On Writing

February 19, 2008. Filed under writing 33 thoughts 9

Recently, I am spending a lot of time writing. I keep two journals in my laptop bag, which never strays far from my hip. When I have few minutes but don't want to raise the frosty barrier exuded by a deployed laptop, then I am quick to pull out one of the two journals, along with my pencil case.

The divide between the two journals is simple: the gray one is labeled with Ideas, and I write program and business thoughts inside of it. The other is black and willingly embraces ink on any topic, but mostly ends up capturing reflections on current situations and chaotic dreams of the future. Both of the journals were bought just after Christmas, but the gray one has only 23 pages filled, while the black one is more than half crammed with wandering narrative about beaucracies and this damnable weather.

Writing is something I enjoy greatly, but I always find a chasm between writing purely to convey information and that joy. In my black journal I can ramble for pages about the recent snowfall, but in the grey journal each word is solemnly judged for its expressive power. It feels like painstakingly editting a formal business letter addressed to myself.

It turns out that my two journals map cleanly onto my blog as well. The Life segment is the Black journal, and the Code segment is the Grey journal. The raw potentiality of the written word is exciting, and I think that occasionally surfaces in my more free-wheeling pieces, but is often roadkill beneath the treads of my technical writing. This strikes me as odd, because I'd describe my general aesthetic as functional minimalism, so one might well expect I would see the beauty in concise technical exposition, but if each word in the Black journal is envigorating, then each word in the Grey journal springs a new leak in my soul.

When I sit down with one of the journals, my first step before writing is to open my pencil case and gauge my writing implement mood. I then make one of three choices: my Cross pen with a medium blue ink, the same pen with a fine black ink cartridge, or the matching pencil with its brittle 0.5mm lead. Ink seeps into paper in a majestic way that pencil lead never can, but the pencil has a muted and mutable elegance to it that the prominent boldness of ink is incapable of. For flitting and unplanned thoughts I stick with the temporary pencil, but nothing less than the pen is adequate for deeper thoughts. The choice between blue and black ink is more of a gut feeling, with black lending itself to scribing, and blue lending itself to scribling.

The Grey journal almost always makes a strong request for the pencil treatment, probably because it contains fleeting concepts and ideas that are liable to abrupt shifts in trajectory. The Black journal usually recieves pen, because the emotional freewheeling it contains is direly correct in the way that only inward feelings and private visions can be.

Technical writing has a clear and judgable goal, to convey a set of ideas with accurate brevity, and that measuring stick is particularly hostile to personal style. It is that polluted soil that leads to dry and soulless documentation. As a self-proclaimed functional minimalist, I have trouble justifying style in technical writing, because it has a great potential to make explanations more ambiguous, and to weaken the signal to noise ratio.

That said, I think that most people don't read technical writing largely because it has no soul to connect with. So, I am going to try writing technical documents with more style from now on, and in doing so try to make the explanations more effective rather than less. Effective minimalism sometimes requires adding the right cogs to make the gears turn, it can't be reduced to simply designing how to cram the contraption into a more compact casing.

Technical writing, minimal aesthetics, black journals and blue ink are all fine and dandy, but the original goal of this exposition was to think about the evolution of my writing, and I think its time to jump tracks onto a train heading that direction.

It turns out that I didn't understand the notion of writing for a long, long time. I learned to write in a frustrating first semester of sophmore year in high school. Like these things usually work out, I was pretty much certain that I already knew how to write, and that the teacher who was marking down my essays was the one at fault. Who was this twenty-two year old and what the hell was she doing to my papers?

At some point I complained to my advisor that year, a singular individual by the name of Burt Gordon, that I was upset with how my English class was going. It was probably dismissed with an eyeroll and a suggestion to quit my bellyaching, but it just so happens that what made Mr. Gordon singular was a rare but often invisible trait: he would listen to you complain, tell you to get over yourself, and then--hidden in the mysterious shadows of adulthood--try to resolve your problems and concerns. Thus, my mindless complaints turned out a bit differently than I might of anticipated.

That is to say, I ended up in an empty classroom with my advisor and my English teacher, and I was at an utter loss about how to explain my grievances. I learned two important lessons that day, one from each of others individuals in the room:

  1. you shouldn't complain if you don't know what you're complaining about or if you don't know how to fix it, and
  2. I didn't have the first clue about what was wrong with my writing, or about what good writing really was.

Over the next several months I started learning to pay more attention to the little things that catalyze raw words into writing. Good transitions between paragraphs. Avoiding excess repetition of words. Using parallel structure to emphasize small differences. Alliteration and metaphor. All these small building blocks started to come together, but the most important lessons were about providing a cohesive flow to the logic and reasoning in my writing.

Writing a paper is building a structure. It certainly shows when you build on unstable ground, but it also shows when you don't use a level to place the window frames.

After that first spark of writing, the next important lesson came two years latter in my senior high school English class. In that class we wrote a two page paper every week, and that was a good thing for improving my writing. Learning to write well--like most everything else I've attempted--requires a lot of time funneled into incremental improvement: each paper gets slightly better, and after you write a hundred of them you've made some real progress. These two page papers did a tremendous amount for shaping my writing style and improving my prose simply by forcing me to get out and write a new paper each week. With a consistent enough schedule you end up varying things to keep yourself from getting bored, and your own boredom is one of the more powerful proponents of innovation.

After I graduated from high school things went silent for a while. To my chagrin I ended up writing drastically less in college then I did in high school1. It really wasn't until the past year when I began blogging that I returned to writing with any consistency.

My first blog was solely technically focused, and that--combined with my aesthetic angst on the topic--meant that I didn't necessarily get a lot of pleasure out of writing for it at times. Although it did give me a venue for discussing programming ideas and projects that had a bit more technical depth than most around me were interested in musing about. However, eventually that feeling of crampedness that lead to me owning two journals pushed me to hobble together my own blogging software that readily facilitated separate streams of writing.

That, in broad strokes, catches up to the current state of the written word in my life. For a while I had aspirations of a widely read technical blog, or perhaps writing a novel, or maybe settling for more-dazzling-than-a-diamond-on-display commentary on music or education. As of late, I've adopted a bit of a different stance on this whole writing thing, and I simply try to strike when the iron is hot, and pick targets that I am genuinely excited about writing about.

Stringing these words together and weighing the lack of any desire to proofread them against the inevitable virulent reactions, I find that I have neither an agenda to perpetrate, nor a plan to set into action. But, I'm at peace with that, for now.

  1. Actually, I would say that I did less of everything academically meaningful in college. There was less writing, less research, and exposure to a smaller spectrum of ideas and concepts. The worst crime I witnessed in collegial education was that teachers largely weren't concerned with helping students who were already good enough. In highschool every student got a paragraph written about their performance in each class, and I think the cumulative sum of those paragraphs was a very valuable guide. In college, too often students left classes without any feedback except a letter grade, and nary a whisper of how they could work to improve themselves.

    Much of this is may be because my high school had really exceptional circumstances and teachers (a handful held terminal degrees in their fields--Physics or English--because private schools have the little-acknowledged priviledge of ignoring teacher certification).