Monday, April 09, 2007

Hopelessly Devoted to Writing

BACK IN FEBRUARY, I made a comment on the blog of my college friend, Pete, aka komos. Camera newly charged, he felt he had "started seeing again," but was feeling like his results wouldn't meet his expectations or that he would not be inspired by any worthy subjects.

I felt he was letting standards trump action, and, conceiving an exercise that might bust through his concern over imperfect results, brashly posted the following:
As usual, Emerson said it better than I ever could: "Every artist was first an amateur."

An experiment: Shoot 20 pictures a day, every day. Of anything. Don't wait for inspiration, proper light, weather conditions, or the right human subject. Just shoot anything. Don't think about it too deeply. Keep them all, perfect or imperfect. (Download them daily; don't let them pile up.)

Do this for a month. Notice common patterns, colors, interests, techniques, times of day, faces. Select those that are more "successful," those that stand most strongly on the terms they set. Feel good that you were able to develop a theme or style.

Now, it gets interesting. Next month, 20 more a day, but in the theme or style that stood out most strongly from the first month. In poker, players who confine their play to starting hands with strong winning potential more frequently find themselves in possession of the pot. (Sounds intuitive, but there are many so-called pros who bet crap cards to the end and wonder why they lose millions.) What you are doing is determining your photographic "best starting hands." Shoot the subjects for which you have an affinity, and you will succeed more often. Some might say this makes one reliant or limited in range, but I don't recall anyone taking Ansel Adams to task for not photographing classic cars, nor William Wegman for not portraying cats. Find your focus and master it.

I am ripping this idea off from the 100 Words site (down for some reason), on which users write 100 words per day, no more, no fewer, for a month. It jarred me into action and picking up common threads from my writing. This exercise may do the same for you and build confidence. In reading your early entries when I first found your blog, I found your rising assurance in throwing clay and glazing pottery deeply inspiring. I actually wanted to spin a wheel to see what I could create, even as I knew your success was the result of practice, discipline, and unique inspiration. Same with your beer-making and baking artistry. Don't let perfectionism keep you from testing and expanding your photographic limits.

Lent is coming. Maybe bump the first month I mention above up to 40 days?
Pete didn't comment, and in truth I was beginning to feel like I had offered a buttinski sort of hollow solution in which I had no investment of effort. All talk and no action. A week later, I was stunned to read, quoted in a new post of his, the second and third paragraphs in my post, followed by 20 striking photos. He dubbed this the first 20 of "the 400."

In a humbled reply, I congratulated his start, asked some questions regarding my favorites, and said the following: "You have a knack for evocative subjects that make one ask how the scene came to be. . . . They made me want to write, which, for my part, is the creative exercise to which I really need to get back to in force. (Hmmmm . . . 500 words/day for a month?)"

And the glove with which I challenged Pete to create fell right at my own feet.

I am not a religious man, but I respect the discipline it takes to make a change in one's life. The 40 days of Lent, just short of 6 weeks, is enough time for a dedicated person to ingrain a new habit. The last few times I attempted to follow a Lenten devotion, I eschewed the usual "giving up" protocol and instead took the time to improve myself. I recall the last attempt in the 1990s having something to do with weight loss. This time, however, I chose something more dear, and just as neglected: I decided to write 500 words per day and post them on my blog.

I began on Ash Wednesday with "Kid Without a Candy Store." I typed it in TextEdit, dropped it into Word for a quick count, and posted it without fanfare about my goal. In many cases, I exceeded my goal considerably. I wrote as long as the words supported themselves. Not all of the finished pieces were awesome examples of literature; it was more important to sustain my rhythm and prove to myself I could write every day, about something, either myself or some daily issue. Writers write, and not always about things they love. I wanted this to become like a muscle, able to move at will in a wide range of motion.

My first skipped day was because I was carried away with the landmark "Tips for Fair Workplace Compensation" post, and wrote well into the morning of the next day. When book designer India Amos quoted from and praised my piece on her blog, I all but did a pee-dance of joy. It made the previous several entries — hell, going back to my first post, not just the ones in Lent — all worthwhile.

As March got insane, and the end of my job loomed, I did miss a couple of dates. By this point, I was regularly cruising well past my 500-word minimum, and in a couple of cases, I was simply writing at work and emailing the posts home after a couple of days of boredom. I missed making a full-scale post on Holy Thursday, the traditional end of Lent, because of my dad's visit to the hospital. But I did manage to make 38 posts for a total of 36,253 words, or 906.325 words per Lenten day.

