Writing Diary #13: Make Writing Fun, Again?

My sabbatical starts tomorrow, so I have some time to get some work done. It feels like I can focus on the Makeshift draft. Yesterday, though, I tried to work on it all day, and after two hours I lost steam. Got grumpy. Tried to push through. Got nowhere.

I’ve been writing this journal for a few weeks now, and I’ve found that part of the trick is to make it a habit. It takes about 30 minutes to write a post, and I’ve been doing it. It’s been fun. I’ve been able to do this and also work on Makeshift. I’ve been able to do this, because it’s a different voice and because it’s plain old fun.

Which leads to me to ask: Can writing be fun?

But I’ve been thinking about how I tried to do too much on the book yesterday. At some point, my focus left me. In previous projects, I would work harder—more coffee, more time, and more effort. But this morning, as I leave for vacation and wait at the mall for family to finish shopping, I wonder if I should borrow a technique from Alan MacFarlane and David Graeber.

Graeber, an anarchist anthropologist who died in September 2020, once tweeted that he worked by having multiple projects on the go. (Of course, I might have misremembered, as I can’t find the tweet. But no matter.) Graber had the thing he had to do (Project A), the thing he wanted to do and was procrastinating on Project A by doing (Project B), and then all the things he didn’t want to do but had to do, e.g. reference letters. I may have misremembered all this, but the gist of it is that he would cycle between projects when one got hard. I like to think, when one got not fun. But, maybe I’m wrong.

Alan MacFarlane has an excellent video on all of this, and talks about doing the easy stuff first—I think he’s drawing on C. S. Lewis’s comparison between writing and eating fish. (The trick, do the easy stuff first.)

What about doing the fun stuff first? What about only doing the fun stuff?

Is it possible to get serious writing done by only doing the project when it’s fun? I’m not sure. But, I’m going to try it for a while.

For now, I’m going to set aside the mornings for writing. But instead of feeling obligated to write only one thing, if one project gets hard, I’ll switch to another. Making writing a chore just leads to grumpiness. And I don’t want to be another grumpy middle-aged white man. There are enough of those.

Writer’s Diary #12: Finishing a Draft

Yesterday I finished a draft of the Introduction, printed it, and re-read it with an eye for editing. Now, with a draft, the question is what’s next? Bits are great. Parts suck. The chapter is unfinished. But, I need a change. The question for the diary: should I stay with it or should I go?

In my experience, writing is iterative work: slow, fast; hard, soft; work, pause. Work hard then leave a piece for a week or a month or more and come back to it.

This morning, my job is to do the big picture carving and then the little editing. Both, the micro and the macro, but the whole thing. With hard, focused work on the whole, and the removal of the big structural pieces I leave the entire chapter ready of a time, and then I can do something else.

Finishing is hard, but I never finish until much later. But along the way, I need space so that when I come back I can see ways to make the words better, shorter, tighter, cleaner, and clearer.

For this, distance is necessary.

Today is the last day of the introduction.

Writer’s Diary #11: The Synapses of Writing

As part of moving this blog to WordPress, I’m going through old posts. This one, from 22 November 2013, stuck with me:

Last night at a party, I chatted writing and rewriting with a friend visiting from Vancouver. She freelances as a copy editor. I told her about On Writing Well, and she echoed many of Zinsser’s suggestions—be short, use as few words as possible, and revise. She suggested an approach new to me: Look for hidden verbs by getting rid of ‘To Be.’ This morning revising a section on small-scale mining, I find the technique works well.

So, what is writing, at least for me, if it isn’t an exercise in applying various tricks and techniques like this? Revising to remove the verb ‘to be,’ removing the first person, eliminating the passive voice, cutting words, revising again, cutting, shortening—these are all tools.

Writing a first draft is one thing. But turning that first draft into something that sings and stringing it together with other texts into a longer piece is another. Part of the trick is the idea and theory. But, much of the trick, at least in the way I approach matters, is an exercise in the not-so-systematic application of a whole series of ticks and tricks.

Some I know and can explain, some are intuitive, some are embodied, and some are technical. My writing style, if I have one, seems to me to emerge in part from the application of these different techniques to writing. For example, a few days ago, I wrote about using online grammar tools—the serial application of tools: cut, edit out, rephrase, rewrite, add things, expand, read aloud, print out and mark up with a pencil. Over time, as the

Parul Sehgal describes George Saunders’ notes on writing in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain:

I’m making the book sound revoltingly technical. It isn’t. Saunders lives in the synapses—he looks at all the minute and meaningful decisions that produce a sentence, a paragraph, a convincing character. He offers one of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of the writer that I’ve ever read — that state of heightened alertness, lightning-quick decisions.

