How important are your surroundings when you write?
It’s nice to have a desk, a comfortable chair so you’re not shifting around all the time, and enough light. Wherever you write is supposed to be a little bit of a refuge, a place where you can get away from the world. The more closed in you are, the more you’re forced back on your own imagination. I mean, if I were near a window, I’d be OK for a while, but then I’d be checking out the girls on the street and who’s getting in and out of the cars and, you know, just the little street-side stories that are going on all the time: what’s this one up to, what’s that one selling? My study is basically just a room where I work.
You mentioned wanting your study to feel like a refuge, but don’t you also like to listen to loud music when you work?
Not anymore. When I sit down to write, my job is to move the story. If there is such a thing as pace in writing, and if people read me because they’re getting a story that’s paced a certain way, it’s because they sense I want to get to where I’m going. I don’t want to dawdle around and look at the scenery. To achieve that pace I used to listen to music. But I was younger then, and frankly my brains used to work better than they do now. Now I’ll only listen to music at the end of a day’s work, when I roll back to the beginning of what I did that day and go over it on the screen. But even more than place, I think it’s important to try to work every day that you possibly can.
You use a computer?
Yes, but I’ve occasionally gone back to longhand because I wanted to see what would happen. It changed some things. Most of all, it made me slow down because it takes a long time. Every time I started to write something, some guy up here, some lazybones is saying, Aw, do we have to do that? I’ve still got a little bit of that scholar’s bump on my finger from doing all that longhand. But it made the rewriting process a lot more felicitous. It seemed to me that my first draft was more polished, just because it wasn’t possible to go so fast. You can only drive your hand along at a certain speed. It felt like the difference between, say, rolling along in a powered scooter and actually hiking the countryside.
Do you ever do extensive rewrites?
One of the ways the computer has changed the way I work is that I have a much greater tendency to edit “in the camera”—to make changes on the screen. With Cell that’s what I did. I read it over, I had editorial corrections, I was able to make my own corrections, and to me that’s like ice skating. It’s an OK way to do the work, but it isn’t optimal. With Lisey I had the copy beside the computer and I created blank documents and retyped the whole thing. To me that’s like swimming, and that’s preferable. It’s like you’re writing the book over again. It is literally a rewriting.
Every book is different each time you revise it. Because when you finish the book, you say to yourself, This isn’t what I meant to write at all. At some point, when you’re actually writing the book, you realize that. But if you try to steer it, you’re like a pitcher trying to steer a fastball, and you screw everything up. As the science-fiction writer Alfred Bester used to say, The book is the boss. You’ve got to let the book go where it wants to go, and you just follow along. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a bad book.
Adam Grant shares three surprising creative habits of original thinkers from his book ‘The Originals‘ in this TED talk:
- Originals procrastinate; they start early, but finish late, after exploring and testing all possibilities.
- Originals have doubts; but instead of doubting themselves, they doubt their ideas, and look for better options.
- Originals have fears; but they are more afraid of failing to try than trying and failing.
1. Pre-Prelaunch: This is where you begin. You use it to start building anticipation among your most loyal fans. The pre-prelaunch is also used to judge how receptive the market will be to your offer and to figure out what some of the primary objections people will have. And, surprisingly enough, the pre-prelaunch can even be used to tweak your final offer.
2. Prelaunch: This is the heart and soul of your sequencing, where you gradually romance your market with three pieces of high-value, Prelaunch Content. You use your prelaunch to activate mental triggers such as authority, social proof, community, anticipation, and reciprocity. And you do all that while you answer the objections of your market. Typically, you release your Prelaunch Content over a period of 5 to 12 days. The format for that content can vary widely, from video to audio to written PDF reports to blog posts to teleseminars to software (and I’m sure we’ll invent a few more formats as the years go by).
3. Launch: This is the big day you’ve been building up to, the day you actually send your product or service out into the world and start taking orders (in PLF jargon we call this “Open Cart,” as in “you open the shopping cart”). Your launch is actually a sequence as well, and a very powerful one at that. It starts with the email that basically says, “We’re open, you can finally buy now,” and continues for a finite amount of time, usually anywhere from 24 hours to seven days, when you finally shut it down.
