A Compendium of My Freewrites in December 2014

“My medium is words, sentences, paragraphs. And the same rules of good art apply to them there as they do to anything else.”   -December 20, 2014

Introduction

On YouTube, Adam Savage, one of the MythBusters, has a channel in which he does what he calls One-Day Builds. These videos compress around eight hours of Adam working on a single project into a 30-minute or so video. I love these videos because, as a writing teacher, I love watching the creation process regardless of what people are creating. Every time I watch one of these videos I am inspired to create something myself.

This, here, is an attempt to do that same thing, to build something in one day, but with words.

Adam Savage

For the month of December, I participated almost every day in a website called 750words.com. The basic premise of the website is that there is value in writing words everyday, and the interface is designed to help people do just that: write 750 words, each day, without regard for the quality of what is written.

So, for the first time in the four years I have used the website, I decided to do an entire month consistently. About halfway through the month, I figured out that I wanted something to come of all this writing I’d been doing; that in order for the writing to really “count” I had to make it public in some way. That’s when I came up with the idea of writing this compendium which you are about to read. In other words, the entries that I wrote in December 2014 will serve as the building materials with which I will use to write this, just like Adam Savage builds stuff out of wood or plastic.

Altogether, I wrote about 19,000 words (25 days, at ~750 words a day). What I will present here is a summary of the insights I had while freewriting. I hope you learn a little about me, and a lot about the benefits of freewriting.

Just a quick note, any quote I have in this is directly lifted from a freewrite I did in December 2014. Any spelling errors, capitalization, punctuation etc. was in the original unless indicated with brackets ([ ]).

Coming Up With What to Write About

There were times during December where, if you would have asked me what the best part of my day was, I would have probably said it was the half hour I spent writing my 750 words. However, trying to come up with 750 words every day is not easy. The first half of most of the entries end up looking something like this:

“get this hot mess scranking. Topple those brittle lobster bones, (if you know what I’m saying over here). Trample gets racket and televised greatness affordances high as a kite  bacteria reciprocation highlights masculinity untoward. Vernacular intelligent face grab bag justification. Brown noise. Noises. Noses. No sense. Nonsense. None sense. Nonesuch. No such thing. know something. Say something. saison thing. seasonal things. seasoning packet. Sauce pack. Package shipping. trail mix. Pork rinds. Commit to something damn it. Commit to something.”

In order to get over this, and in order to end up with usable sentences at the end of the process,  I spent a lot of time just trying to come up with questions to ask myself, the answers of which would generate a lot of words. Here are some of the questions I came up with to keep my mind occupied.

  • “How do we get people to start listening to each other?”
  • “Do we really have any control over the decisions we make?”
  • “What’s my plan for next month?”
  • “Would I be the same person if I had lived in different circumstances?“
  • “When people do terrible things, we can learn very important and helpful lessons through their actions, like human experimentation and other awful things, so did those people do good in the world by doing terrible things?”
  • “Sin and joy are locked together in this relationship for all eternity. One can’t exist without the other, so doesn’t that mean that sin is good, because it teaches us what happiness is? Could we be happy without it?”
  • “What connects all the stuff that I am really interested in?”
  • “What’s great about 750 words. No one will ever see it, but I am still writing. But is that cheating? Is it even writing? Is it just thinking? Is it something else entirely?”
  • “How do you create a curriculum that’s structured enough to guide you as the teacher and your kids as the students, but also open enough that no one feels overwhelmed?”

One time, to try to make it easier to get words on the page, I tried writing in meter (one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable) and came up with this gem: ”What would come of writing all these words in meter? Would my brain gain lots of new synapses? Would I learn to use my words in ways I can’t imagine? Would I start to think in meter? Would my hands gets tired? Or fingers fleeter?”

Writing About Writing

Perhaps because I am a writing teacher, what I write about most, is writing itself (or perhaps I naturally think about writing a lot and that led me to be a writing teacher). Either way, at least half of the 19,000 words I wrote have to do with why I write, what I am writing, how I write, how other people write, things I can do to help my students learn how to write better, or how understand writing differently. By all accounts, this should be the most boring thing in the world to write about, but for some reason, it’s what naturally flows out of me when I sit down to write, and what I end up caring about the most at the end of the day.

For example, on the fourth day of the month (and, again, after four years of using the site to freewrite), I started splitting my freewrites up into paragraphs. This had a profound effect on my writing. I spent half of two full entries sussing out the significance of something as simple as splitting up my writing by hitting the enter key.

About this seemingly simple thing, I wrote, “Before I was just getting words on the page. Now I am cataloging ideas.”

If you take up freewriting like me, instead of letting all your words glom up into a big black rectangle, I strongly suggest using paragraphs.

The other aspect of writing I wrote a lot about is the conditions surrounding my writing. I spent a lot of at least four entries writing about how important wearing headphones is when I write. I even went through the entire Wikipedia article on noise color, and pinpointed Brown noise as my preferred noise to listen to, and spent about a page justifying why. (BTW, grey noise makes me feel “like being trapped in a small room in between two air conditioners.”)

