Process knowledge and STEM education

I recently subscribed to The Prepared, a weekly newsletter that collects interesting articles about engineering, manufacturing, industrial processes, and supply chain. (I can’t exactly remember how I found it, most likely through this other newsletter. So thank you to Robin Sloan for introducing me to it.)

I’m loving the newsletter. Teenage choices led me into the sciences, but I think if the coin-toss had landed differently, I could just as easily have headed towards engineering instead. I guess I’ve always been fascinated by engineering, a world that is almost mystical in its strange-but-familiar quality. My fascination with this mystique manifests in weird places, primarily in my world-building for fantasy worlds, where I write a disproportionate number of world-building encyclopaedia articles exploring technomagical engineering and materials and industry.

So this newsletter gives me a window into real-world thing… and boy, have I fallen through this window, down the rabbit hole of long-form articles, into engineering Wonderland.  This is amazing, fascinating new stuff to me. I have no doubt that ideas gleaned from this newsletter are going to appear in my world-building and novels.


So it was through this newsletter that I read this fantastic long-form article which articulates many thoughts I’ve developed, in one way or another, mostly through my job. And it’s the thought that process knowledge, or tacit knowledge, is the most important skillset out there, that every person has to learn in their vocation, but is completely neglected in formative education. Mass education is rife with acquiring theoretical knowledge and learning how to apply them to scenarios, but the successful transaction between theory and application is a process – and learning process only comes from repeated hands-on exposure.

I never cease to be grateful that my vocational choices have led me to work that isn’t entirely desk-bound, where I have to execute theory into application in the physical, tangible world.  It’s also given me first-hand experience at how anaemic, how attenuated is the current education system at cultivating process knowledge. While I think that process is impossible to teach, it can be (and indeed, has to be) learnt, and the learning is best measured by producing physical, tangible outcomes.  Tracking and quantifying process, however, is elusive and too subtle for the brute-force theory-to-application methods in mass education, so it doesn’t get tracked, if it gets noticed at all.

That article focuses primarily on technological innovation and doesn’t address education, but I think the loss of manufacturing and industry in Western nations has direct repercussions on STEM outcomes in education. There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in this government about how the nation lags in STEM outcomes compared to world-wide standards. But STEM achievement is primarily bound up in process knowledge, as the article states.  How can you effectively learn STEM processes if manufacturing is shutting down all over the country and has moved offshore?

Because science, engineering and technology is about manipulating the physical world, which is embodied through manufacturing and industrial processes. Moving bits and bytes in a disembodied, abstracted space can’t hold a candle to manipulating the physical world, with my body and equipment, into products and outcomes that can be evaluated by the five senses and spatial analysis.  In the physical world comes tangible, embodied risk, and therefore, the greatest opportunity for embodied, embedded learning.

Over the years of working in secondary education and tertiary academia, I’ve concluded that process knowledge, not theory nor applications, is the most important thing to be teaching people both young and old. If I had to stay in the education sector for the rest of my life, I want to end up in the trade and vocational schools. Because, in this nation where manufacturing is but a shadow of what it once was, trade school is a place where process knowledge still stands a chance of being valued and taught in any meaningful way.  At the end of the day, humans live in a physical world, human civilization is built on physical processes.  Even in a post-human world where human consciousnesses have been uploaded into computers, someone still has to keep the power on.

IndieWeb thoughts (1): The future has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Every time I visit Micro.blog I inevitably start thinking about Internet and IndieWeb culture, and examining my own attitudes and assumptions. I’ve been fomenting these thoughts below for a while. Then Robin Sloan‘s newsletter comes along this week and sums it up nicely with this disturbing quote.

In the near future, people will pay for services designed to help them filter and navigate a news environment that has been intentionally polluted—a sky dark with chaff.

Robin Sloan’s newsletter, week 27

The IndieWeb adage goes, “own your own content”. People will pay for their own domain, for apps that promote their privacy, for drones (once human, now digital) to filter and screen out the world. The desire to sit outside the silos of centralized control, to remain autonomous, and to achieve this by buying these privileges and rights, strikes me as a Western, liberal, middle/upper-class sensibility.

Continue reading “IndieWeb thoughts (1): The future has arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

A house of infinite rooms: on maintaining focus and specificity on the Internet.

Extended thought prompted by my previous blog post, and this post by Cheri Baker (@cheri on M.B) on reclaiming the mind and self from the tyranny of social media.


A little personal history.

