On the delightfully unexpected recommendation of a local technologist, I have been reading and enjoying the collected Paris Review interviews of 20th century writers. The first volume starts the series out strong, with the likes of Eliot, Parker, and Borges. I especially adored a long and amazing Vonnegut article, an original autobiography prompted by the magazine but ultimately assembled by the subject himself over the course of a decade.
I still love and will always love Kurt Vonnegut. What an acid pleasure to read new-to-me words from him here. (Paris Review Interviews Vol1) pic.twitter.com/vdTYqGMkbC— Jason McIntosh 🗽 (@JmacDotOrg) September 24, 2017
As far as practical inspiration goes, however, my favorite interview so far is the one with Ernest Hemingway. In particular, I value his concept of juice: his word for the otherwise ineffable mix of desire, experience, and motivation that a writer needs to actually do the work of writing. A writer whose juice has gone dry has lost their creative flow until they can find a way to top it up again, and meanwhile nothing drains the juice quite so quickly as the labor itself.
Sounds like a vicious cycle, but Hemingway shared a trick that he had learned! Every day, after he reached what felt like a reasonable word-quota for the day, he’d proceed to drag the carriage along to the next good part, where he knew exactly what would happen next, making for an interval of easier writing — and he’d leave it there. Then he’d go down to the beach to drink and wrestle marlins or whatever until bedtime, when he’d read himself to sleep.
When he returned to his writing desk the following morning, his long anticipation of writing that next, easy section would mix with the thoughts and experiences of his resting, free-roaming mind and body, catalyzing into a full glass of juice. And when it emptied, only a few hours later, he’d once again park the project on a high note and let its potential energy simmer for another evening.
That’s all. Certainly he did have the discipline to write every day, and carefully track his progress, but he also practiced enough self-knowledge and — dare I say — self-care to know when he’d run dry. And if he pushed himself a little past that point, he did so only in service to giving his next-day self a fresh start with a full tank of juicy energy, and he did not work an inch further until then.
Now, I’m no Hemingway, but I still recognized this technique as quite similar to one I’ve semi-consciously employed both in the little bit of writing I do but far more often in my software-engineering work. Often, when considering a necessary and non-trivial project — even one small enough to fit in a single day’s labor — I often regard it with loathing and trepidation before I begin. Just thinking of all the work it’ll require can leave me utterly enervated. However, I also know that if I just “break ground” and do anything, get my hands even a little dirty with the work, the project’s intimidating nature fades away very quickly. The drive to follow through and keep working doesn’t always come along at the same time, though.
So last night, I found myself thinking about a chunk of IFComp-related engineering I needed to accomplish the following day, and I fretted about not feeling at all motivated. I also had to leave for a movie theater in fifteen minutes. So, can you guess what I did? Yes, I thought of Mr. Hemingway’s lesson. I picked the first task from the list, added the skeleton of the necessary code to the appropriate files, only enough to start thinking okay, I know what to do next — and then I wrote a little “bookmark” comment for myself, and closed my laptop. I saw the movie, then had a beer while talking to my wife about the movie, and then came home and read myself to sleep. Today I showed up at my office early the next morning and ripped out the rest of the project in time for an only-slightly-late lunch. Juice!
I don’t know how repeatable this trick will prove for me, as it would have to complement the little stack of comfortably familiar productivity habits I already practice. But I do feel energized and hopeful that Hemingway’s technique carries more than mere novelty for me. Count me in for trying it again, and soon.