Why I NaNoWriMo

I have completed NaNoWriMo three times, and have started and failed more times than I’d like to remember. 

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It’s less than three days until November, or as many like to call it, “National Novel Writing Month” (NaNoWriMo). During this month, writers from around the world get to work on banging out at least 50,000 words by the 30th. That translates to about 1,667 words a day, or about 3 pages depending on font and spacing. I have completed NaNoWriMo three times, and have started and failed more times than I’d like to remember.

I wrote my first manuscript for NaNoWriMo 2010 while I was still in high school. The book was about a man cleaning up the messes his late brother left behind, only to realize at the end (spoiler) that his brother is still alive. I printed the manuscript and held onto it dearly, but never took it further than that.

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After that, I went to college and wasn’t able to really focus on writing a novel until after I dropped out. In 2014, I completed my second book, Thomas, a story about a man being haunted by the ghost of his mother in rural nowhere. I lightly edited this book and hired a friend to design the cover. I took the text and the cover art to a printing service and managed to get a couple copies on the shelves at Powell’s Books. They all sold!

My third NaNoWriMo happened the very next year. In November, I wrote a frenzied memoir about living in Portland, Oregon. I was very proud of this piece, and found it to be my most cathartic work. My friends liked it too, and they in turn helped me format and design the book for publication through Amazon CreateSpace. You can buy it here!

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Look ma! I’m published!

Each time I finish writing one of these books, I get better and better at the process of getting it published, and I think that’s what brings me back each year. Writing a novel is daunting and requires so much mental effort that it feels impossible to get it right the first time, which is why you might as well get started. I once met young adult author Christian McKay Heidicker when he came to Powell’s Books to sign his newly published Cure For The Common Universe. He told me that he had written several novels before this one, none of which saw the light of day. However, the work that went into all of these unseen manuscripts helped him refine his craft in order to produce his debut Cure For The Common Universe. 

My mantra when it comes to writing is to “make a mess, then make a better mess,” a term I’m sure I’m borrowing from Austin Kleon. There is no better time than November to make that mess, especially with an enthusiastic online community of writers at NaNoWriMo.org. On this site, I track my word count, cheer on my writing buddies, and also get pep-talks from published authors who support the project. I go to write-ins around town, which are events in cafes and libraries where authors get together for set periods of time to work on their word count. The camaraderie is so strong that you get swept up in the fervor of it all and it makes your novel that much more likely to getting done.

Writing books for me is about creating a profound connection between author and reader. There is nothing quite like the experience of reading a book. When you are immersed in an author’s text, you get a focused taste of what’s going on in their brain, which is one of the most intimate experiences I can think of. This one of the reasons why people love books so much, because it offers the opportunity to get lost in someone else’s head. And while keeping this connection in mind, it motivates me to be part of larger communities, like the one I find every November on NaNoWriMo.org. And so! If you have always wanted to write a novel, I invite you to join me and hundreds others in getting 50,000 words out of your head and onto paper. It will be a mess, but I’d rather a messy experience than none at all.

Personal Finance For Low-Income Twenty-Somethings

If you know what you can afford, it is easier to ball-out and flex.

I don’t make a lot of money. I work as a barista for 30 hours a week and it’s enough to pay my bills and not very much else. When you don’t make a lot of money, it becomes very important to know where that money is going in order to make sure you are getting the most value for what you’re spending.

Know Where Your Money Is Going

Tracking your expenses is the first step to see where you can make cuts. I use Mint, an online service that links your bank accounts and tracks your spending for you. I like Mint because it’s hands-off. I don’t have to do very much to get a report of where my money is going. My account currently looks something like this:

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What’s great about Mint is that it does an excellent job of analyzing your spending for you. It makes comprehensive graphs and budget guides based on your expenses, and saves you a ton of time. However, there are some of us that like a more DIY approach. For a while I just kept all of my receipts and logged them into a Google Sheet. This is a useful approach if most of your transactions are made with cash, or if there is so much chaos in your life that Mint doesn’t return meaningful feedback. I downloaded a manual income tracker for my phone which allowed me to make my own categories and log my spending manually. It was time consuming, but gave me more control over how I saw my spending.

