What Is This Thing? What Is This Thing For?

The more I think about current and future projects for myself, the more I also think that anything we do, or anything worth teaching or learning requires us to answer two extremely basic questions about that subject:

  1. What is this thing?
  2. What is this thing for?

Almost too basic. But I think we often fail to set parameters around whatever subject matter we might be interested in, so our thoughts become muddled and disjointed. We are then led down several different paths, all of which don’t seem to amount to anything. We are then further led to a sense of overwhelm or despair because the topic at hand seems too difficult or unwieldy. To be sure, the topic at hand probably is unwieldy — we should be able to mitigate such a problem, however, if we spending time in thought about the given subject.

To wit, a personal example: blogging. Since attempting to build the writing-once-a-day habit, I’ve also thought extensively about the two questions above.

  1. What is a blog? What is blogging?
  2. What is a blog for? What should the purpose of a (or, perhaps better, my) blog be?

It’s kind of like teleological blogging. I don’t want to seriously engage in this activity if I can’t determine its purpose. Alan Jacobs has helped me significantly in this area. This morning, he published two posts (“new uses for old blogs”, and “the blog garden”) that, although written specifically about his personal publishing/writing situation, spoke to this area for me. He has continued along the trail of thought he laid out in his digital commons article; namely, making a distinction between maintaining a personal digital space as a type of architecture as opposed to the metaphor of gardening. The gardening metaphor is not only useful, but helpful in a time when most of us interact with a web that was created by others, rather than building it ourselves. He writes in “the blog garden”:

For some time now I’ve been thinking of writing a book about John Ruskin. And I still might. But I’ve been led to consider such a book by gradually gathering drawings and quotes by Ruskin on this blog (there are also a few Ruskin entries at Text Patterns). Suppose that, instead of architecturally writing that book, I simply contented cultivating my Ruskin garden? (See this post for the architecture/gardening distinction.) More images and more quotations, more reflection on those images and quotations. What might emerge?

In some ways this would be a return to what I did a few years ago with my Gospel of the Trees site, which arose because what I wanted to say about trees just couldn’t be made to fit into a book, in part because it refused to become a linear narrative or argument and in part because it was so image-dependent and book publishers don’t like the cost of that. But the advantage of a tag over a standalone site is that each post can have other tags as well, which lead down other paths of reflection and information, in a Zettelkasten sort of way.

That was a long quote, but I hope the point comes across. Jacobs, rather than wanting to shoehorn his writing about Ruskin into the form of a book (which takes an extended period of deep reflection and focus — neither of which are “bad”), is considering gathering material and reflecting upon that material in meaningful ways through a tagging system that has the potential to lead both the author and the audience down numerous rabbit trails. The connections that can be made in this kind of process (rather than a book, which is most often a single-path endeavor) are many and can sometimes be surprising.

So, what do I want blogging to be for me? Maybe not something so serious as what Jacobs is attempting. That’s a full-fledged project that I don’t have time for. What I’m hoping for, instead, is the ability to make connections I wouldn’t have made otherwise (through a tagging system), and to cultivate my understanding of different topics in a disciplined, meaningful way.

Blogging Daily

I’m attempting to blog daily (or, at least, Monday through Friday) — not as an attempt to gain more followers or build an audience or somehow monetize my blog. I know those things probably won’t happen. I’m doing so for a lot of reasons; one of which is something I read on a bunny trail I came across last week through CJ Chilvers’s blog (its origination is from Seth Godin’s podcast Akimbo). In a recent episode, Godin says:

I’m encouraging each one of you to have [a blog]… because of the discipline it gives you, to know that you’re going to write something tomorrow. Something that might not be read by many people—it doesn’t matter—it will be read by you. If you can build that up, you will begin to think more clearly. You will make predictions. You will make assertions. You will make connections.

It’s that last bit — “You will make connections” — that stuck with me when I read that. There are other reasons: building up a writing habit is something that is just good for me. Blogging every day helps me harken back to my young teenage years when blogging was everything. It was a brand new medium I could use to express myself any way I wanted. Now, I think the discipline of blogging daily is something that has the potential to benefit me over time. I probably won’t see these amazing leaps and bounds in my thinking immediately. But I hope that I’ll be able to look back in one year’s, two years’, or ten years’ time and understand a little better why I think the way I think, and perhaps make connections I didn’t see clearly.

This is, perhaps, one of the main benefits of blogging as a practice over the mindlessness of certain forms of social media. When I interact with social media, the friction to converse with people and throw my opinion out there is low, but I’m unlikely to scroll back through my timeline. Lack of friction equals low remembrance. The higher friction of pulling out a word processor and typing out a few coherent paragraphs (or more, if I’m feeling indulgent) lends itself to aiding my memory and helping me see clearly (later) not only what I was thinking but why.

A Perfectionist in All the Wrong Ways

If good creative work is produced by limitations, and I want to actually make good work, two questions must be answered:

  1. What kind of work is worth making?
  2. What kind of limitations should I place on myself?

Neither of these questions have an obvious answer. Re: #1, I only really know my interests — those things which draw me, make me feel alive, like I’m discovering something about life that I didn’t know was there before. Maybe I should start there (and maybe I already have), and hope that what I create is worth something valuable in the end.