It began in one specific forum thread in the NaNoWriMo forums. A bunch of us writers were posting in a character-chats forum thread, and we started getting to know each other’s characters and stories. Someone started a casual chat group on a different provider, then when that provider stopped serving our needs, opened a Discord server.

So my life on the Discord chat app began in a writing group.

Continue reading “A house of infinite rooms: on maintaining focus and specificity on the Internet.”

🖋️ I finished writing my second novella, in time for NaNoWriMo.

I wrote my first novella, Strange Music, in July 2014, during NaNoWriMo‘s off-season event called Camp NaNoWriMo. That first draft was about 23,000 words and took 28 days to write. (The edited and completed version is now about 26,000 words.)

A couple mid-October weekends ago, I finished writing my second novella, A Dirge for the Amphiptere. The original draft was written in July 2016, also for a Camp NaNoWriMo. It took three years to finish, and its current state is approximately 60,000 words.

Why was it harder to write the second novella compared to the first novella? I once asked J. Daniel Sawyer, the host of the Everyday Novelist, my favourite writing podcast, for help. He replied in an episode: it’s stage fright. You have to let your subconscious mind drive your creativity. Which means you have to get out of your own way.

I listened politely but was a bit skeptical. So I set about proving Dan wrong. It took three years to learn that he was ultimately right.

The head game truly is everything. When I wrote Strange Music, I didn’t know anything; I had no clue how to and how not to write a novel, so I just went and did it. It was challenging, but there was a certain ignorance-is-bliss kind of flow to the writing. When I started Dirge a year after finishing Strange Music, I was no longer ignorant. I had some experience of what it takes to write a novel, and this knowledge kept me from finishing it — and all the other stories I wrote for NaNo but never finished.

Long story short, after writing and rewriting various versions of Dirge over the years (in between writing drafts of other stories), I set myself the goal to reach The End by the end of 2018. The story was getting stale and about to die on the vine if it wasn’t done. I tried throughout the year, and got 2/3rds and ~40,000 words through the plot to just before the climactic scene. But by the time I hit October, I was in despair and ready to put it to bed.

What saved my story from certain death was a group of people: my writing workshop. The workshop leader (himself a published author and freelance editor) gave me a deadline to present the finished work, and the other members (all amateur writers) were unanimously supportive. So… I put some measures in place, and went and wrote the rest of the story in the span of 10 days and 42 pages (~13k words).

I was shocked how easy it was to write the remainder of the story. Where did all the past angst and despair come from? But I’d always known the answer. I knew, deep down, that Dan’s advice was right, that I was just getting the way of my own creative mind by trying to build a scaffolding around the story. But my head refused to believe that. It took the school of hard knocks and three years of dickering around in circles to beat the conceit out of me, and reveal what I had to do to get out of my own way. In retrospect, it seems like such a novice mistake. But without the experience of desperation and having to be pulled out of my hole by my writing workshop, I wouldn’t have known what measures to put in place to help me beat the head game. So I’m consoling myself that those years weren’t wasted.

