Saving a small part of yourself each day

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.

What I write

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.

Why I write

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.

My top 10 Audible books

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.

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.

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.