0398 – beware of digression

  • Digression is fun
  • Achieving your goals is more fun
  • Do not digress at the expense of achieving your goals

Alright, I’ve been reading a bunch of my vomits and extracting out things that I think are valuable and ought to be revisited. So far so good. I’ve decided to pause to write about one of the vomits, which is 0079– a dithered, digressive post about digression.

I’ve decided to pause reading my vomits in order to to write about this post. I’m doing this because it fits the criteria for what I’ve been looking for for some time now: It’s a post that feels “dated” rather than current. I can discern a difference between my current writing and the writing in this piece. [1] This presents me with an opportunity that I’d like to take advantage of: I have the opportunity to find out what my current writing style is, simply by contrasting it against what it was then. [2]

I think the most telling bit is this:

“I love making digressions. I almost can’t help it- I hate the idea of not sharing all these auxiliary details. Aren’t we impoverished when denied context? This informs my writing style to a dramatic degree- which is why I use so many commas, em dashes, parentheses, fragments. I write like I talk like I think- very messily.”

I have changed my mind about this substantially. I still can’t really help making digressions, but I no longer love making them. I see more clearly now how auxiliary details can cloud rather than inform. I would love to be able to squeeze in tonnes of delightful auxiliary details into everything I write, but I shouldn’t even try until I’ve done justice to the heart of the story I want to tell. [3]

It’s interesting that I just wrote “shouldn’t even try”– because digressions for me aren’t something I have to put effort into. They’re still a function of my dominant way of being. It’s a symptom of how I perceive and navigate the world. This essay so far has been about how I write, but it’s also really about how I think, how I feel, how I relate to people and things, and how I work. In many, many fragments, in every direction, all at once, all the time, until I collapse from exhaustion. I spin in delightfully wild circles, and when the dust settles I discover that I’ve barely built anything at all– or more often than not, that I have multiple imperfect configurations of things, none of which work.

To borrow some language from product development, I utterly fail at developing Minimum Viable Products. I come up with very grand, over-developed product ideas without testing them first. These are costly to develop (mentally), and I get stuck with many different copies of grand, byzantine structures that are unable to stand by themselves.

If the task is “build a vehicle”, for example, I ought to start with a skateboard or a bicycle. That would allow me to have something functional to work with, and I can learn from the experience. The information from that experience is vastly more useful in figuring out the next steps necessary to improve the vehicle.

I don’t do that. I’m terrible at doing that. Instead I start by researching aerodynamics and combustion and solar energy, and the history of vehicles, and I get sidetracked into reading about physics and the laws of motion and lots of details about Isaac Newton’s childhood, and Da Vinci’s dreams for manned flight. And what it was like in fifteenth century Florence. I begin on grand plans: ideas for complicated multi-terrain vehicles powered by futuristic technologies. And these ideas are of course fantastic, flawed, imperfect. They have no clear product specifications. They have no clear budget. They have no clear outcome. I simply start improvising with no clear end-state in mind– or if I had one, I quickly throw it out the window in my glee to explore and digress.

And I guess I’m writing this now to say that I’ve developed since then. I used to think that the way that I thought and wrote was definitive– take it or leave it. “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.” I now recognize that it can be a lot more nuanced than that. I now recognize that sticking entirely to my comfort zone is limiting, and keeps me from being able to do the work that I want to do. In order for me to get things done, I have to learn to manage myself and my thinking/writing styles. When there’s an objective to be met, it often makes a lot of sense on focusing on what’s best for the objective– instead of blindly hoping to randomly achieve it through wild trial and error. Especially when you have limited resources, and especially when the objective is complex.

The old me might have thought that this might be a “betrayal” of my “natural style”, but it’s really, really not that straightforward. Time spent practicing your natural style is good, you get better at it. That’s part of why I do these word vomits. It’s woodshedding, for my own personal pleasure and practice, on my own time. And I am always free to break into “full free-association mode” if I want to. Interestingly, I don’t even find myself wanting to do that very much these days– probably because the payoff from doing so has been yielding diminishing returns.

On the other hand, successfully achieving objectives is a very powerful thing. It often gives you something valuable that you couldn’t have gotten otherwise. Usually this is some sort of resource– it might be data, it might be insight, or it might even just be feel-good chemicals in the brain. These additional resources take you to the next level. And the amazing, cool thing is– when you get to the next level, you find amazing new opportunities to use your natural talents and abilities in interesting, powerful new ways. I guess it’s a lot like being your own manager, so you can develop yourself as an artist.

Finally I want to say that… all of this gives me faith. I’m not sure when I lost my childlike sense of possibility, the belief that I could do pretty much anything I wanted. When I was 10 I felt like I could’ve been a lawyer, a computer programmer, a video game developer, maybe even a doctor if I really wanted… anything! I could learn other languages, I would get rich, I would have everything I dreamed of. At some point, a lot of that was beaten out of me, and I don’t know when exactly this started to happen but I started trying to hold on to what little scraps of comfort, familiarity and seeming dignity I had left.

But the progress I’ve made as a writer makes me realize that it just takes practice. It just takes persistence, and a little attention. And some reviewing. And a commitment to lots of little bits over the long term, which is actually a lot easier and a lot more pleasant than it seems– you just gotta go slow and be consistent.

I have levelled up as a writer. I intend to keep getting better, and I intend to get better at other things, too.

[1] It was published almost two years ago, in August 2013. I don’t think it necessarily takes 2 years to change your writing style, but if you’re writing at a fairly frequent pace (above-average passionate hobbyist), I think it’s fair to expect that your style will change after 2 years.

[2] If I can learn more about my writing style by simply looking at my older writing, why did I take so long to get to this? Why not just compare against even older writing, which is clearly different? The answer seems to be this: The more recent the “discernably different” post, the more interesting and useful the differences are. Consider the extreme case: I can’t learn very much about my recent developments as a writer by comparing my writing against the incohrent scribbles I made with a crayon when I was 2. I could learn quite a bit about myself from reading my childhood writings (I wish I had more of those)– both from the stylistic choices and from the subject matter. But I wouldn’t learn very much about the nuances of my more recent developments.

[3] This is heavily informed by Carl Zimmer’s thoughts about how writing is like building a ship in a bottle, by former Pixar screenwriter Emma Coats’ rules of storytelling, and by my own frustrations when writing for work– I would do a lot of research, and then struggle like mad to squeeze in all that research into the story. Turns out that it’s not possible. You kill the story. Writing and thinking in a hyper-broad, digressive, free-association state can be VERY useful as a tool, but it’s only one tool in a larger toolkit.

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