The Quantified Self. Qualified.

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On the right, an old-fashioned way of quantifying life: telling time. On the left, the latest thing, an activity tracker.

Astronauts with their life support systems and athletes with their stats have always lived quantified lives. For the rest of us the trend is somewhat new. While it may appear that I am under house arrest, tagged by law enforcement with a bracelet alarm, that fact is, I’ve tagged myself. Next to my trusty watch (which could use a good servicing if the cockeyed date/date wheels are anything to judge by) is something called a Fitbit Flex, a neoprene clad activity tracker that minds my every step. The illuminated dot in the photograph is the first of five that light up as I progress toward a daily goal of ten thousand steps.

Clearly I haven’t made much progress.

The trend is not new, to be honest. We have always hunted for ways of quantifying our identities, especially our worth. Samuel Pepys in his seventeenth century diary ended each year by totting up his credits and debits. His was a quantified self of sorts. All that’s changed is our ability to track everything, including the stats once beneath our notice.

Something else has changed, perhaps. We’ve managed to suppress the instinct telling us quantification is a fool’s game, that pursuing quality by measuring quantity is simply never going to add up. Maybe we know better now than to confuse the two, or we’ve figured out that (as much as we resist the thought) quantity does equal quality in certain avenues, whether it’s the number of dollars in your bank account or the number of steps you’ve walked today.

Writers already lead uncomfortably quantified lives, measuring our worth in the number of words written today, in the number of books in print and how well they’ve sold. All of these metrics speak to one kind of quality –– my quality of life –– without addressing another, the quality of my work. The best written books aren’t always the bestselling; in fact, some days I see no correlation at all. But this is true in the world of work generally, where most of us are paid for our time rather than the use we make of it.

I appreciate the words of a prayer Wendell Berry quoted recently, as reported by my friend Alan Cornett at Pinstripe Pulpit. This comes from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and reads like a repudiation of quantity over quality:

Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men [...]“

You want to get paid for your work, but you need to work for higher motives than pay. You have to sell books, but you need to write them for higher motives than selling.

The fact is, I don’t want to be measured, but when the task is intimidating I submit. A whole novel to write from scratch? Word count, please. A diet-and-exercise regimen? I’ll take the activity tracker, silly as it looks wrapped around my wrist. Quantification for all its faults keeps hopelessness at bay with the promise that, however daunting the task, all you have to worry about for the moment is one simple metric. Perish the mystery. And it’s so very easy to track.

The consolation of fiction

mencallitchanceWith apologies to Boethius, I’ve never found much consolation in philosophy. Other things, yes, but not consolation. Medicinae tempus est, philosophy tells Boethius, it’s time for medicine.

I don’t disagree, but my medicine comes from novels.

And I don’t think it’s a question of escapism versus reality. Philosophers and novelists alike seem to dish up both courses. It’s just that, in order to find something, you may have to lose yourself a little first, and fiction is where I’ve always found such self-loss easiest to encounter. Thomas Narcejac once described the novel as “a method of understanding which one has to use when the means of scientific or philosophic investigation become inadequate,” and that’s how I’d like to think of my penchant for stories. In novels I face up to things I never seem to in other kinds of writing.

The weekend before my wedding I found Jean Giono’s The Horseman on the Roof in a Chicago bookstore, and a few months later spent many idle afternoons in the baking Houston summer dipping into that novel. Escapist fare, you might say, but that’s not how I experienced it. The cholera-plagued landscape of southern France became a map of my own psyche. What I remember about the book isn’t the plot, but the sense of self-awareness that resulted from the experience.

The same thing has happened with all kinds of novels –– the good, the bad, the truly awful. I’ve valued them as much for what they taught me as for any inherent value they possessed. Stanley Weyman’s A Gentleman of France (pictured above) electrified me more than the story itself had any right to on account of the solace it brought, the deeper knowledge of myself. The same thing happened reading A Portrait of a Lady while lying on a couch in a room with thick green carpet. It’s the experience I hope my own readers have had with my books.

For initiates, it is hard to fathom the lives of people on whom the magic of novels does not work, the ones who dismiss made-up stories and find their consolation in numbers, say, or in sports. When they stare at my bookcases, wide-eyed, and ask, “Have you read all these?” I feel a gulf open up: two lives glimpsed across a wide chasm, each unintelligible to the other.

This consolation, like philosophy’s, is not for everyone.

 

Things that don’t matter don’t keep getting done. Things that do become second nature.

Not to put too fine a point on it: discipline and necessity are intertwined.

