Journaling: Books to Read

These days I own more journals than any other type of physical books. Since moving to Finland and divesting myself of nearly everything I own, I’ve moved to reading ebooks on a tablet. That’s not exactly a cutting edge move, and I know I’m only a few years behind the curve. I continue to write in journals because I love the physicality of pen on paper, the ability to doodle, and the raw power of not having to worry about wifi access or battery life. A journal only does one thing, and it offers no distractions outside of itself.

Over time I’ve moved from having a one-size-fits-all journal to capture everything to different journals for specific purposes. I have one that’s just for self-work and reflection, one for lists, one for raw ideas and data capture, and so on. In upcoming posts I’ll cover each of these but today I want to tell you about the value of a reading journal.

In the front of the book are a few pages listing all of the ebooks that I’ve acquired that I haven’t read yet. I have a weakness for other peoples’ lists; when some blog publishes a list of an author’s favorite books, or essential reading on a topic of interest, I’m there. If they’re free books, they’re downloaded. If they’re on Project Gutenberg, I turn into a kid in a candy store. I write out these lists in the reading journal.

I’m also an incredible suck for “bundle” deals. Various websites now have these limited-time deals where you can get a whole bunch of books by a single author, or on a single topic, for a ridiculously low price. 5 books for 5 bucks, by a writer I like or a subject that fascinates me? I’m in.

My tablet ends up filled with all these books, and I’ve yet to find an ereader that allws me to organize a library in a way that’s meaningful to me. The reading journal does that for me. I make lists by topic, or by author, or by whatever makes sense to me, the way I’d arrange physical books on a shelf. Now I have a clear picture of what I have. As I finish one book and start looking for something else to read, I can consult the lists.

The larger the lists within the journal grow, the more cautious I become about acquiring new books. Buying books used to be a disease with me. In preparing for a move several years ago, I culled 33 boxes of books that I hadn’t read yet. 33 boxes. I sold them off, and made enough money to finance that whole move. With free and cheap ebooks, it’s easy to start falling into that trap. I know how fast I can read, and when I can see the list of unread books, I can gauge how many week, months, or years out I am from ever reading the whole list.

The most important part of the reading journal is this: When I start reading a book, I write the title and the author at the top of the page, and begin taking notes. It doesn’t matter if it’s a business book or a novel, I’m always making notes. Quotes, ideas that pop into my head, insights, everything. It’s not simply a book of lists. It’s a memoir of experiences in reading.

Keeping a journal allows me to read more mindfully. I helps me to remember what authors I liked, and why. It allows me to cross-reference things. It is arguably the most important journal I keep, because it helps me to grow personally and professionally.

Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas McGregor was a social psychologist and staff member at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Abraham Maslow, who developed the famous “Hierarchy of Needs” to explain human behavior, considered McGregor a mentor. What McGregor is most famous for is his theories of managers’ perceptions of human motivation, dubbed Theory X and Theory Y. If you can bear with me, I’m going to explain how McGregor’s theories have affected my world view, and what they have to do with my desire to go to Finland.

Under Theory X, management assumes that people are lazy and don’t want to work. They require strict supervision, and are only motivated by carrots and sticks. Basically, it assumes the worst about people, and states that people will only work hard through some combination of bribery (raises, bonuses, benefits, and other financial incentives) and threats (reprimands, loss of financial incentives, termination, and so on). It assumes that people want and need to be told what to do.

Theory Y assumes that people are capable of self-control, can actually enjoy the work that they do, and want to do a good job when they can. Work can be a source of satisfaction, not just a financial necessity. When work provides a sense of purpose, the work itself can be its own reward and people in turn provide their own motivations. If you allow people to assume more responsibility and autonomy, they will rise to the occasion.

Note that both of these theories aren’t based on how human being actually behave; they’re based on how leaders assume people behave, or will behave. There’s no data to back it up, and no opportunity for groups or individuals to prove otherwise. Policies and management styles are based entirely upon the way the leadership thinks the world works. And yet, there are dozens of studies and reams of data that prove that the Theory Y approach is far superior in most cases than a Theory X approach.

