Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Arts of Noticing

Earlier this month, Austin Kleon's newsletter tipped me off to a book called The Art of Noticing by Rob Walker, which sounded like something I'd like. I really enjoyed Freeman Patterson's Photography and the Art of Seeing for the lessons it offered on close observation, and I figured Walker's book might provide something similar.

When I looked it up at my library, I discovered a second The Art of Noticing in the system, this one by an author named Mary Coons. It wasn't the book I was looking for, but I couldn't resist the synchronicity. I requested both versions, and both showed up the same day.

Coons is an Indiana writer and illustrator, and her book is a collection of short personal essays. Some touch on writing and creativity, others on her family history, and some are simply life observations. I didn't know what to expect, but parts of the book are very charming, and I enjoyed spending time with her stories. At one point she makes an offhand reference to Pride and Prejudice, and by chance it got me to thinking. 

Every now and then I get rid of a book I really enjoyed, and I always seem to regret it. That was the case with Pride and Prejudice. I loved reading it, but my personal copy landed in a Goodwill pile for one reason or another, and I've always wished I held on to it.

So a couple years ago, I began looking. Not just for Pride and Prejudice, but for the exact Bantam Classics edition I read in my high school literature class. Maybe I was being sentimental, or maybe I just liked the challenge. Either way, I wouldn't accept anything less than that particular edition.

Since beginning my search, I haven't walked into a Goodwill or a used bookstore without checking for that particular book. And because of that, it's taken on a kind of cosmic significance. I started thinking of it almost as some kind of an omen—if I ever found the book it would be the universe's way of telling me something big was just around the next corner.

But the universe chose to stay silent. I even bought a Goodwill copy of Jane Austen's Persuasion to try and meet it halfway, but this did nothing to impress the powers that be. I continued to come home empty-handed.

All these thoughts were stirred up while I read Mary Coons, and so I happened to glance at my shelves. There, sitting right next to Persuasion as if it had never been gone, was the Bantam Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice.

I was dumbfounded. I got up and pulled the book off the shelf, then flipped through the pages. I'm not sure what I expected to find. Maybe a note tucked behind the front cover, or some passage meaningfully underlined. Anything to give a hint about what, exactly, just happened. Was this my own private example of the Mandela effect? Or had I just been confused all along? Because now my copy of Sense and Sensibility was missing. Was that the book I'd actually been looking for?

In hopes of confirming that I hadn't lost my mind, I started reading through my old daily journals. After spending so much time looking for that particular book, surely I made some reference to it. But no—after reading two years' worth of daily entries, there was absolutely no mention of Pride and Prejudice, or, for that matter, Sense and Sensibility. I did record the day I purchased Persuasion, but said nothing of the fact I was looking for a different book entirely.

Like the aftershock of any good Mandela effect, all I'm left with is the spooky sense that something in the world is not what it should be, even while the rational part of my brain keeps insisting that I'm the one who made the mistake. Interestingly enough, though, this whole experience is in line with the exercises in Rob Walker's The Art of Noticing.

Walker's book is more like a collection of games to help sharpen your skills of observation, similar to ones you might have played as a kid. Here are just a couple examples of the exercises Walker suggests:
  • Conduct a scavenger hunt
    Create a mental search image (dogs, Volkswagen Beetles, security cameras) and see how many you can find when you're in a new place.
  • Spot something new everyday
    During your familiar daily routines, work to spot and record something new—something you've never noticed about your environment before.
  • Count with the numbers you find
    Hunt for numbers in your environment, following numerical order (e.g., start by looking for 1, then look for 2, then 3, and so on).
  • Get there the hard way
    Going somewhere new? Dispense with your phone's GPS and write down the directions instead. If you get lost, that's part of the fun.

Walker's point seems to be that the way we observe our surroundings changes to the extent that we will it to change. We can fall into habit and routine, or we can set up new mental parameters before we go into familiar situations in order to discover things hidden in plain sight.

