DRMacIver's Notebook

No shortage of things to write about

No shortage of things to write about

Back in Intellectual DIY I recounted a conversation with my father in which I explained that all of my reading and writing was more by way of a vast intellectual DIY project:

Last year I had a conversation with my father in which he said how impressed he was with my memory and general breadth of knowledge and intellectual achievement, and that he could certainly never do anything like that.

I expressed polite scepticism at this claim and pointed out that his sheer breadth of practical knowledge far outstripped mine. He seems to know everything about DIY, and is generally prepared to wade in and do a good job on just about anything you might expect to do around the home, from heat pump engineering to building furniture. He's been building some stairs recently, as one does. He is finally starting to come around to the idea that maybe he doesn't have to do everything himself, but generally it's not a question of whether he can do it himself, but whether he can do this thing and all of the thousand other tasks he's taken on. This is of course all before we even start on his actual professional skill set (he was a banker before he retired).

He objected that this was not at all the same thing - he just figured things out as he went and refined his skills over time in the course of doing them. He didn't necessarily remember all these things, he just started with the problems he was trying to solve, had the confidence to try things out and see if they worked, and practiced them until he got the knack of it, and then builds on that prior experience for future problems.

“Well yes”, I said. “How do you think I do it?”

This analogy continues to bear fruit, as I had another conversation with him recently, in which he expressed how he was impressed and surprised by how I never ran out of topics to write about. "Well, would you have trouble coming up with things to do on the Mill?", I replied. "No, I guess not." "Same thing, basically."

(The Mill is my parents' house. It's a converted water mill. It's lovely but also a significant amount of work)

I think when people think of writing, people think of it as trying to create something new in the world, but actually most of my writing has very little creativity to its selection of topics, I'm just responding to a particular concrete thing I've encountered.

If you look at yesterday's piece about defining things, there was no primal act of creativity where I had to "come up" with a topic. I was experiencing a thing and I was annoyed about it, so I wrote about it.

Similarly, the day before's piece on the newsletter, Telegraph your moves, was a specific response to people's responses to some scheduling changes.

Both of these were very mundane prompts, but based on my own evaluation and other people's responses, they both produce pretty top tier pieces.

In general, life is full of problems, and even where there are no well defined problems there's a near infinite amount of detail. Almost all of that detail you can just look at and go "Huh. What's up with that?" and write something about it.

For me in particular a lot of my reading and writing fits into a sort of broad intellectual program of trying to help people get better at life, for values of "people" that first and foremost includes me. As a result, in order to run out of things to write, I'd have to basically have life solved. I'm uh a little ways away from that.

Generally the problem I have is the opposite: There is too much to write about. This leads to two problems:

  1. How do I decide which bits to write about?
  2. How do I write a short piece without pulling in everything?

The first part is genuinely hard, and I tend towards the less deliberate: I write about whatever happens to be particularly on my mind when I sit down to write. Sometimes I have to shuffle through a few topics until something clicks, but ultimately (as per How to make decisions) when you've got a lot of things that could work the best way is to just pick something arbitrarily. This does result in my topics jumping around a lot, seemingly at random, but I'm OK with that and mostly don't care if other people aren't (and suspect, by and large, people enjoy the novelty factor).

For the second: The way I experience this is that I'm reaching into a giant tangle and tugging on a thread. I start somewhere that seems interesting (such as with a concrete problem), and as I pull related thoughts and information come along with it, constructing a linear narrative as I go. Eventually I find somewhere that feels like a natural stopping point, and I stop. Like right now.