As I tried to come up with an idea for this month’s blog post I started thinking about ideas themselves. Where do they come from and how? In short, how does ideation happen? I want to think grand and lofty thoughts, so how do I do that?
I think we are all familiar with the phenomenon of the spark of inspiration. It comes unexpectedly and often at the time when we are least prepared to accept it. For me it always seems to come with my hands are wet, so I can neither write nor type. We can help steer these ideas, I propose. We are not slave to their whims. While what I suggest may not guarantee the thoughts and ideas we want they will be more likely to arise.
That spark of inspiration stems from the subconscious, and we know from experience that we have some influence in the subconscious feedback loop. If you are foolish, like me, you have discovered that indulging in the horror genre before bed has a certain, somewhat predictable, effect on your sleep. Even mundane things we’ve dealt with during the day we may find echoed in our sleep.
Our ideas are similarly informed and influenced by the things to which we expose ourselves. So, my challenge to myself and to you is to figure out the kind of thoughts you want to think. Because the oddity of it is that thought begets thought and idea. What you think about becomes what you are more likely to think about. Once you have decided the thoughts and ideas that you wish to have take an honest appraisal of the things you read and watch and listen to as well as the conversations you have. Are they consistent with the ideas you desire? If not, perhaps it is time to make a change. For me it is going to mean less television, most of the shows I watch are just mindless escapist shows, and more reading, especially classics (I just started Oliver Twist) and my Bible and books on theology. What would it look like for you?
It is a hallmark of mankind that we, like water, follow the path of least resistance. When we meet difficulty we push and fight against it. From this steady erosion of difficulty we have many of our greatest inventions. Ocean voyages are long and dangerous, so we have taught ourselves to fly. Waiting for news to arrive through the post takes too long, so we have created the telegraph, the telephone, the television, and finally, that culminating wonder, the internet. (And still we complain about our data speeds being too slow.) We have worn down the resistance we have met in the pursuit of our goals. But have we perhaps made things too easy?
Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.
It is easy now to publish an idea almost the moment it enters the mind. But this can lead to shallow thoughts. Even if the idea happens to be coherent (my first ideas seldom are) it is not yet tempered and tested.
Perhaps in the march of technological progress the sweet spot for critical thinking is always a few steps behind. Every development in technology is heralded as the death of its forebears. But, it seems that after the settling in period the forebear only becomes more valuable as it becomes less mundane and more thoughtfully produced.
I loathe editing. I like to think that I do all of my editing in my head before I even tough pen to paper. In school I used to pride myself in having virtually no changes between my first draft and my final draft. The temptation to quickly type what comes to mind and click “Publish” is strong. But it is a mistake. Because while I like to think all of my editing is in my head it is insufficient work to develop the idea. I need to slow down and flesh out my ideas before rushing them out into the world.
But I need more than just to slow down, I need to have friction. I need to have the pushback for the idea to really grow and develop. I need to do things the hard way. So, from this need (and admittedly from a sense of nostalgia) I’ve developed the following system for writing.
I write my first draft in my Confidant and then type it, with some editing, on my typewriter as a second draft. The typewritten draft is the one that bears the most abuse as it is now double-spaced. And since it is no longer in my handwriting it feels less personal to correct it. I also take this chance to look for any underlying themes that had not occurred to me before, and to make corresponding organizational changes.
At this point I retype the draft again and hand that new draft over to my wife for her to abuse. With her input I make any final changes as I finally commit it digitally to the CMS. (If I entered it before I run the risk of posting it before I am ready, just to get it done.) One final read through and I finally publish.
There are several reasons I choose to do it this way. For one, I really enjoy it. It is quite relaxing and it makes me feel something like solidarity with past writers and thinkers that I admire. It is also extremely versatile, in my journal I can outline, draft, and doodle all within a few square inches. And it is the ultimate distraction-free editor. I have also heard of studies which have shown a strong link between writing things by hand and better retention and processing of the information, as compared to typing. And my own experience, while anecdotal, would bear this out.
