Derek Johnson Muses

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Introspection: Write Well, Not Just Often

When I started writing this blog, I was overflowing with thoughts. For the first few months, I gutted posts out without forethought, and somehow, managed to put up a post or two a day during the mild winter of 2012 (don’t ask me how). Gradually, I saw how it was self-defeating to push my work into the archives so quickly and pulled back, going closer to a post every two to four days. Since May of 2012, I’ve averaged about 10 to 11 a month, which seems about right.

But through all this, I’ve wondered what my long term goals should be. Yes, I love to write and I’m sharing about topics that I care about, but it’s weighed on me as to how many productive hours to sink into this venture. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about life, it’s that you can stay at the beginner to average level for a long time if you don’t do anything to improve.

That’s why I don’t write about sports or TV as much as I used, only when it comes out easily, and I don’t take the time to polish it as I would a piece about travel that I might republish. But still, the more I write, the more I ask myself: am I getting better at this, or do I make the same mistakes in every post? Can I use what I’m putting up here in a book down the line? Will a publication read this stuff and want to hire me?

Last week, I went back to the travel posts I wrote last summer and pasted all of them into a single word document. It covered twenty single-spaced pages. I have read part of it and have tweaked two pages of it. I’m grateful that I wrote all of this stuff down, and when I reread it, I can flesh out the details and improve the flow. Here’s to making it the best it can be.

Random shot of downtown Lincoln

Random shot of downtown Lincoln

Writing Starts on the Trail, and Other Techniques

A few weeks ago, I shared a writing technique that I use to jump start myself when I’m down. Today, here’s some more strategies that I use to write.

When I go for an hour walk, I start with a cluttered head and let that head sort itself out. Some people listen to music to get a clear ahead, but that usually does not help me. When I walk, I make mental notes of my most passionate thoughts, and what other thoughts are in association with that main thought. The raw form of a post usually comes out without a specific category. Sometimes it’s an obvious container, like a Nebraska football game or a trip I was on, but when it’s something like a personal update or assessing a book, then it can be tricky to find the starting point. And in this process, the starting point may not be the main point.

When I get home from my walk, I (try to) go to my computer or to a pad, turn on some music, and begin writing. This stage is more about getting all the points out, not putting them in order (that’s rewriting). Once I get going, it usually takes an hour and 500-700 words to get a solid post out, and I almost always go one or two points more than I should. I never outline, although sometimes I just write down one thought to see if anything follows it. If not, I move on.

The rewriting can be the most frustrating. My minimum rewriting requirements is that I get all of the spelling grammar errors out and get the flow working. If it’s a post about TV or movies or something else I don’t see as part of a larger market I’m putting forward, I don’t labor over it like I do my travel posts or my posts on Husker Max. There is a point where the extra labor is not being used productively, although more often than not I could have done more.

The one thing I have learn as a writer is that I will always have more ideas than I will know what to do with. If I type a sentence and nothing else comes, I tear myself away. Some of these I have come back to, others I’ve forgotten. Ideas want to get out, but if nothing follows the initial thought, it’s always good to let be as it is.

And there’s never any shame in sitting on ideas, if nothing coherently comes  The World War Z article was one that I waited to write until the movie came out. I knew back in January it was something that I wanted to write about because of how much the story of Jesika tore at me, but I needed to figure out how. (Frankly, I’m still not happy with the way that post turned out, but that’s the way it goes. At least I got it out.)

Site of most of meditation, on a bright fall night at sunset...

Site of most of meditation, on a bright fall night at sunset…

Writing Tips: Every Day Writing

I suppose given how much I blog, I owe it to my readers to share some tips on how to write and how to break out of writer’s block. It said that the best writing advice is, write every single day, and a lot. But what?

The easiest idea I can tell you, dear readers, is to write down everything you did for the last week or twenty-four hours, even if you just make a list of actions and attitudes. Here’s an example I did earlier this week.

(My Road Notes posts also reflect this strategy.)

Last night, I was trying to get my sleep schedule back on track. I came in around 8:30 from mowing the lawn and showered. I then watched Terminator 3, a movie I can’t believe is 10 years old already. I can remember when I saw it in the Rivoli back in 2003, and the film had the biggest greenlit budget at time. It doesn’t feel as dated; actually, the CGI in it seems restrained compared to how much is in current movies. I started the movie at nine when I was eating dinner and finished the movie at 11. I had such a plan-I would skip my afternoon nap, and then I would go bed early and get my sleep schedule back on track. Of course, I still needlessly read on my kindle for thirty minutes or so before I managed to turn my light out at 11:36

Then my alarm went off at midnight. I had accidentally turned it to on when I shut off the radio yesterday. This time around, I set the alarm to 8 to avoid any future upsets. The disturbance in my sleep costs me forty-five minutes.