I tend to see the world in terms of Theory X and Theory Y. It cuts across politics, religion, and philosophy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a social liberal or a social conservative, a capitalist or a socialist, a “Grace” Christian or a “Law” Christian, you can find the theories. Does a congressman or clergyman think people can be trusted to do the right think, and that they will excel and prove to be a benefit to society if they’re given rights and responsibilities and opportunities? Or do those talking heads think that people are inherently bad and greedy and selfish and will only abuse and exploit any sort of aid and opportunity we give to them?

Right now, I see more of Theory Y in Finland, and more of Theory X in the United States. In America most of the talk seems to be around what we can’t do. We can’t give people affordable health care, because they’ll exploit it. We can’t pay people a living wage, it won’t incent them to work harder. We can’t allow certain people to marry, it will lead to the fall of civilization. All of the “slippery slope” arguments for what we can’t do something are based in Theory X, that people are bad, and the assumption that the worse case scenario is the most likely outcome.

Finland has free public education from preschool through university. They have universal health care. They pay a living wage. They’re thriving. They’ve pulled themselves up by assuming the best about people, giving people opportunities, and treating people with dignity and respect. And while I know that America isn’t completely awful and that the grass will be no greener in Finland, I need to see a more Theory Y-oriented society in action for a while. It’s because I lean to Theory Y that I have faith in humanity; it’s the overflow of Theory X thinking that causes me despair and puts me in need of a break.

Facing The End of a Project

The final stages of a project are always the worst. Nearly every creative person I’ve ever discussed this with, regardless of the medium they work in, says the same thing. Some of it is that you’ve been having fun and you’re not ready to wrap things up and say goodbye. Some of it is perfectionism and doubt, where you’re not sure that it’s finished, that you haven’t missed something important, that it’s ready to be seen by eyes other than your own.

For me, the end of a project is the point where I’m most likely to procrastinate. There are the above-stated fears about quality and worthiness, yes. I can sometimes find myself bored. That’s a horrible feeling, to be sick of looking at something right before you need to start promoting it and encouraging people to buy it. The end is the hardest because all of the low-hanging fruit has been picked, the parts that are easy to write have been written, and all that’s left is the tough stuff, the things you still haven’t worked out, the bits that you’re not happy with or haven’t discovered how to make work. It’s actually delayed procrastination; you didn’t deal with it yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, you stuck a pin in it, and now all that remains are the sections you didn’t want to deal with before.

Adding insult to injury is the next project, the one you’re enthusiastic about, the one you haven’t been wrestling with and aren’t burnt out on, beckoning to you. It’s like knowing dessert it waiting, and you’ve eaten 90% of your dinner (the things you like) but you have to find a way to choke down the yucky stuff. You can’t just eat a bite or two to placate your mom (your editor, your publisher).

Facing The End of a Project

Now, the good news is that there is a deadline, and it makes sense to me that the hard stuff gets deferred to the point where you’re forced to deal with it. If I had to work linearly, and I had to work through the rough parts earlier in the project, I think I would suffer from what people generally call writer’s block. I think any given project would take 3 to 5 times longer to complete. Sailing through the easy and fun bits early not only keeps things flowing, it keeps my enthusiasm up. The faster I get through that part, the sooner I get to the gristle, and the longer I have to chew on it. It may not every be conscious. In the back of my head, I know that I’ll need to deal with a particular problem eventually, and my subconscious can be working out solutions while I’m merrily pounding on the keys and writing what pours out unbidden. When love of the project fails, the dreaded deadline doom kicks in.

Is it any wonder creative people are all a little nutty?


One School Year Down

Friday was Katie’s last class for the year. She’s officially finished the first leg of her Master’s degree program. While she still has a few papers left to write, she’s done. She survived. We survived. It’s a milestone.

Over the summer she’ll be doing some work on her thesis, but things operate differently here. It’s expected that she’ll take time off to enjoy herself. The head of her program gently scolded Katie when said she planned to do research over the next three months. They take the concept of vacation very seriously here. During July, with the exception of grocery stores and essential services, the entire country shuts down!