Writing is actually quite easy. It’s the head game that causes 90% of writer’s block and plot troubles, and makes or breaks a writing career. And if I don’t learn how to beat the head game, I will never progress and my stories will die. I think I’ve made progress in finding a solution.

~~~

NaNoWriMo has begun. I’m tired of unfinished manuscripts. This year my goal is to finish a full manuscript, even if I go overtime past November. And I’m determined to apply my experience into growing trees. No more of building houses!

I used these strategies to finish Dirge, which I’ll repeat for NaNo:

  • Write by hand. This will be the first year of handwriting a NaNo. I’m less tempted to edit when I have scrawly handwriting to wade through and not enough page space to insert edits. I averaged 300 words per page with Dirge, and it wasn’t too hard on the hands. So 6 pages a day should be enough to hit the daily NaNo wordcount. And if I put my mind to it, that can be knocked over in 2-3 hours.
  • Resist all reflex to plot/outline before the story is finished. This is my head game and how the Inner Editor manifests: wanting to plot and do character development and all this fun auxiliary stuff, instead of writing the infernal thing. The urge is even stronger when I hit a roadblock in the storytelling. The novella Dirge was strangled by all the plotting and char dev I did in my attempts to unstick myself, which only created more story complications, mental noise, and ultimately, a sense of despair and defeat. So, no more of that during NaNo. Not even make margin notes/reminders as I write. That can come later. Now the story needs to just get out.

I’m looking forward to this. I’ve always loved NaNo, especially since it encourages writing at a pace that leaves your conscious inner editor behind. Writing into the dark is nerve-wrecking, but it’s also exciting. At the end, I hope to have gotten further in my adventures in a writing career, and, for once, have a fully-grown tree to show for it.

🎮 I made a Twine game. Or: It is illegal to serve Hot Sauce to a Dragon in Granada.

It is illegal to serve Hot Sauce to a Dragon in Granada | mirrored on Philome.la | hosted on my site

This is my first time using Twine, and the first interactive fiction (IF) game I’ve ever made. So I welcome any and all feedback and opinions on Project Dragonsauce! (Because that title is a mouthful.)

Inspiration.

It all began with this writing challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog, where everyone commented with a title for another commenter to “adopt” for a flash-fiction piece. Someone had posted this exact title, “It is illegal to serve hot sauce to a dragon in Grenada [sic]”, and my imagination instantly latched onto it. I originally wanted to write flash-fiction/short story as per Wendig’s challenge, but after a few abortive attempts, gave up, filed the title away, and didn’t do anything with it for a couple years. But a few months ago, when I was examining Twine and idly contemplating a foray into IF game creation, this title prompt came instantly to mind, and the entire storytelling/game structure resolved itself in that moment of inspiration.

And there: I had a story all ready to create in Twine. So I did. It took roughly 2-3 months of dabbling, in total probably less than a week of real-time work, to make a 5-minute IF game.

Process.

It took an afternoon to storyboard and write the text for Dragonsauce, and get accustomed to the Twine interface, which was very user-friendly. This was the easy part. After that, I spent several months on-and-off learning the basics of Harlowe (the scripting language beneath the Twine interface) and then scripting it to do what I wanted. I solely used the Harlowe manual to learn; somehow it never crossed my mind to look for YouTube tutorials, but reading instructions and then doing them has always been my default way of learning.

Lots of referencing the manual and trial-and-error: circling back and forth between things I knew how to script, and things I wanted to script but hadn’t reached that level of mastery yet. Rather tedious, but I’m glad I persevered through beginner’s frustration. At the end of this game, I think I’ve mastered enough of Twine scripting to know which references to look up, but will need to keep experimenting and iterating to get a real handle on Twine’s full capabilities. Solidly beginner, starting to move into the intermediate levels.

Being a gamer, particularly an avid player of text-based games, helped a lot with Dragonsauce’s design. I’ve played enough of Fallen London, Open Sorcery, Choice of Games games, and MU*s (the progenitor of both parser IF and MMOs) over time, to have internalized the infrastructure of interactive storytelling. The structure of Dragonsauce literally crystallized out of this melting pot. I knew what story I wanted to tell, and immediately knew how to organize it. I didn’t have to consciously “figure it out”.

Gameplay and story presentation.

Having written only novellas before, interactivity is the aspect of IF that I find most intriguing. How does one present stats to a reader and give them a way of tracking progress and change, while maintaining the integrity of a narrative? How to avoiding making this too explicitly game-y?

Dragonsauce was a particularly good story for learning Twine because it had a modular structure, and each module allowed me to experiment with different ways for a reader/player to progress through the story, and how I might present it narratively. There were only two fundamental stats for me (and the player) to manage, which made it easy to keep track of in the scripting, but still interesting as I got a taste of what additional variables can spin out from two stats (answer: a LOT if you don’t keep yourself in check), and what “balancing gameplay” means and involves. I think the three game endings are well balanced and hope they satisfy the player.

I got sucked into playing around with the scripting, to the point where I had to pull back and ask myself how this served the narrative, and how I can effectively present this as a story, and use storytelling to elegantly cover up the bones of gameplay mechanics. (And how much time I wanted to spend just dickering with an unfinished project!) All this experimentation meant that the narrative of Dragonsauce supports a core gameplay style, instead of vice versa. More game-y and less story-esque than I’d hoped, but I was using this story to learn Twine and its capabilities.

I’m pleased with what I’ve made, and like to think I succeeded with keeping the storytelling vibe while also effectively communicating game/stat changes through narrative. But I wonder what players think. (I would appreciate your feedback very much!)

What’s next?

IF and text-based games are the convergence of reading and gaming, two activities I enjoy, and any place of boundary crossing and convergence that stimulates creativity, tension and new ideas attracts me. I thoroughly enjoyed making Dragonsauce, and found balancing this tension between game and story very engaging. This is my first IF game, but I’m confident it won’t be the last.

Now that I’ve gotten a handle on Twine scripting, I would like to focus more on narrative and less on mechanics. So the next project is to develop a story and keep narrative as the main objective, and see how the Twine medium can support it.

I already have an idea kicking in my head, but it’ll have to incubate a bit longer as other writing projects are taking priority. (NaNoWriMo cometh!)  This will surely be a major project for 2019.

📚 Now reading: Earth is But a Star. And a musing about reading anthologies.

Earth is But a Star, edited by Damien Broderick.
A science-fiction anthology of far-future/dying Earth stories and essays, by writers including Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, C.J. Cherryh, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, and Robert Silverberg. A fascinating, if cerebral, read through contemplations on humanity and Earth’s far-distant future.

This book is out of print. I first saw this in a local library and was so taken by the theme that I determined to buy a copy by hook or by crook. I ended up emailing the publisher, a small university imprint, and asking if they had any copies leftover from the original print run. Remarkably, they did and were willing to sell. So I had the whimsical experience of calling up and buying an OOP book directly from its publisher.