So this morning, I became conscious for the first time around five, and after fifteen minutes, I got up to start a load of lights. Then I went back to bed, and drifted between sleep and waking for a little while longer. Around seven, I forced myself up and began reading on my kindle.

That’s pretty simple, and it’s mostly actions, but it needs work. Usually, I find you have to write a certain number of actions to get a judgment or an assessment. Take the first paragraph. The judgment or assessment is I was trying to get my sleep schedule back on track in the evening. Under the that mindset, I worked outside, watched TV, and I read. There was a bad habit in that paragraph, namely the tangent I go on with my memories of Terminator 3. That is one thing that I do often in my drafts that I try to get out in my final versions as much as I can, spending too much time talking about a sub-point which has nothing to do with the main article. Usually, when I get to the judgment, I have an idea of what I need to build the post around. All of the rest of the writing needs to be taking out points that don’t support it and refining the ones that do.

Here’s another example of this strategy.



All for Others

Recently, I met a man recently who came across as friendly and giving, and talked about helping others out. But as I observed him and tried to engage hi, he only wanted to talk about his ideas. And if you told him one of your own ideas, even if he liked it, he would talk about it like he valued because it was his idea only. This made me very self-aware of a personal flaw.

Many times in my life, when I had the opportunity to socialize with others, I would take the time to just unload on them. As a person who lived alone, I saw only the opportunity to talk about what I wanted to, not realizing that by doing so, I was missing opportunities to listen to others and learn about their interest, not to mention the general premise that a relationships is a two way street. Nobody wants to talk to someone who never asks them about them.

It has lead me to this observation of human nature: we are all very much into ourselves.  We have our interests and our circle of friends, and we don’t see much outside of it.  Our culture prides itself on specialization, and we can go online and find hundreds of people who share our interests (OK, guilty), instead of taking the time to make an impact on those immediately around us. But sometimes, it can just be one moment that can show another a courtesy in what the other does. This happened to me once when I was at a conference with my father. One of our distributors came up to us, and he mostly needed to talk to my dad. But before he did, he took a minute to ask me about what I did for the company, and I told him about my work with samples. It wasn’t much but I was much more interested in what he had to say after he’d paid me some attention.

To that end, I have come to a personal resolution: celebrate others. Listen to them and let them talk about the things that are important to them. Praise them and tell them how amazing their accomplishments are. If I even make one person feel better about themselves in this way, it would have been worth it.

An Important One-Year Anniversary…

The Embarcadero, Just outside the Ferry Building

One year ago today, I flew to San Francisco to stay with my aunt and uncle for a month. Eleven months ago, I flew back here to Nebraska. In between, I soaked in a myriad of experiences as I tried new foods, observed new cultures, and read people on the subway. On that anniversary, I wanted to reflect on the last couple of months, and how that trip lead me to start writing this blog.

I began writing this blog back in November, after discovered the blog of a facebook friend (thanks Eirinn). At the time, I was in a very pent-up situation where I had a lot of thoughts but no way to express them. I kept thinking that everything I wrote had to be some huge book, but I found it was much easier to write a post for 500 words. My first posts were just my betting research, but then I expanded my territory and went with my heart. By mid-December I could produce a post a day.

Now it’s spring. I’ve finished the creative binge I had been on at the time (Stephen King claims that a creative cycle lasts a three months, a season). When my views went down at the beginning of March (spring weather), I decided that I needed to scale back and save some of my posts for this summer, when I’m traveling. I also have learned the value of connecting with other bloggers, and shaping my posts to better address their views.

But I really think the seeds for this blog began on those days in San Francisco, when I wandered the streets, messenger bag over my shoulder, eyes eager for the new. But I didn’t really find what I was looking for, and that was key.

I choose to spend a month in San Francisco because I wanted some perspective on life. My aunt and uncle had moved to the area in January of 2010, and Karen had asked me at a reunion in March of that year when I was going to come and visit them. It was something I had talked with them about years ago, so, in the coming months, I thought about it, and we arranged for me to visit in April of that year.

Scott and Karen had rented a suburban house with an ideal location close to the Interstate and the train to go into the city. Granted, Walnut Crack (as named to me by someone who grew up in San Francisco) is nothing more than Omaha with better shopping, but it’s got great weather and great view.

I will never forget the first time I got off the escalator from the subway and looked up at the skyscraper dominating. You can explain to someone how big a city looks, and it may look big on TV, but when you are looking there and standing in that dominated space, you realize how big the city really feels. Everything and everyone is so packed together in San Francisco, a city that is seven miles from one shore to the other. You can’t helped but feel small.

But what I learned most from walking those urban streets was that there’s a lot of opportunity in the world. I have never seen more people, and so many young people in one place. Everyone is bustling around from one place to the next, attending to their own business. It was when I started to realize, I should just be content with the world I saw.


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