Make Projections

Once you know how much money you are making, it helps to sit down and predict what you’ll be spending your money on. This is hard to do, especially if you’re starting out and don’t really know how much you should be spending in any given area. It takes practice to know what kind of spending is sustainable. I used to spend a ton of money on coffee and sushi, not necessarily because I was stupid but because I didn’t realize there were better ways to spend my money. After going broke over and over again, I managed to figure out there are ways I can be happy if I think ahead rather then waking up and reacting to my needs that day. Below is what my projected expenses look like.

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FYI “Treehouse” is the payment I make for an online service, not rent I pay for canopy real-estate.

The purpose of plotting out projected expenses is to make sure you get your basics covered. Notice that a lot of this is stuff that I know I’m going to be charged for. This way I can see how much extra money I have for incidentals. This month I bought some assorted furniture, which are necessities but one-time purchases, and don’t really make sense to predict. I like to think as projected expenses as my heart-beat. These are the constants that I can expect.

I also make sure I low-ball my estimates for projected income. This is general good practice, because sometimes you are going to call out sick from your job or not make as much money as you anticipated. By saying that you make a little bit less then you actually do, you actually are making smarter decisions about allocating your spending. And extra money feels that much better when it comes. However, if your estimates are too low, you aren’t going to get accurate results.

Start Saving

Saving is a pain, especially if you don’t have any money to begin with. I tried squirreling away funds when I was a bookseller, but I ended up always having to use it for incidentals. If you are living paycheck-to-paycheck, it is worth trying to change your situation in order to get more financial wiggle room. This may mean cutting unnecessary expenses, finding a cheaper place to live, or getting a higher paying job.

I use an app called Qapital for my personal savings. I love this app, because it links to your bank account and automatically saves small amounts of money as often as you tell it to. Currently, it rounds up my change and puts it in a rainy-day account. Whenever I get my paycheck, it puts 5% of it into the same account. Furthermore, whenever I tweet with the hastag #hollerforadollar, the app puts one dollar in my account. There are a lot of fun rules you can set for saving using Qapital, and the app provides for a lot of flexibility. There are similar apps out there (like Acorns, for example) and I suggest doing some research and seeing which one works best for your needs.

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A glimpse into Qapital in action.

Onwards & Upwards

Right now I’m trying to figure out the ins-and-outs of my 401(k). I have money left over from a previous employer and am trying to rollover the money into a new account. I don’t know a lot about 401(k), IRAs, or investing, but I’m doing a lot of reading and research to get a grasp on the topic. Personal finance is one of many things that you practice and get good at. Realizing the value of budgeting and thinking about your accounts can help you plan for the future, which is a good enough reason to start today. This way, you don’t have to panic when life suddenly demands $1400 when you only have $10 (this actually happened to me). As a good friend told me, making peace in certain areas of your life creates space for introducing chaos. If you know what you can afford, it is easier to ball-out and flex.

The “What Do I Watch?” Problem

When my options were massive, I was crippled by an inability to commit to a single pursuit. 

You may be familiar with the feeling of scrolling through Netflix and being unable to choose which movie to watch. I had the same feeling while working in one of the world’s largest bookstores. When my options were massive, I was crippled by an inability to commit to a single pursuit.

There is a study that touches upon this topic using jam. A shop presented its customers with a selection of 24 jams for a period of time, then switched to a selection of only 6 jams later for a different set of customers. The results: more people were attracted to the larger selection of jams. However 30% of customers bought a product from the smaller selection while only 3% made a purchase from the larger selection.

The study suggests that when confronted with an overload of choice, we tend towards paralysis. We can see this not only in choosing books and movies, but in careers as well. As children, when we are told that we can grow up to be anything, is it possible we are priming ourselves to not commit to anything at all?

With respect to media, it is helpful to think about Jorge Luis Borges’s short story about the fictional Library of Babel. This library contains all the written text imaginable. For ever book on one subject, there exists a polar opposite. There are multiple editions of the same book that are different only by one letter. Some men pick through the library for books that contain the meaning of life, but all go insane in their search.

It is impossible to conquer the Library of Babel, much like it is impossible to keep up on movies and books at the rate they are being produced and at the ease at which they can be accessed. This is why I have taken to the philosophy that the most important thing is often what is directly in front of you.

Method One: Take Individual Recommendations Seriously

My friend Josh picks books to read as such: someone will recommend something, and if he likes the person, he’ll give it a go. This way the choice of what to read is made for him, and at the very least he will understand the person who recommended the book a little bit more. I find this to be an elegant solution, since it grounds the choice in a directly applicable context: friendship. Whenever someone I like recommends a movie or a book, I am more inclined to commit. It narrows the choice and also provides the opportunity to connect with the other person’s interest. While small-talking with a customer at the cafe, he suggested I watch the movie “The Void” and I immediately did so. At my local burrito spot, one of the servers mentioned that he saw an excellent weird movie called “Santa Sangre”, a film I would have never considered watching before that moment.