Katie’s thesis idea has been ambitious, and she’s already had to scale back on the scope and reach of it. It’s for that reason that we’ll also spend the summer looking into the possibility of staying on for her Ph.D and possibly beyond. She’s on a roll, and frankly, we like it here. The climate, in every sense, suits us.

Last week was the 9 month anniversary of our arrival. In some contexts it feels as if we’ve been here longer, in others it seems we’ve just arrived, but regardless of time frame we’re only beginning to settle in. We have food, favorite routines, and friends, but there is so much more to get to know about this country, and so many things to see and do. That’s also on the agenda for the summer, to simply explore!

In any event, we still have at least 12 more months to go in her Master’s program. After that, who knows. If we stay for her to earn her doctorate, that would be incredible, but if we move it, we could end up anywhere. No matter what else we do over the summer, our minds will always be engaged in planning for the future.

Explaining Game Writing to Non-Gamers

Most of my non-gamer friends have no clear idea of what I do for a living, and when I try to explain it to them their eyes glaze over. It becomes, in the words of one person, “so much technobabble nerd speak”. They have some vague idea of what Dungeons & Dragons is, but they think in terms of board games and generally believe it to be a fixed thing; if the game already exists, what else is there to write about?I finally hit upon a couple of analogies that people seem to grasp. If I were in the automobile industry my company, Asparagus Jumpsuit, wouldn’t be the auto manufacturer like Ford or Chevy. We’d be the smaller company that makes after-market parts for owners of Fords and Chevys. Folks seem to get that. I don’t work for the company that makes D&D, and I don’t work directly on D&D, I make accessories for people who play D&D.

The other analogy that sort of works is to ask people to look at tabletop roleplaying games not as board games, but as sports. In football, for example, there’s a rulebook, but that’s not the end of the discussion. There are always interpretations of the rules. That’s why you have referees. Players have different strengths and weaknesses, that’s why you have coaches. The majority of players haven’t been signed by the NFL. Most of us are amateurs. We know what we’re doing, but we want to get better. It’s our hobby, we do it because we enjoy it, and we want to be good at it. If you keep imagining it as football, there are books and magazine and websites and videos and all sorts of material that address how to be a better player, how to be a better coach, how to be a better referee, how to understand the nuances of the rules, how to understand the statistics, and so on. There’s plenty to write about. So it goes with tabletop roleplaying games as well.

Explaining Game Writing to Non-Gamers

So with allegorical context, I can explain what I actually do with more clarity. I don’t write for D&D, although I might next year when the new rulebook comes out. Going back to sports, think of me as a sports writer, not a football writer. I don’t cover football, I cover other sports. To be really specific, I write mostly for a game called Pathfinder, which is a lot like D&D. I’ll give you another sports analogy, to try to explain the relationship between D&D and Pathfinder. Remember back when they changed the designated hitter rule in baseball, and a lot of people didn’t like it? Now, imagine if a bunch of people said no, we’re not going to accept the change, we’re going to keep playing the way we’re used to playing. Then those people split off and formed their own league. So you end up with two baseball leagues, one that carries on the name of Major League Baseball but with new rules, and one that’s got a new name but is playing under the old rules. D&D is the new game with the old name, and Pathfinder is the old game with the new name.

It gets a lot more complicated than that, but I don’t want to hurt your brain. It hurts mine, and I understand the way things are and why.

I have a license from the company that owns and publishes Pathfinder to create and sell Pathfinder-compatible material. It’s all legal and above-board. There are rules that I have to follow, but I get to play with their toys. I can create things that work with their rules, I can create variations on their rules, and I’m not violating their copyrights because I have their permission.

There are a million other things that I could be writing, and I do write other things, about other games, and a lot of non-game stuff. I keep writing for Pathfinder because it’s where the money is for me right now. It’s the market that sells the best and pays the best. Since money is everything for us right now, with the big move to Finland coming up, I follow the money. It’s fun to write, it’s a creative outlet, and it’s more stable and lucrative than writing short fiction.

Hopefully, that clears some things up for my non-gamer friends and readers. Feel free to ask questions.

