Sunday, October 27, 2013

Does Life Change in an Instant?

Does life ever change in an instant?

I believe the answer is no.

It's a question I sometimes want to explore creatively, to show stories of people whose lives do change, but not in an instant. I believe that even when there is a memorable turning point, we are incapable of changing who we are in an instant.

NPR's Ted Radio Hour this week was a rebroadcast of an episode called Turning Points, with three stories from people who theoretically had their lives change in an instant.

The first storyteller, a successful surgeon name Sherwin Nuland, seems to have been pigeonholed into the theme without necessarily really believing that his life did change in an instant. He had been hospitalized for depression for a year, and underwent electroshock therapy. The first eight shock treatments had no effect. Finally, the ninth one seemed to bring about a little change. Slowly, he gained enough of his health back to be let off the hospital grounds to take walks. One day, he walked to a nearby service station and was talking to an employee there who suggested he push away his depressive and obsessive thought by just saying, "Oh, fuck it." And that was perhaps the moment everything changed.

Except it didn't. Nuland goes on to say that for the first few months of trying out his new coping mechanism, it was really hard. It was only little by little over time that he recovered and got his life back.

Without being dismissive of people who do believe their lives changed in an instant, let me say this: Our lives don't change any more or any less on a given day. It is the seeming magnitude of the things that happen that changes, and the magnitude of our response.

What I mean by that is the external actions and effects that happen are nothing. Our response, both in how we perceive and how we react, is what makes the action or effect real, or meaningful, or completely insignificant.

In the second story from this same show, Ric Elias survives a plane crash and professes that his life radically changed thereafter. He appreciates life more, chooses happiness over trying to be right, and now dedicates himself to being the best father he can be. But all those things, surely, did not switch on instantly on the day a plane landed in the Hudson River. They did not come from nowhere. They had to be things he felt and knew for some time before, even if he hadn't acted on them as fully as he does now. Every day he changes. Every day the magnitude of his response to outside actions and effects changes.

The change is constant, ongoing.

We do not become new men overnight.

When I think about this question from a creative standpoint, I definitely take my own experiences into account. I have a number of stories about events that should have been "turning points," but when I think through them, I realize that nothing so significant ever happened on a single day.

The meaningful things that I can point to in my life, when I think about them in their entirety, are never so simple as to be caused by a single event. Everything interlocks. All the momentum connect.

I have been struggling my entire life to write about my relationship with my brother. I grew up believing he had been kidnapped, and later in life pieced together the fact that there was hardly any truth to it -- at least not in the words that I had learned to use to tell the story. It's an extremely long and complicated story, which is why I struggle to write about it.

For years, I thought it was a "turning point" in my life, this thing that happened that shaped who I was. But I also changed all the while. I wasn't a statically different person because of it. And the meaning of my brother's so-called kidnapping on my own life didn't come to me at once. It changed over time, and it's still changing. How I see the events around that story change all the time, too. The magnitude of them changes. My reaction to them continues to change.

Are we the sum of all our days, or are we only who we are right now in this moment?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Mixed Emotions About Publishing a Book

The last six weeks, my emotional experience about writing and finally now publishing a book has been nothing but a mixed bag.

The book is called Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life. It spun out of a weekly column that I write, also called Get Organized. The column has tips and advice for how to better organize your technology (think cleaning up iTunes playlists, how to name digital photos, etc.). Each column covers one little slice. The book, on the other hand, is more like a jumping off point for totally and wholly reorganizing one's digitized life, from photos to work files to social networks.

I'm feeling okay right now because the project is finally done. Not "proud." Not "enthusiastic." Not "overjoyed." But "okay." And it's taken a while to feel okay. The writing and editing sapped my energy toward the end, sure, but the emotional ups and downs were much more draining.

'This is Why it Matters'
In May, when I wrote the first draft of the introduction to the book, I was feeling pumped. I believed in what I had to say. Much of the substance of the book was going to based on 18 months' worth of writing that I had already done, and the introduction stepped back from the detail of the topic at hand to say, "This is why it all matters."