My constant search for the Bantam Classics edition of Pride and Prejudice (or was that Sense and Sensibility?) was just the kind of game Walker suggests. And because of it, Mary Coons' offhand line in a book I never intended to read sent me down this strange road—even if all it proves is that I'm far less observant than I'd like to believe.

Sunday, August 22, 2021


 “If you have turned your mind to higher things, there is no need of a judge to award a prize; it is you yourself who have brought yourself to a more excellent state: but if you have directed your zeal toward lower things, do not look for punishment from without; it is you yourself who have plunged yourself into the worse condition.”

-Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

Of all the things a guy can get addicted to, "the internet" is probably one of the stupidest, and yet here I am checking off all the boxes.

Compulsive use to relieve anxiety? 

Usage interferes with other activities, work, and/or relationships?
The trifecta, yes.

Unable to quit despite the desire to stop?
I'd say this was overstating the case if it wasn't for the number of times I've been startled to see it's two in the morning and I'm still scrolling through dumb internet bullshit. Am I getting anything out of those late hours spent on my phone? No. Do I still do it anyway? Absolutely.

So I've decided it's probably time for a dopamine fast. The wrong reward circuits are getting reinforced in my brain, and I'm overdue for pulling the plug. I got curious, though, why this happens in the first place, and so I started digging around.

(I do recognize the irony here. "I'm wasting too much time on my phone. Better use my phone to figure out why." It's insidious!)

The popular theory about doomscrolling is that it's a result of how we're hardwired to think. We helplessly seek out awful news online because the brain specifically wants to be aware of potential dangers in our environment, and strategize on how to avoid them. But the modern digital world has a bottomless reservoir of bad news to provide (and lately “bad news” feels like a polite euphemism for “apocalyptic”). So our brains keep seeking it out, and the internet keeps serving it up, and the two engage each other in some terrible informational death spiral.

This theory sounds pretty persuasive until you stop to think about what the internet is actually like. Because it isn't a bottomless well of human misery. Sometimes you also get puppies.

Does that sound facetious? It isn't meant to. Think about the feeds you browse every day. Sure, some of what you see is pretty horrible, but how often is that intercut with things that you like? Cute animal videos, an inspirational quote, a funny clip from The Office. I don't care if you're browsing Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter—what you'll encounter is a wild variety of highs and lows, triumphs and losses, consolation and rage-bait.

In other words, you're not just tripping a "danger" wire. It might feel like you're doomscrolling, but I suspect very few people spend their time online looking solely at terrible things. It's more like a slot machine, and scrolling is a way of pulling the lever. There's a feeling that if only you keep browsing long enough then maybe you'll come out ahead. Maybe you'll see enough kittens to make up for the things that upset you.

Here's how MIT researcher Natasha Dow Schull talks about slot machine addiction. But tell me if it sounds familiar:

INTERVIEWER: How does gambling promote a sense of security? Isn't gambling about risk?

SCHULL: When gamblers play, they're going into a zone that feels comfortable and safe. You're not playing to win, you're playing to stay in the zone—a zone where all of your daily worries, your bodily pains, your anxieties about money and time and relationships, fall away. One addict I interviewed described being in the zone:

“It's like being in the eye of a storm … Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can't really hear anything. You aren't really there—you're with the machine, and that's all you're with.”

INT: Why are slot machines so much more addictive than more traditional forms of gambling?

SCHULL: … There are three reasons why: Playing on slot machines is solitary, rapid, and continuous. You don't have interruptions like you would in a live poker game, waiting for cards to be dealt or waiting for the other players. You can go directly from one hand to the next—there's no clear stopping point built into the game. You don't even have to stop to put bills in the machine.

INT: What do new gambling machines say about our relationship with technology?

SCHULL: The cultural history of gambling in this country follows alongside technological advances—not only because technology makes these new kinds of machines possible, but because we've become comfortable interacting with and even trusting computers and machines.

