Writer’s Diary #33 – Emergent structure, or work more; think less

This morning, I did a lot of fiddling and reworking the text of a chapter, looking for it order. I read, printed it out, made tentative edits, and reviewed it. I moved chunks of text around, created an outline, and made changes iteratively. After the morning, I have the beginning of an outline.

I can’t see through the project, but I can begin to feel like I could maybe move through it and begin to make sense of it.

What did I do?

I worked at it from 6:00 am to 9:15 am. I read bits of it but moved them around in an outline. I did some queries and a little programming, but mostly I organized, reorganized, worked, and revised. I had no plan. But I read and edited and outlined and moved and renamed. I had a shower, and remembered a scene, and went and found that, and I started to find some order.

Is it perfect? No. But I can begin to get a sense of the chapter.

Tomorrow, I will keep at it.

Mostly, it feels like a structure is emerging. That’s more than I had on the weekend. It feels great.

Writer’s Diary #32 – Creating Structure/Finding Structure

Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day.

—Draft No. 4, Replacing the words in boxes, John McPhee, April 29, 2013.

John McPhee has an article in The New Yorker about his writing process that became part of his book [Draft No. 4] (https://www.amazon.com/Draft-No-4-Writing-Process/dp/0374142742). McPhee tells a story of lying on a picnic table with all his notes, research, interviews, and everything else in manila envelopes, but he’s distraught because he doesn’t know the structure. He says this is no way to write. I agree with him, and yet structure is the hard part.

Good structure is easy to describe, after the fact. But, how to find it is much harder. I am working on a chapter. I have all the material. The question is how to put it together in a way that makes sense, that is compelling, that draws the reader in. In short, the challenge now is to find a structure.

I can think of two approaches.

One is where the order emerges by fiat. Through a decision I make to structure it in a certain way, in the form of a draft, a sketch, a story arc, or something else.

The second, a second in which the order emerges as a sculptor might find the shape of a piece of stone or wood. There is a vague idea, but the actual structure emerges through the iterative application of the art of sculpture.

My process is a matter of both, with an emphasis on the latter. I find form, by sculpting into that form. However, over the weekend, I did a lot of thinking, trying to work out the structure, which was a mistake.

Instead, I’ve prepared the material, and now the task is iterate, make decisions and let the structure emerge.

This week’s task: do the work, carve the text, find its structure, organically. I wish it were easier, but whenever I try to shortcut it by thinking too hard, I get blocked.

Writer’s Diary #31 – Summer Doldrums, Writing, and Napping

Writing is hard, and some days the hardest part is just showing up. But, other days it still doesn’t come easy. Today was a day where I got some work done, but then I couldn’t.

What to do?

I took a walk, then went to the public library and took a nap in the air conditioning.

Now I feel rejuvenated and ready to tackle something. I think part of the work too often overlooked is napping, sleeping, and walking.

Maybe today was a day when I got little, but some days are like that.

That’s okay.

Writer’s Diary #30 – Retyping as a Way into a Text

Retyping gets a bad rap. It’s why people flocked to word processors—no need to waste time retyping when you can just edit and revise. But there is a place for retyping, and while you retype, you revise.

Yesterday, I realized that the best way to tackle the chapter I am stuck on is to retype it. I have 16,000 words, but when I tried to edit it last week, I ended up spending too much time correcting grammar and couldn’t get into the whole. I couldn’t get my head around what I had written last June.

Yesterday, I realized I could retype the entire chapter and make changes as I went. So I printed it out (55 pages), and started on the digital typewriter.

By the end of the morning, with a little grammar checking and style editing, I had cut 4,000 words down to 2,000 words, which was much closer to the goal.

My plan for the day after tomorrow is to do it again—for the next quarter of the chapter. To print. Type to revise. Spell check, grammar check, style check, rinse, repeat. Rewrite by retyping.

I learned the trick of retyping from George Saunders’ [A Swim in the Pond in the Rain] (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jan/06/a-swim-in-a-pond-in-the-rain-by-george-saunders-review-rules-for-good-writing-and-more), about Russian short stories and writing. I think.

As I read and typed, I saw mistakes and corrected them. I made changes right away.

It’s certainly different work than not rewriting, but it’s manual work. It’s not mental, and it’s easy to find a flow state. Rewriting is a way of avoiding the questions: What comes next? Is this good? Is this bad? Instead, you just make changes as you go. There’s very little abstract thinking, just a lot of small, immediate decisions.

Yesterday I got into it by retyping. This morning too. I’m going to try it for the rest of the chapter.

