Writing as Practice

My brain shifted over the past year as I’ve taken to daily writing. Before, I’d sit down to put words on the page, and find that my brain shut the process down before it began. We each have two different parts of our brain that fight with each other during the writing process: the creative brain, and the critical brain. Writing into the Dark, by Dean Wesley-Smith, talks about this; emphasizing the importance of shutting the critical brain out of the entire process. 

When I sit down to write I think of my time as practice. I’m not creating a perfect thing, intended for the world to enjoy and sing my praises. Instead, my goal is to get thoughts onto the page and try to share an idea in a way that benefits me, and hopefully helps others. 

If I continue on this path of writing at least six days per week, I’m hoping that my brain will continue to adapt for a practice creation mindset. Writing in fiction feels like a different game for me at the moment, and non-fiction is still taking some time to get used to with this method of creativity.

The change has been profound. Where before I’d stare at a page and try to figure out what to say, try to perfect it and create just the right combination of thoughts in my head, now I just start typing and my brain figures it out as I go along. When I keep typing, keep pressing ahead on the keyboard, my critical brain doesn’t have time to cause any problems; it’s just my creative brain flowing and putting all that together. 

This is something I’ve also experienced in my design work. Sometimes I need to just put my work onto the page, and stop stalling for more information, details, context, etc. Practicing in this way is rather freeing, and helps to bring anticipation to my work. Knowing that I’ll sit down each day, write out a thousand words, and then move on, removes a lot of weight from the process.

So for writing, I pull up a full screen on my device and start hammering away. I’m fortunate enough to have a device that’s mostly dedicated to this, using Ulysses on my iPad Pro with the Magic Keyboard, but in the past I’d just clear out my laptop’s desktop, and open up a full-screen window. It also helps to write in a space separate from my other work. Writing in the same spot as my work desk is a creativity drain. For that reason I bought a cheap desk, put it beside my main desk, and move over to that area during the 20-30 minutes of writing time each day. 

I’ve had opportunity to chat with friends about this process, and share how I work; it’s helped to inspire a few, and also cements my thinking. Learning about others over the past year, through books, podcasts, and online discussions, has helped with understanding the different methods of writing. The most important thing for me is to find what works, and adjust as needed. Most styles of fiction writing are along a scale, where writers lean more towards the planning method, or just diving in and figuring it out along the way. On the one hand, we call the planning type of person a plotter / outliner. They want to bring some organization, thought, research, and forethought to their work ahead of writing the manuscript. On the other hand, we have discovery writers, sometimes referred to as pantsers. They move forward with stories, focused on specific aspects such as dialogue, character, or plot, and type page after page until a story forms. Others take this further and write out the complete story in one go, with minor revisions along the way.

Most writers fall somewhere on that spectrum. Similar to how few people are 100% extroverted, or 100% introverted, few writers are 100% on either side of the discovery / plotter scale.

My novels have been on the discovery end of things, where I’ve figured out the story as I go along. That is a lot of fun for me and helps keep the story fresh and interesting as I add to it each day. It’s not for everyone, and some writers prefer the planning, but that daily excitement and motivation drives me forward.

With that said, I may adjust a bit as I continue to write. I want to get to where I feel that I have a basic grasp of the mechanics of storytelling, and can use that to propel my discovery style into an interesting and cohesive adventure. For me, it’s about telling the stories I wish someone else wrote. The other part of this, along with the fun of learning new stories as I go, is the realization that I can continue to learn the craft of writing for years to come. There is no planned end date where I expect to arrive, and believe that I know all there is about fiction, and that’s a good thing. Pushing the boundaries of my work is important, as it gives a reason to continue to learn and be curious. 

The natural progression of writing is that I may expand beyond fiction to other areas and bring my experience with me. That might mean other types of books as time goes on, and I’m excited to see what happens there. 

Now, to be completely candid, I don’t write fiction every day. Sometimes I feel too tired, or worn out, and don’t want to add to my stories. I give myself a pass on those days though, and bring the true meaning of practice sessions to my writing time.. This blog post is an example of that other writing. I want to just share ideas, but not hold to a specific expectation on every single day; this allows some level of variety. 

When I started reading in more earnest as an adult, I developed the habit of setting down books before finishing them. If the book no longer interested me, I wouldn’t force myself to finish. As a result, I read far more books, to completion. Even though I expect to finish the books I start, that experience is something I’ve considered for writing as well. We’ll see how this continues to unfold.

Spaces

I’ve worked from home for the past six years. In the years prior, my work time was a mixed bag of remote and in-office. Now, living in a small town in Idaho, spending most of my days in a small room, I have a lot of time to figure out what makes sense for an office setup, and what doesn’t. I spend most of my time in the home office, with one day a week in a local co-working space (although more often than not I don’t bother and just stay home). I imagine this will be a work in progress for years to come, so right now I’ll share more of a status of the current state, and less an understanding of the best solution overall.

