Retracting My Tendrils

I’ve been neglecting my craft for far too long. I’ve been too easily distracted my shiny tools and trends. In the past 10-15 years I have created social media accounts, blogs, projects, podcasts, and even a YouTube channel in attempt to create an audience for my writing. That literally what I said each time to convince me to take them on. But what the hell does that even mean? Building an audience? It’s something someone told me to do once which I’ve apparently been unable to let go of since. It’s not terrible advice, it’s just a horrific guiding principle. None of these things are either good nor bad, but in the time they have existed I have published no more books. None.

Think about that for a moment. I’ve allowed myself to grow entangled in painting freeway exit signs but I’ve built no city. I’ve directed traffic to a crater. That’s how I feel.

In the past several months, I’v been letting things go. I’d like to say it has been a conscious effect but in fact I feel more like I’ve been standing on the side of road watching, “Hey look at that. Look what I did there.”

I suppose it’s bubbling conflict working its way to my skin as much as it is a slow dawning. I use things to distract myself, and I’ve finally reached a point—no that’s wrong, this isn’t threshold matter. I’ve simply lost the desire to avoid what I fear. It’s time to retract my tendrils and focus on the one thing that matters most to me: attempting to complete a book.

I say attempting because the completion is generally unimportant. I may fail terrifically. But, I’m happy in the craft. I’m happy in process. This is where I intend to spend my time: in the attempt. Which is not to say I plan to abandon anything. Rather, I think distractions can be important when you need them. But, the only consistency I need is in my work; for my writing. All these other things I surround to whim. They will appear when they appear. They will bring me pleasure when I seek them out, and they will rest until reached for.

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994)

Author: Haruki Murakami

Something I talk about far too frequently regarding books is the absolute necessity for re-reading. There is no better model for this than this trip through Toru Okada’s world/mind. This is my third time reading this book and yet somehow, in my previous readings I missed (or simply forgot) the entire ending of the book. In any other book I would be shocked by this but not with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. This seems also appropriate for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. This is the type of book where I would almost expect that the final part of the book did not exist before. I would almost expect the ending to amend itself between each reading.

What before felt like a purposefully fragmented and shuffled sequence of events, suddenly, this time, felt connected and logical…which is not to say that I understand the book any better, only that I see why things flow the way they flow. I’ve been coerced into the logic of the novel.

There’s something incredibly appealing to me about the realization that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle may never reveal all of its mysteries to me. I may never understand why Mackerel the cat is important. I may not uncover the symbolism of the black-blue mark. I may never understand if Kumiko, May Kasahara, Malta Kano, Creeta Kano, the mysterious woman in the hotel room, & Nutmeg are all the same woman, or if there is even a way to unravel that question. (Perhaps they are AND they aren’t.) In the way that Unsolved Mysteries calls me back to watch and rewatch episodes, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle calls me back every few years. I’m driven mad my the lingering threads but I’m pulled at by those same things.

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The Stranger (1991)

Director: Satyajit Ray

American films worry too much about plot; stuffing things in and forcing them forward as if meaning comes from business rather than depth. What I love about this film is that it only about one thing. It focuses on the questions of whether this mysterious visitor is actual Anila’s long-lost great-uncle or not and it lets that play out naturally. No gimmicks. No sudden revelations. Just human development. It makes space for itself. As the visitor says, “it takes time.”

While in no way related in subject matter, the focus of The Stranger reminds of Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 film The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail.

I also find it impossible to talk about this movie without mentioning the extraordinary reason that the visitor claims to have run away in the first place. He was young man about to enter art-school and he opened a book to find an extraordinary cave-painting of a bison in Altamira, Spain.

He looked at it and thought: no art-school in the world can teach me to paint a bison like this. So he chose to travel the world.


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Dear Internet,

I’ve been neglecting you. Last week I had what I thought was a return in my panic attacks. It turned out to be what’s called “rebound tachycardia,” and is easily dealt with by splitting my beta blocker dosage in half and taking one half in the morning at one at night.

