Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

I've been putting words to paper and screen professionally for ... well, at lot longer than I sometimes care to admit. While I'm definitely not a great writer, I like to think that I do OK. And I like to think that I know good writing when I read it.

At various Day JobsTM and when I worked as a freelance editor, I regularly ran into some pretty shocking prose. Quite a bit of that prose came from keyboards of other professional writers.

I'm talking about seemingly endless sentences. About the overuse of marketing/tech/business speak. About passive sentences. About people who write like they're trying impress or are working on the world's driest academic thesis.

I'm not one of those writers who expects everyone to be able to write at my level (or better). I don't get overly wound up about how poorly some people, including pros, write. I'm talking about

That said, if poor prose is dropped in my lap, I can't let it stand.

A good chunk of my work at the current Day JobTM over the last three years has been reshaping other peoples' writing. Trying to streamline it, to improve the flow and structure, to make it more active, to give it more punch.

A lot of hours have gone into that. But I'm not sure it's making a difference. Some days, I feel like I'm spitting into the Sun. No matter what, I'm compelled to keep trying.

Why? If I didn't, I wouldn't feel good about any of my work or the work that I've taken over.

I still don't have my own personal flight pack or a wrist communicator. And, no, a smartphone just isn't the same.

When I was a child, the 21st century I dreamed about was a mix of atompunk and steelpunk. A world of fast travel, automation, outlandish personal gadgets, regular and frequent space travel, and a lot of flashing lights and Bakelite knobs. A world without the capes, pirate boots, and silver bodysuits, thank you very much.

Obviously, that future didn't come to pass. Instead ... well, we are where and when we are.

Every so often, my mind sometimes drifts back to those childish dreams of what was then tomorrow. And I think Wasn't the future wonderful?

One of the benefits of living at the bottom of the world is that Christmas and New Year's come in summer. Which means being able to walk around in shorts and t-shirts without worrying about freezing various parts of your body off.

One of those walks for me was around the Orakei Basin, a lagoon in a volcanic crater just a few minutes outside downtown Auckland. It's been a while since I've done that walk. And it's nice to have something like this in the city.

Here are three photos that I snapped on that walk:

On January 31, 2019, I filled the last page of the notebook I'd been using for several months. No, that wasn't by design. But was it a sign or an omen? Nah. Just a happy coincidence.

Pulling the wrapper off a new notebook presents fresh possibilities. No matter when during a year I do that.

Cracking open a new notebook is a chance to record fresh thoughts. A chance to put down fresh ideas. An opportunity to muse and wonder in private with pen and paper. A chance to clear the bad ideas from my head.

Sometimes, when I'm confronted with a fresh notebook, I feel a tad guilty about ruining its pages with my handwriting, with what comes out of my brain. Then, I realize that's exactly what the notebook is for.

While I wouldn't call it eclectic, my taste in music is somewhat off kilter. I'm probably one of the few people in the world who can listen to Aretha Franklin followed by Bolt Thrower followed by Sibelius followed by Thomas Dolby and not think anything of it.

While I can't play an instrument or sing to save my life, I do enjoy discovering new music. My two favourite places to do that are Bandcamp and Jamendo.

Bandcamp is site that allows independent artists to upload and sell their music. You can preview songs, and download whole albums as a set of MP3 files. You can buy those albums for as little as $9.

Jamendo operates on a different model. All music is available under a Creative Commons license. That means you can play, copy, and share the tracks as long as you credit the musician and don't sell them. Jamendo also lets you purchase royalty-free licenses for music.

You can spend hours, maybe longer, exploring both Bandcamp and Jamendo. Admittedly, not every artist and their music will appeal to you. But I'm sure you'll find something. I always do.

And if you'll permit me, I'd like to make two recommendations. At Jamendo, I stumbled across Italian jazz man Paolo Pavan. Over at Bandcamp, an artist I keep going back to is Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir.

Enjoy.

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.

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