A manifesto for a more wondrous age.

I’ve recently re-established a consistent writing practice. It seems like I’ve been working on building good habits for most of my adult life, to varying degrees of success. I’ve gotten this idea that if I were to get my habits into a good place, I can keep working towards the life I want to build, regardless of what happens around me. My commitment towards writing as my most-cherished mode of expression and inquiry hasn’t changed, but my work situation has been so volatile, it’s been hard to focus. Difficulties aside, I’ve made a few strides. Realizing the level of Japanese language ability I’ve achieved (and yet so far to go!), and restarting my daily journaling (just about to hit 600 consecutive days) were good reminders for myself that what I want to do is in my grasp.

With writing, I felt like I needed to get other things in line first, had certain prerequisites, or needed a specific environment or amount of time allotted before I could really begin. I was always waiting to read one more book on writing craft, or to have the ideal responsibility-free morning where I could sit and focus, and then, I thought: the words would come. This ideal hasn’t arrived yet, but I’ve found my way back to writing consistently all the same. I wanted to jot down a few of the misconceptions I had, what I tried, and how I finally got back into this place that feels comfortable to me.

For me, an artistic practice, a study into a particular field or topic, or an attempt to build a habit all fall under the same principle, which is that of cultivation. I don’t get SAD in the Winter, but I do always feel re-energized at the start of the year. It feels like a fresh slate. This year, I’ve gotten back into making to-do lists, which are shockingly effective at helping me with structuring what I need to do. But they only go so far. After about a month, I started to feel like I was treading water. Sure, I was doing what I needed to do, but only just that. What I did wasn’t building towards anything. I read about trying to outline your long-term goals into more actionable chunks and planning to better align your day-to-day with where you want to be going. This made sense to me. After all, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives (Paraphrased from Annie Dillard, The Writing Life).

For a while, I’d thought that if I wanted to be serious about writing, I needed to go about it in a specific way. I thought I needed to carve out at least an hour, ideally an entire morning, during which I’d confine myself to our office, and write uninterrupted, until brilliance occurred. This did not happen. I’d heard from friends and writing peers about writing done in short bursts, or worse, on phones. Clearly, this worked for some, but it wasn’t for me. Yet on the rare occasions when I did get those uninterrupted mornings, I’d sit at my computer, put my hands on the keyboard, and nothing came out.

I flipped through dozens of craft books, re-read my favorite writing, and yet when it came time to write, I couldn’t seem to remember what I wanted to write about. I wondered if I even had any stories to tell.

I’d been joking that if given a weekend off, I could fix my life, and then when I did get those miraculous two days, I actually felt like I succeeded. I did Futureland’s excellent LifePlan writing exercise, which is a practice in imagining your ideal future, setting concrete goals towards those ends, and thinking about what you need to do to get there. I also went through my to-do list app, and added more organized categories, and implemented a new system to help not only give me structure towards breaking down and accomplishing my goals. This was all well and good, but it wasn’t writing.

For me, an artistic practice, a study into a particular field or topic, or an attempt to build a habit all fall under the same principle, which is that of cultivation.

While these ideals have lately been a great guide for myself on how I want to shape my life, what I want to be working towards, I think they got in the way when it came to writing. I started carrying a pocket notebook again, and started scribbling down anything. This wasn’t structured, like my journaling, or serious, like my writing was trying to be. I recorded notes from talks or conversations. I wrote down passing thoughts, things I was curious about or pondering. I wrote down people’s phone numbers, grocery lists, or things to remember. This was not precious—it couldn’t be. This was simply scratch paper I carried around, occasionally using, before putting back in my back pocket to get torn or folded or rained on some more, until I needed it again.

After a while, something miraculous (to me) started to happen: I had things I wanted to write about. I wanted to explore settings, ideas, and tones; I wanted to work through character’s aims and intents as I thought about other art I’d come across, or things that had happened to me or been relayed to me. It was like planting a garden; I told my mind this was not serious, that it was okay to record these thoughts rather than let them slip away. And then the seeds started to sprout.

Now, these notes are split across my pocket notebook, and the Obsidian app on my phone, where I made a new dated note in a specific folder and just put whatever. These range from the irreverent (“Miata with a cargo rack,” one reads) to the thoughtful (“Three personal tendencies I want to be mindful of,” I wrote and spent a few hundred words elaborating on, in another note). Some days I don’t make a note at all, and some days I end up writing pages of stuff. And then each week, on Saturday, I go through these notes, and draw connections between things that occurred to me, strengthening them in my mind.

The writing itself has been sort of a natural outcropping of this, my extremely low-res Zettelkasten-lite system (if this sounds like gibberish to you, you don’t need to Google it). Even so, I set a goal for myself to write at least 100 words of fiction five days a week, and when I do, I add a checkmark to the habit tracker app I’ve been using forever. 100 words isn’t much, and I’m still working on getting the goal higher. Really, it’s just meant to be a push to work on something as often as I can, while still allowing for rest.

This balance between what I viewed as “fake” and real work has been essential for me so far. While the “fake” work is me opening the door to peak inside, the real work is me striding through it. I’ve spent hours doing more thoughtful work, particularly editing and revising, but also expanding or rewriting work I’ve written only as a sketch previously.

So far this year, I’ve finished two stories I’m now submitting for publication, wrote two more, and have several in the works. I’m using Futureland to log my fiction writing for the year, with notes about what I’m working on, tracking how much I wrote any given day, and over the course of the year. It’s a work in progress system with a few things I already know I could improve on, but for right now I’m leaving it as is; the process isn’t the goal, the writing is.

I’m still trying to get to where I’m trying to go, but lately I feel a lot more comfortable about the path I’m on. There’s a phrase in Japanese I like, 日進月歩 (nisshin-geppo), which uses the characters for “sun / day,” “progress,” “moon / month,” and “walk / stride” (in that order), and means something like “gradual progress.” To me, it makes me think about showing up, day after day, and of course eventually month after month. I think about how the habits I work on are not just steps towards the life I want, they are that life itself. It reminds me that the life I want is in my reach, and it’s up to me to put in the effort to get there.

You’ve successfully subscribed to monochromatic
Welcome back! You’ve successfully signed in.
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Success! Your email is updated.
Your link has expired
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.