What I Learned Writing Every. Stinking. Day for A Year

A Doc and The Beast in writing repose.

Okay, Loyal Reader. It is day 366–why didn’t anyone tell me that I chose a long year for my quest?–the end of the line.

Quick recap, my 2016 New Year’s Resolution was to write and publish a blog post every (single. stinking.) day for the entire year. I allotted myself no excuses, no blackout days and no get out of jail free cards. I (wisely) made no resolve about quality. It was a production resolution. Daily production, irrespective of word counts or topic areas.

One year later, the results are in. Since January 1, 2016, I published 358 posts, filling in 98% of the year. Per my weak platform-provided analytics, 5,800 visitors read 9,500 pages. The Onion and Vox must be shaking in their boots and looking over their shoulders with competitive concern </sacrcasm>.

But, so what? To what end? In thinking about it–since that’s what I do–I found that this challenge provided a plethora of lessons. I’m breaking down my learnings into four categories: doing, creating, sharing, growing.

Doing: What I learned about process

Publishing every. stinking. day requires alot of process. The ideation process is accelerated to grab any straw of an idea. This sounds harder, and while sometimes it was harder, there were thousands of prompts in front of me all of the time. It’s in the recognition of them. No idea is too weak. I saw dust particles in the sunshine and wrote a post. The comfort of warm blankets was good for a few hundred words as was the initial warm breaths of spring.

I wrote about people I saw walking down the street, making up stories about the man with the cake, the woman in orange, the tuba players, the equine fanciers. Pop and politics were occasionally fertile, but I didn’t want to write “me-too” posts so these were sometimes more challenging.

After a few months I came up with a set of categories to help me understand what I wrote about–it provided a structure that I could pop thinkings into and speed them ahead. 

I had a running notepad of ideas and fragments that I’d mine and I occasionally found an almost completed post, I wrote about that here. Using the notepad was clutch when writing on the subway.

Two more process learnings. 

First, photo editing takes a lot of time. Alot. Speaking of time, if I was very conservative I spent 90 minutes per post (and I know that it was not unusual from start to finish to spend a few hours), I spent weeks writing this year.  

Second, I am so friggin’ lucky for the support of The Spouse. The Spouse would look at me furiously typing and say, “I got dinner,” or “Are you having luck on your post?” and never a disparaging remark about my daily (and frequently nightly) embrace of my keyboard. Total, unequivocal support. That’s how shit happens. 

Creating: What I learned about writing

Writing. Wow. I guess after the more than the one-hundred thousand words that I shared this year, I can call myself a writer. I started to think of myself as a writer after a few weeks. I started thinking about writing itself and in a few more I was thinking about how I wrote.

I enjoyed putting together a post with a clever title–many times I rewrote the title, and I often hoped that you, Loyal Reader, would get my little references in the title. Or in the photo. Or, for those of you who look at code, in the alt-text describing the photo. The post is more than the words and sentences and paragraphs. It’s the wrapper, too.

I would often fight with my inner editor. The editor who knows exactly what a complete sentence looks like. The editor who questions the use of dashes over commas. The editor that battles the writer who might be striving for a specific rhythm or an irregularity in syntax. The hubris of the author can cause confusion for the reader. Or so says The Editor. It’s like my personal version of The Narrator and Tyler Durden.

Most importantly, I learned that my writing takes its own course. Everyone writes differently, and I didn’t know how I wrote. 

Thinking about it, I found that I get an idea, and it drags me along. I realized that I wrote an allegory after I reread it. Sometimes I start with an allegory, but the story takes its own shape. 

I can’t know how a post is going to end until it actually ends. There is no master plan. It’s organic. And, so sometimes, it stinks.

I can get things out of order, because the stream of words switchback and I write something else. So I’ll move a paragraph around. 

Less frequently, I’ll find a few paragraphs at the end that don’t belong. I added something in the middle that diverged from where I was going. I have deleted thousands of words that belonged in a different post, for a different time or a different mood. When a post is done, it’s done. If it needs more it nags me until it’s satisfied that it’s complete.

I know I am the writer. I really do. But I know, too, that what I’m writing is more revealed than reasoned. 

I own it. It’s from me.

Sharing: What I learned about you, my Loyal Reader

Oh, Loyal Reader, you have been a great teacher, too. Sometimes you tell me directly and sometimes I infer.

Bottom line, it’s really is all about you. I mean that in a good way. 

I have learned what you care about, which is humanity and making connections. You like my vignettes much more than I do. You infuse them with life and invest your hearts in my made up characters. I love you for that.

