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witching hour writer patterns
channelling late night energies doesn't always go well for me, but I can't seem to help doing it
I’ve been spending a bunch of time lately just thinking. Just existing. I wake up, scroll through twitter, reply to my friends, think out loud about some things for a bit. I look through my notes, try and write some things, find myself vaguely dissatisfied, abandon the drafts. From time to time I revisit the abandoned drafts, shuffle the bits around, extract whatever feels like I might want to reuse. I have lunch and dinner with my wife, we go for walks, talk about whatever we’ve been reading, seeing, thinking about. Repeat. These are the primary patterns that constitute my life.
I could say that I love them, which I do. I could say that sometimes they kinda bore me, which is also true. What I really want to do is to inhabit them more fully, more consciously, with more aliveness. I don’t just want to live in a soulless, mechanical autopilot state, I want my ordinary life to feel like it’s bursting with color and light. I know it’s possible. At least some of the time.
There’s a Christopher Alexander quote from The Timeless Way Of Building (1979) about this that I’ve revisited several times over the years:
“If I consider my life honestly, I see that it is governed by a very small number of pattern of events which I take part in over and over again.
Being in bed, having a shower, having breakfast in the kitchen, sitting in my study writing, walking in the garden, cooking and eating our common lunch at my office with my friends, going to the movies, taking my family to eat at a restaurant, going to bed again. There are a few more.
There are surprisingly few of these patterns of events in any one person’s way of life, perhaps no more than a dozen. Look at your own life and you will find the same. It is shocking at first, to see that there are so few patterns of events open to me.
Not that I want more of them. But when I see how few of them there are, I begin to understand what huge effects these few patterns have on my life, on my capacity to live. If these few patterns are good for me, I can live well. If they are bad for me, I can’t.”
So true! So the question for me to reflect on is, what are my patterns, when are they good, and when are they bad?
“Visa wakes up in the middle of the night to do some writing” is one of the small pattern of events which I take part in over and over again. I anticipate that there’s a good chance that I’ll probably do this for the rest of my life. I remember doing it when I was a teenager. It’s very much a part of who I am.
Why do I bring this up? Uh. Well. One thing I’ve noted is that historically, these late night writing sessions don’t always go so well. I tend to underestimate how much mental clarity I have during these sessions. I start out feeling well-rested, but it’s a bit of an illusion – I get tired much quicker than during the day. I think I usually have maybe about 3 hours of alertness, if I’m lucky. I woke up sometime around midnight, lounged in bed for another hour, and got out at about 130am. It’s now 3am. So I have maybe another 1.5 hours left.The “bad ending” of this session, if I manage it poorly, will be that I open too many tabs, spiral in too many directions, and get exhausted by 5am, and then worse, continue to try to make something all the way until 7am, sometimes 8 or 9 or 10am. Sometimes I’ve dragged myself back to bed at 11am – maybe after a shower and breakfast – and then I sleep a frustrated sleep until 4pm, 5pm before “a new day” starts for me.
It’s weird, I know. Probably not very healthy. But that’s the bad version. Sometimes there’s a good version. Some of the best twitter threads I’ve ever written, were written during these witching hours of ~1am to 4am. And some of those twitter threads have gone on to become foundational, load-bearing material in my body of work. Which is to say that this is kind of how I make a living. This is my vocation. These are the patterns that constitute my work. I suppose the reason I bring it up as, first just to think out loud about it, and second to wonder if I could do better.
What would doing better look like?
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Well, for one, avoiding the failure outcome. One thing that would bring me more peace is if I could accept when the sun has risen and I’m not going to publish anything. The worst is when I stall from 7am to 11am, getting nothing done, just burning my eyes out staring at my screens. Why do I do it? At that point, I’m running on emotions, and not thinking clearly. There’s a kind of unhelpful desperation in that stage, the “no no I can still keep going” delusion. As I think about it I feel a bit of sadness, like one of those movie scenes where you watch someone who’s beaten up in a fight and clearly can’t win, still get up and try again. I over-romanticize that, I think. A part of me hopes that that sort of behavior will be rewarded. I think the reality is not as romantic as our fiction. The move that actually leads to winning in the long term is recognizing, “alright, the window of opportunity has closed, the best thing I can do now is call it a day, rest, and do better tomorrow.”
