Category: essays

Searching for Beer in a Stack of Notebooks

This morning after dropping off some mail at the post office, I happened to step into a local grocery store. I forgot what an amazingly wide variety of beer they sold. Once in the store, I remembered that a local beer that I really enjoyed once on tap at a restaurant, I was able to find later in this store. The problem was, I could no longer remember the name of the beer because I was so long ago.

There are 3 long aisles of beer in the store, and I tried perusing the labels to see if it managed to shake free the cobwebs that had gathered in the halls of my memory, but no luck. It occurred to me that my brother-in-law would enjoy this beer, and since I’ll be seeing him this weekend, I could pick some up. If only I could remember the name. I headed home empty-handed and dejected.

On the way home, I remembered writing down the name of the beer in one of my Field Notes notebooks. I’ve filled 30 of these notebooks since 2015, but I kept them all, and they are neatly stacked in my office. I couldn’t remember the timing, however, so I decided to start in the middle, then go the beginning, then the end, and work my way in from each side. I found nothing in Notebook 15. So I moved onto Notebook 1. I found the name of the beer on page 8 of Notebook 1, right after a quote I’d jotted down from The Newsroom.

Performing this search, which looking maying 15 minutes, made me realize 2 things:

  1. There’s a lot of good stuff in those old notebooks.
  2. It’s really difficult to find it.

And thus an idea for a “Field Notes Playbook” was born. The gist of the playbook is that upon completing a Field Notes notebook, I take some time to transfer the notes into Obsidian so that they are searchable at my finger tips.

I mention this because beginning this Friday, I plan to start a new column here on the blog titled, “The Weekly Playbook.” I’ve tried to find ways to be more productive in everything I do. One of the ways I do this, is when I find something that works, I make a playbook for it. Typically, this is a note that describes the steps I need to go through. The thing about playbooks is that they are event-driven and so I try to keep the playbook in mind in the context of the event in question. Over time, I’ve developed dozens of these playbooks, and I thought it would be fun, and possibly informative, to share them with you all on a weekly basis.

If you like my Going Paperless series, then I imagine you might enjoy The Weekly Playbook. In many ways the Going Paperless posts were playbooks, whose focus centered around a single tool: Evernote. Some of the playbooks I use today are related tools: writing tools, email, notebooks, etc. Others, are completely unrelated to technology and are things that I do to be as efficient as I can with my time. You can look forward to the new series beginning on Friday.

Today marks the end of the first half of 2021. When I started 2021, I had a goal of putting more energy into the blog, which I had neglected for most of last year. To that end, I think I’ve been successful. Between January 1 and today, I’ve written 195 posts totaling 115,000 words, and I haven’t missed a single day. Tomorrow, the second half of the year begins I’ve got a few small changes I’ll be announcing, all good, I think. Tomorrow, I’ll also tell you about Project Sunrise, which I’ve already hinted at, but which formally begins on July 1, which I like to think of as my creative new year. Stay tuned for that as well.

Oh, and the beer that I was trying find. It’s called Local Species by Blue Mountain Brewery. Alas, I don’t think they make it anymore. It was a great, one of those beers aged in Bourbon barrels. That’s okay, though. I headed back to that grocery store and found another barrel-aged beer, this one called Wooded Reserve by New Realm Brewery. I picked up a couple of bottles for the weekend.

Two bottles of New Realm Wooded Reserve barrel aged brown ale.

Vision

When I was six years old I imagined I wanted to be an astronomer. I was fascinated by the stars. I checked books on astronomy out of the library. But I didn’t really know what it meant to be an astronomer. I couldn’t see it, couldn’t see myself doing whatever it was astronomers do.

Much later, once I’d decided I wanted to be a writer, I can remember sending off stories to magazines like Analog and imagining what it would be like to have one of those stories accepted. It was clear in my mind how it would work. I could see receiving a letter from the editor telling me they wanted to buy my story. It was this vision that kept me writing during the first fourteen years I submitted stories. It was this vision that kept me sending out stories after collecting one rejection slip after another (many of them from Analog). Because I could see it, I knew that one day, I’d sell stories. I made my first sale in late 2006 to Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show.

A few years later, I made what so far was the first of four sales to Analog, the magazine that I dreamed of appearing in from the start. Two of those sales have been fiction, and much to my surprise, two were nonfiction, guest editorials for the magazines.

