Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

There are times when something we read has a profound impact and influence on us. For me, that came with a magazine article I read in 1979. That article was an interview with guitarist Robert Fripp, best known as the founder and leader of the band King Crimson. The magazine, a long-defunct publication called Future Life.

Even if you're of my generation, chances are you haven't heard of Future Life — it was overshadowed by other, similar magazine from that time including its sister publication Starlog and Omni. The best way to describe Future Life is as speculative or futurist. It looked at current trends in science and futurism, and pondered what could be. The magazine also included interviews with forward-thinking individuals from a variety of areas and disciplines.

The interview with Fripp was in issue 14, cover dated November, 1979. In that interview, Fripp used the metaphor of the dinosaur versus the gazelle to contrast traditional, monolithic systems and smaller, more agile and self sufficient ones. The latter, Fripp dubbed small, mobile, self-contained units. Fripp contrasted traditional systems and hierarchies that move slowly and take too long to react with smaller, more compact systems that can easily adapt to sudden changes.

As you can tell, that idea of small, mobile, and self contained struck a chord in my 12-year-old brain. Thirty-six years on, that phrase and the concept behind it still does.

If you're in software development, you'll probably recognize small, mobile, and self contained is similar to the idea behind Agile. But it goes beyond merely writing and releasing code. It's a way of organizing communities, governments, and societies. It's a way of leaving a small footprint, of reducing your use of resources, of building something sustainable. In case you're wondering, Fripp did put this philosophy into practice, with some degree of success, with his band The League of Gentlemen and with the 1981-1984 incarnation of King Crimson.

Even as a pre teen I recognized, though I didn't quite understand, the problems with existing political and social and corporate systems. The idea of breaking society down into small, mobile, self contained units appealed to me. Maybe it's a utopian idea. We need more ideas like that, and the cynics be damned.

Try to imagine a world made up of small, mobile, self-contained units. Units which quickly adapt to change, which can quickly find solutions to problems, which can temporarily (or longer) come together to form a larger, stronger, more adaptive community.

That world would be an interesting place, indeed. A better place? I'd hope so.

In the early 1990s, I was heavily into desktop publishing (DTP). As I was learning that craft, I couldn't afford heavy-duty DTP software like FrameMaker or Ventura Publisher or QuarkXpress. But I did have a copy of WordPerfect 5.1 (yes, that version, the one which ran under DOS). And, coincidentally, I around that time I stumbled across a book titled Desktop Publishing with WordPerfect 5.1.

Using the two, I managed to learn how to publish long, well-formatted documents using a tool that wasn't really designed for that task. It was a cumbersome process, but it was possible.

In learning to desktop publish with WordPerfect 5.1, I garnered a valuable lesson: unless you have no other choice, it's not worth the time or effort to push your tools beyond their intended uses.

It's not uncommon to come across blog posts and hacks that tell you how to wrestle an application into doing something it wasn't designed to do.

Take Evernote, for example. Ostensibly, it's a tool for collecting and organizing information. But it's not a word processor. It's not a blog post editor. It's not a task or checklist manager. It's not a flashcard app, and it's not a presentation tool. Yet many people who use Evernote use it for all of those tasks. And a whole lot more.

As good as Evernote is at collecting and organizing information, it's not as good as the dedicated application people try to use it to replace.

I can understand why people try to push their tools beyond their uses, beyond their limits: they might not want to clutter their hard drives up with specialized applications. Remember what I did with WordPerfect those 20+ years ago?

Sometimes, though, you need to bite the bullet. You need to recognize the limits of the tool that you're using and, when necessary, turn to something else.

Remember that the goal behind using tools is to help us do a job faster and more efficiently. To free up our time to do other thinks besides work. I don't think that trying to push your tools beyond their limits is the most productive use of your time and energy.

Even though I'm in my early 50s, I don't know what I want to be when I grow up. Well, that's not quite true. I do know what I want to be when I grow up. It's just that I haven't been able to make that a reality yet.

Think about what you wanted to do for a living when you were younger. In my case, that ran the gamut from being a helicopter pilot to a diver to an anthropologist to a fiction writer to a translator. None of those careers panned out, for a variety of reasons.

I was passionate about those options. Some more than others, admittedly. But, as Cal Newport argues in his book So Good They Can't Ignore You, passion often isn't enough when pursuing a career. Instead, you need to temper your passion with ability and experience. You need to approach your career with the eye of the craftsman: you get good at something you enjoy. So good, as the title of Newport's book states, that people can't ignore you.

One of the reasons a few of the careers that I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago didn't pan out was because my ability didn't live up to the dream. Even though I worked at becoming better, I hit the ceiling of my abilities in those areas. A ceiling I couldn't break through.

That said, I did learn some valuable lessons and did pick up a few skills that I could apply to what I'm truly passionate about: writing.

To be honest, I got lucky. I've been passionate about writing since my teens. I managed to get fairly good at it, too. My problem was that for the longest time I wasn't sure what kind of writing I wanted to do. Even though I majored in print journalism in university, I discovered that the grind of daily journalism wasn't for me. Luckily, there are other forms of non-fiction writing I was able to pour my energies into.

Of course, it's easy to lose your passion for something even if you have considerable experience and ability. For over 20 years, I've been a professional technical writer. I was passionate about technical writing. Until I wasn't. A variety of reasons for that, but my passion for that profession fizzled.

Take my friend Kyle. I met him when we were both in the technical writing trenches. He had another passion, but eventually put that aside. He found, though, that he loved investigative and analytical work. Kyle spent a couple of years taking a number of course and, about two years ago, changed careers. He worked for several years at the crime lab of a major police department, but now does the same job at a major bank. It's a career he never dreamed of, but one he loves.

There's nothing wrong with having a dream. Dreams drive us forward. Sometimes, though, dreams aren't practical or they're beyond our reach or they're just not viable. Instead of trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up, perhaps you should grow up and find what you want to be. That could come to you from an unexpected direction.

Every would-be writer has a million words of s**t clogging up his system, so it behooves him to get it out as soon as possible. To get to the good stuff.

Mike Baron

You need to face the fact that you'll write poorly, even badly, when start out on your journey as a writer. You'll see flashes of the writer you'll become, but those flashes are fleeting.

You shouldn't be discouraged. It takes time to learn the craft of writing, to become disciplined, to develop a distinctive style. Blame a lot of that on the million words of s**t clogging up your system. The million words you can't quite shape in the way you want to.

You'll find yourself struggling. You'll find yourself aping, whether deliberately or not, some of the writers you're reading or who you admire. As you write, as you get that million words of s**t out of your system, you'll notice a change in your writing. You'll notice your writing evolving. You'll notice a shift in tone, in structure, in style.

If you're doing the job correctly — writing with focus, getting feedback, taking time to learn the rules of writing and how to write properly — you'll see an improvement in your work. You'll see and feel yourself growing as a writer. You'll see your words and the stories you want to tell taking shape in the way you want them to.

But you can't just blindly and blithely tap out word after word, hoping to become better. That's like throwing rocks at a target in the dark. You might hit it every so often, but your aim won't improve beyond a certain point. You need to, as I mentioned a paragraph ago, to write with focus. You need to put in the hours and the effort and the sweat.

Your journey as a writer is a long one. Really, it never ends. The longer you're on that journey, the more you focus on your goals as a writer, the better you become.

(Note: This post was part of an edition of my weekly letter. It appears here via permission from ... well, me!)

In the early 2000s, I remember watching a global call-in show on BBC World News. That show invited viewers to telephone, Skype, fax, instant message, and email about that week's topic. The particular edition I tuned into discussed how to reduce your carbon footprint. The one email that I recall vividly was from a viewer in Scotland. He wrote that he couldn't afford to convert his household to green technologies and, that being one person, his efforts wouldn't put a dent in the situation. So, he'd opted to do nothing.

Maybe that viewer couldn't afford turn his home into a bastion of renewable energy. But he could have take several small steps — like using energy-efficient bulbs, turning off lights, air drying his clothes. One person doing that makes no appreciable difference. If a 100 do that, it puts a small dent in the problem. A million? That makes a huge difference.

Crowdfunding is an excellent expression of small as a force multiplier. It gives ideas and products which might not have a large potential market a chance to see the light of day. Backers can pledge anywhere from a few dollars to hundreds or thousands of dollars to support something that intrigues them. The people behind the crowdfunding campaign get a chance to take a product or idea with a narrow niche and make it a reality.

Small steps. Small gestures. Alone, they amount to little. Multiply those gestures by hundreds or thousands or millions or more, and you wind up with something incredible.

Giving in for one night and saying the hell with it, I'll start again tomorrow, is fine, and you should never worry about doing it. The world won't end because you say the hell with it and get comfortable for one damn night. And if it does? Well, s**t, were you guarding the single button that was going to save the world? No, you weren't.

— Warren Ellis

I know far too many people who feel, for lack of a better word, guilty if they're not working. They've become so tightly coupled to the productivity assembly line that they can't step away, even when their minds and bodies tell them to.

That's no way to work. That's no way to live.

That can come back to haunt you. It did with me.

Several years ago, I was working a lot. I'd started my own small consulting business. I was blogging. I was doing a lot of freelance writing. Five, six days a week. Often all seven of those days without a pause.

Then, one weekend, my body and my brain turned on me. I was physically weak. I was weighed down by fatigue. I was too tired to do anything except lay on the couch and watch BBC World News.

That weekend taught me a valuable lesson: it's OK to take a break once in a while. Now, when my body and mind tell me they can't do something, I don't push through the fatigue. I don't force myself to do something. I listen to what my mind and body say and step back.

I know that if I do try to push through, I'll only be working at 20% or 30% efficiency. I'll spend more time the next day re-doing what I did the previous day — the quality of my work suffers when my mind and body aren't in the proper state.

Don't feel guilty about taking a break. Don't deny yourself that break. Sometimes, you need to step away. It keeps your mind and body fresh. It allows you to relax and reflect. In the longer run, taking a break will improve your work. It could improve your life, even if just a little.

Two people taking a break

Photo by picjumbo.com from Pexels

I'm not religious or spiritual. Aside from a brief dalliance with Buddhism in my teens, don't think I ever will be. But places of worship fascinate me. The architecture, the aesthetic and, often the scope, can be stunning. These places are as much for praying to a deity as they are for instilling a sense of awe and reverence in the people who gather in them.

Not being religious, that sense of reverence is lost on me. But the sense of awe? For the longest time, I've believed that you can tell more about a place when it's not being used for purpose than when it is. I've been to many lovely churches, cathedrals, and temples around the world when worship or services weren't happening. In most of them, I never felt a sense of awe or majesty or whatever holy spirit was supposed to fill me by my being there.

One of the few times it did was at St. Laurence's church in Bradford upon Avon. It's an old Anglo-Saxon church that dates from somewhere between the seventh and tenth century AD. It's definitely not a building on a grand scale — the place was built using rough, hand-hewn stone.

The first sense I got when walking into the church is that it was a working church. It was the centre of the community. It was a place where the locals gathered to get closer to their god. There were no adornments. Function overrode form.

The day before I stumbled upon St. Laurence's, I'd visited Salisbury Cathedral. The contrast between the two couldn't be sharper. St. Laurence's church lacked stained glass, the ornate decorations, even the graves of clergy and crusaders. But it seemed the holier place.

Even though the church had also served as a barn and a school, I could feel the purpose, I could feel the piety of the place. It's as if the spirit of religion, of belief in a higher power, had seeped and set into the stones that made up the church.

Stepping into St. Laurence's church didn't put me on the road to conversion to any religion. Not even close. I did, however, gain an appreciation for the power of religion in the life of the ordinary person living in the centuries before I was born.

The one time I was accused of selling out as a writer happened in the early 1990s. My career as a professional freelancer was starting to pick up, and I sold an article to a major Canadian newspaper.

My accuser, a (now former) friend, thought I should have sold that article to a smaller, more worthy (his words, not mine) publication where I'd make a few cents a word. He figured that I should have kept writing for the small publications where I'd been cutting my teeth as a working writer.

That former friend (in case you're wondering, this incident wasn't what put him in the former category) wasn't a writer. He definitely didn't understand the reality of the life of a working writer. He didn't seem to realize that the ideas in that article, and the other articles I wrote for larger publications, found a wider audience than they would have in a smaller magazine.

That, in my eyes, wasn't and isn't selling out.

To this day, I still wonder what selling out actually means.

Sometimes, accusing someone of selling out is a misguided attempt to shame them. To make them feel guilty about doing work that's commercial. In some writing (and other) circles, even today, there's a stigma attached to writing for mass-market publications or undertaking corporate writing work. As if you're abandoning art for money.

That's a silly idea. Most of us who toil behind a keyboard aren't artists. Many of us don't aspire to be artists. We write for a living. To pay our bills, to feed ourselves and our families, to pay the rent or the mortgage. That means taking work that pays.

Is crafting a well-written article, essay, report, script, or whitepaper (and making decent money doing it) selling out? I don't think so. If you're doing any of that, chances are you're using your skills to come up with the best work that you can.

Writing for money isn't selling out. You don't have to be paid a pittance writing for a small journal when you can earn more for the same piece from a larger-circulation publication. There's nothing wrong with being paid what you're worth — whether by a print magazine, an online publication, or a company.

I don't believe it's selling out if you write to the best of your ability, if you explore markets and clients of all types. No matter what kind of writing you do, remember that you're making your living at your keyboard. Sure, it might not be the kind of work you expected to do when you started your career, but as long as you're doing the work to the best of your ability there's no reason to be ashamed of what you write.

Anyway, as someone once told me: Unless you buy in, you can't sell out.

We live at a moment in time in which everything we do, everything we put out in public must succeed the instant it appears. If not, it's an abject failure. It's not worth anyone's time.

That's the unfortunate narrative that seems to have weaved its way into the fabric of the online world.

Far too many interesting and promising projects have been abandoned because they didn't succeed from moment one, because they weren't an instant hit.

Sadly, there's no room today for something that needs time to find an audience. There's no room for experimenting in public.

It shouldn't be that way.

Experiments are essential. And not just in science. No matter what you're doing, experiments give you the leeway to try something new. They offer an outlet to test an idea or a concept. They help you learn what works and what doesn't.

In many ways, Buckminster Fuller's philosophy has influenced not just my thinking but my approach to life. I view my life as an experiment — definitely not as grand as Fuller's drive to discover what a single individual could contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity but an experiment nonetheless.

Take, for example, my weekly letter. In the grander scheme of the Republic of Newsletters, it's hardly a blip. But for me, it was (and is) a big step. Even though I've been writing professionally for almost 30 years, I still lack some confidence in my abilities. That lack of confidence makes me wary of putting some of my writing, especially my more personal work, out there.

Over the last several months, I've lost a couple or three subscribers (which I expected to), but I gained more. More importantly, I know that what I've written has touched a few of the fives of people who read that letter. For me, that's more important than have a wider base of readers who might not be engaged.

I don't see why you can't perform your experiments in public. Doing that offers a lot of transparency into what you're doing. Admittedly, you'll have to endure a number of slings and arrows while experimenting. No matter what you say, those slings and arrows will sting. They will hurt. You need to find a way to go past all that.

What others say shouldn't stop you from experimenting. What you come up with might not change the world, but it could make your little portion of the world better. If nothing else, experimenting will help you grow. It will help make you a better person, even in just a small way.

I grew up during the tail end of the Cold War. An era when tensions between east and west, the Americans and the Soviets, were high. An era when both sides had enough nuclear firepower to wipe out the world several times pointed at each other.

Those were fearful times, growing up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud (as Queen sang). You had to live your life, though — when one side or the other pushed that red button (at least, I imagined it to be red) there would be nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

One measure of those tensions was the Doomsday Clock, which appeared (and still does) on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Back in 1984, the clock was at three minutes to midnight. I was a 17 year old high schooler then, and was worried that the world was about to be consumed by atomic fire.

Recently, I wandered over to the Doomsday Clock website. What I read there unnerved me. It seems that we're at the two minutes to midnight mark. According to the site, the:

[M]ajor threats — nuclear weapons and climate change — were exacerbated this past year by the increased use of information warfare to undermine democracy around the world, amplifying risk from these and other threats and putting the future of civilization in extraordinary danger.

We never learn, do we?

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