I detailed my BuJo approach in the last post. That is the quickest part of the routine. You could just keep a BuJo and gain lots of benefit. Since I wanted to also boost my creativity and productivity I adopted the two other practices.
I have always been a sporadic journal writer, only regularly documenting daily experiences while traveling, winding down during the end-of-day decompression in my room. Many years ago I made it 1/5 the way through a 5-Year Journal. This year, I’m giving journaling a serious try, and have found it to be like a delayed mindfulness practice. Each day you set aside time to self-reflect after the fact. In just one month I have already learned a lot about my regular day-to-day self. Here are some things I have learned about the practice in general, and how I am applying it.
The latest edition of the quarterly Kyoto Journal just dropped with a new article by yours truly. travel, revisited is KJ’s 99th issue. The magazine has long been a staple in the English language media on Japan. I was asked to consider the topic of travel writing as it pertains to my book project. While on writing retreat in Kyoto earlier this year, alone in our apartment there, taking daily walks and runs, I reflected on the question of “why I travel.” It turns out, this is a very heavy question, and had me questioning my own being. Anyways, I tried to encapsulate my approach to travel literature in a couple thousand words and some photos taken from around Kyushu. You can see some select pages from my piece titled “on location” below.
I am very honoured to be included in the pages of Kyoto Journal with such famous writers as Natalie Goldberg, Pico Iyer, and others. You can purchase the magazine digitally for about 5 bucks here. Check out some of their other issues. This is a really high quality magazine.
While working on my book this year I thought I would try to keep my skills sharp by writing more essays for various publications. These short pieces for different outlets gives me a chance to work with a variety of editors, something I really appreciate. So far I have been lucky to have had only good experiences. I come away from each with some valuable (and practical) lessons. I feel like I have been improving my writing craft these past few months, and am very hungry for more!
This year I have returned to writing more on Asia, especially coastal Asia: from Japan down to Southeast Asia. This reflects my research interests (for the book and beyond) and ties back to my graduate work on shipping lanes through the South China Sea. I read quite a bit in the areas of Japanese Foreign Policy and regional international relations, and thus started contributing reviews to Books On Asia, a site I had been following for a while. Currently I have three pieces up there, reviews of:
BoA reviews are very tight, unlike some of my more (ahem) “expansive” reviews posted here. Doing different kinds of pieces is helping me to grow. Check out Books on Asia, they have lots of fiction and non-fiction recommendations for Japan and all over Asia. You could start with the best books we read on Asia this year.
Speaking of writing different kinds of pieces, I had one other essay go up on an external site this year. Hōjōki is a classic Japanese text written about a hermit and his three-meter square hut. I first read this book a few years ago. This year a new translation was released by Professor Matthew Stavros, an engaging fellow very knowledgeable about Kyoto. Writers in Kyoto, a group I am a member of, asked me for a review. Rather than writing a very technical review, I decided to take a different approach inspired by my recent reading of Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott. As I noted in my review of that book:
one task of the critic is to re-create their experience of the work to the reader
This year was successful in terms of connecting with other writers and editors. I have a couple more pieces in the hands of editors right now which should appear in the first couple months of 2021. I also plan on pitching some more publications in 2021. If you, dear readers, have any suggestions on what stories I should tell or where you think I would be a good fit, I would be grateful for any advice.
For a book with “how” in the title, there is not much instruction.Better Living Through Criticism is more of a “watch me think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth” which is much more entertaining. If writing described as “pontificating” or “a meditation” does not immediately turn you off, you will probably enjoy A.O. Scott’s reference-filled critique on the practice itself.
Imagine sitting at an outside cafe on a brisk autumn Sunday morning, steam rising from three coffee cups as you look across the cold, green, metal table at your Uncle A and your other Uncle O. They both super smart, well read, and are going through a sort of mid-life crisis, questioning everything. Also, the only way they can communicate is in references, stringing together literary quotations like a pair of (Philadephia-based) conspiracy theorists. Furthermore, they have been meeting here every Sunday for weeks and still haven’t come up with any solution. But there have been lots of conclusions.
To some, this might be the worst kind of excuse-inducing scenario. I would immediate pull up my chair and take an expectant sip of coffee.
