To close out the summer, we spent a week in the Berkshires and, since we happened to be passing through, I suggested we pop into the town of Amherst, home of my alma mater. Lo and behold, we discovered that Unnameable Books, the charming indie bookstore in our old neighborhood of Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, has opened an equally charming Amherst branch.

The real test of a bookstore is whether it can surprise you. Plenty are Instagram-worthy but stock the same array of buzzy books you see in every other indie store. It’s the Blockbuster Video approach: twenty copies of The Goldfinch, twenty copies of The Nickel Boys, etc.—good books, boring store. Who can blame the owners? Most people who bother to shop independent will want something off Barack Obama’s summer reading list. You need to sell books in quantity to stay in business.

Still, why bother? If it’s only about running a profitable business, open a dry cleaner.

The best bookstores, the ones worth visiting over and over, are run by crazy people, and that’s a fact. These people just don’t give an F. Crazy and independently wealthy is even better—the store stays open longer. (If only David Koch had taken a slightly different route with his wasted life. He’d have run a hell of a bookstore, if a bit heavy on the Ayn Rand, and we’d still have ice caps and rainforests.)

You should feel truly unwelcome in a good bookstore. The person at the counter should have a book open and their feet on the counter—you should get the sense that they’re a bit resentful about the presence of customers. There should be a stack of half-unpacked boxes behind them, for when they’re in the mood. There should be hard jazz, discordant modern opera, or some other, equally idiosyncratic music on the sound system. Nice and loud, like it or not. There should be a cat, but a mean one. Don’t pet it, whatever you do. At a good bookstore, you should have to fight through all this and more to get to the books. I’m suspicious of any bookstore that welcomes my business. It’s dishonest! As readers, we all just want to be left alone, and that attitude should permeate the place where books are sold.

Anyway, it was at Unnameable Amherst that I discovered Henry Petroski’s The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. What a delight—a book written just for me, hidden away on a random shelf. Amazon would never have shown me Petroski’s book, despite the fact that I’ve purchased and enjoyed pencil books in the past, including David Rees’s charming How to Sharpen Pencils. In fact, when I search for “pencil” on Amazon right now and restrict the search to books, I still have to scroll most of the page to get to an actual book, and it’s Pencils, Pens & Brushes: A Great Girls’ Guide to Disney Animation. 

Damn, Amazon, you listen to all my conversations on our Echos and you still don’t have the first clue what I like to read—or even what a book is!

Why do I mention all this? Petroski, a professor of Engineering at Duke, traces the history of the common graphite pencil from its very beginnings in the 17th century, when people dug “black lead”—actually, pure graphite—out of a mine in Cumbria, England, and discovered you could mark sheep pretty well with it. Also, paper.

Again, I can only marvel at the extraordinary lengths people went to in order to make marks on paper. It’s astonishing—the work! Henry David Thoreau—who may actually have pronounced his name “thorough,” believe it or not—helped his father run their pencil business and made great contributions to improving the production process. Eventually, he figured out how to make pencils on par with English ones, the best in the world at the time. (The English had pure graphite from the Borrowdale mine in Cumbria. It took American ingenuity to work with the subpar stuff they could get.) But Henry hated making pencils. It was just too hard. Living alone in a cabin sounded like more fun, so he did that instead.

Easy is an illusion, and a destructive one for artists. Sure, acquire technique, but let go of the notion of shortcuts. There ain’t any. If art looks easy, rest assured it’s anything but. I’m thinking of the first time I got decent seats to the ballet—I couldn’t believe the thumping of the ballerinas’ feet, the flying sweat, the forced smiles and winces. Only a few rows back, they’d always looked weightless, joyful, serene.

Listen to Bowie’s demos. Here’s an early “Space Oddity”:

Hello, Bob. Carmen told us that you probably wanted a tape of the numbers that we do now. This is a very bad tape recorder and microphone, but we’re going to do what we can with the material that we now do.

The song doesn’t sound easy here. Not like it does after Bowie put all the work into it. The final version sounds inevitable, like dictation, as though Major Tom sang it to Bowie over shortwave as his vessel spun out of orbit. In this version, it sounds like what it actually was: a trial and a tribulation.