Back in college, I tried to keep a diary. It was sporadic, and mostly consumed with various downer episodes. The journal therefore has a depressive tone that doesn't accurately reflect the moments of genuine joy and discovery I felt while in school. This was unfair. My life was not, as this diary seemed to document, one suicide note after another.

Nor did I want this blog to be. I could tell I was slipping out of the habit of posting, with only nine entries in January and a mere four in December. When I took up the challenge I had posed to myself, via Pete, I realized I needed to record my thoughts more consistently, especially during this critical time before my layoff. If I was upset, I wanted to make note of it. If I felt victorious or jubilant about something, I wanted that recorded as well. I didn't want to look back years from now and see no continuous line of thought, only scattered entries and thin wisps of memory. I wanted to exist.

In completing — and extending — this challenge, I am noticing something in my career-training materials too. I'm working on an exercise to determine the best match for my skills, talents, and passions. I've had to make lists of these a number of times for this section. In each one, writing has come out of my pen first. Not graphic design, not editing, but writing, my most developed, but least potentially lucrative, ability.

Could this all be pointing me in a new direction in my career? Have I been neglecting this for far too long? Could this be the answer to the questions I posed in my post about motivation and my career? Is it worth taking an almost certainly massive pay cut to work my way up a new career ladder, one that might take me higher than any I've ever ascended?

I will have to figure these questions out for myself in the coming weeks. For now, I congratulate myself on succeeding in my exercise. I am happy to have built the writing muscles that for too long lay idle at my last job. I am also quite proud to have documentary evidence that I exist.


India said...

I'm always coming up with nutritious projects for myself—I'll take a photo every day! I'll post to my blog once a week! I'll read about design for thirty minutes every day! I'll draw every day! But unless I'm answerable to someone else, I know I won't do it.

For the blogging, it helps a little to know that I have at least five friends with RSS readers who will glance at whatever stupid thing I post. And whenever someone links in, I feel like I should post more. A few weeks ago, Make Ready linked to me with the lede "Just when you thought India had disappeared, . . ." Ouch. So that led to a small flurry of stupid posts. But it's hard to think of things to talk about on my work blog right now, because my work doesn't interest me at the moment. Which is an interesting and important topic in itself, certainly, but not one I think it would be wise to blog about, unless I'm looking break some kind of record for job-switching. So I'm trying to make the work more interesting, first (which has generated another series of unlikely "I'll do x every day!" ideas). Then, I trust, the flood of obsessive documentation will come.

DrawMo! worked as long as other people were posting there every day; now that it's only monthly and nobody's watching, I find that I can't keep up with it at all. And for other virtuous or healthy habits? Forget it. I can barely make myself get out of bed every day; the rest is negotiable.

But sometimes all it takes is one interested person—someone you admire and don't want to disappoint. By far the best thing about getting Kottked last summer was that I somehow attracted a couple of real friends—people who contact me on the back-channel, sending regular e-mails just to find out how my day is going. If they were people I thought I might see in person any time soon, I'd probably be less diligent about replying; but when Elisabeth in Norway writes to me, I have to reply, because that's our only means of communication (though of course we've joked about visiting each other), and I love hearing from her. And if I whine to Elisabeth about how I wish I could walk to work every day, suddenly it seems to me that I have to walk to work every day, so she won't realize what a scrub I am. And I've lost three pounds, so far.

On the Internet, I'd rather not have people know that I'm a dog.

All of which is a long-winded and rambly way of saying that I'm not surprised that your friend took up your Lenten suggestion, as you had an excellent idea, and that's just the sort kick in the pants that works for me. And if it motivates you to imagine that people will read your writing, you should know that I, for one, have appreciated your uptick in posting frequency, and I have read everything that's not about poker (sorry—I grew up with poker-playing parents, and reading about cards just makes me crave bridge mix and wish everyone would shut up so I could get to sleep). So please carry on.

Schizohedron said...

It's tough to tell if MakeReady is still active. It's even more stripped down than Kottke! Looks like old miscellany gets archived into the marginalia section (I see your castoff post there).

Happy to have you as a regular and that you've enjoyed my recent blizzard of posts. I hope to keep something close to the same frequency, as much as the job hunt and my career counseling allow. I do appreciate not having the last workplace as my dominant theme these days, though it did provide for constant copy. Time to write about the future! (Where's my flying car?)