One of the fundamental assumptions of modern culture is that politics is dirty. All forms of contemporary media contain tropes that allocate a negative valence to the game of politics, and to those who choose to play it. It is no longer a radical worldview, nor a core tenet of a subculture; the dirtiness of politics is THE dominant mainstream conception. It didn’t used to be this way.
I’m not well-versed in ancient history, but I understand that in the Greece of antiquity participation in politics was seen as noble. I seem to remember the same being true of ancient Rome. I’m not sure about other ancient cultures, or societies during the Medieval era, but wayback when wasn’t it considered an individual’s duty to engage in the political arena? Wasn’t it a keystone of one’s everyday life? Not something to be sneered at. Not something to be avoided. Not something elder-figures were prepared to give their young ones a pass on.
Nowadays? The concept of “duty” is–understandably, in some cases–seen as a cheap tool of oppression and manipulation. For example: enlisting in the armed forces was never considered an option for me. I was a teenager when the Iraq war kicked off and even then, naive as I was, I could sense the wholesale erosion of trust in authority concerning “official” motives. Did I imagine myself able to pick up a gun, to give my own life, to take someone else’s life, all because of belief in the narrative the powers-at-be were peddling? No fucking way. (Also, I have terrible eyesight–the powers-at-be aren’t stupid enough to give me a firearm.)
As well the mass culture-swerve way from the concept of duty, there is the fact that most normal people are too busy surviving to attempt to disperse the immense FUD-cloud surrounding politics. Local, regional, national or international: understanding what the fuck has happened, is happening and can happen is something that can quickly become a full-time job. And those amateurs that, regardless, still try are fighting a losing battle because they have less resources than the pros. These politically engaged amateurs also risk alienating those around them. Their relentless politicking is treated like the worst of social faux pas.
At this point, I haven’t even mentioned the asymmetry around political engagement. For a “normal” person to attend a protest, for example, they have to interrupt their daily life, which potentially means less food on the table for them and their family. Maternity leave is an established right. Paternity leave now is in many places. But political leave? Days off to protest and vote and just be present at important political moments in space and time? Nope. Pros don’t face the same obstacle: they are being paid to come up with ways to subvert the will of the polis they claim to serve (chief of which seems to be releasing so much noise into our info-environment that we have no fucking clue where the signal is…).
Not all politicians are evil, however (though many are incompetent). Note the #RebelAlliance tag. Some are fighting from within for what’s best. But even that tag tars politics, by default, as a dirty game. Rebels have to hide. Rebels have to maintain a base level of situational awareness at all times. Rebels have to wage war innovatively, but out of necessity rather than choice. Rebels have to sleep rough, starve, and generally exist without comfort. Rebels cannot rest because for one in their position “stillness is death”, as Ed Calderon puts it.
Politics is a dirty game and its players are meme magnets, torn apart by a body-politic who are, either by chance or by design, both ill-informed and impotent. So is it a surprise that most people don’t want to play? Instead of engaging in politics people choose to continue their efforts to survive, or choose to go about their life as if all is normal, as if their little bubble cannot be popped by anything so mundane and/or confusing as what lies outside. I understand this, but I also think it’s time for a change.
Politics’ field of play is a vast pig sty, which means that only those who, for whatever reason, don’t mind being covered in shit have the upper hand. And usually, the most undemocratic people are also those who are able to stand the stink. Their deformed ideologies and malevolent ambitions act as plugs up their nose, warding off the stench on and around them. So while the rest of us stand back, not wanting to be contaminated with the same excrement, they roll and rollick in filthy ecstasy at the inhibitions our sensibilities raise up. They laugh because they have their hands on the levers and we’re outside, grieving our inability to move the world.
No more. The current situation may or may not be our fault, but it is our responsibility. We can’t keep shying away from the dirty reality of politics. I understand the inhibitions. For years I’ve actively avoided knowing about politics and acting on that knowledge. But as my country (the UK) approaches a critical juncture I find myself scrambling to catch up. I find myself haplessly disorientated because I swallowed the lie that politics didn’t matter, that somehow it was okay to let others take care of it whilst I fucked around chasing happiness and other BS. It wasn’t and it isn’t and I want my future to be different.
The question, as ever, is “How?” The answer, as ever, isn’t simple but it does have a clear outline:
1) Remain informed whilst 2) engaging with others.
That means reading the news. That means familiarising yourself with local, national and global mechanisms of governance. That means opening yourself up to trolls who will fight with you because of what you say or think. That means learning to live with a little ball of anxiety and unease in your stomach. That means that, contrary to popular sentiment, it’s okay to have an opinion and share it, with strangers and intimates alike. That’s what politics is, after all: people talking, deciding and acting.
Doing all this is the only hope we have of cleaning up the dirtiest game there is.