I’ve recently started writing fiction again, after a five-year bout of writer’s block. I have a new plan now, one that involves writing ten novels over the next ten years, all as practice so that when I retire from my day job at the end of that ten year period, I can try my hand at writing full-time. I’m beginning to see that first novel sale in my mind the way I saw that first short story sale. It’s not a strong vision yet, it’s still fuzzy around the edges, but I think it will clear up as I improve my craft.

This idea of being able to clearly visualize a goal has helped me beyond just my writing. Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by airplanes. I wanted to be a pilot. I even considered Embry-Riddle as a possible school when I was looking at colleges. I read The Student Pilot’s Flight Manual as a kid, and I used to sit around drawing Cessna control panels on days when I was bored. Later, when Microsoft Flight Simulator came out, I had a much more realistic way of feeding that particular curiosity.

Finally, in the summer of 1999, I began to take flying lessons at Van Nuys airport just north of Los Angeles. During that time I worked in Santa Monica and commuted home to Studio City each day, often stopping at the airport for a lesson. I remember clearly sitting in traffic on the 405 freeway, heading north, and imagining myself flying. I remember being particularly nervous at the thought of soloing. It’s one thing to have the vision, but something else entirely to find yourself in an airplane, a thousand feed above the ground and the only person who can get you back down is you. But I did solo, and on April 3, 2000, I passed my check ride and received my private pilot’s license.

Me standing outside the Cessna I flow for my check ride, holding my new pilot's license.

Vision helps me in small ways, too. When I am writing something, be it a story, or a blog post, if I can picture the result, and the result excites me, I know I have something good. If I can’t picture that result, I know that I need to go in a different direction. I wish I could easily give up and move in another direction in these situation, but I don’t always do it. And often, when I don’t have the vision, the story or post just doesn’t work.

When I think about the things I have achieved that seemed like day-dreams to me at the story: selling stories, flying planes, I realize that I have been pretty lucky. The ability to use visualization as a kind of barometer for success has been a useful tool for me along the way. I sometimes forget about it, but as I move forward into this new chapter, one in which I am trying to see myself as a full-time writer (albeit ten years hence), I am trying to see that future incarnation of myself more clearly every day.

The Left and Right Hands of Amazon

Tracking purchasing behavior online has been a hot topic for a long time. People have legitimate concerns about how websites track usage and behaviors and then use the data to display ads and suggestions tailored to a particular person’s interest. This has never bothered me as much as some people for one main reason. It seems that even the biggest sites aren’t particularly good at this yet.

Take Amazon, for example. I get a weekly email from Amazon titled “Book recommendations for Jamie Rubin” and they never seem to be current with their recommendations. Take a recent example. In the section of the email titled “New based on your author interests” there are two books suggested:

Amazon got at least one thing right: both of these authors interest me, and indeed, I am looking forward to reading both of these books. But that is where the system breaks down. Neither book has been released yet, and that is okay, too, since it is alerting me to books coming soon by authors I like. The problem is that I have already pre-ordered both of these book through Audible.

Audible is owned by Amazon. You’d think that with Amazon’s vast data resources, they’d reach into Audible’s database of purchases and see that I have already purchased these books, and perhaps, leave them off the list, knowing that I’ve already committed money and there is no need to convince me further. That they don’t do this surprises me and makes me skeptical that Amazon’s algorithms are all-knowing, or even particularly useful for that matter. Someone might argue that Amazon is offering me the hardcover, not the audio book, but from a content perspective, they are the same thing as far as I am concerned. Amazon should recognize this and find something else to suggest. It is almost as if their left hand doesn’t know what their right is doing.

Later in the same email is a section titled “Based on your reading” and there, Amazon recommends the following books:

In this case, I have read Nightmare’s & Draemscapes. It is book 836 on the list of books I’ve read since 1996. It is also listed on my Goodreads “read” list. As it turns out, Amazon also owns Goodreads. So why aren’t they tapping that as a resource to help improve recommendations? If they’d use that data, they would know that I have already read Nightmare’s & Dreamscapes and could have recommended something else instead.

I have not read The Closers by Michael Connelly and so at first glance, this seems like a good recommendation. But it isn’t. The most recent Michael Connelly I have read is Angel’s Flight, which is the 6th book in the Harry Bosch series. The Closers is #11 in the Bosch series. Given that Amazon has meta-data on series both on its store and in Goodreads, why are they skipping ahead 5 books in the series to make a recommendation? They should be using my data to determine (relatively easily) that the better recommendation is A Darkness More Than Night which is the 7th book in the Bosch series. Of course, I have already purchased that book, so Amazon would have to keep checking sources to see which one I haven’t yet read for a useful recommendation.

