Friday Reads with a focus on Walt Whitman in pop culture — a nice change of pace this morning.
Perhaps because Mad Men Season 6 wrapped up recently, and Breaking Bad Season 5, part 2 doesn’t start until August, I’m thinking about how these two shows connect and intersect in American pop culture. Both shows add a sort of “literary” edge to AMC’s programming and deal with questions of American identity.
How do you manage your writing goals when dealing with life, business, or family?
It’s a common question for writers, and one we all face. I’ve discussed some of the ways I stay sane and productive when I’m at my busiest, and I use strategies like digital detox and writing in notebooks to focus. But now, I’m faced with even more time management problems now that I’ve moved and started a full-time freelance editing business. Some client work is coming in, and now I have to maintain a productive schedule.
I’m in the middle of major life reorganization. Two weeks ago, I moved from Illinois to Central Florida, as I mentioned earlier. Since that move, I’ve also started transitioning to full-time freelance editing. I used to teach full-time while editing and writing on the side. Now I hope to flip that: edit and write full-time and teach fewer classes each semester.
With my recent move to Central Florida, my routine has changed. I’ve found it difficult to keep up with my writing schedule now that I’m here, and it has meant that I’ve had to refine my habits.
That’s why I found comfort in this article from Mathew Henderson titled “It’s Ok To Be An Awful Writer.” In the article, Henderson gives some excellent advice for all writers worried about their craft:
It’s okay to be an awful writer. In fact, I suspect most great writers are also terrible writers. It all depends what you show people.
I think this is the key to beating the empty screen. Because it’s the pressure that kills, right? The urge to write the next great novel, or make a boatload of money with scandalous, (un)literary smut, or prove what a deep, deep thinker you are with stark poems about the common man. The pressure is too consistent, too constant, to ever get anything done.
So, yield to mediocrity, accept that the next word you write is likely going to be the wrong word and keep going anyway. The real worst case scenario isn’t that you might write something bad–you have a recycling bin (real and virtual) that can and should overflow with bad writing. The worst case scenario is that you might write nothing at all.
He goes on to give advice on how he avoids the pitfalls of writer’s block:
1. Each and every time I go to write, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to fail. It doesn’t stick with you. The pressure doesn’t go away. I sit down, and I want each word to be the next word of the best thing I’ve ever written.
2. Some people write very slowly, word by word, editing as they go. They are rare and beautiful creatures. You’re probably not a rare and beautiful creature. You’re probably like me.
My personal approach to writing is similar to his: I believe in freewriting and scheduled writing times every day, usually in the morning. I come up with my best ideas this way. I do a lot of my early drafting and brainstorm on paper instead of the computer to avoid the blinking cursor. I also try to take notes throughout the day when I think of an idea; my smartphone and notebooks are full of random notes.
The key is to stop worrying about being awful and just write. It ends up better than you think.
In the midst of my recent move to Central Florida, I made some drastic decisions: my wife and I decided to move to our new home with only what we could fit in two cars. I had to sell almost all of my books, and kept only a few reference books and some books I had already started reading.
Then, for the week before we moved, we cut out our internet at home and sold our TV. I was left with only the books on my Kindle and a notebook for entertainment. So I started reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s lengthy Lincoln biography Team of Rivals. Goodwin’s thorough research and ability to tell a story keeps me hooked, but more importantly it reveals how socially connected Lincoln’s world was, even in the midst of war.
What’s most interesting about Goodwin’s book is her use of letters and diary entries to get a sense of what it was like in the moment. Most of her narrative takes place in the paces of letters sent from Lincoln’s closest friends and political colleagues. We learn about some of Lincoln’s greatest achievements from letters from Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward to his wife Fanny. We also learn how Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, depended on letters to and from his daughter Kate to keep sane during the war and to refine social and political ideals.
The social connections through print in this era shows that our modern sense of “social media” isn’t that unique after all. The tools we use to communicate have changed, but the idea of sharing our ideas to those closest to us hasn’t.
