Serenity When? Serenity Now?

serenitynow

I started writing this post ten days before the US election. The premise was that it’s massively unproductive to worry about things we have no control over: football results, Brexit, that US election I mentioned.

… worry is a dividend paid to disaster before it is due…

– Ian Fleming, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”

The aim was to quit the “read the entire internet” impulse that fretting encourages. Stop skim reading every article. Stop following inflammatory tweets back to the shithive of alt-right white supremacist scumbaggery they dribbled out of.

Reading every viewpoint and counter-viewpoint on a subject doesn’t leave you better prepared to absorb the consequences of an outcome you don’t have any control over. That view/counterview thing? Horribly overdone. Depressing to see news outlets follow up with the counter-opinions, because often it seems so forced. (“OK, who wants to write an opinion piece saying Bowie was shit? Come on, someone has to write this thing…”)

In praise of disengagement? Sort of. This is tacking pretty close to the serenity prayer.

Anyways, history overtook my sluggish blogging (that’s how fast I blog, at a sub-historical pace), and the US somehow elected a candidate who makes more false statements than true ones. As I lazily pondered how Facebook and Twitter had played a disastrous role in the dissemination of bullshit during Brexit and the US election, the media duly decided to get riled about fake news.

What of serene disengagement in 2016, then? Disengagement from the internet, I hasten to add, not from “real life”. The last thing we need now is disengagement from reality. Ever think: if we’d all stayed off Twitter and Facebook in 2016, and instead had talked to our less politically-aligned relatives, we might not be now suffering the spittle-flecked, oddly angry, victory shitposting of the Brexiteers and Trumpkopfs? Even without social media we would still have been appalled by the atrocities in Syria, still mourned Bowie and Prince.

I stand by the point that over-reading is unproductive. It’s a one-way street, a dead-end download that will likely go unanalysed and unsynthesised, which will never be shared except in an angry diatribe to a colleague with better things to do.

This isn’t a solution for the awfulnesses we’ve subjected ourselves this year. It’s a modest contribution to your own mental health not to pore over things, obsessively, until you lose your grip on what they actually mean. Don’t read the comments. Don’t feed the trolls. Twitter sparingly. Facebook for event invites and birthdays only.

As for King Troll, all I can do is trust in the survival instinct of the US people, and have popcorn on hand in case of impeachment. Regarding the disengagement policy, I’m convinced that the most constructive thing people could do is unfollow Trump on Twitter. Can you imagine how much more effectively he could be scrutinised if we weren’t wasting time evaluating his tweets by the normal standards of political/civil discourse, instead of dismissing them out of hand as the deliberate misinformation they are? Imagine how that fragile ego would take a plummeting follower count…

 

PS The one topic I did manage to disengage from in the latter half of the year was football. I’ve avoided the brief, addiction-forming highs of the wins and the days-long toxic fug of defeats. It’s easier, living outside the UK, but I’ve seen a few results by accident, or knee jerk click-impulse. On the whole I honestly feel that if anything it’s helped my mood. (I reserve the right to revise this opinion if Arsenal win the League.)

 

Priorities: Reading v Writing v Due Date

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsNo GoodReads Reading Challenge for me this year. I reached last year’s target, again thanks to a few choice graphic novels/comic hardbacks to counterbalance doorstep’s like The Luminaries. But TB-brutally-H it felt as if I was reading to bump up the book count, with the target always to finish fast. Is that conducive to good reading? Wide reading, intensive reading, yes. Clinical, technical, checkbox reading, yes. Not so much with the luxuriating in a text, wallowing there, inhabiting it body and soul.

There’s also the twinge of cynicism I can’t help but feel about GoodReads now that it’s Amazon-owned. In that light, the Reading Challenge just feels like a prompt to buy, buy, buy more inventory.

Reading is no problem. But it’s writing I need to be doing more of. Isn’t that always the complaint? Write, write more, write about anything. To blah or not to blah. Here it comes, another blogpost about blogposts. *SHUDDERS*

It’s never a thoughtful blogpost for me. Is that a mistake? Instead, it’s the first draft brain dump. Unedited stunt writing, unexpurgated, a la Knausgård – who BTW in Book 2 of My Struggle (“A Man In Love“) is coming across as a total dick, which okay is a bravery all of its own, an honesty less glamorous than petty criminality or heroin hijinks, because let’s be honest who comes off best, the helpless addict or the father whinging about his childcare duties? So Knausgård struggles against the selflessness required to be a parent in order to pursue the erasure of self he finds in writing. Transcendence, flow, engagement… it’s all pushing up towards the point of Maslow’s pyramid. Right?

So yes, we have a baby on the way, and that was probably the impetus for this post. We’re moving, and I’m freelancing, and I still need to learn Swedish (not nearly fluent yet). And even now it’s hard enough to maintain the writing necessary to keep contributing to the Amsterdam writing group that I’m still Skyping in to. How’s having a baby going to impact that? Or will it bring regularity and order to our lives, minute-to-minute scheduling that magically *does* give me the space to write?