In the next section of the email, titled, “Books by authors you follow”, Amazon appears to give up entirely. They recommend the following books:

I read both of these books. The Perfectionists is book 759 on my list. And Basin and Range is 807 on my list. Both books have been purchased in Audible and both books have been marked as “read” in Goodreads. Amazon is just plain guessing at this point; they are not really making use of their vast resources of data.

I’d love to get great recommendations for possible reads from Amazon, recommendations that make use of everything they know about me. But I just don’t believe they have the ability to pull it off; not when they can’t even tap their own data resources to make a better set of choices. This is why I don’t worry much about sites that track my behavior to suggest purchases. If Amazon can’t get it right, I’m not worried about every other site out there.

I Am A Writer

Four years ago I wrote about my dread of answering the question “what do you do?” when asked by someone about my vocation. I used to tell people “I work with computers” but that was vague. I don’t like saying that I am a project manager because it sounds to me like a made-up job. At the time, I wrote:

There are occasions when I am asked the question, when I’d love to answer, “I’m a writer,” and just leave it at that. Of course, telling someone you are a writer leads to other questions. Besides, I don’t make my living as a writer. And when people ask “What do you do?” they are asking how you make your living.

Something clicked in the way I think about my vocation and avocation recently: one of those ah-ha! moments that made me realize I could answer this question honestly, and directly in four words and feel perfectly comfortable with my response. The four words are:

I am a writer.

As I pointed out four years ago, this tends to elicit further questions, but in the years since, I have answers that I am more comfortable with.

In my vocation, I primarily write code, although there is often more involved than that.

In my avocation, I write both fiction and nonfiction.

For plain fun, I write this blog, which has been around for 16 years and has over 6,700 posts.

Do I make my living as writer? Well, yes, I do. The part that pays the bills is the part that writes code. I have written about the similarities between writing code and writing fiction, and so I feel justified in my position on this. At the same time, I don’t feel like I am being disingenuous because I have also made money writing fiction and nonfiction. All told, when I put everything together, the common thread throughout all of my work is writing.

I think I knew this subconsciously all along. I think it is why I altered the subtitle of the blog years ago to read, simply, “Writer.” It really doesn’t matter what I am writing, that’s what I do. Or to put it another way, I write all kinds of things and “writer” is the most succinct way to capture everything I do.

It feels good knowing that I can now answer the question, “What do you do?” with “I am a writer.””

The Project Management Paradox

Why is it that I can manage large, complicated, technical projects at work, but be paralyzed with indecision when it comes to managing my own to-do list outside of work? What’s worse, I can’t even settle on a way to manage that to-do list.

I find myself thinking about this because I was revisiting an old favorite, Gina Trapani’s todo.txt system. Seven years ago, I wrote about my requirements for a to-do list app. There are five of them:

  1. The list be stored in an open format
  2. Priority is by list order
  3. One list to rule them all
  4. Easy archiving
  5. Accessible anywhere

I think these requirements still apply for the most part.

The paradox of all of this is that I am spending time trying to figure out how to manage my to-do list when I should be doing the things on that list. Over the years I have tried many task management systems and tools: David Allen’s Getting Things Done; Evernote; todotxt, todoist, bullet journals, and on and on. None of them have stuck permanently. The two best in terms of effectiveness and longevity were todoist and todotxt, and I think that is because they are relatively simple systems.

I am looking for a way out of this paradox. More and more it seems to me that to-do apps are a case study in great technology which can make us (well, make me at least) less efficient. I think about all of the time I have spent studying, testing, trying, and writing about to-do systems, and wonder how many practical items I could have slashed off my lists in that time.

Simplest is best. I find that I can too easily get bogged down in “features” and comparing and system to another, when I really need to be focusing on a system that is virtually invisible. I recently heard a podcast in which Jim Collins spoke about his own to-do list: he uses the Apple Notes program with a single note for his to-do items. What he does is lists the top three things to get done on a given day, and then separates the rest of his list by enough carriage returns so that when he looks at his phone, all he sees are those three things–but he can scroll down to see more. That is relatively simple, but not simple enough for me.

Last night, when I couldn’t sleep, I took to heart another piece of advice from Jim Collins: I applied the 20-minute rule. The rule states that if you can’t get back to sleep in 20 minutes, you should get up and do something. He says this is a great time for him to figure out what he needs to prepare for. I did that. I thought about how to tackle this problem once and for all. I’ve decided to go as simple as I possibly can.