But, most importantly, it forces me to slow down and think differently. My thoughts come to me smoother and more connectedly as I drag the nib of my pen across the page in a smooth, even cadence, as opposed to the stoccato march of a cursor across the blue-hued screen. In fact, there are some things that the most difficult part of writing is finding the most coherent string which ties my thoughts together. A sensation I have never experienced when typing my first draft.
With a typewriter, at least with my typewriter, I cannot type as fast else the arms catch and jam. This too helps me to slow down and think through the words I am using.
What is also amazing to me is how surprisingly freeing it is to lack a DELETE key. Without the ability to remove evidence of error I may start typing words and phrases I did not intend by accident or muscle memory. I am still left with those marks on the page. And more than once those marks have caused a spark and made me reevaluate or rephrase a thought or sentence, and I have been happier with the result. Inspirations strikes in the strangest of ways.
My exact strategy may not be correct for anyone else, but I think that everyone can benefit from resistance. Like our muscles, our ideas need resistance in their development if they are to be robust enough to do their work. As an aside, this is also why I think it is important to seek out opposing viewpoints. It is my opinion that a great many arguments are weaker than they deserve to be because no one challenges the paradigms in the echo chamber of similar thought.
This older way may be more difficult, but perhaps it is that which makes it better. To be clear, I am no luddite. I work in I.T. for a Fortune 500 company, and have, without exaggeration, had dreams of code and command line. (I even type all my posts in Markdown.) But my experience has been that as I have gotten more and more digital my thoughts have become more and more transitory, vapid and inconsequential. It is inarguable that the computer is the easiest, most powerful tool for writing, publishing, and general creation in the history of the human race. But, it makes it so easy that we can too easily say much while meaning little, if anything.
I propose that the superiority of the old way is twofold. First, it acts as a gatekeeper of quality. The thoughts and ideas not worth sharing are abandoned or improved at their inception. And since the development process is artificially slowed the mind is forced to dwell on the idea longer, leading to it being sharpened and strengthened.
This strategy may not be for everyone, but it certainly is for me. And I encourage you to slow yourself down and apply some resistance to your thoughts as well.
Having four kids at home, I find myself having to constantly explain to them the concept of giving the benefit of the doubt. The result of which is that the idea has become very near and dear to me. I see so many conflicts that could have been avoided if those involved understood it.
We like to think that we are good at understanding our motivations (that’s a post for another day). And because we think ourselves good at judging our motivations we justify to ourselves when we are mean or rude, inadvertently or as a side-effect of our actions.
We also are limited to viewing the world through our own eyes. As a result, we are not often privy to the appearance of our actions as seen by others. If you’ve ever watched a candid video of yourself you know what I mean. You watch yourself saying the words you remember, but your body language, your stance seem off. You remember feeling compassion during the conversation but in the video you seem almost aggressive.
It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to judge another person’s intent, and without understanding intent it is seldom fair to judge another’s actions. And yet, our level of offense is so closely tied to the perceived intent. You see someone cut in front of you in line and feel she was trying to disrespect you, or someone doesn’t respond to you and you assume he is giving you the cold shoulder. (Both may have completely innocent, albeit boring, explanations.) The point is this, seldom will you find one person being intentionally malicious toward another person, unless in retaliation for some previous injustice, real, perceived, or otherwise.
There is an old maxim that states that one should never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by ignorance. I think that is very wise. The truth is that, while as individuals we can occasionally be intentionally cruel, most people don’t like to be. Rather, we are all the heroes and heroines of our own stories. There is a sort of philosophy in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game that to truly understand someone is to love him the way he love himself. So try, the next time someone causes you some injury to view the whole event from the other’s perspective. Try to understand and see how your emotions change. Try to see that person as she sees herself and to love her as she loves herself. Let that love lead you to share the most important thing in this life, the love of Jesus, who sees every intention and died to take our place.
This year I had wanted to write 30,000 words in the month of November. I’ve failed horribly this year. But in some ways, I’ve succeeded.
I have indeed written more this month than I usually would. I have written a few thousand words (many in letters) and I’ve remembered how much I like to write, so in those ways it’s been successful.
