Random Notes

The public notebook of writer and essayist Scott Nesbitt

I've said it before and I'll say it again: f**k the tl;dr crowd. There is a place for longer-form writing on the web. And in print, too.

There are many people (far too many, in my opinion) who only want quick hits of information. Headlines. Listicles. Summaries. There's more to reading, and understanding, than small chunks of information.

That's where longer-form writing — writing that runs 2,000 or 3,000 or more words — comes in. Here's why I think it still matters.

Longer-form writing lets you tell a story. Not just a snapshot, but a fuller, more complete story. You can tell that story from its logical beginning and tie in any background that's needed.

Longer-form writing offers depth. This ties in with being able to tell a story. You can go into more detail with a longer piece. You can bring in conflicting view points. You can not just present the bigger picture, but look at the smaller pictures that make up that big picture.

Longer-form writing promotes analysis. Very little in this world is cut and dry. Very little is black and white. There are twists and turns. There are gray areas. By properly analyzing a story or an issue, you can bring some clarity to that story or issue.

Longer-form writing can last. It might not be for the ages, but a more in-depth article or essay or interview has a longer shelf life than the quick hit of information I mentioned at the start of this post. Readers can come back to a longer piece of writing — one which tells a story, offers analysis, and goes into more depth — to learn, to understand, and to enjoy.

What about readers with short attention spans? I constantly hear arguments about some peoples' attention spans are growing shorter and shorter. And how some people won't consider reading anything longer than a few paragraphs.

If you choose to write a longer piece, remember that you're not writing for people who can't or won't focus. Ignore that audience. Instead, tell the best story that you can with the number of words you need to use.

A woman typing, something I hope is long form, on a laptop

The good old paper notebook seems to have had a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Why? I've never been too sure about that. But I've noticed that people who've adopted notebooks tend to fall into three groups:

  • Those jumping on a bandwagon because Productivity Expert X uses and endorses one
  • Folks who feel nostalgia for what they believe to be a simpler time
  • People who actually find notebooks useful

For someone my age, though, a paper notebook isn't a novelty. I've been using notebooks to record thoughts, ideas, quotes, and more for decades. Even though my handwriting is legible only to about three or four people in the world, a notebook is one of the tools I turn to most.

For me, a notebook represents both utility and portability. I can whip out a notebook and a pen, get down my thoughts, and be on my way faster than I can with a phone or tablet. I don't have to worry about my notebook running out of juice or lacking a 4G or wifi connection. The main dangers are my pen running out of ink or there not being enough pages in the notebook.

With a notebook, my thoughts can't outrace my hand. I need to consider and ponder what I write. That forces me to be economical with my words, to pare my thoughts and ideas down to their cores. It's that economy that helps me improve as both a writer and a thinker.

More than anything else, a notebook is comforting. Its heft reminds me that I have a different kind of portable hard drive. One that's analog rather than digital, one that's read/write, and which stands the test of time.

Someone writing in a notebook

A few days ago, a friend commented Man, your hair's really going gray. My response? You only just noticed?

My hair has been changing colour since my mid-20s. And, no, I don't mean natural highlights.

Early gray runs in my family. Both sides, strangely enough. But I don't feel the urge or need to grab a bottle of whatever to set my curls back to their original brown. I'm not, and never have, been that vain. Going gray doesn't bother me. In fact, my hair's going beyond gray. It's going white.

Hitting all those supposed major age epochs in my life — 21, 30, and 40 — never really bothered me. Reaching 50 a couple of years ago didn't bother me, either.

Friends and family have tried to transfer their anxieties over growing older to me, but I really don't care. There's nothing I can do to stop what's happening. Time neither waits nor slows for anyone.

All I can do is live and enjoy my life. All I can do is try to shape my life so I can be as healthy and comfortable and happy as I can.

That's all any of us can do.

Like a sunrise. I took the photo at the bottom of this post when I was in Dunedin, New Zealand last year. I was transfixed by that sunrise. I just had to step back and think Wow.

No pun intended, but the thought of that sunrise brightened several not-so-great days since then.

You can find solace in simple things. You can find pleasure in simple things. You can find serenity in simple things.

You just need to be open to it.

Sunrise on an early winter morning in Dunedin, NZ

At its best, the human brain is an amazing thing. It's capable of amazing feats of calculation, of recall, of intuition and induction.

Better minds than mine have puzzled over the brain for longer than I can imagine. And, to be honest, I'm not all that interested in how the brain works. I'm more intrigued by why the brain does some of the things it does. The two are probably intertwined in some way, but I only want to zoom in on specific aspects of the brain and its inner workings.

Take memory, for example. Specifically, memories imprinted deep in the recesses of our brains. Most of the time, they sit there in the dark, never to poke out into the fronts of our brains. Sometimes, they pop out unexpectedly.

Take something that happened to me a few months back, for example. I was walking home when a certain song came through my headphones. A song I listened to a lot about ... well, a lot of years ago. A few bars into that song, a memory surfaced. Not just a thought, but an image and a smell associated with that memory.

That image and that smell were from the time I was travelling around Japan in the early 1990s. The image was the sight of a hill just outside of Kobe.

That memory that was forged while listening to that song. Maybe even while the bars that sparked the memory were playing. In the two decades or so between then and now, that memory and all its connotations were just waiting for the right time to bubble up.