Writer’s Diary #29 – Large Language Models as Writing Assistants and First Readers?

Years ago, when I first discovered Wendell Berry, I remember reading a 1988 Harper’s article by Wendell Berry titled “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer.

When the article was published, I was five years old. That was the same year my mother, a professor, brought home an Atari ST 1040 from work. I cherished that computer, using it for the better part of the following decade. In 1997, my parents purchased a Macintosh Performa 6400. On both machines, I learned to type, program, hack, tinker, and write.

However, I‘m unsure whether my writing process has been the best. Two years ago, Peter Elbow’s book on freewriting was a revelation.

Anyway, in that 1988 article, Berry writes:

As a farmer, I do almost all of my work with horses. As a writer, I work with a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper.

He continues:

My wife types my work on a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 19~6, and as good now as it was then. As she types, she sees things that are wrong, and marks them with small checks in the margins. She is my best critic because she is the one most familiar with my habitual errors and weaknesses. She also understands, sometimes better than I do, what ought to be said. We have, I think, a literary cottage industry that works well and pleasantly. I do not see anything wrong with.it.

He goes on, noting that a friend suggested he buy a computer, and change his workflow. As of 2019, Berry hasn’t purchased a computer.

His reluctance to buy a computer, and his support of his wife as a first reader, sparks professional envy.

One the one hand, Berry is a gifted and prolific writer, and has crafted a thoughtful, respected body of work around agrarian themes without the aid of a computer. Yet, of course, this success can be attributed, in no small part, to the work of his wife, Tanya[^2^]. I suspect, in the way, a good first reader makes a writer strong.

While I hesitate to form opinions about a couple who have lived together for sixty years, creating a thriving literary cottage industry, there is a feminist critique that many acclaimed male writers have relied heavily on uncredited female secretaries, assistants, wives, and family members.

I’m thinking of Eleanor Marx, who edited many of Karl Marx’s manuscripts. Simone de Beauvoir, whose un-attributed efforts shaped Jean-Paul Sartre’s work. Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, was the source of many of his ideas, and even, it seems, of un-attributed scenes, in other words plagiarism.

While such unacknowledged collaboration raises questions about attribution and recognition, it also raises questions about writing as a process, involving first readers and, frankly, the work of a typist.

Since the 1990s, society has replaced secretarial staff with computers. Many writers, including myself, have effectively become our own first readers, typists, and copy-editors. My method of writing hasn’t changed much since childhood: I draft, rewrite, revise, correct spelling and grammar, and revise, revise, and revise. I might go through a few dozen drafts, fixing and adding spelling errors as I go.

For my first book, I employed a copy editor and a substantive editor. Friends and family members read my earliest drafts, and offered suggestions.

As I attempt to write my new book, juggle my responsibilities as a professor and a father, I find not only that there‘s too much going on and the writing isn’t happening, but that I have a much smaller pool of people who can help out.

Part of this issue, as Cal Newport‘s work suggests, is that administrative and secretarial roles that used to exist in offices and white-collar jobs were replaced by technology in the 1990s. Funds that previously paid for support staff now end up in IT departments, ultimately benefiting Big Tech.

Berry’s critique of this transition is prescient, as he starts his argument by expressing his disdain for dependency on oil companies.

Part of the issues, is I’m older, and everyone is busier.

But, the challenge of writing and finishing remains. Finishing requires a combination of hard work, creativity, and perseverance. Some elements of the process are iterative. Some of it requires a good first reader.

The work of a first reader, editor, and copy editor is hard to fill. In my experience, I have no one to fill this role and have done this work myself.

But, over the last six months, I’ve begun to see artificial intelligence and large language models from OpenAI and Anthropic as competent copy editors and first readers, when prompted carefully.

While AI will drastically disrupt many industries and jobs wreaking havoc on society, for my writing, I can see a roll for it.

Not to generate words, ideas, scenes, narratives, or text, which is plagiarism. but, to copy editor.

Perhaps some writers will use AI to cross a boundary of what is moral. Perhaps what is seen as moral will change? But, in the mean time, I’ve found a role for AI to clean up my typing, as a first reader, and as a copy editor.


Writer’s Diary #28 – Anthropic’s Claude-2-100K

Yesterday I listened to the latest Hard Fork episode, which features an interview with Dario Amodei, one of a group of OpenAI employees who left to start Anthropic, OpenAI’s competitor. The interview is quite interesting for someone like me who doesn’t know this area well. But it made me want to check out Anthropic’s new [Claude 2 AI] (https://claude.ai/login).