~~~

Unlike novels, the format of anthologies encourage dipping in and out of it as you please, picking and choosing which stories to read, not needing to read anything in order. Earth is But a Star has fiction interspersed with essays, so it’s tempting to just read all the fiction and then check out an essay or two, maybe read them later. (But face it, “read them later” never happens.) But I resolved to read the anthology in order from cover to cover. In doing so, I noticed something.

This habit of dipping in and out of a collection of stories is encouraged (or exacerbated) by publishing in the Internet age. News websites, blogs, online fiction ‘zines; and the practice of saving articles to Instapaper or Pocket… it’s so easy to read a piece of writing online that is isolated and removed from any surrounding context. Even online fiction ‘zines present their issues less in book-form with stories nestled between covers and lined up in a certain order, but as a landing page from which one clicks on links to stories. Apart from being linked from the same page, an online story or article has no spatial or temporal relation to the other stories in the issue. Less sense of a chronology, more sense of a radial branching network. That’s the kind of pattern that arises from a hypertext medium.

Whereas a physical ‘zine or anthology has stories in some sort of sequential order. Sure, a webpage has that too (the links are in some order), but a physical book embodies that orderly restraint more stringently than hypertext. One subconsciously assumes that there is a purpose to that order, and I’m certain there is.

Even so, one can still dip in and out of an anthology. It’s easy to jump ahead to the next story if the current one doesn’t hold your attention. Especially in Earth is But a Star, where I’m vastly more interested in the fiction than in the essays. But I resolved to have some self-control and read from cover to cover, missing nothing.

But I think there’s more to this than self-control: it’s being willing to surrender myself to the journey within the book. I’m relinquishing my choice to dictate which order I read the stories, and allow the book (and the editor/s) to lead me from page to page.

In this Internet age where reading material is rife and often disembodied from context, and the consumer is the one dictating how and in what order to consume media, it is a discipline to relinquish this choice and submit oneself to be led in a specific way. But I think there’s something profound in this submission. I’m accepting that the editor has purpose and meaning to this narrative trajectory they want me to go on. That there is a meaning and motive behind this journey, and that is worth exploring and pondering, even if I don’t agree with the trajectory. That every stop made, be it a short story or an essay, is a worthy stop to make right here, right now, at this point in the anthology. By surrendering myself to a journey directed by someone else, and resolving not to miss any stops, I get to experience a narrative different from mine.

Yes, it’s something (relatively) trivial: reading a fiction anthology cover to cover. But if I can’t submit my attention and choice to an anthology editor, am I willing to submit to some more important story? If I can’t take time to read a fiction collection in order without missing anything, how can I expect to take time to read and thoroughly investigate some bigger, more serious news issue, from all angles?

Sustaining attention through a narrative trajectory is a habit to cultivate in the trivial occasions as in the more serious occasions. Best I start with a science-fiction anthology.

To mend the rifts in friendship and social media.

A few months ago, I witnessed a rift in friendship. They were once good friends who were close, but then an incident arose. One hurt the other one. In response, the other one hurt the one back. And so, they fell out.

I was not there to witness the falling out, but later I heard the story from the parties involved. Separately, on different occasions, each party told me about the incident and their motive and their perception of the other person’s motive, from their point of view. Neither one knew that the other one had spoken to me, and neither knew that I had heard both sides of the story, from their own mouths.

I had the privilege of hearing all the rawness revealed in the safety of confidentiality. If I hadn’t known better, I could well have been hearing completely different incidents. But that was the same conflict. The facts were the same, yet the viewpoints and interpretation of the deeds done and hurts given and received were wholly different between the two people.

