My new structure for my newsletter at the start of this year was an attempt to improve my writing. My theory was that by writing about the same thing, and by working on a piece alongside the newsletter for four weeks, I could turn the newsletter into a form of delibarate practice. I’d be able to get better at researching, outlining, editing, all these skills that would make me a better writer.
It didn’t quite work out. I was feeling rushed and stagnant before I started this new structure, and that only got worse with more writing to deliver. So, I took a little break a couple weeks ago, and stopped with the structure.
I realized that I wasn’t really having difficulty with the skills I thought would make me better. My problem was more fundamental. I was having difficulty with the basic activity of writing.
I don’t mean typing, I can do that well enough. I mean the activity of thinking with words and writing them down. Whenever I would sit down to do it my attention would wander, and get pulled in different directions.
So, I’ve been trying out a new writing habit.
Once or twice a day, I make myself a cup of tea and sit down at my desk. I open up a new markdown file in vim, and make it full screen. I pick an idea. Then I type until I’ve written a thousand words. I can stop writing, look around, but if my thoughts wander, I bring them back to what I’m writing about.
Everything about this habit is meant to feel good. Vim looks and feels good. Drinking tea feels good. Slowly approaching, and finally reaching, a thousand words feels good. Typing on my keyboard feels good. Keeping my mind on a single idea and putting it into words, feels good.
The goal is to forget all about skills, and just focus on really enjoying writing, and doing as much of it as I can.
If all the things I want to improve are branches of a skill tree, this is putting down roots.
So much of how I think about learning something is tied up in what I see as the “skills” of that thing. Learning to play an intstrument means learning songs, or practicing scales, memorizing chords. Of course all those things are things you will have to do. But I don’t think they’re the first step.
The first step, is to make sitting down with the instrument, and playing it, something you want to do. To a decent approximation, every single other skill builds on that.
One way I think about this is as zooming out. If you were looking at someone practicing or studying the thing that you want to learn from a thousand feet away what would it look like they were doing?
This can feel pretty silly. We’re sort of nudged to think about learning anything as this extremely intensive serious endeavor that requires deep thought and informed, deliberate practice. What I’m suggesting here sounds like focusing on the most surface level aspects instead. It almost feels like LARPing to an extent.
Of course, this isn’t meant to replace delibarate practice, just to come before it. The idea isn’t to just to look like you’re doing the thing. It’s to figure out what actions are most fundamental to doing the thing, and then to take as much pleasure in them as possible, and make doing them just something you do.
I’m not sure this part generalizes to things outside writing but I suspect it does. Writing is fully tied up with thinking. It’s not a mechanical process that happens after you have an idea, but a way to process an idea. You start with some vague intention, and through writing turn that into something instantiated.
To try and generalize this perhaps I’d say any practice contains a mechanism for instantiating intention. It has a way of taking something you want to do, and making it reality. Finding the thing most fundamental to it and just doing your best impression of that, is the core way to get better at something. All other practices, from theory, to excersises, are on top of that foundation.
I didn’t expect how much this feels like mediatition. Keeping your attention on a single idea and movement, bringing it back when it drifts, staying aware of your body and how you’re feeling. All things I was doing while practicing meditation.
They’re also things I can feel improving as I continue my writing habit. I can hold my attention on an idea and a piece for longer. I can better tell when my thoughts are drifting, or when there’s something I am peripherally aware of that I want to connect.
I wonder how much of this is because I’m taking this approach with writing, versus any other skill or domain.
One thing I haven’t really figured out is how this relates to other people. All of the writing I’ve done this way is private for now, just for me. That let’s me be a lot messier than I can in this newsletter. But there’s defintiely something to being read that I miss, especially the conversations, and connections it can spawn.
On a higher level, as you probably can guess, I’m a beleiver in social learning. I think that the ideas and skills we learn don’t exist just in our heads, but in the communities that we’re a part of. How can I make this lil writing practice more connected to my communal life?