As it should be. For an artist, it’s either hard or it isn’t worth doing. We writers are the Imperial dyers of Rome and the sea snails of family Muricidae. We grind ourselves down to the shell, all for a drop of purple. But what a hue!

journaling for the win

This week is short and sweet because we’re heading out to the Berkshires and I’m trying to tie up loose ends before we go. The problem is, in the writing business, it’s all loose ends. (I have no idea what that means, but it sounds right, doesn’t it?)

In the writing business, it’s all loose ends.

—David Moldawer, The Maven Game

If you’re a writer, you fall into one of two camps: you journal regularly, or you feel guilty about not journaling—even if that means feeling guilty every single day of your entire life. Those are the only two options.

The idea of journaling is especially potent for writers. Anyone can write and publish a best-selling book, that’s a piece of cake—just write a potboiler!—but if your diary gets published, you are legit. (Having your collected letters published ranks a close second, but if people want to know what you had for breakfast forty-six years ago, you did something seriously right.)

In A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries, Thomas Mallon surveys the ways people great and small throughout history have used journals to record the events of their lives and, more important, think on paper. Thinking on paper isn’t like regular thinking. It’s much better, more productive and more lasting, which is something that’s hard to intuitively accept until you’ve spent a lot of time doing it. Mallon’s book reveals the extraordinary breadth of the act of journaling and its profound human significance. From Mallon’s book, it’s clear there is no one right way to journal. The only wrong way it is not to do it at all. (A Book of One’s Own serves as excellent inspiration to start, by the way.)

For most of my life, I’ve fallen into the “feel guilty forever” camp, but I’ve successfully kept a daily gratitude journal for years now and I’m usually pretty good about capturing family memories. The app I use, Day One, makes it easy to keep multiple journals for different purposes and, delightfully, it’ll show you entries from the same date in previous years to jog your memory. (Apparently, Journey is a good alternative to Day One if you use Windows or Linux.)

In a rut a month ago, I decided to start a new journal in Day One: “Wins.” I’d read about the practice of keeping a win file as a way of managing up: you keep track of all the things you accomplish at work in case you want to negotiate a raise or otherwise placate or impress your boss. Similarly, wise authors collect any and all reviews and other press clippings related to their work. I figured, why not start a file like that just for me, for when I needed a boost? Now, I make a note whenever something works out: a client’s proposal sells to a publisher, a client’s book becomes a best-seller, or, most recently, when a bunch of you wrote back nicely about last week’s essay. I clipped little blurbs from all your emails in my win journal and I have to say, it’s a nice thing to look at them all in one place. It’s far too easy to forget that anybody actually reads this. (Remember “speaking into the void“?)

Whether or not you currently journal, consider starting a wins journal as a way into the practice. You can boost your self-esteem and scratch that horrible journal-guilt itch with a simple daily practice that only takes a minute or two. I’ll even give you Win #1 to get you started: you made it to the end of this week’s Maven Game. That’s no easy feat. Nice follow-through!

p.s. No Maven Game next week. I’m leaving the laptop at home. But I’ll have a new one for you on Sunday, September 8.

p.p.s. I’m back to LibraryThing for tracking my books and reading habits. My old account is still on there (I was an editor at St. Martin’s Press at the time, so this is a ways back) but I’ve long since lost access to the connected e-mail account. Oh well. Here’s my new, nearly empty profile. If you’re on there, too, let’s be reading buddies. LibraryThing hasn’t changed a bit in all that time and that’s absolutely delightful. I wish we could roll the whole damn internet back to Web 2.0.

muffling the internet megaphone

Nobody calls me chicken.

Marty McFly, Back to the Future Part II

Our capacity to write is a precious resource. Some days a single good hour, fluid and focused, can feel like a gift from above. Of course, writing is my full-time occupation, so an hour a day won’t cut it. A single good hour just means the rest of the day is going to be a grind.

Clichés about certain aesthetic professions persist: The chef who can’t tolerate unfiltered tap water. The perfumer whose nose is so sensitive they swoon at the chemical aroma of a new car’s interior. I buy it. If you write a lot each day, you can’t help but develop an advanced sense of interiority, a sort of cognitive palate. The same must be true of people doing any other task requiring both intense concentration and imaginative breadth—competitive finger-painting? The point is, weaving between the exhilaration of good hours and the desolation of bad ones day after day, you become attuned to your own meteorological conditions. You learn when to expect smooth sailing, when to expect rough seas.