About their conflict, I kept to their sides of the rift. What could I say? Taking sides with one against the other one, or pressing matters to a head, was not my role. To do so would’ve caused grievous harm. So I listened, and helped them individually, and prayed a great deal for both, but did not attempt to cross the rift.

The rift remains to this day. Both friends looked at the rift of their friendship, and decided to leave it be and move on. Life went on, and both are fine. I am still friends with each person, even if their own friendship isn’t the same anymore.

And yet… I see the rift, and wonder if it could be healed.

+++

A few days ago, I witnessed a rift in the social-media fabric on Micro.blog. An incident arose in a M.B conversation thread. One ended up hurting the other one, and the other one responded and made a decision. And so, a rift.

I looked at the conversation which sparked the conflict. These two online folk are not people I’d call “friends” by any stretch of the imagination, at most friendly strangers that I’ve interacted briefly with. But the conversation is there to see. The facts are in front of me, but I perceive that the two people’s viewpoints are wholly different, and the hurt that one inflicted was perceived wholly differently by one receiving it.

The rift is now there, and it has left a gap in the fabric of M.B. Onlookers have gazed upon it and spoken and pondered. I’m doing that too. What can I say? Taking sides or pressing matters is not my role here. To do so would cause grievous harm. Besides, I’m just an onlooker watching and praying and trying to make sense of what happened.

But with one party out of the picture, there’s nothing we onlookers can really do about the rift except leave it be and move on. Life will be fine, and the two parties involved may be fine, we hope.

And yet… I see the rift and wonder if it could be healed.

+++

From my point of view, the parties involved in these two rifts were not maliciously and purposefully out to cause pain or harm to the one on the other side. (The issue would be very different if there was evil intent.) But there was a degree of mutual incomprehension, and an imbalance when evaluating the weightiness of words, and a whole raft of differing and unspoken expectations and assumptions surrounding the conflict.

Could these rifts have been avoided? Maybe. But right now I’m not interested in that discussion, I’m more interested in the matter of the current rift. Here it is. Here is hurt and offense. Now, what is to be done about it?

It is easy to leave a rift and move on. Especially so on social media, when people are shrouded behind usernames, screens, and fragments of thoughts expressed in meagre words. Life will be fine for the people in the conflict, we hope.

But there are outward rifts and inward rifts. Onlookers can see the rift between people. Who can see the concurrent rift opened within a person’s heart? And while life and the outward rift will be fine (we hope), it is the inward rift that is much, much harder to see and to heal.

This is why I wonder.

+++

What does it take to heal a rift in friendship and social media?

Is it worth the effort to heal a rift?

What happens to a person’s heart if a rift isn’t healed?

What happens to a person’s heart if the rift is healed?

As for me, the onlooker, what is the wise path to walk? And what am I to learn from this, for friendship and for social media?

+++

I have my own opinions about these two conflicts played out. But I have great difficulty taking a side with/against anyone, because both conflicts (from what I can see) originated from incomprehension and not malice. There is no “wrong” way or “right” way here. People are complicated beings, and the heart of a human being is deep and complex and full of good and evil, richness and poverty, tenderness and callousness, all to differing degrees. Who can comprehend a human heart, except the Holy Spirit? Because people are complex and have different viewpoints, it’s very easy to remain uncomprehending of a need or a viewpoint that is different from myself. The same facts can be viewed and interpreted differently, as I witnessed with my two friends.

As with friendships so with social media. Each person brings with them a whole lifetime of paradigms, patterns, relationships, and a subconscious scale for measuring the weightiness of words. The closer and more intimate a friendship is, the more open one is to the risk of hurt and incomprehension. Likewise, a more intimate and meaningful a social-media setting opens one up to the same risk.

I suppose that is the simultaneous glory and agony of intimacy.

While there may be neither “wrong” or “right”, both parties were responsible for creating the rift. And while an onlooker may bring the parties back to look at the rift, there is only so much onlookers can do. Only the ones who created the rift have the power to mend it, or keep it open and gaping.

+++

So what does reconciliation and mending look like?

On my part, all I know is this. One gave the hurt. One received the hurt. One must atone. One must forgive.

Jesus our Lord said in the Gospel of Matthew,

So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
— Gospel of Matthew, ch. 5, verse 23.

Then Peter approached him and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? As many as seven times?”
“I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven.”
— Gospel of Matthew, ch. 18, verse 21.

