A Change of Scenery

Photo by Teanna Morgan on Unsplash

Last weekend I was quite productive. I was more productive than I have been in a long time. Over the course of a five-day weekend I wrote and published a blog post, read a book I bought over a year ago, edited half of my own book, as well as rode around 50k on my brother-in-law’s borrowed bike.

And I did all of this while feeling like I was taking time off and relaxing. I don’t say this to brag about how capable I am. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I want to figure out what it was that made the weekend so productive so that I can repeat it. Why could I do so much more on this vacation than I normally do on vacations, and why was I able to do more while “relaxing” than I do on weekends when I don’t take any time off? And what lessons can I learn from that?

Just the Facts, Ma’am

The weekend was a surprise vacation that my wife planned for me with my brothers and parents. My parents were driving their camper across the country, and they picked me up on the last leg of their journey, from Chicago to Denver. After spending a few days with my family, I flew home.

In doing some thinking after I got back, I think I’ve found three things that made the trip such fertile ground for productivity; planning, distance and novelty.

Planning

Serendipitously, the week after I returned The Art of Manliness published an article on how Ernest Hemingway would plan his leisure time (A Lesson From Ernest Hemingway in Why You Should Plan Your Weekends). He wanted to make sure that he got the most out of life, including his “free time” and so he had some structure to it. It occurred to me as I was reading this that that is precisely what I had done on my trip. I hadn’t sat down with a planner and planned out what I would be doing at specific times, but leading up to the vacation I had figured out what I would like to do while on the trip.

I knew I would have some time when my sister’s family would be busy or my brothers would be at work and I would be left to my own devices. So, I thought that I could work on some of the projects I had been making slow progress on during those times, so I gathered what I would need to work on them. Sure enough, several hours each day I found myself unoccupied and could grab one of the projects and start working on it. I was prepared for it because I had planned. And because I had planned to have several things to work on I was able to bounce between them if I got stuck or bored doing the same thing for too long.

Distance

Because I was so far from home, I had fewer interruptions too. Certainly, I had interruptions. I was visiting family I hadn’t seen in over a year, but many of the can-you-open-this-pickle-jar-for-me or why-does-my-phone-say-it’s-not-on-the-wifi type interrupt just weren’t there because I was absent from my family. (That’s not to complain about my family. I love them, and I’m happy to help them with whatever they need, but those types of interruptions are focus assassins). The added friction of my physical distance kept me from those mundane interruptions and so the times I was able to work were more focussed than normal.

Novelty

And because I was in an unfamiliar place I was forced to think about things in a new way. That seems dramatic, but I’ve noticed that as I go through my day I tend to think as well as act on a routine. When I drive to work in the mornings, I usually think about the same things along the way. Familiar landmarks remind me of what I was thinking about the last time I passed them, and then I begin thinking about the same things all over again. But when I’m out of my element I have to think about even such boring tasks as getting a cup of coffee, I have no muscle memory for where the mugs are. I am unburdened by the subconscious associations of my environment, so I feel like thinking new and novel thoughts is that much easier.

Takeaways

To try to capitalize on these observations I am going to try, before taking a vacation or even a weekend to ask:

Plan: “What do I want to walk away with from this time?”

Distance: “Am I able to silence my phone or go on DND? Can I set expectations with people to avoid interruptions?”

Novelty: “Are there parks or cafés (now that things are starting to reopen) that I can go to? Is there music or sound machines I can use to drown out familiar background noise?”

A New Commitment

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Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

As I begin the process of restarting my blog I think it is useful for me to establish my purpose and goals in blogging. What is it that I hope to get out of blogging? I want to be a better writer. I want to grow and learn in the craft. To that end I think that posting on this blog will help me by keeping me accountable as I am forced to post on a schedule. Ideally, I will be able to get feedback from any readers I might be fortunate enough to acquire along the way as well.

I also get a lot of catharsis and enjoyment out of writing. That coupled with the introspection from learning what makes my writing better and more enjoyable (both to read and to write), and the experimentation that goes along with that make me almost giddy in anticipation.

So, where does that leave me? To what am I willing to commit myself? I want to be careful to not overcommit and quit from being overwhelmed. I will start, I think, with the goal of posting fortnightly and the goal of gradually increasing frequency to a roughly weekly cadence. I intend to write about my journey as I try to become a writer. I like to think of these posts as “meta-writing”. I will also post some of the short stories I work on and some samples from longer projects I am working through. I hope you enjoy and are willing to embark on this adventure with me. Bon voyage!

— Brian

Fear and Loathing in a Text Editor

I’ve recently come to learn two things about myself. The first is that I enjoy writing. I really enjoy writing. When I get in the flow and the words just seem to come pouring out of my fingers. It is an incredibly rewarding feeling. Last year I wrote the first draft of a book in three months because I enjoyed doing it and didn’t want to stop writing each day.

Since then, I haven’t done much with it because the second thing I’ve learned is that I do not enjoy reading what I’ve written; I hate it.

As I’ve been slowly doing a first rough pass through the book to polish up the roughest parts of it I have more than once almost thrown in the towel and thrown the whole thing away. I read it, and it’s not anything like what I want to have written. My vocabulary feels too limited, my sentence structures are childish, and my brilliant insights are incredibly shallow. I feel like I need to rewrite the whole thing from scratch.

It’s scary to put things out there into the world. When I write I often feel as if I’m having a conversation with my imagined readers, I can almost picture them. It’s calming and makes the whole experience feel wonderfully relational. But as I prepare to actually publish something that same imaginary scenario becomes frightening, even paralyzing. When I’m writing I can adjust my words, restructure my sentences and control what I’m saying. And I control my imaginary readers in the same way, they’re all happy with it because I’m enjoying the writing process. But once I push the text out to the world it is fixed. I cannot change it anymore and the people who read it will be actual humans with their own opinions, not figments of my imagination who are receptive to my ideas and blind to my oversights.

I put care into what I’m writing and vulnerability is hard. It’s scary to let other people read and judge my work, knowing that they may not like it. Often I’ll get partway through typing something and that fear sets in and kills the creativity. The words languish in the text editor.

Am I a fraud; am I putting my naïveté on full display? When I fire up my text editor to continue working on a draft I look back on the words I’ve written, and they feel so juvenile, so poorly constructed and fragmented.

In Episode 27 of Baronfig’s Eureka Podcast Joey Cofone talks about feelings of anxiety surrounding creativity as he has been writing a book.

There’s a ton of fear, which I write about in the book. Creativity has a ton of fear involved, and you never get rid of it. But you just acknowledge it and still work anyway.

Joey Cofone

That really struck me because I really look up to what Joey has been able to do, all he’s been able to build and create at Baronfig. To hear that he knows that fear as well gave me so much encouragement.

Perhaps these feelings are part of the process.

Perhaps this anxiety is an aspect of creating that I need to learn to accept and even embrace.

Perhaps I simply need to take a deep breath and click “Publish.”