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.

Writer’s Diary #22: Crafting “Stone by Stone”

One of the hardest parts of writing, or maybe everything is hard, is starting something new. The possibilities are endless, and therein lies the difficulty. If a chapter can be anything, then what is it? No. I mean, what is it exactly? What’s the order? What comes first? Where does the introduction go? What is the next bit? What comes at the end? The problem is that you can do a lot, but a chapter is not finished until it is.

Consider the first chapter, which I will start again tomorrow. I wrote the first draft a year ago and planned it on a large seminar table. The structure is there, but not finished.

My first instinct is to read it all, try to figure out the structure, write it out, make a plan, and then implement the plan and see where it goes from there. But experience tells me it’s going to be slow, with a lot of procrastination, repetition, and trying to work out the point.

I’m not going to try to plan it or figure it out, instead I’m going to work with what’s there and let the structure emerge.

Perhaps a metaphor will help.

Think of a chapter as a stone wall.

A stonemason knows their material, they know the shape of the wall they’re trying to build; they know its dimensions and all that. But to actually build the wall, they have to build it. That’s the work. The work (and the skill) is in choosing from the stones that are available, and putting them all together in a way that works. The trick is in the craft of how the wall emerges. If the wall is built well, it is because the stones fit. If they fit, it’s because of the iterative, skilled work of making them fit.

I think that’s how walls are built, mind you. I only know a little, from watching a basement wall being repaired.

But this diary is about writing. How does the metaphor fit? To work on this chapter, I know a few things. It’s subject (fieldwork) and topic (field notes), and the argument is that research is improvisational. With that in mind, I need to spend a few weeks editing what I’ve done for this section to see how the structure emerges.

It is through working and reworking and making things fit that the structure will emerge.

This way of working is not fast or efficient per se. But it’s the work. The work is the revision, and through the revision the order is found.

Writer’s Diary #21 – Yesterday, a good day. Why?

Yesterday, I had what felt like an unusually good day of writing. So, I want to reflect on what worked. Of course, with an eye on how to repeat it.

Some observations:

  • Writing was the priority. I didn’t schedule writing, nor plan it, nor interrupt it by looking at email, news, or anything else. Instead, I worked on writing projects from about 9:00 to 2:30.
  • Breaks were unscheduled, but regular. I took liberal breaks when I felt like it—went out for coffee, ate lunch, went for a walk. Work chunks were about 50 minutes.
  • Projects were various. I worked on:
    • this writer’s diary;
    • this writer’s diary as a podcast that I might post someday;
    • the fragments for an hour over coffee at the village bakery;
    • the makeshift book for a couple of hours, in three sections, to finish the introduction;
    • exporting the chapter to an EPUB and read it on my iPhone in a hammock;
    • exporting the first 15,000 words of the book and read it on my iPhone lying down.

Then I took a nap. All of this took me until about 2:30 in the afternoon.

Then, and only then, did I do email for an hour and a half to blast through communicating, then review projects in OmniFocus, and then stop at about 5 to talk with my sister-in-law.

Somehow, all day, I managed to feel like I was in a flow state for most of the day.

Time disappeared.

By the end, I was walking on sunshine.

What did I do right to write?

  • I worked on various writing projects.
  • None were longer than about 800 words.
  • I finished them in about an hour.
  • I never tried to push through.
  • There were few interruptions, and when there were, it was because I wanted to go somewhere else or do something else.

Maybe it was luck or serendipity, but I think there was something good about the way I wrote yesterday.

If it was one thing, I’d say it was that I didn’t do the same thing for too long, and each project took about 45 minutes, and then I did something else.

Writer’s Diary #20 – The Hard Part can be Everything but the Writing

In the last few weeks, I’ve made progress on the writing that I’m excited about. The introductory chapter is almost finished, I think. Soon I can put it aside for a long time. I’ve been editing a fragment a day and have made some good progress. I look forward to doing another one in a few moments. Editing something, and then finishing works really well. A hit of being done. Yesterday, I even made some progress on a couple of websites. Another victory.

However, last night I had things like work, service, and personal commitments that kept me awake. Lots of little things. Some will take some time, and some won’t take much. But, it’s a firehouse.

What to do?

I’m going to set aside some time for each area to cut tasks and organize what I need to get done. I’ll schedule the tasks for the day, after I’ve written this morning.

