(Overcoming) Writer’s Block

I’m sitting at the brooklyn brainery on easter sunday, laptop firmly in my backpack, pen and paper on the table.  Our instructor insists we start with pen and paper and then move on to our laptops if we want to by the afternoon.  It’s an all-day class, and I don’t remember that anyone took their machines out.

The topic is writer’s block, but the concept could be applied more broadly to any sort of creative frustration.  Five people total are taking the class, a smattering of individuals with wildly different backgrounds and ambitions.  Some have been “blocked” for a few weeks, some for quite longer than that.

“I’ve been blocked since about February” I confess to the class.  Some unholy combination of a bitter winter and injury have kept me off my bike have really dampened my spirits.  Another member of the class confesses that she’s been blocked since the death of her sibling.  Our diverse backgrounds are underscored by a common thread: writing is something that is personal to us, something we want to do, and have been frustrated in doing it.

The instructor has us do an exercise.  We will write for 10 minutes, and the topic is “I remember.”  What we write is discardable.  We shouldn’t even bother to look at it after we are done.  If we get blocked during the exercise, re-start with “I remember” and go with it.  The point is to write.  You’re not expected to write Shakespeare.

Memory is a funny thing she says.  We might be surprised at where our minds will take us.

It’s been a dark, bitter, and frustrating winter.

*****

167“I remember the last day in Texas, at Caprock Canyons state park.  I remember the brightness, driving into the park, and the place where I broke my bike land-speed record.  I remember the last time I had exceeded 40mph, as a child on our favorite steep road before I had my driver’s license.  It was the first time I remember passing a car.

“I remember that hitting 46 was an odd, if slightly empty accomplishment, and I remember the feeling I had in my tent that night.  The scenery was magical.  The sun was bright.  The colors vivid and in the hues I like.  It was the desert.  There was no phone signal.  Few, if any other additional campers in the area.  The scene is about as close to serenity as I know to set.  But the feeling was one of being alone.  The feeling is a familiar one, one that slowly sets in when one embarks on a long, slow period of personal transition.  There was no return leg on this trip.

“I have to work on Monday.  I have to work remotely from Denver.  I remember the serenity being pushed further back as that reality sat in the background.  The price of all this was a 9-5 full-time remote work job.

 

“I remember further down the journey.  I am in similar circumstances, but I remember Nevada to be different.  Being alone doesn’t matter here, it is beyond that.  One’s starting frame is not relevant on these roads.

“I remember a full tank of gas and a sign that says “no services for 130 miles.”  It is the desert.  There is nobody here.  It is beautiful.  No phone signal.  it’s just the music you have.

“I remember the sound of the wind as I push the car past 100.  Torrents of desert air rush into the cabin through the open windows.  I do not want the air conditioner here.  A rare instance of a trance song with lyrics won’t leave my head and keeps playing in the background.

“Through the windscreen we can see
A cinematic legacy
Leaving cities paved with gold
To pilot a frigate through our souls

*****

Additional exercises would follow, but this was the most memorable.  Unique among the exercises we did that day was that the imagery in my head had corresponding pictures from the trip.  It was “no services for 81 miles,” not 130, and the road still had occasional traffic.  Memory is a funny thing.

The act of writing this down with pen and paper made me re-live the experience in a visceral way, giving me a glow that lasted for days.  I’d always loved the desert, but not quite like the way I experienced it that Sunday.  Torrents of hot, desert air. Wow!  Such a contrast to the day my phone said it was 5 degrees.  Fahrenheit.  The weather service was publishing frostbite risk graphs on that day. The experience was now also several months and quite a reality removed from the present day.  Things had changed.  I felt less alone and the pain of having left my friends and community behind had subsided by a lot.

The biggest takeaway I got from the class is that writing is not unlike exercise–whatever feelings you might want to attach to the experience are a byproduct and not a necessary condition to engage the activity.  In other words, “feeling inspired” is not required for you to sit down and just write.  Sometimes you will write well.  Most of the time you won’t.  It’s as much about cultivating your creative habit as it is about polishing your creativity.

(An author on this Ted talk has a similar take on all this.)

The second most memorable aspect of the class was that of the “starting vs. finishing” personalities.  I’m definitely a starter, with my both my headspace and physical space littered with half-finished creations that represent a lot of invested time but are not a cohesive whole.  “If you’re a starter, work on actually completing one of your projects.  Pick one and go with it.”