If Jesus my Lord said that he would prefer an offering left unfinished in favour of reconciling with a brother or sister, I ought to remember that on the other side of words and a computer screen is also a brother or a sister, wrapped in flesh and blood. Perhaps what I already do in realspace to deal with rifts in my life, I ought to do in cyberspace too.

I have been on both sides of giving hurt and receiving hurt. Atoning and forgiving are both very hard to do.
But is a rift worth mending?
What rift lies in my heart? Is my heart not worth mending?
And is their heart worth mending too?

+++

If social media is a place where people are found and where we expect to have human interactions, then we ought to treat people in cyberspace as we do in realspace and enact actions befitting to humanity.  Moreso, as the space becomes more intimate and the risk of vulnerability increases.

I don’t know how best to enact atonement and forgiveness on a social-media space. I suppose it’s just like handling people: people are different and complex, every situation is different and complex, and calls for different responses. And every other person who’s not me will conduct themselves differently on social-media by their own principles. It’s the pain and glory of diverse humanity.

I just know what I ought to do, based on my beliefs and convictions and paradigms.

+++

This was tough to write and I’m still not sure if there was anything worthy in it.

But there was sadness and regret amongst some of the onlookers around the rift, and I thought maybe I can, as a fellow onlooker, say something into the sadness. Those two rifts in friendship and social media certainly gave me pause: to consider what I needed to do if I was part of a rift (whether giving or receiving hurt), and consider what I can do to help mend rifts around me, in a tough world and a tougher online world.

🖋️ To write a novel is to grow a tree.

Jess (@herself at Micro.blog) wrote a post on her writing process, which struck a chord with me. It’s turned into a rumination of my own ongoing writing journey.

She wrote:

Over the summer I spent a week or so seeing if I could fit my novel into the seven-point story structure. I did this for each sub-plot, and then even went so far as to step out each scene, staggering the various sub-plot developments along the number of scenes I decided I had to write.

Then I went away on holiday. Came back, three weeks later, and couldn’t bear the sight of the thing. A spreadsheet — what was I thinking? Even now I look back at it and want to shake myself. It’s just too much.”

Truth. Truth.

A novel is not a house to be built, but a tree to be grown.

+++

At first, I was going to respond to Jess’ post by documenting and sharing my own writing process. I wanted to share my outlining, the 7-point-plot-structuring I do, the world-building wiki I’ve created, and how all of this “process” helps me and facilitates my own novel-writing.

But the truth is, it doesn’t.

I’ve recently come to terms with this fact: my process is quite ineffectual. Instead of facilitating my writing, it’s hindering it. I haven’t written for several months. More recently, I attempted to edit and continue writing the story I was working on, and every time I sat down, I felt an overwhelming sense of malaise and despondency. Writing is just too hard, and I’m not up to it.

Some of it is procrastination and avoidance on my part, but I think it’s also a problem of comfort.

Now, I actually like putting up such structures that organize information. It’s familiar, enjoyable, and I’m well-versed in doing this kind of architectural work. But when it comes down to writing, this structure backfires: there’s too much of it, and it causes friction with writing. Whenever I write, the writing is usually fun and free-flowing. But when I start putting up outlines, wikis, lists, etc, around the writing, all that scaffolding ends up stifling the actual doing of the work, to the point that writing is no longer fun.

I’ve tried to reinvent my process many times, try out different strategies to see what works, if there is a silver bullet for my writing process. And just when I thought I had it figured out, I discover that it’s not producing the ultimate result: finishing a novel.

It is frustrating. To the point that I look at all this scaffolding and feel that overwhelming urge to throw it all out. Burn it down. Start afresh. What was I thinking? Even now I look back at it and want to shake myself. It’s just too much.

Burning everything down is well and good. But what will I do after I’ve started afresh? If I burn down this ineffectual house I’ve built for the novel, am I just going to build a new house on top of it?

And that’s where things have to change. I’ve been going about it all wrong. I should not be building a house, but growing a tree.

+++

The Everyday Novelist, hosted by author J. Daniel Sawyer, is my favourite writing podcast. I’ve been listening to it since its inception. One thing Dan has said since the beginning, and continually stresses, is this: The hardest writing obstacle to overcome is to get out of your own way. To rid your mind of all its obstacles (whether in-built inhibitions or imposed from external sources) and let the subconscious self flow into the story. This head game is always the biggest challenge, every author contends with it throughout their career. And the more intellectual you are as a person, the harder it is to get out of your own way.