On #2, the answer still isn’t obvious, but perhaps we can break those limitations down to discover possibilities. There are negative limitations — the things that I need to subtract in order to focus. This can include things like leaving Facebook, refusing to watch Netflix for a set amount of time, and so on. And then there are positive limitations — things that I need to add to my life, my daily routine, that will allow me to produce better work by repetition. I’m already doing this in one realm; Elaine and I are currently doing an X-Effect challenge (for 49 days, instead of Austin Kleon’s 30) for exercise. I have run every single day for the last five weeks, and plan to do so at least until I hit day 49 (although the plan is to build a habit strong enough to just continue running with no end in mind.

Theoretically, this ought to also apply to other areas of my life, however. I want to do good, theological and philosophical thinking and writing, but I often face lethargy and laziness by the end of the night when the kids are down. I want to be a writer, but the same applies. The reality, however, is that if I want to be that kind of person, I need to be that kind of person. Regardless of emotional states or motivation, if I want to look back on my life and be satisfied with the kind of person I became, the only choice is to do those things which I know will satisfy me.

Another reason I avoid this is that I don’t want to confront the fact that I’m a perfectionist in all the wrong ways. I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t want to attempt something until I fully understand it, backwards and forwards, inside and out. This is great when I’m working on a car and don’t want to destroy a $15,000 asset. Not so great when I want to just be something and taking the first step will cost me literally nothing but my pride. It does me no good to not write when I’m worried about what others will think — not writing just means that I’m not writing.

So what should my limitations be? Perhaps simply doing the things I know I want to be doing, every day, no matter what.

Limitations and Stealing Like an Artist

I am no artist, but I want to create things, to be inspired, to be a little obsessed, to make connections that no one else sees. I get obsessed about things now — especially music —  but not the same as I did before the advent of social media.

So, in the spirit of leaving Facebook and limiting my social media access soon, Austin Kleon‘s Steal Like an Artist has some great points to make in service of becoming a little more creative, and a little less concerned about the daily limitations I face against pursuing the things I want to do and the person I want to be. Some major points in his book (with some subpoints) that I found helpful:

  1. “Write the book you want to read.”
    • This immediately struck me, because I find it difficult to not write without an audience in mind (and trust me, I know I don’t even have an audience). But I can’t help myself. A larger quote from that section of the book: “If all your favorite makers got together and collaborated, what would they make with you leading the crew? Go make that stuff. The manifesto is this: Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want o run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.”
  2.  “Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)”
    • I’m constantly frustrated that I don’t get the opportunity to make my living doing something I absolutely love. But maybe that’s not the point: “The trick is to find a day job that pays decently, doesn’t make you want to vomit, and leaves you with enough energy to make things in your spare time.” And this leads to the next point…
  3. “Creativity is subtraction.”
    • The point here is not having infinite resources and time and availability. The truth is, perhaps, that the best kinds of work come from constraints (Richard Beck just posted about this recently on writing books). Austin Kleon writes: “In this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s really important. Nothing is more paralyzing that the idea of limitless possibilities. The idea that you can do anything is absolutely terrifying.”

Blogging Was a Thing

Do you remember when blogging was a thing? It wasn’t even that long ago. It was only 2011 or 2012 that I paid a lot of attention to what could be categorized as the “Christian Blogosphere.” I had my own blog that I posted on regularly, linked to other blogs, and had a large RSS feed where I watched all of this content come in every day.

And then, all of a sudden, it just wasn’t a thing anymore.

I don’t know why that is. I know Twitter became much more popular than it was previously, and video content soared for news sites. Another big shift in the last few years has been the resurrection of podcasts. This one in particular is interesting to me — that podcasts somehow made a comeback. It’s such a slow form of information intake. It makes me wonder if blogging will have its own sort of comeback. Perhaps not in the same way that it existed previously. I just know that Twitter, even with 280 characters, is incapable of allowing us to expand and extend our thoughts, mulling over the words, savoring a single line of thinking for a few minutes.

Or I could just be stuck in my own head and in my own world. It’s very possible that I have only “noticed” these changes because I’m the one who has changed — that blogging and podcasting and Twitter are as popular as they ever were, and my arrogance leads me to believe that because the way I interacted with them changed, so did everyone else.

Change of Pace

I used to blog all the time. I remember in high school I blogged at least a few times a week, sometimes more. Then, you know. Life and kids and school and work and faith crises.

I don’t think my love for writing ever left me. I’ve started various journals (one that I have actually kind of, sort of kept up with over the course of the last nearly two years — to be sure, there are long swaths of time missing though), blogs, Twitter account(s), even a Tumblr at one point. I’ve written lots for classes. What I haven’t done is maintained a steady habit of writing, just for me, just to write. I think I felt the need to have an audience, to push my “content” (blah) out so that people could see me and my thoughts and know that I was the kind of person that had important thoughts about important things.

I don’t think I am interested in that anymore. If people read my blog, so be it. If not, I’ll be glad to look back and see that I started keeping track, little by little, again.

All of that to say: there’s a change of pace coming to the blog. I don’t know how often I’ll be posting. Hopefully once a day on the weekdays. It may be just an image or a video a find intriguing and thought-provoking. It may be a quick thought or a longer post. But I’ve got some work to do in my own thought life that I think can only be managed by writing. Good stuff and bad stuff, mediocre stuff and nerdy stuff.

Here we go.