Process and Ritual

ring of fireWhile there’s no obligation to explain your process to anyone, working it out for yourself does matter. There’s an observation from Aldo Leopold that’s pertinent:

The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.

In my previous post, I spoke about the broad spine of my process. There are aspects that feel important although I’ve yet to fully understand their fit and there are other elements whose purpose escapes me but I’m reluctant to set them aside. Learning, for example, appears in multiple non-obvious ways. I allocate substantial amounts of time to reading, of course; the world moves too quickly to rely simply on the accumulation of experience. I also try to have some topic I’m learning that is new to me; as a teacher, I want to always know what it feels like not to know something.

My writing practices have evolved over the years. I’ve gradually become more comfortable with letting writing evolve. When I wrote my first book, Ernst & Young provided us with an editor to work with us as we developed the manuscript. One day, John met me in my office. As I handed him the draft of my most recent chapter, I had to take a call from a client. As I spoke with my client, I was puzzled as John flipped past the first three pages and began reading the draft at the top of page four. When the call finished, I naturally asked John why. He gently explained that he had learned that I had a habit of clearing my throat for several pages and burying the lede; page four turned out to be a fairly predictable first place to look. I’ve gotten better at discovering my lede without outside assistance and putting it where I think it belongs intentionally.

Some find writing by hand a useful element of their process; my handwriting is both too slow and too illegible to help in that regard. What I have learned, however, is that it is valuable to capture snippets of ideas and phrasing as they occur to me. Technology makes that a more reliable process. What warrants further improvement is moving from snippet to finished product.

One practice that has helped at the outset of new projects is to write a “memo to self” that outlines a storyline of the effort as a whole. This is something other than a project plan. A project plan focuses on the sequence of tasks; the storyline is an attempt to find the intellectual thread that will connect facts, insights, and conclusions into a path forward.

I can’t necessarily explain why this works. But I treat it as a form of ritual. Whether you understand the ritual doesn’t matter; what’s important is that you commit to the practice. The open question is how to make these elements more visible to the people I am working with.

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