Writing without knowing

I’m a fan of writing into the dark, a phrase I picked up from Dean-Wesley Smith. I love to sit down with a blank page and write the first line. It’s taken some practice, but the joy of not knowing brings me back to writing, and pushes me forward. Often I want to start new ideas and explore them for a few days, but my goal setting and desire to push out full novels slows that down. Here’s a simple example I’ll share for fun. I’m going to think up a story idea, with no pre-planning. I’ll explain that process in a live format, live for me at least.

I’m thinking about a man walking down the street, headed to a restaurant late at night. I’m going to jump into the scene, and whatever comes after this will be a first run example without editing. The words that appear will be as I first typed them, minus spelling or grammar issues.

James looked up at the night sky and watched for stars. The din of the city lights blocked out the view, and the buildings overhead made up their own stars of sorts. Ahead he saw a small restaurant, its neon light indicating that it was open, even at 2:00 a.m. He stepped forward and looked around. The street was empty, save for a single Uber car headed in the opposite direction. Inside, a smiling attendant motioned toward a table, and John slid into a chair. The attendant offered coffee, but he shook his head and pointed to the menu.

“Sandwich please.”

As he waited, he pulled out a small notebook and logged down the time. Then he looked around. The small restaurant wasn’t empty. A single woman sat in the corner opposite. She looked at him and nodded.

I typed that up in a single shot. Took me just a few minutes, and other than replacing a few words as I went, the story popped out exactly as it came to mind and into my fingers for the keyboard. I have no clue what’s going to happen next with James, but as I typed my emotions fired; in my subconscious I imagined some crazy things happening to him. Perhaps he’d turn out to be a superhero. Maybe he had a devious streak, or felt lost and empty. There’s an infinite amount of directions to take with this idea, and that’s some of the beauty of discovery writing. 

One area I still need to learn is how much editing I should bring to the page. The above short snippet of a story could use lots of work, or not. Now that I’m deep into discovery writing, I change little of my books after the first pass. Right now I’m editing 1-10%, leaving most words intact and allowing my creative brain to push my thoughts forward. I’m hoping to resolve that in my mind over the coming months and figure out what’s best for long term writing.

Emotion Thesaurus

I’m working on connecting to my emotions as an adult; it’s a crutch of mine, and I want to better understanding what I’m feeling day-to-day. Since 2019 I’ve written fiction, and much of my writing has been about how people feel, and what they’re doing. Emotion is a weakness for me. I’ve spent far too many words telling my audience what the protagonist is feeling, instead of showing. 

Here’s an example of a typical sentence I might write.

John understood she wasn’t coming back and felt the weight of that emotion roll over him.

Now, that sentence is passable. I wouldn’t mind if I had to ship it, and if you read through my books, you’ll find similar passages. Adding emotion, though, similar to my attempts to remove adverbs from my writing, is taking time and effort. 

Earlier this year I listened to a podcast episode by Joanna Penn, where she interviewed the author of The Emotion Thesaurus. The idea was like a bolt of lightning to my mind. I bought the book before I’d even finished listening. The idea is simple. You pick an emotion that you want to convey and jump to the section in the book. Each emotion has two full pages explaining the feeling and showing physical traits that help to define how a person would react. 

Back to the line about John. There are better ways to define emotion in a scene. 

Right now what I’m dealing with is a protagonist that is feeling loss, despair, and agony. He knows he’s about to lose the woman he loves and doesn’t know what to do. There are so many ways to write this scene and push the reader to feel what’s happening.

Before hearing about this book, I did my best to write something describing John’s feelings and move on. Now I’m pausing and trying to feel the pain and anguish of the protagonist. So, taking a metaphorical page from The Emotion Thesaurus, let’s try that scene again. 

John watched Elissa walk away, saw her silhouette disappear along the docks, fading into the fog. He swayed against the planks and held out an arm to a nearby street lamp. He touched the cold metal and slid down to the ground, burying his face in his hands.

I rewrote the scene based on what I was feeling, what I imagined I might do in a similar situation, and calling on times where my whole body felt a downward fall toward gravity, toward loss. There are other ways to write that scene, a million ways in fact, but I’m happier with how that one turned out than the first attempt.

Now, as I write this I don’t have the actual book in front of me. I reference it each day when I’m writing at home, but don’t always have it on the road. So, I’m guessing the book would suggest a better way to convey despair and loss. The point, though, is that it’s encouraged me to think about the external traits that a person shows when they’re feeling something. Too often I write wooden characters, bereft of affect, and following through the motions. That’s fine if you intend it, and the person is like that on purpose. However, for most characters, most of the time, that’s going to feel dull and boring. 