Since the class I must admit that I managed to get blocked.. again.  But now I know what to do.  It took awhile for me to find biking and walking as my primary forms of physical conditioning, but once I did, I knew that it’d be unlikely that I’d ever stop for good and that those habits would last for a very long time.  I’m presently trying to establish something similar with my creative habits.

“Life is about Projects”

I once declared that life was “about projects” after a friend posted his new successes on one involving large slabs of rock.  My girlfriend at the time looked upon me with mild horror, as though I had uttered something completely alien to her understanding of the world.  Life is about people, she told me, something I would later remind myself not to forget.  (This is why it’s good for geeks to have girlfriends.)

Well… yes, of course it’s about people.. but once you get all that figured out, what it’s really about is projects.  Or at least, it is for me, and people like me.  I’m happier when making progress on a project of some kind then when simply consuming and giving all my creative time in the service of work.

“Projects” took on a substantially different meaning for me after the great recession kicked off in full swing in 2008.  Recently laid off, I faced the sobering prognosis that I was not on top of my game professionally; that I was lacking in refinement in it, and that I was likely to experience better professional success and and personal satisfaction if I was *better* at what I did.  My work was a chore at the time, and my hobbies often involved the restoration of old computer equipment to near-pristine running states, a hobby I was realizing was both as expensive as it was useless.

Around the same time a dear friend tried to get me hooked on World of Warcraft.  He sat me down and described the game in intricate detail, but what I remember was the sense that WoW was remarkably similar in its thought process as object oriented programming.  If that was the case, it stood to reason that time outside of work would be better spent honing my programming craft instead of honing my gaming skills.  This would seem particularly useful during a nasty economic downturn.  The trick was to make programming as rewarding, or similarly rewarding as some found gaming to be.

Programming on its own makes for boring study.  One may as well be studying the intricacies of grammar.  Understanding how a tool works is only interesting if one can imagine what the tool can be used to create.

An obsolete hardware hobby was combined with software.  Old, decommissioned monitors, computers and laptops were hung up on my walls in the idea that LCD monitors would one day replace most if not all printed mediums.  The “art project” was based on the belief that imagery is inherently more beautiful when displayed in a backlit, additive color medium (AKA the flatscreen monitor) vs. the front-lit, subtractive medium (AKA paper and ink and… light bulbs. )

Apt11 Lab

V1 of the digital signage project ran briefly as a basic cloud service on juniuslabs.org.

The vision for the project far exceeded my capabilities at the time.  I was naive about many things, and I was too focused on the end goal.  Development was thus a frustrating exercise toward something I had neither the skill or time to reach.  But the exercise did teach me about many crucial aspects of what I do on a day to day basis professionally, and the lessons carried into the next two projects that *did* see the light of day.

Today, the goal is to maintain a rhythm such that prototyping is merely a way of life, much like working, biking and friend grooming are.  There is no true end goal in sight, insofar that prototyping work is being done, and things are learned.  It is done for its own sake, much like exercise and it’s manifestation in biking.

There are two projects in active development today:

The arduino train controller project, in which model trains are controlled by wifi-enabled motor controllers that read track RFID tags to determine movement.

An Arduino/RFID/Wifi stack powers a model train through a test track.

An Arduino/RFID/Wifi stack powers a model train through a test track.

The current iteration can run a lego 4.5V locomotive off a 9V cellphone battery.  It has stable control via telnet, stable control via track RFID tags, and stable programming of said RFID tags.  There is an experimental, unstable SignalR web controller running on a windows 7 development laptop and is the current edge of development as of this entry.

What’s really being learned here is the internet of things.  The internet is naturally suited to controlling and interfacing with physical things in addition to rendering images on screens.  For the web developers out there, the “View” in MVC in this case is the I/O device at the end instead of a web browser.  Instead of serializing form data, we’re serializing sensor data and responding accordingly.

The second project is version 2 of the original digital signage project, and is what is intended to be a “proper” implementation of the concept.  The original V1 project had a number of shortcomings, but two projects and a framework advancement later, there is better experience and proper capability now available to make the concept work properly.

“Winter in New York” is something I’ve been dreading if not fearing from the descriptions of the locals, but something that’s also been said is that it is the perfect time to spend indoors with one’s projects.  Some learn musical instruments, some write books, and some like me.. ultimately still play with their toys. 😀

New job and new Rhythms

Just blocks from the office, the Empire state makes an excellent backdrop to my usual walks.

Just blocks from the office, the Empire state makes an excellent backdrop to my usual walks.

