On the Merits of Rough Edges

Cory Doctorow has written a much-linked article for Locus magazine on the topic of Writing in the Age of Distraction. (Cory’s advice has also been touted by Drawn! magazine as equally good for visual artists.) He recommends, among other things, stopping before you feel done:

When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day’s knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the “hint.” Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it’s hard to build on a smooth edge.

On the software engineering side: Kent Beck’s excellent book Test Driven Development: By Example makes the recommendation to “stop on red” – that is, to cease work for the day with your code in a known broken state, failing a test.

It’s a characteristic of my work habits that I generally feel the urge to tie up what I’m working on. This goes for software, where I have a lot of trouble walking away from a piece of code that doesn’t compile and behave as expected, and for fiction and screenwriting, where I always have the urge to finish a scene, transcribe all my notes, or otherwise exhaust myself and my creative urge before I walk away.

This habit may allow me to squeeze a little more productivity out of the day, but these neat packages are not always so pretty in the morning: When there isn’t a place where I must pick up the thread, I’m left with choices, which usually means going to a list somewhere, and that list generally presents itself as the Monstrous Wall of Shit to Do, and I usually haven’t gotten through my first coffee yet, and I will generally decide that I’d better get through my email and catch up on Twitter before I attack the MWoStD. A whole morning can get lost that way, and good luck building momentum for the afternoon.

There may be something here for me. Certainly, it’s a good sign that the “rough edge/stop on red” concept crosses disciplines so easily, and is espoused by smart people in multiple fields. It is also interestingly tangential to the notion of wabi-sabi, which holds that since all things are imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, it is allowable and even desirable that our creative acts embrace this.

So, tonight I’m going to break some shit, and hope that meditation on wabi-sabi will keep me from gnashing my teeth all night. And hopefully it won’t be long before I accumulate enough mornings hitting the ground running that walking away from broken work seems normal and sane.

Refocusing

As you may have guessed from my last entry, this is heading in the direction of a personal blog again. I’m going to save most or all of my technical writing for the Kickass Labs blog (case in point: my recent Hadoop Streaming Tutorial). This has to do with the fact that much of my after-hours unsupervised play time is spent on tech projects with the KAL cabal, and if I’m going to spend the effort to write blog entries on advanced technical topics like distributed computing, I’d like to leverage it to raise the profile of the whole group.

So, look for more personal stuff here, along with pointers to my technical content on KAL.

Word for the Year

Almost 20 years ago, I made my last New Year’s resolution.  In true geek fashion, it was actually a meta-resolution, and it was that I would make no more resolutions.  They’re always a bunch of stuff you feel like you “should” do, tied to an arbirtrary calendar date, with no practical impetus or emotional drive behind them.  They fail almost universally, because if the people (and I’m no exception) making the resolutions cared, they’d have done what they wanted when they wanted to, rather than trying to talk themselves into doing things they “should” at the same time as everyone else.

I’m a bit bored with most Internet memes, too.  ‘Nuff said.

That makes this post weird. I’ve latched onto one of the memes floating around Twitter (and I’m sure elsewhere): The “Word of the Year”. People are picking a word (in most cases a verb) to focus their behavior in the coming year.

This meme passed in front of me just as I happened to have a few days off and was using it to organize the monstrous pile of projects I try to advance and maintain. I was already coming to some insights about my need for focus and direction. Even more, I was noticing that my pile of projects tends to grow, and I take very few away for any reason, whether that’s the completion of the project or deciding that there are better ways to spend my time.

So I kicked around a few ideas for a verb to focus on. One of the better ones was “release”. That can mean to release – to let go of – a project that doesn’t deserve my attention anymore, or that I’m just not going to get around to. That’s a focus I’m trying to achieve – for example, I’ll save $100 this year on not renewing domain names for projects I’ve decided I’m not going to pursue because their potential return is small in relation to the effort, or because I just won’t learn much from them.

In my work, “release” also carries another meaning – to release a piece of software is to turn it over to your users. (If you’ve never written software, you have no idea of the hubris implied in this act, by the way.) The fact that “release” can thus mean both adding and taking away makes it a compact and potent – almost poetic – verb to focus on. It’s still missing something, though – for example, it my current push to complete the Hundred Pushups program, what am I releasing?

So “release” doesn’t cover all my goals and projects, but the connotation of software release starts me down another path of thought, which is that in organizing and pursuing my work over the past couple of years, I’ve given myself credit for advancing projects, even in small ways. This is good, but when you have a lot of projects, this can lead to advancing many of them and completing none of them. (I shouldn’t say none, if I’m being specific about myself – I completed two sites with my pals at Kickass Labs, and released two of my own, including the self-sustaining GuitarCardio.com, of which I am probably inordinately proud.)

During this fit of organization, I’ve come to realize that I need to move from advancement to accomplishment. I need to complete projects, or drop them. I need to stop nudging things forward on my desktop, and launch them into the wider world.

So, my verb is “finish”.

It is, in a sense, a little morbid. A finished thing is done, dead, no more. There’s nothing else to do with it. This fits for some things, like a project I drop because I don’t see the return in it, or a one-off thing that I complete and never look at again.

It is, in another sense, deceptive. Software is never finished. (People just stop paying for it.) Nor, for that matter, are screenplays. Ditto paintings. There’s always something to add, something to optimize, some other tweak to make. But a software release can be finished, and launched, and hopefully be consumed greedily. A screenplay draft can be bound and sent to agents. Nothing is ever done, but it can be made ready.

So “finish” is kind of a squirrelly word, and doesn’t feel like it perfectly fits everything I do – but as a mantra to assist that shift in focus from advancing my projects to taking them over the line, I suspect it will do well. The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao anyway, but I think “finish” might be the tangent to the Tao that I need right now.