The notion of “information diets” and corresponding metaphors, like fasting, dieting, binging, etc., have been around for a while. And for a while I subscribed to them. I took steps to monitor and control my information consumption. I resisted the pull of social media until after I’d done some actual reading and writing. All in all, I allocated a pair of devil’s horns to anything that threatened to upset my precisely optimised info-diet.
No more. Just this morning, I woke up, dossed around, scrolled through my feeds, did some reading, did some writing, and then began typing this. My information diet has gone utterly awry and an encounter on Twitter a few days ago (re-)revealed to me exactly why.
First: someone posted about the supposed profoundity of the term “information obesity”. My response was to think (and then reply) that it is our filtering mechanisms, not information itself, that are the problem. A quick query reveals that while we can’t pinpoint the precise rate of human sensory information throughput, it’s undoubtedly what one would call a “fuck-ton”. Yet we manage to handle it without keeling over and/or going insane. I get that social media is engineered to be addictive to the human mind, but do you really think that our brain can’t handle social media and is so easily hijacked? No way. It doesn’t matter whether the environment is made of bits or atoms: we adapt and move on.
(Aside: the “information diet” metaphor is even more fallacious when you consider that the mind has a vastly greater capacity than the body to adapt to chronic stresses. The body degrades in the short-term and the long-term if chronically overfed. The mind, in contrast, suffers in the short-term while it evolves sustainable fixes to the new state of affairs.)
Second (and more importantly): whether or not our new informational environment is toxic is a moot point because it is not going away. Barring episodes of local and global civilisational collapse, the amount of information we are exposed to and the rate at which it reaches us is only going to increase.
Recognising this and taking the stance of technological-pastoralists (attempting to rewind the clock) is a laughable response that is doomed to fail. Digital waldenponding in an attempt to deny the new situation won’t work either. Not only does it reduce exposure, and thus inhibit the rate of adaptation, to the new info environment, extended periods of waldenponding multiply dissonance because the world waldenponders return to is more complex and overwhelming than the one they ran from in the first place. This itself can create a feedback loop in which one becomes increasingly more estranged from their evolving environment.
So if we can’t rewind the clock, nor deny and/or slow the changes taking place, what can we do? What options are there? There are two: detached engagement or immersive engagement. Detached engagment is akin to Tiago Forte’s second-braining. It’s the deliberate creation of interfaces that act as mediators between the information and you. It’s a mimicking of natural evolutionary mechanisms. Immersive engagement, on the other hand, is akin to gonzo journalism. Think Hunter S. Thompson having sex, doing drugs and rock-n-rolling in order to report on sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, or modern counterparts like Ioan Grillo and Roberto Saviano sharing stories of drug cartels and the Mafia which they got from the killers and traffickers themselves.
Personally, I’ve written off detached engagement. I don’t have the patience to undertake the necessary infrastructure building or the will to battle instincts that directly conflict with second-brain practices. Which leaves me with immersive engagement. In other words, I’m going gonzo. More information, more online, more interaction, and accompanying it, more disorientation. That’s okay, though. Being perpetually off-balance is the new normal.
A friend recently told me a story. It isn’t an Homeric epic but it has had some surprising consequences, nonetheless. The story, as it was related to me:
My friend had a problem with an electrical appliance. Because I’m a trained electrician I offered to help. My friend took me up on the offer, stating that he’ll pay me for the trouble. I said not to worry. He’s a friend and it would only take a few hours. Besides, it’s my day off so I’ve got nothing else on.
My immediate response to the anecdote was to think of all the things I’ve heard about the importance of time and the necessity of fiercely protecting it. There’s no need to name names or cite all the books and blogs and podcasts that tell us that time is our most valuable asset and thus we should spend it wisely. Second, I thought how I, personally, would be disinclined to give up a chunk of one of my days-off so easily. Psychoanalyse that all you like; it’s what I thought. Third, I thought of a book:Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson.
Initially, they describe how our mind functions according to a selection of basic metaphors. These basic metaphors can be viewed:
…as foundations upon which we build larger structures, like houses or pyramids.
…as seeds from which trees grow and, eventually, fruit sprouts.
…as particularly potent and connected nodes in a vast and dynamic network.
(Note: which visualisation you plump for also points to potential strategies for the disruption of your thought. Foundations can be demolished, new seeds can be planted, certain nodes can be connected, disconnected, or excised altogether, and so on.)
With that out of the way, they go on to discuss the idea of “Time as a Resource and as Money”. First, they say that “One of the most striking characteristics of Western culture is that time is conceptualised in general as a resource and in particular as money.” They go on to give some idiomatic phrases as evidence for the previous statement, cite other cultures and societies which do not have this metaphor at that their centre, explore time’s human-aspected nature, and try to position it in relation to other supposedly more basic metaphors like events and motion. I won’t elaborate further: read the book if any of the above has lit up your pleasure neurons. What I will do, however, is share both a realisation and a question.