I wrote that first version of the introduction while traveling. I was on a driving road trip, seven days from St. Louis to Kansas City to Memphis to New Orleans, and then four more days in San Francisco. During the long evenings alone, I'd take myself to out to dinner somewhere to unwind first, then head back to the hotel. I'd nab some ice from the hotel vending machine and, back in the room, set two beers in the sink to chill. Laptop open, no distractions, I wrote. And I loved it.

I loved being alone and having uninterrupted time to write. I loved that no one was asking for a chapter. I was writing because I wanted to write. I put words on a page that mattered. I thought a lot about what I really believed, behind all the tips and advice, the core truth of what drives me to care about this topic enough to have something to say about it for almost two years straight (the articles run once a week, which means I'm nearing my 100th column).

That first draft of the introduction went to my editor, and I heard nothing back. Excellent.

Ironic as it may seem, I feel best when I send my work into the world and never hear about it again. Sure, I don't know if anyone ever read it, but I made it and did what I had to do with it. It's one of the conflicts I have with writing. I have to send it out, but part of me never wants to acknowledge that it happened. It's kind of like telling a secret. The moment you expunge it, it doesn't feel like a deep dark secret anymore. The moment a secret is off my chest, I forget that it ever was a secret in the first place. It's over and done. My writing is much like that.

Buckle Down
The project didn't actually pick up until mid or late June. When it did, I wrote a chapter a week for six or seven weeks. Mostly I worked from home, setting aside one day for one chapter. Bang it out, I thought, in one shot so as to not interrupt my regular work schedule too much.

It mostly worked.

I cranked through most of the chapters in chronological order, 15 in all. Here and there I set one aside and came back to it when I was ready. But I wrote steadily and consistently and didn't struggle with writer's block or any other nonsense.

Next came creating some images, which took a week or two, followed by making five videos that are included in the book (did I mention it's an ebook?).

I slagged on the videos.

At this point, the editor was not doing any project management, and he didn't get on my case to stick to the schedule that I had created. In all, I think I was three weeks late delivering the final video. But no one bugged me about it. I knew I was to blame, but no one blamed me but myself. That was a problem.

I should mention that there was a whole team of people behind this project, although I'm not going to talk about any one of them in detail.

Doubt
Mid September marked the start of final editing. We had done one major revision pass at this stage, and it was time to pin down the language once and for all.

This was the moment when I started to hate the book.

I wanted it to be done, to have been sent out into the world already so I could hurry up and forget about it. I started to reflect on the fact that it wasn't my best work. What would people say about it? How would they criticize the content? Hell, I was already able to criticize the content, so I knew it wasn't the best it could be. A few people would buy it, read the first few chapters, and rip it to shreds and rightly so, I thought.

Maybe no one would buy it, or a few people would buy it but none of them would actually really read the thing. I latched onto the idea that maybe no one would read it. Yes. I would love it if nobody ever read it. That would be ideal.

The publish date wasn't for another three or four weeks yet, and we had more to do.

Fatigue and Anger
Head down, I pushed through the editing, copy editing, and proofreading stages.

Proofreading went horribly, but I don't want to get detail about why. It wasn't due to the number of errors we found, but rather because a few people misunderstood how the proofreading phase needs to work. Nevertheless, I felt angry.

Shilling
Just as I thought the project was wrapping up, the team and I had a meeting where I learned in a lot more detail how much more needed to be done in terms of marketing and promotion -- self promotion.

I should email everyone in my contacts list and ask them to buy the book and write a review of it. That's what I was told.

No.

They knew I wouldn't do that, not in that way at least. Instead, I asked exactly 23 close friends and family to write a review. I even gave them advanced (unproofed) copies to read so that if they chose to write a review, they could actually read the book or pretend like they did. [Since I first wrote this post, I did send a note to 30 more friends, so that makes 53 people in all, which is plenty.]