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This method, letting other people do the picking for you, is also a way to shake up your routine, or to introduce some creative chaos into your life. Too often we get caught in a cycle of comfortable media rotation. Introducing other people into your media consumption makes it more likely you will see or read something that will change your life.

Method Two: Ride The Wave

Sometimes, we don’t want other people to make choices for us. I know that sometimes I just want to sit down and relax and watch something that I’m interested in. Instead of trying to pick the best thing, if I let go and let my intuition guide me, I will often commit to something more easily. It’s kind of what makes going to a a bookstore magical. There is a serendipitous element to choice in which it is not you doing the choosing, but rather the circumstances around you.

An acquaintance of mine put it elegantly: “I just ride the waves,” she said, in regards to picking what TV show to commit to. Fighting against the tidal wave of media is fruitless, and much like browsing the Library of Babel for a specific title. Instead, what if we were more inclined to reach out and pick a smaller section, or to let subjects find us instead of the other way around?

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There was a time I used to ponder the question “What makes people intelligent?” I concluded that a huge factor that contributes to intelligence is the ability to recognize learning opportunities in your immediate surroundings. The smartest people find curiosities in their walks to work, while staring at their ceilings, or when making small-talk with strangers. It becomes less about picking quality content, but instead bringing a quality thought-process to the content. The most important thing is often what is directly in front of you.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that we all should actively seek out the truth and do adequate research when needed. However I think that choice-paralysis can stop us from being motivated to learning new things. I would rather more people pick up books than avoid them completely because they don’t know where to start. Sometimes starting is the hardest part, and to overcome the overwhelm, it is often best practice to let the media find you.

Avoiding The “Have You Seen…?” Trap

To constantly match what you have seen against what someone else has seen is fruitless. There needs to be a better way to create meaningful conversation…

In modern conversation, you will often find yourself in the following scenario:

A: Have you seen [movie]?

B: No I haven’t! What’s it about?

A: [summarizes film]. You should totally see it.

B: You’re right! I definitely should. Have you seen [different movie]?

Then the whole cycle repeats itself. Sometimes this kind of conversation is fine, but I notice that it creates a loop of trying to one up your conversational partner in tallying up movies that you love against movies that they love. Even if there is overlap between your tastes, the conversation becomes a pissing contest rather than something rewarding or fruitful.

Now that the amount of media available is massive, we essentially are faced with an infinite amount of movies, books, and albums to consume. To constantly match what you have seen against what someone else has seen is fruitless. There needs to be a better way to create meaningful conversation out of comparing our individual experiences with media with other people. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use movies as my primary example.

Dig Deeper

For starters, try to figure out why this person is telling you about this particular movie. Questions like “Why do you like this film?” “Why do you think I would like this film?” are good places to start. I also try to contextualize media in relation to the present moment. “Explain to me how this film is relevant?” is not necessarily an elegant question for conversation, but it is another angle you can use for digging deeper. The purpose of these questions is to open the dialogue to a broader spectrum of conversation that can result in a new idea or experience.

Example A:

A: Have you seen “Aeon Flux”?

B: No I haven’t! Why do you think I should see this film?

A: Well, it’s an almost direct translation from anime to live action…

Example B:

A: Have you seen “Baby Driver”?

B: No I haven’t! What’s it about?

B: It’s about a kid who drives cars for robbers, but stylized in a way that is centered around the music that constantly plays into his headphones, which he never takes off.

A: [thinks “how is this relevant?”] Huh, that’s interesting because of how relatable that experience is for a lot of people who listen to music a lot on their commutes or at work.

Both of these open the conversation to diverse subject matter, and escape the trap of going back and forth comparing our film-viewing history.

Conversation As a Dance

A lot of the time I only want to talk about coffee or books, but I am learning that being a conversational partner is as much contribution as it is listening. This is sort of a no-brainer for some people, but after working in customer service and meeting hundreds of people in the past couple of years, I sometimes fall into a conversational autopilot that is neither present nor awake. Conversation is assessing the other person’s interest and matching it. If someone doesn’t want to have a conversation, you don’t talk. If someone wants mild, pleasant small-talk, you can potentially reciprocate. But if you’re talking to someone and you touch upon something that they are genuinely interested in, it benefits both participants of the interaction.