The realisation is not particularly profound: I just began to think that the over-valuation of time is at odds with the nature of community. Sure, in the story above, one friend is giving up their time for another either because of the status of a current relationship or in a bid to strengthen it for the future. But imagine, if you will, a scenario in which the relinquishing of your time is of massive personal cost but only marginal overall benefit to a greater collective. Would you do it? I don’t know whether I would, which means that I don’t know whether I value my time or my belonging to a community more.
The question is also not particularly profound, but it is one I am still attempting to answer. Maybe you have a clue and can help? Here’s the question:
Last we left off I had decided that it was time to ask Hard Questions of my manuscript, and to answer them. It has been going, uhh, along. Quickly, I’ve realised that the improvised approach I’ve employed so far won’t take me much further. I need something more explicit. Something with a touch more rigour. Enter the Rosetta Grid.
There’s three things that underpin it: story elements, bottom-up structuring, and the notion of “keys”.
The primary elements of all stories, in order of descending importance, are: authorial intent, characters, world, events and narration. Separating out and tracking these elements is, in theory, doable. But when contrasted with an actual manuscript, any attempts to track the elements of a story soon become slum-like: wild, messy, unruly, unpredicatable, illegible.
Bottom-up structuring is the opposite of what I employed with the story’s original outline. Instead of starting with (what I hope is) a potent premise and unpacking it via ever-finer strokes (whole story to acts to chapters to beats), I do the reverse. Beat by beat, I will work my way through the manuscript, stating my intent, noting characters in order of appearance, jotting down the worldbuilding necessary, and summarising the events. Once I’ve completed the four beats of the prologue, for example, I transfer the elements up. An example:
Once I reach the top, I should have a complete list of characters, worldbuilding elements and summaries of events at different grains of abstraction.
Finally, the notion of “keys” is why this grid is called what it is. From the Wikipedia page for the Rosetta Stone:
“The term Rosetta stone has been used idiomatically to represent a crucial key in the process of decryption of encoded information, especially when a small but representative sample is recognised as the clue to understanding a larger whole. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first figurative use of the term appeared in the 1902 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica relating to an entry on the chemical analysis of glucose. Another use of the phrase is found in H. G. Wells’ 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, where the protagonist finds a manuscript written in shorthand that provides a key to understanding additional scattered material that is sketched out in both longhand and on typewriter.
Since then, the term has been widely used in other contexts. For example, Nobel laureate Theodor W. Hänsch in a 1979 Scientific American article on spectroscopy wrote that “the spectrum of the hydrogen atoms has proved to be the Rosetta Stone of modern physics: once this pattern of lines had been deciphered much else could also be understood”. Fully understanding the key set of genes to the human leucocyte antigen has been described as “the Rosetta Stone of immunology”. The flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana has been called the “Rosetta Stone of flowering time”. A Gamma ray burst (GRB) found in conjunction with a supernova has been called a Rosetta Stone for understanding the origin of GRBs. The technique of Doppler echocardiography has been called a Rosetta Stone for clinicians trying to understand the complex process by which the left ventricle of the human heart can be filled during various forms of diastolic dysfunction.”
A completed grid is a Rosetta stone, a master key for my project.
You’ve probably also noticed the duplication of the grids. The left is labelled “Included”. This is the one which will be filled out in the manner described above. It is also, probably, the least significant of the two. The one on the right, “Troubleshoot”, is where I reconvene with the notion of answering “hard questions”.
Once a full pass of the manuscript is complete, not only will I have a clue what’s going on, I will be able to begin picking apart what’s going wrong. Another combing of the manuscript will begin and during it I will be able to note flaws and failures and correlate them with the appropriate element.
As will others. See, once I’ve made a troubleshooting pass, my intention is to get a draft to a select few people, collate their feedback into the Rosetta Grid, and solve more problems, iterating until release.
There’s one other tweak I’ve made to my writing process, in addition to the creation and use of the Rosetta Grid. I’ve stuck a hand-wrtten version of this 2×2 on the bottom of my monitor.
The content of the grid comes from a Breaking Smart post: Good Forecasting Takes Strong Nerves. When I read it initially I thought its concepts particularly applicable to fiction writing, and as I embark into a more advanced stage I thought it would be helpful to keep a reminder of them in front of my face.
Finally: in other news, I went for a dip in a river (second time so far this year) and met some sheep.
