My cure for writer’s block

Nothing fancy. Beer, lots of it. That and bum on seat – fingers on keyboard.

More seriously, it’s a crisis of self-doubt and/or self-pity. The ultimate blue funk. I’ll often try to edit part of my work. If my brain’s in edit mode rather than create mode that often assuages it. I’ll write an outline rather than details. I’ll sometimes put the project away and look at another one. Sometimes the block is telling me “this is rubbish” and it takes distance to see why.

If all else fails, I go for a walk or boat or play my guitar. The later often transfers the block to those around me, so it’s a last resort.

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Sort of appropriate, these days and this time.

1 Corinthians 13:4–7
Love is patient and is kind. Love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud, doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil; doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things

A Man Said to the Universe

Stephen Crane, 1871 – 1900

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

My 5 top books & why #LifeBooksWriting

Five books, Only five books? Only five books!

The most difficult part of this is picking out only five books.

  1. Roughing it – Mark Twain

This is Twain’s first real book. By the time it was published he’d written newspaper copy, become a well known spoken humorist, and published a number of short pieces of humour. He was a newspaper correspondent at the time. It describes his journey from an ex-confederate guerrilla (barely mentioned) to a successful speaker on the verge of a successful career. His gift for dialog and digression is just starting to strut its stuff. The pacing is a little slow for modern audiences, and there are a lot of horse jokes that don’t make much sense today, but it’s a great book. It’s also my favourite book to take backpacking because it withstands many re-readings under an led headlamp.

  1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

This is nearly the perfect novel. Anyone who has any pretense of writing regency romance had better be familiar with it. I could have put in a Georgette Heyer novel, but Austen’s characters are much deeper and her ear for dialog much stronger.

  1. The Forever War – Joe Hadleman

I met this book at college as an undergraduate. It’s innovative, anti-war and treats the effects of relativity in a more realistic manner than most. I also remember it because the good friend who showed it to me was run over while bicycling by a drunk shortly afterwards.

  1. The Blessing Way – Tony Hillerman

I could have picked any of his works. Their cultural sensitivity is fantastic, and they describe New Mexico to a ‘T.’ As an author, he was especially skilled at building a sense of menace and evil with tiny little hints as the story progresses.

  1. The C Programming Language – Kernighan and Ritchie

Sorry about this, but this book set me on the path from experimentalist to computer scientist. I bought myself a copy of the first printing of the first edition and dedicated my birthday to learning the language. The idea of using structs (an ancestor of objects) to extend the language suckered me into software engineering and almost literally made me what I am today.

Night Fell

Florence Ripley Mastin

Night fell one year ago, like this.
He had been writing steadily.
Among these dusky walls of books,
How bright he looked, intense as flame!
Suddenly he paused,
The firelight in his hair,
And said, “The time has come to go.”
I took his hand;
We watched the logs burn out;
The apple boughs fingered the window;
Down the cool, spring night
A slim, white moon leaned to the hill.
To-night the trees are budded white,
And the same pale moon slips through the dusk.
O little buds, tap-tapping on the pane,
O white moon,
I wonder if he sleeps in woods
Where there are leaves?
Or if he lies in some black trench,
His hands, his kind hands, kindling flame that kills?
Or if, or if …
He is here now, to bid me last good-night?

This poem was written during the American involvement in WW1.(1918).

A Day in My Life #lifebookswriting

Let’s see, a typical day. That’s actually hard because there are seldom typical days.

So here goes:

5-7 am. Wake up. Actually my wife wakes up first, usually. I let her have the first shower and either read or check email. If I’m teaching undergraduates, there’s always something from a student. Usually along the lines of “I’ve just started this homework at 11:45” They’ve had it for two weeks, “and can you extend the deadline past 12?”  I never check my work email during the evening when there’s a class. It only encourages them. Mind you, if it’s something substantial, I answer it.

She’s done, out walking the dog and training our cats. So it’s time for my morning ablutions. Before they went to uni, this was when I’d wake our boys. Wake them for the first time, that is. Now I just shower.

Breakfast: For someone who occasionally posts dashed good recipes, I keep it simple. A quesadilla; tortilla on griddle, hot sauce on tortilla, cheese on hot sauce, fold, and brown both sides. Mexican soul food. Did I mention I’m as anglo as they come? By now the tea is cool, but that’s fine.

Then I write and do author stuff. I’m usually sitting at the end of the table across from my wife, and she’s doing much the same. Atlanta traffic is ferocious.  If you can, and we often can, it’s best to wait it out. If I leave at 8, I’ll get in at 10. If I leave at 9 I’ll get in at 10. If I leave at 9:45, I’ll get in at 10. The car seats aren’t that comfortable.

Then it’s research, right now really difficult optimization problems – large systems of simultaneous transcendental equations (If you get that you’re good), or machine learning. We’re looking at faster ways to do Boltzmann machines. That Stat. mech. I took as an undergraduate in the dark ages still comes in useful.

This is often the truly fun part of being a professor. Working with the PhD students and teaching them how to formulate – then answer problems. Undergraduates are the next most fun, but they’re a little clueless. That can get frustrating. The rest, administration trolls and arbitrary power struggles over trivial things; well that can take a hike.

Usually, lunch at my wife’s office. She’s also a professor. Then after more work, the drive home.

Atlanta traffic comes into it’s full power in the afternoon. Between 3 and 6, it’s a parking lot. So we go the back way. Still an hour on the road, but at least you’re moving. We follow the line of march from Sherman’s army on the way home. There’s nothing wrong with the South that a visit from William Tecumseh Sherman couldn’t fix.

Then it’s a couple hours more writing, usually a mixture of work and fiction. Always with a pot of tea. Unless the trolls have been active; then it’s a beer.  Since we’ve had children, I’ve usually done the cooking (my wife nursed the kids when they were infants), and she’s done the cleanup (I played with and changed them). That division of labor has survived school, scouts and university. Before then we used to swap. Dinner, walk the dog, and in the immortal words of Pepys “off to bed.”

Patience Taught by Nature #fridayread #fridaypoem

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806 – 1861

“O Dreary life!” we cry, “O dreary life!”
And still the generations of the birds
Sing through our sighing, and the flocks and herds
Serenely live while we are keeping strife
With Heaven’s true purpose in us, as a knife
Against which we may struggle. Ocean girds
Unslackened the dry land: savannah-swards
Unweary sweep: hills watch, unworn; and rife
Meek leaves drop yearly from the forest-trees,
To show, above, the unwasted stars that pass
In their old glory. O thou God of old!
Grant me some smaller grace than comes to these;—
But so much patience, as a blade of grass
Grows by contented through the heat and cold.

Windy Tybee Island Beach.
Windy Tybee Island Beach.