That avoids the worst case scenario, but is still less than ideal. What would be ideal is if I actually publish something. So I get to ask myself: what is it that makes me actually publish something?I’m slowly getting a clearer picture about this.
For starters, (1) I like my essays to have at least one interesting thing in them. It might be an insight, a way of seeing, something that gives me a “crackle-boom” feeling, something surprising. One of my goals in my writing is to surprise myself. It keeps me interested, entertained, focused.
What’s interesting about this particular essay? I’m getting to it: I think I’m trying to find an overlap between “Visa talks about big-picture things – culture, media, society, and so on” – and “Visa writes to solve his own problems”. I feel like I would be dissatisfied if I were to write only about one thing or the other. (And here we get back to a recurring theme, the tagline of the Substack itself: in this house we surf all the channels at once.)
I have an old tweet about “the existence stack” that I enjoyed rediscovering:
Imagine everything as a kind of great tree. When you start writing, you always start somewhere in the middle. This is inescapable. Everything happens within some context. That’s fine. But what is interesting about really good writing, in my view, is that by touching on a bit of a branch, a bit of the trunk, a bit of some leaves… if you do it properly, you imply the entire tree.
This is what I feel Blake was gesturing at in Auguries of Innocence (1803):
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Which brings me to (2) another thing I like to do in my essays, and in my writing more generally: I like to quote people. I consider this to be “intertwingling work”, intertwingling itself a concept coined by Ted Nelson “to express the complexities of interrelations in human knowledge”.
Part of it is that I want to share my favorite ideas with my readers. I want my body of work to function as a great introduction to other great works by other people. Part of it is that deliberately intertwingling other people’s ideas with my own, help me contextualize my ideas. They make my essays somehow more useful to me, in ways I can’t entirely explain. It gives contexts to things. Jumping-off points. Points from which we can cultivate more shared understandings.
Let’s recap what I’ve done here so far. I wrote about my late-night writing process. I thought out loud about how sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and wondered about how I might be able to make it work more often. I quoted Christopher Alexander, William Blake, Ted Nelson, and one of my own old tweets. Also I’ve written a few phrases that are pointers to future essays – I want to do one titled Shared Understandings. Scanning the above writing, I see several opportunities to dive deeper into things. But I don’t think I have the time or energy to do that in this particular essay. And that’s… fine? Not every single one of my essays needs to do everything that I want my best essays to do, and certainly not in a span of ~2 hours worth of effort.
I think I want to circle back to the idea about solving my own problems. It’s been strange to me to observe how I feel about it. It seems like a part of me feels that “solving my own problems” is a selfish(?!) thing to do. That’s so silly once stated out loud, but that’s the thing about such feelings: until you articulate them, they feel powerful and even overwhelming. Once you’ve articulate them, you can walk around them, poke at them, and ask them what they’re really about. And it often turns out that they’re needlessly grandiose, usually because of old emotional meanings. Things that were a big deal when you were a child can still feel like a big deal now, if you haven’t yet taken the time to revisit and update your feelings. The feelings aren’t invalid, they’re outdated and need some love to be updated. As I write this out loud I have to giggle a little bit as I see the similarity between updating one’s feelings, and updating one’s website.
Over the long run – over the next 100 essays, lets say – I want to get around to doing some bigger, more ambitious things. Last night the phrase “cultural jank” came to me while writing a tweet, and it struck me as something that I could maybe make a decent little dent in. I’d define “jank” as something that’s needlessly tedious, complex, overwrought, that could be simplified with a bit of work. In computer nerd terms we might call it a kind of “technical debt”. I want to talk about sociocultural technical debt, provide people with words, ideas, phrases that help them cut through it. I’d argue that this is what I’ve already been doing for years on Twitter, and it’s part of why people have rewarded me with follows and ebook sales and status. Good writing is enriching and clarifying. George Orwell wrote eloquently in 1946 about how bad writing can catalyze bad thinking, here’s my 2016 rewrite of that essay. I anticipate that a lot of what I will be doing with the Voltaic substack is remixing some of my favorite writers like Orwell, Bertrand Russell, Emerson, McLuhan and so on – part of it will be about translating their ideas for a modern audience, and the more ambitious part of it will be to try and build on what they’ve done. I think it’s possible. But it will take a while for me to find my footing, and the only way to get there is by writing more.
