The reviews and analysis have started coming in for battery life on the New MacBook Pros with the M1 Max and M1 Pro chips. I feel partially vindicated in that I wasn’t going crazy, but questions still remain. The 14” Max model is the worst of the entire M1 line in terms of battery life. In every other regard it’s an absolute beast, and a joy to use; no matter what I throw at it, the computer doesn’t even break a sweat. However, the thing I was used to, not thinking about plugging in or needing to be aware of a charging location throughout the day, is no longer an option.
At one point I switched to low power mode for a cycle, and tried that out. It helped, improving battery usage substantially. However, and this is a deal breaker for me, screen scrolling became worse. I noticed it after an hour or so, and had to switch back. I haven’t learned the exact reason, but I think power usage is related to the higher performance chips sipping battery regardless of user activity. Some folks speculate that Monterrey, the operating system update that shipped with the new devices, is responsible for some problems as well. If that’s true then there could be resolution to this in the near future. As mentioned before, it’s also interesting to use a device that gets warm. The MacBook Air stayed cooled all the time, and in the Winter it offered little support in warming my hands. Now, I’m reminded of the old days where the device is capable of heating up my legs when I’m using it as a laptop device for several hours. It’s a minor point though, since it doesn’t reach the scorching – burnable – levels of my 2010 MacBook Pro. All things being equal I’d be tempted to try an M1 Pro chip, but the process of switching devices – especially since I already sold my Air – is not an easy one. This is supposed to be my three year laptop, at least, so I’ll be curious how I feel when the M2 chip starts to ship in the redesigned MacBook Air. Either way, I’m glad that battery is the only thing I’m talking about now. My one year with the Air may just have been a wonderful anomaly.
A few years ago, Leo Postovoit, shared a concept with me. While we were chatting I remember being surprised and not having a mental model for applying the ideas to my work. It’s not that I’d never done it, but I hadn’t consciously thought of it the way he described. The concept was divergence and convergence within design, or really within anything that requires gathering of information. Divergence means going wide, and convergence means coming back to a narrow point.
As a product designer, it’s my job to help solve a lot of problems for my clients, the products, the wonderful teams I work with, and ultimately the folks who get to use what I make. There are quite a few mental models I’ve developed over the years for doing my work, and this one stands as an important pillar.
When I start a project, I try to keep things wide open for divergence. Practically, that means taking in all sources of information about the thing I’m working on. I collect data via scraps of paper, typing things into Bear notes, capturing to-dos in Things 3, Google docs, JIRA tickets, Github issues, screenshots with Droplr, Miro boards, Figma boards, and more. I love this, taking crazy chaos from everywhere and trying to make sense of it all.
This divergent, collective part of the project is messy, and can take a lot of time if I don’t put a constraint on it. Going wide, receiving new ideas, is necessarily an unlimited task. You open up to all the things that could apply to your work, and follow rabbit trails across the digital and analog spaces. This is beautiful, a lot of fun, and often immensely frustrating. Often you’re digging around in areas that don’t even feel tangentially related to the project in front of you, hoping for some kind of parallel example to bring back to the problem at hand.
Sometimes I’ll go on a walk and stew over the problem. Other times I just need to take a break and sleep through it, coming back fresh in the morning.
If that was the only part of a project, I’d likely finish nothing, and it’s caused problems at times in my work. My sense of perfectionism can kick in here and I’ll think that I need more research, more time, more data.
However, and this is where convergence comes in, at some point I have to switch mental modes and start culling the information, sorting the signals from the noise, and pulling out the relevant parts. This part looks a bit less messy from the outside. It’s the part where I cross items off on my digital boards, start checking to-dos in my task managers, and begin striking out text in areas. I take all that data and sort through the pieces in my mind.
After that point, I’m often ready for feedback; whether from my team or from customers in the real world. I’ve now taken in a bunch of stuff, sorted it, and spit out an editorial opinion on that stuff. This is where unique creativity comes in. There’s not really anything new in the world in terms of ideas. I can just hope to bring my own spin to something, taking inspiration from all those who came before. It’s a lot of fun, and it doesn’t require true originality, rather it takes wisdom to sort through what applies to the project and what I can toss.
This convergent phase can, in theory, be the end of a project. However, in reality, it’s often just the middle part. Going back to the client, the rest of the team, or our customers, and showing this convergence of information, often reveals flaws in the thinking. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to embrace those flaws. I get excited when someone points out an error in my mental model, or a misstep in where I’ve landed. These are opportunities to correct and improve and continue to editorialize the information.
Sometimes minor tweaks are enough. I can change my direction and iterate a bit and ship to the world. Other times, though, my approach to thinking is off, or the direction we took had a flaw from the beginning. This happened recently with a small project. We planned a specific direction based on the design brief, and I went divergent, thinking up ideas and trying to understand the brief. I went back to the team with my insights in a Google doc and shared some concerns about the design direction. That gave us a quick opportunity to pivot and switch things up, to try something new. From that meeting I dove back out, continued to spread out and look for things, then came back to earth and converged on a new direction.
