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.