Each chapter takes on a fundamental topic (What is criticism? What is the role of the audience? What is the role of the critic? What is the business of criticism?) and is interleaved by conversational asides where Scott interviews himself, revealing more of his thinking in a sort of disarming, conversational way. (Chapter summaries here)
Although at some points the book feels like a drawn out magazine article, I do appreciate the philosophical approach he takes on the topics he covers. Although I do a lot of book and movie reviews, I have never really considered myself a critic. Better Living Through Criticism did make me think more seriously about my approach. I attempt to read every book with a critical eye and engage with the ideas within when I write about it. I want to add value, above and beyond any value judgement. This is the result of the “thinking” that goes both into criticism as into writing. A.O. Scott quotes Elizabeth Hardwick in the inaugural New York Review of Books:
“[T]he great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.”
H.L. Mencken declared that any good critic was motivated to “make an articulate noise in the world.” This advice I took to heart, but I was struck by Scott’s definition that “a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” Of course this does not mean a critic should “sell” the work. Scott returns often to the “struggle between criticism and publicity” throughout: critics shouldn’t be PR or marketing, nor should they hack down everything. For Scott, if he doesn’t like a work, “the only ethical and honest course of action for me would be to remain silent and leave the discussion to others.” (I have not always followed this advice, but as you can see I read many more books than I review). For the works that are worthy, one task of the critic is to re-create their experience of the work to the reader. Scott describes a budding cineast who “dreams of casting a spell like the one he finds himself under.” Critics are artists too.
Better Living Through Criticism didn’t give me a map, but certainly gave me a destination to strive towards in my own practice of criticism. There are many ideas in the book to grapple with and I have a stack of notes that I will return to. Also, there are many referenced works for me to look up and appreciate next. To better living!
This is a quick tutorial on how to easily type macrons on Apple devices with a hardware keyboard. The onscreen keyboard on the iPad makes this easy, but not when you are using an external hardware keyboard.
This will be particularly relevant to academics needing to write Japanese terms in rōmaji. I searched the web and found all sorts of non-solutions, either out of date or irrelevant, so I am putting this up on the web for others to find. As of 2020, this is the best way.
First, for macOS go to System Preferences → Keyboard → Input Sources, hit the plus button and choose ABC – Extended.
This used to be called US Extended, but thankfully they made the name more neutral. It won’t mess up your spellcheck settings, which are actually set in from the Text pane of the Keyboard settings. See below.
Now you can use the Opt+A keyboard shortcut to add a macron:
On your iPad you can do a similar thing. Tap on Settings → General → Keyboard → Hardware Keyboard then your language — mine is English (Canada) — and select ABC – Extended.
Now the Opt+A keyboard shortcut works on your iPad’s hardware keyboard too!
It is the last day of summer break. The kids’ school here on Iki had a 3 week summer holiday, shortened by the school missed in April due to coronavirus measures. Although our break was shorted by a couple of weeks, we are lucky. Some schools only got 9 days. We are also lucky to be going back to school. In my home province in Canada, some kids have not physically been at school for more than six months!
We travelled back to Kyoto for Obon during the break. We visited the family grave, I picked up a charm I needed from the 10th century occultist Abe no Seimei (photos), and I also did my first “anime pilgrimage” to Omi-jingu inspired by the show Chihayafuru (photos). Other than Kyoto we spent a day in Fukuoka (photos), took a couple trips to the local beaches on Iki, and got shocked by the biggest live jumbo shrimp ever (photos and video). We had an eventful summer holiday.
Which of course meant I did almost no work…
At the beginning I was really beating myself up for not hitting my daily reading/writing goals… not checking off the chapters and watching the inbox of papers pile up. I had a good number of blog posts right up until school let out. I tried getting up extra early, and doing things before the kids got out of bed — but I was so tired out from the 42 degree heat and travel throughout the day that I needed my sleep. Plus, it was summer holidays! I realized that even though I “work from home” and keep my own hours, I am still allowed to take time off.
So I let go… played with the kids, helped them with their summer homework, painted with them, and watched some movies (including Knives Out which freaked them out a little, but it was all I had on my iPad and we had limited internet access), and made memories with them. I also got to read some books just for fun, without taking notes in my zettelkasten!
And the great thing is, while I was not stuck in the details, buried up to my eyeballs in footnotes during my daily research, my brain was still working.