Blog Template: The 5-Paragraph Essay

To be perfectly honest, I know that blogging is frequently more about the blogger than the reader. I’m always looking for ways to write better, because good writing is more likely to attract readers than bad writing. I’m also looking for ways to just get the ideas out of my head in the most efficient way possible, so I can say what I need to say without rambling aimlessly and being overly wordy. That’s why I’ve been playing with the classic five paragraph essay structure to write blog posts that I find more satisfying.

The typical five paragraph essay starts with a thesis in the first paragraph, introducing the idea or concept that you’re going to talk about and why you’re talking about it. The second paragraph goes into the actual topic in more detail, with explanation and some exposition. The third paragraph usually presents the good points that uphold the topic, and the fourth paragraph points out the bad points that detract from it. In the final paragraph, the thesis is restated, summed up, and theoretically proven.

The structure works for me because it forces me to outline what I’m going to say. I jot down the points I want to make, and order them into neat paragraphs. Only then do I start to actually write. When I first started blogging, I’d sit down and just start pounding the keys. I would ramble all over the place, wandering from one point to another and back again. Having a structure allows me to simply get to the point, clearly and concisely.

The downside is that it is sort of formulaic, and it doesn’t always fit the needs of the piece. If I have a lot to say in one paragraph, say, the positive points, it could end up as a very long paragraph. If there’s not a lot of negative, I might be forced to squeeze out three or four sentences just to make a paragraph and fit the structure. There’s not always a nice symmetry to it. I’m also not always keen on presenting the good and then taking it down a notch; I’ll often mix it up and present the negative first, then redeem the thesis and make things a bit more upbeat by putting the upside into the fourth paragraph.

Like any sort of structure or writing advice, it’s more of a guideline than a rule. It doesn’t have to be exactly five paragraphs; I tend to think of them as sections instead. If I need two or three paragraphs to make a point and convey the information I need to communicate, so be it. If I can combine two sections, usually the first and second or the third and fourth, I’ll do so if it makes the piece stronger. The only thing that actually matters is that I walk away feeling satisfied that I’ve said exactly what I wanted to say.

‘It Is Only Half An Hour’

‘It is only half an hour’  —  ‘It is only an afternoon’  —  ‘It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes  —  or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day … Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.

Charles Dickens

Let’s Revisit Boundaries

This is not new wisdom; Dickens was talking about it way back in the Victorian era. Creators need to create. It’s our reason for living, our driving passion. We need office hours so that we can work and make money, and we need to be sure people understand that this is our job, what we do for a living, but we also need to be clear that at the bottom of it this is simply who we are. We created things long before we made money at it, we’d still do it if it wasn’t our career, and we’ll spend the rest of our lives doing it because it’s just how we’re wired.

If You Make Me Choose, You’ll Lose

My family is important to me. My friends are important to me. My clients and my professional relationships are important to me. But my work is my calling, it’s who I am. By asking me to choose between you and my work, you’re asking me to choose between you and myself, to put your interests ahead of my own. If you do that, you may not be a friend worth having or a client worth keeping. You may be on the path to being toxic to me.

This isn’t entirely as selfish as it sounds. There is an element of self care in there. In order to take care of other people, I need to take care of myself first. I’ve had to re-learn that lesson too many times, and I have no desire to lose sight of it again. If I’m not getting what I need out of my life, not getting my own creative satisfaction, not getting to recharge my own batteries, I’m probably no good to you anyway, and again, if you’re asking that of me for anything less than an absolute emergency, that’s not cool.

Guard Your Time Like A Valuable Possession

That’s what it is, if you think about it. Time is your most valuable possession, and you only get so much of it. You don’t know how much of it you get, so spend it wisely. Make the most of it. Be frugal with it. Don’t allow it to be squandered by other people. It is only half an hour, but like pennies, that begins to add up.

Fix the Problem, Not the Blame

When something goes wrong, our first instinct is to find out who’s responsible. We need to know who to blame, who to yell at, who to punish. We see the extra work that the problem is going to cause us, what it’s going to cost, the additional problems that are going to be created as a result, and we want to know who we’re going to take it out on.

When we’re responsible for the problem, we don’t want to own up to it for all of the reasons listed above. It might have been an honest mistake. It might have been an accident. It might have involved circumstances beyond our control. Beyond dealing with the problem itself, we become fearful of the various forms of retribution that will be rained down upon our heads for being problem-adjacent.

