A Second Look: The War of Art – Part 2

My copy
My copy of the War of Art

read Part 1

The last part of The War of Art that stood out on this read was Pressfield’s discussion on the Ego and the Self. Terms I’ve heard a million times but never considered. He describes the Ego as what we think of when we say “I”, the conscious, day-to-day brain. The Self is a greater entity that includes the Ego but also the unconscious, dreams, the collective.

I’m uncomfortable with this thread; I’ve never delved into any Jungian theory. But, and I’m sure this was the intention, if one considers the role of the artist is to listen and accept work from the universe, then only knowing and operating on the Ego isn’t enough. The Self is where the good stuff lives.

The following put this into sharp focus. “Dreams come from the Self. Ideas come from the Self. When we meditate, we access the Self. When we fast, when we pray, when we go on a vision quest, it’s the Self we’re seeking.” I meditate and dream, but did I know why? Is this why creators like Neil Gaiman and his endless production of new and wonderful stories, can tap new ideas so consistently? My big takeaway is to concentrate more on this idea of the Self and how to access it more regularly.

My re-read of The War of Art was incredibly useful. It reaffirmed so many of the practices I already put into place… during a period where I’ve been questioning them. I actually listened to the last part of the book and to the synergies Pressfield describes. The professional artist is open to the world and, through the consistent habits and approaches, can listen and absorb and act as a vessel… by having the requisite skills, honed by the honest feedback of others and by accessing the Self.

Gentleman Writer

Kitchen bookshelf from a summer cabin.

I’m not a professional writer. To date, I’ve made less than $100 dollars from my work. While I have a consistent practice, I spend less than 1 hour a day writing, editing or submitting stories. Conversely, I spend 8-10 hours a day working my actual profession.

When I started in technology in the late 1990s, I knew nothing about the craft of writing code, the private workplace (my first job was as a health inspector for a local NJ government), or the industry. I spent hours a day hammering away at code and learning the technology. I read at least 1-2 tech books a month, subscribed to multiple industry magazines (actual paper magazines), free conferences and talked shop with my coworkers. I immersed myself in the profession.

I haven’t done the same for writing. My focus has been on the actual craft… the most important part, of course. But I’ve ignored entire swaths of the process. How and why certain pieces and authors get published. How the industry works. What is the current field of play for publishing in magazines, publishing a book via traditional means, or publishing independently?

Hugh Howey, one of my mentors in writing, speaks to this directly.

One of my stated goals is to have more people read my work. But I don’t understand the criteria and motivations of the traditional gatekeepers (editors, publishers, agents). And I haven’t done the work to grok how independent publishing works or promoted this website. Nor created a writing network, like my coworkers when I started in technology.

Logically, I know I need to expand my knowledge and experience of the industry. I wanted to find my authentic voice and have more published work before focusing on the business of writing (see chicken and egg). Another part wants to treat writing as a serious hobby, much the same way I used to treat triathlons. The concept of a “Gentleman Writer”, in the same vein as the Gentleman Farmer, is lodged in my head. Finally, I use it as an excuse… if I don’t understand what readers and publishers and the industry wants and how they work, I’ll just write what I want, and maybe an audience will magically appear.

Books That Have Changed Your Life: Wool

Soccer Sunset
Soccer Sunset

Back to fiction… I remember hearing about Wool when it launched; it was self-published on Amazon in installments. I read a few of the early installments but didn’t complete the online series or buy the book. Wool got so popular, Howey turned it into a best-selling novel. A year before I started writing, something motivated me to find and read Wool… I think I was on a post-apocalyptic jag.

I enjoyed the story and characters. Most importantly, the writing seemed like… something I could do. The prose wasn’t Hemingway or Murukami or Joyce. I later realized Howey did subtle things I didn’t notice at first, such as uniform chapters, classical character arcs, deep explorations of themes, and political opinion. I used to warm up my writing sessions by copying blocks of his writing… the mundane stuff, like how an author jumps between memories and dialogue, or changes scenes. Wool changed my life because it gave me the confidence to write.

Reality Check

Side of Barn

In earlier posts, I’ve written about a wish to go away somewhere to write. Spending thirty to sixty minutes each morning on writing is helpful, but doesn’t allow the flow and focus I think could happen if I went on a retreat. My vision is pretty typical; spending two weeks in a remote cabin in the woods, with only pads, a laptop/iPad with no Internet, a few classic books for inspiration. And lots of hiking trails and contemplative fires. Even writing this makes me yearn for this mythical cabin.