It’s only in the past few years that I’ve kept a journal, despite the fact that the very first writing book I read, Hallie and Whit Burnett’s guide, devotes a chapter to the importance of this creative discipline. Over the years I tried, kept up the habit for a month or two, then burned out. Now it’s so easy calling it a “creative discipline” a second ago seemed like a stretch. What’s changed? The switch flipped, interestingly enough, when I began writing and publishing on a regular basis.

Same thing happened to me in graduate school. Here I was in the mecca of craft, with a coveted spot at a top creative writing program, but I found myself writing much less than I had before. The only time I wrote was when there was a workshop assignment due. That work, hastily bungled, would be praised or savaged (or both), and then go into a drawer never to be seen again, let alone revised. I was producing pages for the classroom, not writing for publication. As a result, a lot of what my teachers tried to drill into me was absorbed only as theory.

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Keeping a creative journal used to be a chore. Now it’s second nature.

Later, after a three year hiatus, I returned and finished my degree. In the meantime I’d started writing for myself again, and cared more about the prose than I did about class participation. All the theory became real, because I needed it for my work. Just as the journal stopped being a chore once I couldn’t live without it, my education started making sense once I actually started using it.

Which leads me to wonder whether, faced with repeated failure trying to maintain any kind of discipline, if instead of redoubling your effort (failing again, only with more at stake) it wouldn’t be wiser to look for the underlying issue. Soldiers in barracks clean their weapons for drill, and have to be ridden by superiors even to do that. Soldiers in battle keep them clean so they’ll keep firing. All that changed was the sense of necessity. Things that don’t matter don’t keep getting done. Things that do become second nature. The key to any discipline, I suppose, is figuring how to make it matter.

Metaphor

If it sounds too religious to call metaphor an incarnation, then let’s call it a manifestation, for it makes available to the senses what is often intangible, invisible, unknown, obscure; metaphor brings to light, it reveals, it unifies the fragmented, it is an act of creation indeed.”

– Mark Jarman

How I ended up applying some twenty-year-old writing advice to everyday life

Sometimes writing advice works just as well for living your everyday life. Twenty years ago a grad school friend and brilliant novelist named Eric Miles Williamson read a troubled short story of mine and made a suggestion. I remember the night well because it was the first time, despite plenty of workshops, that someone took a craftsman’s eye to my writing. I was used to hearing feedback on themes, vague theories about why stories did or didn’t work, but what my fellow students struggled to give were solutions. Not Eric. He could diagnose faults in a piece of fiction the way a carpenter judges the quality of a building’s construction. He knew how to fix things because he did the work very well himself.

The plot of my story doesn’t matter. Here’s all you need to know: it was a spare, blow-by-blow narrative of a traumatic experience, each scene linked to the next like carriages on a train. Only the train, though moving, wasn’t going anywhere. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Eric read the piece and said, “Here’s what you should do.” Into my tight chain of events, I needed a moment that stepped outside of the narrative. This went against everything I understood about the ‘single effect’ for which a short story should strive, but I did it anyway, inserting a short scene in which the protagonist found himself parked alone on a bridge, entranced by the night sky. That handful of paragraphs, despite not moving the plot forward, was so resonant, so full of the story’s themes, that it became my favorite passage.

Writing fiction, according to Walker Percy, has more in common with good carpentry than good journalism. Eric had once worked construction and, as a writer, I guess he still did. From that night on, I became fascinated not just with the art but  the craft of fiction.

I recalled the episode last week when, during the course of running a list of tightly scheduled errands, I found myself unexpectedly in a place I hadn’t planned to go, and decided to linger. Like the protagonist of my old story, I was outside the narrative, no longer pushing the plot of my day forward. And like my hero, I found the moment resonant. Stepping away from my life’s plot put me back in touch with its theme.

Good advice probably has a universal component. There’s a way to apply it to more situations than originally intended. All you have to do is find out how, or at least be open to  the way finding you.

I replaced my red Filson briefcase, and I’m going to tell you why.

The 72 Hour Briefcase in olive tin cloth, a waxed cotton fabric similar to a Barbour jacket.

The 72 Hour Briefcase in olive tin cloth, a waxed cotton fabric similar to a Barbour jacket.

It wasn’t easy replacing my beloved red Filson 257 briefcase with one of their new 72 Hour Briefcases in olive tin cloth, but I had to do it. The 257′s pocket configuration wasn’t working for me. For years Filson has offered two basic briefcase styles, the svelte original 256 and the wider 257. (For an in-depth comparison of the two, go to Filson Fan.) The 72 Hour Briefcase is basically the thinner 256 with large zippered pockets on the front. For me, it’s the best of both worlds.