The last count was 35,062. Sixty-six days later, the count was 75,512. That means I added roughly 622 words per day to my novel-in-progress. Of course, progress wasn’t as linear as that. Due to the nature of my boring day job–day shifts, night shifts, transitions into and out of the latter–my actual writing days have probably numbered half of the above. Has the inability to write day-in, day-out helped me? I don’t know. But the fact is that I’ve reached a new stage in the project.
See, as I was finishing up, I realised that I didn’t like the ending. Actually, I liked it. But it didn’t make sense. It didn’t feel appropriate. Spoiler alert: the original ending was, shall we say, violent. There’s nothing wrong with violence, but the violence included in my intended ending felt non-sensical, forced, incomprehensible. Part of me thought, “Fuck it. Isn’t all violence incomprehensible to the victim, on some level?” Another part of me answered: “Sure. But not to that degree.”
Result: I have a drafted novel with a necrotised ending, a chicken minus the head, a broom without the bristles. At this point, you may be wondering, “Now what?” Well, here’s what.
My first task is to “Recreate the Compression”. This is a text doc that breaks down the story. In it I summarise the story as a whole, each act as a whole, each chapter as a whole, and each beat as a whole. (Note, “whole” is a loaded term here.) Such a document helps me understand the substance of the story from multiple different levels, but more importantly, it helps me stave off the chief demon of fiction: BOREDOM. If I can make each compression of each of the different parts sound interesting and engaging in isolation, then I’ve set myself up well for a something-other-than-mediocre debut.
Recreating the Compression doc will also mean that I have to “Solve the Ending”. But like before, having a beat-by-beat outline for the ending won’t be enough. I’ll have to take it and expand it into an actual draft. (FYI, I already have some speculations for what the ending will be. All I need to do is play around with multiple permutations of it.)
With that done, I’ll be onto my third task, which is to “Ask Hard Questions.” Hard questions are questions that contain the threat of worldview collapse. Hard questions are questions asked by the people who love you and hate you the most. They’re not “gotchas”; they are more profound than that. Their purpose is to disrupt, reveal, confront, challenge, and off-balance.
Finally, after asking them, my fourth task will be to “Answer Hard Questions”. That could mean formulating responses in private that have no demonstratable effect on the text–clarification of intent concerning a particular detail, for example–or, more likely, it could mean carving open, rearranging and sealing the body of my text like a surgeon on LSD.
“Recreate the Compression”; “Solve the Ending”; “Ask Hard Questions”; “Answer Hard Questions”; those are my four tasks for the next month or so. One last thing, though. I’d like to share one particularly surprising thing that I (re)learnt during this period of swelling. It is, simply, this:
Each moment is a portal to any moment.
The context behind this is fairly mundane: whilst drafting, my energy repeatedly flagged at what I thought was the limit of expansion for a specific beat. It took me a few run-throughs to realise that all I had to do was pick a moment in the scene, any moment, and go deeper into it, find the infinite detail within. Examples: a frown could be a portal to a childhood memory; the play of light on a sea’s surface could be represent an important fragment of worldbuilding; a detail in the background could be an author’s easter egg or a foreshadowing central to a B-plot.
Each moment is a portal to any moment. With that realisation, all concerns of writer’s block vanished, and in it’s place arose something else. Call it writer’s responsibility: the consideration not of the ability to travel, but the deciding upon of the best route to take.
Of course, it’s presumptous to claim that this experience, this choice, is unique to writers and writing. It isn’t. None of us have to choose where we’re going, but we all, whoever we are, have to decide how we’ll get there.
They say that first drafts are shitty, and boy are they right. I’ve just completed mine. It’s 35,062 words long. That’s well short of my target length. But that’s okay because 15% of my beat-by-beat outline has been skipped during drafting because I don’t have the research I need to hand. Those beats have been coloured amber and they are spread throughout the story. This less-than-expected word count is also okay because it turns out that this draft is less a draft than a more thorough expansion of my beat-by-beat outline—there’s so much more detail to add about concerning the characters involved, the world they romp around in, and the events that take place.
Nevertheless, I have a draft. Which begs the question, WTF now? Well. The purpose of the next stage is obvious: address the amber beats and put some meat on the bones of the story. But that can wait until tomorrow. Right now, it is 1224. I’ve been at it since around 0800. It’s about time that I have some food and go outside.
Some of you might know that I govern my days using a “scalable loop”. It’s a construct that I developed to bypass the rigidity of rituals and routines—I can twist, bend and shape the loop to fit into whatever gaps and whatever circumstances arise. (Read more about it here.) Currently, the loop has five components: Breathe / Read / Write / Move / Play. And since I’ve been writing but not publishing, and since the first month of the year is drawing to a close, I thought I’d use that five-part structure as a frame for an update. But before I proceed, I want to draw your attention to two things.