First, I attempted to clear my head by dumping everything to a file in Obsidian. Call it my master list. This is everything. Well, almost everything. There are still things in my head that I haven’t gotten out yet, but I’m working on it.

Second, I picked three things I wanted to get done today. There is a stack of 200 index cards that have been sitting unused on my desk for months. I took one of those cards scribbled the date on the back, and then jotted down the three things I wanted to do in “next action” form. I included all of the information I needed to get those things done.

Third, I stuck the card in the back of my current Field Notes notebook. I always have the notebook with me so I always have the card with me.

Now I have a simple system for focusing on what I want to get done on a given day without it being difficult to maintain or overwhelming. On the back of the card I jotted an item from my master list that would be “nice to do” if I happen to have the time after getting the other items done.

At the end of the day, I remove the completed items from my master list, drop the old card in a box, and start a new card for the next day. Simple!

Someone is bound to ask why not just make the list in my Field Notes notebook. There are two reasons. First, I use my Field Notes to capture notes, observations, ideas, etc., but it is not meant to be for taking actions. I think of it more as a creative notebook, a creative record for my day. Second, I don’t want to begin associating mundane tasks with my notebook. I think it is better to have the card; the card represents the stuff I need to do. It’s the work. The notebook is the joy and fun.

I don’t know if this will work or not. Only time will tell. But it will be time I am not spending trying out this app and wondering if the features in that one aren’t better; or how I could automate my to-do list to show up in my Daily Notes in Obsidian each day; or any of a dozen other things that distract me from actually getting my tasks done. The index card also meets all of my to-do list app requirements.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

My Shorthand for Notes and Other Writing

When I wrote recently about print vs. cursive, I said the following:

I tend to use a lot of shorthand in my journals. I rarely spell out names of my immediate family, resorting instead to first letters. I have dozens of shorthand codes for words and phrases I use commonly.

I was surprised by the number of people who reached out to ask me more about my shorthand. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to present peek into my shorthand and how it evolved. The latter is important because I can’t claim to originate all of it. I learn from the example of others in some cases.

First, a little background. When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I was fascinated by the concept of shorthand. I remember walking to the local library and pouring through books on Gregg’s Shorthand. 7th grade was right around the time I had to start taking notes and I was looking for ways to make it easier. Gregg’s shorthand never took, but the idea behind it stayed with me. Between my sophomore and junior years I found a book which in part, taught me how to take better notes. I wish I could remember the name of that book, because it has shaped the way I take notes ever since, but alas, it is lost to me.

Over the years since, I have refined the way I take notes, looking for shortcuts and adapting along the way. Eventually, it became second name to write longhand this way, and I turned it to all my longhand writing that I do for myself. (Although, admittedly, sometimes my shorthand creeps into longhand writing I do where someone else is the intended audience.) Here I’ll cover four that I use most frequently.

Examples of my shorthand in handwritten notes.

Shortcut, courtesy of the Ultima video games

When I was a teenager, I loved the Ultima games by Richard Garriott, a.k.a Lord British. I loved the detail in the games, to say nothing of the cloth maps. I also enjoyed how the game made use of Germanic runes for the language. There was a time that I could read those runes almost as well as I could read English.

One of the characters in the Ultima alphabet was a verticle line connected to a triangle (see the first item in the image above). This represented the letters “th” and I quickly adopted this as my shorthand for the word “the”. This is so ingrained in my today that I’ve lost track of how often I’ve used it in writing I’ve given to others. “The” isn’t used much in notes, but in other writing that I longhand, especially fiction, it comes up quite frequently and my shortcut saves time. I also use this to preface words that begin with “th”, like “there”, “then”, “theory,” etc.

The word “very” is very unnecessary

In a creative writing class in college, there was a discussion of the use of the word “very.” The general consensus was that the word is overused and should be avoided. Of course, it can’t always be avoided, espcially if I am taking notes that capture a quote or something someone is saying. But I did take it to heart in my notes and longhand writing. Instead of writing out the word “very” I draw a horizontal line over the word that “very” modifies. (See the second item in the image above.) So if I’m jotting down the phrase, “it was very hot today,” what I actually write is, “it was hot today” with a line over the word “hot.”

Shortcuts from the story of civilization

One of my favorite pieces of history writing is Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization series. While some of the history is dated, the writing remains a real work of art to me. A few years back, I read their Dual Autobiography. One passage really struck me as practical:

We discovered an excellent typist, Mrs. Edith Digate, who soon learned to understand Will’s handwriting and abbreviations (d=ed, g=ing,…, etc.)