Another aspect of 19th Century written communication is the commonplace book. These notebooks were like personal diaries, but they were written for a small audience of friends and family and passed around to be read by others. Writer Tom Standage recently covered commonplace books in his article “How commonplace books were like Tumblr and Pinterest.” According to Standage, these books conveyed the writer’s ideas and thoughts:
People would sometimes lend their commonplace books or miscellanies to their friends, who could then page through the entries and copy anything of interest into their own books. The similarities and overlaps between several manuscript collections compiled at Oxford University indicate widespread sharing of both individual texts and entire collections among students and their tutors, for example. Like internet users setting up blogs or social-media profiles for the first time, compilers of commonplace books seem to have relished the opportunities their newfound literacy gave them for projecting a particular image of themselves to their peers.
It wasn’t until the 20th Century that the personal diary became truly personal and only read by close relatives, if anyone. And reading was both a personal act and one people shared with others; it was not meant for personal fulfillment only.
With this 19th Century perspective on the role of reading and writing in mind, the role of the 21st Century blogger, particularly the book blogger, takes on a new social importance. (Well, at least it does to me.) Sites like Twitter and Pinterest, which help readers share clippings, brief thoughts, and other ephemera, give anyone the opportunity to share and build audiences of close intimate readers.
While some aspects of 19th Century “social media” are lost on today’s audiences, the idea of social reading and social media are alive today. The tools we have today give us even more ability to share and communicate. Over time, we will refine these technologies, but for now, the idea of sharing is alive and well.
This interesting reflection on a library book sale got me thinking this morning about the power of the book as a physical object. Is a part of this lost in the digital age? The more I use e-books, I’d say no, the physical book is still an integral part of my reading experience, and the local library is still where I like to discover books. As I say goodbye to some of my books, I wonder how long it will take me to build my collection again.
In three weeks, I move across the country to a house near Kissimmee, Florida. My wife and I are starting over, and for the first time in my life, I’m not holding on to anything except the essentials for work and life. We’re hoping to take only what can fit in two cars.
This has meant we’ve had to sell or give away many nonessential stuff: old clothes, DVDs, CDs, and most importantly, our large book collection. We had collected over 500 books. Yesterday, we gave away the last box.
Preparing for this move has me thinking about all the stuff I’ve accumulated over the years and how much of it is meaningless to me. While those 500+ books looked nice on my shelf, I only returned to about a dozen of them regularly. So why keep all of this stuff?
At one point, I saw these books as a record of what I’ve read. They represented a part of me: first, through my time as an undergrad and later as a graduate student. Some of these books go back to my childhood. These books reminded me of the things I’d learned over the years. A lot of them had notes and marginalia in them that I wanted to keep.
I also bought a lot of books I never read. Those were on my shelves, waiting to be read, but I always told myself I’d get to them eventually. I had to realize that I won’t read most of them any time soon.
At first, I felt a sense of loss after getting rid of these books. But now I realize how little I needed them since I do a lot of my reading through digital devices. Access to books through my library and through my Kindle have meant I haven’t needed to keep books like I used to.
During this process, I realized that most of these books were bought over a year ago. I just don’t buy as many books as I used to. That’s not to say I don’t believe in the physical book any more. I don’t subscribe to the idea that ebooks and digital reading will completely replace the book — at least not for a while.
I just don’t need a lot of space for books any more. Many of the books I owned are available online, either through elibraries or through sites like Project Gutenberg. For newer books, I am OK with repurchasing them once I move to Florida and find a local bookshop.
What I will miss the most — at least, more than the books themselves — are the conversations over books with friends. Luckily this is something I can find anywhere I live, but it’s not as easily replaceable as the books themselves.
As I move toward a digital collection, I wonder about book discovery: I’ve always used my local library and bookshops to discover new books. I find out about books from close friends more than I do from online communities. Apps like Goodreads try to recreate discoverability, but they are far from complete. Finding a good book, reading the back cover blurbs, and asking your friends if they’ve heard of it can’t be replicated online.
