On Thought and Doing Things the Hard Way

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.

Napoleon Hill

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.

What I learned from NaNoWriMo

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.

NaNoWriMo

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@patrickian4
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@patrickian4

November is NaNoWriMo. While I don’t have a plan to write a novel, I do aspire to write more. I enjoy writing and I think it’s important for helping me learn, think and improve myself. But, as evidenced by this blog I’m not very consistent in it. I really want to improve my consistency in writing.

My initial idea was to try to post every day during November. I like the goal of writing a 50,000 word novel by 11:59 on November 30, but as I said, I have no desire to write a novel right now. I decided to commit myself to writing 50,000 words this month, this is divided up into 1,667 words a day. I realized that 30 posts is way more than I can realistically commit to, and truth be told I probably won’t meet the quota many of the days. Though I will keep track of my progress in Drafts.

Instead of writing a novel, or writing a blog post every day I will commit to writing 50,000 words through the month, divided between my blog, my journal, and random musings. I think my journal will get most of the love, this year. My fifth child was born at the end of October which is oddly, or not, causing me to have to deal with some unresolved issues from when my fourth child, Andrew Paul was stillborn last year. Several of those journal entries I hope will make their way to this blog.

Why I Write

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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.

Growth

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!