This vision is powerful and I’ve carried it around for as long as I’ve been scribbling words on the page. And that made this article stunning. It’s a letter to an advice column in Outside magazine about a woman who basically is doing what I described; living in a cabin in remote Montana by herself with only nature, hiking trails, and her writing. Perfect, right? Except she’s miserable and can’t write and is lonely and has writer’s block. Her problems got worse instead of better.

I froze after reading this article. Could it be my ideal situation… isn’t so ideal? There are differences; she just ended a long-term relationship, references unresolved trauma and is trying to write about herself and nature. I don’t have any of those conditions, but the story (and the advice) still hit home; wherever you go, you will find yourself there. What you carry into solitude is more important than the solitude itself.

This tale hasn’t stopped me from wanting a few days or weeks to dedicate to writing. I wonder how much of her issue is the indeterminate duration and extreme isolation; I’d work in human interaction every day. It’s not the reflection on nature I’m seeking; it’s the absence of distraction.

The given advice is fantastic, essentially a version of the Five Why’s. It’s a great framework to use when trying to understand where you are and where you’re going. And his advice on writing it spot on:

“I think that a lot of writer’s block comes from trying to write something you don’t really mean. Fiction, memoir, whatever—you have to feel it. You have to care. The work needs to have stakes for you. That’s how you get electricity on the page; your readers feel the risks you’re taking. Readers are smart. They sense, even when they don’t understand. Even when they don’t know. And there are few things more dull on the page than a performance.”

I know I’ve struggled to incorporate other’s opinions on what makes a good story and the levels of introspection and examination…. that’s not for me. When I tried to write like that, there was no “electricity” on the page. I tried to be someone I wasn’t.

Unexpected Inspiration

Catskills Path

I’ve welcomed fresh energy from unlikely sources. I’m back to waking up and looking forward to my morning writing sessions.

The first source was Home on Apple+. A show about unique houses, the people who designed, built and live in them. The first one I watched was “Soot House” featuring a cabin in the woods for a small family. Their cabin was everything I’ve ever wanted in a space; spare, functional, minimalist. The actual space, though, isn’t the part that caught my imagination…it’s the stories of real people building something for them, combined with the artistic bend of the series. Something about plans, architecture, using different materials, being out in secluded woods, got me excited. Even the other houses I’ve watched were inspiring, especially the one in Austin built on a toxic industrial site. I literally had trouble sleeping that night; my mind was racing and I just couldn’t stop the flood of ideas and images running through my head. I’ve always been a sucker for the stereotypical architect archetype… Dieter Rams in a spare office talking industrial design, young architects in stations with minimalist desks, hand-drawn designs, etc.

Letting go of Crystal Grove also helped. I didn’t realize how much it hung over my head and stopped me from moving forward. A few weeks after trunking CG, ideas flowed. Writing wasn’t a burden and the world just seemed brighter, lighter.

Finally, the end-of-year processes for my actual job has inspired. Usually, the end of the year means painful reviews, budget denials, stress around submitting plans. We’re making big changes (for our small group) next year, with new projects, added responsibilities, lots of hiring. My team and I have to lift our heads out of the weeds and look into the distance, forcing the aperture by which I look at the world to widen.

These inspirations have common themes; planning, design, space for thinking. I used to spend more time designing when I actively wrote software; re-introducing it to different aspects of my life feels great. Less obvious themes include white space, use of form and space – I sense a symmetry between an architect designing a space optimized for warmth and efficiency, or an industrial designer designing items to do one task, with writing and creating. White space, design, the craft of using words to create a place, a feeling, an emotion. Another aspect of these inspirations is people designing and getting what they want, as opposed to accepting something else. Something about wanting a space of their own, designing and building it just makes me happy.

Clawing Out of the Trough

In my last post, I whined about a lack of enthusiasm. How can I claw out of this ebb? Doing the same things in the same way and hoping for a different outcome won’t work. I need to change.

I’ve described my daily routine before, and am very protective of my morning ritual. Wake, morning pages, meditate and then a minimum of 500 words. I need to preserve large parts of this routine, but re-examine the writing part. Some days (like… today!) I have a backlog of non prose-writing tasks; working though plot ideas and then outlining Unfair Advantage 2. Trying to find time in my busy workday for these activities doesn’t work… I’ve found I can carve out a few minutes for light editing, but not any deep, creative thinking. One of the pleasant parts of writing in the morning is my focus and creativity are at their peak. I need to de-emphasize “words on the page” and transfer the energy to working on other elements of writing.

In an ideal state, I could do both… maybe a quick writing exercise to keep everything sharp and fresh, but spend most of my time and attention on an outline, plot ideas or even high-level edits. This will do two things; move the process along so I don’t have a fearsome backlog of edits and half-baked ideas and set up a consistent, daily practice for the other elements of creating and managing stories. I’m wary of not creating prose every day, but I need to push through.