If you pay close attention, you begin to notice that some external inputs calm your mental waters while others trap you in a perpetual cognitive storm, thoughts swept away before they cohere into anything useful. Of all the negative influences, provocation is the one most destructive to my creative flow. It only makes sense in retrospect that Marty McFly destroyed his chances at a music career not because he was “too darn loud” but because he was unable to ignore a provocation—at least until time travel taught him the value of restraint.

Today, we’re provoked ceaselessly and deliberately. That, to me, is the greatest provocation of all. I need to write but I also need information. Information is a vital resource, like gasoline. Its composition matters: octane levels, leaded or unleaded, etc. To stay mentally healthy, I need a relatively clean information supply. Unfortunately, my primary source of information, the internet, is as polluted as the photogenic pond in Siberia popular with Instagram influencers for its bright blue color.

Rage sells ads. Companies profit from the online engagement that adrenaline and cortisol spur in the brain. As a consequence, provocation is purposefully ladled into our information supply like ash from a coal plant into a pristine lake.

It isn’t the employees themselves doing this, of course. Employees at Facebook and Google are innocent bystanders here. It’s those darned algorithms poisoning our minds. If only there were something the developers of those algorithms could do! But there isn’t, so, as the head of the Russian EPA told Siberia about its toxic blue pond: “Tough luckski.”

The public buys this defense because we’ve been taught to think of algorithms as almost-sentient forces beyond human control, as though, for example, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai, the person, isn’t directly responsible for YouTube and what it’s doing to our society. Make no mistake: Like Big Tobacco in its day, “Big Like” is well-aware of how the most profitable algorithms also happen to radicalize people, particularly the young, the old, the dispossessed and the uninformed. The leaders of these companies have decided they’re OK with the damage as long as it’s good for business. They really have. People sat at a table, discussed it, out loud, and came to that decision. I know it’s weird to think that could happen, but at one point many found it hard to believe that nice-seeming people at R.J. Reynolds talked out loud to each other about burying the evidence on cigarettes and cancer.

Let’s take a concrete example of provocation-contamination that nearly sent me spinning out the other day. One of my guilty pleasures is /iamverysmart on Reddit. The theme is simple: “People trying too hard to look smart.” I don’t know about the other million-plus followers out there, but I read this particular subreddit less to scoff at the arrogance of others than to be forcefully reminded of my own hubris. I’ve had many /iamverysmart-worthy comeuppances in my life, as anyone unfortunate enough to have shared a classroom with me can attest. (Thankfully, none of those episodes have found their way onto the internet—yet.)

When a woman on Twitter—her account has since been suspended—sent the following tweet, it went to the top of /iamverysmart as well as the Reddit front page:

People are f—ing idiots. My neighbor’s kid just tried to tell me that bats are mammals. Mammals don’t fly, we walk and are confined to the ground. No wonder my family in Sweden thinks Americans are dumb. Y’all truly need to educate your kids better. Bats are birds. [Edited for spelling, punctuation, and grammar.]

(Trolling? Possibly, but the moderator makes an argument that this is genuine and I tend to agree. For the purpose of discussion, let’s assume it’s real.)

Nobody’s knowledge is perfect, my own included. And ultimately, the question is academic. As Richard Feynman pointed out, the names of things are irrelevant if you don’t understand the underlying concepts. It’s a safe bet this woman doesn’t understand any of the concepts and, more important, isn’t curious about them, about bats, mammals, or the natural world in general. As a human being, she’s welcome to think whatever she likes about all living things (as long as she isn’t a biology teacher at a state-funded school, which, knowing how these things tend to go, she probably is). It’s up to her poor neighbors to insulate their children from her opinions the best they can. The Earth’s other inhabitants—particularly the 4.5 billion with internet access—have no genuine need to learn this woman’s opinion in the first place. In fact, far better if they didn’t, even if their hindbrain gives them a little burst of righteous dopamine when they do. And that goes for all the crazy, angry, uninformed, and just plain mean individuals shouting into the megaphone that is the algorithmic web.