And so I persist, attempting to put myself into the scene day after day, trying to feel John in that moment. 

The Watch I’d Wear

I’ve had a love hate relationship with watches for my entire life. I remember saving up money to buy a cheap Walmart brand as a nine-year-old. The watch was everything I could want. It told the time and looked cool. The problem, though, came with the destructibility. The connection to my strap broke, and I scuffed the screen within a few weeks of use. I was not a gentle kid; I was clumsy, and unaware of the strength or length of my arms and legs. Attaching a watch to my body seemed to throw off my balance, even though that sounds impossible. I went through several cheap watches, and have memories of changing batteries, fixing broken straps, and repairing pins.

Fast forward to my teen years, and I wore an expensive (by my standards) digital watch with water resistance, alarms, and a few other fun features. It was sturdy and held up to the damage I inflicted. The features were hard to figure out though, and I spent far too much time trying to take down tiny notes, or set the three different alarms.
Then there were the straps. I was a tall, skinny kid, with an even skinnier arm. The strap wrapped around my wrist, and then slipped out at the end, far from the two loops meant to hold it. No matter how much I adjusted, the straps always felt off; bumping up against things, or looking unseemly. Even as a teenager I had some sense of style, though my wife would disagree on my clothing choices. Having that strap hang out made my wrist look like a stapler with the bottom hinge floating loose. I didn’t like it. I also didn’t like the strangeness of an object attached far down on my arm, swinging around with my long limbs, at risk of bumping into something.

And so for various reasons I stopped wearing a watch by the time I’d turned 20. In my twenties I avoided watches, and resorted to pulling a cellphone out of my pant’s pocket to check the time. I tried, a few times, to pick up a watch, but never liked the bands; let alone the watch face.
Then there was the Fitbit. I bought a few different devices: the Charge HR, Fitbit Versa 2, and maybe another one somewhere in the mix. I tried them, synced them up with my phone, tracked my steps, and attempted to bring each into my lifestyle. They never stuck. It just wasn’t useful enough to put back on after recharging. And there was that ever-present problem with my long arms, I’m still not 100% in control of bumping them around, and sometimes my wrist swipes a hard countertop a little too hard.

Now, in 2021, I’m looking around and trying to decide what a watch would mean for me. My friends own Apple Watches, Garmin, Nike, and a host of other interesting devices. I’ve thought about this for far longer than seems necessary, imagined the uses, the value, and what I’d do with the device. I’ve never worn an Apple Watch for more than a few minutes, and I haven’t been sure if the use case was there for me.
What I’m looking for with a watch seems simple enough. I’d like a device that allows me to leave my phone at home. Watch and AirPods, and I’m gone. I head out, can make calls as needed, review my list of to-dos, check my calendar and email, and in a pinch take down notes. Those are all doable on the Apple Watch, and it seems the device would match perfectly for those use cases. But that’s not all. I’m also looking for an extension of my audio habit. If I’m not actively talking to someone, I’m probably listening to music, podcasts, or a book. From what I can tell the Apple Watch and Audible do not play well together; syncing has been a problem since its inception.

I like to listen to Spotify, Audible, and podcasts. And, until recently, each of those were better suited to the iPhone. Based on my research – but not firsthand knowledge – getting audio through the watch is challenging, and requires syncing to your iPhone.

Apple Watch is my most likely go to moving forward; but I’d love to see some more of a disconnect from the phone, where it fits in my device lineup as an equal partner, and not subservient to another computer. I wonder if Apple will separate the watch from the phone, and if the limitations are technical or more related to keeping users within the ecosystem. Given the power of WatchOS, and the yearly leaps in silicon technology, I’m guessing that we’re fast approaching a world where the watch can live on its own. I hope that’s the case.

I’m pretty sure Apple solved the problem with bad wrist bands. I should probably just bite the bullet and try one for a while. It’s hard to justify that much money on something I might like, so I’ve held off. This has been a pattern of mine throughout my life. I think like an early adopter, but don’t buy most products until years later. Even though I’m an Apple enthusiast, I only got the iPhone with the 4th model, and my first iPad was the Pro model. My first MacBook came in 2010, years after working professionally on Windows devices.

I am excited to see how watches continue to evolve. As a gadget enthusiast from a young age, I dreamt of something on my wrist that captured notes, told time, and acted as a bit of a second brain. We’re in that era now, I’m just not on board yet. I might end up with a tech watch and an analog watch, both with beautiful materials and an aesthetic that’s elegant but not bold. That’s part of the reason I like GORUCK backpacks. They are useful, sturdy, and simple, without being gaudy or annoying.

