Keep a daily blog

Well, that backfired.

But let me back up. I wish I wrote more. Relatively speaking, I’ve done a lot of writing over the years: sketches, a few murder mysteries, short stories, a couple of hours of stand-up of varying quality, co-authoring of a TV show, contributions to a book or two and a semi-devised script for a promenade show at a dubious pharmaceutical research facility as they were beginning human testing. You know, the usual. But all that writing is spread thinly over an uncomfortable number of decades, which is because each time it’s like getting ink out of a stone.

I just find it difficult to put my mind to it. I’ve always found it hard to share the writing process with another, but unfortunately I also lack the discipline to write on my own. All my essays, stand-up, scripts and other odds and sods have been written at the last possible minute, with the deadline forcing my hand. Douglas Adams famously managed to operate on that basis, and perhaps, were I significantly more talented, I might be able to get away with it as well. Unfortunately I need to work really hard at it, and as a result I generally feel like everything I’ve ever written isn’t quite finished or good enough to be published.

There’s a pretty well-known challenge faced by stand ups and comedy writers, which is that something that seems pretty amusing in your mind suddenly becomes dull and unfunny when you try and get it down on paper. Like having an abstract notion of a sculture in your head, then sitting down with a big block of stone and a chisel, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. In my case I don’t want to start tapping away with the chisel lest the results be disappointing; even in this digital age, turning an idea into words feels somehow permanent. And let’s face it, in writing and comedy, the results usually will be disappointing. It takes a while to craft the words just so to best communicate the core joke or idea, and the first few drafts are probably going to miss the mark.

Here’s another unnecessary analogy because I’m on a roll. If your pure, brilliant idea is a steak of flawless kobe beef, then the writing process is trimming, cooking, seasoning and serving it up with various accoutrements, all of which can detract from the original ingredient. It’s tempting to keep that pure idea in your head, rather than risk screwing it up by developing it. It’s a kind of perfectionism, which in writing is just another form of writer’s block. For me it’s an excuse not to write in the first place.

I think part of the solution, for me, is just to develop the habit of writing regularly and frequently. A good stand-up might write ten jokes and throw nine out; the important thing is to make it habitual and get to a place where ideas can just flow. That’s where blogging comes in. Posts are updated frequently (generally), and the bar for quality is lower. Not that blogs are inherently badly written or anything like that, but I think people expect them to be a little more rough and ready, a little less polished, than your average essay or newspaper article. The odd typo or unrefined turn of phrase isn’t going to be a big deal, and that means less time spent on the bits I dislike, such as editing, and more on the original ideas and first draft, which I enjoy.

So obviously you’re reading this on my blog, about my weekly lifestyle changes, and I should probably explain that the idea for the blog came first. The weekly challenges were, partly at least, to give me something to write about. Not that I’m not enjoying all those little life-style changes, which occupy considerably more of my time and energy than writing each of them up, but the idea came about when I was trying to think of a way to get me writing regularly again.

I’d always intended to spend one of my weeks focused on the blog itself one way or another, switching from weekly to daily updates to up the challenge, but I hadn’t been able to figure out logistically how to make it work. This is after all a blog about doing weekly challenges, and if the weekly challenge is to keep a blog, and I then write a blog about it, well, that’s all getting a bit meta and self indulgent, and it was already pretty far down that path to begin with.

…which has never stopped me before, so let’s go. And by happy coincidence, I missed seven weeks of blogging because of the birth of my second child. I kept up the actual weekly challenges, but fell well behind on writing them up. So this week’s challenge was to write daily blog posts.

I have a few writing goals planned (including this and writing a short story), so this seemed like a good time to check-in with David Scullion, a good and time-generous friend, and the most motivated, prolific writer I know. I asked him about writer’s block and how you maintain motivation, but he was singularly unhelpful in that regard. Turns out that’s never been his problem.

Writer’s block? Not really, no. Lack of motivation? Hell no.

I don’t think I’m rare in this either. Most of the professional screenwriters I know are hugely motivated and don’t have time to get writer’s block. Don’t have time to get it?! Yep. That’s not a valid excuse for a missed deadline so it HAS to be worked through.”

(Read the full conversation with David Scullion here.)