4. Post-Launch: This is the clean-up sequence, where you follow up with both your new clients as well as the prospects who didn’t buy from you. The post-launch isn’t as exciting as the other sequences, but it’s important because that’s where you deliver value and build your brand. And if you do it right, the post-launch starts to set up your next launch.
Not everyone who publishes a book is an author. He or she is just someone who has published a book. The best way to become an author is to write more books.
The best way to become a true comedian, filmmaker, designer, or entrepreneur is to never stop, to keep going. Obviously there are exceptions to this—there are plenty of brilliant creators who have made only one thing.
It’s not enough to make one great work. You should try to make a lot of it. Very few of us can afford to abandon our gift after our first attempt, convinced that our legacy is secured. Nor should we. We should prove to the world and to ourselves that we can do it again…and again.
I am developing a daily sketching practice and reading a number of books on sketching, doodling and visual thinking. Mike Rohde‘s ‘Sketchnote Handbook‘ and ‘Sketchnote Workbook‘ have been two of my favorites so far.
In the first book ‘Sketchnote Handbook‘, Mike outlines the foundations skills of sketchnoting, or taking notes via sketches, with a focus on live sketchnoting during conference talks. In the second book ‘Sketchnote Workbook‘, Mike applies the same foundational skills to a number of other areas, for work and pleasure.
Here are seven lessons on becoming better at sketching:
- Focus on ideas: Choosing the right ideas, creating connections between them and finding patterns in them are more important than how well you sketch. Use sketching as an aid to create, organize and share ideas with an aim to engage both the left and the right sides of the brain.
- Create a structure: Choose the right structure for your sketchnote, depending upon the relationship between your ideas. A linear flow runs left to right and top to bottom and is best for free-flowing list-based ideas. A radial flow organizes ideas into spokes around a central hub. A grid flow slots ideas into a pre-decided grid-based structure.
- Learn sketching foundations: Learn the foundational elements of sketching like typography, icons, bullets, dividers, containers, arrows, and speech bubbles. You can combine these elements into more complex figures like diagrams, flow charts and mind maps.
- Learn typography variations: Learn how to create variations in the typography by practicing letters in single line, double line, triple line, block, script, serif, sans serif, and 3D, in both uppercase and lowercase. You can use typography to add emphasis, convey a mood, or differentiate between parts of a sketchnote.
- Create an icon library: Learn to create icons for everyday objects, ideas and activities, including objects and activities in your home and office, and objects and ideas related to your field. You can use icons to succinctly convey complex ideas without using a large number of words.
- Use visual metaphors: Create a library of visual metaphors by “drawing the metaphor literally”. For instance, to depict the “jumping the gun” metaphor, draw a man literally jumping over a gun. You can use visual metaphors to add surprise and humor to your sketchnotes.
- Experiment with media: Sketch with a pencil first or directly with a pen, sketch only in black or use multiple colors, paste a photo on your sketchbook and sketch around it, sketch on a notebook or a tablet, or sketch on a notebook and edit on a tablet – the variations are endless. Experiment with multiple styles, mediums and workflows until you find your preferred ones.
Here are seven ideas for how to use sketchnotes:
- Create a visual task list: Create a task list using action icons (tasks, events, appointments) and add significance to the tasks using status icons (uncertain, important, urgent). Add important details to your task list by adding diagrams to create a visual Bullet Journal. Creating a visual task list will motivate you to use it more regularly.
- Plan with index cards or post-it notes: Brainstorm ideas by drawing them on index cards or post-it notes. Organize them into clusters of related ideas, then prioritize them based on importance and difficulty. Finally, plot them on a flow chart and draw interdependencies. Use this to plan work projects, workshops and book outlines. Drawing out your ideas will help you engage both your visual and verbal brains in planning.
- Summarize ideas from books, talks or meetings: Focus on the big ideas, cluster them (perhaps, into groups of three), draw connections between them and find patterns across them. Focus on the ideas that resonate with you personally. Summarizing key ideas visually will help you focus on the most important ideas and the connections between them.