Bluey

Bluey is the most delightful children’s show I’ve watched, by far. Over the past few months my wife and I caught up on nearly every episode, including Season 2 on Disney+. I must caveat this by adding that I have two small children. I don’t generally sit around and watch kid’s shows on my own. With that said, I’ve watched a lot of shows and movies intended for a younger audience. Sometimes I like the shows, and sometimes they leave me confounded. Bluey is in a special category. It’s a show that I enjoy, and my kids also love. In fact, judging by my random outbursts of laughter, I might like it more. 

The writing is perfect. The show creators have a great sense of humor and they add a realistic element to what it’s like to be a parent. Each episode is just 7-8 minutes long, and most of the stories revolve around time together as a family. In that short time the audience can connect with the parents and children, and understand their unique struggles. It’s pretty special because it helps me remember children are just smaller versions of adults, they’re not a separate species – even if it feels that way sometimes. 

We’re not all fully patient or checked in, or completely wanting to do what our kids ask at every moment. That doesn’t mean we don’t care though, we try, and we want to be there for our kids. Bluey presents that in a realistic way, and encourages parents they’re not alone. It also reminds us of the value of play. My wife and I have taken lessons from the show and tried to apply them in our own lives.

Puffin Rock is another great show that we’ve enjoyed. It’s written in a way that kids will like, but also adds the odd reference that only a parent will pick up on. This isn’t subliminal messaging, or even anything inappropriate, it’s just slight bits of context that you learn with age. 

There a host of shows out there that are nowhere close to this mark. Several kid’s favorite shows feel like time fillers, with no extra effort placed on making them special. 

Great shows offer inspiration in how great content can bridge the gap between generations. Pixar is a master at this. I loved their movies as a young child, and have a deeper appreciation for them as a parent. In recent years almost all of their movies will bring me to tears by the end. Stories like this are special, and it inspires me to create things that offer that inspiration and education for others.

Zoom Fatigue

I’ve used video conference calls a lot. In fact, on some days I’ll spend up to six hours on back-to-back calls. In 2015, I joined a remote team that made use of Zoom and Google Hangouts (later Meet) for communication. Since my work has been 100% remote in the last six years, I’ve had a lot of hours on video calls. The previous year in the pandemic was little different from the years before, with one notable exception. I’m used to flying out and seeing my teammates throughout the year at conferences, client onsite, or company meetups. 

Having that face-to-face time together helped to bridge the gap between long periods of online only communication. There’s something special about eating dinner, having fun, and sitting in a room in physical space. I’m hoping that things can change soon, and that I’ll soon be able to connect with my colleagues on location. However, other than that one, albeit major factor, my life has changed little. 

Zoom fatigue is real, and I feel it. Staring at a screen for hours on end, and seeing the faces of others staring back at you is not a natural feeling. When I go to hangout with friends in real life, I don’t look into their eyes for an hour at a time, making direct contact. That’d be creepy, and I’m pretty sure I’d lose all my friends. And yet, this is exactly how video calls work. You look at a screen, stare straight into it, and your colleagues stare straight back at you. It gets tiring and drains energy as time goes on. 

I’ve found a few ways to resolve it, and while everyone is different, these little methods help me throughout the week.

First, I turn off my camera. I disable it and join the call with audio only. As an introvert, this helps to lower the temperature of the call, and allows me to pace, look down from the screen, or even go on a walk in nature for an hour. Video calls aren’t natural to the human conscious, so trying to re-enact a meeting in a 1-1 ratio doesn’t really work, at least with current technology. Besides turning off the camera, I also try to minimize whatever screen I’m on; I don’t need to always see the faces of my colleagues, I can hear them just fine. 

In situations where it’s not practical to disable the camera, I try a second technique. At work I have a 28 inch monitor. It’s huge, and having a browser up with a dozen faces staring back at me can feel intimidating. Or a single person can loom larger than real life. Often I’ll shrink the window to make the size of others on the call more realistic. I wouldn’t sit in a room with my face two feet away from someone else. Again, that’s creepy. Making the screen smaller tricks my brain a bit, and it feels like they are further away. If I had to guess, having someone’s face right up against yours triggers the fight-or-flight mechanisms in the brain.

Remote work is here to stay, perhaps not in the same way as we’ve seen it in the last year, but it will continue to iterate and become part of our society. It’s important that we adjust and reduce the strain that technology can bring. Video calls, screen sharing, audio calls, and all the other communication tools that come with it are amazing. I couldn’t do my work without them. I enjoy being able to get on calls and see my teammates and friends; it makes a vast difference. However, limiting the artificial tension that arises from a video call can help us all to feel a little less tired at the end of the day.