Good old time-block planning, and task prioritization.

However, this morning, all after I’m done writing.

Writer’s Diary #19 – Morning Choice

This morning’s a choice, the choice of what to work on.

There are a lot of urgent things to do—visas to apply for, emails to answer, websites to set up, and lots of fires to put out.

But that’s what we’ve been doing for the last three days, diving into all of that. Back from vacation, it all seemed prudent. But it’s the summer. I don’t want to spend my summer of my sabbatical not writing.

Nobody will judge my success by my ability to send one last reply, one last email, least of all my sick self. So maybe there’s a conscious choice—it doesn’t take long to write a post. I want to do them regularly, then I can turn to fragments and makeshift.

So it’s a village walk, sitting down, typing this up, turning it into a podcast, and then doing fragments in the book—after the lunch meetings and a visa.

Writer’s Diary #18: Elizabeth Gilbert on Elusive Genius

Yesterday I watched a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert about elusive genius. I came to the talk via a Paul Krugman article asking if Taylor Swift is underpaid. (Short answer: she is). To build his argument, Krugman notes Swift is the real deal, as evidenced by this Tiny Desk concert. It’s good. Listen.

A few minutes in, Swift observes:

Writing songs is strange because it never happens the same way. But sometimes, it happens in a way that feels like this weird, like a haunting that you can’t really explain. Like you don’t know where these ideas came from, and you feel like you didn’t work at all to write it. And that’s the best kind of song. There are most days you show up and the idea doesn’t, and that’s where craft comes in. You have to know the craft of it, and you have to try to scrounge your brain for something to write. It’s not always going to be inspired, and that’s okay. There is a really good Elizabeth Gilbert TED talk about that. It’s one of my favorite things to cry while watching.

I may have gotten my transcription wrong. Anyway, I dropped everything, and listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk. It’s good. Watch. I took notes. I may have gotten them wrong, as well.

Gilbert begins by reflecting on the success of Eat, Pray, Love. The problem? What comes next? How do you top that? Or maybe you can’t, and that’s why we become tortured artists.

Norman Miller once said, she says, “Every one of my books has killed me a little bit more.” This idea, the idea of artistic creativity, leading to untimely death and depression.

“That’s the kind of thought that could drive you to drink a glass of gin at 9 in the morning.”

She rejects the idea of the tortured artist. “I want to keep doing the work I love. The question is, how?”

How do you keep doing the work without killing yourself? One way, Gilbert’s TED Talk explores is to create a protective psychological construct between yourself and your writing. She’s looked for models of how to do this, and turned to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The Greeks and Romans, she explains, didn’t see creativity as coming from humans. Rather, they saw it coming from divine companion spirit, a daemon, for the Greeks, and a disembodied spirit, a genius, for the Romans. Rather than seeing genius as an embodiment of a person, the Greeks saw it as something outside: a magical, divine entity. Ancient artists were protected from too much narcissism when they made great works. Everyone knew there was a disembodied genius helping them, a daemon in the background doing the real hard work. If the work bombed, it was the genius’s fault, not the artists. Useless daemon.

This was the case until about the Renaissance, Gilbert explains. In the Renaissance, with rational humanism, creativity became seen as coming from the self, from the individual. From then on, the artist was a genius, rather than the artist had a genius. For the artist, this lead to the idea that you are the source of the creativity of the unknowable mystery, rather than just being helped along a genius in the studio walls. That’s a lot of pressure. Did this pressure led to tortured artists for 500 years?

The creative process is not rational. Sometimes it’s something that happens to you. There is an American poet, [Ruth Stone] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Stone), Gilbert explains, who told a story of growing up in Virginia, working in the fields, and then feeling and hearing a poem coming from a distance. It would come crashing down on her in the fields, shaking the earth, and Stone knew she had to run like hell to the house, get a paper and pencil, and write the poem. Sometimes she would walk slowly and miss it, and the poem would pass her by.
Gilbert describes her own process as different. Her approach is more mule like.

Mine is too.

We sweat and we work and we do the work. But sometimes we come up against that elusive genius.

How do you relate to Genius outside yourself?

Gilbert thinks of Tom Waits, that most famous struggling artist facing his demons. But as Waits got older, he calmed down, and he was driving, and a song came to him. Instead of getting anxious, he stopped that whole mental process of getting anxious and said, “Excuse me, can’t you see I’m driving? Do I look like I can write? Go bother Leonard Cohen.”