- Recap films, TV shows or novels: Draw a cast of characters, capture the key twist and turns in the plot, and note down your most important takeaways. Drawing a story summary will help you see the story arc in new ways.
- Capture food or travel experiences: Take photos or notes to capture details for reference, emphasize the highlights of the experience and add personal context and observations. Drawing your experiences will help you personalize them and savor them longer.
- Create a visualization board: Draw an image of yourself five years from now in the center and your ideal situation in terms of work, money, health and family (or similar themes) around it. Put it up above your desk and use it for your morning visualization exercise. Drawing your ideal life will help you imagine it more viscerally and motivate you to work towards it.
- Learn a language with flash cards: Draw an object or idea on both sides of a flash card and add the English word on one side and, let’s say, the Mandarin word for it on the opposite side. Drawing out the words from a new language will help you remember them more easily.
If you are inspired to start sketchnoting, or to use sketchnotes for these use cases, check out Mike’s website ‘Sketchnote Army‘, which showcases the best sketchnotes submitted by community members.
Sometimes, we discover books exactly when we need to read them. I feel like I needed to read these books now, when I am beginning to (re)build a daily writing, sketching and blogging habit.
When I was reading these books, I felt like I was reading letters to my present self from my younger self. I spent my late twenties and early thirties living, learning and creating in public, and benefiting from the network effects that Austin talks about. I have been asking myself if these practices are still valid five years later, in a post-blogging, selfie-obsessed world, and Austin’s books reassure me that they are.
Lesson 1. Begin Again
Sometimes, you need to throw out old work to make room for new work. Sometimes, you need to take a month, or a year, or five years off to clear your head. Sometimes, you need to go away and grow up, perhaps fail a few times, before you begin again, with newfound humility. The good news is that when you do begin again, you are not really starting over. The lessons you have learned from your old work, and the lessons you have learned while you were away, will seep into and shape your new work.
I took almost five years off from this blog, and deleted 1500+ blog posts I had written over the previous five years. Now that I am writing again, I know that I don’t want to write about things that change constantly (like emerging technologies). Instead, I want to write about things that never change (like human behavior). While I won’t be able to reuse the 1 million+ words I have written before, I will be able to use the lessons I learned through writing them.
Lesson 2. Design an Apprenticeship
You can’t choose who your parents and ancestors are, but you can choose who your teachers are. Create a list of creators who inspire you, immerse yourself in their work, find out who inspired them in turn, and then immerse yourself in the work of those who inspired them. If they are active online, follow them, and follow the people they pay attention to. Going back in time, find patterns in how they built upon each others’ ideas. Then, connect the dots in new ways, and find ways to build upon their ideas, in turn. Go beyond their specific idea, or their specific style, and try to learn their way of thinking, their way of seeing the world, and apply it in your own work. Design a long-distance apprenticeship for yourself, watching them practice their craft, learning from their process and their products and improving upon both. When you share your work, share it as a public fan letter to your heroes, acknowledging their contribution, adding new dimensions to their work and introducing them to your own networks.
Here’s a short list of my own creative heroes: world-builders (George R. R. Martin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Stephen King), culture-mappers (Pico Iyer, Steven Johnson, Malcolm Gladwell) and life-hackers (Alain de Botton, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Timothy Ferris). As I design my own creative apprenticeship to learn from them, I’ll share what I am learning, so that you might learn along with me.
Lesson 3. Contribute to Communities
You don’t only need mentors, you also need peers. Seek out talented people who are asking themselves the same questions as you are, become a member of the communities they belong to, learn from the answers they have found, and share your own answers with them. Build upon each other’s work, introduce each other to your own networks, and help each other grow. Brian Eno calls these communities a ‘Scenius’ (versus lone genius), Seth Godin calls them a ‘Tribe’. Find your communities, join them, nurture them and contribute to them.
Here are some communities I am exploring at the moment: niche publishing, self-publishing, and life-hacking. As I map these communities and identify where their hubs are, I’ll introduce them to you, so that you might get an insider’s view of them.
