I found this envelope on a shelf when I cleaned my office recently. It’s apparently from before I understood what a filing cabinet is.
I set out to troubleshoot my perfectionist blogging process and instead discovered the quantum nature of writing. While I enjoy blogging, I have difficulty posting often. My problem is that blogging is something of a struggle for me, in the way that climbing Mount Doom in a state of extreme dehydration with the weight of intense evil around your neck is something of a struggle. I wanted to figure out a way to minimize the struggle, blog faster, and still enjoy myself.
When I started this blog, I assumed that coming up with ideas would be tough. I bought Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Rise of the Machines by Kristen Lamb, which both discuss coming up with ideas for blog posts. Both books are helpful, both are written in a friendly manner that makes regular blogging seem less intimidating, and both aided me in coming up with post ideas. But post ideas weren’t what I needed. Turns out, I have no shortage of ideas: there are over four dozen unfinished posts in the Scrivener project for my blog, and that’s not even counting posts still in the idea stage.
Perfectionism is a constant problem for me, but I’m also capable of writing very fast*. What ends up happening is that I’ll get down several hundred words of a blog post in fifteen minutes or so, but then I become mired in doubt while attempting to actually finish it. Or, I might set out to write a quick post about a haircutting youtube video I found helpful, but then I end up writing a treatise on everything I know about haircutting. This is where the Mount Doom analogy comes in. Writers are junkies for analogies about writing. Even that last sentence verged on analogy, because I didn’t mean “junkies” in the literal sense.
Blogging requires the opposite of what I’ve been doing: frequency, speed, and often brevity. If you want your site to have good SEO (search engine optimization), you need to post often. Blogging is fast. A blog post can do the same things any piece of writing can: inform, persuade, entertain, or tell a story. But it can also function as social media, open a dialogue, or pass on something interesting from another site. It’s ok to share something (such as the haircutting video) and start a conversation without making a post an exhaustive monument about everything concerning that topic. I read and enjoy plenty of blogs that do this, and many blog posts tend to be shortish. I do read some blogs with posts regularly going over 1000 (and maybe even 2000 words), but I aim to write 300-700 words because that’s the length I enjoy reading most. It’s short enough to be a quick read, but long enough to expand upon a topic.
I’ve tried a lot of strategies to finish blog posts faster. Timeboxing was one, and I made a flowchart last year to accompany my brand new timeboxed blogging method. After spending an unnecessary amount of time choosing color schemes and type faces for this flowchart, and in the process re-encountering my old nemesis Procrastination (he has a twirly mustache and a fencing sword and a velvet cape as dark as his evil deeds), I ended up failing to use my timeboxes for more than a few weeks. Timeboxing works great for brainstorming and editing, or anything else that doesn’t have a definite end condition. But writing? You can say you’ll spend only 30 minutes drafting an aimed-for 600 word post, but the reality is that you’ll keep writing until you reach the end, whether or not you stayed in the timebox.
It should have been obvious from the beginning that I have a functional process for fiction writing, but not for blogging. After starting, but not finishing, two posts** the other day, some magic combination of unfinished blog posts, funky coffee drinks, and driving a borrowed car that I’ve been fat-shaming***, lead to the lightbulb moment that I don’t finish or revise a blog post the way I would any piece of fiction. I suspect that most other writers and artists geek out**** on this type of helpful self-revelation. So if it seems weird that I was super-excited to get home and construct a new writing process for myself… well, it’s probably still weird, but I’m sure I have a kindred spirit somewhere. (Kindred spirit, if you’re reading, let’s be best friends and trade colored index cards and braid each other’s hair if we even have long enough hair for that, which I don’t.)
Here is what a working fiction-writing process looks like: make an idea-mess, tame it into a summary sentence, expand that sentence into a more useful idea-mess, then write. After that you get to revise, and revision is where you sleight-of-hand your draft so that it looks like you knew what you were doing all along. Not everyone writes that way, but I came by some of my process through the How to Think Sideways writing course (highly recommended, more so than my actual creative writing degree), so I know there are others out there. When I decided to fix my blogging process (which comes down to typing out mental narration), I turned to the How to Think Sideways lessons that had helped me so much.
But I also ended up digging into the nuts and bolts of my own writing process. And after spending a few hours pacing and scribbling diagrams, I discovered the building blocks of all written matter. And that’s what Part II will be about.
*I’ve written over 2000 words per hour in the past. I just didn’t enjoy them.
**One is about my recently-deceased Chevy Prizm and the other is about why the phrase “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a bunch of crap. I try to limit the number of rant-based posts I write, and so the latter may not see the shining light of the internet.
***My recently-deceased Chevy Prizm is smaller than a Subaru Forester, which I accuse of being a fat beast when it won’t go into a parking spot the way I want.
****This is way too many footnotes for one post, let alone one paragraph, and I’m going to have to start using superscript numerals instead of asterisks that, taken in a group of four, make it appear that I have some choice words I’m not using. But, rest assured, I would use them.
