Category Archives: Writing

the practice

I think I would have first heard about the practice of the morning pages during my Masters, if not before then. I further think that I was put off the idea by the name; mornings were not a thing with which I was well acquainted for many, many years, and the idea of actually getting up in the morning (whether absolute or relative) and sitting down to write before anything else, even breakfast, was less absurd than it was simply unthinkable.

More years passed, and I met a few more people who had incorporated the practice into their lives, creative or otherwise—but the same resistance was there, bolstered by the (admittedly sincere and well-intentioned) evangelism of those who recommended it.

(One of the defining tensions of my personality is a dialectic between on the one hand wanting to feel I belong to something, and on the other hand a fierce flinch away from getting involved in anything with the faintest smack of proselytism. This has almost certainly made for a rather lonely life at times, but I dare say it also served to save me from worse misadventures than the ones I still managed to get mixed up in over the years. Selah.)

Exactly why I finally decided to give the morning pages a go—and not just the pages on their own, but the full Julia Cameron Artist’s Way programme with which they are most strongly associated—is unclear, even in hindsight. But it boils down, I suspect, to a deep if inchoate recognition that I needed to change the way I approached my work and my self—a recognition triggered by the trauma of finishing my doctoral thesis, the grief and fury that followed the Brexit referendum, an extended bout of pneumonia that went unrecognised as such for months, a severe depressive breakdown, and assorted other more minor and more personal dramas.

Whatever it was, I decided to start doing the morning pages almost exactly three years ago, in January 2018; I also quit smoking at the same time, and there may well have been some half-baked (pun very much intended) theory in play about exchanging one bad habit for a better one.

Much to my amazement, I have done the pages pretty much every day since then. It’s pretty simple: you get up, and straight away (or, in my case, after having fed the cat and put the stovetop coffeemaker on the gas) you write, by hand, three pages of whatever the hell is in your head at the time. The picture above shows a year’s worth of them; I always have a number of notebooks on the go for different projects or workflows, but the morning pages get their own dedicated books. I’ve come to realise that a lot of folk use notebooks with much smaller pages than I do; three pages for me takes around 45 minutes. But I think the amount of time or words you do is less important than the fact of three pages, of whatever size and style works for you. Austin Kleon’s, for instance, are a mish-mash of writing, doodles, mind-maps, collage and whatever the hell else; clearly works for him. Me, I’ve always been a words person—and pouring out the first thousand or so words that appear in my head of a morning appears to be what works for me.

I may have missed a dozen days in three years, and most of those were in the first year. The pages are so much a part of my life now—in the habitual sense, but also in an emotional and psychological sense—that I sometimes find it hard to imagine how I did without them. (Though of course I know exactly how I did without them, which is to say “not very well”.) I have come to think of them as a kind of psychological sump-draining process, a cleaning of the machinery before the day begins properly. What’s interesting is the extent to which there is not just the cleansing effect, but an increased awareness—and hence acceptance—of psychological fluctuations, and the various overlapping frequencies of such. Some mornings, a bit of actual work to be done will kind of fall out of my head partly or even fully-formed; book review, in particular, are very amenable to this, if I’ve finished the book in question the day before, but sometimes chunks of essays or papers just turn up unnannounced as well, waiting only to be transcribed and tidied up. Other mornings, by contrast, I wade through a word-treacle of anxiety and doubt, which often turns out to be indicative of something I need to deal with, whether in my work or in my personal life. It’s incredibly reflective, in other words—and I feel that it’s done me more good than my encounters with counselling and therapy and cognitive-behavioural malarky ever did, or indeed ever would. With the awareness that it sounds exactly as off-puttingly woo as it did to me when I first encountered the idea: the pages have allowed me to come to know myself, and thus to change myself.

My relationship with the rest of the Artist’s Way programme is a bit more ambivalent. Ms. Cameron, as I tend to think of her, created the programme in a time when there was more slack in the world, and her rather generational assumptions about what is possible for an aspiring creative was something I really wrestled with the first time through. (Put simply, it’s not as easy to just dial back on work and other commitments and make time for your creative self as it was at the end of the Eighties, particularly not if you don’t already have a toe in the door of the industry you want to break into.) The fact that the template is drawn from the twelve steps of the AA programme is likewise troubling to me, as is the associated woo-ish spirituality that underpins a lot of it.