Lesson 4. Collect Inspiration
You are a sum total of what you are curious and passionate about. You become the things you spend your time and attention on. You are shaped by the books you read, the artifacts you collect and the ideas you follow. Expose yourself to inspiration from a wide variety of sources. If you have multiple unrelated passions, nurture them all. Collect everything that inspires you, every creative work you want to steal, in an ‘swipe file‘ or ‘commonplace book‘, which can be digital or analog. Then, go through your file regularly, try to find patterns, connect previously unconnected dots, and remix your inspirations to create new creative works.
I collect things that inspire me in two places: an Evernote account on all my devices to save web stories, reports, photos and videos, and a Bullet Journal to note down quotes, sketch ideas, list resources, and write (sketchnote) book summaries.
Lesson 5. Become an Amateur
The best way to learn something new is to become an amateur again. When you behave like an amateur, you think of your work as a hobby instead of a profession. You free yourself to have fun, take risks and make mistakes. With a beginner’s mind, you allow ourself to be curious, ask silly questions and seek help from peers and mentors. You switch your focus away from perfecting the final product to the process of learning your craft. You look at criticism as feedback that will help you improve, not as judgement on your talent. When you become an amateur, you open yourself up to possibilities that are closed to the professional and the expert.
I am writing this blog as an amateur. I have hosted it on WordPress.com and used a free starter theme. I am writing about learning how to create a daily writing and sketching practice, instead of digital transformation or social innovation. My daily sketches feature my Persian cat Leela perched on various pieces of furniture in my house, and not sketchnote book reviews. My aim is to develop a daily writing and sketching habit, not to position myself as an expert. So, I focus on creating, instead of asking myself if what I am creating is substantial, or profound, or professional.
Lesson 6. Find Your Voice
You should think of the internet as a self-invention machine, instead of a self-promotion machine. Your website can be much more than a platform to distribute your ideas; it can be an incubator to develop your ideas. You don’t only share in public when you have something to say; you also think aloud in public when you want to find something to say. Thinking aloud in public will help you clarify your thinking, get valuable feedback, make new connections between ideas and find your voice.
I started blogging again partly to find out what I am curious and passionate about at this stage of my life, what life skills I might learn which will add meaning to the second half of my life, and what I might contribute in return to the communities I am learning from.
Lesson 7. Learn in Public
When you learn something in public, you end up becoming a teacher to others who are learning the same thing at the same time. When you wonder about something you are fascinated by, others join you to wonder together. When you share your obsession with something you love, you connect with others who love the same thing. Make a commitment to learning in public and, if your own work is not ready to share yet, begin by sharing your influences.
I am reading books and taking courses on writing, self-publishing, sketching, thinking visually, forming habits and lifehacking, and applying them in my own life. I’ll share my successes and struggles, but I am beginning by writing about my influences: Julia Cameron’s ‘Artist’s Way’, Ryder Carroll’s ‘Bullet Journal’ and Austin Kleon’s ‘Steal Like an Artist‘ and ‘Show Your Work‘.
Lesson 8. Journal Your Habits
When you are developing a creative habit, having a routine is more important than having unlimited time or resources. Use your constraints to channel your creativity, perhaps even create artificial constraints. Set ridiculously simple, easily achievable goals that you can consistently hit (Stephen Guise calls them ‘Mini Habits‘), create a chain of daily victories, and make a commitment to not break the chain. Start a daily journaling practice and use your journal to track your habits.
I have set myself a goal to write, sketch or blog daily. Some days, I do all three; other days, I do one or two of the three. For the first month, I have not set myself a goal to reach a daily or weekly word count; even one paragraph is enough, as long as I am writing (or sketching) every day. I am tracking my writing and sketching habits, along with other habits I am trying to develop, in a Bullet Journal.
Lesson 9. Become Findable
You can be found only when you become findable. You become findable when you do work that you love and then share your work. When you share your work, people who are interested in it will find you across geographical boundaries, and share it forward with their own networks. Over time, the network effect will kick in and your connections with likeminds around your work will create serendipitous opportunities that far exceed the benefits of traditional networking over cocktails.