This tweet is representative of the countless salvos—ignorant, arrogant—pummeling the majority of us into a dark pit of anxiety and despair. To begin with, it’s an enraged attack on a “them,” in this case the people who believe (correctly) that bats are mammals. More inflammatory, it’s specifically directed at a “kid,” presumably a child, that the reader of the tweet knows is in the right. We can only imagine that child’s response to an angry neighbor saying (let alone trumpeting on the internet) that they are a “f—ing idiot” for believing bats are mammals. To cap things off, the tweet closes with a xenophobic swing at all of America.

The irony of an uninformed person denigrating someone else’s education—let alone the education and parenting of an advanced nation of 330 million—is the kind of special sauce that gives /iamverysmart its piquant kick.

Thanks to my over-developed cognitive palate, I am all too aware of what crap like this does to my brain and my ability to write. In fact, I’ve tried every technique in the book to protect my head, up to and including shutting down my social media accounts. But the garbage still gets in, not, I’m realizing, because I lack willpower or haven’t established the right systems, but because it’s become impossible to use the internet at all without stepping into a puddle of provocation and other emotionally toxic brain-sludge. Facebook, Google, and their kin have polluted the information commons. The pond is filthy and we still need to drink.

I will not let the internet break me. I can no longer let these provocations poison my mind, let alone sweep me up into responding with a link to a rational explanation, as though that would change this person’s opinion. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether someone intends to troll you. Fire back and you have been trolled. So I’ve decided to take an entirely different tack.

From now on, I will look for the positive. In all of it. Every last insane Instagram post and loony e-mail forward. How? There’s always a bright side. In this case, sure, a Swedish woman somewhere is under the impression that bats are birds and that’s not correct. This is what a bat is and this is the definition of mammal. But look again at what she admits in making her argument:

Mammals don’t fly, we walk and are confined to the ground.

I’m sure she didn’t really intend to make this much sense, but in writing this she acknowledges that humans are mammals. Don’t take that for granted! Accepting that humans are just another species of animal and part of the web of life is cause for celebration in 2019. We live in an era when anti-vaccine paranoia sweeps highly educated ZIP codes almost as quickly as the subsequent measles outbreaks. There is a growing flat-earth movement that exists only because a handful of trolls thought it would be funny to pretend they believe the Earth is flat and many other impressionable people became convinced. In both cases, don’t blame algorithms. Blame people. Greedy, ethically compromised people running large tech companies.

The reason for tweets like this isn’t poorly educated people. Thoroughly school all 7.5 billion humans alive today and rest assured we’ll make more blank slates. There will always be ignorance. The problem is that we’re bombarded by the thoughts and opinions of ignorant (and racist, and misogynistic, and hateful) people in the first place. There are so many more of us than there are of them. Tweets like this one almost always come from individuals with few followers (and fewer real-life friends). They are amplified exponentially by Big Like and its algorithms to make us angry—and drive more clicks.

For years I’ve had this fantasy of producing a reality television show where the host takes a flat-earther on a plane and flies them all the way around the world. Surely that would change minds—at least one! As the recent Netflix documentary Behind the Curve proved, however, fringe beliefs like this aren’t about evidence. They are symptoms of larger systemic issues—psychological, cultural, economic—that aren’t going to get solved by a real-world demonstration, let alone a helpful Wikipedia link.

I don’t have any easy answers. I find books like Cal Newport’s Deep Work helpful to a point, but I’m not a monkish tenured computer science professor (no offense, Mr. Newport). I still need to, you know, respond to client emails in a timely fashion and keep track of the news and watch TV shows with my spouse. Stay on top of memes. I’m involved in the world and I want to remain involved. As much as my mental health might improve were I to cut myself off from our contaminated information supply completely—alternating between meditation and reading great works of literature in the original illuminated manuscript edition by candlelight—the fact is I’m alive now, today, in 2019. There’s no going back to the monastery. Meanwhile I’m being mentally poisoned and so are you.

Since the government refuses to take meaningful action on Big Like, all we can do is interpret this psychic garbage in the most positive possible light, whether we applaud the bat lady for believing humans are mammals or the flat-earthers for conducting scientific experiments. They may ignore the results, but they’re still validating the scientific method itself. Again, nothing to take for granted.

Our information supply is contaminated but we need information to survive. If we want to write well—if we want to think straight—we’re going to have to adapt. Now if you’ll excuse, I’m going to go wash my brain.