There are three purposes, well more like four, for trying to tweak my home office setup. First is utility; I need certain things to get my job done. Second is aesthetics. I like things to look good because it helps create an environment where I’m happy to work. Third is curiosity, of a sort; I like to tinker and try out new things and see if they’ll give me some level of gains. It doesn’t always work out, but it’s fun to try. The last purpose is for better ergonomics. As I start to into my thirties, it’s becoming important to take care of myself and have a setup that’s built around me, instead of the other way around. When typing I want to have my wrists, shoulders, elbows, neck, and eyes all setup in such a way as to avoid strain or injury. So with those in mind, I’ll dive into some things I’m using.

Let’s start with my desk. I have an automatic stand-sit desk. There’s nothing particularly fancy about it, and at the top level it’s just tall enough for me as a 6’ 2” human. After a decade plus of slouching, and likely causing some displeasure for my back, I took ergonomics seriously. Right now that involves a combination of sitting and standing. For sitting I use a type of elevated standing chair, which I’ve discussed previously [link].

The standing desk is not new, but it’s only been in the last 18 months that I’ve used it more for its standing features. That came about because of acquiring the chair. It’s an easier transition to just slide off your chair when the desk is already close to the height of standing. I’ve also encountered the previously described issue with my back, where sitting for long periods becomes uncomfortable. It’s easier to just stand; granted that took a while, and I had to work up to the point of standing for 2-8 hours/day without feeling fatigued. Now I prefer to just stand most days.
Besides the standing desk, I bought an anti-fatigue standing mat from fully.com. This helps a lot and gives my feet something squishy to move on; I also wear a pair of Santa Cruz convertible slip-ons for comfort. They’re just fancy looking Crocs, but the most relaxing thing I’ve found for long hours of standing.

My computer setup has varied over the years as I’ve both upgraded and downgraded. My current system, and the one I feel most happy with, is an M1 MacBook Air, sitting on top of a Roost Laptop Stand, combined with a 27” LG Monitor on an Ergotron raised arm. Between the stand, the arm, and my desk, I’m able to tweak things to get just the right height for elbows, wrists, and neck.

The laptop, with 7 GPU Cores, and upgraded ram (16 GB), is perfect for my needs as a designer. I can run Safari with 30+ tabs, Adobe Illustrator, Figma, Slack, email, Zoom conference with screen sharing, Local by Flywheel, and 3-4 other apps I’m forgetting right now. That can all be going with barely a hiccup. It’s amazing, and was enough to convince me to switch away from a 2018 15-inch top-of-the-line MacBook Pro. I can’t wait to see what Apple does with their silicon on a real high-end laptop.

Besides the Roost Laptop Stand, I also use an Apple keyboard and mouse, along with Magic Grips for the mouse. I’m not sure if they give real ergonomic benefits, but I like the feel of them. As an aside, the Magic Grips are not intended for travel. If you regularly move your mouse from your desk, to a laptop bag, and to another desk, they’ll likely break down. I’ve had to get several replacements already (which the company was kind enough to send me at no charge). I’m thinking I may want to own two mice, eventually; one for travel and one for home.

I also bought a cheap desk pad for my keyboard and mouse, which allows me to lean over and rest my elbows without hurting the tendons. This happens sometimes when I switch to drawing on my iPad.

For iPad I use a 2020 12.9” iPad Pro. It’s great, and I’m writing this article on its Magic Keyboard case; although I have a nitpick with that, where the cursor randomly jumps to another spot in the editing process and starts inserting words; I might have to get it looked at. Hoping to write an article soon where I talk about the ideal writing setup; hint, the iPad is close, but not perfect.

At some point I bought an LED lamp, which gives a bit of brightness to my desk, and looks decent. I’ve tried several other things, but those are the key pieces that help get work done. My next step is to figure out the best method for a Wacom tablet; I acquired one last year and love it, but the large size (it was an Intuos Pro L) means re-arranging my entire ergonomic desk setup. That’s a bit more challenging when you have to move the keyboard and mouse around to make room for the tablet. I may try purchasing a small Wacom tablet and putting it to the side of the mouse; curious to see how that plays out.

Each of these pieces took time, and I’ll improve as I go forward. The main thing I’m watching for these days is my overall body placement. It’s important to listen to what my body is saying, and adjust accordingly.

The Books I Would Read

I learned to read at a later age than most. For me that came around 8 years old, when I picked up basic books and began to understand the core concepts of reading from my mother. At 9 I was fully in it, so to speak, and reading books on my own. I have vivid memories of reading books under the sheets at night with a flashlight, staying up hours past my bedtime, wanting to just read one more page. That desire, to see where the story would go, along with a voracious appetitive to learn more, continued on for a period.

At one point my brother got a hold of a large volume of Mark Twain’s published writings, all bound in a single book. By memory, and of course that’s a faulty thing to trust. The book was around 2,000 pages. Once my brother finished with it, I picked up the task and devoured the book. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was one such tale that stuck in my mind and inspired a similar book of my own decades later.

That desire to read continued. My mom found some reading software for elementary kids, and we bought it for our family computer. I spent countless hours clicking through the pages, reading tales of The Jungle Book, Little Women, and dozens more that escape me now. Those stories of wonder captured me; allowing a young kid to get lost in the worlds of someone else’s imagination.