Especially since my goal at the start was not as much about word count as it was about building a habit of writing and a desire to do it. (Though I suppose the goal itself testifies to the pre-existence of the desire).
But what have I learned from it?
One of the things I’ve learned is that as much as I want to, I can’t write at a computer. The words don’t flow the same on a keyboard and I will always find myself distracted by a “just check”. I’ll set aside the writing for a moment, but never pick it up again. Instead I much prefer older, more elegant analog tools. A nice pen and good paper.
For myself, I think I also equate writing and thinking. It’s how I reason things out.
If I don’t write something down I won’t move past it. I will keep thinking the same thought over and over. Not like a stuck record, but more like a nagging reminder of an unfinished task; an incomplete thought.
And since I am able to write so much more effectively on a notebook or loose paper than on a computer I think I’ve started to view a notebook as a thinking tool. While I think of a computer or iPad as a distraction, an entertainment tool. The computer is an idea generator, being exposed to other people’s thoughts and ideas through their own writing, videos or podcasts. The notebook is where I flesh out my own thoughts on these ideas with which I would not otherwise have contact.
Beyond just utility, though, I’ve found that I take far less pleasure from writing at a computer than I do with a fountain pen on nice, heavy paper. And the pleasure I derive from pen and paper is a big motivator to return to writing once I’ve started, and to start in the first place.
I’ve also decided to try out a Baronfig notebook. I’ve been using Moleskine for a few years and I may go back to them, but I’ve heard great things about Baron Fig paper and the shorter wider proportions of the notebook intrigue me. Plus, they are attractive notebooks and cheaper than Moleskine.
Sometimes I need to write to know what I think. My day to day musings are generally disjointed and repetitive. I arrive at a decision or opinion, if I arrive at one at all, on a circuitous and meandering neural path. It can be hard for me to reason through a concept internally. I tend to circle repeatedly through the parts of an idea that are most familiar, or least complicated. Like most, I don’t like cognitive dissonance so I try to avoid it rather than engage in the work of rectifying the discrepancies.
How I Write
To actually work my way through an issue I usually have to sit down and force myself to start writing. My own particular style of thinking via pen isn’t to do mind maps or any sort of organizational scheme that was pushed on me in school. Instead I write prose. I write it out as it comes to my head, trying to capture my thought process as it happens in the form of a narrative. That way I feel like I am able to shape it and control it. I can redirect it forward when it starts to double-back to more familiar and comfortable paradigms. The narrative form leads me forward in much the same way a story pulls the reader along on a journey. The control allows me to face the cognitive dissonance and forge a way through it.
It’s no magic bullet. Sometimes I still don’t get anywhere. Sometimes it takes me several times of writing through something and a scrapping it and starting over before I get to what I want. My Les Misérables article is one of these projects. When I started I wasn’t even quite sure what I was going for. I wrote for a while and chiseled away at my idea until I was able to see what it was. It took me longer than I like to admit to get to something I felt was comprehensible enough to share. I still don’t feel like I’m done, there’s still more there to explore. Maybe I’ll come back to it some day and expand on it.
I also write the way I speak because imagining an audience forces me to clarify and flesh my own mental shorthand. It causes me to document the memories and thoughts that lead me to an opinion so the nuances are not lost when I revisit it. It’s too easy to ignore or gloss over a supporting idea in my head when I’m just thinking. Especially if it’s a feeling from a memory or a feeling gained from an experience, but when I am writing I need to tease it out and get to the deeper meaning. And sometimes judge if it’s worth holding on to or not. Writing it also links the idea more in my head so it isn’t lost in the ether or discarded as an indecipherable scribble on a post-it. But it also often illuminates deeper connections than I suspected or would have found from the simple mental shorthand link in my mind.
In every endeavor, however small, I choose to grow. I do not want to stagnate. But growth can look very different in various circumstances. In writing I could strive for growth in a quantitative sense. This would just mean turning out more pieces of increasing length until writing is all I do in my spare time. Sometimes this sounds appealing to me, but I don’t think it’s the right goal for me. Not at this time.