This continual process of divergence and convergence, when appropriately timed, can help to move a project forward, and often conveys the pulse, or heartbeat, of the team. Anxiety, happiness, concern, euphoria, and a dozen other emotions all get bound up through the rhythm of the work. I love it, and this is a tiny piece of what gets me up each day and inspires me to continue to learn and grow.
Instead of being worried about this process, about being wrong about things, I embrace it, enjoying the natural flow of things, and use this opening and closing as a tool. As with any tool, there are limitations. You can spend too much time going wide, or focus too narrowly on a problem and stay stuck in that rut. With experience comes understanding of when to apply each, and therein lies the rub. That’s a thing I’m still learning and tweaking on every single project; trying to find that balance and understand where I am in the cycle. There’s more than this, of course, to being a great product designer, but it’s a start, and when uncertainty abounds, I can come back to this model and find a reset point.
Thanks Jonathan for inspiring me to write this, and for those following along this counted as my 1,000 words for the day.
From September, 2019 – December 2020 I managed to write four novels. The process was long and messy, and one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever undertaken. Those four books may never see the light of day, as they were a process of learning and understanding, and it would be hard to publish them now. One book, my first, is sitting in Ulysses with iteration number 17; meaning I’ve gone over the darn book 17 times. It’s a mess at this point, and I don’t know how to finish it, but that’s oaky.
As 2021 kicked around the corner I set a goal for myself to publish four novels in this calendar year. That was far different than the previous months where I wrote books, rewrote them, and toiled in obscurity. The new goal meant getting something out the door, being vulnerable with my work and letting the world see it.
So many doubts crept in with that goal. Is the quality of my content good? Is the subject matter good? How do I create book covers? What do I do about editing? Those all remain to this day, and I have spent countless hours trying to learn how to handle these and hundreds of other questions.
Still, as of November 10, 2021, I’ve published three books, and, I’m 19,021 words into my fourth novel for the year. It will top out at about 40,000 words. I’m starting to cut it a little close, but I’ll get it done. That knowledge, knowing I’ll get this fourth book out and meet my goal, is motivating.
Does it mean these four books are great novels? Well, I’ll leave that up to my readers to decide. I’m continuing to learn from each one and striving to improve my writing as I move forward. Pushing my books out into the world is part of that process, and it’s rewarding.
There’s still so much to learn and figure out, and it’s nerve racking at times, but I’m glad for it. I’m also wondering about 2022 and starting to think about goals for the new year.
Writing has been a thing I’ve done for most of my adult life in one form or another. I’ve tried out a few blogs over the years and attempted ways of putting out regular content. The problem with a lot of my writing was the inability to make anything stick. I don’t mean the amount of people reading, but rather the consistency on my part. The things I put out didn’t really interest me, and were being done as part of an obligation of sorts. That might have been a desire to hit a daily goal of creating posts, or a scheme to monetize my words.
For anyone who has followed along the past two years, you’re well aware of my writing fix. Six days a week, one thousand words a day, starting around September, 2019. It’s been a wonderful habit and brought about many unexpected benefits. I’ve written a few books, journaled more than anytime before in my life, and put out an exponential increase in blog posts.
Another benefit, and I think the one that matters far more than any other, is the start of finding my inner voice. I define that voice as the ability to say things in a way that’s unique to you.
I’ve noticed this voice from other writers over the years; whether in fiction or non-fiction, books or blog posts. I’ll pick Gruber as one example. He’s written for years, put out countless articles and bits of content, and has a comfort level with stating his opinion and building content in a way that invokes interest from his readers. It’s something I notice listening to his podcasts. When he sits down to review a piece of Apple hardware he seeks to find the angle that’s interesting and new. He doesn’t want to write words that will feel like copies of all the other product reviews, and finds joy in discovering a unique take. Does that mean everyone will agree with him, or find his words relevant for them? Not at all. But it does mean that a subset of readers, myself included, enjoy the nuance he brings to a given topic. If something happens in the tech world I want to know what John thinks about it.
Finding a voice in content creation takes time to cultivate, and therein lines a joy for me. I don’t like to pursue something when I perceive it’s too easy to accomplish. There’s an interest that comes in pushing my curiosity and challenging my abilities. Writing is one such activity. No matter how much I write I still see mountains in front of me. I may get better, bit by bit, but a few minutes immersed in words from my favorite authors helps to inspire me to do better. That’s exciting and motivating. I see my own skills increasing over time and, some day and in some specific pieces, matching the quality of what I love to read.
My voice is starting to grow. I’m getting a sense for the things I want to write, and the specific angle that applies to those topics. If this is what two years of solid writing brings, I can’t wait to see what things look like in the future. That, tied with an understanding of why I write – because I have a unique take on something that is often different from others – keeps this whole exercise interesting.
