Writer’s Diary #41: Tinderbox’s Steady Improvements

I’ve been a long-time user of Eastgate Systems’ Tinderbox. At least since 2010, when I first bought a copy to do fieldwork. It’s a tool that I keep coming back to, even if I leave from time to time. Every time I come back, I am impressed, once again, by its steady, evolutionary, sometimes revolutionary improvements. Mark Bernstein has created a brilliant, powerful piece of software for knowledge workers. I think it’s criminally underused by anthropologists. But, that’s for another post. I’ve long thought of it as a Swiss army knife for notes. But that doesn’t really do justice to the software. Do check [Tinderbox] out.

For now, I just wanted to call attention to one of the little changes made over time that Mark has worked into Tinderbox, which make things just nicer.

Between the version I was using, and what I upgraded to yesterday, a small change, is that it is now possible to make the left-hand pane (map/outline/etc any arbitrary width. Before, there was a minimum size. It’s a change that perhaps most users will probably never notice.

But, I write books. And, often, when I am in the thick of writing, I want to make the text pane on the right as big as possible, and make the left hand pane as narrow as possible. This wasn’t possible to do to quite as narrow as I wanted before. It now is. Thank you, Mark. Just one more of the steady refinements that makes Tinderbox indispensable.

Screenshot of narrow left hand side map pane in Tinderbox.

Rules for Writing #2: Delaying

Stats: 20,759 steps, ran for twenty minutes, stretched rather too quickly, one coffee, beans and rice for lunch, and 6 pages, tight, longhand, which doesn’t quite match my goal, but I am going to be nice to myself.

I struggled with social media and the news until I blocked them on my computer as well. It’s amazing how often I reach automatically for the news. There is more time to think, when not reading short pieces.

Today is one of the few times I’ve exercised before writing. I did it yesterday as well. It used to be that I treated a word count as a thing I had to do, come hell or high water. Today, I’m equally committed to the words, but I kept delaying until quite late because of kids, because of meetings, because of presentations. By the time I got to words, I knew what I wanted to write. A draft came easy.

I used to think I was only a morning writer. Now, I’m not so sure.


A forest field replaced with yuca, Suaita, Santander, 2014.

Rules for Writing #1: Success

Quick update. Today, we travelled by bus from Santander to Socorro, up the Canyon of Chicamocha. It’s a steep canyon, and the bus drive is probably four or five hours door to door.

Lunch was a Colombian meal at 3:00 pm. I had it sin proteina. It was rice, chickpea stew, a beetroot salad, and yuca with tomato sauce. Lemonade to wash it down. The kids ordered Colombian Chinese rice. It was rather large.

Most of the day was on the bus, so I had not done much moving. I did a quick run first thing this morning in Bucaramanga, then a longer run when we got in at 5 o’clock. Both were slow and steady. First, up the hill there and back for 2 km, then since it was raining, an hour and a half around the balcony of the Casaredonda. This got me my 20,000 steps and my stretching. No social media, podcast, or news was essay. No coffee, too. I wrote this post, and revised it, after writing 1,500 words for a chapter on Rules.

In short, today, I hit all my rules, despite traveling for 6 hours.

Posted in UncategorizedTagged

Writer’s Diary #41: Rules, for a Month’s Writing

Here I am, once again, with my rules. Rules for writing. Temporary ones, mind. They never last more than a month. But, that’s good enough. Good enough to get some momentum. I know the book’s structure. I know the argument. With a little effort, I could make headway. My sabbatical is coming to an end, so why not finish on a high? So I’ve turned to rules.

I wrote them.

I have had some success with rules in the past.

To start my first book, I had a writing challenge with a colleague. To finish it, I did a writing challenge with other colleagues. Both worked. I have tried this other times, and it has not worked. No matter.

This time, the rules are my own. Just me, this time. The rules I will adopt for the next month, starting now.

The rules? The rules are not just about writing this time. Writing is part of it, but writing is an embodied activity. It is a thing we do in the world. Therefore, the rules are for writing and to be in a good place for writing.

  • Run for 20 minutes a day, perhaps longer, and cool down and stretch for ten minutes.
  • Take 20,000 steps.
  • Eat whole food, plant-based.
  • No caffeine after the first coffee.
  • No news, social media, or podcasts.
  • Write (or revise from notes) 1,500 new, good words into the manuscript.
  • Write a post about the day, with a photograph.
  • Stop.

Notes on Running #1: Slow and Steady

I ran down and then up the hill today. It was straight forward: a kilometre down, descending 150 m, a kilometre on the flat, and then gong up 150 m over a a kilometre and a half. Today, like yesterday, I held back, kept a steady pace, never pushed myself, and did it in about 35 minutes. I remember doing the same run in in January, but this time, I don’t feel totally spent and exhausted by the end, as as I did in January. In running, as in writing, slow and steady?