Also, I spent almost two full entries musing on the clackiness of keyboards: how gross I feel if the keys feel in any way squishy or spongy, and how satisfying it feels to write a sentence quickly and loudly and nailing the period at the end of the sentence after spelling everything correctly on the first try.

Serial-2

Serial Podcast’s Deep Influence On Me

I listen to a lot of podcasts (I am subscribed to 35 that I listen to regularly), and naturally they are on my mind. But if you know anything about podcasts, you probably have at least heard of the blockbuster hit Serial. If you haven’t, you are so lucky, because now you get to enjoy listening to it.

I think it would be difficult to overstate the depth of influence listening to Serial had on me this month and in my whole career. I am currently in the middle of writing two big important research papers, and a large part of writing these papers is defining who I am as an academic, about making decisions about who I am professionally, and how I am going to tell potential employers who I am in order to encourage them to hire me. Listening to the work of Sarah Koenig, Serial’s main producer, really helped me start to figure out what doing research actually looks like; what it means to distill huge amounts of information into discrete, manipulatable chunks; and what it means to pursue a question with indefatigable care.

I spent a lot of time in my December freewrites beating myself up for not being Sarah Koenig:

“I love the details, but I am afraid of the work that is necessary to collect them, and the biggest thing that I am afraid is that I won’t be able to tell the difference between what’s a good detail and what’s extraneous. Not only that, but any time a new detail emerges, you have to review every other piece of information again to read it through the new lens that this new interesting detail creates. And I am too lazy to do that, or perhaps just haven’t ever really ingested the importance of that idea yet.”

Koenig is a journalistic badass, and I want to be just like her. But I have very little confidence in myself to be able to do it, and that kills me.

The other, more practical, thing I gained from listening to Serial is the idea that information can be thought of as discrete chunks. Koenig would often refer to important aspects of the case with a label she had generated herself, i.e. “the pay phone” or “the Nisha call.”

My practical application of this involved me going out and buying a huge stack of index cards and writing discrete chunks of the papers I am writing on them. Now, instead of my own vague notion floating around in my head about somehow teaching rhetorical analysis in a way that students can better understand the complexity of rhetorical situations which includes thinking of things like systems, ideas, user interfaces, etc. as actors that all play a role in the rhetorical situation, I had to write a single card that says “Post-Human Rhetorical Analysis.” I can shuffle that card around and in my hands and physically manipulate it in a way that helps me come up with ideas. And even though she had nothing to do with it, I credit Sarah Koenig for teaching me that. Oh yeah, and this guy.

Anyway, Serial Podcast was a big deal for me and I was able to use my time freewriting in December to figure out the connections between Koenig’s work and my own, and I am better off for it.

Beating Myself Up

For some reason, I spend a lot of time in my freewrites beating myself up and tearing myself down. Couldn’t tell you why. Luckily, in the last few years, I’ve learned to accept my shortcomings better and make provisions for myself rather than endlessly dragging myself through the mud. I’ll just give a small example here and move on:

“I feel like the second I make some kind of promise to myself, or set some kind of goal, I already automatically know that I am going to fail at it….So that means I have to set up a system of checks and balances… to trick the future version of [my]self into doing the things that the present version of [my]self wants to do. So understanding that future me is going to be a jerk and not do what present me wants him to do.”

love languages

“Freaking Small Talk is My Love Language”

Another aspect of Sarah Koenig I admire is her ability to have conversations with whoever she needs to about whatever she needs to. Not being able to talk to people like Sarah Koenig can is something that I beat myself up a lot about in my freewrites.

Over the years, I have come to recognize that my deepest need in this life, my “love language” if you will, is meaningful, intimate conversation with other people. In fact, I discovered through my freewrites that Podcasts are actually a way for me to get my intimacy fix without having to engage in face-to-face communication with other humans, which is probably why I listen to so many of them.

As I was making notes of the major events that happened to me in December, over a quarter of them were just conversations I had with people. But the crazy thing about this part of me that I discovered in my freewrites, is that this absolutely cripples my ability to have conversations with people. I wrote:

“I have this humongous desire to connect with people, with all people, all the time. But I am deathly afraid of people because most of my interactions with them are the opposite of an intimate connection. Intimate connections are so difficult to make happen and anything ersatz damages me greatly. Most of my interactions with people are ersatz intimacy. So I’d rather not try to even talk with them so I can avoid the pain of having a botched interaction with another human. Isn’t that so sad? It’s so sad…. If I’m not going to have a deeply meaningful interaction with somebody, it’s better to just shut my mouth and avoid the situation altogether.”

This is one really sad part of my personality: meetings are one of my favorite things in this world. Serious conversations are my life-blood. So if you ever feel like, “Hey, Steven is a great guy and I’d like him to know that I feel this way,” sit down and tell me something that you care about. On the other hand, if you’d really like to hurt me, sit down with me and pretend that you are having a friendly conversation with me, and then try to leverage that conversation to sell me a vacuum or something. That’ll cut deep.