My goal is communication. Better communication. My wife will tell you that I am rubbish in an argument. I shutdown and am silent, or I grasp helplessly at phrases that I think for a moment will convey a wealth of meaning but realize the moment they’ve left my lips that instead they’ve undermined or contradicted everything that I meant by them. It’s not just in arguments either, I am a horrible interview. If I haven’t thought through a question ahead of time I will sputter and stall. I have a fast memory, but I am a very slow thinker.
That leads me to the goal of writing. Learning to think faster. Practicing reason and organization of my thoughts so that I need less time to ponder before answering. My goal is to be able to share communicate in the moment with my wife. To learn, through writing, ways to form a thought and then to express it more quickly so that our conversations aren’t back and forth monologues. Wish me luck!
There is a fantastic scene at the start of the movie Warm Bodies where the protagonist, a zombie named Z, reminisces about what life must have been like before the zombie apocalypse. It must have been wonderful, he thinks as he walks through an airport terminal teaming with the senseless undead, to be able to talk to each other and have a real, meaningful, human connection with someone else. As he thinks this the scene shifts to a time before the outbreak and the terminal is full of living people, each focussed entirely on the tablet or phone they hold.
I remember watching the movie and thinking what a poignant commentary it is on our modern, mobile device driven culture and lifestyle. We’re now more connected to each other than ever before, but we achieve this connectedness by isolating ourselves from those around us. We are at a terrible in between time where technology has created a social situation for which there is not yet solidified etiquette.
But we risk more than just appearing rude. We’ve all seen the mother who at the park spends the whole time on Facebook while her child desperately vies for her attention. Or the father who keeps telling his son he’ll play catch “in just a second” while he obsessively refreshes his Twitter feed (I am that father). We continually send messages to those around us, and most strongly to our children, that what is happening out there is far more important to us than what is happening right here. What does this do to a child who cannot get his parents’ attention because they are too involved in the doings of people that, too often, they hardly know? I ask rhetorically. I do not know, but I cannot imagine it helps him grow to be a healthy, well-adjusted person. I don’t want my kids to remember me with my face always buried in my phone screen, feeling like they’re perpetually second on my priority list.
From the perspective of my six year-old daughter there is no difference between me texting my wife to clarify which brand of detergent is the one that doesn’t ruin clothes but also doesn’t cause skin rashes and checking to see if there are any new tweets (even though I checked 45 seconds ago). She can’t tell that one is important and relevant to the task at hand and one is escapist, isolating entertainment. All she knows is that I told her we’d go to the store together for some fun daddy-daughter time and I’m not present with her.
Journaling digitally is similarly troublesome. The benefits of digital journaling make it very attractive to me. I can have my journal entries available anywhere; searchable, annotated with photos, and automatically including location, weather, etc. But journaling is naturally introspective. When you journal it is you and the journal (whatever method you use). One of the detriments of digital journaling, then, is that for longer periods of time you sit staring at a screen. This can also be confusing to those around you.
I’m hesitant to call this section the solution because I don’t know that there really is a solution. I can think of some practical steps. But I think the real solution is that we learn to moderate ourselves. We need to learn to quell the FOMO and develop the skills necessary to be present. That is the real solution. It’s learning to use the technologies that we have to serve us in a helpful way.
If I revisit the example at the store with my daughter how can I still get the information that I need while at the same time teach and model appropriate boundaries and behaviors for her. I can think of a couple different ways.
I can make an old fashioned phone call. While this is isolating me from her it is not leaving her in doubt about what I’m doing. She understands the purpose and duration of my distraction away from the time we’re spending. There’s no worry that I’ll float back to the phone call in a couple of minutes “just to see if there’s something new”, the phone call has a definite beginning and end. And when it ends I go back to giving her my attention.
My daughter is learning to read and write and so I can hand the phone to her and together we can set about the task of learning which brand we need to buy. In this scenario neither of us are isolated as we use the technology together to accomplish our goal. It also becomes a learning experience for her as I’m able to help her type and spell correctly.
