Scheduling visits from the muse
Monday, April 17, 2023
Eight years ago, I decided to start a blog. For most of the life of my blog, it was relatively inactive. And then, I just started pumping out a lot more blog posts in 2022 while attending the Recurse Center. What changed?
I stopped relying on visits from the muse, and started scheduling them.
It used to be that I would write when the mood struck me. When I got inspiration for a blog post, I would write. And when I lost that inspiration, I would stop writing. Somewhat predictably, this resulted in very little actual writing. In one of my better years, I wrote a total of six blog posts, barely over 4,000 words1.
If you read anything about writing, you can't avoid running into the advice to simply be consistent. This advice seems simple on the face of it, seems hard when you try it, and really is simple once you get the hang of it.
On the face of it, the advice is straightforward. If you want to do something, do it consistently, and you will improve. This is the technique behind many programs where you improve by just showing up and over time, you build those physical or metaphorical muscles. It's hard not to get faster when you run three times a week. It's hard not to improve your latte art when you pour it every day. Naturally, it's hard not to improve as a writer when you write every day, every week.
Why did I struggle to put that into practice, then? I wanted to write. I did write. But I failed to do it consistently. When I would try to do it consistently, I would run into a number of problems (or you may call them excuses).
First and foremost, I had no ideas. When I sat down to write with a blank page, there was just... nothing. This wasn't the good kind of clear mind that we seek with meditation, either. No, it was just kind of bog-standard writer's block.
And then the ideas that I did have? They didn't seem very good. I'd pick apart anything I was going to write. Not least of all, because if I was going to post something, since it was one of my few posts, I wanted it to be good. And my posts sure didn't seem good to me, so I was precious, and didn't release them.
I do hear these same kinds of things from some of my friends who have tried to keep a blog. Concerns that their ideas aren't original, that someone else has already written about it, that they don't have anything interesting to say2.
The way I got past these was to make a pact with myself to put up at least one blog post a week, and create a mechanism for doing so. That mechanism was that during my batch at RC, I was going to post one reflection each week about what I was working on3. The reflection was by definition something unique to me, because it was about my experience this week. And it was also something that didn't have to be polished or "good". I am certainly not winning any awards for those early week posts, but they're a record of what I did during that time, and they laid a foundation.
By creating an easy, frictionless way to meet my basic obligation of writing, I got in the habit of writing. More important, I got in the habit of writing down ideas of things to write about, and thinking about my writing ahead of time. By my third week of RC, I was writing multiple posts a week. This happened as a byproduct of the weekly posts, since I was thinking about writing more and was no longer being very precious about what I posted.
This habit was easy to continue after my batch concluded, because I setup the habit. Every Monday, I publish a post. That means I know that by the time I roll out of bed on Monday, the post for the week better be written, edited, and ready to push to prod. And every Monday evening, I set aside a couple of hours of writing time. There's nothing else I am allowed to do in that time (barring illness), so I better come into it with some ideas. Even if I have an idea, when I start writing it usually transmutes into something completely different4.
And this is what I mean with scheduling visits from the muse. It's no longer something profound, something unusual, when I get an idea for a blog post. No, it's just part of the process, and it's reproducible, over and over, every week on Monday evening. Removing barriers to writing and publishing posts means you don't have to reject ideas, and you end up getting more and more and more of them.
So, thank you, muse. See you next week, same time, same place.
This does not include the three posts I wrote for my employer's engineering blog, and the others that I edited.
To be honest, there is very little you can write about on a blog that is original and that someone else has not covered. That's kind of the point of a blog: to show how you think about these things, and each person's perspective will be a little bit different, and is valuable.
This is also a very good way to force yourself to reflect on your work and consider what you're learning and what you want to learn. My sabbatical would have been far less productive without the reflection from writing, from daily check-ins, and from the weekly reflections event that one of my dear batchmates hosted.
This one started life as "What I wish I knew when I started blogging," and that was an idea coming out of a coffee chat with my batchmate Ed Y. recently. Thanks for the suggestion and inspiration, Ed!