These tools and techniques, which I appreciate and use, are my grist for those tiny, meaningful decisions that I deploy in the synapses of writing.

Writer’s Diary #10: Writing is like Flying: You have to throw yourself at the ground and miss

I used to over-plan each chapter—it had to be perfect, do everything, and be worked out in advance.

For Makeshift I’m more modest, each chapter is one thing done well, in 6,000 words or so. Rather than trying to do too much, each chapter is short and does one thing. A scene, linked to analysis, woven into an argument. Together, these will create the book.

The first chapter begins with a scene of me lying on the linoleum, sweating, hot, unsure of how to proceed and trying to work it all out in advance. There is too much information and no easy solution. My mistake was trying to work it out in advance. The solution? Write the book. Do the work. Think on the page.

The trick to writing is not thinking about writing to much. It’s like the trick to flying, that Douglas Adams describes in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. … Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties.”
The Guide.

I might rephrase:

There is an art to writing, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the page and write. … Clearly, it is this second part, the writing, that present the difficulties.

The Guide goes on:

“You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else then you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.”

I suggest:

You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else then you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about writing, or about the book, or about how much it’s going to suck if you fail to finish.

In other words, to write, you absolutely cannot think to much about the fact you’re writing. Writing is something done in the world, embodied, an act best performed without too much cerebral activity.

That’s the essence of the book’s argument: Writing is done, not contemplated.

I think, with some serious dedication this week, there is no reason I can’t finish the chapter, and move onto the next. But, of course, I can’t think about it.

Writer’s Diary #9: On Freewriting a First Draft

Writing Diary #9 – On a Morning Draft

For the first time in a long time, I woke up this morning and started writing at 5:30. It felt good. With a cup of coffee in hand, I sat at the kitchen table as the sun came up and the birds sang. I began working on the first draft of some notes that had come to me the day before and the day before that while I was occupied with other tasks.

I had wanted to write these ideas down the day before yesterday, but I let them linger as I went to bed. My concept for the introduction to the book is that writing is an apprenticeship. Just as my first book was an apprenticeship in gold mining, this book is an auto-apprenticeship in writing.

So I sat down at the keyboard and wrote freely, without forethought, without editing. I followed the method Peter Elbow outlines in Writing Without Teachers. At times, I do this longhand, but this morning I used an electronic typewriter, a rather embarrassing and expensive FreeWriter Smart Typewriter by Astrohaus.

After about five minutes, I had a very rough draft—raw material to work with.

Writers often think and talk about writing as a cerebral activity. But I’ve come to see it as a movement between the cerebral and the use of different tools. It’s as much a cerebral process as it is a manual one. Here, tools matter. Gabriel García Márquez, in his memoir Living to Tell the Tale, describes writing as a kind of carpentry, which requires a lot of technique and craft to hide the joinery. It’s a fitting metaphor. Carpenters use tools, and so do I.

I created a draft through freewriting; applied automatic copy and style editing; revised iteratively and intuitively; edited automatically; revised once more iteratively and intuitively.

Specifically, ChatGPT was a copy editor, DeepL Writer’s beta writing app changes some words, then ProWritingAid fixed grammar and style, and then I had a piece of text to revise using George Saunders, Swim in a Pond in the Rain idea of making iterative and intuitive edits on the page. That is, each pass, I made a myriad of small changes, based on gut feelings. After doing this three or four times, I had this draft, which I left it for a few days, before one more pass. I took screenshots, to illustrate the process. Crucially, automatic editors are helpful, but automatic writer are not. There is a distinction, I’ll write about sometime.

Draft #1: Freewrite

I free wrote the following, on a Freewrite Smart Typewriter by Astrohaus, an ridiculously expensive electronic typewriter, which, like a typewriter, has little distractions.

Note the typos.

Draft 1

Draft #2: Use Chat GPT as a copy editor

I pay for ChatGPT 4, and used the following prompt ti copy edit that first drafts. Here, ChatGPT 4 has replaced my own labour of fixing typos.