This ties in with a growth mindset on this whole topic. The world is a better place when more people create. I read more than I write, so encouraging others to become writers helps to make the whole pie bigger. In an odd way this is the only pyramid scheme that works. I may put out a thousand words or so a day of content, but I can easily consume far more than that.
If you’re curious about your own voice, and want to cultivate it, I encourage you to find a way of creating that works for you.
I’m now going on a week of using the new MacBook Pro, and in almost every regard I’m happy with it.
There are some issues on software, but I don’t know if that’s because of Monterrey or the trackback and keyboard. For instance, one app I use for time tracking, Harvest, keeps jumping up into the top left corner of my screen. That could be the connection with my external monitor, or something else. Restarting my computer fixes it, but that’s annoying.
The other issue is the tap to click mechanism. Something about this trackpad is more touch sensitive. Normally when I tap to click I use a soft touch. After a number of failed attempts to open links in new tabs (command+tab+click) or selecting multiple objects in Figma (shift+click), I realized the settings needed to be adjusted. I think I’ve got it figured it out now.
Beyond those small things I’m mostly happy with the new laptop. The keyboard itself feels chunkier in a way, like there’s more travel or I have to press harder. That’s okay, I’ll adjust and get used to it. The large Touch ID button is a joy, going back to the 13″ shows how tiny the function row was.
The biggest gripe I have though, is with the battery. The MacBook Air M1 battery was better, plain and simple. My workflow hasn’t changed, I’m still using the same apps. The Air handled those apps like a champ, battery or no. Now, I’m chewing through the battery much faster. I haven’t done any specific analysis yet, but my sense is that the M1 was about 25% better. I tried to take a guess at hours, but I haven’t timed it yet so don’t have a true idea of what kind of battery I’m getting.
The bummer is how I use the laptop. For the past year I pretty much ignored power on my MacBook Air. I used it plugged in, I used it on battery, and I rarely got a warning to connect to a power source. That’s happened once already in the last week, well after the initial indexing completed, and now I’m checking the battery constantly. Maybe that was a blip in regards to my Mac usage, the one glorious year where battery was king in 2020; the one year where travel didn’t matter. Now I feel like I’m just back to the norm with Apple laptops, where I need to keep an eye on a power source. That one consideration alone has made me consider returning this beast of a laptop and keeping my M1.
When Apple announced the new MacBook Pros I knew immediately that I was interested. Throughout the year I saved up a budget for the device, and each subsequent announcement during the event increase my certainty of purchasing the new laptop.
My laptop arrived today, and I couldn’t be more excited. The configuration I chose was a 14-inch MacBook Pro M1 Max maxed out, except keeping the storage at 512 GB.
Over the past few weeks I’ve listened to numerous podcasts and read a number of great takes on the device. Following are a few thoughts from holding this new laptop in my hands for the past few hours.
The full size function keys are a welcome addition to the keyboard. I must add though, that coming from a MacBook Air for the last year, I am taking a little bit of time to adjust my fingers to touching them. The first time I reached up to press the Touch ID button my finger rested in the wrong area. These changes aren’t a big deal though, and I except I’ll be okay with the changes in the near future.
Adding to keyboard thoughts. I love the black behind the keys. It’s a change, and looks sharp. The size feels a bit different from my Air, although I can’t place the exact difference. My fingers keep hitting the wrong edges of the keys and my typing accuracy is a bit lower than normal. With that said I except I’ll get used to it soon enough.
Overall fit and form
As a product designer I love how something feels in the hand, how it looks on a desk, and how it fits into a backpack. Thankfully, on that last front, it still fits fine into my GORUCK GR1 laptop slot. Incidentally I might need to write on backpacks again in the near future. Working out a new configuration for how to keep all my electronics safe.
The laptop looks and feels more thick, considerably so relative to my Air. That’s not a bad thing though. I bought this with the intention of it being a Pro device, and it feels that in every way. My wife’s first comment was on the overall shape, saying it reminded her of the a Mac from 10 years ago. I took that as a compliment.
Only one podcast mentioned a specific problem that I have with the notch. I’m a full screen user. I keep the menu bar and dock hidden at all times, and only access them by reaching my cursor up to that area to grab something. The notch forces a change in one of my habits, and that’s a little bit frustrating. I tried at first to make the menu bar hidden by default, but it looks weird when a window won’t go up all the way. I’m currently keeping the menu bar visible, but finding some challenge with seeing all the items at the top of the screen. I realize this is a very specific thing that few will run into. Over the past five years I’ve lived with the menu hidden so this will take some getting used to.
I have nothing to comment yet on the performance or speed of this device. My MacBook Air was great for all but the most strenuous of tasks. Only on a few occasions in the past year did I even have a hiccup, where it needed to take a second to load something. I’m very curious to see what this feels like after pushing the device through its paces.