What needs to happen is that we all suddenly grow up. We need to start owning the problems we’re responsible for. We need to just focus on the problem itself and deal with it. Then we can sort out what went wrong and what needs to be done to prevent it from happening again. Maybe someone needs to be retrained. Maybe someone’s a wrong fit for a position. Maybe someone needs to be let go. But first and foremost, the anger needs to be set aside the problem needs to be fixed rationally and intelligently.

Hack: Getting Research Done

In the two years leading up to our move to Finland, we didn’t have internet access at home. It was a cost-saving measure, because where we lived it was over $100 a month for pretty crappy connectivity. I became adept at working offline, queuing emails to send and blog updates to post, making lists of research I needed to conduct, and then doing all of those tasks in visits to the public library or a coffee shop.

One of the tools in my bag of tricks was a program that allowed me to print a web page as a PDF document. Rather than bookmarking articles, I’d save them into appropriately-labeled folders to read later rather than wasting my short window of internet access. The problem was that while I was focused on using my online time efficiently, I didn’t consider my offline time, and I ended up with a huge backlog of things to read.

I changed up my research habits so that I would only gather information relevant to what I was working on at the moment, or things that I knew for sure I’d be working on next. If it didn’t have a time frame, I didn’t need it. Nothing for a vague idea, nothing for the project I wanted to get to in the nebulous “someday.” It’s now or never.

While I do have regular internet access now, and I’ve switched to bookmarking things to read rather than saving PDFs, I’ve kept the habit. It’s far too easy to see something that sparks your imagination and want to keep it in a slush pile. It’s natural to want to keep something in a tickler file so when you need a new project or some ideas there’s a stack of inspirational materials to browse. Unfortunately, that also becomes clutter and distraction. Because I’m obsessively organized, I end up spending time curating content that’s not relevant to my current needs, or going down the rabbit hole of pulling and reading articles on subjects not related to my current work. Worst of all, it gets me thinking about projects that I don’t even have a time frame for, rather than the work that’s right in front of me with a deadline that’s very real.

If you want to get articles read, keep your research down to what’s absolutely essential. Make sure you’ve given yourself time to do the research, so that it’s not cutting into you writing time. Worry about the needs of this moment, and trust that the future will take care of itself.

Explaining Business Bullshit

You put your money into your craft, but she put her money into her website. Your work is better than hers, but she sells more than you. That’s bullshit.

Your novel gets great reviews, but his has a cover that’s far more eye-catching. Your writing is better than his, but he sells more that you. That’s bullshit.

You have far more education and experience that any of the other candidates, but they have connections so one of them lands the job. That’s bullshit.

You write your own music, play multiple instruments, and have a great voice. Their band uses sampling and auto-tune and their faces look pretty on merch so they’re way more popular than you. That’s bullshit.

This is what I’m talking about when I say that you have to master the art of bullshit. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and quit wallowing in the unfairness of it all. Yes, it’s unfair. Yes, people who aren’t half as talented or creative as you make it big while you continue to struggle. That’s the way of the world. Stop rejecting the bullshit and accept that you need to be in the bullshit business. Accept the reality that the way you package, market, and present your creative work is as important as — and in today’s work, arguably more important than — the quality of your creative work itself.

Yes, doing good work is important. It’s easier to sleep at night when your integrity is intact. You feel more creatively satisfied when you like the work you do. It’s not an either/or proposition; bullshit is an and statement. Make great things and have a killer website to sell them from. Have a great resume and learn how to network. Make great music and hot-selling merch. Write a great book and wrap a fabulous cover around it.

Slinging bullshit is part of getting to the top and staying there. It’s also part of paying your dues. You need people to know who you are. You need people to like you. You need people to be interested in your work. Very few creators craft a masterpiece out of the gate. We’re more critical of our own work than anyone else. We need to make a living, though. We need to sell this one so we can pay the rent, so we can afford to work on the next project. You know it’s not great, but the client likes it. The customer is willing to pay for it. You feel like you’re peddling bullshit, but what you’re doing is getting paid. Live to fight another day. Learn to work the bullshit.