He saw, for the first time, that the creativity was external. This shift in perspective, Gilbert said, changed the way she thought about her work.

Writing Eat Pray Love, in the pits of despair, thinking this project was a disaster. Ready to throw it away, she remembered Waits, and she tried it.

She stood at the empty corner of her room, and said: “Look, we both know I am putting everything I have into this. If you want it to get better, you have to show up and do your part. My job is to keep writing.”

Did it work? Did it make her feel better? What if genius and creativity were outside of the self? What if the truly divine, the presence of God, the transcendent, were not the product of the individual, rational, human genius, but something other than oneself, something beyond our own control, something like the Greek daemon or the Roman genius. Not something you are, but something you have, sometimes. Mostly not.

This morning, on a walk, I tried it.

It was a terrible morning.

A morning not of writing, but of laundry, child care, and meetings, when I had a conversation with what I have come to think of as a knobbly, gnome-like creature assigned to my case who is an often unhelpful little creative spirit daemon who is never really there to help.

His name: Knobbly Toes.

“It’s not a good day, is it Knobbly Toes?” I say.

Knobbly Toes does not answer, of course.

It’s raining and I’m walking. I have a sore shoulder. I think I looked at the screen too much yesterday.”

“None of this is writing, is it?”

I imagine my gnomish genius Knobbly Toes walking in the grass where a few nights ago there were a thousand fireflies.


“So you know what I’m going to do? Genius,” I say to nobody. “I’m going to go home; I’m going to make a decaf espresso; I’m going to go upstairs; I’m going to write this Writing Diary as well as I can in an hour and a half, and then I’m going to have my meetings this afternoon and then I’m going to make toast and go for a walk.”


I do what I say.

I’m not genius, and I’m usually not tortured, but maybe talking to the little bugger will make things better.

It did.

Writer’s Diary #17: On Naps

This morning I revised two posts for this Writer’s Diary, rearranged the notes in the book of fragments, rewrote the first two fragments, and then tried to work on the makeshift book, but I couldn’t concentrate.

Looking at the introduction, and felt lost, not knowing where to begin. So I sent a chapter to my tablet and read it in bed. As I read, I saw areas that needed work. But I didn’t take notes. I was just reading. Soon, I fell asleep, then I awoke, read the news, slept some more, and thought about the chapter.

Sleeping is writing.

Later, I woke up, made a sandwich, made a cup of coffee, and sat down to write. For an hour and a half, I revised and revised and revised, making small and large changes, tweaking and tightening all the while. Is it done? No. Is it better? Maybe. But that’s not the point. I lost track of time and almost hypnotized myself while working, and in the end, today was a great day of writing.

In part, because I feel asleep.

After all, writing can be fun. There is joy in the little, little decision that in the end creates a piece of writing. There is joy in a nap to think about it all.

Writer’s Diary #16 – Everything is a cut up

The last few days I have been experimenting with a digital cut-up method. I’m inspired by Taussig’s book on oil palm in Colombia, which is inspired by William S. Burroughs’ cut-up method. Until yesterday, I had not looked into what that method is.

I think of it as a way to introduce a little bit of randomness into your writing. Take two pages of text. Cut them into quarters. Then mix the quarters from one half of the paper with the other half. This seems like an exercise in creating randomness based on material. But Burroughs then adds that he uses all the tricks of revision, composition, and all the rest for the cut-up method. That changes it for me. It’s a writer’s techniques. It’s a way to get material differently, to change perspective, to see connections, to make new connections, and, ultimately, to get raw material to work with.

And, what’s wrong with that?

Artists have long used montage, scissors, paper, glue, juxtaposition of words to make their work etc. Filmmakers work with juxtaposition and editing. Hip-hop makes music by mixing different material together. Jaune Quick-To-See Smith mixes text with image brilliantly in the exhibition at the Whitney museum.

On the one hand, what is a word processor but a machine to facilitate the editing process? But why not do it more consciously? Why not print, cut, and paste? Why not treat everything as a cut-up?

Perhaps the AI experiment of the last few days was a twenty-first century experiment in a cut-up method. But, maybe retyping and reworking texts is a good way to go, too.

I think cut-up will work for the fragments book—the makeshift book is different.