Then something happened. It’s not that I stopped reading, but the habits of consuming information changed. Much of my reading got taken up by school work demands; things that I could find some interest in, but not the same level of joy. With few exceptions, The Hatchet being one; I didn’t enjoy reading something as a requirement. The moment I was told to consume something, I no longer wanted to do that; at the same time my brothers and I tinkered with the computer. At some point we understood the possibilities it offered and explored the world of America Online (I feel old). Once we realized we could get games, and explore the internet, the joy of reading took a back seat. There were, however, e a few standout examples of books that still held sway in my early teenage years; such as the many late nights reading Lord of the Rings under the covers.

Fast forward into my early twenties, and something shifted again. I was diving into my career, trying to understand the needs of building software, all that comes with it. My primary work, designing websites and software, required many hours of computer time, with a butt in the seat moving pixels on a screen. While my eyes and mouse stayed busy in building designs, my mind would often wander. That provided a place for something to fill the gap. At that time I discovered Audible. Growing up, we’d occasionally grab Books on Tape from the library; but the format didn’t have the same appeal anymore. Audible though, that recaptured my imagination. I started to grab books, mostly business or self-help, and poured through them. From there it was a natural expansion into biographies and history books; at some point I also made the shift back into fiction. Over the next decade I often found time to listen to a great book, and in many cases podcasts, while also working.

Now, at 33 years old, I’ve come full circle. There’s been, as with anything, some ebbs and flows, but on the whole I’m enjoying reading. My habit is costly, but fun. Sometimes offsetting with library holds helps, but more often than not I’m too excited and want to buy it right away, without waiting.

There’s a realization that struck me a few years back; namely that I cannot read all that I want to read in this lifetime, it’s just not possible. Instead, I have to be selective and put the time into books that matter to me. Sometimes those are religious books, other times self-help or business, other times great biographies or histories, or one of the many fiction categories I’ve grown to love. I have to content myself with knowing that the things I want to read will always be greater than the things I have read. It’s with that knowledge that I still buy more books than I can handle.
You could say I’ve reached a place of acceptance, where I’m aware of that limitation, but find joy in the possible, in what I might read, could read.

That then, has evolved into a hobby I’ve been pursuing since 2019; trying to write the stories I want to read. This trip is new to me, and requires so much learning in every possible way, but at the end of the day I like to sit down and make characters do things that are fun and interesting, and hopefully surprising.

Books represent so much possibility. Often it can be the culmination of countless hours, or years, of thought and effort poured into a particular topic; that then becomes available for any of us to open and read.

Reading is a verb I like to apply to any form of books; audio, ebook, or physical copies. I don’t distinguish much, and personally I spend about 90% of my reading time through audio formats.

And so it continues. I look forward to seeing what types of adventures I can find for the coming years, what books pull me in and take me to new places, and what stories I can write to do the same for others. This reading thing is such a wonder, and I sometimes wonder if my delayed entry into the practice, starting my reading at 8 years old, helped to propel me forward. By the time I could read, I wanted nothing more than to do just that.

Nexstand Laptop Stand vs Roost Laptop Stand

This has been a long time coming. Years ago someone asked me to compare the Roost versus Nexstand. I ignored the request, and went about my life. Since then I’ve had numerous occasions where the comparison came up. Since I have often worked in coffee shops, co-working spaces, or client onsite, there are opportunities for other folks to see my laptop stand.

If I had to guess, there have probably been as many as 10 times, but no less than 5, where someone asked what I was using for a laptop stand. In each of those cases I told them the name, and sometimes steered them toward buying Nexstand.

Until now. I’ve always used the Roost, and loved it. Recently, I purchased the Nexstand for a second laptop, and tried it out. In the future I plan to write a full review of the two, and compare in detail. However, I can give a quick summary.

If you’re truly short on cash, go with Nexstand. It does what you expect, and will put your laptop at the proper level for ergonomic reasons. Those should not be ignored. I can’t use a laptop for days on end without a stand, external mouse and keyboard.

If you have a little more money, and like something nicer, go with the Roost. The Roost stand, for almost twice the price, has small siliconish (maybe rubber) bits that grip the table top surface, and cradle your laptop. They’re not necessary, since there is nothing wrong with plastic, but they make a difference. You feel like you’re buying something that will take good care of your device. In addition, the Roost is smaller when folded up, probably 30% less volume.

TL;DR – Nexstand is fine, if you have more money and want something nicer, go with Roost.

My first novel

I’ve been exploring a number of writing methods for fiction over the past year. My learning has been part doing, and part knowledge input. This has included diving into a number of non-fiction books, tons of great podcasts, articles, courses, and more. In addition, I’ve continued to read works of fiction. All of this input has led to an output, to the tune of a thousand words per day (six days a week).

Right now I’m working on the cover for a book, as well as pushing through another book. There’s so much to learn, and I enjoy this part of trying to figure out what it takes to get a book out.