But the practical aspects of it—the practice, particularly (but not exclusively) the specific practice of the pages themselves—have proven their merit to my satisfaction, and far more so than I had ever hoped they would. Furthermore, there’s enough utility in the other stuff that I’ve re-read The Artist’s Way every year since I started, and am about to start again; there are bits I routinely skip over or scoff at, but there are also bits that hit just as hard as they did the first time. And that’s a mirror, too—a mirror of a broader realisation that we can find and take the truth and the useful where we find it, and leave the rest aside; a realisation which was, perhaps, the one I really needed to reach more than any other. As I’ve read more widely and openly over the last three years, it’s become apparent that the majority of “how to be creative” guides and programmes tend to repeat a certain core set of attitudes and practices, accompanied by a bunch of stuff that’s clearly crucial to their originators. Were I to try to produce my own—which, to be clear, I have no plans to do; I don’t feel that my own particular path, still very much in the process of its own self-forming, is so successful as to be worthy of emulation by others—then I think it would lean hard on the idea that you should seek answers everywhere, but take only the ones that fit in your bag, so to speak.

Ms. Cameron is quite clear (though not exactly strident) on the value of evangelism in the context of her programme, and I’ve always resisted that—for reasons hinted at above, but also because of an abiding belief that the best way to proselytise for anything you feel to be worthwhile is to just do it, and wait for people to ask what it is and why you do it. (“Show, don’t tell”, innit?) But after three years, I feel I can say with certainty that the morning pages, at least, are something I can recommend without any hesitation or doubt. The other stuff, I dunno, maybe—you can try them for yourself, if you want, fill your own toolbox with the things you find you need.

But the pages? They’re the closest thing I have to a religion, I suppose.

I will not—could not, in fact—suggest you follow my path; the world is too large for that, and we’re all starting from (and heading toward) different places, and I’m already feeling a deep cringe-y resistance to hitting publish on this post as it is.

But I’ll gladly and sincerely suggest that you find your own path… and that the process of mapping that such a seeking requires might be well started by picking up a pen or pencil every morning before breakfast, and telling three pieces of paper what’s currently at the front of your mind.

intimidating but also intimate / reflections on formative time in a revenant medium

Metablogging is the most (self-)indulgent form of blogging—a bit of (self-demonstrating/self-performing) wisdom that was already a well-worn cliche when Technorati was still a thing that people cared about. But we are products of our milieu, are we not?

Adam Kotsko would agree, I think—and this reflective bit of his from earlier this week flipped me into a similarly reflective mode at this inevitably reflective time of year. Responding to WordPress’s recent hard push on the new post-composition UI, and his instinctive annoyance at a change he feels he neither wants nor needs, Kotsko wonders:

Why can’t I just move on? Why this attachment to an outdated publication model, such that a website redesign can quite sincerely ruin my afternoon? It’s because blogging isn’t just another tool to me. It was my way out. It allowed me to build up a social network and a reputation that I never could have achieved otherwise. I realize that a big part of this was the dumb luck of getting into blogging just slightly before it hit the bigtime, but it also reflects a lot of hard work and energy on my part…

I read that and got an instant hit of recognition. Our journeys have been pretty different, and we started at slightly different times and from very different places, but there’s nonetheless a good chunk of commonality in our experience based on our both having dived into the cresting wave of bloggage back when it felt like something that might take us somewhere. (Indeed, I recall being both admirous of and intimidated by Kotsko back in the day, because it felt like he was laying track way better than I was, and his rhetorical chops, then as now, were way out in front of my own.)

In both cases, blogging did take us somewhere—though in neither case did that happen in quite the way we initially thought it would:

For the better part of the 2000s, blogging was my life, and it has turned out to be the condition of possibility and condition of impossibility for the life that followed. People sometimes wonder how I am able to write so much, and the answer is basically that I have written a substantial amount every single day since I was in junior high. First it was comic books, then in high school I switched to journaling, and then in college I switched to writing for a personal website and subsequently blogs. It was the blog, though, that really shifted me into high gear because I knew each time that I was writing for a critical audience, who could respond to me immediately if they so chose. It was intimidating but also intimate — falsely so, in many ways, as I often found that unsympathetic readers found their way to my stuff without making themselves known, including influential people who based their conception of me on the tone of what amounted to a pub conversation among friends.

Back when I was still running Futurismic (and—largely unknowingly, due to my considerable political naivete at the time—turning it from an aspirant but very much second-tier libertarian-tech-and-sci-fi webzine to an enduringly second-tier but left-leaning contra-Panglossian critical-futures-and-sci-fi webzine) I spent maybe three or four hours reading RSS feeds and cranking out two or three posts every day, six days a week. During the period of my doing so, I made a total US$ sum of ad revenue in the mid-three-figure range, and I had to fight like hell—and engage in some minor attempts at public shaming—to actually get the cheque out of the cowboy operator who owed it me. All that work was effectively subsidized by the little bits of freelance writing and web development work that I managed to scrape up along the way. But I accepted that, because I saw it as my chance to do my apprenticeship in public and without a mentor or entry-level break, neither of which were forthcoming. I did my ten thousand hours as a writer—in fact, I probably did closer to twice that many. I learned to write in public.

