Writing Tools

When it comes to writing, some tools are more important than others. Some people can write without a pen or paper. Others can write without a good beverage to semi-distract them from time to time. For one person I know, effective writing is all about the location. As with many things in life, there is no ideal set of criteria that will work for everyone. Fortunately, it's these differences that can make for some interesting discussions.

Writing Tools

Last week I was having a short chat with someone who, like me, has lived in Japan for over a decade. Like me, when he first arrived in this country he would blog daily about all the new and interesting things that caught his eye. He'd write about the different places he wanted to visit. He'd post dozens of photos showing places he had been. He'd follow up with a "reflections" blog post a week or two after a trip to share his thoughts after taking some time to digest everything he'd seen.

This changed in 2009 when he started working full time. Rather than write daily, he would have a weekly post that would go out on a Monday or Tuesday to summarise the last weekend. A couple of months later, he'd publish a short post seasonally. Between the winter of 2010 and the fall of 2016, aside from a few posts talking about the 3/11 earthquake that struck the northeastern part of the country, he'd written fewer than 5 items. "Life" had gotten in the way of his writing. It happens to us all.

Of the many questions that we asked each other, two have really stuck with me over the weekend:

  1. What purpose does a long-lived blog serve?
  2. Given how "everyone" uses various social services, why have a blog at all?

What's the Point?

The general answer we came to with this question would fit right in with a lot of existential questions people might ask about themselves. Why would anyone want to have a blog for 10, 20, or 50 years? Who would read it? Should such a site be a publicly-facing diary, or something more ephemeral that discusses things that are current as of the publication date?

In my mind, I don't see why a person would want to impose an artificial lifespan on a hobby or pastime. People are not static beings, but ever-changing individuals with interests and commitments that change with time. So a blog doesn't see an update for two years before a flurry of posts are pushed out because a little bit of time became available. What does this matter? Ultimately, a blog or other hobby is there for us when we want them to be there. If other people can get enjoyment from what we do, that's just an added bonus. It is us who gives the writing we share value, not someone else.

Why a Blog? Why Not a Social Post?

Why, indeed. Why does anyone write a letter on paper, stuff it in an envelope, buy a stamp, and mail the missive when an email would be faster, cheaper, and more interactive? Why does anyone bake bread when there are stores just about everywhere that sell the finished product for a reasonable price? Why read a book when there's a movie version of the story? For some people, value is in the message alone. For others, the value of the message is enhanced by the medium. I won't pretend that a blog post is more valuable than a Tweet or something posted on Facebook but, at the end of the day, the medium can signal the amount of attention a person invested into their writing, and how much they expect from the reader. I would hope that a person who received a hand-written letter from me would enjoy it just a little bit more than an email, just as a person who bakes a loaf of bread hopes the people who eat it enjoy something more unique than a mass-produced food product.

While I may not write nearly as many blog posts today as I did a decade ago, the medium is still an interesting one that is still evolving alongside the rest of the Internet. There may be dry spells here and there as "life" gets in the way. There may even be future torrents should the need ever arise. The purpose of this site is the same today as it was in 2006 when it was hosted from a single-drive Synology NAS sitting on top of my fridge. This is a place where I come to put ideas into a text-based form. The words may not always make sense. The concepts may not always be correct. But they do provide a point-in-time picture of something that is happening in my life. Whether anyone will ever get any value from anything I write is tertiary to the reasons I invest time here.

How Long Is A Candle?

In September of 2015, nearly six months after scrapping Version 3 of 10Centuries, I started work on 10Cv4, the most complex and current release of my millennia-long pet project. In December I was encouraged to push even harder to get the system ready for podcasting and, after a few false starts, I managed to release a private version with a few people testing it for a month before opening the door to beta testers in January of this year. Since then, there have been hundreds of mini-releases, some big technical changes, a couple of hurdles, and a whole lot of UI development to make the system more approachable for people who have been trained to be more critical of software interfaces. There's still a lot to be done, including development of a multi-platform mobile application that will be available on Android and Apple devices, but the system is coming along nicely and is 80% of the way to becoming profitable.

Since March of this year, I've been working a lot of long hours in order to pull off what many people at work are calling "the miracle of the century." Creating and deploying a new piece of software from scratch to polish in less than six months to replace tools that have been in use and under development for years. A lot of the people I'm working with are incredibly motivated and work hard to accomplish all of their goals on time, and a few have — until recently — openly slowed the team down by remaining willfully ignorant of the project until it was too late. This is typical in most large organizations, and is compounded when working across borders and timezones with people who have never met each other in person. Yet, despite the hurdles, the local team has pulled together to accomplish some really amazing things.

Two months ago a client who I had done a lot of work for in 2013 and 2014 came at me with a new project request. It sounds interesting, and it could prove to be a huge hit in Japan given the rise of the "gig economy" in local communities. I've been offered the position of lead developer, which would likely transition to CTO should investment actually come through after the initial project is built and demoed in Tokyo this fall. At this point my role is strictly consulting, but I've been given the opportunity to hop on board for weekend and evening development sessions which would reduce the time between software releases by a wide margin.

