Friday Morning Ramblings

For Christmas, I received Desert Solitaire which is a tale of one man in the American West, specifically the desert region of southern Utah around Moab and the Arches National Park. Abbey writes beautifully of the desert and of the wilderness in general which he was afraid was becoming urbanized and lost. His tales of adventures like rafting down the Colorado river in two inflatable dinghies with a friend, sans any life jackets, just so they could see Glen Canyon before Lake Powell was built reminds me of John Graves Goodbye To A River which I read last year. The poignancy of Graves is contrasted with an almost militancy of Abbey who rails against the loss of a wilderness once haunted only by Native Americans and wildlife. Abbey’s works later became the basis for many environmental anarchists which is unsurprising. He quotes Bakunin, the great Russian anarchist, in one place in the book so I assume he must have read and probably approved of the philosophy in many ways. The intrusion of the state into what once was pristine wilderness was a theme of both Graves and Abbey, each in their own way. Bakunin wrote (slightly paraphrased) that “sometimes creation can only be achieved through destruction. Therefore, the passion for destruction is also a creative passion.”

On its face, this seems illogical but is in fact how the natural world and in theory the capitalistic world operates. Only through destruction of the weak as well as the unlucky can things evolve. The flash flood that roars down a dry arroyo sweeps away much but allows nature to regenerate and change in ways a central planner could never even conceive of. In the same way, when a business fails, it opens a hole in the ecosystem for a better or more appropriate business. Of course, the mule deer fawn unlucky enough to be born in that arroyo is destroyed as well when he cannot outrun the flood, a incident of bad luck unrelated to fitness. This is the concept that we as conscious feeling humans cannot bear. However, our inclination to save all things is carried to far when we save those things that are irreparable or fundamentally flawed. We “save” things that should be dead. This is evident in all aspects of our life from our artificial struggles to extend life at its boundaries, our bailing out of banks that should be tits up, our desire to keep wildfires from the forest and so many other examples. Our drive to protect from events like a flash flood or a forest fire or a global financial melt down causes us to only postpone and worsen the event when it happens. This is proven over and over again. This central planning eventually fails, in all cases. In theory, our federation of states protects us as a country from this but over time, our states have become more bureaucratic and our central government has become more powerful especially financially and militarily.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes of this failure in central planning a great deal in Antifragile. Bureaucracies are like black holes unfortunately, in that they eventually achieve their own gravity, sucking in the galaxies that surround them. Without constant involvement and care, our governments become larger and larger because people have a natural inclination to “do things” when oftentimes doing nothing would be the right choice. This makes me think of code and the effort required to keep it running and error free. As we become more distracted and riddled with our own problems, we do not have the capability to devote to keeping our civilization and government under control. In the same way that invariably we eventually throw something away and replace it with something new, our liberal democracy will eventually be thrown away because we did not invest the required effort to keep it running. This seems unlikely, possibly even impossible, in a country that has not had a revolution in 150 years. But it is the nature of the world and we are part of the world. Without regular care and pruning and hard choices that none of our current mass of politicians and their cushy jobs for life can manage, liberal democracy will go away. We see this happening at the edges now and ignore it at our peril.

As we continue to grow the throw away society that we currently operate under, it only becomes more and more ingrained that fixing things is an outdated idea for the dustbin of history. Already, self-reliance is almost unheard of (though in some urban settings there is a resurgence of things like gardens and chickens which is promising until the city you live in decides to outlaw the practices). Our debt fueled society and world is already beginning to groan under the weight as growth slows down. We tell kids to get a college education, any college education, at any cost, student loans can be worried about later and then wonder why they can’t spend money in our consumerist society even if they are lucky enough to get a job. We give people larger and larger portions of increasingly crappy food and wonder why we have a health crisis blowing up. We have a pill for everything, the easy way out instead of the hard way. Our lives of comfort leak into everything that affects us and we often unquestioningly choose that which is easy or that which seems protective, forgetting that it is through hardship and struggle and even destruction (or the removal of something) that causes growth.