If there's a lesson here, it's an old one: The odds will always favor the house. The only way to win is to choose not to play.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

What I Love

I read a very bleak essay this week by a writer who is about to publish a book. That's the kind of occasion most writers look forward to, but the thrust of the essay was that, since the author's last book publication hadn't made them happy, there was no good reason to think this new book could do the job, either. Especially since, as the essay concluded, people don't change—even if they'd like to.

It's hard not to feel a little annoyed at the start of an essay like this. (“What the hell, don't you know how lucky you are?”) But by the end, well, I wasn't won over, exactly, but I did feel more of a kinship. I'm no alien to what the essay described. I've chased my share of ephemeral pleasures, hoping to find some way to stretch them into a permanent state of contentment. I think it takes a deeply honest person, with an equally deep knowledge of self, to acknowledge their conflicted feelings around achieving a significant goal. It's very human to hope some thing will satisfy your restless heart, while knowing full well that it won't.

Still, when I finished reading the essay I couldn't help but ask myself, what's the point? What is the point of making time every day to go write? And what's been the point of making writing a central part of my life for the last twenty years? If publishing stories and books can't make a person happy, then why not just stop to do something that can? Or at least to do something more profitable.

Here's where I could cite the Bhagavad Gita or Stephen Pressfield or the Stoics. I could talk, in a general way, about how we can't control the result of our labor, we can only control the labor itself. I could point out that since I cannot count on success I should learn to enjoy the work.

Philosophically that's all wise and good, but today I'm just not in the mood! Seneca must step aside for the moment. Instead of these broad philosophical strokes, I want to be more specific. Here's what I love about writing that makes it feel like an end in itself.

I'm more at home on the page than in person.

Sometimes, when I'm talking to someone, it feels like I'm watching myself from a great distance and observing the scene. When this starts to happen what I'm usually thinking is, Dear god, why don't you shut up? The "me" doing the talking feels like somebody else—like a mask or a puppet I've stitched together over the years, one which is capable enough to navigate through most of my day.

But, at some level, I don't really believe that he's me. He's just some meat suit I wear to move around in the world, the fleshy avatar that makes it possible for me to eat tomato sandwiches and buy new books and listen to music. But the real me, the purest version of me, is the one who shows up when I write. When I sit down to write after a day in the world, I feel like a caught minnow being dropped back in a pond. I'm back in the place I was made for.

I love the practice of writing.

I take real pleasure in making a bad sentence better. The context barely matters—it could be from a short story, or it could be from a product report for work. It's a satisfaction that emerges from practice, I think, a kind of positive feedback loop that develops in the brain as you hone a particular skill.

I suspect this feedback loop could be created out of almost any regular practice. Maybe the pleasure I get from writing is the same someone else takes from cooking, or landscaping, or carving jolly little sailboats from driftwood. Whatever the case, it seems like a miracle that this function exists in the brain at all, that instead of boredom it's possible to continually uncover new levels of meaning just by the practice of a thing that you love. For me, that just happens to be writing.

Writing surprises me on the page.

No matter how much you outline a story, you can never plan for everything that will happen. (The only way to do that is to actually write the damn thing.) Every line of dialogue, every moment of observation, every transition into new a scene is the opportunity for something to surprise you. That doesn't mean it will always happen. But, more often than you might think, you reach for a detail and what comes to mind catches you completely off guard.

How does this work? How can you surprise yourself? I don't know the full answer, but I suspect it works like a dream.

What I mean is this. A few years ago, I had a vivid dream in which I was flying over the rooftops. When it was time to land, I came down on a roof next to some air ducts. I touched one of the ducts to steady myself, and in that moment was startled to find it was warm and silently vibrating.

Where did these details come from? They didn't come from me, by which I mean my conscious brain. I wasn't trying to will a scene into existence; I didn't pause to ask myself, “What should an air duct feel like if it's actively venting out heat?” But those details were there all the same. They had to have come from somewhere.