I work primarily with machines, and something I’m glad to have again is a job that gives me rhythm.  Machines of all kinds generally accomplish units of work through iterations of something.  A jet turbine rotates, a reciprocating, 4-stroke engine has something like 40 individual movements that repeat over and over again (or something to that effect if memory serves).  CPUs in modern computers and smartphones iterate on the order of 750,000,000 – 4,000,000,000 times a second doing all sorts of calculations on millions of pieces of data.

The human brain and existence has mechanical qualities to me, and rhythms are just as natural to biology as they are to machines.  The heart, lungs, muscles, et al are all a biological analog of a machine.  Again having mandatory rhythms in what one does is a very nice thing.

Wake up by 7:00.  Get ready, and take a moment to enjoy the coffee.  Be on the subway by 8:15.  Walk from union to work or be a wimp and take the six almost to the front door.  Work and do well.  Talk to people, work with people.  Fight with the computer.  And at the end of it all… you could go home.. or.. this being Manhattan, you could stay awhile.  And “stay awhile” is almost always a good option.

—-

For awhile it was an open question as to whether or not I even wanted to stay here in NYC.  The choice of returning to Dallas was remarkably tempting, having come about at a time where I’d had just about enough of being outside my comfort zone and was actively missing my old rhythms and life.

But a family friend’s casual remark of “give it two years” provided the keystone moment that got me out into the job market.  He was right–this place could not be properly appreciated without giving it its due time, and in some ways I hadn’t even tried.  That very night, I responded to a linkedin query about my skills, and next thing I knew I was running around Manhattan on various job interviews for the next week and a half.

It turns out the job market is remarkably good for people with programming skills, and no less than five companies wanted to make offers.  I eventually chose a non-profit gig on Park Avenue, the first non-profit of my career.  The thinking was that it would be lower stress than my traditional agency jobs, and such a job would be a great way to experience life in Manhattan.

Having a “real” job again (vs. a “virtual” one) has done remarkable things.  It was as though I’d awoken from the matrix and opened my eyes to the real world.  Going into Manhattan daily has been invigorating in a way that has made me put Dallas behind me in very short order.  I’ve done a 180.  Just a few short weeks ago I was pining for the life I left behind, and now my feeling is that moving here has been one of the best choices I’ve made, and that I do not want to leave for quite awhile.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, 7,000 miles out

Remote work is in many respects no different than “real work” and water cooler chatter can happen over IM.  One such conversation posed the question on how I’d secured remote work rights and managed to move to a different city.  The essence of the conversation was “if I can do it, so can you, so you should ask if you really want to.”  Consequence: remote work now off the table, including me.  I have until the end of the year to return if I choose, or be offered work on a project basis as it is available.

My friend wanted to leave Dallas, wipe the slate clean.  There were some minor specifics, but overall it was described as something almost resembling an urge.  I could understand that.

“Wiping the slate clean…” It’s *such* a romanticized concept.

What it really means is that the slate is wiped clean indiscriminately, with just as much good as baggage being wiped out. Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs figures prominently in figuring out what my urge to uproot my life could be about.

Most needs were met in Dallas, at least on paper.  Thus, coming to New York was a perfect way to nullify most aspects of that pyramid.  Something as basic as “breathing” became a commodity in some symbolic ways when I moved into a room with no window.  A secondary effect of no window was a disruption in regular sleeping patterns.  Remove the BFF, the girlfriend, the workplace community, and now the work itself, and indeed, the slate is quite, quite clean.

Some of this was anticipated, and it was always expected that things would get hard in relatively short order.  The plan for coping was to groom and maintain my core friendships, all of them electronically and over the phone.  Employment and money also came from Dallas.  And though I am nothing but grateful to those that have been my core support system since I left, the net effect feels very much like this:423px-Dykeri,_fig_6,_Nordisk_familjebokWhat matters in life is being supplied form afar: from Dallas, San Francisco, Portland, and scattered places from around the country until I get my “NYC Gills” and can derive these needs locally again.

Much like a diving suit, it is in many ways quite artificial and not a long-term plan at all.. at a certain point, someone in this position wants to rise to the surface, walk on land and breathe air naturally again.  The wonders underneath the ocean do not matter as much.  It may be personal.  One may resist growing “gills” and find that the notion of learning to breathe underwater is in essence to leave some of what was loved and important behind.

An introvert like myself reacts to a major and sudden change to the order of things by… introverting.  Hard.  Such situations can spiral very, very quickly into something resembling hermithood, and things got bad enough that a mental health day was needed.  In a day in age where I consider depression a symptom rather than a cause, something was seriously off and had to be dealt with.