I was excited to switch from the MacBook Air to this new laptop for a brighter screen. So far, though, I’m not feeling a great difference. This may be do to eye strain late in the day, and I’m curious how I’ll feel tomorrow; from my perspective a screen can never be bright enough, especially in dark mode. I tried switching to light mode and did notice a difference, but my general use case is a dark screen.
This is a device that I’m happy to own, and expect to become a utilitarian part of my workflow for years to come.
This is going to take some getting used to. My Air does not get warm. The metal stays coolish to the touch no matter what. This device is warming my hands and lap, which is a surprise after holding a cool aluminum device for the past year. So far it’s not a problem; nothing close to the scorching heat I’ve dealt with on MacBook Pros of old, but I wasn’t expecting it.
All around us we see patterns of products and software designed to influence our habits and purchasing decisions. As mentioned before, I’ve got a pet peeve with syrup containers. A while back I read a great book on the topic of habits and getting connected with the products we use, explaining the cycle we run through when we become a user of something.
Apart from syrup containers and the over-sized pouring spouts, another thing that’s bothered me to no end is yogurt containers. I’m a huge fan of soy yogurt from Silk, the blueberry flavor in particular. I steer towards non-dairy when possible, so this is my favorite yogurt on the planet. Granted, the sugar has something to do with that. Still, opening up one of these yogurt containers, cleaning off the inner foil lid, and diving into the thick creamy contents is an amazing experience. This is one of my favorite snacks. It seems we can never keep enough of these around. Something’s happened though, in the years since I started eating these. The containers themselves have changed. As far as you can tell from the outside things look the same. It’s still the general yogurt shaped object I grabbed from the refrigerated section as a teenager. However, on the inside the total quantity of food has been reduced; I’m almost sure of it.
I haven’t dove in yet to research the extent of the problem, but the false bottom of the yogurt drives me nuts. Based on my completely unscientific research, I’d estimate that the yogurt containers are designed to look close to 8 ounces, or a cup in American measurements. That’s a decent size amount, and worthy of enjoying on its own; or with the granola of your choice sprinkled in. However, because of the oversized false bottom on the container, the actual amount of food you’re getting to consume is far less than it appears at first glance. The total food inside is 5.3 ounces, a travesty in my opinion.
Whether rising food prices, inflation in general, or a number of other factors, Silk has chosen to keep the perceived size of the container the same as a dozen years ago, while pushing up the bottom on the inside. It frustrates me to no end, and I wonder if this is a way of hiding the cost of food inflation without consumers noticing.
There are far worse things in the world to be stressed over, but this is a little thing that just bothers me, and I wish Silk would sell a standard cup sized yogurt, without resorting to what I perceive as dark patterns. This is no way reflective on them in particular, I just complain because I like their food so much. This happens across the board with so many food products, and some times to a point of being ludicrous.
Anyway, enough ranting on that. I’m going to go buy some more yogurt.
The latest release of the iPhone this year has me thinking about my phone again. My previous model, the iPhone X, was chosen for its camera. Portrait mode blew me away. I bought an iPhone 12 Pro Max last year with one purpose in mind, to get a camera that could handle better low-light situations. As a father of two small children, I try my best to capture pictures of my kids in as many environments as possible. They’re getting a little older, 4 and 8, so asking them to hold still for a moment has become easier. Still, there’s something about being able to pull out my camera, press a button, and have a decent picture most of the time. My phone does that, and I love it. Over the past year I’ve managed to take a lot of photos, and several dozen are images I can say that I’m quite proud of; some are of landscapes and outdoors shots, and the rest are of my family. Those are my two main purposes for wanting a phone with a great camera. With that said, my current phone is massive. Even after a year I still feel that it’s a large phone, much more than I need. When I picked between the four available I went with the one that had the best low-light camera. This year, with the iPhone 13, both pro models have identical cameras. And, based on reviews so far, it seems like a decent incremental upgrade over what I have today in terms of camera. In my mind I always run the decision tree of need versus want. This is absolutely a case of wanting the latest tech, but having something now that is more than sufficient. So, first world problems and all, I’m at a bit of an impasse over whether to upgrade. Before I waited three years, and now I’ve been planning to wait two years. A funny thing starts to happen though, as my phone gets older. In the first year of purchase I take more photos and start to play with the latest changes. As time passes I take less. This is fine, I have so many great photos of my kids. However, I like to incentivize myself to take more and capture those moments. Each years the tech gets a little better and pushes the limits of what I can take. I’ve all but stopped carrying around my DSLR. Granted, it’s a lower end model, but for years it caught the kinds of pictures my phone could only dream of. Now, based on my knowledge of the devices and the ease with which an iPhone allows capturing a shot, I’m often happier with what I can take on the phone, especially with it always being on me. Since my goal is to get great pictures of my kids, and fun new technology enables that, I don’t feel too bad about the upgrades. I may try and figure out a way to sell my phone and upgrade, but it’s a bit of a nightmare since I’m still on a plan through my phone carrier.