BokBron: time for a new name

BokBron

Am posting twice weekly now, mainly on books/reading, and occasionally on related fields such as writing, languages, perhaps even stationery if I can’t shake this mounting fountain pen obsession. A new name, a new layout, but largely the same old nonsense.

The main thing was the name change. A rebranding, if you will (please don’t). There was something nauseating about seeing my name as the name of the blog.

I played with a few alternatives. Couldn’t believe no-one had thought of Bookling yet – is it a progressive verb or a gerund? A diminutive? A studious class of RPG characters? – but of course someone had thought of it before.

Booklingen, I thought, would sound like a Swedish definite form of a Bookling (“booking-the”). Thinking about it, bokhylla is Swedish for bookshelf, I could semi-anglicise it to bookhylla. Or bookhyllan (“bookshelf-the”) maybe, or bookhyllor (bookshelves/bookcase).

Still, the -hylla part seemed unmemorable and unwieldy. Bookbron, a semi-anglicised “Bookbridge”, now that was better. Didn’t someone once say that reading a great novel is like walking across a long narrow bridge into another land? No, they didn’t. That would be a terrible quote.

Bookbron was working… but using English book- kinda made the -bron part look like a derivative of bro’. Hey bro! Worse, what if someone thought it was short for Brony. Not worth the risk. So the more Swedish-looking Bokbron, then? How about Den Bok Bron? Den Bokat Bron? (“The Booked Bridge”… but in the sense of reserved.) Both too long/odd.

BokBron it is.

Nine Activities That Promote Writing

You’re stuck in an endless bog of getting started. If you have a productive week, it’s followed by two where you get next to nothing done. The further into the project you get, the further you feel you are from completing it. The eternal lament: you need momentum, you lack focus, you’re woefully short on willpower.

This is me. I read blogs by writers who churn out multiple novels in a year, who never call a day done until they’ve churned out two, five, twelve thousand words. How the hell? How is that possible? And why can’t I maintain that kind of work ethic?

We don’t choose our vices. But it often (almost) feels like swapping Sloth for, I dunno, Gambling Addiction would be a fair trade. Even with all the attendant shame and penury.

WHAT TO DO?

You know the advice. You’ve read it countless times, in books, blogposts, and tweets. Just fucking do it, fercryinoutloud.

  • Read. Heaps. Across all genres and forms and socio-historical milieus. Four obvious raisins. (Check)
  • Run. Exercise is good for the brain. (Just-about-a-check)
  • Be in nature. Nothing encourages the mind to wander like trees n’ birds. (Check, if you count city parks)
  • Listen to people. As in, talk to people, get stuck into conversations, but with the focus on hearing their stories, their viewpoints, their voices. (Semi-check. I need to get out more)
  • Talk with other writers. A reliable way to top yourself up with motivation, externally-validated constructive criticism, and general skill-polishing (Check! Thank gud and Skype for the writing group in Amsterdam I still meet with, and for the nascent group I’m meeting with in Stockholm)
  • Post on the goddamn blog. It doesn’t take long. Do it regular, like. For discipline. For practise. (Feeble-check. Once a week? C’mon, that’s hardly difficult and yet you lapse so often)
  • Set goals. Remember this. “5k words this week”, if stuck to, soon becomes 7.5 or 10 or what have you. (I-meant-to-do-it-honest-guv-no check)
  • Learn another language / Play an instrument. For the etymological insight into your own language and grammar. / However appallingly. For the learning of skills and the variation of expression. And I specify a musical outlet because I’m not about to start painting watercolours or attending pottery classes. (Check) / (Not-very-convincing-check)
  • WRITE. Write! Just write, for the love of… To be fair, you could ditch the other 8 directives if you had the habit of just sitting down and frigging doing it. Or you could rewrite this with WRITE as numbers 1-7, with read at 8 and run at 9. (…)

Countryphiles

A certain love for the countryside seems to be shared by most Swedes… or more accurately, by the limited sample of Swedes that I know. This is perhaps borne out by the popular practice of maintaining a “sommarstuga”, or summer cottage, where the family can repair to when the weather is good, in order to relax and enjoy the massive areas of almost entirely unspoilt natural beauty that cover this land. The sommarstuga needn’t be fancy – outside toilets are a commonplace. But it should ideally be situated by a body of water, the better to have something cold to jump in after a spell in the sauna (“bastu”).

October is a bit late to be visiting a sommarstuga, but we had a week between our first short-term sublet and our second medium-term one. So we drove up from Stockholm, past Uppsalaslätten, to a small town called Hudiksväll, and from there to the tiny place known as Lingerö.