What happens, I think, is that the unconscious mind serves up the details when called for. If the conscious mind is thinking too hard—trying to force imagery, a scene, some dialogue—the unconscious can't do it's job. But when these parts of the brain can cooperate, we can surprise ourselves because we've opened a channel. Some other part of the brain joins the conversation, with its own startling ideas and logic. To the extent that our own human consciousness can actually be expanded, writing seems to be one way to do it.

Writing surprises me in real life.

When I was in seventh grade, writing stories in a spiral bound notebook, I couldn't have imagined how much of my life would be shaped by that one simple act, repeated over and over. But somehow, almost by magic, placing one word after another turned into a path that's taken me some surprising places.

I've interviewed my literary heroes, had drinks with a MacArthur fellow, read on stage with nationally famous writers, and met some of my best friends because of writing. I've gotten emails from strangers who liked something I wrote, and eye rolls from friends who did not. I've learned how to get back up after rejection and failure, how to accept criticism, and how to hang on to the joy of something I love no matter how it might be received.

What an embarrassment of riches that is. What unexpected surprises. None of these things were why I started to write—in seventh grade, none of them were even on my radar as something to hope for. Nevertheless, these things have all happened as a byproduct of that one simple act, repeated over and over.

Writing is fun.

This gets lost sometimes in the cycle of writing, revision, and rejection, but the truth is that writing is fun. It's real fuckin fun, and that's the main reason I continue to do it. Like most writers, I write to make myself laugh or to see how I think, or just to get something out of my head. I write because I enjoy it, and it's a joy and a privilege that I get to continue.

But it's also fun because people do change. I am not who I used to be—nobody is. That's easy to lose track of sometimes, but writing gives you a way to crystallize a piece of yourself, a little relic of the person you are in that moment, and the way that that person thinks. Sometimes it's a little embarrassing (“I wrote what??”), but sometimes you can also discover some part of yourself you'd like to get back, like an old friendship it's time to rekindle.

Writing creates a record of these selves and how they all interact, and the ways in which they have grown. As a writer, the path ahead may not always be clear, but you can see all the way back to the spot where the adventure began.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

The Instability of Human Relations

One of the pleasures of reading is when different texts start talking to each other. Sometimes this happens across small distances--Bonnie Friedman and Seth Godin, for instance--and other times it happens across centuries, like when Boethius and Kierkegaard seem to be in surprising agreement that purity of heart is to will one thing.

But sometimes this cross-textual resonance happens within a much, much smaller span of time. This week, more or less by chance, I read three different essays by three very different writers that each took up the problem of human complexity in an age of moral simplicity.

In "A Dark Room on the Other Side of the World," Brandon Taylor describes D. H. Lawrence's view that moral fiction must accept human messiness. According to Lawrence, "Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance. When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality."

Taylor contrasts this view against our own cultural moment:

"But it also feels true that the contemporary novel is having a crisis of morality. Not in the Aesop's fable sort of way. But in the way that a novel is supposed to capture the specific, particular instability of human relations, and in that instability, it captures the truth about what it is to live in the world. And it feels more and more that when I read novels and stories, you know immediately that the author has their finger on the scale. You see the glancing mentions of class or privilege which read like thesis statements. You see characters behaving in cartoonish, silly ways not for aesthetic effect but so that the audience knows who the bad guy is. The moral evil. You see a flattening of the moral schema of the art in favor of resonance with the Twitterfied set of ethics by which we are expected to live and operate. You recognize it for false, and yet, each publishing cycle, there is more and more of such a thing."