I have experienced the benefits of being a part of global community of likeminds, and the network effects it creates, firsthand, and I am writing again party because I have missed it over the last few years.
Lesson 10. Tell Your (Back)story
Your creative process is as important, and as interesting to your community, as the product you create. Document your workplace, your process, and your work-in-progress product daily. When you finish the day’s work, share a snippet from it, and add context. Equally important is your own backstory; people want to know the person behind the creative product, and even value your product differently based on how they connect with your story. Learn to share your own story and how it has led to your current project, and learn to connect your story to your audiences’ stories.
Here’s my story and here’s what I think your story might be. Of course, all our stories are work-in-progress and I hope we can play a part in moving forward each other’s stories.
Lesson 11. Mix Analog and Digital
Your brain works differently in digital and analog modes, so learn to use both. Perhaps, create an analog workspace with paper, post-it notes, Lego blocks, pencils, pens and markers to think through your ideas, find connections between them, and figure out how they fit together. Then, use a digital workspace with a smartphone, tablet, scanner and laptop to create your work, publish it and share it. Or combine digital and analog in your workflow in different ways, by making part of your work digital and part analog.
I don’t have the space in my tiny apartment to have two workspaces, but I use a similar hybrid creative process. I sketch in my Muji sketchbook, then take a picture from my iPhone and post it on Instagram. Or, I write on my Moleskine notebook with a smart pen and the writing gets synced with my M+ Notes app. I am hoping to develop my sketching in both analog and digital modes, by learning to sketch in charcoal and learning to edit my scanned sketches on my tablet.
In Summary: Begin Again
Let me end this post with the lesson I started with. If you used to have a daily creative practice, if you used to learn in public, if you used to share your work, and you stopped, begin again. I would love to hear your stories of beginning again on Twitter or in the comments below.
I started a Bullet Journal last weekend and it seems that I have already filled half of my notebook.
The Bullet Journal was created by designer Ryder Carroll as a journaling system to track the past, organise the present and plan for the future, using a simple notebook. It’s called a “Bullet” Journal because you keep track of your tasks, events and note using short bullet points.
It has been adopted by a lot of creatives because it’s flexible enough to serve as a to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary, all at the same time. Here’s a short introduction video by Ryder on how to Bullet Journal:
Ryder likes to use really specific terminology (stacks, modules, collections, rapid logging, signifiers, migration), to create a shared language for the Bullet Journal community. In the end, however, it’s just a journal, so use it in a way that works for you and tap into the Bullet Journal community for inspiration.
My BulletJournal stack includes all the collections people usually set up:
- Index: You give each collection a page number and a title and put it in the index to keep track of where everything is. I have a main index, a book summary index and a projects index.
- Key: You use a key to remember what or symbols you are using for different types of bullets (tasks, events, appointments, travel, notes) and what signifiers you are adding to them (important, completed, migrated, canceled). I also use different symbols for ideas, inspiration, questions, resources and quotes.
- Future Log: You write down all the bullets that you can schedule in the future in advance, or wish to do sometime in the future.
- Monthly Logs: At the beginning of each month, you write down all the bullets that you can schedule for the month or wish to do sometime in the month. You also migrate relevant bullets from previous months. You can also add your monthly goals and priorities.
- Weekly Logs: At the beginning of each week, you write down all the bullets that you can schedule for the week or wish to do sometime in the week.
- Daily Logs: You track all your bullets for the day, but don’t migrate bullets from day to day. I also use it to track what I have eaten during the day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack) and write down three good things that happened during the day.
- Monthly Habit Trackers: You track all the habits you want to develop, by marking them on a calendar. This can be useful to create an unbroken chain for daily habits. This can also be useful to keep track of all the things you like to do (like: listen to live music) and remember when you did them last.
- Monthly Mood Trackers: You track how you feel everyday, perhaps using a five point scale, and note down what triggers made you happy or unhappy, then proactively pursue your happiness triggers.
- Monthly Gratitude Logs: You write down two or three things you are grateful for at the beginning of each day. I also plan to look back at each month and add three things I am grateful for at the end of the month.