“In living systems the whole generates the parts. The parts do not exist a priori. In each step of this process we can see that both wholes and parts come from existing wholes. They are not constructed in the usual sense—they are not manufactured. They are synthesized via an unbroken chain of wholes, extending back to the beginning.”
Reading that changed me. Immediately. If you’ve ever broken a bone or snapped a ligament, you’ll likely have a visceral recollection of the moment when it broke, that indescribable fragment of time in which the force being applied to your body exceeded its ability to endure it. I had a similar experience. Considering the ideas in that short-but-potent piece shattered the spine of one of my deepest assumptions—that my life is made up of a plethora of different pieces that individually are important, but come together to create something more than the literal sum of their parts. Now, I have begun to see and think of my life as a collection of wholes, instead of as a collection of parts. I haven’t truly unpacked the consequences of this transition—I need more time—but it continues to be something I am unable pull my mind away from.
Second, I learnt about a new concept in Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart: the notion of a samayabond. The easiest way to think of the samaya bond is as an unbreakable vow, as an irrevocable, unconditional commitment between a teacher and a student. As Chodron says:
“If the student accepts and trusts the teacher completely and the teacher accepts the student, they can enter into the unconditional relationship called samaya. The teacher will never give up on the student no matter how mixed up he or she might be, and the student will also never leave the teacher, no matter what.”
In addition to perceiving the parts of me and the parts of my life as wholes, I’ve also come to see these wholes as teachers. And thus I have been wondering: is it the right time to enter into a samaya bond with the practices of breathing, reading, writing, moving and playing? Am I ready to make an unconditional, irrevocable commitment to them? Perhaps…
Anywho. The meta-commentary is done. Now, we can move on.
First, I am practicing concentration meditation basically every day. I’m trying to approach the practice with the resolve to Make no plans, to leap over the labels of “succeeding” and “failing”. It’s working, slowly, and that is okay.
Second, I have decided that eyes closed is the best approach for this type of contemplation, but I’ve maintained the eyes open approach for periods of zazen (see here and here), and for any other time when I am just sitting and being a human.
Third, I’ve woven all this together into a framework for attaining a “higher” state of awareness or consciousness. I am unable to enact it now, but I hope to be able to in the coming years. It looks like this:
Step One — Use the Wim Hof Method of breathing (deliberately intense breathing, a prolonged inhalation, and a prolonged exhalation, repeated three or four times) to dispel any psychological or psychological impediments to concentration. This method of breathing compels the sympathetic nervous system to activate with more intensity. Step Two — Make my way, sequentially, through the Eight Jhana states, and develop a profound one-pointedness of mind. Step Three – Transition out of the Jhana states and use the momentum previously accumulated to transition from one-pointedness to many-pointedness of mind, from a state of deep concentration into a state of deep awareness.
Right now, I am far from attaining even the first Jhana, so you can see why the above path is a long-term ambition. It’s also worth noting that my understanding of what “deep awareness” is and actually involves is sparser than I thought it was. Luckily, though, I picked up The Manual of Insight by Mahasi Sayadaw on a whim, at the same time as David’s recommendations. I suspect that text holds the keys to several locks.
II – READ
I’m back into my reading rhythm. Although the articles linked above are the only ones I’ve actually read online with anything more than fragmented attention, I’ve been able to absorb myself in several books over the past few weeks.
After reading multiple second-hand references and interpretations, I decided to read a translation of Mein Kampf. I read the first half and I have many thoughts about it, none which I am willing to share yet. After reading and loving Rene Girard’s Deceit, Desire and the Novel (which traces elements of desire in the works of Flaubert, Cervantes, Proust and Dostoevsky) I was persuaded to continue Proust’s In Search of Lost Time series. I’ve read the first, so I picked up the second, Within a Budding Grove, but despite some truly profound passages I dropped it in order to re-read Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi, which was glaring at me from the bookshelf. Dropping Proust in favour of Yoshikawa turned out to be a good decision: the latter resonated with me in a much greater way than when I first read it. I actually tweeted about it here.
A consequence of those tweets was a nod towards the work of James Clavell, specifically his Asian Saga. Like a rapper shutting down Gucci and cleaning out the store with his black card, I brought all six novels in the series (for a total of nearly six thousand pages of fiction) and began the first, Shogun, as soon as it arrived. So far. Can confirm. It’s good.
I also finished Katy Bowman’s essay collection, entitled Movement Matters. It’s just as good, if not better, than another one of her books, Move Your DNA. Off the back of that, I’ve begun Erwan Le Corre’s The Practice of Natural Movement. Also, truly good—but I’ll talk about these books more later. The other book in my hands at the moment is Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It’s about embodied cognition and it’s changing my mind, connecting so many dots and concepts that have lied dormant waiting for an opportunity to come together. Again, recommended.