Notes on Running #1: Hold Back

Where we are living for the next few months is in Santander, Colombia, halfway up the hill, at about 1550m. Any direction, out the door, means either going up or down 500 m. Every run is a hill trail run. Today, I went for an accidental long run.

For the first time, in months, I seriously held back. I ran up the hill, focused on form. Any time I felt myself going hard, I consciously went easy. I held back, up and down the hill. I never went beyond easy. As a consequence of deliberate restraint, today felt like I ran further and more steadily than I have before.

My run turned into an hour of easy running, I took the time to walk for five minutes. Then I spent ten minutes stretching. The result? Holding back made for an enjoyable run. It wasn’t my fastest or my most intense, but it was one of the more pleasant runs.

Hold back, who knew.

Colombia Jottings #1: How to Eat a Mostly Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet in Rural Colombia

I’m not a vegetarian or vegan, but these days I’m trying to eat less meat and more plant-based whole foods.

I live in rural Colombia. How easy is it to eat a whole-food, plant-based diet in Colombia? How difficult is it to be a vegetarian or vegan in rural Colombia?

There are vegetarian restaurants in the city. In the countryside, not so much.

So, on the one hand, it’s not particularly easy. Meat is used in a lot of cooking. Meat is used to flavour sopas (soups) and in frijoles (bean stews). In a typical restaurant, the proteina (the protein, a piece of beef, pork, chicken, sausage, etc.) is at the centre of the meal. The proteina will be accompanied by beans, lentils or stewed vegetables, which may have been seasoned with meat, with a side of rice, perhaps fried plantano (plantain, a type of starchy banana, cooked before eating) or a boiled, salted potato. There might also be a small salad dressed with salt and lime juice. None of this is particularly vegan.

On the other hand, if you squint and ask politely, it’s easy to get most of it plant-based. Just ask. Explain what you want.

For breakfast, ask for a delicious Colombian caldo de costilla (rib broth). This is a broth made with cilantro, with well cooked potatoes that give a wonderful texture, and a chunk of beef rib on the bone. Just ask for a caldo de costilla sin costilla. People will look at you strangely, and by definition broth is not vegan, but the caldo de costilla sin costilla is a delicious soup of potatoes and cilantro. My wife says it might not actually be made with the ribs, as they can be cooked separately. In any case, maybe not vegan, but its is delicious with arepa (a type of corn cake), which is available almost everywhere. It is whole food, plant-based.

For lunch, especially in the Andes, there is the corrientazo. This is a cheap, traditional, set lunch served in small restaurants or restaurantes corrientes. You can find these almost anywhere, as long as you’re looking between 11:30 and 14:00.

The corrientazo is formed around a small piece of proteina (protein: beef, pork, chicken, fish or some sort of organ meat, or pork shank, or beef feet, or whatever’s on special), a principio (a side dish, typically a side of beans or lentils, or a side of stewed vegetables or stewed squash), a side of rice, with plantains (either sweet or savoury) and/or salted, boiled potatoes. The corrientazo is served with a soup or stew as a starter and a fresh, fibre-rich fruit juice. It may also be accompanied by a small salad dressed with lime and salt, and perhaps a dessert, such as pears stewed in panela (raw brown sugar).

The trick to this wholefood, plant-based diet is to ask for a corrientazo without protein, but with all available principios. This doesn’t always work, because sometimes there are no principios. But, in my experience, the corrientazo without the protein will usually result in a pile of beans or lentils and a pile of stewed vegetables or squash, along with rice, patacones (fried green plantains) or maduro (fried ripe plantain), salted potatoes, a small salad, a glass of fruit juice, and the hearty soup.

The soup will come first, it may have meat in it for flavour, and the soup will probably have chunks of beef in it, I pick them out, and the rest will be a mix of beans, corn and vegetables.

Is it vegan? No. But, if you squint, such a meal is wholefood and plant-based, even if there might be some meat used to flavour the soups or principios.

In small towns, there are often fruterias (fruit shops or stalls) that specialize in fruit salad. A fruit salad usually includes ice cream, grated cheese and yoghurt. But, ask for a fruit salad without the ice cream, cheese and yoghurt. The result. A big bowl of sliced fruit—strawberries, kiwi, bananas, papaya, mango, etc.

Pizza? Pizza is becoming more and more common in small towns. On the one hand, I find that pizza often has too much cheese. Try asking for a vegetarian pizza, without the cheese. Or even better, ask for a pizza without cheese and with all the vegetables. (Maybe ask for it to be cooked a bit more.)

Not everything is strictly vegan or vegetarian? By definition, broth soup might be made with with bones. But I’m flexible, and this strategy allows for a delicious, well-balanced, hearty, whole-food, plant-based diet, without having to put a restaurant out by asking for something complex.