In February 2017 a long-term project is set to begin. One that is going to be more complicated and more demanding than anything I have accomplished to date. Leading up to the start of this project I'm investing a lot of time in learning new skills and putting most of them to use almost immediately. This new project won't pay very well, and might never break even when examined from a strictly financial point of view, but it's one that I've been looking forward to starting for a very, very long time.

No, I haven't forgotten that I'm married and also have a puppy who desperately needs human attention at all times. My family takes priority to the vast majority of the projects I'm currently working on, though I do tend to ask for a few hours every weekend to turn some ideas into software and to read a book or two … or do some podcasting … or cook.

Burning the candle at both ends? Me? No. I chopped that candle up into smaller pieces and am burning many little ones!

Lit Candles Lighting the Way

A bad analogy is like a leaky screwdriver.

— Hugo¹

Sitting around doing nothing is very hard for me, and I actively avoid it at all costs. Idle hands are the devil's playthings and, while I don't particularly believe that the demigod synonymous with evil will make use of my body, I do see examples of people who are capable of so many things and have great ideas but zero ambition to actually accomplish their goals. People are free to use their time however they choose, of course. Who am I to judge? What I do know, however, is that I would not like to look back in seven days at what I did during the previous week only to shake my head.

So I work …

… and work …

… and work.

No, it's not particularly healthy, and this is a topic that I've touched on numerous occasions with blog posts lamenting approaching burnout, mental exhaustion, and generally feeling bad about myself. This is a lifestyle that I've chosen, but is it the right one?

Can't Nobody Hold Me Down. Not even me.

Over the last decade or so I've tried a number of times — to no avail — to slow down and relax. Occasionally this would involve disconnecting from the Internet where it seems that everybody is always doing something amazing, when really it's just three or four percent of everybody who's doing something amazing. When I see others achieve, I want to achieve, too. As childish as it may seem, the thrill of recognition is just too great to ignore. One cannot compete with everybody, though.

Other attempts to relax have involved me reducing the amount of time I sit in front of a glowing screen, opting instead to use more analog devices such as pens and paper, allowing for a less rigid, more organic creative process to take hold. This is generally a wonderful thing, but it's hard to then transfer that creativity from freeform paper to something that can be shared and appreciated by others.

Occasionally I've even taken the drastic measure of removing the software development tools from my computers so that I instead focus on writing, or communicating, or simply playing a game to unwind and relax. This tack rarely lasts long, though, and is pretty much impossible now that I'm being paid a full-time salary to write software during the day. The development tools are rather necessary at this point.

So why fight it? What purpose would preventing myself from going in six different directions at once actually serve aside from introducing distractive thoughts actually serve? Exploration of other pastimes? Spending time in places where I am physically present but cognitively elsewhere? Forcing myself to confront the demons of self-doubt that ceaselessly whisper into my subconscious ear? Wouldn't some measure of success and recognition address that last issue, thus validating the excessive efforts that are being put into a number of projects, both large and small?

And this is really the crux of the problem, isn't it? I don't feel I've accomplished anything worth being proud of and, when something does gain some modicum of acclamation, I shrug it off thinking that I don't deserve any praise because there are other five other people I could point to who are doing the same thing, only better.

10Centuries cannot hold a candle to WordPress or SquareSpace. The gig economy tool has long been the domain of CraigsList and AirBnB-like sites. The LMS I'm building at the day job? Well … that's something that might garner a whole heap of recognition in the education sector, but only because there are 20 very dedicated people working on the project and all the existing commercial products are just awful. The big, long-term project that starts next year … both excites and terrifies me. What if I'm not good enough?

People who have known me a long time will probably scoff at this endless cycle of self-flaggelation. Sure, the things I create may not be to the same standard as the offerings provided by others, but they do offer something unique — something that other tools either do not or cannot implement. This is what I'm told right before the ever-helpful "cheer up!" comment that comes across more as exasperation than encouragement … though I won't fault them for trying.

So here I am, writing a blog post just minutes to midnight trying to sort out why I can't sit still or limit myself to just one or two projects instead of some ridiculous number. Believe it or not, posts like this do help me contextualize what's going on in my head, and nothing here is new to me. I know I need to wield better control over my time, and I know I shouldn't say "yes" to every project that lands on my desk. I can't take more than a day of doing "nothing", and that's just fine so long as I make sure the people around me are taken care of. I should get out more, too.

All of this I already know, but that desire to do something great demands the lion's share of the pie. What I really want to know is how to satisfy that seemingly insatiable need. Maybe when the mind is less concerned with trying to accomplish something, it will actually come to pass.

1. Hugo who, I don't know. The quote comes from an episode of The Ubuntu Podcast.