Imagine yourself as an AI copy editor, proof reader, and substantive editor. and I will provide you with a text between double quotes, and without making substantive changes, can you spell check, grammar check, punctuate, and split into paragraphs at logical places, and include other revisions in the body of the text in square brackets. Please do this using markdown, in a code block: “…”

Since, I am always concerned about ChatGPT inventing text I didn’t write, I compare it text carefully to the original, in BBEdit using the compare text function. The text is the same, but copy edited.

Draft 2

Draft #3: Use DeepL’s Write

There, I turn to DeepL Write’s AI editor, that will suggest stylistic revisions. They’re good.

Draft 3

Draft #4 – ProWriting Aid

Next, I turn to ProWritingAid, and accept all its style and grammar suggestions.

Draft 4

Draft #5 – Revise with a reader over your shoulder

Drawing on George Saunders book, I undertook a process of reading and as I read, revising as I went intuitively and iteratively.

Draft 5

Draft 6 – Automatic Copy Editing

Then back to ChatGPT, DeepL, ProWriting Aid, then revising through iterative intuition.

Draft 6

Draft 7 – Revise intuitively and iteratively

More intuitive revision.

Draft 7

Draft 8 – Automatic Copy Editing

More copy editing.

Draft 8

Draft 9 – Final Pass

Finally, a few days later, I revised, fixed the images, corrected the URLs, and gave it all a few more passes, without any automatic copy editing.


Writer’s Diary #8: Notes on Becoming a Writer

My notes on Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (English, 192 pages, Tarcher, 1981). First posted on December 12, 2012, and revised June 21, 2023.

It’s five in the morning, with coffee in hand and sleep still on my mind. What to write? How can I encapsulate the feeling of fieldwork in mere words? As anthropologists, writing is our primary task, but sometimes, words are hard to come by. This is my morning ritual, writing twenty pages. We, as academics, are wordsmiths, writers to the core. Our tools of the trade are notebooks, pens and paper, and laptops.

For most of my adult life, I have been trying to articulate my thoughts into words for others. This endeavour has taken different forms: as a University student, sometimes as a newspaper editor, as a blogger, and increasingly, as an anthropologist. We write about research, we discuss the work of others.

As dawn is an hour away, my pen is already engaged in the task of meaning-making. Anna Tsing’s advice to ‘write early and write regularly’ is a ritual I’m trying to adopt. Write at five o’clock in the morning and force yourself to put pen to paper. It’s a process where words flow freely some mornings, but on others, like today, the journey is tortuous and tedious. My words feel irrelevant and, I fear, ordinary. My prose plods anxiously with little substance offered.

One thing that often goes unsaid is that when we begin fieldwork, we are not just becoming anthropologists but also writers. Writers draft the text, employing various tools and tricks of the trade. There are rhythms to our work that make it bearable. Our prose embodies our life, our sweat, and our tears. Writing is what I learned to do in the field, and if research methods are seldom taught, writing even less so.

Our evenings are often spent making sense of the morning, or our mornings trying to combine words to make sense of experiences, rumours, practices, and suspicions. Writing forms the essence of anthropological sense-making. The hermeneutic circle of life is the task of fieldwork. We are, in fact, novelists, albeit constrained by truth, fact, and reality. Our writing tasks are no less challenging.

Last week, I read Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. Three pieces of advice resonated:

  1. Write early and write every day. Capitalise on the moments of creativity that dawn provides. Cultivate this time, use it judiciously. First thing, every day. Pay close attention to when these morning sessions yield the most, and try to replicate the conditions of those successful ones.
  2. Cultivate a rigorous mind. Not only should you train yourself to write early, but also designate a specific time to write – a time that invites your creative side. As Brande suggests, “Set a time, say 12:30, and write for half an hour.” Regardless of the circumstances, commit to writing.

  3. Avoid consuming other people’s work, discussing your writing, reading the newspaper, watching movies, and going to the theatre. While Brande would likely disapprove of blogs and Twitter as distractions, her point is that writers thrive on an internal dialogue—our conversation with ourselves. This dialogue can be cultivated with mundane and repetitive tasks but can be destroyed by words, read or heard.

The last piece of advice is the hardest to follow. I often find myself reaching for the radio, the internet, a newspaper, or even a cereal box every few hours. However, in the last few weeks, as I have adhered to this advice, the results on my thesis draft have been remarkable.

Writer’s Diary #7: On Starting

How do you start writing each day? Getting started is often the hardest part—whether it is a book, chapter, article, section, paragraph or project. Procrastination can take as much time as the task itself. This is especially true with a writing project.

