A Shit Writing Day
Self-medicating via self-indulgence
I don’t write to attain power. Writing looks like it can bring power, but for the most part power is in inverse proportion to the amount of writing one does. This is why journalists cover politicians and not the other way around.
Today was a shit writing day. Here’s why: (1) An essay for a good magazine is in the weeds, and is going to take a beating (and the editors are right—it is in the weeds); (2) I feel uncertain about the larger arc of my career; and (3), most importantly, I’m at 18,000 words on my book and need to be at 30,000 words.
Note that I’m not someone who is suffering, in any way. I’m mildly blocked on a project. People like cops, nurses, and public-school teachers have severely bad days where they are powerless to stop the forces of death, time, and human cruelty. My bad days come because I can’t stop reloading Twitter, or feel guilty because I had breadsticks.
That said, I’m going to do something I haven’t done in years, and try to write myself out of a hole, for as long as it takes. Now, hole-digging-writing takes a very specific form. You keep going until you get somewhere, progressively disclosing parts of yourself, until you’re out of the hole. Then you stop. It’s awkward and unappealing and probably shouldn’t be read. I’ll regret it immediately.
This is not written for your pity. If you were lame enough to offer me any pity I’d reject it with a scornful frown. I’m a professional and will resolve each matter above in a professional manner.
It’s written to solve a problem: How do I get back to work?
Being the main earner in my family for four years has been stressful and has made me conservative in my prose. Also, for some of that time I worked as a consultant, and was obligated (by politeness if not by contract) not to offend. As a result, and in consequence of my own passivity, I keep trying to please readers when I should instead be trying to amuse, or even horrify. I’ve started avoiding risk. I’ve even, for shame, been trying to build a “platform” with my essays and stories, hoping that the synergy will be greater than the parts. I’m uptight.
Then again, as I push them around in their stroller,my twins peer up at me with little robin faces. Their faces have made me less excited about pushing the envelopes. Or even opening the envelope. Chirp, chirp.
So there’s my real problem. I’m not going full-bore bananacakes with my prose. I’m not just ripping into the language like a glorious zombie stallion would rip into the flesh of another, non-zombie, stallion.
Just as bad, I am sub-par at self-promotion. I cannot emphasize enough how important self-promotion is. The reason I cannot emphasize that enough is that I lack the ability to really emphasize things—I keep wondering, Should this be emphasized? And this is why I’m bad at self-promotion.
Plus I don’t want to do any TV—too fat. So I turn down the weird shows that want me on (random PBS stuff, and once—Eliot Spitzer). When I see myself on video I just hear the sound “jarble jarble jarble” coming out of my mouth. I’ll need to deal with that, either by losing another 70 lbs. or shedding anxiety about it, when the book comes out. (I’m middling on radio but do okay if I stay calm—I have this very intense memory of doing some NPR thing in 2003 and being so nervous that I sweated through the foam in the recording booth.)
Anyway, I have a niche—people call me when they want me to contextualize technology in their publications, although they’ll let me do other stuff from time to time, like chat about music—and I understand the industry, and accept how the process works and typically don’t ask for things like prompt payment, or assurances of any kind, whether fiduciary or personal. I don’t need to be told I’m okay. The piece lives or it dies, and if it lives I’m good. If it doesn’t, well. Editors seem to appreciate that I’m transactional and that I don’t expect them to think about me once the issue is closed. Then again my cynicism probably makes them a little sad.
But why do I write?
I have 100,000 words to write on the book by June 2014. A literary book about web pages. I have interviews to do, fears to get over, tonal issues to resolve, full drafts to throw away, and a thesis to validate.
As a hobby, I build a content management system. I build it at night. I am aware of what it means to write a content management system in my spare time. If you are not aware of what that means, it means I am an idiot. But my system has some novel features and I want to use it to write the book. I want all the pieces to line up and fit together. So that is one thing.
Why do I write?
I’ve gotten conservative but the possibility of freedom—of thinking totally new thoughts—remains. So I write because I can, in my writing, be as bananacakes as I need to be. And because I want all the pieces to line up.
Let’s see if I can combine the two: What is a way to be bananacakes and line up all the pieces?
First, what is bananacakes in this day and age? It used to be straightforward: You wrote about people having sexual intercourse in California; or you wrote about celebrities as if they were politicians or vice-versa; or interviewed a Klansmen; or you wrote about your own inadequacies. None of that seems bananacakes any more. There are too many people writing about things. For example, some bloggers go on and actually kill or try to kill other people, and then people get very interested in their blogs. You can’t compete with that.
What still feels bananacakes to me, though, is messing with form. Repeated efforts at smaller scale using repeated forms. This is Twitter, where the form is “shorter than 140 characters.” But it could be other things too. You can set word limits, or require no piece of dialogue be greater than one sentence long.
When I am closer to form I am happy. By this I mean that I am intimately involved with the shape of the piece. By this I mean that every article, every piece of writing that is good, is made up of rectangles. You can’t see them but they are there. There’s the intro. There’s the big reveal.There’s the dialogue between characters. The hard part is finding the right level of rectangle. Is it paragraph? Section?
An example: The computer scientist Donald Knuth set out to revise a book about computing and created a typesetting system called TeX that takes into account every single letter shape. He designed his own fonts. Things are held together, in TeX, with “boxes” and “glue” that binds the boxes. Both are just abstractions, of course. But that is too small a box. He was a professor and took nearly a decade to finish his book. Also he is a genius polymath. Me, if I miss my deadline I still have to finish the book but won’t have extra money to write the book.