I’ve tried just about every productivity hack, tip, and methodology. Over the past decade and a half I’ve researched tons of methods for improving my ability to get stuff done. Some work, some don’t, all of them wear off.
At the end of the day my ability to get something done comes down to a combination of personal energy reserve, technical ability to complete the task, collaboration with team mates, and one other crucial ingredient. Over the short term I can accomplish anything I set my mind to. However, over the long term, my ability to show up day to day and keep pushing on a project is directly related to the level at which the project pushes me. If something is too easy it’s hard to stay excited and motivated. If something is too hard I feel blocked and overwhelmed.
This ability to find something just hard enough, just at the level of challenge, enough to engage me – frankly, that’s something I live for and search for.
When all of these components line up I’m able to enter a state of flow, and that is a beautiful thing. I’m a designer for a variety of reasons. I love the outcomes of my work, seeing things grow and bring joy and value to others. But there’s another component that’s equally important. The act of doing, The Practice, the showing up each day, matters. I want to get into a state of loving what I do, of striving to learn, of forgetting time for hours on end and pouring over ideas to create something better. If a third of my life is devoted to work I want to enjoy that work.
So, to bring that full circle to my point, I listened to a recent Focused episode, interviewing the Founder of Focusmate. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m blown away. I’ve heard about Focusmate before, had it in my mind as something to try eventually. Thanks to the episode I gave it a try and dove in. Now I’m 3 sessions in and ready to throw a bunch of superlatives out there and tell everyone how amazing it is.
Granted, this is new, and perhaps this will wear off as well. However, there’s something special about meeting with another person, telling them for a moment what you plan to do, then having them as an accountability partner over the next 25 minutes. I love it, and I’m hooked, and want to explore where this goes over the coming days.
The past two years have been a blast. Six days a week, 1,000 words per day. This was the minimal guidance that Stephen King suggested in On Writing, and I took it to heart. On the majority of days I add to the books I’m writing, and push them forward a half chapter, or a full chapter, one day at a time.
On my off days I’ll write anyway, and just not add to my books. This may be a personal journal entry, or a blog post. This decision, knowing that I’ll write no matter what, has been such a positive one. I’ve completed 7 novels, three of which are published, and am in the start of an 8th novel.
I’m a writer because I write, not for any other reason. The joy comes in the doing, that’s the reason to keep moving forward; or at least the biggest reason.
Every now and then I need to duplicate a WordPress post or page. It’s not a built-in feature, and requires adding a custom plugin to my site. For those who aren’t familiar with WordPress, the plugin ecosystem is a strength and weakness. Thousands of amazing plugins, built by caring and hardworking developers, focused on solving problems.
The challenge is adding plugins can cause problems. The WordPress.org plugin team works hard to ensure that every plugin is reviewed and meets security standards. However, with 59,111 free plugins available, there are bound to be problems; especially if you don’t keep your site updated.
So, imagine my relief when I go to look for a duplicating post plugin and see a top result from the team at Yoast. I’ve grown to trust Yoast over the years, and have an expectation of a more rigorous vetting process from their internal team. Because of that I don’t hesitate, I grab their plugin. Building trust matters and extends in many positive ways.
I’m very excited about the announced upcoming event next week with Apple. The rumor is that we’re getting updated MacBook Pros. Earlier this year I sold my 2019, top of the line, 15″ MacBook Pro. I then bought an M1 MacBook Air with upgraded ram.
As a designer I often push the limits of my machines, The M1 has held up to everything like a champ, and in some ways was better than the previous laptop I owned, at a third of the price.
I’ve been amazed at its performance. It’s on par with my previous laptop, and it’s just about the cheapest laptop Apple sells. I can’t wait to see what they announce next week.
I’m currently at a challenging points with basic sketching and drawing apps for the iPad. I use these apps almost daily for the initial ideation stage of my design work.
Recently I had to purge all of the artwork from Linea Sketch, numbering in the hundreds, and disconnect the the app from iCloud. These were forced measures to try and speed up the time to use the app. Slow software sucks, and that’s the line Linea crossed in the past few years. No, no pun in tended. The solution is imperfect. I have to manually cut out the artwork I’ve done, back it up as .PNGs to my computer, and hope I can find it later. All layers are lost, the fancy time lapse feature is lost. Yes, there’s ways around it, but I was in a hurry.
Given that, I tried switching to Apple Notes. It’s…. possible, or passable. It kind of works; but it’s not a pro app by any means. If Linea could just get a bit faster, and allow for a larger canvas, I’d be a happy customer for years to come. Apple Notes has an infinite canvas, and the drawing tools are okay. However, just try to get the artwork out of Notes and you quickly run into a world of trouble.
The technical details aren’t that interesting for why, although I might write about these at some point. Needless to say, I wonder at some point if I need to design the app I’d like to use.