The strange thing is that in the intervening years, I've listened to that song countless times. My brain never reacted to the song until that moment. I'm still puzzling about what pushed that memory to the surface then and there. About what the stimulus for that push was. I don't think I'll ever know.

That incident makes me wonder what else is lurking beneath the surface. Not just in my brain, but the brains of others too.

A box of memories Photo by Kaboompics.com from Pexels

If there's one form of writing I'm fascinated with, it's the essay. I've always loved reading good essays. I've always loved trying to write essays. What fascinates me most about a good essay is that it takes techniques from fiction and non fiction and melds them into a unique hybrid of the two forms.

But the essay is more than just a literary mashup. It's a look into the ideas, opinions, and viewpoints of the writer. You get peek at a slice of the writer's life, feelings, thoughts, and experiences.

It's a wonderful thing when an essay touches your heart or touches your mind. A good essay taps into your emotions. It shows you something you might never have seen thought about. It ideas and points of view which may be contrary to your own. A good essay makes you feel. It makes you think.

I've been writing professionally for almost 30 years. Early in my career, I spent a lot of time writing a lot of essays — learning and honing the craft, trying to write the best essays I could. Some of those essays did see the light of print and most of them still hold up today.

Over the years, writing essays took a back seat to other writing that paid the bills. Writing essays is a skill. Like any other skill, it waxes and wanes with the amount of practice you put in. My skills waned to the point where I'd lost all confidence in my abilities.

Starting in 2014, I decided to try to hone those skills. To bring them back to where they were. Maybe, just maybe to apply all I'd learned about the craft of writing and go beyond what I'd done in my (comparative) youth. Much of what I wrote was good for clearing the cobwebs, for removing the ring rust.

It took me a while to get my confidence and chops back. I'm not entirely sure I'm there yet, or if I'll ever be there. That's all part of the writing life, though.

(If you're curious about the essays I'm now putting to (digital) paper, feel free to subscribe to my weekly letter. It costs nothing, I don't do anything with your email address apart from sending you the letter every seven days, and you can unsubscribe at any time.)

Yes, I did type on one of these!

That's what musician Trey Gunn called it in a blog post that's now vanished from his website. Rewiring the systems is a process that prepares you for change.

You reevaluate what you're doing, how you're doing it, and why. Then, you make tweaks or wholesale changes to all of that. It can be scary, but change (even if it's just a small tweak) can be beneficial.

I'm currently trying to rewire my systems (again). At least, rewire part of those systems. It's taking a bit more effort and time than I expected, but I'm hoping those changes will have far-reaching consequences.

An electrician working on some wiring

It seems that Google Cloud (which powers various businesses and applications and devices) suffered an outage on early June, 2019. And, as when these sorts of things happen, the online outrage begins.

Here's a shot of a tweet that a friend sent my way:

Once again, evidence for a point that I've been trying to hammer home for a few years now. That point? Smart devices aren't smart. At all. I mean, how can they be?

Their brains reside somewhere else, on someone else's computer. When that computer, or your connection to it, goes bye-bye then your device morphs into a useless lump of plastic and metal. It becomes a conversation piece. It becomes a source of frustration. It's pretty much useless.

This is the reason I prefer, wherever possible, to have a so-called dumb device. A dumb thermostat. A dumb fridge. A dumb TV. Sure, those devices may not be fancy or cutting edge but I can be assured they'll work. I don't have to worry about them becoming less than what they're supposed to be when a service gets cut off or a company goes belly up.

(FYI: I'm putting together a collection of essays that looks at this, and other problems with modern technology. Watch this space for more information.)

That's a question I'm sure many of us have asked ourselves over the years. What if I made a different choice? What if I took another path or the other fork in the road? What if I settled on that other option?

Looking back, there would be two, maybe three things I'd do differently if I could. But I also know that asking What if is useless. You made your choice. You can't change it. Thinking about a different scenario doesn't make your current situation any better.

You can either accept and embrace where you are and what you do, or you can make a change. The only way the past can help you is to remind you about what making a different choice is like.

An older man, deep in thought

We all have friends we cherish. We all have one or two friends who we want to whack upside the head every now and then. Then there are those friends who fall into both categories. At the same time.

I have three friends like that. Great people, but sometimes ...

Recently, one of them said to me Now that you've got all this time on your hands, why don't you get back to learning a language?

I'm not sure where she got the idea that I have a lot of time on my hands (I definitely don't), but what she suggested isn't going to happen.

Why?

I won't go into details, but suffice it to say I'm 0 for 3 when it comes to learning a foreign tongue. My last attempt failed miserably, and I put that goal behind me.

Those three friends, including the one I mentioned, speak several foreign languages to a high level of proficiency. But they don't see my ineptitude in that area. They don't realize, or just ignore, that I have two left feet (linguistically speaking). They seem to think that because they did it, I can do it too. I tried, Ringo, I tried real hard. It didn't happen.

Despite my best efforts to dissuade them (including semi-serious threats of bodily harm and of kidnapping beloved pets), they periodically persist in hounding me. None of them notice that I don't have the time to devote to that task. None of them understand that I don't have a compelling reason to learn a foreign language. None of them seem to get that I'm not interested in learning a foreign language.

Yet, their well-intentioned hounding continues.

The moral of this story? If there is one, that moral is there are people in your life who just don't listen. Many of them mean well, but they can be annoying. But you have let that slide and be happy they're in your life. Be happy that they care enough to pester you. You don't find friends like that every day.

A pile of foreign language dictionaries

Enter your email to subscribe to updates.