In my conceit I keep insisting that Dan is wrong, and I’m the exception to this rule. And I keep discovering that he’s right, and everything I’m doing to “scaffold” my novel and systematize my process has only served to obstruct the writing of them. Sure, the scaffolding helps for a while, but in the long run, all I have to show for it is mental chaos, half-finished drafts, and a sense of being roughly shaken out of a fever dream and back into ugly reality. Oh, what was I thinking? It’s just too much.

And Dan is also right about it being harder the more intellectual you are.

I’m a born systems thinker. I think in processes, and my inner life is a network where everything is connected to everything else. Everything in life is slotted somewhere into this network.

I’m pretty good at building objects, but I’m not great at growing living things. (Just ask my pet bird. Poor fellow. I take better care of my electronics than I take care of him, sigh. 🙁 )

I’m not giving my novels enough time to grow. When they start sprouting, I immediately come in with all that wiki-ing and outlining and scaffolding, to try and systematize things so that I will know what to do next. Indeed, *I* will know what to do next. But my creative process won’t — indeed, it ceases to flourish, and the story itself is stunted and remains half-grown.

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Perhaps this scaffolding is a sign that I don’t trust myself: I will forget the details, or it’ll be too big for my brain to hold. Maybe I will need those scaffolds eventually to help. But the first order of the day is to write. And if I’m not writing because the scaffolds are causing too much friction, they are not helping. I’m just standing in my own way, and what I need to do is to throw away the architectures and learn how to grow a tree.

I think I have to be intentional about resisting this reflex to systematize. It’s so ingrained that I can’t imagine not doing it. But that’s the point that The Everyday Novelist is making. Dan says, and I paraphrase: “your subconscious is the wellspring of all the brilliance of your writing, but you’ve been conditioned by external and internal inhibitions to put a lid on it. What you need to do is to blow the lid and fall down the well and let that water gush out of you. This is the key to becoming an everyday, long-term career writer.” (He says it all the time, in those episodes and many others; “head games” is one of the biggest tags in the podcast archive.)

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A novel is not a house, but a tree. You build a house; you grow a tree. There’s no way to build a tree, unless you want a faux-tree that bears an image of the thing but has no breath of life in itself.

I see now that my process is just encouraging the creation of faux-trees. Some of the real stories may live, but ultimately all of them end up being stunted and stifled. The faux-tree looks good, but the real story is suffering and may not grow to its full potential.

The question is: do I want to keep doing what I’ve always done, because it’s comfortable and familiar, end up stifling all my stories, then throw in the towel and say that writing is just too hard? Or do I care enough about my writing and my stories to do something unknown and uncomfortable?

Maybe I should burn everything down and start afresh. And by that, I mean burn everything. Delete all the outlines and notes. Delete my world-building wiki (which contains as many words as all my half-finished novels put together). Throw every single chunk of scaffolding out — or at least, put them onto a USB drive and stuff it into a hole too small for my hand to fit in. Keep nothing except the most recent old unfinished drafts. From here, just write or revise off into the dark. And resist the instinct to build more scaffolding, resist it to the bitter end.

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I started writing in 2014, for NaNoWriMo. I started a novella, and finished it. I’ve been writing ever since, during NaNo season and off-season, but ever since that first one, I’ve been unable to finish any long-form story.

That, I think, is the key. When I started in 2014, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have any clue about How to Write a Novel — I just wrote, and I finished what I wrote. But now I know something, and so I bring in all the strategies I’m learning and architectural tools I’m familiar with, to try and systematize a helpful process. And in so doing, jammed a lid onto the novel-finishing source.

I am very afraid of never finishing a second novel. It is a thought that haunts and hounds me. Which is why I’ve pushed so hard at all subsequent ones. I think this fear is the very thing driving the scaffold-building, which is ultimately killing the things I want to keep alive.

Maybe I will just have to tear down all the scaffolding and risk utter death. Yes, perhaps those half-grown trees may die. Perhaps they have to, for the sake of future trees I’ve yet to plant. That is very painful to come to terms with. Kill your darlings, eh? These are whole novels, whole stories, and all the beloved characters therein, that face utter death.

Then again, who knows? They may die, but equally, they may live too.

Is it better to risk death and the unknown for a chance at gaining true life, or play the familiar and safe and remain in this limbo of quasi-existence?

(Seems like what is true for faith and eternity is also true for story-telling.)

Time to delete a whole lot of files.