Ever since reading that, I’ve taken to using “g” at the end of a word instead of “ing” when I am writing longhand. (See the third item in the image above.) So in writing out words like,”writing” I write “writg”. I also write “runng”, “talkg”, “sleepg”, etc.

I never adopted the “d” for “ed”. I don’t know why. Maybe because it was not as efficient.

Taking a page from the British Secret Service

Anyone who has seen a James Bond film knows that many of the characters within the secret service are known only by a letter: Q and M being the most famous examples. For the most common names I use in piece of writing, I typically will resort to using just the first letter. (See the fourth item in the image above.) In my journals, I use the first letters of the names of my immediate family members instead of the full names. Fortunately there is no overlap. In fiction, I do this for main characters so long as the shortcut will cause no confusion.


Of course, I abbreviate many words for convenience and speed as well. I have grown used to my shortcuts, but I still often lust for being able to take notes using real shorthand. I remember attending a meeting early in my career in which an administrative assistant took notes in shorthand. She was able to reproduce verbatim, everything said in the meeting. The pages looked like gibberish, but I was impressed.

I’m always looking for ways to improve and refine my own shorthand, so if anyone has tips or suggests, drop them in the comments. I’d love to see how others do this.

My Current Obsession: The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast

For the last six days, I have done almost no reading, a thing virtually unheard of for me. Instead, I have been obsessively listening to back-episodes of the Tim Ferriss Show Podcast. Tim Ferriss is the author of the Four Hour Work Week, a book that I skimmed, but never finished. I have, however, read two of Tim’s books that I really enjoyed, Tribe of Mentors and Tools of Titans. I’ve never been much of a podcast fan, but the thing that attracted me to Tim’s podcast was that I knew he was a meticulous experimenter, and tried to learn from data. I’m this way as well–as I wrote about often in the days after I discovered the concept of the quantified self.

I have always been someone who tries to take actionable lessons from my reading and experiences. When I read biographies, I take notes on things that the subject found useful and see if I can apply them in my life. Tribe of Mentors and Tools of Titans were chock full of these kinds of actionable insights. (One example: I learned of the Calm app, and have been using it for over a year now for daily meditation.) So I figured I’d give the podcast a try. I started with the most recent episode this past Friday, which wasn’t an interview, but a kind of roundup. After that, I went through the back list of 517 other episodes and marked the ones I thought I’d be initially interested in listening to. The list below is the list that I have listened to in the six days since. It is listed in order beginning with my most favorite. I list the times of the episodes to give a sense of just how obsessed I’ve become with these.

I’ve done the math: that is 19 hours of podcasts in less than six days. Obsessed is probably not an exaggeration. I have filled pages of my current Field Notes notebook with notes, ideas, and scribbling from these podcasts.

Raw notes I've taken from podcasts
Raw notes I’ve taken from podcasts

I’ve then tried to turn these into curated notes in Obsidian, for example from the first Jim Collins interview on the podcast:

Some of my curated notes from the first Jim Collins interview
Some of my curated notes from the first Jim Collins interview

And this is what I’ve managed to get through so far. I’ve got at least another 20 or so in the list I pulled, including a second interview with Walter Isaacson, Ken Burns, Steven Pressfield, Michael Lewis, Edward Norton, Neil deGrasse Tyson, David Allen, Adam Savage, Nick Thompson, Drew Houston, Tim O’Reilly, and more.

I usually get a bit anxious if I am not reading a book, especially after a few days, but I’ve been so focused on these podcasts and what I can learn from them, that it hasn’t bothered that I haven’t done much reading in the last six days. It doesn’t bother me to think I may not do much over the coming week or so as I get through this initial wave of podcasts. It has actually been a pleasant change of pace.

The only problem is what to do with the mass of notes I’ve been generating. I think I’m going to need to set aside an entire day to compile and make sense of them, and figure out what actions I want to take first, and put together a plan. It’s really great fun, I find myself smiling often as I listen to the podcasts, and have been honestly surprised (despite how much I read) at how many of the books mentioned on the podcast I have already read. And of course, rather dismayed by how many I have yet to read.

Evernote and Obsidian: Collecting vs. Creating

As I have continued to increase my use of Obsidian over the last few months, I have occasionally felt a little guilty at my neglect for Evernote. I keep coming back to the question: why not use Evernote for the stuff that I am putting into Obsidian? Yesterday, while thinking about this question, I came up with the answer. It is all about collecting versus creating.