Before break I was having trouble with the progress of the book. Finding the right narrative for a travelogue is tough when everyone is isolating and you cannot follow the serendipitous lifepaths of strangers you meet on the roads. In Iran it was chance meetings that allowed me to meet a both a self-declared “Islamic terrorist” and an Armenian Christian who taught me an important lesson about being a religious minority. These kinds of random encounters have somewhat dried up during the pandemic. Before the break I was struggling with the dryness of the manuscript. It was reading more like a white paper from the OECD. During the summer break I had a chance to get some distance which lead to some insight and somewhat of a breakthrough. I am excited to get back to writing, and I have learned the lesson of taking summer breaks seriously even while having lots of fun cavorting about the countryside, splashing in the ocean, making dumb jokes and laughing with my kids!
This weekend I was thinking about the recent history of publishing content: What are the innovations and trends of the past? What is in the near future?
Let me give you a few examples of the kinds of things I am thinking about:
microblogs vs tumblr vs twitter
interest-based blog networks like Medium
Podcasts become popular (again)
recent trend in newsletters, especially paid ones
fediverse platforms like Mastadon
old skool Indie ‘zines
Kindle singles and other self-published eBooks
more novellas coming out in recent years
This is not an exhaustive list of publishing tools/models (if you have more please add them in the comments!).
These platforms go in-an-out of fashion. One reason is when a certain platform starts getting eyeballs, professional orgs come in and start crowding out indie voices (I really saw this both in blogging and podcasting). It is a kind of gentrification. We saw this with blogs and podcasts. I wish I could find the original quote, but I think of it as a dictum:
Network effects, especially driven by the big social media platform(s), means that content distribution is really bumpy.
On the opposite end, you get the “Yogi Berra effect.” You know:
So there is churn in online publishing, even if it is cyclical. Benedict Evans said in his most recent newsletter:
New internet distribution models work like slash-and-burn agriculture: OK for year or two and then it’s time to move on.
There is tons of content online, and if you want to contribute, which distribution channels should you use? How not to get buried?
Ben Evans points out:
… the average FB user feed has 1,500+ items a day – once you’ve followed everyone interesting you’ll never see what they post, and you’ve mixed your friends and your interests, and the algorithm hides what it will.
(This is a question I have been asking for a while, as I think about how to share all the photographing, filming, and writing about Japan I have been doing returning here 4 months ago).
In the early 2000s the blog was the tool, and RSS was the network that bound everyone together. RSS lost out to social media as the network, and in many cases social became the publishing tool (think of how many people just use Insta instead of a blog). You can write alone on the web on your blog forever and not be discovered because you have no distribution into/via the network. If you are trying to start up a new project, figuring out how to crack the nut of distribution and get effective reach is key. These are old problems, but they stay evergreen due to the musical chairs of publishing/distribution tools+networks mentioned above.
Looking at the problem at its most simplistic, there are two axes of differentiation:
Content: you have unique ideas/perspective/experiences/skill
Medium: you express your ideas/perspective/experiences/skill in a unique medium
Sounds like a “style vs substance” or “form over function.” — I told you it was simplistic! — but it got me thinking about publishing mediums in general.
I have been writing on this blog for 10 years, and have been blogging for nearly 20, and I came to it 10 years late! Blogging is a very mature medium and although the tools might improve, I think it is still a pretty recognizable form after all this time — like the novel or poetry.
These are certainly cool tools providing novel ways to interact with ideas/perspective/experiences/skill. But they don’t have the best thing that blogs had back in the day: community. I want to engage in a back-and-forth, to learn new ideas and improve my own. That was the best part of blogging in the early 2000s: meeting cool people online, and then meeting them in real life! I want to capture that feeling of blogging 20 years years, which had little to do with technology, and everything to do with the community.
In thinking about this, and looking to be inspired, I am on the hunt for innovative publications, magazines, blogs, etc that are firing people up: getting them engaged with more than just hitting a Like button. If you have any you want to share or plug, post below!
I read a lot. Maybe too much… I am not a particularly fast reader, and I only do about 48 books a year (about 70% of those books in audio).
So why do I say that I read “too much”? It is because I can barely remember anything I have read in the past. To date, since 2010, I have ticked off over 500 books. But like most people, I have forgotten pretty much all of it. Is it because I am consuming too much too quickly? Of course not. It because I am not retaining knowledge in an effective manner.
A few months ago my buddy asked me an intriguing question: “What note taking system do you use?” He said he was reading a new book on taking better notes… I thought he meant what app do I use. I have about 15 note taking apps on my devices, so I launched into a (yet again, unnecessary) comparative analysis lecture. What we was really asking was about my methodology. It was pretty simple: I annotate books like crazy in my Kindle, using different colours for certain things, then export the notes to plaintext and store them in one of my many note-taking apps. Generally I write only short articles or book reviews, so during writing I usually pull up my highlights in a window on the left, and a bit of an outline on the right, and piece together my draft that way. When I do a book reviews I might read four or five books from the author to get a sense of their ouvre. It is not too difficult to keep all the salient points in my head.