There’s a feeling that I wish I could describe to folks who don’t enjoy reading. The indescribable joy of picking up a great story and diving headlong into the characters and narrative. The joy of disappearing, of being drawn in, and falling in love with a good tale. Those are priceless. I’ve had friends over the years who weren’t into books, and as time has gone on I’ve seen a few of them convert to enjoying reading. The difference, each time, has been the need to find a story that worked for them. Not all books are alike, and not all for for me. In fact, most books will never match the type of reading I’m into. And that’s okay. I believe that many people just haven’t found the right books yet.
As life goes on I find that I have less and less time to waste on books that aren’t worthwhile. I no longer force myself to finish a story, to treat it as homework or a school assignment. Instead I pick up books that challenge my curiosity, push my creativity, or draw me in for a break in another world. Books that do that are priceless, and worth their weight in copper.
There’s been a few great fiction and non-fiction stories that have completely taken me in over the years, and I continue to ride the high of that as I search for the next great piece of literature. It feels like an addiction, as I keep starting new books to fall back into their worlds. Every now and then, a few times a year if I’m lucky, I find those worlds again and disappear. It’s such a privilege, and it’s part of the reason I write. I want to create worlds similar to the ones I’ve loved throughout my life.
I remember one time, I’d finished reading The Road. It’s a brutal story, one of survival, love, and hardship. I don’t necessarily recommend it, but I can’t say it didn’t impact me. My son was young then, a baby still, and hearing a story of a father trying to save his son amidst a fallen world hit home for me. The story moved me, I felt part of the pages, and wanted the characters to thrive. When I finished I felt completely raw and emotional. At the time I was working in an office, and when I reached the last chapter of the audiobook, I had a strange moment. I pulled out my headphones and looked around at the room. Several others sat with me, all working away. I’d been working too (one of the perks of being a designer), and I felt a disconnect, like I’d been through something in a world apart, and no-one else could realize what I’d experienced. Books do that, and that’s why I’ll always keep looking for more stories, and try to create a few of them myself.
Growing up I had big dreams about where the world would take me. In some ways I’ve gone further than I ever expected, and in some ways I can’t possibly do all the things I want in a single lifetime. That’s okay. As a father, husband, and primary bread winner for the family, it’s my job to make sure that my loved ones are secure. Sometimes throughout my career that’s meant taking on jobs to pay the bills, and other times I’ve been lucky enough to find a Venn diagram where the thing I like, and the thing that pays money, align.
Regardless of that Venn diagram, I learned two years ago the importance of always having a small thing in my life that is for me, and by me. Even when work is going well, I need to have a part of my day where I go create something that isn’t for my normal job. I’d argue, in fact, that it’s just as critical when the day job is going well, as when things are headed in a downward slope.
Right now, this post, is part of that. On most days I write fiction, disappear into Ulysses on my Mac for a while and knock out a thousand words. Today, however, my attention is spent. I had some awesome things come up at work that pulled my energy into solving work specific problems, and so I feel myself empty and ready to close out the day. However, because of my commitment to myself, I need to give my creative side room to breath and exist.
Some days it means journaling, writing words that I alone will ever see. Some days it’s writing a post for this site, and other days it’s my fictional writing. All of them are valuable though. Each plays a part, and each keeps me to my commitment of getting words on digital ink on a regular basis.
Having that special thing I do is critical. It helps to fuel my creativity in other areas, and encourages discovery and curiosity for something that I care about, separate from any monetary incentive. There is, of course, the potential for money in my writing, but that’s not why I’m doing it. This is a wonderful escape; and opportunity to use the creative side of my brain, and the chance to push and explore things that only I may care about.
Exercise also plays into my life now, for a different reason than before. Now I exercise to give my brain and body a chance to stretch, push myself, and get away from the computer. I run because it fuels my brain and feels amazing. The parallel between exercise and creative work aren’t a coincidence. Taking time for myself, despite all that’s happening around me, helps me to be a better human for those I love. I’m 33 years old, and these lessons have taken me a while to learn. I’m guessing that there are many more lessons that the future will hold.
At the moment I’m sort of between writing projects. I had a goal of finishing a novel by June 30th. That’s complete, and while there’s some additional work to do, such as the blurb and physical book cover, I accomplished my goal. It feels good to hit that, and to have the book ready to go out this weekend. I’m sort of in this strange middle between books. I’m about to start my seventh novel now, and I’ve had mixed results with starting. Sometimes I dive into the next book on the very next day, other times I’ve taken at least a week or two to get started. It feels like a bit of a hiccup in my process, but I’m embracing and running with it. So, this article today is about writing, and getting something out, even if it’s not directly related to my novel.
I split my writing into four sources right now. First is the novels. I love to write them, and will continue to hone my craft and learn more about the process of creating large stories. It’s a lot of fun, and rewarding. The second type of writing is journal. Some days I sit down and write 1,000 words intended only for myself. It’s a way of clearing my head, of processing my thoughts, and candidly I consider them a bit of a cheat day. It’s quite easy for me to just hammer away at the keyboard, processing my thoughts in a private medium, and typing as fast as possible.