You also really care the most about personal things. Things that really happened. You have given me much love and support, and have turned sometimes to me for support. I like that. We’re here for each other.

Growing: What I learned about me

I realized that being authentic was more important to me than showing off. Showing off is publishing every day and doing what I said, even if I was cheating by posting twice in one day and backdating. 

After a few months in, I decided that missing a day or two (or eight) was better than faking it. I confessed to you, my Loyal Reader, and you, as is your way, didn’t care. Or forgave me. It’s okay either way.

I always said that I was undisciplined. Lazy. Couldn’t stick to anything. But after writing hundreds of posts, writing every day and sometimes forcing myself to hit publish, I can’t say that that is true.I guess this project never bored me. 

Sorry if I bored you.

Finally, and I am really almost done, I learned that I want people to read my work. I would obsessively look at how many people looked at a post, lapping up any likes, and super proud when an editor featured my post.

But, the other thing is, ultimately, I don’t care. I wrote for months before I started telling people my resolution. I wrote every day. And you didn’t know. 

I say that I write for you, my Loyal Reader, but that is a lie. I write for me. Because I am a writer. That’s what I most really and definitely learned.

That’s The Lessons Folks

Phew. I did it. I am proud. And I am taking a little break. Let me know what you think. And I’ll be thinking and sharing and writing more in the New Year!

xoxo
Doc Think

Uniform-ity

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I had a friend in college who had a dilemma. She was in charge of the placement of students in her progressive non-profit. It was part of a great program where students could earn a real college credit by doing real work for real student orgs.

One of the people my progressive friend interviewed was really excited about the work, had some relevant experience and a lot of energy. The problem? She was wearing a pink, crew neck, shetland sweater monogrammed with her initials and, even if not actually wearing a string of pearls, she sure seemed to be. She was preppy or, at least, she looked it.

We fighters for right derided the fraternities and sororities. They were experiencing a resurgence after a decade of withering at a very progressive campus. Folks working on economic and environmental justice, consumer choice and fairness literally had nothing to do with the Greeks on the hill. We didn’t go to the same parties. Didn’t hang at the same bars. Ate from different troughs. I’m sure that they were in some of our classes, but there was an unspoken demarcation in the classroom. Defined by their uniforms.

So the preppy young woman didn’t belong in our organizations. And my friend, from an eastern boarding school background, was torn. She wondered if Pinkie was worth the risk. I remember looking down at myself. Plaid flannel shirt, worn Levi’s and hiking boots with fat lugged soles. My friend had the same garb. Men and women on the reformist left, all wearing the same uniform.

What we wear, our hair, jewelry and makeup choices, is part of our identity and part of our communities. It can help us find other members of our tribe. And it can also shut us out from others who we don’t recognize, or worse, folks we assume we won’t like.

There was a discussion spawned by a piece that Barnard College president, Debora Spar, wrote in the NYTimes about her tribe,

a particular subset of the city’s elite — the powerful women of a certain age, mostly from the news media and politics. The men wore Hermès ties and as much hair as they could muster. The women were uniformly thin and dressed in short dresses, usually black. A Clinton was spotted and appropriately fawned over…”Every…woman there was over 60 and yet there wasn’t a wrinkle to be found. They all looked great, but so similar!”

Spar writes how she fights with herself to be herself and not fall into the trap of chasing youth through hair colouring, botox, nips and tucks. The discussion part included women who belong to a different tribe, like this 72-year-old retired pediatrician,

I don’t know what circles she moves in, but the wonderful, talented women that I know and work with do NOT go in for tummy tucks and Botox. A few colored their hair for a while (I did not), but most have realized that hair with no gray looks pretty silly on someone with significant wrinkles.

It is clear that Dr. Retired does not know Spar’s circles. She clearly moves in another. And is quick to judge from her spiral of natural hair. I bet some in those NY elite circles would think her frumpy or wonder why a woman of her caliber just let herself go.

Another commenter, Ms. Seventy from near Harvard, actually nails the issue, albeit backwards and inadvertently.

Ms. Spar’s is a problem, perhaps, for folks who go to white wine kiss-kiss parties. For many of the rest of us, age brings a welcome opportunity to opt out of the youth-oriented, body-perfection vision of beauty. When I go to the theater in Santa Monica, Calif., I’m the only woman of my age with gray hair. In Cambridge, Mass., at 70, I look pretty much like the rest of my age mates.

Yes, Ms. Seventy, you are correct. As you note, there are different tribes and different standards. But then you go and get all judgey, too. Lemme ask you this, why do you think that looking the way that YOU want to look is better than how your buddies in Santa Monica or Spar’s elite NYC colleagues want to look?