Well, that rings true. Lack of time is my go-to excuse, especially now I have two young children. Give me 15 spare minutes, and I’m going to spend them sitting down watching TV or fiddling with my phone, thinking as little as possible. I also spend all day every day in front of a laptop at work, and opening it back up once I’ve wrestled the kids into bed and cleaned up the kitchen requires discipline that I apparently lack.

Still, that’s the whole point of doing these weekly lifestyle changes. They’re not particularly big, challenging things, just little ways to prompt me to find new habits and get to things I’ve wanted to for ages. So I found the motivation in those tired evenings, and wrote daily blogs for a week.

The week itself went pretty well (don’t worry, it all falls apart in a bit, failure-fans). I wrote six articles (plus the write-up of the week), one a day, though spacing out the publishing.  Here they are:

And that’s where it all fell apart. Having spent a week writing every day, with a bunch of posts queued for publication, I felt like I was ahead and relaxed. For several months. I kept doing the weekly lifestyle changes, though not every week, and I have a lot of scribbled notes and stories, but the blog lay dormant.

I’ll write about the year as a whole, and that general failure, shortly. Within the next three months, for sure. Maybe four.

Write every day. Every day. For 5 minutes. For four hours. Every single f–king day. Write. Read. Repeat.

Yeah, all right, stop going on about it Dave.

  • Difficulty: Mederate. It takes discipline to get started, but gets easier as it becomes a habit.
  • Worthwhiliness: Moderate. If you want to be a writer, this could be an excellent enabling habit to get into. For me it backfired, sapping my motivation.

Seriously, go read my conversation with David Scullion. It’s a stream of conciousness that gives rare insight into the mind of a quasi-lunatic, and it’s packed with good tips for writers of screenplays, novels and more. Win-win.

Header image by Drew Coffman


Have a baby

I always imagined I would have children. That’s not quite the same thing as saying I always wanted children, in fact I find it hard to put myself in the position of those who can say that. Having children is such a massive decision, that profoundly affects many aspects of your life. It’s generally accepted that parents report, on average, less “happiness” (whatever that means) than those without, so it’s a bit of a … well, gamble isn’t quite the right word. I think it’s selecting one kind of happiness over another. Sounds a bit overly rational, but I think that’s what I did. You don’t know how it will work out, but you want to give it a shot.

And I’m glad I did. I have a boy already, and he’s working out pretty well so far. He’s two years old, for the next few minutes at least (time travels a lot faster when you have kids), and he’s currently learning the joys of saying “no”, being totally irrational, and resisting my attempts to brush his teeth. He’s really getting the hang of it.

He’s an emotive fellow, and he gets super upset when he learns about major injustices like having to wear pajamas because it’s bed time. Just wait until he hears about income inequality. But even when he beats my shoulders with his little fists because I stopped him running into traffic, or declined his request to use a steak knife, it’s quite endearing. His ineffective punches and lame put-downs remind me how relatively strong and smart I am, which I quite like, so I have to force myself to admonish him for this bad behavior while I can still correct it. And the rest of the time he’s adorable. I rather like being a father.

There’s one thing I struggle with a bit, which is that it sometimes feels like I’m just occupying him as a way of killing time before dinner and bed. Perhaps we’ve all been coached through adulthood to believe that unstructured playing is a waste of time that could have been spent earning money, reading a text book or learning a new skill. I think we forget that play is a skill, and a really good one. Not that long ago, medicine believed that being playful or silly was an imbalance of the humors, an excess of phlem or whatever it was, that should be corrected. We might have changed the language we use but I think the sentiment remains. So now as parents we have to learn to unlearn what we’ve been encouraged to believe is important and adult. It’s quite hard, but every time I get down on the floor to play with duplo or cars I’m getting better at it. I think my kid is making me a better, more rounded person. Also occasionally a more angry person holding a toothbrush, but you have to take the rough with the smooth I guess.

So this week, my resolution was to have another child.

I should confess, this isn’t a spur of the moment thing. I’ve actually been planning it, in liaison with my wife, for quite a while. This resolution was conceived over nine months ago. There were some indications that this should be the week to try it, and, well, here we are. In the hospital.