Is all of this so much “Hey you kids get off my lawn!” or the age old complaint by your grandparents that you never had it so easy? To some degree, perhaps. But we know that when we go longer than we should without some form of destruction or deprivation, the resulting event that nature wreaks on us is larger and more painful. Turns out three meals a day for life probably isn’t good for you, any more than giving trillions of dollars to the four largest banks so that they could continue to leech off our blood was. Without destruction, there can be no creation. They are opposite sides of the same coin, one that we have flipped in our society and forced it to come up heads for too long. When it finally lands on tails, it will be too heavy for us to pay what’s due.

There is a beautiful sunrise out my eastern kitchen window. The way light is morphed into so many colors is fascinating. I took a half day off Wednesday and we went to see Monet: The Early Years at the Kimball. He was a master at studying and recreating the effects of light in a way that if you look closely turns to painted gibberish. I wonder how many of our artists today study and reflect on light in the way the Impressionists did. I wish that my view wasn’t obstructed by power lines and neighbors trees and houses. A sunrise like this on the prairie or mountains would be truly magnificent. Still, the light changing from pinks to orange with light blues interspersed and streaked between is wonderful.

The Genesis of A Novel Isn’t That Important

“Whenever I begin a novel,” he said, “the beginning never stays at the beginning. It ends up in the middle, or near the end. It never stays put where I started.”

That is an interesting quote from Philip Graham’s latest post on writing a novel and how to approach it. It’s eye opening to me because I have always assumed novels sprang mostly fully formed into the minds of their authors. In thinking about that though, it seems silly in the same way that thinking fully formed software solutions spring into the minds of software architects. What instead most likely happens is that you begin writing a novel and realize along the way that this feature needed to be added before, or this character needed to be fleshed out or one of any number of other things. Or maybe you see the end of a piece of the plot so you write that and then return to the beginning.

This concept of creating pieces of a novel and then tying them all together is intriguing to me. I think it’s why my writing instructor used to say to not worry about the plot and instead develop characters. The plot may be drastically different from what you originally conceived but if you have strong characters, the reader will still be interested.

This also ties into my previous post on writing a lot, regardless of quality. The more I write, the more ideas I have for writing not only on blogs but in fiction as well. When you develop characters, you begin to see how they might fit into their world, what issues they might have, what stories they might have to tell. If you just wait for a plot or story to develop in your consciousness, I don’t think you’ll write very many stories.

The idea of pieces of the novel communicating with each other over time is fascinating, an almost iterative approach to writing a story. As characters develop, their stories will start to reveal themselves to the author which leads to the plot of the novel developing around the characters instead of the other way around. The stories I have always been most interested in are ones that have interesting characters. I become attached to the character and thus the story takes on meaning through their eyes. It only makes sense that a novel would be written around the characters, allowing the plot to develop naturally as the characters become deeper and more involved with each other.

Create interesting characters and you will create interesting stories.

Writing A Lot

I ran across this post today on Hacker News. The short synopsis of the post is Sebastian explaining how he writes so much but it’s definitely worth reading the whole thing. I wanted to consider a couple of thoughts he brings up. For the 4 or 5 people who still regularly check in here, it comes as no surprise that I haven’t been writing much lately. There are a variety of reasons for that but one of the key ones is the self-censoring critic that lives in my head and deems most things as unworthy of human consumption. I’ve been struggling with need to write good stuff all the time and what actually happens is nothing gets written. The problem is, as Sebastian explains, if you want to make excellent stuff, you have to make a lot of crap.

This is not to say that if you make lots of crap, you’ll eventually make something excellent. No matter how long a single monkey types, his chances of producing the entire works of Shakespeare are so minute as to be considered impossible. You still need to be trying and improving the crap that you produce. But without that output, the chance of actually producing anything worth consuming at all is very small.