Co_exterior

Here’s where m’girlfriend’s extended family shares a group of cottages. The elderly generation of six or so siblings inherited the place from their parents, and the half dozen cottages on the plot are therefore shared between those siblings, their twenty-odd children, and forty or fifty grandchildren. Something like that. But since on average a person might visit for one week in the year, it seems to work out. In October, when the running water has just been turned off for winter, we only saw a couple of other groups of visitors.

Co_interior

Yes, no running water, so we had to fill buckets from a well in the ground. Firewood had to be chopped, to fuel the kitchen and bedroom stoves, and of course to heat the bastu. That sauna was our only way of washing for the week.

Co_lumberjack

And yes it’s a cliché, but only because it’s true, how much having to work for these basic comforts and necessities makes you appreciate them all the more. We dressed in layers and reduced our hygiene regimes to basic hand-washing and teeth brushing. We swung axes and filled water canisters at the well and raked leaves in the warm mind-morning sun. At night, frost made the grass on the lawn crunchy underfoot.

Co_pickedchantarelles

We soon went into the nearby forest to forage for fungi. Evie warned me that it was way too late to be finding much, and it had been too dry that summer, and we were highly unlikely to find many, if any mushrooms. In the end, we picked hundreds, if not thousands. The first day, there were so many the paper bag I was carrying them in collapsed under the weight and wetness of them. The second day, with reinforced bags at hand, we found even more.

Co_sauna

The sauna, built by Evie’s father and his cousins, overlooks the Baltic (“Östersjon”), and is a sublime place to sit and sweat away an hour.

Co_seaview

Also I had plenty of time to prep chapter plans for NaNoWriMo, and since we were driving back on 1st November, I wrote my first day’s word count on 31st October – the NaNoPolice will let it slide, right? We got back to Stockholm late on that Friday afternoon, and ferried boxes straight over to our new apartment on Reimersholme. We stopped at a hipper-than-thou burger joint to pick up a late lunch, and waited with jeans mud-splattered and hair greasy, happy, tired, and slightly filthy.

Co_stovesauna

96 Hidden Girls

So…

I’ve been working on a series of ultra-short flash fiction pieces, 96 Girls. Ninety-six pieces of precisely ninety-six words each. It’s not a lot, is it? Just 9,216 words in all. Started on 17th January 2011. Really should have finished by now, but innumerable self-imposed deadlines went whooshing past and I was somehow unable to meet a single one of them.

Anwyays>>>

#92 was the last 96 Girls piece that I posted, and with another half-done, that means there are only 3.5 left to write. Then I need to REwrite the damn things, once or twice over, pore over them with a fine cliché-comb until they look presentable. Stuff them into a vaguely bookish form, or something resembling a fat ‘zine. Just 96 copies, that seems the natural thing to do. Sell half a dozen of them then give the other ninety away.

So (again):

And with this in mind I flipped the switch on NinetySixGirls.com to “private”, which means I’ll lose out on those three or four disappointed hits a day from guys that Googled “six girls” or “nine girls” or “ninety girls”… I doubt they were looking for flash fiction.

But over two years to get this thing together? Good god! That’s barely striking before the iron rusted through. Enough heel-dragging, slow-poking, lazy-assed inertia! Write, rewrite, print, and move on!

The Productivity/Deadline Facedesk Pledge

That’s 92 days to write 32 more stories, only one every three days.

– Me, 31st May 2012

That was an arbitrary deadline I came up with for completing first drafts of the 96 Girls stories. It’s the end of July now, and it’s taken me this long to realise that between 31st May and 30th September there aren’t 92 days, there are 123.

Ignore, if you can, the awful (non-existent) fact-checking. At the end of May I was on story #66. Two months later and I’m up to #74. That’s eight stories – flash fiction pieces of a paltry 96 words apiece – or, ONE A WEEK.

What *is* the secret to productivity? How do you folk manage to churn out so many novels, playlets, poem cycles, and above all blogposts, while I can barely find enough time to tweet? I read all the productivity articles on Lifehacker, I continually review the task management software I’m using (ANY.DO recently switched from Astrid), and still – can’t find the time.

Ahh. There it is!

Reading about productivity is not the same as being productive, just as watching TED talks doesn’t automagically turn you into an iconoclastic innovator. These things are useful, but only in moderation. Like salt, say, or driving lessons.

Also, I saw this RT’d gem from Nora Ephron fly by today. “You don’t find time to write. You make time.”

There’s not much I can add to that. My job is busy, sure, but that’s hardly unique. I’ve got the advantages of a negligible commute and few serious commitments outside of work competing for my time.

A month away from blogging? A backlog on 96 Girls and other projects losing momentum or gathering dust? What the fuck is my excuse?

The 96 Girls deadline still stands. But I also need to keep blogging, and to chip away at the other short stories on which I’ve made passable starts. And if I miss that deadline, I pledge to slam my head repeatedly into the desk until I’ve learned my lesson, or blood starts trickling from my head openings, whichever comes first.