Another development on the reading front: I picked up a hand-me-down Kindle. I am, and always will be, a devoted dead-tree book reader, but I’m finding it a bit awkward to lug some of my door-stopper texts to work with me, and while I don’t mind taking six books with me on a week-long holiday, it is a tad inconvenient. Previously, I had been content to live with the inconvenience, but after discovering that my CargoWorks pouch will take a Kindle alongside my phone and notebook, I decided to make a change. In order to travel lighter, I’ll be rocking a Kindle stuffed with the complete Malazan Book of the Fallen (which I can re-read endlessly) and a few other collections—Tiago Forte’s Praxis ebooks, a few Ribbonfarm Roughs, an Eliezer Yudkowsky book or two, and a number of other diverse texts that I have yet to decide upon (recommendations welcome).
III – WRITE
As I mentioned in AFK, kinda, I have stopped blogging in order to focus on my novel. I want to publish it by the end of this year, and after creating a set of significant milestones and coupling them with deadlines, I can say that I am on target. For now. It’s not like I’ll be going from conception to completion of a novel within a year, though. I’ve already spent months on character profiles, countless time thinking about worldbuilding and iterating the events, and many hours contemplating the sort of story I want it to be and the manner in which I want to tell it. I’ve had a headstart and it’s going to be interesting to see how long I can maintain it (praying and lobbying to the Gods on my behalf is encouraged). I can be more specific…
Thus far, I’ve come up with a beat-by-beat outline for the story, and I’m using it in the manner suggested by Venkat in response to a toot:
“…as a trellis to guide a growing vine structure. You lay it out to get a vague sense of overall arc and avoiding dead ends, internalize it subconsciously, but then write the story in an improv fashion, simulating the action in your mind. You refer to the outline again only if you run into trouble, and it’s okay to skip or add beats by improv”.
I was lucky enough to receive that advice before I began drafting proper. I was also lucky enough to receive a nudge from M. K. Anderson— she persuaded me to take a proper look at genre, genre conventions, obligatory scenes, sources of conflict, and hook-build-payoff structures at different levels within the story. I did that. I pulled out my copy of Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid, figured out the questions I needed to answer, and went about answering them. Which I am glad I did because I realised, amongst other things, that my novel is a story about courtship. I did not see that coming.
In terms of volume, I’ve been making my way through the novel at essentially the same speed that I used to blog at—roughly three thousand words a week. I expect there to be periods where that increases and patches where it decreases, but either way I want to get to a shitty-first-draft before May begins.
I know I said in AFK, kinda that I’d use the absence of publishing time pressure to be more active on social media and dig deeper into more complex topics and create longer posts. That hasn’t really happened. Similar to how one uses their income to pay the rent and buy food first, and only then goes on holiday and out to dinner, I haven’t felt like I’ve had the disposal income to invest in those activities. If you look at the etymology of the word “priority” it is singular—it is meant to refer to one thing. The novel is the thing right now. Anything after that is a bonus.
There’s been two consequences of this prioritisation. First, I am writing in my notebook more, attempting to record both inner and outer truths. Second—and this is related to the first—there has been no drop in the number of thoughts I have. Instead, there has been a development in my ability to let them alone. Previously, when I had a “good” idea, I’d grasp it and record it in some form for later use. Now, my thought is like a butterfly landing on an extended finger: I see it land, remain still while it takes its rest, and let it flutter off as soon as it feels ready. The previous sentence is probably a third consequence of focusing on my novel—the proliferation of “lofty” metaphors in my prose. Don’t worry, they make me cringe, too. But right now I don’t feel particularly self-conscious, so they’re staying—after all, didn’t Ray Bradbury say something like, “the enemy of all art is self-consciousness”?
Which brings me to the penultimate point of this section: Ray Bradbury also said that, in writing, quantity leads to quality. Venkat mentioned this idea in a recent Breaking Smart Q&A, and after I riffed about it on Twitter, I began to think that it is an idea applicable to more than writing. It’s common knowledge that writing is a proxy for thought, so wouldn’t quantity of thought lead to quality of thought? If you follow the logic and subscribe to it—I do—then the imperative is obvious: we should do everything we can to have as many thoughts as possible. If that means blogging, fine. If that means, making up limericks and poetry, cool. If that means moving to a new place, communing with oak trees in a remote forest, listening to the whispers of a mystical waterfall, living in a van, or filling a house with dogs, cats and llamas, great. Do whatever it takes.
Finally (phew), I suspect it looks like I’m contradicting the quantity leads to quality idea above. After all, I’m not publishing anything, really. Counterpoint: I’m writing just as much as I used to and I feel like I am having more thoughts than ever before.