But for writing that relies on more sources, especially longer writing, this approach is impossible. The big thing my approach lacks is connecting what I am reading with other knowledge. I am relying solely on my memory to hold all the relevant points in order to generate insight. And since the human brain is fallible (well, mine at least), the raw materials used to generate insight are constantly receding into the murky past. This results in me being a victim of the “feature-positive” effect, which is when one puts more emphasis on information that they have recently encountered, even if it is not the most relevant (ie. Recency > Relevancy).
My master’s thesis was over a hundred pages, with dozens of references. My current book will be much larger. I needed a better approach. So I asked my friend about that book he was reading…
The Getting Things Done for academics
There are lots of “productivity gurus” out there selling you bunk. I am a guilty sucker ✋, I’ve tried a bunch. The only two I have stuck with, and evangelize still today, are the Inbox Zero and Getting Things Done methodologies (note, Inbox Zero is heavily based on GTD, so it is really just one methodology). GTD saved my life back in 2005 when I was running my first web design company, had too many competing priorities, and was dropping the ball all over the place. The GTD book by David Allen is super popular — because it works. I even mentioned it in my post of Your life-changing books.
So when it came to having a methodology for taking notes so that I could retain more of what I read, and thereby come up with better insights, I started looking at the book recommendation of my friend: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.
I am not going to write about the how here. It is one of those things that is deceptively simple, and if you read the book you will see its many impacts on learning, thinking, and creativity. However, to sum up the “simple technique” from the subtitle: it is about reading with a pen in hand and recapping the ideas you are reading in your own words in full sentences, then connecting the ideas in those notes to ideas in other notes to build a web of knowledge, and finally putting notes from various sources together to produce writing products like articles, papers, or books.
From a productivity standpoint, it is similar to GTD in that it breaks projects down into discrete, manageable tasks so you won’t freeze up due to your lack of productivity. You focus on the process and not the outcome, which is much more motivating. If each day you are faced the monolithic task of “writing a book,” it is understandable why you can’t leave dirty dishes in the sink and cannot log out of Twitter. But if you set your goal to be simply writing a handful of well-constructed notes each day, that is a much easier task to tackle.
Each day you add notes and make connections, then make notes about the connections. This is where “thinking” happens. This is the work: the productivity that you can easily measure every day. This is the zettelkasten methodology, or what some people call building a “second brain.”
The zettelkasten is the field where you harvest your ideas, your daily productivity is seeding that field with a critical mass of useful notes.
I have been working with this methodology for the past couple of weeks and it has been pretty freeing. Like when you do your first GTD brain dump and feel your stress dissolve because you trust the system, I have been recording all the ideas/facts/data I have been coming across in my system, freeing my brain up for thinking, which is the most enjoyable creative act to me. After reading the book How to Take Smart Notes I see there are many more benefits to using a zettelkasten other than productivity. I feel like it has been life-changing, and it certainly has already impacted the approach I am taking with my new book.
If you want to learn more, in this video the author gives a nice introduction to the concept and its history (at about the 30 minute mark he discusses productivity). That is highly recommended viewing, but I would also recommend the book. It is short, and packed with ideas (it generated 3,300 words of notes in my zettelkasten!).
An excellent quote from a piece on writing by Drew Magary. He writes about how he keeps a notebook of as-yet unformed thoughts so he never starts with the dreaded Blank White Page. Once you have collected all that primordial material:
Then you get to catalog it, tinker with it, and puzzle it over.
This gets to the core why I prefer writing to live debate… as the thoughts in my brain pass to my mouth, they remain incomplete (malformed?). I prefer the reorganizing, the working out of all paths, the understanding myself to make it understandable to others. Drew quotes author George Saunders:
Writing is a matter of sketching and building and arranging and fixing what is in your brain.
Even take this blog. Most of the stuff I write here is half-formed. Some might call it anodyne or callow. To me blogging has always been about sparking a conversation, a small slip of litmus paper to be dipped into public discussion — the reaction leads to refinement (or outright refutation!) which is ultimately the desired result. The Blank White Page too does not require perfection. It is merely a piece of litmus paper, waiting for your experimental thoughts.