Collecting

If you look back at my Going Paperless posts, they are all about collecting and categorizing information in some form or another. From the early days when I described my process for going paperless and tips on how I use Evernote to remember everything to the way I used Evernote as a mobile paperless office or capturing technology setup instructions, everything I wrote about, everything I experimented with was about how to collect, categorize, and find the information I needed at moment’s notice. What I didn’t write about much, because I simply didn’t do it, was create new stuff in Evernote.

Why not create in Evernote? Two reasons come to mind.

  1. It is still faster to jot something (an idea, a list) down in a pocket notebook than it is to pull out my phone, unlock it, fire up the Evernote app, and tap out the note on the touchscreen. I wrote about this as far back as 2013 when I discussed how I performed time trials of using a Field Notes notebook instead of Evernote.
  2. I’ve never been convinced that Evernote’s note-taking interface was an improvement over similar WYSIWYG interfaces. I find I spend too much time doing things like trying to get the formatting correct, and not enough time in the process of actual creation. Evernote is not unique in this regard. This is a problem I have with most WYSIWYG interfaces.

I still collect things in Evernote just as I always have. I still categorize them, refining my taxonomy, finding ways to make it easier to search for what I am looking for. But I still don’t create things in Evernote.

Creating

When it comes to writing things down, Obsidian has become the only tool I use for creation. Indeed, while I still carry around a Field Notes notebook wherever I go, and while I still fill them up, I have started to transcribe those notes into Obsidian to have the content of the 25 notebooks I have filled thus far accessible when I need it. But I transcribe them into Obsidian because I see those notes as acts of creation on my part, not me collecting things for which I had no part in the creation.

Obsidian is an entirely text-based editor that uses markdown to allow the separation of the content versus the presentation layer, something I find to be of utmost importance in a writing tool. (Scrivener does this as well.) That said, it is no faster at jotting down content than my Field Notes notebook because I still have to go through the same steps I’d go through with Evernote: pulling out the phone, unlocking it, etc.

But I do think it has important improvements over WYSIWYG interfaces that make it much for useful for creation:

  1. I can use markdown to format how I like things without spending much time worry about the formatting. I can use a third party tool like Pandoc to export the notes into whatever format I want.
  2. I can create links between my notes with ease and visualize how the notes are related to one another. The former can be done in Evernote, but not the latter.
  3. There is little to distract during the creation process so I find it easier to focus on what I am creating.
  4. The things I create in Obsidian, because they are plain text, lend themselves more readily to automation. Take my daily notes, for example.
Current map of my note links in Obsidian
Current map of my note links in Obsidian

Balance

This notion of collecting versus creating has helped provide some balance to how I think of these tools. Evernote is my digital filing cabinet–it has been since I first began using it nearly 11 years ago.

But for my own creations: notes, stories, blog posts, essays, lists, anything that is the product of my brain, Obsidian is a living archive, one that makes it easy to create content and provide context to the creation by through its innovating note linking. I now have a much better sense of what goes where, and why.

My 5 Tactics for Overcoming Writer’s Block

I recently began writing again with a somewhat ambitious goal, after several years of writer’s block. Not long after I started up again, I found myself repeating some of the same things I did when mired in that block. Much of this consisted of rewriting the same passages over and over again while still in the first draft. This led to a lot of words, but little forward progress, like a tricked out car, spinning its rear wheels, but doing nothing but burning rubber. This time, however, with my goals in mind, I set out to solve this problem once and for all. And so far, my solution seems to be working.

I had tried to simplify my environment, stripping the tools I use down the studs. Instead of an elaborate word processor like Scrivener or even a lighter model like Google Docs, I’ve been doing all my writing in Obsidian, which is a text editor. This way I don’t have to worry about how the document looks and can focus entirely on the content. But I found that even in a text editor, it is too easy for me to go back and make changes, and worry about what I’d already written. In a first draft, the most important thing for me is to figure out the story and move it forward. I type quickly and it is easy to eliminate and rewrite a few paragraphs. I needed a way to prevent myself from doing this.

Tactic 1: Write the first draft in longhand

I decided to go in a completely different direction. I pulled out a blank Leuchtturm 1917 I had on the shelve, and decided I’d use this book for the first draft. I’d do it longhand. By doing so, I am much less likely to go back and change things in the first draft. It is not nearly as easy to “cut and paste” and rewrite in a notebook than it is on a computer.

The Leuchtturm 1917 notebook in which I am writing the first draft of this novel.