I’m running out of steam, but I want to finish this. Let’s articulate some possible trajectories from here. I could write more essays like this one. I don’t really want to. I don’t think I would be satisfied if I did many more of these and nothing else. Essays like these feel like metacommentary on my own creative process, and I’d like that to max out at maybe 7-8% of my essays. I definitely don’t want it to be 0% – I don’t want to talk about other people’s problems without at least sometimes simultaneously talking about my own. I do want to ground my writing in my own experience. I would like the world to be a more creative, serendipitous, joyful, earnest, nerdy place. I would like to personally embody the ideals that I want to present to the world.
That said, I have some loftier goals, which I have written about in some abandoned drafts but haven’t really done a great job of articulating for my readers. I don’t always want to begin and/or conclude with my own experience. I want to experiment and try talking about different things in different ways. Some writing-paths are easier than others. The most lucrative ones aren’t always the easiest – although sometimes they are. I think the funniest and most interesting thing is how I can’t really predict what I’ll write about next. Whenever I try to predict what I'll write tomorrow, I'm basically always wrong (re: tomorrow), but I'm basically always right that I'll write about it within, say, the next 5 years.
This is the closing paragraph.It’s now 636am, which is both later and earlier than I had hoped. I was hoping to be done by 430am, and when I wrote “430am” I was really thinking 4am. But another part of me worried that the sun would come up and I wouldn’t be done. The sun isn’t up yet! So that’s a victory. I can now shower and go to bed in peace. Today, dear reader, I succeeded where I often fail. This was a triumph. A small triumph. But that’s all I need. Several more small triumphs and I think I will be in a very, very good place.
One of my abandoned drafts is a 5 paragraph micro-essay that is now a blogpost titled /my-creative-process/. I conclude with, “all of this is a game that I am playing with myself. when I play it well, it is absolutely exhilarating.”
I’m feeling pretty confident that this post will get finished, that I will publish it maybe at about 430am, and then I’ll go back to bed, happy, satisfied and eager to rest…. OK so inexplicably-ish I decided to spend something like 30 minutes going through a couple of old twitter lists, copying out some info and deleting them. The explanation is… I was feeling wistful. Anyway now it’s 4am and I have 30 minutes of alertness left. I can feel it slipping. I now feel some desperation to reread this essay and tidy it up and finish it. Desperation is not a great sign, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. It would annoy me to have to call it a day without finishing, but it would annoy me worse to waste several more hours.
I have some abandoned drafts on this too, and at this point I wonder if there’s even any point to saying “I have some abandoned drafts on this” because I have abandoned drafts on everything. I suppose it’s to help me identify when I’m on to something that I think I probably haven’t written about yet. Past experience tells me that economy of words and expression here come from volume. I’m a little rusty when it comes to writing essays. I shouldn’t worry too much about optimizing for economy yet, I should just write whatever feels natural and trust that the economy will come with iteration.)
I’ve also been wanting to talk more about how “good reply game” applies to more than just Twitter, or face-to-face conversations, but to anything responding to anything else. I’ve come to believe that a good note-taking system is one where notes “reply to each other”, reference each other, relate to each other.
I could scroll back up and try to insert headers to break up the writing more, but I think I’m going to skip that this time. I haven’t actually come up with a title for this post yet. Probably something about patterns. “Investigating patterns” is a bit broader than I’d like. “Late night writing” also feels vague, and kinda moody– and this wasn’t a very moody piece. If I were to spend another hour or so on this piece, I might pick a nice title and then do a little rewriting throughout to match the mood. “Troubleshooting patterns” maybe? I gotta pick a cover photo… I have a Pinterest board to choose (and find) ideas from. Let me do that real quick… Alright, glitchy exit sign. Done!