If you squint, a corrientazo, with a papa chorriada (potatoes with sauce), patacones, rice, a tomato and lettuce salad with a salt and lemon dressing, a heaping of hearty red beans, a side of braised vegetables, and a fibre-rich fresh glass of guayaba guava juice, and a homemade vegetable, bean and corn soup is a fibre-rich, well-balanced, whole-food, plant-based meal that is hard to beat.

In fact, I’d argue that this Colombian corrientazo (with or without the proteina) is one of the world’s great peasant cuisines. It is very underrated.

It is worth noting that people in rural areas generally eat a hearty breakfast and a large lunch. Dinner might consist of a cup of steaming agua panela (tea made from raw cane sugar cakes) and a piece of bread. One might argue, rural Colombian also practice intermittent fasting.

Writer’s Diary #40: Makeshift Writing

Writing is often seen as a pursuit of perfection—the perfect sentence, paragraph, or article. But perfection is the result, not the method. Perfectionism tells us little about the process of writing. Instead, the secret is to embrace imperfection, and approach writing as a makeshift endeavour. It is something cobbled together. Words and ideas are improvised. Perfection, if it is to come, emerges out of an iterative imperfect process. This is the essence of what I think of as makeshift writing. A mode that is temporary, contingent, ever good enough. The point is not to achieve premature perfection, but to work into the words and let the ideas develop, on the page.

Too often, as writers, planning becomes paralyzing. What is the argument? What is the outline? What is the conceptual insight? Research becomes endless. So much so, that it impedes writing. To write this way, is to fall into a trap. The trap is the idea that a piece of writing comes out perfect, and that it must follow a strict, logical series of steps. The goal might be such a piece of writing. But, the getting there is far messier.

The makeshift writing I have in mind is a practical, embodied labor. It happens not in the realm of the perfect analytical structure and theoretical contribution. But in the countless moments of revisions on the page. To write through makeshift is to embrace messiness. A call for makeshift writing is a call to write, to get the words down on the page, and then to improve on them. To iterate. Makeshift is a riposte against the idea that words emerge perfect.

As an anthropologist, maybe one way to approach writing as craftwork is to approach it as an ethnographer might. To think about writing is to embrace an autoethnographic observation of ones practice. It is to consider writing as a process. As a labor practice. To think of writing as labor is to think of it less as intellectual labor, but as a practical, embodied labor of the countless steps and interventions made as a writer. Could focusing on this labor, on the actual practice of writing and fixing verbs and revising tens and making small changes and looking for repeated words and all the other little tricks of a writer’s toolbox help demystify the process?

This process of writing is, for me, ever makeshift. The trick is to begin then to make changes. To be being willing to cobble something imperfect and then improvise and iterate to improve it. To bring together ideas in unexpected ways, and then to work and rework them until they make sense. Makeshift is about approaching the words not as if they were the pursuit of perfection, but to do so as a practical kind of craft work that can be honed through imperfect, iterative hard work. Makeshift writing is a way to get the words on the page, to keep working with them, to keep moving, even in the face of imperfection. It’s about embracing the process, the labor, the craft of writing itself, and it is about how, through this embrace, that something good enough begins to emerge. Something that is meaningful and true, and just maybe, near perfect.

Writer’s Diary #39 – Small Victories

Today was my second day running. Today’s lesson? Take it slow. Appreciate the small victories. Not every day running needs to be your best effort.

Writing is the same. Not every session should be hard, or the fastest, or done at full tilt at hundred percent. Instead, it is in steady rhythm that the words emerge. Words come out of the accumulation of practice. It is through steady practice that, over time, leads to a certain sort of skill. There is no need for every piece of writing or day of work to be perfect and completed under duress. The challenge is to resist the urge to complete it big and fast. Resist. This takes effort. It leaves us exhausted and unable to contemplate doing anything like it again. The lesson? Start, but don’t rush. Be gentle. Don’t finish on full. Let the words come easy. Let them be.

Savour the minor wins.

Writer’s Diary #38 – Don’t Forget to Breathe

This morning, with the mist over the hills, I went for a run for the first time in a few months. Last night, I started in on Lindsay A. Freeman’s lovely little book Running, from Duke’s series on Practices. Since I’ve not run in a few months, I decided to follow a training app and start at the beginning with the first one. It was a recovery session. I went slow. Easy. I was able to hold conversation. I held a lot back.

As I ran, for not a very long time, it struck me writing can be the same.

Too often, we write ourselves spent. We write ourselves to excess and exhaustion. Then, we stop for days on end. What if the way to approach words has more in common with running than it is usually given credit for? Haruki Murakami, of course, thinks about the connection between words and steps his memoir. It’s not a new connection. But, it is worth repeating. Not every sessions on a computer should be a mad sprint to the end. Maybe nothing should a mad sprint.

Go steady. Go slow. Don’t forget to breathe.