This idea of a "flattening of the moral schema" also animates an essay by Freddie deBoer, published just two days later, about his own experiences with mental illness. In "We Walk Among You," deBoer confronts his own illness as well as a culture that alternately vilifies, excuses, or ignores it--anything to avoid the actual complexity of deBoer's own experience:

"We are, I suppose, in a new era when it comes to public perception of mental illness. Suddenly, we who suffer from it find ourselves constantly being 'honored.' Our visibility has been raised and our existence validated; what any of that means, I don't know, but I'm told it's the better part of justice. In the minds of a certain influential slice of our population, to declare that you are having a mental health issue is to put forth an edict that absolves you from all aspects of adult responsibility. This is all meant to be progress, but in many ways I find the current era immeasurably worse than what came before it. Mental illness has become a category that, like so many others, invites a kind of vague and condescending positivity, an unfocused and useless sense that you are approved of by people who watch the Criterion Channel and lay awake at night thinking of funny things to say on Slack. This palpably inauthentic concern is, for me, far worse than the judgment of those who look at you and see only a lunatic. Among other things, those in the latter category actually have a coherent understanding of the mentally ill. Cruel, yes, but coherent. The former only have a sudden social command to love us without love and to understand us in a way that precludes understanding."

Part of a writer's job is to attempt real understanding. What Taylor and deBoer are both responding to, I think, is the kind of general cultural pressure to not understand, not at a deep level, but to accept a given morality and a particular popular view of the world.

I don't think this is new. Writers and artists have always wrestled with the question of how to represent Truth as they understand it, knowing it will be inherently flawed and colored by their own perceptions. On the other end of the spectrum, there have always been moral agents, whether cultural or religious, that would push the idea that art should describe a view of morality, and that this view, itself, is the Truth to which people should aspire.

If the issue feels more pressing at this particular cultural moment, I tend to take Taylor's view as to why. He writes:

"What I mean to say is that we are polarized. Not more so than any other point in history, I'm sure, but it certainly feels that way. And it feels that way because we have access to each other and to information at greater quantities than any other time in the world's history. And it's those ideas, the velocity of them, that I am convinced is getting us into trouble in our art."

How, under this kind of bombardment, does a writer stay true to the job? How do you write authentically, allow complexity, avoid the easy answers or "moral flattening" the culture seems to demand?

In her essay "How to Write Authentic Fiction," Autumn Christian tries to answer just that:

"Again, I'm not going to get too deep into this, but understand there is no such thing as 'my' truth or a 'subjective' truth. There is only 'truth' and 'perception,' and even the stories inside of us have to follow natural laws that exist in a reality outside of ourselves. So while the way you can write authentic fiction is unique to the way that truth filters through your perception, it must follow the orders of physics.

All stories are 'propaganda' in a sense. They have an agenda. They want to make a statement. They want to alter your perception in a way that changes you forever, makes you look at the world in a different way, filters through your opinions, transforms you. What we call 'propaganda' is just bad propaganda. It stinks of falsehood because it's someone trying to wrench an ideology over a narrative. It makes people behave in false ways. It makes the story feel saccharine, or simple, or fake.

When I have an idea for a story, I find that it begins to mutate as I work on it. It's rarely the story I have in my head, because the words begin to shape my understanding of what's happening.

I shape the story, but the story shapes me, too. All interaction with the world is transformative."

Sunday, August 1, 2021

My Process (Right Now)

A writer I'm friends with asked me this week how I write my short stories. As I started to work on a reply, I realized the way I write has actually changed a lot this year. For the better, I think, although that's mostly based on my own goals. Still, it seemed like a good chance to get it all down on paper, and to think about my own process. By the time I was done, I realized what I'd written was really a blog post, hitting on a lot of what I talk about here. Plus, I just saw Tim Waggoner do something similar, and he seems like a good guy to imitate.

So today's post is an answer to a specific question: How do I write a short story? I'm going to try not to self-deprecate too much, even though I still feel very much like an amateur and like the last person you should be listening to. All I will do is describe how I got to my current process, and if there's anything here that sparks anything for a reader then that will be a happy byproduct.

There are three books that shaped my current process. You've probably already read them, so I'm not going to go into great depth on each one. But I will explain what the "big lesson" was, and why it's helped me a long.