Trying to get rid of clutter isn’t difficult because throwing things in a cardboard box is beyond the skill of the average human. It’s difficult because it’s not about getting rid of items, but rather about destroying alternate universes.
A bunch of beads and wires aren’t craft supplies you never used. They’re an alternate universe in which you wear badass wire jewelry that you’re too much of a diy punk to just buy from someone else. And in this universe, you don’t do that thing where you kink up the wire and then throw it back in the drawer because now it has a bunch of little micro-bends.
An old school ID from a school that you didn’t actually attend is an alternate universe in which you did go there. You transferred of your own volition, and felt good about it, and had different (i.e., actual) job opportunities when you graduated, and things are better in that universe.
I’m looking at a pile of crap on my desk right now. There are only a few things that can simply be put away without dramatics and wishful thinking. Everything else is an alternate universe, even if it’s not one that’s a major divergence from the established timeline. What kind of person, besides nihilistic madmen on Doctor Who, has the heart to go around wantonly destroying alternate universes? And the simple alterna-folk who live in them?
I can understand why books and articles on decluttering are so popular; I just sat down to clean my desk, and instead started to write about thinking about cleaning my desk.
The problem is that, from what I’ve seen, a lot of this advice is based around dubious mental tricks. You can see them in any women’s magazine in a dentist’s office.
Sally from Nevada sends us the following decluttering gem:
I like to get together with a friend and pretend I have terminal eyebrow cancer and need to sell all my wordly possessions to pay for an experimental Himalayan salt treatment. What would I still keep? What would I “sell” her to save my eyebrows?
Even advice like “Throw out anything you haven’t used in the last six months” is a mental trick. It imposes an arbitrary standard that has nothing to do with why you own a particular item, why should or shouldn’t get rid of it, and why you’re not going to. It also doesn’t make much sense if you apply it to tools. You might not use your precision screwdrivers frequently, but it doesn’t make any sense to throw them out just because your glasses or computer haven’t broken recently.
It’s tough to say goodbye to something that represents a possibility, even a possibility long past. I don’t have a handle on that at all, but I think the key is in keeping the things that are keys to places you still need to go from time to time.
But I also think that even your alternate universe self has alternate universes to destroy. Maybe one of them is yours.
…for dealing with phone calls badly. Because some phone calls are tougher than others. Some phone calls loom before you like a wall of fire, and you just can’t get past them.
Grandma? Ok, I’ll call Grandma.
Routine work matter? Done. Made the call like a champ. Like a boss. Like an emperor!
Health insurance issue with numerous complicated variables to go over, but only after you’ve been on hold for thirty minutes and now you have to pee? And the call is probably being recorded? And there’s this weird, sound-obscuring scratchiness on the other end, even though you called a land line?
Yeah, I’m a fan of e-mail.
Sometimes, regular old introversion can veer into anxiety territory. Lucky for me, I have a friend who understands this. Together, we came up with a great solution for terrible phone calls. And a great solution deserves a flowchart.
People with cats and children have it easy because they always have a fast answer to the question “What’s the one thing you’d save from a burning building?” But I’m so rotten at prioritizing and deciding that I can never come up with an answer to that question. It would be easy if I had a single, sentimental piece of jewelry from a long-dead relative that I was very close to, but I neither have such an item, nor do I actually like jewelry all that much.
One answer would be, “You’re not supposed to take anything with you when you flee a burning building.” A snarkier answer would be, “You chose your cats/children/catchildren, but that’s a plural, so pick your favorite.” But those make for crappy dinner table conversation. No one wants to talk about choosing fire safety over their waffle maker, Star Trek movies on VHS tape, or collection of Chinese food menus.
As I said in “Dungeons and Dragons and Depression” I have too many things I want to do, too many skills I want to develop, and I’m horrible at prioritizing. A few months ago, I had the idea to write up sort of an overview of the month ahead, what things were happening, and what I was prioritizing.
I wish I could say that I came up with the idea of drawing my monthly overview instead of writing it because I’m one of those adorably artistic people who fills sketchbooks with twee people-watching doodles and makes the shopping list they scribbled in the corner of the page look like a work of art because they have artsy, legible-messy handwriting rather than malformed tangles. But honestly, I have a lot of lists, and I couldn’t look at another vertical stack of shit to do.
So I drew diagonal lines, and wrote out the three most important things in the largest letters.
Then I added 13 more things, making 16 total. I told you, I’m bad at prioritizing.
Earlier this month, I made my December list. I managed to get it down to eight things, which is still not effective prioritizing. This time, I drew holiday orbs for each item, the biggest one being the most important. I managed to do everything except the most important orb, which is because I severely overestimated just how bad December was going to be for completing that task (which is a rough draft of a novel).
It might not have been an overwhelming success, but it was progress. As I think about my New Year’s resolutions and what I did and didn’t do in 2014, I’ll definitely be considering how far I need to go when it comes to prioritizing.