I talked about it for about 15 minutes in the beginning of my latest podcast episode:

Evil Eyes of Eternity It Matters But It Doesn't

It’s surprising how one incident can so easily make me retract into my full protective shell. Faced with what I believed may be a return to my darkest days, I suddenly found the idea of typing words into a box and hitting publish completely exhausting.

This is one of the dangerous side effects of anxiety: we suck our tendrils back in and shut off communication with the outside world. We isolate. We find ourselves unwilling, uninterested, and seemingly incapable of expressing our feelings at a time when doing so is actually more valuable than it normally is.

Having gone through this retraction for most of my life due to anxiety, depression, and a myriad of other reasons, one would think I had some sort of theory as to what purpose it serves. With psychical wounds instinctively cup our hands them. This makes logical sense. We’re keeping them clean. We’re holding the blood in. We’re reacting to pain with pressure. But what logic is there to the social retraction that occurs from our psychological wounds? What are we protecting? What are we holding in from spilling out? What pressure are we applying?

Physical wounds heal from coiling up and reserving energy, but psychic wounds are the opposite. The more we hold in; the more we hide, the more we wound. We only heal from release. We only heal from feeling. We only from sharing them with others and asking for support.

Having seen, this week, how easy it is for me to shut off again, I’m now building systems to making it easier for me to remain open. I can alter the tone of these posts. I can use less of the “article,” “essay,” and “Blog” tone, adopt a looser more personal tone. I can embrace looseness and imperfection. I can lower the threshold to entry. I can also begin to share recommendations and lists (both of which I’ve been obsessed with since I was a teenage.) These small things will allow me to still share even when I’m not in a place to bare myself.

We don’t put down pads because we’re afraid to fall, we put down pads because we expect to fall and we want to get back up.

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The Cruise (1998)

Director: Bennett Miller

Some of the shots are grainy, some are blown out, it’s just following around a New York City double-decker tour guide, and it’s totally great! When you have someone like Timothy “Speed” Levitch as your subject it just works.

Mental Seasons

I’m over the forced one hour of journaling. I’d been a good experiment but it’s becoming an impediment now. I need to recognize that my thinking is moving into a different season. It’s far more important for me to allow myself to write in shorter more fragmented bursts. I continually go through these phases, or seasons, but this is the first time that I’m actually taking notice of them. I wonder if there is any correlation with the actual seasons. Is my mind more conducive to long continuous stream-of-consciousness journaling in the autumn & winter? Am I more focused on short fragments and making connections in the spring and summer? I would not be surprised by this at all knowing how the weather affects me in so many other mental and emotional ways. The most likely outcome for forcing myself to journal for one hour bursts is that I will actually quit all together before I reach 66 days (which is entirely arbitrary now anyhow.) I find it simultaneously easy and difficult to recognize when to force myself to maintain a goal and when to let it go. I think it’s just about how I feel when I’m done with each repetition. How do I feel after forcing myself to sit down and write for exactly an hour? If I feel good, like I conquered something, then I’m doing a good thing. I’m displaying grit. I’m facing laziness and apathy. But if I feel like shit after I finish; if I’m more frustrated than when I started; if I start hating the whole process, then something is wrong. It’s time to adapt. It’s time to listen to myself. It’s time to listen to the ache before it become a pain. With a week left I’m starting to journal later and later in the day. I’m starting to dread the hour of blocked time. This is the flashing neon sign. EXIT. If I listen now then I can adapt and alter and find a way to propel forward with this new energy that is burgeoning. If I hold out and ignore the suffering that I’m creating then I will burn out and quit. I won’t make it. And I won’t care.

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Let’s Get Deliberate

I’m definitely rebelling. 8:09 pm and I’m just sitting down to journal now. I think this is actually a healthy sign in that what I’m craving is a purpose for when I sit down to write. The time for Abandon is passing. I’m craving structure and reasons for doing the writing. I believe this is a development. I’ve gotten over my fear to start writing again. Additionally, the practice of free writing is now a tool in my arsenal. This means that I can follow the more purpose-driven path for as long as it is fruitful and when it passes, I can move back into a free writing mode. I never again need to go through periods of no writing at all. The enemy. it turns out, is not bad writing, the enemy is no writing.