More importantly, I feel like I have settled on a course for the next few years at least. In roleplaying games, it is possible to play either “pure” or “hybrid” characters. The latter could be, for example, an axe-wielding barbarian who also knows a few spells. The former could be, for example, a thoroughly committed magic user whose only form of attack and defense is the arcane. After a year or two of LARPing a “hybrid” character, trying to get my freelance career off the ground and blog and write a book and do all the other things, I now feel like I’m much better suited to the role of “Pure Writer”. I understand the risks of this approach, but as I write this I have twelve books I know I want to write. Allowing for a fifty percent entropy rate, that’s still six books to get around to. (FYI, I know an idea or insight is book worthy because it plants itself in my brain, begins to grow of its own accord in my sub- and unconscious, and then reappears to my consciousness later, in a vastly more advanced state.)
That sounds crazy, right? Everyone says that writing a book is a slog, a ball-ache, torture. For example, James Clear said recently that:
“In case anyone is wondering:
1. Writing a book is very not fun.
2. Launching a book is very fun.
3. Number 1 is what makes Number 2 possible.
The height of your joy is linked to the depth of your sacrifice.”
That’s not true for me. Writing is the fun part. Having ideas and seeing where they take me is the whole point. If it benefits others? I will be amazed. If it results in unexpected-but-meaningful relationships? I will be grateful. If I can make a living from it? I will be humbled. But none of those possibilities change the fact that, for me, the act is the reward. And I’ve made a conscious choice to orientate my life around that fact.
IV – MOVE
I have never fallen out of love with reading, nor with writing. I can’t say the same for movement. My youth was heavily composed of different sports, and as I became an adult that process continued. The only difference was that I swapped team sports for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a sport that depends on others being present but is a decidedly more individual pursuit—the practitioner alone is responsible for the rate and extent of their progress. But over the last year, my momentum in that, and in physical training generally, flagged.
Fortunately, this new period of my life has seen that energy re-captured and exceeded. Although I am only able to train once or twice a week, I am thoroughly enjoying the practice of BJJ. I’ve adopted the same approach with BJJ as I have taken with my meditation practice: show up, be attentive, and let the development take care of itself.
Outside of BJJ my movement practice feels revitalised too. Much has been said about the toxicity of social media, especially channels that overwhelm us with normative models (see The toxic triangle of modernity). However, I’ve cultivated a private Instagram account, made it movement-centric—as opposed to my Twitter feed, which is a river of ideas concerned with a great number of mostly abstract topics—and deliberately resolved to use the people I find there as inspiration instead of models to compare myself with and gauge my ability against. Following the accounts of Ido Portal, Tom Weksler, Rafe Kelley, Roye Gold, Fighting Monkey, Formless Arts, Erwan Le Corre and MovNat, many yogis, multiple BJJ competitors and coaches, and a lot of photographers and filmmakers, has nourished my mind with possibilities and helped me to practice movement more often, for longer, and in many different ways.
As I hinted at in The floor and the canopy, my aim is not just to lift weights, swing a kettlebell or cycle up a particularly challenging hill. Those things are good and useful sure, but my main aim is to be able to walk and run and climb and swim and jump and fall and crawl with ease.
Part of the reason that my capacity for movement was dulled in the first place was that I was struggling to find a way to fit it into my life. I solved that problem: in the back of my notebook, I keep a folded index card. On that card are three stages of a movement practice.
– The first stage, which involves a few low-level basic movements that I can do cold—like hanging and rolling—functions as a warm-up. If I have five minutes, I can just do that. And how can I not have five minutes?
– The second stage is more expansive. It has two parts. The first is a superset which pairs a pull movement with a Turkish get-up. The second is a single-hand kettlebell complex which involves a swing, a clean, a squat, a press and a carry. If I have only fifteen minutes I can do a warm-up and one of those movements. If I have thirty or forty minutes I can do a warm-up and both the superset and the complex.
– The third stage is focused on exploration and has no explicit instructions. Instead it has three columns. The first lists basic human movement instructions: strike, throw, crawl, jump, etc. The second lists modifiers or spectra for those actions: slow-fast, inside-outside, planned-improvised, etc. The third lists implements that can be mixed in: the ground, water, bands, bars, sticks, balls, etc.
This approach has a similar flavour to the scalable loop, and in lieu of working directly with a coach (which I have done previously) it’s the best solution I’ve come across to the problem of programming movement into a life. Here’s the card itself, the backside of which has two ideas that I am trying to keep in mind:
Of course, those activities only take place during a specific movement session. And as I learnt in Bowman’s Movement Matters and as I’m learning from Le Corre’s The Practice of Natural Movement, there’s more potential for gain—and there’s more cause of harm—in the other twenty-three hours of the day that we’re not explicitly focused on movement and training. The shorthand of “23/1” reminds me of this, and as a consequence I’m trying to be more mindful of movement and health in the rest of my life.
One way in which I’m doing this is sitting on the floor more. Sounds simple, but it’s quite remarkable how effective it is. Try it for yourself. I’m also making a point of moving on the floor and rolling around when playing with our puppy. Again, simple but effective.
The other notable things I’m doing in regard to health are first, taking care of my sleep, and second, taking cold showers. First, because I don’t have the time pressure of publishing daily or twice a week, I’m allowing myself to sleep in a bit later. This is helping me when I go into and come out of night shifts. I no longer feel as tired after a week of shifts, and I feel like the rest of my life has been enhanced because of this significant change in my approach to sleep. Second, I’m finishing every shower with either a couple-minute blast of cold, or a few rounds of hot and cold. The usual stress placed on body because of a moderately physical job, BJJ and my movement practice hasn’t decreased, but my ability to tolerate it and recover from it has seen a marked increase because of this.
I’m sure that, when it comes to movement and health, there are other things I can be doing and should be doing. I’ll get to them, eventually. But, for now, I’m enjoying the path and I’m happy with its trajectory.
V – PLAY
My thoughts and developments concerning this “whole” are both deeper and less extensive than the previous four. That’s because the concept of play permeates everything that I do and is thus hard to comment upon. There’s playfulness in my contemplative practice, in my reading, in my writing, in my exploration of movement, and in most other elements of my life. The phrase I’m trying to associate with my writing now is “joyous freewheeling” and that phrase is equally applicable to the other aspects of my existence. It feels like, on some higher level, I’ve stopped giving a fuck about the “shoulds” and began to wonder about the “coulds”. This isn’t for everyone, and it’s probably not the definitive way to approach life, but for me and for now, it’s working, and my intention is for it to remain that way.
I’d like you to know that I hadn’t intended to say this much. I started and the above just kept coming, like I’d nicked the carotid artery of expression. But it has been fruitful for me. It has helped me consolidate a few thoughts, to tie some bows with the differing threads of my thought. So I’ll say no more.
Except this (I can’t help it): yesterday I went out on my bicycle for the first time this year. Nothing exciting—I completed a loop that I’ve done many times before. However, it did generate two insights.
First: there’s this hilltop farm whose gate I always stop at. It offers wide and sweeping view of the countryside, and on most days it’s a tranquil spot. But yesterday, I missed it. I was so absorbed in my own thoughts about I-can’t-even-remember-what-that I had cycled passed it and made it to the bottom of the hill before I noticed my not-noticing it. Infer from that what you will.
Second: right after I realised I’d missed my usual hilltop-stop, I took a left and sought a gap in the hedge. I dismounted and walked myself and my bike through it, into the field, into its five-by-ten-metre rest area. I leaned my bike against the wooden bench waiting there and took off my helmet, hanging it via the strap off my handlebars. I then popped my water bottle out of its cage, took a sip and walked through the gap in the fencing, towards the middle of the field. It was a cold day but a clear day, cloudless. I could see the hills falling away from me and rising up in the distance. Upon reaching the middle of the field I knelt, tucked both feet under me, seiza style, and breathed out.
It’s said in When Things Fall Apart that “The out-breath is a metaphor for opening our whole being.” I felt the truth of those words whilst knelt in that field on that cold clear day—I breathed everything I had into the wind, and the wind bore it away. The wind also bore me away. It flowed over the hillside, and I went with it. It descended into the valley and climbed out of it. As did I. It kept the birds in the air, and there I stayed with them, for a time.
What this experience created in me was not a reverie so much as a sense of reverence. A deep appreciation for where I’ve been and where I’m going, for who I am and who I am not, for who I was and for who I have yet to be, for the people and the things that are and aren’t around me—regardless of whether I am intimate with them or not, regardless of whether I consider them strangers, friends, allies or enemies.
I recently read somewhere that taking a vitamin C supplement is not the same as eating an orange. That seems obvious, right? Deconstructing a wholesome food and taking its components in fragmented form is not the same as eating the damn fruit. Similarly, in times past, we had religion. It provided us with something to believe in and it was a thing which brought people together. Now, it is different. Despite what you’ve heard, God isn’t dead. And there are other ways in which we generate community and social support around our selves. But what religion also gave us, in a neat package alongside belief and community, is a sense of reverence,. Not a blind faith in or a meek submission to something untouchable and unimaginably larger than us. Just a deep appreciation and respect. I can’t speak for others, but I get the sense that we don’t have that anymore. Or if we do, we rarely feel comfortable enough to share and experience it with one another.
As I rose and made my way back to the bike, I thought on this and I concocted a directive for myself, which also serves as an epigram for this little update:
In action, joy and conviction; in reflection, reverence and doubt; in everything, compassion.