As such, I also learned to argue in public, and in so doing I learned a style that has been both an advantage and a disadvantage in my subsequent academic career. (By way of example: my oft-lamented doctoral thesis, I realise with hindsight, might have had a much easier ride if I didn’t write and think like a blogger.) But at the same time, I wouldn’t have pushed into the thought-spaces that I pushed into if I hadn’t learned that novelty is what gets you noticed… and it was that knack for novelty, acquired in the trenches of the blogwars, that got me my make-or-break RA gig around the same time I started my Masters. I wrote myself into existence, in a way… flaws and all.

Well, selah. Much as Kotsko notes of his own dynamic, in a post from earlier in the year, I was a twenty-something blogbro with a selection of chips on my shoulder in a period when blogbro-dom was rewarded in ways that probably weren’t great for my character in the long run. And, y’know, hey: twenty-somethings gonna twenty-something, amirite? Though I was still twenty-somethinging well into my thirties, which is rather less forgivable. I had learned to play a small set of abrasive riffs particularly well, and—much as in my actual guitar-playing, such as it is—relied on them far too heavily for far too long. I have some explanations for that, though not really any excuses. I like to think I’ve become a broader writer/thinker over the last decade, but the curve took a long while to start climbing, and there’s a lot of work still to do. Kotsko again:

I wound up burning bridges, probably too many, by putting myself out there so aggressively when still had so much growing up to do. I only learned about the job at Shimer College because of my blogging, but I have also probably missed out on a lot of opportunities due to the reputation for brashness that my blogging won me. Sometimes I have even suspected that the very fact that I built up a reputation as a thinker and writer on my own, outside of “proper channels,” has hurt my academic career, even aside from the content of what I was writing. But there are a lot of people who went through “proper channels” and have nothing to show for it. In a world with no guarantees — which my exposure to contingent faculty through blogging showed me I was entering into — the only “strategy” is to do what you really want, while you have the chance to do so. I haven’t exactly been “rewarded” for that strategy, but I have kept on living to fight another day — most often neither despite or because of it, but through sheer good fortune.

As I suggest above, and in a similar manner to Kotsko, my own shaping-by-blogging is likewise something of a disadvantage to me, academically… but at the same time, if it wasn’t for that self-shaping experience, then I wouldn’t have an academic career for it to compromise, or the skills to bluff through and fake it until I (hopefully) make it.

All of which is to say: I too am attached to blogging as a medium in a manner that I can rationalise until the cows come home, but which perhaps ultimately boils down to it having been the context of my life and aspirations at a formative and fortunately-timed moment of half-accidental career development. I too resent the banalisation of socnet discourse, because I (probably very mistakenly) hark back to an idealised golden era in which our heated arguments took days and thousands of words to play out rather than hours and dozens. I can’t let it go any more than I can let go my affection for miserabilist grunge-rock. I’ve learned to love newer things since, and I don’t listen to it so much as I used to (if you’ll excuse the over-extension of the metaphor), but it’s still the foundation of everything that I’ve done since. How could it be any other way? The self, assuming there is such a thing, is emergent; the starting parameters inevitably remain implicit in the latest iterations. And with the self-system as with the contextual metasystem: the way out is through, and also endless—a utopian direction of travel rather than a destination that can ever be reached.

But enough navel-gazing. People have been saying that blogging is making a comeback since long before it had even fully faded away, so I’m retaining a healthy (and somewhat prophylactic) scepticism about the most recent resurfacing of that particular signal—“we won’t get fooled again”, as the song goes. But maybe the hellscape of the year that has been 2020 will provide the momentum that’s needed for that dialectic to spin around once more; if you want yer signs and portents, then they’re out there.

(Perhaps the strongest of those was summed up very accurately by a recent backchannel message from Jay Springett, who was pointing out a sudden fashion among newsletter-writers for building taxonomy pages linking out to their archives… but then again, I know my Douglas Adams, and thus have some well-founded opinions about the propensity for people to attempt to reinvent the wheel, and to get stuck on entirely the wrong aspects of the problem. Well, I guess we’ll see.)

One way or another, much like Kotsko, I think—and indeed hope—I’ll keep blogging, even if I don’t have the time or mental stamina to do it as much as I once did. There’s only so much composition bandwidth the ol’ brainmeat can muster in a single day, and academia is—thankfully, and happily—taking up the majority of that right now, and for the foreseeable.