It’s just different.  Go ahead, wear your uniform with pride, but don’t deride the other team’s.

And for those of you who got this far and were wondering, whatever happened to Pinkie? My smart friend selected her. Pinkie turned out to be a most excellent contributor to the cause and a recruiter for others in her home tribe. She taught us all. A lot.

Zero to Infinity

Plymouth Satellite Sebring parked on an idyllic suburban street.

My Older Sib cracked up Dad’s car within ten days of getting her driver’s license. Twice. She lost her driving privileges after the second crash. She also lost my driving privileges–eighteen months before I could get my own license. Collateral damage.

Our suburb, like all Detroit suburbs, wasn’t walkable. It was a bedroom community for people who worked for the Big Three. There wasn’t any public transportation to speak of, I think GM blew up the bus system. This meant that for pretty much all of high school, I had to bum rides with friends to go to the mall, games, post-game grub and parties.

When I got my first job, Dad was my taxi–even though there was almost always a car available in the garage. He could have made this easier on himself if he didn’t hold me responsible for the Sins of the Older Sibling. The drop off and pick up ritual became less painful for Dad when my boyfriend began to cover many of the evening shifts. Dad always seemed to like that guy, maybe I just figured out why.

It’s not like I never, ever drove. It just had the same frequency as a blue moon. This made me an inexperienced driver. My friend Jenny drove everyone around. She was a good driver because she drove a lot. She also didn’t drink which was good for the rest of us piled in and draped all over each other in the front and in the back of her mom’s Pontiac LeMans as we went from the liquor store to find an old guy to buy us beer and then to the football game where we drank the beer in the parking lot and then to get some pizza to sober up and cover up the beer stink.

Dad had a true blue 1972 Plymouth Satellite with a big V-8 that spent the winter months stalling and not running well at all and the summer months barely holding back a vicious growl. It was a dud in the winter. It was ready to go in the summer.

On the day of a blue moon, I was gifted the great privilege of driving myself to work. I’m not going to lie. It was awesome. I felt like the most grown up and amazing person. I had the windows down and pushed the tinny speakers past their safety, blasting WRIF–the Home of Rock and Roll–so everyone would know that I loved Bob Seger, too. I pushed in the bulb of the cigarette lighter and waited the amazingly few seconds for it to pop. I almost stared at the red hot coils concealed in the lighter casing. I lifted it to the cigarette in my mouth, barely missing being clumsy enough to burn my cheek.

I used my mirrors and my blinkers. I stopped at the stop sign and waited for the light to turn green before making my right turn. I had Dad’s car parked in the lot behind the restaurant before I finished my smoke. I considered driving around the block, but these suburban blocks were not square. They were filled with squiggly roads that doubled back on themselves or deposited you in a cul de sac without a exit to the main road. I knew how the streets worked in my subdivision, but was ignorant of the worming in this one. I didn’t drive. I didn’t know.

I was closing this night. It must have been a Friday or a Saturday since we didn’t close until midnight. There was a little less than an hour’s worth of closing tasks. There was the teenage manager and the grill guy, me and another girl. I was over the moon to be able to offer a ride to my shift-mate.

It was a congenial crewe, full of the banter and bullshit of a group of teens who just closed the store. We were feeling our oats. There wasn’t anything to do. The only thing open was the 7-11, and we already had all the coke we could drink. It was time to go home.

The grill guy walked up to his dad’s car in the lot. It was a long, long, long red Cadillac with a white vinyl half-top. The street lamp shone off the chrome surrounding the squared off headlamps. The grill guy was feeling pretty powerful, too. He started talking smack about how fast the car was.

“Oh, really? Not faster than this big blue monster in the summer.” I then quickly copped to the fact that it was a winter lemon. The grill guy jerked his head up.

The grill guy was very tall. He was a tall guy with translucent white skin topped with a head full of more red than brown loose curls. He wore his hair unusually short for those days. He was jonesing for a promotion, perhaps even a hamburger slinging career. He tried to hide his height by scrunching his head into his shoulders and scrunching his shoulders as close to his hips as he could. But when I put out the challenge he almost straightened.

“Yeah? Right. That’s not going to beat this Caddy.”

“Let’s go.” I ran to the passenger side of the Satellite to unlock the door for my girlfriend. He ran to the red car, chased by the teenage manager that he was giving a ride home. We were going to head out on 13 Mile.

It wasn’t a real race. We didn’t have a start and we didn’t have a finish. We were just going to see who was faster.