Inside, the 257 looks like this:

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The large inner compartment is subdivided extensively, which eats up a lot of the usable space. Since I didn’t use the interior pockets as designed, carrying the 257 resulted in an unfavorable ratio of content to bulk. While the 72 Hour Briefcase features the 256′s smaller internal compartment (and steals some of that for a padded laptop compartment), the amount of usable space is the same.

The real selling point: the external pockets. I had a waxed cotton bag with similar pockets (the Tommy Work Bag, photographed for Flickr summers ago) and really loved being able to reach for pens and paper without having to undo any flaps. Those pockets weren’t large enough for my purposes, though. The 72 Hour Briefcase’s are perfect. Plus, I love the look of the tin cloth.

Here are some photos along with a few observations about the 72 Hour Briefcase’s features:

Although leather briefcases are my first love, the rugged Filson bags fill a useful niche. They’re tough, they carry a lot, and in a casual environment they don’t stand out as much as a traditional leather briefcase would. Not to mention, they develop a lovely patina with use––not the same character as leather, but interesting in its own right. Laurie has already commandeered the red 257, so it’s gone to a good home.

The book as a fetish object

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Here’s something I’m proud of: I once begged an employee of Anthropologie to sell me a Penguin edition of The Great Gatsby from the store’s “book art” display, an aesthetic travesty in which perfectly good novels were defaced in the service of retail design — and once she absolutely refused, I considered stealing (that is, liberating) the book. As far as I was concerned, they might as well have piled the books up and burned them. Fear is a kind of reverence, after all, whereas bending and gluing pages into the form of butterflies and flowers is just Eloi indifference.

Not that I haven’t profited over the years from depraved notions about books. Almost twenty years ago in London my wife and I discovered one of those fabled shops that sells antiquarian books by the foot to interior decorators. (Such ventures are on the rise, it seems.) “Is it all right if I choose the books?” I asked, and the junior assistant relented. After an hour in the basement, I could hear the senior staff clucking over this violation of the rules. Ordinarily I’m a bit of a rule-keeper, but in the cause of books all bets are off. Abuse a book and a switch flips in my mind. You’ve forfeited ownership rights. The books are mine.

While visiting a university that shall remain nameless, the administrator giving the tour pointed out a wall of books at the library entrance. Like bricks they had been piled on top of each other in staggered formation, most of them modern hardbacks shorn of their dust jackets (in the mistaken belief they look fancier that way). Even though most of the titles were recent bestsellers off the remainder stacks, books less likely to hold my interest than an ingredients label or mattress tag, I heard the voice of Ronald Reagan in my head: “Tear down this wall!”

I was sorely tempted.

While I have resigned myself to the idea of the book as a fetish object, as one who has both written and designed books, I think even the totem role is better served by books that remain functional. Do what you like. As for me, I can’t bring myself to deface books for any cause, whether ideological or aesthetic. As a culture we would be better off forgetting about books than teaching ourselves to recycle or repurpose them, just as past generations served us better by abandoning ancient buildings to ruin rather than pulling them apart to make shanties.

I wrote my novel on the couch

20140429-122654.jpgLast year, picking up my work in progress, I had a dream of writing away from my desk. I have as much good-natured contempt for coffee shop poseurs as the next man, yet something about working in public captured my imagination — maybe it was just the thought of actually seeing fellow human beings during the months-long writing process. A ready supply of good coffee never hurts, either.

Well, best laid plans and all that. I ended up setting the work in progress aside to work on something “fun,” which turned into Cartago. My coffee shop forays resulted in little creative progress, but I did come close to clearing out my e-mail inbox for a brief shining moment. Project Writing in Public failed utterly. Still, I didn’t write Cartago at my desk. I wrote the entire manuscript, more or less, while sitting on the couch.

This was always a tentative stop-gap, never intended to persist as habit. Once I began, though, I couldn’t tear myself away. Perched on the edge of the couch, my laptop computer teetering on my actual lap, stacks of notes scattered at my feet, I turned out chapter after chapter while telling myself each day, “Tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow I’ll go to my desk. Tomorrow I’ll venture outside.” And then I was done, no tomorrows left to plan.

Whether writing on the couch is a step forward or back, I can’t say. To me it has the feel of progress. After all, I seem to have written my best book that way.