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So there I was again, crying in my writing chair.
Yeah, it’s going to be another one of those newsletters. Don’t worry, I come out of it okay.
I won’t go too much into the background, but in January I hit an author-career snag and didn’t know what to do about it. The day after I got the news, I sat down in my writing chair, not knowing how my next book was going to get out there, and I thought: why?
I wasn’t crying at that point.
As luck would have it, it was a Friday, the day I work on something other than my main project. I was free to do anything, so I did what I often do when I feel the angst rising: I wrote a poem.
I started using poetry when I was recovering from my cancer surgery. First it was haiku, which I developed into an automatic reaction whenever fear or worry threatened to overwhelm me. Look around you, catch hold of something beautiful, and describe it in 17 syllables. Focusing on beauty and forcing myself to count gave my panicking brain something to do.
This time, though, I was looking inward. And I didn’t write any other particular form. I just wrote what I was thinking. My first line was: “I’ll write something that nobody will want to read.”
Pretty clunky, and extremely self-absorbed, but I didn’t censor. Nobody would read this, after all.
Don’t worry, you won’t have to read it either. I’ll just tell you that I wrote a page laying out how I felt and why. Then I went back and read over it again, trying to juggle the words around so they’d sound good next to each other. I was curious what sort of rhythm and rhyme would emerge, and that curiosity spread. Why was it that I feel like I’d fallen through a crack in the earth? Why did I write? Why, having written, did I want other people to read my work?
And, more specifically and usefully: how would this story come out? What was the resolution to the opening problem?
I did come to a conclusion (“except the ones who need to”), but it wasn’t quite right. Yes, I did write for the one person who might need my story, but that wasn’t the whole truth. Plus that, the poetry wasn’t good. It didn’t work.
I remembered something Pavlina told me: a good storyteller says “welcome, sit down beside me. Have I got a story for you!” I also remembered some advice that Ethan Kross gives in Chatter: to gain some perspective on emotional experiences, talk about them in the 3rd or 2nd person. “He feels bad” is a lot less immediate than “I feel bad.” You can hold your thoughts out at arm’s length that way, and examine them.
I changed my first line to this:
“‘Nobody will see,’ he says to himself, feeding sticks to the fire he’s built behind walls.”
The emotions and rhythm snapped together. Suddenly, I was telling a story to myself. And the metaphor I was using suggested answers to my questions.
Why write? Because it warms me. Why share what I write? Because I want to be generous.
That’s when I started crying. It was an enormous relief to imagine someone sitting down at my fire. It was also frightening. Now I know that I have to write something that really works. It can’t just warm me, it has to warm someone else too.
In other news:
Geeze, a lot happened in January. I posted a new series of “Paul and Dan on” videos, this time about Cal Newport’s Deep Work. (I liked it, Paul didn’t).
Junction was briefly on sale (and it’s still pretty cheap).
The video of the Speculative Biology panel I moderated for Flights of Foundry was released on Youtube.
I finished the “meat” draft of Fellow Tetrapod (after deciding that it does indeed move) and put it away until September.
And! I started work on the skin draft of Wealthgiver! It took the second two weeks of January to re-write the scenes I had previously chucked in my impatience to finish the last draft. Now I’m attacking the story from beginning to end, using Story Grid as my guide. I highly recommend Story Grid so far. Check back next month to see how useful it turned out to be.
I have two other projects going as well, but I ought to wait to tell you about them. Next time 🙂
And here’s what I read in January
The Overloaded Ark by Gerald Durrell – was his debut and the weakest of his Cameroon books, but still charming and funny. Durrell was younger when he wrote this, and was more prone to impatience and ego-fragility. Although he extends great humor and compassion toward animals, he does not always do so toward his fellow humans.
Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters by Steven Pinker – a funny and useful primer on logic wrapped in thin politics. I stopped reading this book twice before I managed to push past the introduction. The conclusion is also weak, but the body of the book makes a good case for the development of critical thinking skills and rational discourse and helps the reader do just that.
Sphere by Michael Crichton – Solaris under the sea, but much more exiting. I listened to an abridged audiobook of Sphere when I was in middle school, and I can still rattle off whole sections of it. Going back to Sphere for the first time as an adult, I found out it had sexual and racial tension (not badly handled, either), a lot of fun technical lecturing, and a plot that fits together like a wrist watch. Crichton was a master craftsman, and worth emulating.
The Praxis by Walter Jon Williams – not as good as Miles Vorkosigan, but not bad either. This is the first new (to me) scifi series I’ve enjoyed in a while. I had tried the sample and failed to find traction, but I gave the book a second try because George R.R. Martin compared it to Bujold and Weber. I don’t actually like Weber, and I like Bujold’s work better, but The Praxis isn’t bad space opera. The setting is interestingly dark, with the fresh-faced young space-naval officer serving aboard such ships as The Bombardment of Los Angeles for what is actually a species of religious zealots who brutally conquered and cruelly oppressed the Earth…and who go voluntarily extinct at the beginning of the book. There’s a pervasive feeling of what now? Even as the main character climbs the ranks of the space-navy, what’s the point of the space-navy? Ah, a rebellion. Phew! There’s quite a lot of high society partying that almost succeeds as comedy of manners, but the romance and mystery do not succeed at all. I wish Williams had developed the theme more.
Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most by Greg McKeown – good general advice without backup. I appreciated the hell out of the message of Effortless, which was “get out of your own way.” Many of us suffer under the assumption that hard work is good work, a mis-belief which McKeown does a good job of debunking. But then he doesn’t offer us much in the way of what we should do instead. It’s easy for him to say, “Make the impossible possible by finding an indirect approach,” but he doesn’t go much in to how you find an indirect approach. I’m left without a tool he’s proffering.
Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. Pavlina (my wife) hates this book, and I understand why. Algorithms (simple sets of rules or patterns of behavior) tempt you into thinking that you don’t have to think any more. Why not just program the right habits into yourself and let your body goes through the appropriate motions? I used to do that before I realized I wasn’t experiencing my own life.
That being said, sometimes you don’t have time to run through all the possible ramifications of a given choice, and for that you do need good rules of thumb. I think the ones Christian and Griffiths provide are pretty good: take chances, set priorities, be conscious of your ignorance. Pavlina hated Algorithms to Live By, but this is my review and I liked it. It’s a good companion to How Not to be Wrong.
Astral Codex 10, the blog of Scott Alexander – fun and informative, occasionally off-putting, but not obnoxious about it. I mostly subscribed to this blog because I wanted to know what happened to the author of Unsong. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Alexander is going to write another novel, but does seem to be running an interesting organization. I don’t actually agree with quite a lot of what he says, and I think the Rationalist community could do with some new blood. But I appreciate Alexander’s humility, compassion, and commitment to thinking his ideas through. And he’s funny. I wish more commentators were like that.
Persuasion – a liberal community trying to carve a niche for itself on Substack. I’m not sure about this one yet. I followed my hero John McWhorter there, and I found some pretty good news and podcasts similar to those made by the Economist. My fear about Persuasion is the fact that it’s a community, and as such has a tendency to identify enemies and define itself in opposition to them. It does a good job of telling me I shouldn’t be scared of what’s scaring American Progressives and Conservatives, but then goes and tells me what should be scaring Liberals. That’s more tribalism than I’d like.
Phew. Sorry this newsletter took so long to get out. The first week of February was nuts…but that’s another story.
See you next month