There is no magic bullet, but I remember learning a lot from reading and rereading Dorothea Brande’s [Becoming a Writer (1934)] (https://www.amazon.ca/Becoming-Writer-Dorothea-Brande/dp/9389157196/ref=sr_1_2? crid=1QMUBDD68ZTEB&keywords=dorothea+brandt+becoming+a+writer&qid=1687262706&sprefix=dorothea+brandt+becoming+a+writer%252Caps%252C137&sr=8- 2&_encoding=UTF8&tag=danieltubb-20&linkCode=ur2&linkId=70052a0d7f212c7c23ef20d57c7a06d1&camp=15121&creative=330641). Although it was written in the 1930s, its advice is often timeless.

One is to set aside time to write, and make a commitment to write at that time. It’s a method of being able to sit down and work on a schedule. At times, especially getting going, I’ve found this advice useful. But now I am more convinced that the trick is to write when you sit down to write, and then to make sitting down a habit. A routine. It takes commitment to get back on the page, but it’s a commitment to cultivate the habit of sitting and, as Brande suggests, to write when you set out to write.

This advice is less about scheduling—which, frankly, does not work for me unless other people are involved—and more about the commitment to do the work when the time comes to do the work.

That’s it. Write when it’s time to write and don’t write when it’s not.

Writer’s Diary #6: Writing and Routine

Frankly, a challenge many of us face as writers is finding the time to do the work. Over the past ten days, with travel, students and the urgent tasks that have arisen, it has seemed impossible to find the time.

This morning, however, I am back at this Writer’s Diary. Part of the problem is that there are days when the routine changes drastically. Writing a book, I think, is an exercise in doing the work over and over again.

My father is building a house. He works on it almost every day, most of the day, except at weekends when he does other things. That’s his work. He doesn’t check emails during the day; he doesn’t use the phone; he doesn’t attend meetings; nor does he get pulled in a dozen different directions by emergencies that arise. Instead, he works on the house. The works has its own physicality, rhythm and routine.

As a professor with small children and a plethora of activities, the challenge is to find the time. My father’s method is inspiring. Do the thing. That’s it.

Writer’s Diary #5: Write every day, maybe not?

A lot of writing advice for academics emphasizes the importance of writing every day. I am thinking, for example, of Paul J. Silvia’s [How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing] (https://www.amazon.ca/How-Write-Lot-Practical-Productive/dp/1433829738). Sometimes, I’ve tried to follow such advice—keep a journal, write daily, keep track of how much I write, forget my excuses, make the time, etc. Such an approach has its place. But a new book I’m working on takes a very different approach. As much as there’s a choice to write a lot, there’s also a choice not to write.

If a lot of advice boils down to “don’t break the chain” and write every day, make it a habit, there are some days that this makes no sense.

I’m about to go on a trip to New York City with some students to share our work. We’ll be driving all day and, frankly, I don’t think I’ll find the time to write. The approach that seems to come out of a lot of self-help literature for academic writers is to find the time, come hell or high water. Get up earlier, stay up later, or squeeze it in somehow. But sometimes this is just not possible.

For next week, I plan the opposite: a conscious decision not to write. Sometimes doing nothing is the right decision, and with moving house, holidays, some weekends, the start of term and other urgent matters, doing nothing is a better approach.

Write every day, unless it’s not wise.

Writer’s Diary #4: Getting Back on the Bus

Yesterday, I fell off the writing bus. I didn’t write anything. After staying up too late writing the night before, I slept in. Instead of journaling and working on the book, as planned, I found myself distracted by one false digital emergency after another.

Today, without childcare, I’m planning to find time to write later in the day. But for now, I want to reflect on the idea that writing a book is an exercise in returning to the work, again and again.

A bad day, or even a terrible week, doesn’t matter. Writing exists in the here and now. If things don’t go as planned, the solution is to return to the writing.

I’ve come to see writing as similar to meditation and breath work. In some forms of meditation, the goal is to focus one’s attention on the breath. As the mind inevitably wanders after a few seconds or minutes, the task is return to the breath.

Writing follows a similar pattern. Sometimes it flows, sometimes it doesn’t. You write, then you drift. Getting upset only exacerbates the situation. The key is to come back to the words, just as one would return to breath.

Every day, I make a concerted effort to write. But, there are days, like yesterday, when it just doesn’t work out.

On those days, the solution is wait and come back the next day. Or next week. Start over, again and again.