August Newsletter: The Value of Practice

So there I was, neck deep in the Aegean, watching the hills turn black and the sky gold. I slowly beat with my hands and feet, trying to stay still. Trying to relax.

I’ve had a hard time with vacations for a while now. Most days I get out of bed thinking “I have things I’m excited about doing” and I go to bed thinking “I accomplished something today.” That’s – well – it’s healthier than whipping myself into a frenzy of anxiety the way I used to, but let’s say there’s room for improvement. I manage well enough when I have projects to escape into, but on vacation, I tend to spend my time at the beach waiting for the chance to go back to my computer.

“How productive was I today? What did I accomplish?” I ask myself, while the time between accomplishments blurs into meaninglessness. Surely there are tasks, such as raising children, that shouldn’t be thought of as tasks. But what should they be instead?

That was the homework I gave myself on this vacation in Greece: find value in something other than productivity. I had just finished a draft of the particularly hairy Centuries Unlimited and I didn’t have any approaching deadlines, so why not experiment? I downloaded some fun books as well as books on religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I went to the beach with my family in the morning instead of using that time to write. I tried to draw,  read, take it easy. And I felt the hunger building like the lack of some vital nutrient.

What had I accomplished, floating in the sea? What could I feel proud of? How could I get that rush of happiness that comes from praise?

Last year I wrote about my addiction to praise. I thought I’d broken it, but really what I did was learn how to praise myself. Fine. A good stop-gap solution, but I knew as I floated in the sea, day after day, that I needed something more substantial.

A seed in the air
It passes into shade and
Vanishes completely

I’ve been reconnecting with an old friend of mine, someone who’s also had a near-death experience in the last few years. We decided to read through The Confessions of Saint Augustine together, and one of the things that emerged from our discussion was what I’ll call “the value of practice.”

The biggest step forward I’ve made as an author was when I let go of the product of my work and focused on the practice of the work itself. Sitting down, opening my laptop, putting fingers to keys, and juggling words and images in my head. Yes, do that long enough, and a book will pop out, but the book isn’t the point. The practice of writing is valuable by itself. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

My friend related his own memories of taking his daughter to the park. It was the same trip and the same park over and over day after day. But because of that sameness, events stood out. One time, they found a turtle. Without the practice of going to the park every day, my friend wouldn’t have had the frame to appreciate that turtle. Now that his daughter is in college, he looks back at that whole going-to-the-playground repetition as one of the greatest accomplishments of that part of his life.

A practice can be anything. Writing, going to the beach, doing your homework, cleaning your house. Take boredom as a sign that you’re open for inspiration. The practice itself has value. That’s what I’m reaching for.

Except for today. Today I stayed home and wrote this newsletter 😛

In other news…
All five issues of Protector have now come out, and the whole arc has been collected into an omnibus called “First Knife.” You can order it 🙂 

I’m very happy with the whole experience of working with Simon, Artyom, Matt, and Hassan. And it was very gratifying to find that our story spoke to at least one person. Onward, to the sequel!

I hosted a speculative biology panel for Eurocon Futuricon , which will be available to members in October. Pst! Membership is pretty cheap!

I finished the second entry in my “Logarithm” series, hopefully describing my life ten years from now. The next real entry should be set in 2120, but I also wrote a brief stop over in 2050…

It’s my first fiction in Bulgarian! Yes, I finished the “Thirty Years Plus” story, inspired by Joanne Rixon’s op-ed in the Tacoma News Tribune, about how and why 2050 will be a good year. My hope is to get the Bulgarian version of my story published by a Sofia newspaper, but here’s the English translation just for you. The password is “2050.”

And here’s what I read this month.

The Art of Living by Thich Nhat Hanh – a soft, but firm book, contemplating how best to live. I agree with Hanh on almost everything.

River out of Eden by Richard Dawkins – a rather spiny book about how life does not require a creator to be complex and inspiring. I don’t think Dawkins likes arguing with creationists – I don’t think it’s good for him.

Unnatural Habits by Kerry Greenwood – Phryne Fisher is very upset by the working conditions in a 1920s Australian nunnery. Her compassion sometimes failed her.

The Culture Map by Erin Meyer – a book by an INSEAD professor about working culture in different countries. I appreciate her advice on how to run international teams – it’s based on real experience of what works and what doesn’t – but I don’t buy the theory behind it. I don’t think the experience of American pioneers on the prairie in the 1830s explains much about the way we conduct meetings in the 2020s.

Encounter with Tiber by Buzz Aldrin and John Barnes – Wow! What a pleasure this book was to read! It gave me everything I want from science fiction: aspiration, characters caught in heartbreaking dilemmas, and the opportunity to learn something true. I can give no better enticement to read this book than a glance at its list of Dramatis Personae, which include “Clio Trgorin, historian,” “Lori Kirsten, commander,” and “General Gurix Zowakou, conqueror of Shulath.” WHAT? Yeah. Read it!

Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior by Mark R. Leary – a very good Great Courses lecture series on human behavioral biology, and how our evolved instincts manifest to our conscious minds.

The Little Book of Hygge by Mike Weiking – a nice book on cultivating a certain kind of happiness. It made me think about how I was arranging my life, and a month later, I still light a candle every time I start writing.

Launchpad Astronomy by Christian Ready- a youtube channel that scratches my itch for space exploration now that I finished Encounter with Tiber. Gravitational lensing deep-space telescope-swarms? Yes please!

Just Have a Think by David Borlace – another youtube channel, this one about carbon-neutral energy technology (and other green technology). Great research material for my aspirational fiction. Although the titles of his videos are click-baity, Borlace is very balanced and considered in his delivery of the information. Maybe with just a touch of wryness.

All right, that’s it. Next month it’s back to school and my birthday. Wish me luck.

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