A new hope

I get back on the horse - start blogging again - by talking about some of the ways in which I've encouraged myself to write again, and some of the Gremlins that have been stopping me from doing so in the first place.

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A long time ago, in a text editor far, far away, I started blogging in the typical way:

First post!!!1!

I recently unearthed a Subversion repository – with content originally source controlled by RCS – which had a “reboot” blog post from 2002. Over the past decade or so, blogging has performed various roles for me. Often, it’s been a way to keep up with family & friends. Sometimes, it’s been a way to share neat things I’ve learned through work and play. Occasionally it’s just been about sharing what I’ve been reading, watching or listening to. More than once, it’s even been a way for me to reach out when I didn’t feel able to talk to people.

But it has always been about writing. I don’t pretend to be any good at writing (though my story of getting lost in Marks & Spencer was well regarded by my first year high school teacher), but I do rather enjoy it. I think I have a distinctive voice in my writing and, when that shines through, I even enjoy reading what I’ve previously written. I like to think it reflects my personality accurately.

Then I stopped writing regularly. I’d like to say I blame Twitter and Facebook and there’s an element of truth to that. They certainly took over the role of keeping up with friends and family. I also started doing more consulting work which was “commercially sensitive” (in other words, I had to sign an NDA) so it was trickier to talk about some of the things I’d been learning through work. The eventual reason is more insidious, but we’ll come to that.

Morning Pages to the Rescue

Lately, I’ve taken to writing Morning Pages, where, first thing in the morning (before making coffee, showering, having breakfast or talking to the kids), I sit down and write three pages of A4. It’s pure stream of consciousness. In my case, it’s often what I was thinking about when I woke up, or what I’m planning to do that day, or what I did yesterday or just generally what’s on my mind. Of course, it’s not quite that straightforward. In reality, I’ve been doing Morning Pages like most development teams do XP (picking and choosing the bits of the routine that suit, discarding the whole and losing the benefit):

  • I don’t always get around to doing them first thing in the morning (whoever came up with the idea never had young kids or hangovers, and certainly not both!); and

  • I don’t get around to them every day (weekends are particularly tricky as the morning routine is less well defined).

I first discovered the concept of Morning Pages in 2011, when I first read Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. At that point, I sought out a technical solution and found it in the form of 750words.com. It’s a great idea: not only am I able to make a public commitment to keeping up with those 750 words each day (which is about three pages of A4), but it analyses what I write, and gives me useful feedback on what my writing might say about my current psyche. Am I an uncertain introvert who’s mostly worried about food and drink? (Mostly, yes.) I also notice the exception days (“OMG I was extroverting today!”) and get a bit of a buzz from that.

Lately, though, I’ve taken a different tack. I’m hand writing my Morning Pages – and first drafts of most other things, too. My average pace for banging out 750 words at the computer is about 17 minutes, or about 45 words per minute. Which doesn’t leave a lot of time for thinking between keystrokes. Contrast that with handwriting, where I’ll be lucky to manage 15 words per minute. (I’ve no idea if that’s a good or a bad pace, but I can say that I’ve barely used a pen in the past 20 years, so my writing hands have atrophied somewhat!)

Now my Morning Pages takes about an hour, but in that time, my brain has the space to think. At least, reviewing recent days, it seems to start focusing on the more “interesting” topics in fewer words than before. Perhaps it gets bored of the daily mundanity of me scratching out “this is what I did yesterday” too. (With the L-Mode and R-Mode thinking discussion from Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, I suspect there’s a grain of truth to that.)


So, if I enjoy writing so much and, by some accounts, I do have useful knowledge to share, why am I not out-blogging John Gruber?

I honestly believe that I am not good enough to write stuff and publish it on the wide world of the Internet. I believe that what I do write is factually incorrect. I believe that anything I could contribute has been done before (“duh, that’s obvious”). I believe that somebody smarter than me should be writing this stuff with real authority. I believe my form of expression is so verbose and elaborate and silly that I fail to get across what I’m trying to say in the first place.

Or worse. The worst thing ever. I’ll be completely ignored. Nobody will even bother to read it, because who cares? Nobody. I’m so utterly unimportant and insignificant that I’m not even being ridiculed for this nonsense because I’m not even interesting enough to ridicule.

And that – not Twitter’s pithy 140 characters of which I’ve become so fond – is why my blogging atrophied. I’m frightened of sharing what I think and what I know and what I’m passionate about because I feel I’m not good enough and nobody wants to read this nonsense anyway.

These are two of the Gremlins I live with. Blogging is a pertinent example, but they strongly influence every aspects of my life: my work, my career, relationships with other people (my wife, friends, family, even my children) and my self esteem.

These gremlins are curious creatures. They live in that bit of the brain we inherited from our reptilian ancestors, well below the mammalian brain. In principle, they can’t express themselves directly – they’re better at controlling those fight-or-flight reflexes – but that certainly doesn’t stop them invading my speech and rational thought. “Gremlin” is just the right word to describe the wee buggers, too – I often visualise mine as being like Spike from the original film.

Sometimes, when they’re being particularly pernicious, they’re difficult to spot. That’s where the real danger lies. If I don’t see them, I naturally assume I own these thoughts, and that they’re valid and correct. It’s only days later – often with somebody else’s perspective – that I can spot the gremlin’s influence.

Simply Notice

That’s where I’m at just now; trying to “simply notice” when these gremlins are influencing my thoughts. Just noticing them is sometimes enough to regain control. The next stage is to start playing with different options for dealing with them, but that’s the subject of another article. For now I’m playing with the option of blogging about them. I’m telling those gremlins, “Screw you, you’re wrong. I’m OK.”

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