Brendan Dodds in hospital scrubs
In my scrubs, waiting to be summoned into the birthing chamber.

So we had the baby. Admittedly, I leaned hard on my wife for the actual work, but I fetched a lot of things and I think that adds up. Son number two is home, in fact I’m jiggling him to sleep in my left arm while I type this with my right, with mixed success at both. He’s spending the bulk of his time experimenting with innovative sleeping patterns including, notably, snoozing while eating. Impressive. He’ll go far.

By the way, if this resolution sounds like a bit of a cop-out, well, it is. I need a week off. Got butts to wipe.

  • Difficulty: Fairly easy to get pregnant, then hard for the rest of your life, then you die.
  • Worthwhiliness: It’s early days, but hopefully high

Header image is Woman Giving Birth, by Travis

Get more sleep

I’m a night owl, by default. Always have been. When I was at high school I would lie awake late into the night watching whatever was on TV, surfing back and forth between the channels. That took a certain commitment back in the 90s in the UK, when there were only four channels, and at least one of them would go dark at a surprisingly early hour. I wasn’t choosy; I would watch a documentary on Channel 4 about the industrialization of the loom industry in the Cotswolds, then whatever imported comedy was on (Friends or Kids In The Hall were highlights) then enjoy Open University geology programming that was intended for people to tape on VHS recorders rather than watch live. Actually I think this might explain my later fascination with sketch comedy, varied academic subjects and weaving. But the point is I would regularly stay up late, sometimes beyond 2am, then get up in the morning for an early paper-round before school. I once played Fantastic Dizzy on the Amiga CD32 until 3am, because back then you couldn’t save your game, before hitting the rounds with bleary eyes at 6am. I’d like to say that this was cool, and I could handle it, but I was tired all the time at school, and I’m sure my educasions suffered.

When I got to University that pretty much continued, except that everyone else was doing it too and, ironically enough, we were much less likely to be watching university programming. There was definitely more late night drinking. I find it hard to imagine student parties here in the US, where you don’t get to drink until you’re 21. What do you do, soberly enjoy the company of friends? Play board games? Study?! Ridiculous.

When I graduated I worked for a while as both a waiter in a nice restaurant and behind a hotel bar, which pretty much suited my schedule perfectly. I’d be wiping tables on Saturday nights in the restaurant until around midnight, and mid-week in the hotel you were at the mercy of the current residents. If there were people in town for a work conference they didn’t care about, who wanted to drink until 2am, then you were working until 2:15am. Not that I’m complaining; it enabled my late night habit.

Jump forward to my first “proper” job, and I’m working in the City of London as a high-flying, pin-stripe-suit-wearing, professional executive temp (junior). I’ve finally made it. I did pretty well at re-orienting my sleep habits at first, partly because I was living with a teacher with a long commute. But then we got broadband internet, the great absorber of time. Where do all the productive hours, sucked into aimless surfing, go? Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg will live on in indefinite youth, while an old computer clunks and whirs in his attic, LEDs blinking as it feeds him the minutes stolen from people like me, who lost them tending to virtual crops or reading about insomnia on Wikipedia at 2am. The web-server of Dorian Gray. (For any Millennials reading, that’s the guy from the philosophical literary novel by Oscar Wilde, not the Twilight fan fiction 50 Shades of Grey. Which has probably sold many more copies. Mankind is doomed.)

I fixed my habits eventually. Four years ago I took a job working with people spread all around the world, and simultaneously moved to Southern California. That meant being available early in the morning to speak to Western Europe (9 hours ahead) and sometimes in the evening for Oceania (who are basically already previewing tomorrow, I think; I still get confused about it, and to make matters worse they refuse to tell me what lottery numbers are coming up). Quite a few people in LA timezones work early to sync up with the East Coast (3 hours ahead), so I’m not unique, though I probably do it more than most. Once or twice I’ve done a 4am meeting, and I regularly do 6am. So the really late nights inevitably stopped pretty quickly.

All the same, I’ll still push it. After 10pm the house becomes pretty much mine, so it’s precious video game time. As anyone with a Playstation or Xbox knows, an hour is really the bare minimum time to play real games.  It would be common for me to turn in somewhere between 11:30pm and midnight, and later on weekends.