Tactic 2: Print instead of cursive

I can write longhand much more quickly in cursive than by printing. But I have deliberately chosen to print because it slows me down. Instead of rushing into things, I am trying to think more deliberately about what I am writing, to think ahead a little more before I put pen to paper.

Tactic 3: Alternate ink colors

I think I read somewhere that Neil Gaiman does this. I started with black ink one day, and the next day, I wrote in blue in. Then I switched back to black ink. Switching colors give me a clear picture of how much I managed to write on a given day. If I have special notes that I want to make to myself, I do those in red ink so that they stand out from the alternating day-to-day colors.

A full handwritten page in the notebook

Tactic 4: Low tech word counts

Writing long hand makes it a little more tricky to get word counts, but words counts are important to me when I am working toward a goal. It would be nice to ignore them completely, but I am trying to learn how to write a novel length piece in a way that I can reproduce again and again, year after year, making refinements along the way. The data is important.

To simplify this, I averaged out the word count of the first few pages. My handwriting is consistent so I was comfortable with this measure. It came to about 370 words/page. I think created a table at the beginning of my notebook giving my words counts by page (and fractional page) counts:

My word count table.

This chart allows me, at a glance, to see how much I wrote on a given day. Yesterday, for instance, I wrote 2-1/2 pages, which according to my table says I wrote about 925 words. I can also use the chart to see how much I have written in total. (50 pages = ~18,500 words, etc.)

Tactic 5: Distraction-free writing

Writing in the notebook gets me completely off the computer and removes any distractions that might be associated with that. Often, when I get stuck on something, I’ll start browsing, go down some rabbit hole, and then call it quits. With the notebook, I at least have removed that distraction.


So far, this seems to be helping, but the proof will be when I have a finished first draft in hand later this year. When that happens, I’ll post an update and add any refinements I’ve made along the way for others who might be interested.

500 Fresh Beginnings

Almost exactly six months ago, I bought two packages of 500-sheets of mixed media heavyweight art paper. I was inspired to make this purchase for two reasons. The first was because I found the kids were grabbing printer paper for their art and drawings. I like good quality printer paper and the stuff I buy isn’t the cheapest. So I bought them the art paper with the caveat that they use that for their art and leave the printer paper alone. Yesterday, the finished going through the first pack of 500 sheets. I noticed this morning that the second pack of 500 sheets had been opened. It took them 6 months to get through 500 sheets.

They use the art paper for all kinds of things. The Little Miss draws all the time. The Little Man does too, and I find it fascinating how their artwork varies. The Little Miss has been into the Kawaii style of drawing lately. Her drawings are colorful and minimalist. The Little Man has always been into drawing detailed spaceships, bases, Titan-like robots, and epic battles taking place on planetary scales. His drawings are detailed, but almost always black and white, usually black ink.

I woke up this morning and had two Father’s Day cards they made using a couple of those 500 sheets of paper.

The second reason I bought the paper was because it was something I always wanted when I was a kid. I remember loving to draw. My dad had this notepads he’d get from his work with a company letterhead across the top of one side, but I’d use that as my scratch paper and drawing paper. I remember walking through stationary store or the art section of toy stores envious of the amazing pads of paper they had, sketchbooks with thick pages. Paper with different textures besides the newsprint style paper I often used in school, or the manila paper on which I did some of my own drawings.

Art is important and I wanted to encourage it in my kids. Art doesn’t require the best products to make it. It can be made on anything. But I thought that if they had some good paper to work with, it would encourage them to continue to make their art, and that the art they made would last longer. I still have some of my art from those early days. My mom saved it and sent it back to me a few years ago. I’ve even managed to digitize some of it.

With so much stuff happening online these days, drawing allows the kids to choose to deliberately set aside their devices and get back to some basics: exercising fine motor skills, of course, and exercising their imaginations, too. But more than that, expressing that imagination on a blank page. I do that by writing, but I know that feeling of coming into first contact with a blank page and turning it into something else entirely. There is nothing like a blank page to start something new. That’s probably the most important reason why I bought the kids 1,000 blank pages.

They represent 1,000 fresh beginnings, 1,000 opportunities, 1,000 chances to daydream for them.

The Last Day of School

Today is the last day of school for the Little Man before the summer begins. The Little Miss and the Little Miss finished up school a week ago, and the Littlest Miss a week before that. Thinking about the last days of school has put me in mind my own last days of school.

It wasn’t the last day of school that I remember looking forward to. It was the first day of summer. My fondest memories of last days at school was in fourth and fifth grades when I lived in New England. The days always seem bright, clear, and warm. You could feel summer in the air. The last days at the elementary school I attended were half-days, and they were not spent in the classroom. We split our time between the playgrounds outdoors, and the gym.