Or, perhaps, if my son is riding his bike around in the back yard instead of isolating myself from by texting my wife to tell her about it, I can bring him into the conversation. “Buddy, what do you want me to tell mommy about how you’re riding your bike?” We can take photos together to send to her. I need to lead by example to show him that it’s OK to communicate with others who aren’t there. That’s good! But it’s not good to cut off those around us.
For journaling a change of habit is probably needed. For me, at least, it is much easier to remain tangentially aware of my surroundings and disengage with what I’m doing when I am writing in a physical book. It is psychologically less magnetic. So the habit that I need to develop (that I’m not practicing at the moment) is to journal in a physical book when I need to capture a thought around other people so I can still engage with them.
I want to teach my children to love technology the way I love technology. But I want to teach them to love it in a healthy way. I want them to be able to be excited about the tool while still recognizing it as just that a tool, that you use and then set aside. It exists to serve you, not consume you.
For example, my iPhone has the ability to shoot video at 120 fps. My oldest son and I were playing with some wind up motorcycles. We were winding them up and sending them drag racing down a straightaway made out of blocks. Then we built a wall at the end and sent them crashing through the wall. It was fun watching the bikes crash and tumble. But we made it even more fun by filming it and then watching it back in slow motion. These are the sort of experiences and memories I want my kids to have. Memories where technology enhances our time together rather than detracts from it.
I only feel déjà vu with negative experiences, almost never positive.
Our first three children came after completely complication-free pregnancies. Not once in those pregnancies did I get a feeling of déjà vu. Why? Because there’s nothing that sticks in the mind when everything goes as it should. But when something goes wrong the mind latches onto it.
We’re now on our sixth pregnancy. Our fourth child, Andrew Paul, was stillborn. After Andrew we had a miscarriage. With this pregnancy I feel déjà vu many times a day. There were so many events that led up to Andrew’s death that I can’t go for very long without having memories forced to the surface.
And in the latest ultrasound there were several uncomfortable similarities to our last ultrasound with Andrew. The baby looks beautiful and very healthy. But it’s still very worrying.
All we can do is pray for God to protect him, and trust Him to hold us. Trusting is so hard.
I am thankful that Adam Ford’s comic today was on trusting God.
This is one of the panels. The whole comic is well worth a read.
I’ve been so worried about content production vs. consumption this year. It’s been stressful to look at the minuscule amount of content that I personally create, outside of work. “How am I supposed to develop myself into a better person if I don’t have this cathartic outlet?” I’d ask myself. But, I never really stopped to consider that the thing that is the most important is they type of content I consume, not create. And it’s not been enough Scripture.
The key to developing myself personally in the ways I want is not introspection through content creation. That’s just navel-gazing. It’s learning to emulate and trust Jesus more, and more deeply. How? Brought consumption of a Scripture. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”Matthew 4:4 ESV. As my grandfather has said, “You cannot be profoundly influenced by that which you do not know.”
For as long as I can remember I’ve loved Les Mis. My parents saw it when I was young and bought the recording. I’m not sure when I first heard the music, but that was my first exposure to Les Misérables. As I’ve grown older I’ve sought out more tellings of the story. I’ve seen multiple movies (musical and not) listened to and watched different performances of the music (live and recorded), and a year or two ago I finished the unabridged, albeit translated book by Victor Hugo himself. It is a work of art.
And like all art there’s always more to be enjoyed. But I want to just focus on one point, Valjean and his foil Javert. A foil relationship is where an antagonist is crafted in such a way that his traits highlight specific traits of the protagonist. In this instance (especially in the musical version) I think the foil is actually set up to highlight a third actor in play, Grace.
These are two men who are shown grace and respond in very different ways. Jean Valjean is a hardened convict who hates humanity because hate is the only thing he’s known. When the Bishop shows him grace even though he’s never been faced with it before, he accepts it. It upends his worldview and he becomes a new man. Javert is a strict keeper of the law, he believes that through the structures of law and society we ought to, and do, get what we deserve. He also recognizes the grace shown to him, but it does not fit into his rigid meritocratic worldview and it kills him.
From this we see something about grace. Grace is a destructive force. When we recognize grace it will destroy either our warped sense of self-deservedness or it will destroy us. Which will you let it destroy?