I’m not blaming video games though. This might be scientifically naive, but I’m suspicious that my natural body-clock actually runs to roughly 25hours. I always want the day to last a little longer than it does, but still want the same amount of sleep (a conflict that sleep loses). I’ve come close to testing the theory, by which I mean I went to University, but who knows for sure.

So this week’s challenge, the third mini-resolution in my series of 52, is simple: go to bed by 10pm. That means in bed, lights off. Not slyly looking at Flipboard or Twitter on my phone with the screen brightness turned down, but lying there, marinading in my own sleepless thoughts. 10pm probably doesn’t seem particularly late to a lot of people, but it’s an extra 1:30hrs per night for me. If I can actually get to sleep.

A couple of years ago my wife bought me a Lark for Christmas. It’s an alarm clock you put around your wrist like a watch, set via your phone, and which wakes you with a quiet vibration. The idea is that I could get up for my early calls without disturbing the rest of the household. It’s supposed to be a nicer way to wake up, but I find my wrist being shaken to be more alarming than a noise. My instant reaction is some variation on “HOW LONG HAS THE FIRE BEEN BURNING?” On the other hand, a cool benefit is that the Lark tracks your movement throughout the night, then syncs with your phone to give you a view of how well you actually slept. Whether you tossed and turned all night, or slept deeply. It has a weird effect on me: sometimes I find myself checking the stats to decide how I feel on a given day. Like, “oh good, I slept well last night, then I must not be feeling tired”. It tracks you throughout the week, then gives you a scorecard. So I can see how well this week has gone.

I set the alarm on the Lark on night 1, which informed me it would wake me in 9 hours, surely enough sleep to develop some kind of super-power. Of course falling asleep isn’t quite so easy in practice, and going to bed that much earlier than normal was like the first night on a trip to a different timezone. I obviously wasn’t tired, so I took a sleeping tablet. I have a pack in the drawer by my bed for those frustrating times when you’re lying awake, and the knowledge that you should be asleep, and that you’re running out of potential sleep hours, wakes you up more and more with each passing minute. The effect is particularly acute when you have an important early start the next day, I find. It only happens when my mind is highly occupied, perhaps once a month on average; hardly a problem, but nice to be able to take a capsule and break the anxiety/sleeplessness cycle. It might even be a placebo, or some kind of attribution effect, but I’m not going to dwell on that in case it stops it working. Ignorance is blissful sleep.

I took three sleeping pills during this week of, as is convention, 7 nights. I don’t really mind that. The net result was that I got probably an extra hour of sleep, on average. I think, despite the sleeping tablets, that it was better quality sleep too. On a normal night, if not tired, I might break out my phone and look at Twitter or Facebook. It’s well documented that the blue light emitted by just about everything these days inhibits the production of melatonin, or otherwise messes with circadian rhythm. By forcing myself to lie awake in the dark I avoided those ill-effects and when I did eventually fall asleep, according to the Lark, I slept a little more deeply.

But mainly I slept longer, averaging about 7:30hrs of real sleep per night (disregarding the time the Lark decided I was merely dozing lightly) and felt better the next day. Not super-powered better, and I’m pretty functional on 6-7hrs, but it made a difference. Easier to wake up, obviously, and perhaps a little sharper during the day. I felt like I got more done.

Actually, the biggest benefit was unrelated to sleep. By going to bed earlier, I gave myself time to talk to my wife. Normally I’d either slide under the duvet in the dark, trying not to disturb her, or we’d immediately turn the lights off so as to not waste precious sleep time. Suddenly we could comfortable talk for 10mins without feeling like we were spending tomorrow’s time.

By the end of the week, I noticed that I was getting drowsy around 10pm. The week had definitely reset my body clock, in a helpful way. I missed the extra time in the evenings to watch a TV show or play a game, maybe even read a book, so I plan to move it back to 10:30pm, when I can go to bed feeling tired and ready for sleep. That’s a big benefit. The extra 30mins sleep per night is a keeper.

  • Difficulty: Low-Moderate
    (easy to turn the lights out, but not so simple to fall asleep)
  • Worthwhiliness: High