The physical book is here to stay, and even though my personal library is gone, I will rebuild it over time. If sites like Bookshelf Porn [don’t worry, it’s safe for work] are any clue into book culture, I think it’s here to stay for a while. Digital books are convenient and work for me, but the physical book is still important to me. We’ll see what the future holds.
Jason Braun and I continue our discussion on Tim Ferriss and the role of self-promotion. Earlier, we asked: is Tim Ferriss a 4-hour hero or just another asshat? In part seven, I write about my creative process and how it differs from Jason’s approach.
In Jason Braun’s last post about Tim Ferriss, he mentioned how Ferriss’s approach to lifestyle design helps him with his writing. Even though I still don’t like Ferriss’s perspective on some of these issues, I can understand Jason’s approach to his own writing.
Ferriss wrote about what he likes most about writing in his recent blog post “The Alchemy of Writing.” In this post, he has this to say about the different types of writers:
But whenever I happen to meet someone who is talented and possessed by writing, and particularly a youngster, it is a great pleasure to have a chat. However, the conversation needs to be personal to have any real meaning. I need to know my “new friend” somewhat deeply, to feel the play of his mind and what turns him on before I would presume to offer advice. There are many different ways to be a writer.
For a teenager who is dreamy, who makes uncanny associations like a poet, it can be ruinous to force onto him a rigorously academic approach to writing, even with a good teacher. Teaching him to compose organized mannered essays, like all the other smart boys in class, can make him inhibited and ultimately edit the imagination from this unusual fellow. For another classmate who plans to be a lawyer, proper carefully constructed essays are perfect.
I’m the type of writer who wants to build something that is both moving and “perfect” (in the sense that it does exactly what I intended it to do). I agree with Jason’s idea that he wants to move his readers through his writing, not to be technically proficient.
This could be a difference in training, too: Jason is a creative writer, poet, and musician, so he has a lot of experience writing things that move people. My background is in journalism and academic writing. Both fields need accuracy and technical perfection: a misused word or sentence can stop a journalist’s career.
I’m not saying one is better than the other. They are both highly valuable approaches to writing. They require different ways of thinking, though.
Ferriss acknowledges that writing is a personal creative activity. Jason has applied Ferriss’s ideas successfully, but for me, I wonder if it would work. I have my approach, and so far, it works for me.
What is not often discussed about the writing process is the extra stuff we do that isn’t the actual ass-in-seat, churn out 1,000-words a day parts of writing. When Ferriss talks about setting limits, he means time spent “working” on the project: writing words. There’s a lot more to writing, though. I would say that time spent reading books or articles that matter to you is “writing.” Sometimes I take a walk with an audio recorder and talk out ideas I have (and use those later).
Other times, I waste time on purpose to clear my mind, which is something I’ve written about before. Most of the time, these time-wasting activities lead me to my best ideas. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing, which in some cases is writing. It’s true that most writers don’t spend 40-plus hours a week writing words, but there’s very little time spent not writing. It’s a passion for writers, even non-fiction academic writers or journalists.
For example, I spend a lot of time reading articles online that I collect throughout my day. When I’m not teaching, writing, playing guitar, or spending time with friends or my wife, I’m reading something. It seems like a waste of my time, and based on Ferriss’s concepts, it’s something I should cut out. But it’s for a purpose: I’m sharing these articles on twitter, writing about them here, or sharing them with friends. It satisfies the journalist (or academic) in me.
Most non-writing things are necessary for writers. I welcome the time to relax, play a sport, or do some other creative activity, but very rarely am I “not” writing. It’s a passion that has become an obsession.
I guess what I’m saying is that I have a good writing lifestyle, and I set it up this way without Ferriss’s help. I can understand being unhappy with your life or career, and that’s why many find Ferriss’s approach so appealing. I’ve been there. But now, I’m pretty happy with my lifestyle.
From what I’ve read in this series, it sounds like Jason’s happy with his writing lifestyle as well. I respect that, even though I still don’t get why he needs Tim Ferriss’s books to help him out. If it means I get to hear more Jason and the Beast records or read more poems, I’m cool with it.