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I know two excellent conversationalists who have told me the secret to good talks is finding out what the other person wants to talk about. I believe most of us are chewing on some kind of idea at any given moment, and it is really exciting and special to be given the opportunity to share what that thing is. I like talking to my friend Zac because he shares the same vocabulary for entrepreneurship that I do, so when I tell him what I’m thinking he can come back with feedback that matters to me. I like listening to my friend Elliott talk about music because it occupies such a large portion of his thinking space that he usually has a lot to say about a particular artist or genre. Zac likes listening to me, I like listening to Elliott, and it’s all because we get to share what interests us.

There is a silly stereotype that computers and phones make us more closed off and more awkward in person. I think that this is something people like to say to mask their fear of technological change. People have the potential to be quality conversationalists, and to be able to bring meaningful dialogue to the table while avoiding problems like the “Have you seen…?” trap. It boils down to listening and providing the opportunity for new ideas to enter the space between you and the person across from you.

My Approach Towards Time Management

I’m interested in optimizing my productivity in a sustainable way, which means getting as much done as possible without feeling terrible.

I had a teacher in high school that I absolutely loathed. Mr. X had a very hands-off approach to teaching, and asked us to read our textbooks and come to class the next day test-ready. “This is how it’s going to be like in college,” he told his students. “It’s all about TIME MANAGEMENT.” Whenever he said the words “TIME MANAGEMENT” he would pound his desk with both hands in a way that really got my goat.

What bothered me the most is that he was right. So much of my personal successes depended on my ability to responsibly manage my time. If you ask any of my friends, I have a fiendish obsession with punctuality (something you may have read about before). What’s interesting about time is that it is a finite resource and for each person there is a limit to the amount of work they can get done in a day. I’m interested in optimizing my productivity in a sustainable way, which means getting as much done as possible without feeling terrible.

I base my approach around the Benjamin Franklin work schedule, which I have pictured below. The basic concept is to wake up, assess “what good” I can do today, and to stop at a set time in order to enjoy myself, and to reflect on my achievements in the evening.

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From The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
In adapting this structure in my own life, I’ve noticed that there are two key aspects of this mode of thinking that are particularly useful: assessment and enjoyment.

Assessment
If you wake up in the morning and make a reasonable goal for what to do that day, you already have a head start on getting things done. As opposed to approaching the day without a plan, you now have a frame of reference for where you should be directing your energy. Furthermore, by ending the day with reflection, you can see what worked and what didn’t, which informs how to do the next day better than the last. This creates a loop of continuous fine-tuning and adjustments that will help you get close to being your most effective self.

For example, let’s say I wake up and decide I’m going to do three hours of code before I go to my day job. After one hour, I feel horrible, and the next two hours of study are fruitless because none of the information sticks. At the end of the day, I really only got one hour of work done and I am also unhappy. The next day, if I say I will only do an hour and a half of work but with ten minute breaks and diverse subject matter, I will get more done and feel better by the end of the day.

Enjoyment
For me and my workaholic friends, self-care and non-productive play is a foreign concept. We are often alarmed at how good it feels to just hang out and do nothing, especially when our values are centered around how much value we can produce in a day. The Benjamin Franklin work schedule highlights the need for “diversions”, or things that are just nice to do and not necessarily “work.” My rule is that any work I do after 5pm is extra credit. I don’t have to work after 5pm, and if I do it shouldn’t feel like a pain in the ass. This means I can watch movies, listening to music, and hang out guilt-free because I have designated hours for work that are separate from my hours for fun.

Currently, I wake up early to code in the morning, I do my coffee job in the afternoon, and I do whatever my heart desires in the evening. This creates a loop of productivity and enjoyment that I can keep doing instead of burning out and losing my mind (which still happens, but less frequently).

Mr. X, to my ire, was right. It’s all about (pounds desk) TIME MANAGEMENT. And funnily enough, for me it revolves around making sure that I have enough wiggle room to do things that aren’t scheduled. I once read that Gertrude Stein often abandoned her commitments to go on long walks and attend operas. It’s interesting to me that seemingly unproductive time can actually be productive if I allow my mind to wander and play, instead of relentlessly pushing its limits. There is a time and place for everything, and I guess that’s where the science lies.