Claude 2 is not available from Anthropic in Canada, but I got access through Quora’s Poe app.

I’m an anthropologist, a writer, and I’m interested in these big language models and teaching and writing. On the one hand, there is a lot of disruption. I’m on sabbatical, but I don’t know what that means for student essays. But I’m fascinated by AI as an editorial assistant. Many writers rely on editors, but for a long time those editors were unpaid, often female relatives. AI provides me with a free editor and critical reader, for the first time not a family member or friend.

Working with Claude 2-100K yesterday, I came to a couple of realizations.

First, 100K makes Claude much more useful and less stupid than ChatGPT. A few weeks ago I had the idea of using ChatGPT 4 to rearrange a book of fragments. Much of my work involved condensing fragments into summaries for ChatGPT 4’s short memory, or at least the short memory I have access too. With Claude 2-100k, I could give the AI the whole draft. We discussed several possible outlines. With the ChatGPT 4 model I have access to, it always felt like I was at the limit of the AI memory and capacity. With Claude-2-100k, the answer was much slower to come, but was feedback on the entire damn manuscript. My first book took 8 months. This took under a minute.

From there, I had a long, free-flowing conversation with Claude 2 about my book, its ideas and theories, and then we turned to writing and the differences between how Claude 2 writes and how I work. Frankly, Claude 2 just felt much more thoughtful and interesting to talk to than ChatGPT 4.

ChatGPT feels like it has less memory, is dumber, and frankly more prone to nonsense. It seems smart at first, but on further review it is often very formulaic.

Maybe Claude 2 will seem that way to me, but yesterday it seemed like a much more interesting interlocutor than I’ve had on this book, ever. What it says about me that I say this about a large neural net running on servers, converting text into tokens and then running complex vectors and matrices, leaves me very confused. What does it mean to be human, I wonder?

Writer’s Diary #27 – Four Hour Work Day?

Yesterday I had a good day—a good writing day and a good day in other ways. I woke up early, and went kayaking. Then, I wrote for three hours, did some office work, and then took the kids and a friend for a two-hour walk, ending with a treat at a local cafe. From there we drove home, to have dinner with my parents. It was just nice.

On the walk, thinking about the day and the last week, I wondered: Would it be possible to work like this every day? Write for three hours, work for an hour, and then call it a day.

I have the profound privilege of being a tenured professor on sabbatical. That means my time is mine. I can do whatever I want. One consequence of this is that I can experiment. What if the experiment was with a four hour day? Three hours writing, one hour other work.

For me, at least for now, the important work is the writing. I have several projects I want to finish. The makeshift book, the fragments book, and this diary.

There are a few other pieces. Could I work on them for three hours, do an hour of office work, then call it a day.

I don’t know if that’s possible, but I want to try it.

An experiment.

Anyone who is serious about observing their own rhythms of work, I suspect, knows that it is impossible to work with any intensity for more than about four hours, anyway. What if I did that, and forgot about the rest of the time, pretending to work.

I’ll try it, and report back.

Writer’s Diary #26: Kayaking, writing, and hiking

I spent the early morning kayaking. We left at 6:15 and finished at 8:45. It was glorious. The summer sun, at 6 o’clock, was a red ball in the sky that reminded me more than anything of when I was on an exchange in India at 18, with the sun rising red above the fog south of Delhi in an agricultural region where I lived for three months, and I realized driving to our starting point that I don’t wake up early enough in the summer, and then we started kayaking, which was extraordinary: we started in a lake, went upriver through a wetland, past lily pads and reeds and trees, and into the maple forest along the edge of the river and it felt like going upriver in the Chocó from the River Quitó to the Pató River as the forest closed in on the river and we paddled under silver maples and came around a bend upon a family of river otters who were not happy to see us as they rose to the surface and made distressed noises before disappearing underwater and, even though I’ve driven the road which is a few hundred yards away a hundred times, it was a magical moment, which continued as we came across a grove of Eastern Hemlock and then went into the unknown as the river got narrower and shallower, and then, just as I was almost done by the rapids and the portage, we came to the bridge where I left the kayak, walked to the road, hitchhiked back to the car, drove home, showed, and then commuted into town to drop off the kids, go to daycare, and start this writer’s diary, before turning to fragments and makeshift before a walk with the kids and a friend.

I have about three hours to work on the writing. It’s time enough to make progress, but no email, no paperwork, and no service.