Mental health day started with an Internet search about decision fatigue.  My mind was gridlocked and I felt had no course on virtually any aspect of what was now missing in life or what to do about it.  A forbes article provided some insights: notable ones were that big decisions will never be perfect nor encompass everything that you might want. The trick is to choose 1-2 aspects that are most important and base your decisions on those, choosing to deal with how the secondary concerns of that decision play out.  That little decisions need not sap so much time and energy, something I can be terribly guilty of.

Continued reading led to a famous book called the seven habits of highly effective people. Reading the book is still in progress, but a core idea I’ve latched on to is about making choices for oneself, vs. allowing others or circumstance to make them for you.  “What do I want” is a question that’s been asked of me from everyone from girlfriends to my therapist, and I do not have a concrete answer to this day.

Lacking an answer to what one wants and what one is doing in life guarantees dissatisfaction.  I came to realize that it didn’t matter whether my life in Dallas was good or if it wasn’t.  I had never truly chosen it.  Almost all major life choices made up until the point I drove away were what I’d term reactive choices.  Defensive choices.  Choices one makes when they feel they have no choice. Choices that were effectively a lesser evil over another, or important choices made on a whim without proper articulation as to why and to their long-term consequences.  Even if some had turned out spectacularly well, I didn’t feel a sense of ownership.

Stripping away most of what sustained me day to day has revealed that this is the question that is at the core of everything I’ve perceived to be missing from an otherwise decent life.  It’s forced me to face questions about what is really important and how to base decisions on what I deem to be important.  About how internal convictions might give one the strength to see those decisions through and the fortitude to deal with the painful aspects of adapting to those choices.  I would not have faced these questions had I remained in the relatively comfortable confines of my life in Dallas, so regardless of how things play out in the next few months, this journey is producing many clues as to who I am, and what I truly value.

The Apocalyptic Bridge

The downtown skyline as seen from the Manhattan Bridge

The downtown skyline as seen from the Manhattan Bridge

I’m old enough now to know that euphoric, honeymoon-like moments are brief, fleeting, and something to be savored when they happen.  Such was the experience walking over the Manhattan Bridge for the first time.

There was no effort needed to suppress any type of guilt, second-guess, or any type of question about where and what I’m supposed to be doing.  No past regrets.  All the baggage comfortably somewhere else in another time and place.  Even though I was alone, there was a comforting knowledge of all the people I am close to.  I didn’t have to try.  I wanted to be no place else.

The bridge itself has this post-apocalyptic feel to it.  All metal, with the subway vibrating the thing to its bones with every passing.  It’s over 100 years old and looks like something out of a movie set.  Batman might be around the corner.

The walk continued through Brooklyn Bridge park, where the atmosphere felt very much in contrast to the hustle of Manhattan.  For all it’s intensity, the city most definitely had its spots of solace, and I had just found one.

Back across the Brooklyn Bridge.  Far more people this time.  No apocalyptic imagery but this odd feeling of walking just *this* far above everything.  I had a flashback to a moment many years ago, walking across the same bridge, just as we were descending into Manhattan.  My friends at the time had recently moved from Dallas, and were raving about the city.  They encouraged me to come.  I remember thinking that I did want to come, but when I was ready, and for my reasons.  That was now six years ago.

The moment lasted well into the next day.  I remember seeing it go.  It was on the N train, construction forcing us to go dead slow, when the fatigue the city can easily inflict hit me: I just want to get home, f– this construction, f– the speed limit, just get me to 59th street so I can at least move under my own direction.  Back to real life.  Back to chores, to making new friends, to managing fatigue and stress and work and bills.  Back to making something of this experience you’ve been granted.

But wow, what a moment.

How does it feel now that you’re there?

This is something I’ve been asked in one form or another by many people, and I usually wonder what the person asking the question is expecting to hear.  It’s sometimes asked politely, for the sake of conversation, and other times it’s asked with sincere interest.

It hasn’t been that long, but this week I got positive news from work that my remote absence was going better than expected, so I feel confident in a new way: income is not going to dry up provided I continue doing what I’m doing, and so there will be no immediate need to leave the city.  I’ve secured a place to live and being here now feels like something resembling permanent.

My private journal is normally a place of refuge when the multitude of voices in my head need to vent their frustrations and find some sort of agreed-upon order and course of action.  To my complete surprise, writing in my journal yielded a smiley emoticon, something that I am not sure I’ve seen in over a decade of private journaling.

“I am here.”  It’s something that gets repeated in the journal.

At the night of this writing I went out with a spunky lady that is part of what I hope will be a basic support network of friends.  “What do you want to do here?” she asked me.

