On Writing, Programming, and Composing

I used to be daunted by a blank page. Now I am beckoned. It is an invitation to pour out whatever I am thinking about. I grew up in a time when you either laboriously wrote out your thoughts in long hand with pen and paper or you typed them with a typewriter. In either case erasing was complicated to the extent that it wasn’t really a good option. I think many writers just marked through their mistakes and kept writing.

I remember sitting in the spare bedroom of the trailer in Carbondale surrounded by a bunch of wadded up sheets of yellow paper containing discarded starts of the screen play I was attempting to write. I had no concept of how to write a draft. I was a perfectionist. If it wasn’t exactly what I meant to say, I ripped the page out of the typewriter, wadded it up, and loaded a clean page.

Even when I finally got a computer, I didn’t know how to write with it. I spent hours typing a few words and deleting them and then typing a few more. I had similar problems with programs. I have started many programs that never got much further than a skeleton and a few simple primitives. The important thing in both cases was that I didn’t quit trying.

For a while, I kept just starting over again doing the same thing each time. Then, I started varying my approach. I had some successes with programming at work. I eventually found The Artist’s Way and learned how to bootstrap my writing by sitting down every day at the same time and writing a minimum of 750 words. I eventually became confident enough in myself that I was able to write 50,000 words in a month.

I have learned that I must keep raising the bar, demanding more of myself. I recently increased my daily minimum to 1000 words. I decided that I would spend at least part of my words writing something that was more focused than a journal entry. Some days I find that I still spend the whole entry rambling. Others, I actually dive into a topical post as soon as I start writing. I feel the quality of my writing improve with practice. I notice my mindset while writing changing. It has become an exercise in organizing my thoughts instead of struggling with the mechanics of writing.

I have struggled off and on with integrating what I know to be good grammar with the conversational voice that often ignores such faux pas as dangling participles. I have also have had problems with sounding pedantic when I write. I am still struggling but I seem to be doing better with less struggle lately.

On the programming front, I have had similar experiences. I have learned that good tools are very important to being productive. They can help you be more productive so that you have more time to think about the code you are writing. This means that you don’t have to take the first thing that works as the final product. I am feeling the urge to rewrite more often. Too often in the commercial world the people that are paying for the software don’t appreciate the value of iterating a couple of times to improve the design of a piece of software.

I am to a point now that I am facing a common challenge in all of my endeavors. To finish. I suppose there is a corollary that has just occurred to me. Each time you iterate over a piece you should strive to finish that iteration. Each iteration should have as its primary goal to improve over the previous iteration. If you make the practice of finishing each iteration, it doesn’t matter if you have an iteration that is a regression. You can fall back to the last iteration and try again.

This is true of writing, programming, and my other artistic endeavor that I haven’t even discussed yet, composing music. In fact, it is even more applicable to composing music. So much so that there is a special name for it. It is called improvisation. There is improvisation in writing and programming but it is not as exposed to public scrutiny as musical improvisation is. It occurs to me that essay writing is literary improvisation though. And live coding is programming improvisation. So the paradigm does translate across all three fields.

A good essay would draw some conclusions at this point. I’m not claiming this is a good essay. It is certainly not a bad start though. So I’ll leave it at that.