This week has been a productive one, as a writer. I’ve done the work by putting aside other obligations. The thing about words is it’s too easy to become distracted. But, this last week has reminded me how much progress I can make, when I guard my time. But this is easier when the rest of the day has glorious activity. Like, a river walk with a friend.

Writer’s Diary #25 – Over coming the Blahs

The last few days have been good writing days: I’ve sat down, focused on one writing task at a time, and gotten about 3,000 good words revised, in about 4 hours, everyday.

Today, for whatever reason, I’m not feeling it. Maybe the weather’s bad, or I started too late, or I didn’t sleep well.

What to do? Make a plan. I want to write myself into a good mood. To do this, I’m taking a line from the last few weeks. I will write in a ritualistic way. First, this entry in my [Writer’s Diary] (https://www.tubb.ca/writers-diary/. Second, a fragment or two for the fragments project. Third, I’ll continue to work on sections in Chapter 1 of the makeshift book.

This is especially important today, so I don’t get lost outlining or planning or by none writing work, and instead focus on the drafting and revision.

I think this will work because of a line I remember reading in Br. Paul Quenon’s book [In Praise of a Useless Life] (https://www.amazon.ca/Praise-Useless-Life-Monks-Memoir-ebook/dp/B077BV12FS/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1689773279&sr=8-1) Quenon is a Benedictine monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a monastery in Kentucky. The line, which I won’t look up, was simply reflecting on the ordered nature of the day, broken by prayer times and different tasks assigned at different times, and the freedom that gave for though. The schedule and the ritual gave time for contemplation. A lot of time, but time shaped by the daily round of work, song, prayer, and joy, shaped by the bell to prayer.

The Benedictine schedule:

  • 3:15 am Vigils
  • 5:45 am Lauds, followed by Mass
  • 7:30 am Terce
  • 12:15 pm Sext
  • 2:15 pm None
  • 5:30 pm Vespers
  • 7:30 pm Compline

Anyway, I’m neither Catholic or a Monk, but there’s a freedom in knowing the rhythm of the day. While a joy of a vacation or a holiday is the unexpected and the serendipitous, there is an equal joy in order. Writing these past few weeks has been ordered and structured in the shape of what I work on: the blog, the fragments, the makeshift book, then on to other task.

I have time to think and work, without having to wonder what comes next? There is a cognitive cost to having to decide to do something. By having a habit, its saves such a load.

Anyway, I think that’s the task for today.

Write an hour in this blog, take a break. Write an hour in the fragments, take a break. Write an hour the makeshift, take a break.

Writer’s Diary #24: A 21st Century Typewriter

Ezra Klein has a great interview with Tom Hanks. It starts with Klein and Hanks talking typewriters. I loved it.

One detail, the custom-made typewriter desk Hanks had built. Another, the fact that he writes a quick letter to his wife, running out the door at 6:30 in the morning. I wondered, could I do that?

Part of it is the instantaneous nature. Type and then its text.

One challenge, I don’t have a good old fashioned typewriter. I have a bad old fashioned typewriter. But, frankly, I find it too hard to type on. I mean, it’s hard as in it’s physically difficult for my fingers. In addition, the ribbon has dried up again, and some letters need to be repaired. I don’t have a working typewriter, and even when it works, three of the letters don’t work very well.

Still, a year and a half ago, I splurged and bought a rather expensive, but nice, FreeWrite Smart Typewriter. I enjoy it. At times, when writing material for the books, it’s rather useful to get ideas down.

The problem for the purpose of writing a letter to my wife, it produces text files synced to the cloud.

What Hanks got me thinking about was how could I use that to print directly.

So, yesterday, I turned to ChatGPT. I’m familiar enough with the UNIX terminal to read code and understand how things work, but I’ve never been good at writing code. I can’t do much by myself.

However, with ChatGPT, I’ve was able to put together a small script, in just a couple of hours of iteration. ChatGPT and I wrote a bash script to convert a text file in a synced Dropbox folder from the FreeWrite. It takes the markdown text, then converts it to a PDF using LaTex with a nice simple typewriter font.

It works well, if I have a computer running. It was really gratifying to have a tangible letter, that took only a few seconds to write, and no computer.

It was a letter to my wife.

If anyone wants to be inspired, here it is:

It’s worth noting that I had to install MacTeX to make it work, so this is my first real use of LaTeX.

Looking to the future, I’m planning to try hooking the script to ChatGPT via the API, to automatically spell-check and grammar-check a letter before it’s printed.

That would be cool. Next time.