Me and Mormonism

One big thing that is going on my life is my strained relationship with the Mormon Church. Back in September I decided to take a sabbatical from church to put some distance between me and all the aspects of my faith that I was having so much trouble thinking through and dealing with. So naturally I spent quite a bit of time trying to work some of that out, because freewrites are probably the best place to do that.

But the thing is, I spent a lot less time than I thought I would. It really didn’t even come up that much, and that, in itself, is meaningful to me.

Movies

Because of the way Netflix works, the movies that are available to watch just happen to be the same movies that powerfully affected me back when I was a teenager, like Fargo, American Beauty, Se7en, Tarantino Movies, etc.. Many of these are Rated R, and I wasn’t comfortable watching them for the last 15 years as a devout Mormon, but during my break from church I decided to revisit them. I felt a weird sense of nostalgia as I watched them that affected me pretty profoundly that month, and I ended up writing three or four entries about it:

“There is something about early to mid nineties rated R movies that is really comforting to me right now. It’s like it’s helping me to make peace with the person I used to be. which is great, because as faithful Mormon, I felt like I had to absolve myself from the earlier experiences of my life. Now I feel like I can be a whole person better, because I feel like all of my experiences are worth something to me. And I can try to make sense of all of them together rather than cutting any of them out…. There is a string that begins in my teenage years that I can grab and tug on today and feel like I am connected to myself rather than a string that begins after I got home from my mission.”

Education and Elliot

My almost-7-year-old son has a really hard time in school. While I admittedly didn’t spend a lot of time talking about him and his situation in my posts, I did write this, which both manifests my (maybe ironic, since I’m a teacher myself) lack of faith in the education system and my son’s (in)ability to benefit from it, and my ambivalently deep love and admiration for my son for not fitting perfectly into the system anyway:

“I think the system is crappy, and frankly, it needs difficult people like my son to improve and recognize that the system doesn’t work for everyone. However, I hate seeing other people inconvenienced by my son. Part of me wants to see my son middle fingers up telling teachers that they don’t have it right, that they have a lot of work to do. And part of me wants to tell him to shut up, put his own feelings aside, put his head down, and stop making things difficult for everyone. It’s really hard.”

The purpose of my sharing this quote isn’t so much to show you how I feel about the education system or my son, but to let you know that I had totally forgotten that I had even written this, and when I went back over the month’s writings and found this, I was struck with how perfectly I worded it and how clearly it crystallized my feelings about the situation. Luckily 750 words keeps a private backlog of everything you write.

I do a lot of thinking about teaching; about how to do it well, about what it even means to be a teacher. As you can see, I often have doubts about whether education is even a thing that actually happens. There are times when I feel like a cog in a wheel, endlessly turning without making any progress or generating any power. But at the same time, I feel like it is the right place for me, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else:

“I don’t know if I am supposed to be helping my students get out in the world and turn it on its head and push buttons, or if I am supposed to be teaching them how to make as few ‘mistakes’ as possible (which really means to know all of the cultural cues that allow them into the middle class status quo club). Or something in between. Education is a really scary, difficult thing. And I don’t have the answers, and I am pretty sure we will never have ‘the’ answers. But I think we need more people in education who recognize that we don’t have things as figured out as we think we do, and that is going to make things better. But then what the hell does ‘better’ even mean when you talk about it like that?

Not knowing is what makes it the best career choice for me.”

“Keep doing, Keep making.”

“Doing is the antidote to cognitive biases…If you think you are really great at something, go do it and figure out that you aren’t. That’s what we call failure; getting a dose of reality.”

zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance

Plans for the Future

Lastly, I made note of all the things I mentioned in my entries that I hoped I would do in the future. Among them:

  • Read a biography of Andy Warhol
  • Read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with my Bishop
  • Get a Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance tattoo
  • Write a book about the Homeschool system that Natasha and I came up with during one of our late night discussions about what to do with our son and his education

Conclusion

Many times during this month, I lost faith that spending the half hour or so each day pushing words out of me was doing any good. But, hopefully you can see that it is. In that time I have generated all this stuff about myself. There’s no way of knowing if I would have learned this stuff any other way, but because I did this, I have stark black and white evidence that I have.

I’ll end with this quote from myself about freewriting, and hope that you too will start spending some time wrestling whatever words come out of you onto a screen or a page:

“I think to some extent, I am losing faith in this process, but the crazy thing THIS IS THE ONLY PROCESS. You have to get words down and then do something with them. Sometimes the words are great on the first try and sometimes they aren’t. But the process is always the same.”

P.S. For Natasha

You were in there, too. Don’t worry: “I love having a female wife, and I love that that wife is the person of Natasha Hurlbut. She’s so freaking great. She did so much great work for that party; she pulled off something magical and delicious and fun and welcoming.”

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