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February 11, 2008

2008 guiding principles

by sven at 7:00 am

Rather than making New Year's resolutions this year, I've decided to compile a list of principles that I want to keep in mind during the next 12 months. I spent January slowly collecting them, and now finally feel ready to assemble my little manifesto...


1) I want writing to be at the core of what I do.
The stream-of-consciousness is the origin of all intelligence. Tap into it, write it down, and thought will progress from tangled to untangled. Old thoughts will be acknowledged and inescapably replaced by new insights. "Let me write," I tell myself, "and I'll be brilliant."

2) When I don't write, my feelings about work-to-be-done get impacted, preventing me from making progress and from feeling present.
I don't believe laziness or procrastination are a sign of personal weakness. If I find myself avoiding a task, it is almost always because I am lacking some essential piece of information and feel confused. When I know exactly how to proceed, no task seems really hard. Writing is the means to discover my block -- what it is that I don't even realize I don't know.

3) Turn down the volume on outside noise in order to amplify the interior voice.
I mean this very literally. I find it helpful to wear earplugs when I journal. When I want to really throw myself into a project, it can be helpful to stop listening to music, watching movies, and surfing the internet for a few days. Conversely, when I have a huge amount of information to get down on paper, turning on background noise can sometimes help me pace myself and not hit brain fry too soon. Be conscientious about adjusting level of focus.

4) The more stuff I get down onto paper, the more room there'll be in my head for new ideas.
Psychologists say you can only keep seven things in your head at once. One strategy is to let thoughts compost -- insights occur to you like flowers popping out of the mud. For all that I want to accomplish, though, I don't feel like I have time to wait for ideas to just "come to me." I need a strategy that's more active. I find that by shoveling out the mud, I discover seeds waiting for me down there in the dark -- and they seem to grow much faster when I bring them out into the sun and water them every day.

5) Questions are the essence of thought.
When you articulate a question, several possible answers instantaneously suggest themselves. Often the necessary answer is so obvious, you skip right over it to the next question. I believe this is how thought actually works -- it's just that most of time when an insight occurs to us, we're unaware of having first posed a question. The exercise of brainstorming questions is the fastest route I know to progressing any project.

6) Enumerate all possible options, and the correct solution will make itself apparent.
If there is planning and decision-making to be done, don't do the work in your head. Write it all down. It's much easier to make a choice when you've articulated what your options actually are -- than when you're simply trying to pick the right one out of thin air. Note: Laying out paragraphs is better than single sentences, which in turn is better than sentence fragments or single-reminder-word headings.

7) Thoroughness is more important than brevity.
"I'm sorry I didn't have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one." I love this quote, variously attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and others. The ability to write something concisely is the endpoint of exploring your topic in all its facets. Don't skimp on the exploratory phase, and don't feel guilty for being long-winded when writing publicly.

8) Hammer on the story.
In art... All art -- be it painting, novel-writing, cinema, sculpture, or theater... We are presenting the audience with a story. Keep coming back to this: what is the story that you are trying to tell? Your style may be abstract or literal -- but if you are clear about what it is that you're trying to do, and what it is that you want the audience to feel, your art will always be more powerful.

9) Know your subject inside and out.
In fiction, discover every detail about the world you are building. In the technical skills of art-making, discover every possible variation for a particular technique -- and what the pros and cons are for each one. Capture what you are learning in writing, as you're learning it: both as notes and as fleshed-out essays.

10) Health is not optional.
Writing is physically demanding. Sitting for hours on end can weaken circulation and even lead to heart problems. Break it up. Make sure that mental motion is fueled by the physical motion of walking. Lubricate the mental gears by drinking lots of water. Look at every leaf of kale or spinach as another page in your book of writings.

posted by sven | February 11, 2008 7:00 AM | categories: writing