“If you can approach your daily life in this way for a while – as a sequence of momentary, self-contained, eminently doable actions, rather than as an arduous matter of chipping away at enormous challenges – you might notice something profound, which is that, in fact, this is all you ever need to do. You can make your way through life exclusively in this manner. (As E. L. Doctorow said of writing, it’s “like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”) And not just that: actually, it’s all you ever could do. There is no achievement, in the history of human civilisation, that has ever been accomplished by any means other than as a sequence of doable actions.
In the end, it isn’t really a question of “breaking big projects down into small chunks.” It’s more a matter of seeing that “big projects” are nothing but psychological constructs, quasi-illusory entities summoned into existence by taking a particular view of what our lives really consist of – which is moments, and the actions that unfold in them.”Oliver Burkeman, The Imperfectionist (“How to get out of a rut”)
“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day if you do but one thing once; but there is not time enough in the year if you will do two things at a time.”Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield
A few quotes on, as Robert D. Richardson put it, “the daily struggle for adequate expression”.
“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”William Goldman
“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.”William Zinsser
“The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when all your arrows are spent.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
“When I started both of my books, at first I fell into the same mindset trap of thinking too far ahead — “OMG, 100,000 words to go, why did I get myself into this?!?” Now I keep the phrase “cutting stone” on a little white board on my desk, a reminder just to take each single, barely perceptible axe-chop at the stone at a time, and eventually it will be ground to dust.”Dave Epstein, ‘Start Where You Are‘
“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so prolific’…God, it doesn’t feel like it—nothing like it. But, you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.”John McPhee quoted in Cal Newport’s ‘Slow Productivity‘ post.
“One question a teacher of writing is often asked, in one form or another is: “Do I have it?” Or, you know, “Do I have it?” That is: “If I keep working at this, will it, in the end, be worth it? Am I a real writer? Will I be able to publish? Can you guarantee, based on what you’ve seen of my writing (of me, my life, my disposition), that this will all work out?””
Speaking from the heart: I have never been able to tell, at all. Honestly. Even among our very gifted students at Syracuse, I would never hazard a guess. There are too many variables and too many unknowns.
… for her, the writer, the game is not: “First, satisfy myself that, if I do the work and put in the time, all will be well, and then, well-pleased, go ahead and do the work” but, rather: “Do the work in order to find out.””George Saunders, Story Club, Issue ‘Joy, not Fear’
If you haven’t already I’d recommend subscribing to George Saunders’ Story Club newsletter. He’s a superb writing teacher.
“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life[.]”C.S. Lewis
I was thinking the other day how easy it is to disown my problems just because they’re inconvenient and act as though my ‘real life’ is waiting for me over there once I deal with these problems as quickly as possible. But, seeing as though life is never going to stop giving me problems, when you add it all up, that’s a lot of time waiting for my ‘real life’.
- Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher: Only 81 pages but an eye-opener. Is common sense re: the economy and your place in it really common sense or have you been taught to think that way?
- Deep Work, Cal Newport: In our current time, with so many opportunities for distraction, shallow thinking and shallow work can prevail, but we can go against the stream and, with work, reclaim our focus.
- Tribe, Sebastian Junger: According to Junger (and the research he cites), in times of war and hardship the rates of suicide and depression in a given country dropped, but in ‘peacetime’ rose again. Why is that? Junger also explores (to use one example) how early settlers in America, who were captured by Native American tribes and were ‘rescued’, ran away to rejoin their supposed ‘captors’. What did these tribes have that were so alluring compared to ‘civilised’ society?
- Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It, Oliver Burkeman: The gist? The average human lifespan is four thousand weeks and there is always more to do than what can be done, especially in a capitalist society, so embrace your limits (even though society doesn’t want you to). In the long run you’ll feel better.
In his interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Hwang Dong-hyuk, creator of the Netflix series Squid Game, clarified an inaccurate story circulating in the media about how he came to write and eventually acquire funding for the series:
“… there seems to be this common misunderstanding emerging that I wasn’t doing anything else and just focusing on Squid Game for about 10 years, and this made us a blockbuster success somehow. But that wasn’t really the case. In 2009, when it didn’t work out for me to get the necessary investment for the initial feature film piece I was envisioning, I put Squid Game aside. And I went on to create three other movies, and all of those were successful. So, I mean, it’s not like I didn’t do anything else in between and then had this sudden blockbuster success. It’s kind of been misconceived that way in some places, so I just wanted to clarify that a bit.”
This made me think of three things:
First, it’s interesting how the media can create false narratives by omitting information, whether intentional or not.
Second, this post by Cal Newport on Galileo. The timescale for Galileo’s scientific accomplishments was longer than we assumed from the history books, and that’s okay.
Third, believe in your work.
When he died the sociology professor Niklas Luhmann left behind his Zettelkasten, a system of hyperlinked index cards, amounting to ninety thousand paper notes. He credited this system for most of the breakthroughs in his academic career but as a fellow writer I always wondered what sustained him. What kept him writing notes all those years?
As it turns out professors earn their keep through research as well as lecturing so Luhmann always had a professional incentive to grow his garden of ideas. To the best of my knowledge professors are considered eligible for tenure if they publish a certain amount of academic papers per year and Luhmann did just that.
I think it’s harder, though never impossible, to write when it seems like only you care about the writing.
The Kindle Store had a sale a few days ago and, among other things, I bought Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky’s Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day for £1.99. The market for productivity and time-management books is crowded but what makes these guys different is, instead of a rigid and complex productivity system, they offer a simple 4 part time-management framework: Highlight, Laser, Energise, Reflect.
It’s easy to assume we manage our time only to be more productive (because that’s what everybody else is doing!) but, like so many others, Jake and John remind us that the highlight of our day doesn’t always have to be work:
“Make Time is not about productivity. It’s not about getting more done, finishing your to-dos faster, or outsourcing your life. Instead, it’s a framework designed to help you actually create more time in your day for the things you care about, whether that’s spending time with your family, learning a language, starting a side business, volunteering, writing a novel, or mastering Mario Kart.”Knapp, Jake; Zeratsky, John. Make Time (p. 3). Transworld. Kindle Edition.