I couldn’t quite find the words I can find here to explain: it doesn’t really matter.  I *know* there is everything under the Sun here in the city.  That’s why I came here.  But coming here wasn’t easy, and really, it was the biggest thing I’ve wanted in quite awhile.  “To come to New York.”  Now I’ve done that.  It’s literally been just a few days.  Just walking around and taking in everything that is different is a new experience.  The euphoria of having accomplished a long-sought-after goal hasn’t faded yet.

“I’d like to bike the city” was my definitive answer, followed by a meeker shrug and “I’m here to… immerse myself?”  And she proceeded to give me what I perceive is a characteristic spitfire response.

“The subway runs 24/7.  This is a city where you can be alone.  Not *lonely*, but alone.  You don’t have to wait for permanence, or to move into your apartment in Williamsburg.  Go, now.  You have newbie eyes.  You won’t have them in six months.  Enjoy it *now* while you have them!  Do the touristy stuff!  There is value to it, there is no shame in indulging it.  There are museums *I* haven’t even been to and I’ve been here most my life.”

“Actually, I have wanted to see the statue of liberty…”  (I admit this, now absolved of shame of doing touristy things.  I actually feel that this is something I should and need see as an American citizen.)

“Then go!”

“… but I was going to wait until one of my friends came to visit.  It’s on many people’s lists and it sounds like it takes a long time…”

(eyes rolling) “No.  Go, on your own.  It is a grand thing.  It will be completely different going there with your friends.  A different experience.  And if for some reason you don’t want to go, you can always show them how to get there and let them do it on their own.”

I picture having already seen the statue, and then picturing the experience of going there again with a specific individual.  It wouldn’t be about the statue at that point.. it’d be about how that individual would *be* around the statue.

I like this person and what she’s saying.  She’s one of those spirits that help me pull out of my stuffy head and not be afraid to indulge what’s important.

That little bit of socialization has been rejuvenating.  Another round of drinks follows, along with vigorous discussion about Iran and da bomb, and the two state solution.  Strong topics in this city.  I would not have had this conversation in Dallas.

Back at home I take the time to write, some of which made it here.  I am alone, but not lonely, and the city is a vast, new place to me, yet unburned with baggage and full of possibility.  This feeling won’t last.  But having wanting to come here for a long time, I’m allowing myself to enjoy this feeling, guilt-free.

A lap around the United States

It has to start somewhere.

It’s been years since I’ve indulged my livejournal voice, and a plethora of stillborn entries litter my evernote account in my recent attempts to revive it. The past few weeks have taught me that I need a higher dose of humility in my daily life. Perfection is a good thing to strive for, but lack of it a bad reason to postpone something.

Writing is no different than exercise. It must be done regularly in order for us to improve at it, and if our goal is to indulge an audience, it takes several iterations and many dud entries to hone one’s voice. Cues I’ve picked up from other bloggers and writers suggest that writing often and fighting “writer’s block” are routine aspects of the craft.

Choose an audience. Choose your message. Something about stating a premise, backing it up, and concluding. Don’t write too much–no more than a page. People are busy.

So in this case, the audience is anyone who I might care to introduce myself to, or someone who knows me, but might want to know what’s been going on recently.

Two years in, my employer and I negotiated remote work rights. I am allowed to work 100% from home, which means that I am effectively location agnostic. My original intent was to move to my employer’s New York office, having long aspired to live in the big city.

A remote work setup is in some ways better than a job in New York. As such, I’m taking the long way getting there. Head west, see friends and family, and attend a few weddings. Get some good mountain bike rides in there. Take in the vastness of the American West, which will be something that will be in sharp contrast to New York. Then, after the last wedding, head east toward the city.

* * * *

It’s been an adjustment and a sad shock to leave behind friends and loved ones in Dallas.

Years of an often lonely existence had been turned around to a very content and full life, with a loving girlfriend, best friends, adventure buddies, and a work life that also met most of my social needs. I had a window view in a downtown skyscraper, the best possible arrangement if one is bound to a desk.

The adjustment and the sadness were anticipated though. I always knew I wasn’t settled. The issue of what “one wants to do” with one’s life is always present, and not having any debt, any property assets, or any children, I felt a persistent nag to use my “wings” and try a different lifestyle.

I’m into my second week, and I must admit that I’m now starting to really enjoy this. Quality time with the brother, epic trail and mountain bike rides, and *surprisingly* more free time. (!!) Nothing but long, open road and more time with friends and family in the next few weeks. I might even read a book or two.