Another change is how and where I do these non-writing tasks. I need to find that consistent second spot where I can focus for 1-3 hours at a time and really immerse myself in a problem. No reason I can’t do it here, at home, but it’s not working. Too many people, distractions, food, chores, etc. I need a physical space where I can read, edit, lift my head and think. Quietly. Luckily, the local library re-opened a few months ago; I need to spend a few hours there and see if it fits the bill. And soon. Another thought is writing to music. To date, most of my writing has been without music or background noise. But the other noises of life, the sound of my kids getting ready to leave in the morning or the incessant roar of motorcycles grinding past on the nearby highway distracts me. So many authors, from Lewis to Holiday, write to the same repetitive playlist. I need to find mine and put on the earbuds and crank. Without distraction, I should get through my daily words sooner and leave time for the other tasks.

The last change is to have more work “out there”. I have put nothing into the world in months. Part of this change is the long, gatekeeper driven process for publishing. The other part is not finishing the editing on pieces. I need to get multiple stories out for publishing consideration simultaneously. There shouldn’t be a week where I don’t receive feedback from a publisher. Then, if I can’t find a home for a piece, I should publish it here. Anything to get more eyes on the work.

The Ebb

Cabin Life

I’m in a deep ebb for writing fiction. A few things at play… I had to “trunk” Crystal Grove. Nothing could save the story even after countless hours of writing and revising. I love the characters and certain scenes, but my “go back and add shit here and there” approach failed. It reads like 3 different people with 3 different ideas wrote the damn thing. As a last ditch effort, I tried to send it to Reedsy editors for an evaluation and suggestions… no one accepted the assignment. The last section is much stronger than the first two and might stand on its own. Or, the viewpoint of a secondary character could make for a stand-alone story… but for now, it’s trunked. Dead.

Trunking CG sapped my enthusiasm. I have two stories out to publishers; they’ve been in the can for over six months. I quite like “Wasted Crisis” and it should find a home. The process is so frustrating, with months and months of waiting and then a form email rejecting the piece. And the builds on other frustrations about where are the right places to submit to and to target… few journals look for realistic, non-emotional short fiction. It’s hard to picture the right places for the work to live.

Compounding the issue is my lack of a WIP. I wrote a few brief stories a few weeks ago, one featuring a security officer in post-secession West Palm Beach and a better one about wizards in post-industrial New Jersey. They get to join the backlog of stories that need editing and work, along with Mags Hotel, two leprechaun stories, The Valley and a smattering of other tales. As I’ve written about before, my struggle with resistance is around editing, not writing. Happy to write all day, but revising…

I’ve spent my morning writing sessions with a deck of prompts from Writing Down the Bones. They are brilliant and useful questions. The prompts promote writing with genuine emotion and truth. I certainly can use more of this and the prompts are useful… but I can’t write to them every day. And I’m on my second week of nothing but prompts. I should only use them as filler or when I’m in-between work, not as a month-long assignment.

The last piece of my ennui pie is the work required to start my next piece. I’m going back to Unfair Advantage. After visiting West Palm for the first time in over two years, I found the shell of the second and final part to UA. But, in one of my lessons learned from CG and other work, I’m not writing anything until I have an outline and the conclusion worked out. Fully. By fully, I mean no parts that I can’t explain fully to myself. And pass the sniff tests in terms of interest and rising tension and all the other basic components of writing that I chose to only loosely follow until now. I’ll outline differently than previously… I didn’t like the very formulaic spreadsheet outline with fifteen column headers. I will try the James Paterson approach (ignoring the negativity around his writing… that claim may make the case for following his outlines stronger, not weaker) or writing the outline out per scene/chapter, but in paragraph form. And keep asking myself “and then what happens…” and keep throwing obstacles at Eileen. Would love to bounce ideas off of someone with experience in story writing… but I haven’t cultivated that community yet. And not having the plot points stops me from outlining, which blocks the writing.

Books That Have Changed My Life: Born To Run

Born To Run

Another life-changing non-fiction book is Born to Run by Chris McConnell, released in 2011 to great fanfare in the triathlon community. The founder of Slowtwitch called it an industry-shaking book. It made me an advocate of natural footwear, especially for running shoes. Since reading, I’ve worn either sneakers with zero-drop or .2 mm drop. I also look for a wide, natural toe-box because of this book. It literally changed the way I move.