Shilling the book felt even worse than feeling doubt and anger. At least I had some control, though, over how much effort I might actually put into shilling. With writing and editing, I'm trained to do a thorough job. It might not be brilliant, but it will be thorough. With promotion, I could (and would) half-ass it. I would do as much as I deemed necessary without going whole-hog.

More advice from our consultant: I should reach out to my contacts in the media and ask if they would mention the book in articles or have me as a guest on their television or radio shows, or maybe just mention the book.

I reached out to exactly three people in this fashion, and I hated every moment of it. I don't have many contacts "in the media" beyond a few former co-workers who now write for bigger and better general-purpose or technology websites, and a handful of email addresses of people who have booked me as a talking head on some TV news shows.

Outward Enthusiasm
"Be yourself." I understand why that hackneyed advice exists, but I swear it is not equally applicable to all people. Some people actually have to put in effort to fit in with others and appear as normal, well-adjusted, socially acceptable, empathetic human beings.

In my situation of having to now talk about my book when people asked me about it, I should under no circumstances "be myself."

Why?

Because I'm cynical and moody. Because I have the ability to see the worst in things while convincing myself that what I see is highly pragmatic and objective. Because I am extremely hard on myself and open about that fact. I think I believe that being hard on myself is a way to beat other people to the punch.

So on the day that the book launched and a co-worker asked me how excited I was, I said, "Not at all really. I kind of hate it right now..."  and after going on for 30 seconds like that, I finally cut myself off.

"Wait. Let me start over," I said.

"I'm so excited! Today is one of the best days of my life. I'm so happy to see everyone's hard work pay off. The book has been such an amazing project. Everyone has been super supportive, and it's just great!" Big smiles. Gratitude. A modest amount of pride. God damned jazz hands.

My co-worker obviously knew it wasn't genuine. I did want to prove that I could flip a switch and turn on the right attitude when necessary. But I also wanted to show that, yeah, I'm not thrilled about it. It's been hard. I feel shitty right now. I'm afraid people will think my ideas and writing are dumb, and that therefore I'm dumb.

Are We There Yet?
There's a saying among writers: The piece isn't finished when it's published. It's finished when people read it.

Get Organized has a launch party this coming week. I will get up in front of a few dozen people and put on my smile and thank people and gush about the book. Some of it will be sincere, some of it will be for show. And I'll honestly do my best to balance what I should say and how I should act with an ounce of my real open and honest self. The self-promotion and marketing stuff will go on for a few weeks, but I will probably only do it half-heartedly and not with the zeal that would otherwise land me interviews and radio spots and such.

I know there's still more to go, but I am ready for a few weeks of quiet and forgetting.



Monday, October 14, 2013

My First Book: Get Organized

My first book is out!

Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life grew out of a weekly column I write for PCMag.com. The column teaches very simply ways in which most people can better manage their digital lives. In other words, it's all about being organized with your technology, as well as how to make yourself more organized through technology.

The book is like a starter's guide to getting organized with technology. It begins with the computer, and even more specifically with the desktop. How should a clean desktop look? What are the benefits of a clean desktop (hint: it can increase your productivity and focus)?

It then takes baby steps into concepts like coming up with a consistent way that you name your files so that you can know at a glance exactly what each file contains, without even having to open it.

The book gets a little more advanced as it goes on, but it still circles back to some basics, like how to clean a smartphone tidy and what kinds of things you should put on your smartphone to stay organized (grocery shopping list, family calendar, an app that gives you access to important files on your home or office computer, for example).

You can buy the Get Organized ebook for Kindle on Amazon, and the Get Organized iPad version from iTunes. Barnes & Noble appears to be behind in processing the Nook edition (c'est la vie). There will be a small run of print books at a higher price in the coming weeks. I'm not sure how much it will cost, but probably in the neighborhood of $15-$20. The ebook is $4.99.

And you can read the weekly column every Monday on PCMag.com.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Love of the Interview

How much can you get a person to reveal about himself or herself?