One of my favorite quotes on writing comes from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:


A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”

I also need to remember that this journaling was never intended to primarily be about the writing craft itself. Rather it was more about all the other things that sprout from the daily practice. I’m wondering now roughly how many words the three prescribed pages in morning pages actually are. Maybe Julia Cameron had it right in setting that as the bare minimum. I think after next Friday I will aim for that three page threshold instead of an hour and see how it works.

Also, how the hell did I forget all the lessons I learned about blocking the same time every day? The practice became automatic when I was doing it at the exact time every day. I didn’t have to put any thought into it. For the past few days, that’s what my struggle has been over, not if I will do it but when. If I remove that from the equation again, I believe I will fall back into the phase where this whole thing was easy. It’s just like what I wrote a few days ago, “…I simply need to create systems of automation that actively remove my volition.”

On another note, before sitting down to write this I did something that I haven’t done in a very long time, I played my acoustic guitar and sang along. I wasn’t playing or singing anything in particular but just trying to separate the neural pathways for singing and for playing. It’s something that I’ve struggled with for decades but was unwilling to put in the extremely frustrating effort to work out. I think I made a breakthrough tonight. I small one, but it happened because I was determined to do nothing by that one thing. This is what people like Anders Ericsson, Cal Newport, Thomas M. Sterner call “deliberate practice.”

What’s funny about deliberate practice is that every time I hear or think that phrase I picture a guitar player trying to learn a tricky new lick. He’s doing the same lick over and over, starting slow and getting a little faster every time. He continues to push himself to do it a little more rapidly than he can competently do it. Eventually, he masters it.

The reason this is funny to me is that I’m not making it up. It’s something I think I’ve seen, though I’m pretty sure I’ve never watched a video or documentary specifically on deliberate practice. This means that it’s an anecdote from one of the many books I’ve read that have covered the topic. That image is so strong that 1) I feel like I’ve actually seen it & 2) I think of it every time the topic comes to mind. That’s powerful! If only I could remember what author to credit with it!

I’m confronted here with the strange way my that brain works, or more specifically, with the strange way that my brain works on journaling. Several paragraphs ago when I switched to talking about playing my guitar I thought I was moving on to a completely separate topic than my journaling progress, yet here I am talking about deliberate practice. Without knowing it at the time, deliberate practice is exactly what I was getting at when I was trying to explain the type of writing that I’m now craving.

For 57 days I have been free writing for an hour every day. This is the equivalent of picking up my guitar for 30 years wishing I could sing and play at the same time. Until I made a deliberate choice to practice that one thing, I remained stuck. For nearly two months, I’ve been journaling aimlessly, which has given me the ability to turn off the internal censor, but now I’m ready to practice with deliberate purpose. I’m ready to employ my skill strategically.

I don’t know what that looks like but I think the use of the Daily Self Inventory is a good place to start. I’m also drawn to the idea of reading my old journals to surface questions out of them. I would then use those questions as writing prompts. There are things to be said, but telling myself that I don’t know what they are, is the same thing as saying that I can’t sing and play. It’s not true. I just need to exert effort. (I’m also feeling a strong pull toward my novel right now.)


Side note: moving my journals from paper to Roam Research has been great for context. If I thought of a related quote when I was journaling on paper I would either have to stop journaling, walk away, and look up that quote if I wanted to use it, or I’d have to say screw it. I always opted for screwing it. The momentum of a journal is more important than pulling up a quote. But, with Roam I can just type (( and it will pull up block search, the I can type in the few words from the quote that I remember, and BAM there it is right in line. No loss of momentum. This exactly what I did with the Annie Dillard quote above. The word I remembered was “Simba!”


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Published
Categorized as Thoughts