I’ve fallen into the rut of expecting things to be very good. That perfectionism has caused my output to dwindle to next to nothing. That’s got to stop. This happens in my software life too, the need to do things that are good becomes overpowering and causes me to do nothing at all. That need to be my best will almost always lead me to do nothing. Perfect stands in the way of progress and all.

Of course, the problem with all this is that if you’re writing a blog and producing lots of content, people are going to see the good and the bad. Before the Internet, writers still produced a lot but only their best stuff got published. Now, with the click of a button, everything gets published. I’m not sure that’s a good or bad thing but of course, it contributes to the body of work that people have to sift through to find out if you constantly put out crap or actually have good stuff occasionally. I’m lucky, most of the people who read my stuff think I’m a good writer. I’m always humbled and flattered by that. I’m also lucky that writing comes easier to me than to most people. I think that’s because in general, we are social animals and people express themselves socially with others. I’m much more comfortable sitting down and hammering out my thoughts on paper (or in bits and bytes). I love long discussions via email or letter though those things never happen much in our busy world. So I guess I’m lucky.

This is a lot of self-indulgent navel gazing but it seems to me that it’s applicable to any realm of creativity. You can’t become an excellent software developer unless you produce massive bodies of software. You can’t become an excellent musician unless you practice fundamentals and basics for years. The creative endeavor is almost alway backed by thousands of hours of what is essentially crap. When you stop producing crap, you stop being excellent as well.

The Gap Between Taste and Ability

I recently ran across this video of Ira Glass talking about the huge gap that exists between your taste in creative endeavors and your ability to create. I’ve always implicitly known this gap existed but this is the first time I’ve heard or seen it vocalized so clearly. I think most creative people struggle with what they see as the inferior things they create and what they know is actually good. Oftentimes, creative people are extremely hard on their work, even though the consumers of their work think it’s very good. This is because of that gap.

Ira suggests that the way to close that gap is just to produce a huge quantity of work, whatever it is that you want to get better at. For writing, this is the spirit behind National Novel Writing Month. The aim there is to just write, quantity over quality and get past the inner critic. It’s a useful exercise even if done in slightly less extremes like writing in a journal for an hour or playing scales for an hour or solving Project Euler problems. Of course, to really improve, it takes not just quantity but also time.

Current evidence says that it takes 10 years of constant practice to truly master anything whether it’s painting, writing, coding software or playing professional golf. It’s something that’s difficult to comprehend especially in the day and age we live in where everything is immediate. But the fact is, if you want to be truly great (or even just better than average), it takes a huge quantity of whatever it is you want to improve in to get the job done and a great deal of time to let it soak in.

I struggle with this gap a lot, both in my daily work and in my writing. I find my internal critic to be quite vocal and my internal creative genius to be shy and reserved. I’ve written about this before, the critic taking hold of both my voice and the publish button, rendering what might be perfectly good content to the dustbin of the drafts folder here at The Experiment. I write a lot that is never going to be published but I’m not sure you improve as fast when you aren’t put content out where people can see it. This is similar to the agile way of writing software, getting it out to the users quickly so that they can tell you where it is right and wrong. Of course, all analogies fall short somewhere and with writing, I would never want my audience to dictate what I produce because if that happens, it’s no longer my voice producing the work. But it’s a useful analogy in that producing a lot of work is the fastest way to improve.

I find that the hardest part of creating is just doing it for extended periods of time amid the thousands of distractions that demand attention all the time. Right now, instead of focusing on this post, I’m also monitoring the Cavs-Magic game, checking my email, listening to music and who knows what else. Doing things for 15 minutes at a time never aids improvement. I find that my attention is constantly fragmented unless I very deliberately and consciously eliminate distractions. When I do this, as I fight through the anxiety of not paying attention to things that don’t matter, I discover that my productivity goes up as well as the quality. The difficulty lies in unplugging for the time necessary to achieve that productivity.

In the end, the only way to quiet the critic is to constantly produce content of a long period of time. Eventually, assuming some level of underlying talent, the gap can be closed or at least narrowed to an acceptable distance.