Saves the Cat! Writes a Novel - Jessica Brody

This book gave me a new appreciation for structure, on a deep, molecular level. The way Brody breaks down story has been hugely helpful to me as a road map when I start to get lost. All stories share the same milestones, but sometimes when you're in the midst of your writing it can still be hard to see where you are. Having this book as a guide has helped in every stage of a draft.

Art and Fear - Ted Orland and David Bayles

I've written about this book many times on this blog, and now here we are again. The heart of this book, and the lesson for me, was the story about the clay pots. The authors write about two pottery classes with two very different rubrics. In one, students are told they'll get an A as long as they make 50 pounds of pots. They can be the shittiest pots on the planet, but 50 pounds will get them an A. In the other class students are told they only have to make a single clay pot, but it has to be a masterpiece.

As you can imagine, the class that produced pots relentlessly also ended up with better work than the class required to create just one masterpiece. This story, and the book as a whole, helped me internalize the idea that I need to finish my stories, no matter what. No more abandoning the ones I think might be bad! Even if it's garbage, that's now okay. I just need to keep making more pots.

The Way of the Writer - Charles Johnson

There are so many excellent craft essays in this book, and I can't recommend it enough. But the one I have in mind is where Johnson describes writers as needing “three good ideas.” The first is your premise, and this one you'll have pretty solid in mind when you sit down and start.

But the second good idea is not one you can usually plan. That can feel scary, but this idea will come if you've stayed true to the original premise while closely observing your characters. It will come as if from the blue, but it will also feel right for the story.

Finally, the third good idea is the ending, and this one should feel inevitable. After the first two have clicked, you're on a trajectory; now you're just bringing it home.

Putting This All Into Practice

These "big ideas" are great, but for the nitty-gritty of writing itself I also have a more functional process, and this is just a system I've basically borrowed from work. It goes something like this:

The pre-draft. I don't always do this, but if a premise still feels messy to me or if I just need to get something on paper, I start here. Sometimes this will be a way to test an idea and see if it has any legs. Usually, though, this becomes a V1, because the primary goal is still to finish a draft.

The first draft. Here I'm just getting the story on paper. The goal is to finish, while being mindful of the overall arc of the story, as well as the “three good ideas.” But if the arc isn't working or the ideas don't seem to come, finishing is still the priority.

The second draft. This is probably my favorite. I print out the story and then retype it into a new document. This is where I fix all the big stuff. I look at the structure, figure out which scenes need to be replaced, moved, deleted, etc. Rewrite where necessary. Here I'm really focused on the plot, as well as tightening up those observational details. By the end of this draft, the story should feel like it's pretty locked in.

The third draft. This is by far the most tedious. I go through the V2 and read it out loud, listening for where the language is awkward or doesn't feel natural. Sometimes I also catch new plot problems. I'm not sure why reading drafts aloud will reveal plot issues, but, at least for me, it can. As I work through each page I'll highlight it in yellow to mark it complete, but it's a slow process of reading aloud, editing, reading aloud again. I don't highlight a page until I can read through the whole thing and not want to change it.

After the V3 is complete, I change the file name to something like “Fiction Submission – Story Title” and move it to a submission folder. I'll also note the word count in my submission spreadsheet so that I don't have to constantly open the file to check.

At any stage in the process, sometimes you just need a break, which is why I try to keep multiple stories going at once. When I hit that wall in a V3 where I think, “I am so sick of the sound of my own fucking voice,” it's good to be able to switch to some other piece, whether it's a first draft or a blog or just logging into Submittable and sending out work. It helps keep things fresh, and I've noticed I keep my ass in the seat a lot longer if I can change things up once in a while.

But all of this is always evolving, and I'm sure it will continue to change. Hopefully if you do try any of the above, you'll find ways to adapt it that work best for you. I certainly can't be too prescriptive. I'm still figuring out new things every day.

Clearing Things Up

We're in the process of moving. It's going to take us a while, but as a part of all that I've spent the last few weekends trying...