One of my favorite kinds of writing, to both create and read, is the interview. Interviews take a lot of preparation, and even then, they can go sour quickly. Some interviewees warm up immediately while others stay cold the whole time you're asking them questions on the record. Some people answer questions better the second time you ask the same thing. Some people simply will not be interrupted for a follow-up. Some don't know how to elaborate.

It pains me, though, to interview people in a limited amount of time, as is usually the case, and not have the chance to ask more personal questions. Their histories and personas, I believe, actively inform the "why" and "how" of their work--or whatever it is I'm interviewing them for.

Not everyone opens up, either, and often, based on the nature of the interview, there isn't time to get to what I'm truly interested in knowing. Last week, I interviewed a prominent businesswoman and entrepreneur, Cindy Gallop, who has a very open personal life. Before we started recording the interview, she said a few things off-hand that I wanted to ask more about. It had to do with her life's trajectory and how the uncertainty of her future is, right now, very exciting and brings her happiness. I could have asked a hundred questions about those few ideas alone, but the purpose of the interview was something else, and I didn't want to take up more time than I had initially said I would when she so graciously agreed to be interviewed in the first place. [Video below.]


One of my favorite interviews I've done was back in 2008 with game designer Eric Zimmerman. Before the interview, I overly prepared for it. I was working at home at the time and living alone. I had an abundance of time and a lot of flexibility at work. I researched Zimmerman and discovered he's an open book online, with his resume (which included even his home address) all fully there for the taking. So I prepped and prepped and prepped.

I think the interview itself must have lasted 90 minutes. That's a lot of time to ask of someone. We met at the office in New York where Zimmerman worked and had a quiet conference room where no one bothered us. So I fired away, mostly on the topic of games as systems and the topic of systems thinking. Here's an excerpt of my favorite bit (I'm "GCG") where I tease out something more personal but still manage to stay on topic:
GCG: I found a quote from Karen Sideman. She was quoted in an article on The Escapist last year called "Gamelab's Hustler." I think you had spoken at the Astoria Museum of the Moving Image and someone had interviewed you. Karen Sideman spoke to the same reporter and she said, she thought that you were successful because you are "extremely comfortable" talking about things "systematically." I was curious first for you to comment on that, and second, if you could tell us something that you are either not systematic about or something that suffers because you are too systematic.  
EZ: Oh, wow, that gets kind of personal. ... 
I also want to say that thinking about things systemically is not dehumanizing. It just depends on what you do with it. In the instance of the resume, what I'm really saying is that you need to understand that there is a human being who is going to be looking at your resume, and it's not just about the object of the resume, but it's about how that object ramifies in a human context. I wouldn't want to think that thinking systemically somehow empties all the humanness out of the equation. 
So you said, "What is an example of one thing I don't do systemically?" 
GCG: -- either something you don't do systemically or something that suffers because you're too systematic. 
EZ: Deep engagement with something, whether that's a romantic relationship, whether it is being in the moment of playing a game, or something that you study seriously -- I've studied martial arts for a number of years -- you go through cycles. Sometimes you rise above it all and have a very rational analytic consciousness of what's going on. Other times you're really taking a very deep dive and are acting very intuitively.  
I think that you need to be able to let go of systemic thinking. Sometimes it's good to be able to analyze what's going on in a relationship or with your feelings. Other times it's just totally wrong because that analysis itself is you sort of hiding your feelings. ...I would say that systemic thinking is not necessarily rational either. Part of acting intuitively is that you have learned systems so well that you're no longer thinking rationally about it. You've moved through that rational process into some space of deeper play. 
If you think about great play, whether it's Counter-Strike or tennis or poker or basketball, there's a kind of flow that occurs. In that space of flow, is that really systems thinking? Yes, but maybe more on a preconscious level than a conscious level. I'm not a cognitive scientist, so it's hard to speculate. I wouldn't want to always associate systems thinking with rational analysis.