Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Kosher . . . ?

Every now and then, you want to cheat. (No, not cheat-cheat, honey . . . now put down that frying pan.) My schedule has worked quite well for me, and I've kept to my routine of sleep, writing, and exercise, and work with very few lapses. But the hard part about such resolutions is knowing when it break it. Having a set bed-time is a wonderful thing . . . except when your in-laws call in the middle of the night because they're in labor. Well, obviously, you think, that's an exception. But then there's the SKS meeting that runs late . . . well, that's something really worthwhile, so it's easy enough to bend the rules. Then there's the time you stay up late watching La Femme Nikita because, well, it's Friday and you have company and you never have any fun anyway so why not? If you keep making "reasonable" exceptions to the resolution, you may wind up right back where you started -- reactively justifying everything you do, and having no discernable order at all. That was always my problem before: what was right in front of me always seemed more important than anything else I ought to be doing, and my ability to correctly discern priorities in the moment of action really sucks.

I have more sympathy for the Orthodox Jews now. I used to mock the ways they embraced the demanding disciplines of rabbinic law, and then set about defining the law as minutely as possible so they can find loopholes and exceptions. Can't turn on the stove on the Shabat? Hey, let's put it on a timer! Sometimes it's a lot easier to keep the letter of the law than the spirit, especially when there's debate on what the spirit of the law really is.

So . . . what's the principle on following principles? When is the exception better than the rule? Some thoughts:
  • Obviously, it helps to have some flexibility built into the rules. Instead of hard-and-fast limits, it's better to have an ideal target with some stretch in it. My schedule can bend about half an hour in either direction without suffering too terribly. I can feel the difference between going to bed at 11:00 pm instead of 10:30 pm, but not enough to jeopardize everything else. By defining how much something can bend, it's easier to know when it will outright break.
  • Define hierarchies of value (i.e. priorities) as well as rules. It's a lot easier to know how to break the rules if you know which are the most important rules. That means that some rules will be sacred and inviolable, with no exceptions allowed, while others will be more flexible. For me, writing every day is probably the most sacred, followed by bedtime and exercise.
  • Define the intent and purpose of your rules. Any rule can be transcended if you can demonstrate a different path to the goal. This is the Budget principle -- you can rearrange all kinds of revenue and spending, so long as the bottom line remains the same. In my case, I can sometimes stay up late . . . but not without consciously planning on when the sleep will actually happen within the same day.
  • Make exceptions exceptional. The more faithfully you follow a regime, the easier it is to make sensible exceptions when circumstances merit. If you find yourself breaking the rules more often than keeping them, you're in trouble. How often is too often? I'm going to hazard a guess of 5%. If you do the right thing nineteen times out of twenty, you've probably got a strong habit that can bear a few exceptions. More often than that, and you're in slippery-slope land. And you need to especially watch out for consecutive exceptions; break the same rule twice in a row, and you're in deep doo, because now you've started a trend in the wrong direction.
  • When in doubt, ask someone else. Other people are much better at seeing through your blatent rationalizations. That, after all, is why we have rabbis.

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