The third source is my blog. When I’m not feeling like adding to my novel, I’ll use the blog as an escape hatch and add some words there. Somehow these other sources feel wrong, but it’s how I’m approaching the topic. In my current stage of life I limit the priority for writing. I have a full-time job, as well as a lovely family that need me. I set aside approximately 30 minutes each day for writing, and on some days I’m more tired, and just want to get something out. True, that could be in my novel, but it’s where I’m at now. Also, it’s fun to write non-fiction for a change, and add thoughts to my site. I keep a running list of article ideas in my notes app for days like this.
The fourth source of writing is short stories. I’m not sure if the exact count, but there’s probably twenty short stories sitting inside my Ulysses app, waiting to see the world some day. One of them is in progress now, part of the Diminished universe I’m writing. What I’ve found is a way that works for me, something that’s sustainable. If I’m exhausted, and ready to shut down for the day, I might turn to a short journaling attempt; add some words to the page, and type out at a hundred words a minute, just hammering away to say something, to keep the chain and keep my commitment. It’s a bit of a cheat, but it keeps me going.
All this is working toward a goal. I want to get to a place where my writing matters to a group of people, where I can learn from their feedback and continue to hone my craft.
I write most days. Since September 2019 I’ve sat down to put words on the page, and bring ideas to reality. The idea came from On Writing, by Stephen King. He suggested, that if you want to be a writer, that, as obvious as it sounds, you must write. And so I’ve taken that to heart. The formula from King is a minimum of 1,000 words; six days per week. Some days I’ve adjusted the writing for editing days, but always found time to do one or the other. The benefits have been profound. I’ll start with an unexpected side effect.
Now, when I need to write something out, be it a letter to a friend, details of work to a colleague, or just overall explaining my thoughts in words, I find that this happens with ease. I’ve removed the barrier and mental block of creating, or writing, of doing. This may not last forever, but it’s a gift that I’ve received, and I’m thankful for it. I no longer have fear of getting something out. If I need to explain a technical concept I start putting one letter after another and allow my brain to fill in the pieces.
The other results of my writing are public works. My first novel came out early this year, and the sequel comes out next week. I’ll write another novel in Q3, and hoping to finish at least one short story; that one is less certain. Getting stories out is possible when applying a daily commitment to create words. The novel third novel this year will actually be my seventh.
I wrote four novels prior, but doubt I’ll ever publish them. I consider them my early attempts at learning the trade of writing. At over 300,000 words total, it was an expensive training course, and somewhat unnecessary, however that’s not the point of this post.
Getting out words, and sharing them with the world is essential. I don’t do that every day, some days my words are reserved for myself, to clear my thoughts and figure out what I’m saying. But on the whole, the majority of my writing days are intended for others to read and, hopefully, gain insights.
Writing is a form of living for me. It’s similar to exercise. I run most days, getting outside into nature; rain or shine, wind or snow. Running brings me hope and life and energy. Writing triggers similar feelings. I’m eager to get to the page each day and add some words, share some thoughts. Much of this is just practice; I’m not expecting my words to become a masterpiece to wow the world. Instead I hope to hone my skills and keep trying, keep learning, keep figuring out what it means to share what I’m thinking.
I joined Audible in 2011, ten years of listening to hundreds of books. My iPhone app lists 372 titles in my library. I haven’t heard them all, and some are kid’s books, but I have gone through many of them. The key to my reading has been to listen to stories across a variety of genres. I enjoy religious books, self-help books, business, history, biography, memoir, as well as a half dozen fiction genres. Changing up the book I read helps to keep the process enjoyable and reduces the chances of feeling burned out on anyone type of story.
A friend of mine requested a list of my top ten books. There are far more books I’d recommend, but I’ll start with ten, and share a brief paragraph on why I enjoyed each. I’ll keep this a spoiler free zone, and share across genres.
The Martian Science fiction. Andy Weir has an ability to connect with the audience and characters in a way that brings depth and richness to his stories. The Martian is one of those rare books that I’ve read more than once. Instead of a story about a man who is trying to save the world, this book flips the script and has the world trying to save a man. Books and movies will sometimes evoke a feeling of humanity coming together; The Martian accomplishes this beautifully. If you don’t mind a little colorful language – the protagonist is in some dire straits throughout the story so it feels warranted – then I believe you’ll love this story. My favorite parts are the deep dives into the daily life of the main character, and the ingenuity required. It’s a lot of fun. Also, if you already read this book, I highly recommend Project Hail Mary, by the same author. It’s a spiritual successor to the book, and I enjoyed it just as much. Where the first book primarily follows a single character, Project Hail Mary follows a different type of story telling narrative. I love both, and don’t want to spoil either.