I fumbled with my keys and with the ignition and with the locks. Nobody used seatbelts then. I turned up the radio and rolled down the window. But the Caddy was already leaving the parking lot, heading toward the intersection at a good clip. There was a red light in front of us, and nobody on the road. It was after 1 a.m. I turned left into the corner gas station to skip past the light and take the lead. Oh the cleverness of me!

The light had turned just as I peeled out of the gas station. The red Cadillac was hot on my tail and looking to pass me. I hit the gas. He was gaining on me. My co-pilot was beginning to hyperventilate. Oh hell, there wasn’t time to begin to do anything. She started to scream. “SLOW DOWN! THIS IS TOO FAST”

I looked down at the speedometer needle that was moving past 65, past 75. The grill man still in hot pursuit. I was at 85, 95 and I knew he was, too. The needle continued to 100 and then 110 and up to 118. The Cadillac was lagging. I don’t know if he got over 100 mph, but when I checked my mirror, he was done.

I took my foot off the accelerator and the car slowed. Or at least it stopped going faster. I gently tapped my brakes. I didn’t want to fishtail. I don’t know how I knew that. Maybe I observed this as a passenger. Anyway, it seemed like it took a long time for the car to drop down to a normal speed. That’s when I realized that we were going fast. On a two lane road with a gravel shoulder. I was focusing on the race, not the speed. And the speed was exhilarating. To me.

My companion was no longer speaking to me. She had blown past her red zone. I don’t know when she stopped yelling, but her silence was worse. She was so angry. I had terrified her. I apologized. She never got in a car with me again. I never drove that fast again.

Me and the grill guy were just going to see who was faster. But that’s not what we did. What we saw was who was willing to push the risk. I am not saying we were testing our bravery, because the activity was stupid. It’s not brave to be stupid. We simply pushed each other in ways that people do when they are showing off. We had our hubris on full display. We were having fun and sped off like adolescents do. The grill guy listened to an inner moderator. Me? Not so much.

I didn’t drive Dad’s car into an accident, and it wasn’t the last time that I raced. But it was the last time I pushed a dare too far. But nobody crashed. Nobody was hurt and yet, it was too far. The truth is, you don’t have to drive off a cliff to go too far. Lesson learned.

Good Forms

Agent (of S.H.I.E.L.D.) Melinda May uses her mad fighting skills to kick a bad guy. She's not hurt. She's boss.

The smell of french fries crossed the street on its own. It was actually the smell that conjures fries. More like the smell of the fryer. And salt. Not potatoes. The potatoes have no smell.

The lurkers on the sidewalk turned their heads in the direction of the scent. Some looked more plaintively than others.

There were two types of yearners. Some were hungry, either because they didn’t eat dinner yet or because every time they smell fried food they wanted it. There was a subset of this group that were both. They were the most dangerous.

Others looked longingly when the door to the tavern opened. They could almost see the outline of the polished wooden bar. The welcoming stools waiting for a perch. The pours lined up and reflecting off the back mirror. They might be interested in the fries, too. Salt to wash down the spirits.

Yet they remained posted up in front of the dual storefront. There were scores of square feet of glass. There were three short rows of metal chairs closest to the doors of each store. Mostly moms sat in. Mostly dads stood outside.

The moms on the inside might spend time on their phones, but as the weeks of class wore on, they knew each other. They spoke about the trials of homework, mismanagement of time and the concomitant fines, inequities at work/home/country and their pride in their offspring. The dads on the inside were primarily silent but observant. They were tracking the progress of their progeny purposely. They knew the color sequence of the belts.

The few women outside were either sitting in strategically parked SUVs or smoking a cigarette. The outside dads milled around. A group discussed the Redskins practice and hopes for the preseason. The sole–and loud–Cowboys fan was there to be razzed. And he was. The outside moms didn’t track the inside. The outside dads would frequently glance over their shoulders and mark their kids.

The inside parents ensured that all belongings were accounted for, stuffed in backpacks or purses or bags. Most outside moms followed up. The outside dads who limousined the kids every week were on top of it. The dads who were intermittent chauffeurs asked the kids if they had everything. The kids always said yes. Sometimes they were mistaken. Sometimes there was a trip back to the storefront. Sometimes there were later recriminations. Less in the summer. More during the school year.

Just the one dad would take his kid across the street after class. The dad would order a beer he liked. The kid would have orange and cranberry juice with a spritz of club soda, a cherry and a single drop of bitters. They called it his cocktail. The dad and his kid would split a fry. And the kid talked up the bartender and learned to tip, too.