So when I look at the things I’ve been doing, they include:
Starting a Medium collection called Liminal Encyclopedia about the aesthetics of office life, in which pieces are (roughly—there are only two so far) of the form W-SS-WWW-SS-W, where W is a paragraph that starts with “when” and S is a paragraph that starts with “sometimes.” (Of course I broke this pattern by putting this piece in there, but I can fix that later if I want.)
Giving a talk about the nature of constraints—first as the keynote at the Confab conference in Minneapolis, then a different version at the Adaptive Path conference, and then, in a few weeks, another version, adapted from the book, in Portland, Maine.
Writing parts of the history of the web backwards for my book.
And other efforts. My little night-time CMS is entirely an effort in constraints, trying to get the absolute maximum user payoff from a very reasonable amount of work. If I ever finish it I’ll show you. Right now it’s a mess.
Maybe this is the answer to “why do I write?” I write because I love form. I write because I am looking for rectangles. For order. That’s how I line up all the pieces. And why do I want to line up all the pieces?
Because at some level I feel that form is a key to happiness. Meaning identifying a pattern and repeating it until comfort is achieved. This is why people quilt.
I have dug a number of limbic trenches, mental pathways that lead to stress and anxiety. I have a mixed (but steadily improving) record on substances, especially food. And if I allow the book and my writing to become a proxy for myself, as a sort of external version of my identity, I’m in trouble. But if I let these things be products, if I let them exist outside of me, don’t worry how people react to them, just let what wants to happen, happen—well, then I stand a chance of doing good work, without having to disgorge that work from myself seppuku-style using a rusty sword with a hilt of guilt and a dull blade forged from procrastination. That is, I need to make writing something besides a daily referendum on my worth as a human. Which it has become, for reasons.
A few years ago I made a secret diet blog using custom content management software. It tracked calories. (A person might have negative opinions about using a caloric model for weight loss—I accept that.) Every day I added a picture and some words. And it worked really well for a while. I lost 90 pounds using it. Then I stopped using it for reasons that I still don’t fully understand and gained about 50 pounds back. I’ve started using it again and lost 20 of those pounds. Slow, slow. If I stay on this plan I’ll be able to shop at Target soon, a store for normal people. My cognitive-behavioral therapist checks the secret blog every day and writes me an email if I don’t update it. (I probably spend a full day per week coaching/getting coached by various people. I drift easily.) When I am done writing this post, for example, I will go log what I ate. Including a spoonful of frosting. Here is what dinner from July 5, 2011, looked like, at the bottom of a typical page.
See, it’s really just rectangles. Boxes with calories and fractions. And it serves as a self-portrait, a way to externalize and get a handle on myself. The better-designed the grid, the further out of myself I can go, the more I can allow my pre-cortical self to observe and correct my limbic self.
When I was a little younger I spent a million words writing about myself, about meaning, about my place in the universe. No one could understand why I kept programming on the side when I so obviously wanted to be a writer. But it was for the rectangles. In code, on the screen, you could actually see them. They took the form of forms. It made me so happy to put them on the screen. It still does.
Those rectangles are hidden in prose too. Paragraphs and lists and sequences. And not just prose. Pretty much anyone you talk to has rectangles to deal with in their day. They have to deal with constraints of time and space and logic. And I’m noting that the people who have been at it for a while, who stay at it, are the ones who fall in love with the rectangles. Who can’t get over the variety of them, the fungibility of them, the way that you can invent and test and explore with them. One life goal they might have is to define a new kind of rectangle: A new style of prose, a new way of lighting a film, a new style in graphic design, a new breed of web application. Just new enough.
Clay is fashioned into vessels,” reads the 11th chapter of theTao Te Ching, “but it is on their empty hollowness that their use depends.”
I’ve been working that over in my head since high school. I’ve been writing about it for years. I’ve been trying to understand the relationship between the clay vessel and the empty hollowness for what seems like forever.
Here is how I dig out of my hole. I look at the blank page and imagine a very small rectangle and fill it. Then another. I need to find the right size so that I am not at a loss, so that I can just keep working. It’s not a chapter-sized rectangle—chapters are too long. Its not the paragraph. It’s something in the middle.
Perhaps it’s question-shaped. Maybe what I’ll do is compose a FAQ. A list of questions that a reasonably well-educated person who was alive in 1920 might ask about the Internet, when faced with a mouse and screen—that’s a good way to frame the questions, and if it’s too reductive I can edit it later. I can write a list of 100 or more questions in an hour. And then I just stay seated and answer them. I’m good at that. You might not realize this from the 2,662 words in this awkward essay, but I can pound things out.
Then all I need to do is rearrange the questions into proper headers, organize the sequence, and I’ll have a draft of a first chapter. And on to the next one.
I get joy from the sound of words, the shape they take in my closed mouth. I keep drifting back to reading poetry to reconnect with those sensations. There’s more joy for me in form. Finding links between the smallest objects—letters, shapes—and the largest, most abstract spaces—the culture industry, the media industry, culture in the large. Trying to figure out what’s in the middle, how you get from an alphabet to the moon to the Web.
I think I can go to bed now. I’ll see what happens when I sit down to work tomorrow morning, but I probably am out of the hole.