- Monthly Review: At the end of each month, you review your journaling practice, reflect on what worked and what didn’t work, and decide what changes you would like to make for the next month.
In addition, I have created some additional collections to support my daily writing and sketching habits. Some of these collections are inspired by Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron), Steal Like An Artist/ Show Your Work (Austin Kleon) and Miracle Morning for Writers (Hal Elrod, Steve Scott, Honoree Corder) while others serve as a swipe file (Austin Kleon) or a commonplace book (Ryan Holiday).
- Writing Affirmations: I write down affirmations to support my writing and read them every morning before I sit down to write my morning pages.
- Writing Visualisation: I create a visual dashboard of my ideal monthly word count and what it would result in, and look at it every morning before I sit down to write my morning pages.
- Books Read: I keep track of all the books I am reading at the moment. I was surprised to discover that I am reading more than a dozen books simultaneously and I have finished six in the first week of August.
- Visual Book Summaries: I create a two-page visual summary for each book I have finished reading (see The Sketchnote Handbook and The Sketchnote Workbook by Mike Rohde). It’s a powerful way to focus on what’s most important in each book and reinforce the lessons.
- Quotes: I keep track of all the quotes I come across as I am reading books or online posts.
- Visual Artist Date Summaries: I create a visual summary for all my artist dates (live music concerts, art gallery or museum visits, classes or workshops). It’s a powerful way to relive and remember my most meaningful experiences.
- Creative Hero Genealogy: I am creating visual profiles for all my creative heroes, to understand who inspires them, how they look at the world, and what I can learn from them.
- Blog Post Ideas: I am keeping track of my blog post ideas. It makes me happy to see that I have enough already to last a month.
- Notes for My Novel: I am writing my novel using the Snowflake Method (Randy Ingermanson) where you start with a one line summary for your novel, then expand it into a paragraph with a three-part structure, then add character summaries and so on. Here’s Randy’s introduction to the ten steps in the Snowflake Method.
Four simple organizing principles will help you use your Bullet Journal effectively:
- Index: You put your new collection on the next empty page, give the collection a page number and a title, and put it in the index. Don’t worry about pre-planning the number of pages needed for each collection. This way, you will be able to find what you need to quickly without having to flip through the journal.
- Themed Index: If you know that you’ll be using your Bullet Journal to create a number of similar collections, it might be useful to create themed index pages for them. For instance, I have themed index pages for book summaries and projects. Then, put the page numbers of the themed index pages in the main index so that you can easily find them.
- Threading: If you are continuing a collection on a page further along the Bullet Journal, write down the new page number in two places: in the index, next to the original page number, and at the bottom of the original collections page, next to the old page number. This way, you will be able to find where, for instance, all your quotes collections are, either by looking them up in the index or by going from collection to collection.
- Migrating: At the end of each month, look through all your open bullets on the month’s daily logs and decide which ones are still relevant and which ones can be discarded. Then, migrate your relevant bullets to the next month’s monthly log, or the future log if it’s a back burner item, by drawing an arrow through the bullet’s symbol. This way, you’ll have closure on your bullets each month and you’ll be able to focus on the items that are still relevant.
The Bullet Journal community is extremely inventive and it’s easy to look at the immense variety in Bullet Journal stacks, keys, designs and templates and feel overwhelmed. Kendra has some good advice on how to keep things simple:
- Signifiers: Don’t try to use so many signifiers that you need to refer to your key to remember what they are. Start with the simplest system with symbols for tasks, events and notes and signifiers for important, completed, canceled and migrated.
- Collections: Don’t create collections just to fill up the Bullet Journal. Start with not more than three collections that you will use frequently.
- Embellishment: Don’t feel that you need to make your Bullet Journal as beautiful as the ones you see on Instagram, with washi tape, stickers, stamps, calligraphy and color coding. Start with a black pen and create a system that you’ll use every day.
I will most likely update this post and add more Bullet Journal (and journaling) resources, but, for now, I’ll leave you with two videos on the importance of journaling:
Ryder Caroll on leading an intentional life:
Austin Kleon on the benefits of journaling: