Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

Rain can be many things. It brings life. It brings destruction. It's an annoyance. It's a pleasant surprise. It makes a beautiful sound. It's incessant and depressing.

I have two very strong memories of rain. Memories that I don't think will ever leave my brain.

The first from when I was a child. It was a Sunday afternoon in October. The mid 1970s. I watched the heavy rain that had been falling since early morning flow into a sewer grate near my house. A steady, unrelenting river that soon had the sewer overflowing. My childish imagination conjured images of a flood of biblical proportions engulfing the street I lived on.

The other memory is when I was in Beijing one July in 2006. The heat, the humidity, and the pollution came together to create a dark, oppressive smog that blanketed the city. A typical summer day in that burgh. The rains came, and washed away the dirty air. There was a short break in the rain, then it started again. I looked out the window of the apartment I was staying in and saw something beautiful: cyclist wearing multicoloured rain ponchos streaming down the street below. By the time I got my camera, they were gone.

Raindrops hitting the ground

The worst thing that you can do as a musician is listen to your fans, listen to what they want. Don't ever listen because everyone has an opinion. The most important thing is to create music in a vacuum. There's a great irony, a great paradox about being an artist: to be an artist, I think you have to be incredibly selfish but, at the same time, you need people to buy what you do.

You cannot pay attention to what your fans want. To evolve as a musican, to be true to yourself you need to be incredibly selfish.

Steven Wilson

What Steven Wilson said doesn't just apply to music. It applies to every creative endeavour. If you respond to the whims of your audience, you'll lose them eventually. And there's a chance you won't gain a new one. Your current audience might become very fickle and turn away when they get bored of you giving them what they want.

David Bowie was successful, in part, because he always stayed a few steps ahead of his audience. Bowie shaped the audience's taste and wants and expectations, not the other way around.

For most of us who create, though, that approach can be hit or miss. We might gain a wider audience. We might lose our current one. Or we could be playing to an empty house.

Being selfish, and taking the risks involved with being selfish, is worth it. You stay true to yourself as a creator.

People regularly tell me I didn't like xyz, with xyz usually something that I've written or written about. They're usually quite cranky when they say that, and I can only assume their aim is to make me feel bad.

My response is usually swift and harsh: So what? No one says you have to like it. That usually kills the conversation.

Not everything you try, not everything you read, not everything you watch is going to appeal to you. That's just the way life is. Whining about it doesn't help. It only makes you look like a spoiled, whinging child. Nobody wants to hear your complaints.

Instead, keep your mouth shut, forget the negative experience, and move on.

I started blogging back in 2003, and for the longest time I was a fairly prolific blogger on a range of subjects. Over two multi-year stretches, I maintained three blogs. Each updated at least twice a week.

Then, burnout crept in. No, it didn't creep in. It hit like a flying cinder block. I was compelled to keep up the pace, even if I couldn't. I began to doubt myself. I wondered if my ideas, which were (and are) a bit too left field, were actually having an impact.

While I had enough ideas to keep my blogs going for at least a year, I had to stop. I had no plans to start again.

That said, I missed blogging a bit. I didn't miss the pace and expectations I'd set for myself, but I did miss the act of putting down an idea (no matter how completely formed) and setting it adrift on the seas of the internet. So, I decided to slide back into the blogging world.

The problem was that I didn't want to blog. At least, not in the form that blogging has adopted. I didn't want to publish long tracts, fully-formed arguments, lengthy guides. Instead, I wanted to set thoughts and ideas loose online. Nothing too long, nothing too structured. Just wonderings and woolgathering. Just snippets and speculation. Something like what I regularly jot down into a paper notebook.

And that's how I view this space. A notebook, but one that's not in my horrible handwriting. A notebook that gives readers a glimpse into what I'm thinking and doing. A notebook I'm under no pressure to regularly update.

Hands writing in a paper notebook

A while ago, author and speaker Scott Berkun tweeted something that got me thinking about journeys and destinations. Journeys and destinations in a more abstract and metaphorical sense.

In that tweet, Berkun wrote:

despite the popularity of the journey vs destination platitude the USA is destination obsessed. Why?

The impression I get is that people believe reaching the destination indicates completion, closure, and permission to move on to the next thing. But on those types of journeys, your destination is rarely a terminus. It's usually a waystation on a longer, more winding journey. One that builds on what's come before. One that branches off from something you thought you'd put behind you or finished. One that really never ends until you give up or pass on.

A cyclist checking a map

I love to read. I always have. I'd still love to read if I didn't write for a living. While most of my reading is for pleasure, I do read to learn and to get ideas for articles and blog posts.

Over the last six to eight months, the bulk of my reading has been long-form articles — ranging in length from 3,000 to 8,000 words. In case you're interested, I find most of the articles that I read at Longreads and Longform, as well as at Nautilus and Aeon magazines.

Lately, though, I've been wanting to get back to reading books. I have a number of electronic books waiting for my eyes to be cast over them. It's just that I haven't found the motivation or the energy to do so.

Until last Saturday. I was searching for something when I stumbled upon my old Kobo eReader. I haven't laid eyes on it for about a year, when I thought I had turned it into a brick with an update. Turns out that reader works perfectly. After charging it up and synchronizing it, I read two books.

Many would consider reading on a dedicated ebook reader to be archaic. Especially the model I have, which is four years old. People will ask Why use one of those when you have a tablet or a smartphone?

I disagree. An ebook reader, especially one with an E Ink screen, makes reading a bit easier. Most tablets and phones (as well as media players) I've read on are a bit harder on the eyes. They're a bit too bright for my taste. My Kobo eReader, on the other hand, approximates reading a physical book. Not perfectly, but well enough.

But it doesn't matter if I use a mobile device or a dedicated ereader. It doesn't matter if I'm poring over a dead-trees tome. What matters is that I'm using the printed word to nourish my brain and enlighten myself.

Reading with an ereader

Definition: indulgence in idle daydreaming (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

I first came across that word in the early 1980s while reading an essay by Harlan Ellison. It's one of those words that sticks in your mind because it encapsulates so much, so elegantly.

Woolgathering is something we don't do enough of. We're discouraged from doing it from a young age. Keeping our heads out of the clouds, staying in the now, and all that.

And that's a shame.

Woolgathering, daydreaming isn't an idle waste of time. It gives our brains moments to go fallow. To shift away from a problem. To clear the slate and to refresh. Woolgathering can help us solve problems and come up with ideas.

You just need to be willing to embrace it.

Some days you feel confused.

Some days you feel like you're being pulled in several directions.

Some days you feel like you're walking down the wrong path.

The choice you have to make is simple. Do you give into that confusion? Do you resist the pulling? Do you turn back the way you came or continue down the path even though you might get lost?

In this age of mobile device and apps like Evernote, taking notes by hand seems incredibly archaic. It's refreshing, though, to see how many people still use pen and paper to jot down information, to record their thoughts, to organize themselves.

Even though it's a huge step up to call my handwriting a scrawl, I do take a lot of notes. Usually in one of several small pocket notebooks I have at my disposal. I've filled more notebooks than I can remember in the last 30 years ...

People often ask me what the perfect notebook is.

Over the years, I've tried any number of brands of notebooks — from generic ones to well-known brands. For me, the perfect notebook is the Moleskine Classic Notebook. Hardcover, pocket size, and with squared pages. Why squared and not lines? The squares just work better for me.

That notebook is the right size for me. It's the right weight. It can take a beating. It just feels right. And it's the feeling that helps make it perfect for me.

As I said, it's perfect for me. It might not be perfect for you. I know people whose perfect notebooks are larger, book sized ones (either ruled or blank). I know others who can't live without a Field Notes notebook.

So, what is a perfect notebook? One that works for you. One that you're comfortable with. One that you can carry with you and use wherever you wind up. That the can hold up to the stresses and strains you put it through.

A notebook and a cup of coffee

Having a store of information doesn't make us smarter. I don't even think it makes us better informed. It just means we have more information.

Is that necessarily a good thing? Most people don't need a fraction of the information they ingest, either personally or professionally.

Even if you get information from multiple sources, you're not necessarily getting more depth. With news, for example, a good chunk of the information overlaps. You're not getting much that's new. It's mostly repetition.

Instead, try to focus on the quality of information rather than the quantity. One article from Aeon Magazine or Nautilus is worth a month or more of drivel posted at the Fox News website.

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