The Guns of August History. This is the number one history book I recommend to friends. On the surface it sounds like a bit of a weird choice; a book about World War I. But as I dove into the story, I got lost in the political intrigue and wartime communications of the great powers of Europe. The author, Barbara Tuchman, has a way of ramping up the tempo, of bringing the story to a point, and pulling the reader with her. Her narrative view of Germany, Britain, and France, all pushing and vying for control of the continent, helps to convey the tension and emotion of the great powers. The key moments that cemented this as one of my favorite books came in the resistance from tiny countries such as Luxembourg and Belgium. Their attempt to slow down the inevitable march of the German clock, to give more time to the opposing powers, gave me chills and helped convey bravery individual characters forced into one of the worst wars of all time.
On Writing Non-fiction. Stephen King is one of the best storytellers I’ve read. I’ve listened to many of his books over the years. He has an ability to create connection and conflict between characters, to breathe life into them. On Writing describes the way he approaches fiction writing, and the process he goes through to bring stories to the page. This was an inspiration for me and helped give me the start I needed to write my own works of fiction. It’s written like a story, and carries with it the emotions and drama of Stephen’s own life as he sought to become a writer.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed Non-fiction. Lori Gottlieb, an accomplished therapist living in California, uses this story as the backdrop to explain what great therapy can accomplish, and why it’s important. She shares her own need to see a therapist, and breaks down what’s happening in each session while working through problems in her own life. The key takeaway is the realization that our brains don’t perceive distress as relative. While our analytic mind can say that our problems are smaller than someone else’s, our emotions have no way of recognizing the difference. It’s important to allow those emotions the space they need in order to work through them. This book was an inspiration, and I’ve recommended it many times to friends.
World War Z Fiction. This book is pure joy for me. Warning, the book is about zombies. But it’s one of my favorite stories from that genre. It does something unique, using journalism for storytelling in a fiction story. Instead of following a single character, the book jumps across time and continents to capture the retellings of people who saw and felt the effects of the world’s change under a viral attack. This book helps to bring the feeling of human connection and humanity, all working together for a greater cause. Although the genre is different, this story captured the same feelings as The Martian. It’s one of the few fiction books I’ve read twice.
Circe Fiction. The author is a genius at taking an exciting premise and breathing life into an ancient story. I knew nothing of the tales of Circe, the witch from ancient mythology. This character, a weak god among greater gods, must live as the lowest of all in the great courts of antiquity. Through various events she’s forced on a small island, and must live her days as queen of the island. It’s a premise that should lose my interest, but it doesn’t. Each chapter pushes the story forward and brings color and character to this mythical protagonist. The book was a joy to read, and I’ve recommended it several times to friends.
The Hidden Life of Trees Non-fiction. The author spent most of his life in an ancient forest in Germany. His job is to hike the trails across the forest and investigate the health of the flora and fauna within. The premise is interesting for some with a specific interest in nature, but the book goes further than that. The author’s insights are valuable for a universal audience. He combines his observations with scientific understanding of nature and helps to bring the forest alive in our minds. I loved learning about the emotion of trees, the familial connections they make, and their resilience and intelligence across years and decades. It’s an amazing tale and helps with understanding the beauty of nature around us.
So Good they can’t ignore you Non-fiction. Cal Newport is a brilliant author. I’ve read most of his books. He has an ability to dive deep into a topic, understand it, and describe learnings in a way that I can extract meaning. The major premise of the book is how to do work that is meaningful. Instead of following your passion for a career, he suggests that passion results from craftsmanship. Instead of jumping entire careers, he suggests finding the overlap from one job to another, and bringing insights from the previous forward into the next line of work. It’s a great career book and has insights for life as well.
Creative Selection Non-fiction. Ken, one of the first half dozen engineers working on the iPhone, writes about his long history at Apple, and the opportunities he had to build some of the most used software in the world. Ken describes the creative process that his team approached to building software for the iPhone, the Mac, and the iPad. He also describes interactions with Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall. Throughout this narration of his time at Apple, Ken weaves anecdotes on the connection between design and engineering, and gives concrete examples on how to emulate that in our own work. I’ve read this book twice and will probably pick it up a third time.
Ender’s Game Fiction. I disappeared into the world that Orson Scott Card created. Ender’s game is a story of humanity fighting together against a foe, and attempting to come out on top. The premise is not new, but the book has a unique take on how the protagonist will defeat the enemy. I knew nothing about the story going in and listened through to the end without spoilers. I’d suggest you do the same. Orson wrote the book in such a way that a second reading feels required. For that reason the author wrote a sequel, Ender’s Shadow, which relives the events of the first book through the eyes of a second character, giving color and meaning to the decisions you see in Ender’s Game.
I’m stopping at ten books for now, but there are more; so many more. I only went through about half of my Audible library so far as I thought through previous titles. I might have to come back later and write a second post with more favorites.
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.
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.
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.