The school was surrounded by wooded areas with a big field on one side, and a large paved area in between. There were several areas with playground equipment, and several other areas where we would play tag. I remember an excitement in the air. School was over and the summer was beginning. As a nine or ten year old, summer seemed to stretch out forever and the next school year was the vaguest blur on the horizon.

In the gym, we watched movies, and I seem to recall there being snacks offered, popcorn and other sweets. I have vague memories of one particular movie we saw, but not enough to identify it. I do remember enjoying it.

Summer meant being able to sleep in a bit, but I think we wanted to get out an play with our friends. These were the days before personal devices of any kind. There was cable, and a few friends had Atari consoles. MTV was the biggest draw, but we were more interested in getting outside.

Later, when we moved to L.A., the last day of school brought on similar emotions. We’d fall into a routine of watching a few TV shows in the morning before finally striking out with our friends to find whatever adventures awaited. We’d watch reruns of The Love Boat or The Dukes of Hazzard. Occasionally, I remember watching reruns of Flipper. Then we’d be out and enjoying the summer.

I lived in the moment back then, far more than I am capable of doing today. I never thought about the coming school year. I rarely thought about the next day. Summer was each day unto itself, and the next day was an entirely new summer. There were plenty of moments of boredom, but looking back on it, I am grateful for that boredom. It is where my mind would wander.

My last real summer vacation was the summer after tenth grade. After that, I was old enough to begin working, and I spent my summers working, first in a stationary store, then in a local pharmacy. There was still time to play, still time to hang out with friends, but work was an obligation, like school, and it took the shine off my summers. I haven’t had a summer off since.

With my retirement now about ten years away, I have started to think of my last day of work the way I used to think of my last day of school. I think it would be fitting to retire sometime in mid-to-late June. It would be very much like the last day of school, and for the first time in more than forty years, I’d have an entire summer spread about before me, each day its own mini-summer, ready to explore.

Print vs. Cursive

Back on September 5, 2020, I switched my handwriting in my journal from printing to cursive. There was no real reason to do it. I think maybe I had been browsing John Quincy Adams’ diaries and was impressed by his handwriting and wanted to see if I remembered how to write in cursive. I continued to write in cursive in my journal for the next 280 days.

A few days ago, I switched back to printing. This time, it was also mostly on a whim, but there was a little more thought behind the change. I’ve often thought my journals might be interesting for my kids when I am old or have passed on. They might enjoy reading about stuff we did when they were younger, thought I had on things, maybe get to know me a little better through this daily writing. But when I look at my cursive handwriting, it is much more difficult to read than my print writing. I began wondering if I was creating an unnecessary barrier.

A sample showing my transition of cursive back to print writing.
My transition from cursive back to printing.

I learned to write in cursive beginning in 2nd grade. My older kids have also learned to write in cursive. But I gave it up as quickly as I could manage. I think it was in 7th grade when I started printing again, and I only ever printed from that point until I decided to experiment in my journal with cursive handwriting 280 days ago.

My printing is much neater than my cursive handwriting. If I slow myself down, I can make my cursive writing neater, but it never comes close to looking elegant, and really, I don’t want to slow down. I write quickly and I want to get it out quickly. One of the benefits of cursive writing was that it allowed me to write faster than printing–but at a cost of readability. And since the journals are there for reference, readability is of higher overall importance than speed.

I tend to use a lot of shorthand in my journals. I rarely spell out names of my immediate family, resorting instead to first letters. I have dozens of shorthand codes for words and phrases I use commonly. These come across much more clearly and cleanly when I print than when I write in cursive. Cursive doesn’t lend itself to my kind of shorthand. I gain back some of the speed that I lose when printing thanks to my homegrown shorthand.

I enjoy the flowing feeling of writing in cursive more than the choppy feel I get from printing. This is especially true when writing with my fountain pen. But once again, practicality wins out. I need to be able to read what I am writing, and when I start to pick up speed in cursive, my writing becomes difficult to parse. So for now, I have switched back to printing.

It is interesting to flip through the dozen or so volumes that make up my journals and see how my writing changes over time. Cursive at one point, printing at another, but more than that, the style of printing. Sometimes I print larger letters, other times, I go for weeks with microscopic print.

I know there is an ongoing debate: print vs. cursive. But for purely practical purposes, I land squarely on the side of print–even though I adore the feeling of writing in cursive.