If blogging ever does make its comeback, it will of course never be “blogging” as we experienced it Back In The Day. I guess I have sufficient wisdom to recognise that to be as good a thing as it is an inevitable thing—even as I have sufficient nostalgia for a formative and desperate time of my life to wish, just a little bit, that we could go back to what now seems like a more innocent and antediluvian culture.

World keeps spinnin’, don’t it? That’s our curse, as a species, but it’s also our blessing.

Happy new year.

all these words have been poisoned, right?

McKenzie Wark, interviewed at Believer:

… in Capital is Dead I wanted to ask the question of how have we innovated language—god, I hate that word, innovate. All these words have been poisoned, right? What’s the art, if I can say that, what’s the literary dimension of writing theory? It’s a genre of literature, Marx is a literary genius. We sort of lose track of that, creating language to describe new situations but in ways that don’t lose track of their genesis and genealogy. To write theory as a literary genre, to tackle that, rather than recycle these terms we picked up from the great famous names. 

BLVR: You mentioned in a previous interview that words just aren’t doing the work anymore and if they’re not doing the work we need to be creating new ones.

MW: I think to call it “bio-political-capitalism” or “neoliberal capital” or “post-fordist capital” or using a modifier that has a modifier on the front of it—it just strikes me as bad poetry. It’s the kind of thing an editor would strike. Here’s three words–what’s the one word that would do that job? If you keep using this old language you see how it’s connected to the past. There’s kind of an aesthetic dimension to theory as a genre of literature, and I want to make it fresh, make it new. A language of surprise. What I wanted to do in Capital is Dead is reinvigorate that sense of to write theory is a form of literature. 

So much this. My first Wark was her histories of the Situationists, and I’ve loved most everything I’ve read since then, particularly Molecular Red. And regular readers will know that I’m always-already on the same team as anyone who thinks “innovation” is a trash-fire suitcase word of the worst kind…

Elsewhere in this interview Wark points out that this isn’t about “dumbing down”, but rather a matter of avoiding the abstruse contortions and deference to deep specialist detail that academic theory can sometimes encourage. I’m probably biased, but I also feel that there are some disciplines where the horizontality and foxiness she’s advocating are more commonplace… environmental politics, f’rex, is a really small-c catholic field, less a discipline than an oddball bordertown at the juncture of a dozen different disciplines, where anything goes as long as it works. (By contrast, the old-school poli-sci folk at my department are, well, very old-school, with clear disciplinary and theoretical fidelity to a particular topic or approach. And there’s probably room for both?)

But yeah: part of the challenge of my own theoretical work (still pretty much on hold, because it’s not what I’m paid to do, and what I’m paid to do is keeping me plenty busy right now) is to absorb enough material from a big sheaf of fields and disciplines that I can demonstrate a useful grasp of it without getting sucked into the minutia, and then leap sidewise between/across/through those fields in such a way as to show conceptual connections that do explanatory work. S’why I’m assuming I’ll not have much of a chance placing it with a trad academic publisher, once I actually get it written; they’ll be like “please provide five keywords situating the work in the leading edge of the field” and I’ll be like “wait, I only get five?” That’s why Molecular Red was such an inspiration: partly because it’s a book that lives its own argument, so to speak—it doesn’t just argue for foxiness, it does foxiness—but also for the more direct feeling of “oh, wait, you can do this? You can write like this about this sort of stuff?” Easterling comes with a similar kick, as does late-style Haraway. Massive parallelism, unity of theme. Yes.

the efficient universe

Synchronicity, serendipity, universal ordering… call it what you want, but sometimes you’re working on something, and out of nowhere a useful bit of info just drops into your lap or, in this case, your inbox. Joanne McNeil’s latest newsletter contains this little aside:

I was looking for a quote about efficiency in life…something said by a…an…economist? Someone not know for sentimentality? Something about…old shoes? Finally I plugged in the right search words and found it. here it is:

“I believe that one ought to have only as much market efficiency as one needs, because everything that we value in human life is within the realm of inefficiency—love, family, attachment, community, culture, old habits, comfortable old shoes.” — Edward Luttwak

I’m not sure when or how I first came across it, but it appears in Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind.

I’ve just started working on a thing—or what may turn out to be a number of things, or perhaps just a thread that runs through a number of things which I am and will be doing?—which revolves around the definition of the word “efficiency” as used by economists, as contrasted to the way the rest of us tend to use it. As such, that Luttwak quote is a gift, because it illustrates exactly the point I’m trying to work with, albeit in an unusually poetic and roundabout way.

Thanks, Joanne! Hopefully some random snippet that I throw out here will help someone else out, and I will get to pay the favour forward…