Drawing a physical line against miasmic incursion.

Apropos of @cheri‘s recent post.

Cyberspace (digital and online spaces, or the “noösphere” according to Dan Simmons and others) is uniquely and insidiously intrusive because it’s aetheric — or, to use a more appropriate adjective, miasmic. It is “in the atmosphere”; it occupies no physical space, but has the potential to occupy indefinite amounts of mental space. That would be alright if access to it was limited and/or difficult, but the gateways are proliferating. Thus cyberspace intrudes more and more into the atmosphere. And its disembodied character allows it to bypass the physical to encroach directly on the consciousness; the boundary between outer life and inner life is crossed, and one may not really notice it.

How to resist the miasma when it has no physical substance to resist? Perhaps, indeed, it does need to be anchored to physical substance. Then it becomes easier to set boundaries, because physical substance is just easier for human minds and bodies to keep track of.‡ By “training” the mind to manage the boundaries of cyberspace through the medium of physical substance, eventually, the mind begins to associate cyberspace with those boundaries without needing the training wheels. In other words, shove disembodied, nebulous cyberspace into a physical mould until such time as it will retain that particular shape when the mould is removed.‡
‡Implications for A.I.? O-ho, a whole rabbit trail to go down.

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I’d never noticed this truth before. This explains why the strategies of putting your electronics in “the time-out basket” upon entering home are so effective.

Also explains I’ve been so successful with setting boundaries on my gaming and smartphone usage. With video games, I only have Steam et al and games installed on my desktop PC; laptop and smartphone have no games, and I once made a conscious decision that owning a PS4/Xbox console was not an acceptable life option (and reinforced my resolve by declaring this to gamer friends). With the smartphone, I’ve corralled its potential functions into a narrow channel: local communication, and music/podcast playing. Apart from that, it has few apps and does only the most menial tasks. If I want to do anything more substantive, I have to use analogue means, or hie myself to a computer.

At the start, I actively and ruthlessly policed the gaming and smartphone boundaries. And it’s paid off in spades: these boundaries are now so ingrained into my consciousness that gaming is a “desktop PC activity, sheesh, why would I game on anything else?” And the smartphone is the least important screen around and the last thing I’d turn to if I want a diversion. In fact, it’s the only device around that has social-media apps on it, and they’re seldom used. Ironic that when most people are removing access to social media from their smartphones, I’m shunting them all there. But, a menial tool for menial, low-priority activities.

I still need the physical boundaries, but I don’t need to police them so hard now; my mind is already conditioned to view those electronic devices a certain way.

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It’s high time I re-examined my containment of the miasma, in terms of cultivating my creative inner life.

With blogging, moving to Hierofalco.net was very timely. I catch myself surfing the Micro.blog timeline more than blogging or doing other creation. Well then. The menial tool can retain the sole gateway, but on the major screens: close off all gateways to M.B, and open all gateways to blogging/writing/coding/other creative works.

Ordering my creative process is the harder task. Especially the novel-writing: my workflow is in a state of chaos that brings no productivity and fosters procrastination. Surfing the Internet has been the easy way out of the former and into the latter. There are currently no boundaries, and there are no physical anchors to help contain the miasma.

Things to try out:

  • Return to handwriting. Previous attempts at handwriting novels weren’t hugely successful. But if I want to be productive and actually write something…
  • Make laptop the dedicated writing tool. Restrict browser usage — the Internet is the main floodgate for the miasma.
  • A second monitor has been very good for writing workflow. Move a monitor (maybe the main monitor??) permanently off desktop PC to laptop.
  • The major task: Figure out a long-term, sustainable system to order and pipeline the meta surrounding storytelling. Currently, my novelling notes, outlines and world-building wiki are spread over OneNote, WikidPad, Word documents, an online notepad, and physical notebooks — all artifacts of trying different methods but not yet settling on one. Unsustainable, and currently the source of most mental friction, chaos and inability to make progress (and hence, procrastination). The workflow needs to have boundaries, if not actual order, imposed on it. How to anchor this disembodied space in the physical world? What is a system and pipeline that is sustainable in the long run? (Will such a restraint liberate or stifle my creativity?) Bears some thinking.
  • Dedicated “no-screens, creative-only” days. A part of me is now squirming and squealing, “you don’t need it, why are you even contemplating that, stop thinking about it, don’t even think of doing it of course you don’t need it why are you still thinking of it–“ Well. Even more reason to anchor that physical boundary and enforce it with extreme prejudice.