The premise is humans are born to run and the stuff we put on our feet only gets in the way and causes injuries. So, the less drop and more “natural” room feet have, the better. I now (when not fighting through weird injuries) wear New Balance Minimus. Turns out they aren’t truly minimalist shoes because they have structure in the mid-foot… but I like them. This thinking about movement and footwear migrated across all facets of my life. I’m barefoot most of the time. When I do wear shoes, they are Vivo Barefoot or other all-natural brands. When I stopped competing in tri’s, I went to the gym to work on functional strength and am interested in natural movement classes. All of it from BTR.

Besides footwear, BTR gave me an early look into a current theme; the emphasis on movement/standing and the dangers of office and sedentary life. It’s pretty accepted, now, that sitting all day in a chair, in air conditioning, is terrible for your health. BTR examined this fifteen years ago, with stories of how our primitive ancestors ran for hours a day, then squatted around a fire at night.

Books That Have Changed My Life: Getting Things Done

GTD OG Style

Another life-changing non-fiction book is Getting Things Done (original edition), the perennial bestseller. I wonder how many of the millions of purchasers actually read it, or, like me, implemented the prescribed strategies and solutions.

It only took a few pages to know this book was gold. The author, David Allen, tells a story about how he would sometimes write lists (before his GTD system) and, if even if he completed a task earlier, he’d write the task just for the satisfaction of crossing it off the list. I do the same… I lean toward this kind thinking and behavior, which I’m sure is the reason the book’s concepts land with me. There are plenty of descriptions of his system elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it here. On a daily and weekly basis, I follow the most basic habits. Inbox zero. It’s a pain in the ass, but I don’t miss mails or have thousands of unopened items in my Gmail inbox. I was on a presentation with a vendor and his email tab read over 9k unread mails. My God. Anyway, that’s a daily habit.

Weekly, I have a “meeting” with myself where I review the previous and preview the next week’s calendar and tasks and merge my projects into a “Projects” list. I then consult this list daily and turn project items into daily tasks. I also keep a “Someday/Maybe” list (as a parking lot) for projects that aren’t on the main list. This isn’t exactly what GTD calls for, but it works for me. I have done none of the monthly or quarterly check-ins in years, but I used to… and should do them again. The other daily habit I took from GTD is managing my day-to-day with a task list, and I dutifully check off items as I complete them. I’ve followed this protocol for so long its second nature and literally a part of my life.

Books That Have Changed My Life: The Pragmatic Programmer

Original cover for The Pragmatic Programmer
Original cover for The Pragmatic Programmer

After my brief stint as an Environmental Health Specialist, I switched to a technology career. As aforementioned, my schooling was in Environmental Studies (policy, light science), so I spent the first part of my “new” career reading and learning about the profession. Most books in the space were very technical and focused on a particular product or skill or language (“Visual Basic for Dummies!”)… and I certainly churned through many of them. But one book shone above the rest: The Pragmatic Programmer.

My wife never comments on the books I read, but even she noticed how much time I spent with this book over the years. TPP is the polar opposite of a tech book focused on a specific topic. Instead, it addressed how a programmer (somewhat dated term, now commonly called a developer) should think about their work and career habits, training and approach to the work. So many of the lessons imparted in these pages made their way to my professional and everyday life. Thomas and Hunt, the authors, had a theory/approach called “Tracer Bullet Development”. Basically, they prescribed building a very basic, working part of all aspects of a system to make sure the idea would work… don’t build the middle layer completely, then move to the front end, then to the db and, only after months or years of work, discover basic holes in the concept. Get all the pieces framed out and fire off a tracer bullet to ensure the concept is sound and they aren’t major obstacles (performance between layers, security, technologies that don’t talk to each other, etc.). I’ve championed the TBD approach in every software project I’ve led or managed since, with great results. And it crosses over into other parts of life as well. TPP is full of quick (but deep) lessons like this, including a heuristic about lazy programmers… the lazier the better (a cheeky way to describe programmers loathing of repetitive tasks, so they lean on automation, which removes risk of error and forgetting. Useful well beyond programming * see finance gurus*. I’ve used TBD thinking everywhere in my life). 

Not only is TPP chock-full of fantastic lessons and advice, but the book itself is brilliant. The authors clearly concentrated not only the prose but the text, layout, etc. And use it as a lesson in automation, layout, etc. DRY… Don’t Repeat Yourself. YAGNI… You ain’t gonna need it. Don’t Live with broken windows. Certainly, in the over twenty years since (my version) of the book published, a lot has changed and some of their advice seems dated. Thomas and Hunt published an updated version; I haven’t read it because I don’t actively practice the craft anymore… based on how much the original version influenced me, I probably should.