Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
There are constantly shifting periods within my life that my wife lovingly calls “side-projects” but most of which she wants to call “What the hell are you even doing you’re a grown ass-man.” This is why I married someone who knew me in high school, because if she could like me through that, she would be able to handle anything. These side projects are as varied as they are ill-advised. For instance, for three years, I drew a webcomic (it was terrible and needs to be burned with fire but I had fun). Or how about that time I built a little house with popsicles, carpenter glue, and a pocket knife, and used our clunky second-hand CRT television as a work bench?
These little flights of fancy stick to me too easily, so it’s no surprise that when my wife and her sister were one evening going on and on about bullet journaling, my ears pricked up.
Graphs are an obsession of mine. If there’s anything that I learned in high school that came to any use in my later life it would be learning to use Excel in Ms. Hubbard’s Info Tech class. Whether it’s our car’s mileage, the success of national hockey teams or my words per day output since 2005, there is a chart or graph on my computer that covers it.
So when I found out that someone invented a paper journal (despite my affinity for Excel, I am still a sucker for physical media) whose dot pattern could help track a bunch of my goals and habits, I hit up our local bookstore and impulsively bought the only one that was available at the time, despite its slightly nauseating colour and the fact that the entire lineup appeared in the same store only a couple of weeks later.
My entry into the world of bullet journaling also coincided with an important life milestone. Despite my best efforts and pleas that had fallen on deaf ears, I was turning 30. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with the way I handled my 20s, but I was determined to “Do my 30s right”, and if I could track sleeping, eating, exercise, language learning, productivity and a bunch of other crap found in self-help seminars, and put it in a neat little notebook, well then there was something right with the universe.
For those of you that are familiar with certain aspects of bullet journaling, you’re probably asking: “But Michael, you can’t draw for crap, what the hell are you doing getting into the girly art of bullet journaling?”
Firstly, I resent that first accusation. I’ll have you know that my stick people have the most intense expressions. Just look at this son of a bitch over here, judging you silently (may have been a product of 5 hours of intense sketching.
And secondly, there is nothing inherent to bullet journaling that requires artistic flourishes or stickers. Outdated gender norms aside, there is nothing preventing anyone from becoming a bullet journal enthusiast. I mean, sure, did I immediately go to Michael’s and buy a set of 20 Staedtler coloured pens? And did I update my hideously overpriced Micron pen collection? Maybe. But I didn’t need to do any of these things. I could just as well have pulled out a Bic pen and set to putting my bullet journal entries together.
So, what exactly went into the goal of doing my thirties right? With two young kids, one of whom was five months old at the time, it comes as no surprise that sleep was an important factor. Kids will eat away at enough if it without any effort on your part, so I figured I could tackle getting to bed on time easily. It’s not the easiest thing to do to go from 12:30 am bedtimes on weekdays and 2:30am on weekends only four years ago, to desperately trying to get to bed before 11:00 pm every day just so you wake up a semi-functional human being. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not whining. Kids are the most exciting thing that’s happened in my life. But they take their toll, and I needed to track to make sure I wasn’t exacerbating the problem.
Okay, given how that went, perhaps that wasn’t the best example to lead with. Another endeavor that I started to immediately track was my feeble attempts at learning Spanish through apps and reading literature I don’t understand. I recognize my failure as a Canadian in my inability to speak fluent French and then hopping on to trying to learn another language. But I will blame my teachers for compromising my love for the French language and my eternal fascination with Cuba for my attraction to Spanish. I put together an entry that tracks my use of the Memrise and Duolingo apps and whether I read or listen to any Spanish that day. As you can see from the tracker below, my results have been streaky.
Here you have another entry that doesn’t show the most stellar track record. But that’s the beauty of it. Even if I hit my lows or my busy periods, the fact that I’m still tracking this keeps pulling me back, and I’ve never fully given up on my goals. That’s kind of what I discovered on this journey, there’s only so many hours in a day, so there’s only so much you can do. Requiring perfection from yourself is about as unfair as requiring perfection from others, but as long as you keep trying at least the journey would be fun.
So now you’re thinking, “Thanks Michael, I don’t need a journal to tell me I don’t sleep and for my own sanity’s sake I won’t track my caffeine intake. So how will this help me in my writing?” Ah, there’s another advantage to bullet journals – you’re only limited by your imagination. Anything you want can be tracked, if you’re brave enough.
Take this spread here, which tracks my general types of writing output. This hits on everything from novels, to blog posts to time taken for my publication efforts. Even my hesitant forays into poetry are tracked here. Sometimes it’s hard to see what we’ve done, especially when jumping from project to project without taking anything to completion. But here I can quickly see where my time goes, and be assured that I’m putting in my hours to chip away at the coveted 10,000. Not a magic number, necessarily, but I thought it would be nice to take inspiration from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, where he talks about how most experts at something tend to clock at least 10,000 hours in that activity. It's also a pretty sweet Macklemore song.
And that’s not the only writing-related bullet journal entry that I have. Since about 2005 I have been tracking, on-and-off, my writing output in terms of words per day. I know some people feel that this turns writing into a chore, and that’s certainly one of the reasons why I would stop for long stretches at a time. But I found over the last couple of years that now it aids in motivation, and going back at the end of the month and seeing production in graphic form encapsulates what I had done nicely. So at the beginning of 2017, I decided to do this in bullet journal form, where I would track the days using colour-coding based on how many words I wrote, with a little legend on the side to help me remember what the colours mean.
As you can see there is a significant bite taken out of the middle of 2017, and I elaborate on this a little bit in an earlier blog entry. But aside from that stumble, I think it’s pretty neat. You can easily see how 2018 has been significantly more productive than 2017, due to several factors of maintaining a good streak, having a variety of projects, and being in a good general state of productivity since November 2017, which again is covered in said blog entry. I want more days to be in the blue rather than in the green, but with work and other commitments it’s tough to fit that much writing into my day.
So there you have it, a bit of an insight into one of the many things in my writing toolbox. I would encourage you to pick out a bullet journal of your own and see where it takes you, or otherwise find a way of tracking and visualizing your progress. But remember, steer clear of anything that will suck the joy out of your art. Track to write, not write to track.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.