J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Month: February 2014

Daily Writing — Track Your Progress!

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“What gets measured gets managed.” – Peter Drucker

About eight months ago I started using a writing log to track my daily work. The practice has been so successful that I feel compelled to share an update, even though I have already written about this topic in an earlier post.

The basic practice is this: in a spreadsheet or text document or a notebook, track your daily writing progress. As a minimum include date and word count (or number of pages if you prefer). I also include start time, stop time, and few other details. The exact details aren’t important; the key thing is keeping a written account of your work.

It occurred to me at some point that writing (and other creative work) was one of the few life areas where I wasn’t keeping daily notes. I was tracking my work hours on client projects (I’m a freelancer, so I have to track time if I want to get paid). I was also tracking my weight, mood, exercise, and various aspects of my health. But I wasn’t tracking my creative work! I wasn’t exactly “waiting for inspiration” — I was still attempting a daily writing habit. But tracking the details dramatically improved my output and quality.

Getting Started, The Ritual

The transition from “lazy brain” (reading, internet surfing, working on easy tasks) to “power brain” (solving difficult problems, almost any type of rigorous creative work, doing anything that involves active learning) is difficult. The brain wants to conserve energy. A work ritual can help with this transition. My own ritual includes:

  • get rid of distractions (work alone, turn off wi-fi and phone)
  • set session goal and estimate time (what do I want to get done and how long do I think it will take?)
  • appeal to subconscious/Other/The Muse (acknowledge that my conscious mind is not fully in control of the creative process)
  • physical stimulants (black coffee, brief bouts of intense exercise to generate lactic acid, the ultimate brain fuel)
  • record-keeping (entry in the writing log, backing up work after session)

I would love to tell you that I’m merrily working away at 6am every morning. The truth is uglier. I get up at 7, get the kid ready for school and out the door, clean up the kitchen, read email, drink some coffee, take a shower, look at reddit, read the New York Times online, drink some more coffee, look at Facebook, take my laptop out to my studio, check my calender, check email again, listen to demos for Loöq Records, maybe master a track or two or work on some album art. Then maybe I’ll get started on writing. Or maybe I’ll procrastinate some more! 10:30am is often when I actually get started, though there’s nothing in my schedule preventing me from starting at 8:45 sharp. I try to avoid the self-loathing that might go along with the procrastination. I get started when I get started. Writing requires concentration, and I can’t blame my brain for trying to conserve energy. Looking at the log is encouraging: a long list of days where I actually worked. Don’t break the chain, says Jerry Seinfeld. Even if you take weekends off, and occasionally take a vacation, having a system that generates steady progress beats waiting for inspiration. Working on average less than two hours a day, I’m on track to complete a 100K word novel a year (including multiple revisions).

Sidebar: Writing As A Career

Writing, like music production, is a long tail career. A very small percentage of writers earn the vast majority of royalties (or, in the case of self-published authors, direct income from book sales). The GINI coefficient (a measure of income inequality) among writers is over .70. This makes the United States (with a very high GINI coefficient of .41) look like a socialist utopia! Here’s a graph of writing income among authors. The majority of authors make less than $1000 a year, and the vast majority (even including only those authors who have been traditionally published) make less than $30K/year. Definitely not enough to live comfortably in the Bay Area.

In January of 2013 I made a 5-year commitment to becoming a novelist. Looking at the graph above, I can see that even if I’m successful (published, good sales), I still may not be able to support myself via writing income. This doesn’t dissuade me. My main motivation is wanting to contribute to the world of ideas, to envision and describe possible and fantastic scenarios for the future of humanity.

So wish me luck — I’ll need your support. And good luck to you in your own creative endeavors.

Stubborn and Clever Beats Most Problems

Friedrich Nietzsche, Temescal hipster

Friedrich Nietzsche, Temescal hipster

How many times are you willing to try solving a problem before you give up?

Human beings are incredibly intelligent, compared to most other animals. We’re used to solving a problem on the first try. We see a problem, a solution leaps into our mind, and we take action. I watch my 5-year-old daughter effortlessly solve problems every day. Electronic tablet on dad’s dresser, out of reach? Get chair. Problem solved.

From a little kid’s perspective, problems are either easy to solve, or impossible. If a solution doesn’t instantly spring to mind (or success doesn’t happen on the first try), most kids will quickly jump to “I can’t do that.” A parent’s job, of course, is to instill the sense of a possible solution in a child’s mind. Try again. Think about it. Try ten times if you need to. Try a different approach. Be stubborn (persistent). Be clever (creative).

Persistence and creative problem solving determine success and life satisfaction to a large extent. But neither come naturally. Almost all children, and most adults, get discouraged and give up after a few tries. Or even a single try.

So how do you teach persistence? And not just persistence, but creative, varied approaches to problem solving? Because it’s not enough to just pound away at a problem with the same inefficient, poorly planned approach. Stubbornness alone won’t get you very far. If you want to your child to have a rich, satisfying adulthood, you want to to encourage both stubbornness and cleverness. Of course, this will make your job as the parent difficult, especially during the teenage years. Who wants a stubborn, wily teenager? Sounds like a nightmare. But those same personality traits may serve them well in adulthood.

Creative Problem Solving — Using All The Tools in the Box

Right now I’ve got a few difficult problems in my life. One family member is recovering from a psychotic episode, and experiencing cognitive difficulties; he is unable to keep track of time, money, and material objects. Another family member has negligible income, has run out of savings, and is recovering from a major illness. These problems are complex and shifting; when they are “solved” they don’t stay solved. At times I feel overwhelmed and frustrated by these “emergencies in slow motion.”

But another, more dispassionate, part of my mind, sees things differently. The problems have more variables, but that doesn’t mean they’re not solvable. If one approach doesn’t yield results, a different strategy might work better. For example, a problem might be approached in one or more of the following ways:

Empiricism: What approaches have worked before, for other families?

Rationalism: Using my ability to reason, what approaches can I imagine that should work?

Subjectivism: How do my own thoughts and attitudes influence the problem (and what exactly am I perceiving as a problem)?

Intuition: What’s my gut feeling about the best way to proceed?

Network analysis: What role is everyone playing, and how do we influence each other, and how can we help each other and improve our communication?

Massive iterations with feedback: Just keep trying stuff, and adjusting behavior based on the results of each failed attempt, until something works.

(I’ve written in detail about each approach in posts such as this one.)

These are just some of the tools we have in our cognitive tool kits. In practice I don’t formally attempt each approach separately. I just keep asking myself questions, trying to trigger new lines of thought.

As a family, we’re supporting each other and doing pretty well. And people are getting the help they need. There are lights at the ends of the tunnels.

How To Teach Persistence and Creative Problem Solving

Stubbornness and cleverness might be genetic. I don’t think there’s anything my parents could have done to not have a stubborn child. But persistence (a more evolved form of stubbornness) can be taught. How? Praising effort, instead of success. Rejecting “I can’t do that.” Emphasizing that 10 or even 100 failed attempts is not embarrassing, but normal. Breaking down problems into smaller, more approachable chunks.

Being a good role model is maybe even more important. How do I approach the problems in my own life? How does the family solve problems together?

The silver lining of any problem is that in facing it we become stronger, more resilient, and more resourceful (both individually and collectively). Not in a “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger” sense (strokes left Nietzche paralyzed on the left side, and much weaker), but in the sense that confronting difficulty is good exercise. We don’t choose what knocks us down, but to some extent we can choose when and how to get up. Often, we may find ourselves better positioned than before.

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