The End

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This is the end. A little over 20 months ago I began this 10 Minutes of Words blog. Since then and counting today, I’ve written 591 of them – totaling more than 300,000 words. If I had written that many words of fiction, I’d have more than three novels. Which I guess is a lesson for those who say they can’t find time to write.

Of course, I wouldn’t have written 3 novels (fiction is such a different process) – but I might have written one. Or a bunch of short stories.

To be fair, during the first few months, writing every morning for ten minutes or so (I occasionally went longer) was a great way to start my day and get my brain up and running. For someone who can’t even imagine being a morning person that wasn’t a bad thing. But eventually, I found I dreaded it. I’d sit and stare at the screen for five minutes or more before I even had an idea what to write. Sometimes I’d have to start over when my thoughts refused to follow a logical path. More than a few times I erased an entire blog and started again with a different topic.

In short, this ten minutes began to stretch out to 30 on some days. It was no longer an exercise in thinking and writing – it became a central focus of my day. Some nights, I’d even lie awake in bed trying to work out a particularly complex argument. Ten Minutes began to occupy an inordinate amount of space in my head.

I tried various strategies – writing out lists of possible topics, writing a series of related blogs and so on. Often I’d look at the list and wonder what I had had in mind. The series almost always seemed forced. I eventually decided that winging it with a blank slate at least had the advantage of being spontaneous. Sometimes, they were the funniest blogs I wrote if not the most profound.

Still, I think I did hit profound on occasion – at least based on the responses I got from my readers. Eventually I may go back and see if I can mine these nuggets to see if there is enough gold to make a short e-book worthwhile. Or not.

For those who have been regular readers – all 40 or so of you – I appreciate your loyalty and support. On occasion it has seemed pretty lonely in here. Other times I’d hit a resonant note and several hundred people would drop in and see what I had to say. My record was the piece I wrote about the shooting at the Ottawa War Memorial which garnered over 700 views since it was published. Not exactly best selling territory. The least read entry was one about Gardens which attracted only 8 readers.

In any case, it wasn’t all about numbers – though obviously if I had 10,000 readers I’d probably still be doing it or actively looking for a book deal somewhere. I’ve enjoyed the process and the contacts I’ve made.

But this is it. I may be back from time to time as the mood strikes me but it won’t be a regular, or even frequent, thing. I’ve got other stories to tell in other venues. If you look for me – you will find me.

And that, at last, is ten minutes.

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Focus

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The ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others is a great skill. It is far superior to multi-tasking, which gets all the good press. But, really, multi-tasking is simply shifting your focus rapidly from one thing to another. Or it’s a sign you are easily distracted.

But focus is not something that can be achieved in a moment. Deep focus takes effort. You have to learn to push aside all other thoughts, all emotions, even all sensations. Focus is what lets athletes play through pain; it is what allows scientists to concentrate on a single variable at a time as they work to a solution. Focus is the only thing that will allow you to complete a significant work of art.

I’ve always been good at focusing on things – at least for a time. I can immerse myself in a complex effort, like doing the year-end books or writing a short story and lose all track of time. Later, when my back is throbbing or my eyes are itchy and irritated, I sometimes wish I couldn’t.

Focusing on tasks is one thing; focusing on a career is quite another. That is a skill I’ve struggled with. It’s not so much that I am easily distracted but that I am easily bored. I do something for a while but then it ceases to be challenging; it ceases to hold my attention.

For a while now, I’ve been multi-tasking my life. I have a job – one I’ve been doing for fifteen years. Trust me, there isn’t an issue I haven’t seen before. I’ve acquired expertise in a variety of topics only to forget it all when the job required a different emphasis. Well, it’s not really forgotten – just put aside until I need it again. I seldom find myself having to do anything original these days.

Publishing is a complex process, especially when you are pretty much managing or doing all aspects of the job from reading slush to marketing books to doing the books. Still, it has its rhythms, its repetitive tasks and while each book is unique, the work required to get it on bookshelves is not.

I’ve also been writing for years and, again, while each story I tell is different, there is a familiarity to the task of plotting and crafting and writing that makes it all the same. I wrote most of a short story this weekend and, at a certain point – about ¾ of the way through, I thought: I know how this all works out. And only an effort of will, an application of focus, actually made me write down the words necessary to get to the end. It was satisfying but…

Another thing I’ve been doing is experimenting with being a ‘public intellectual.’ It started as an off-hand remark to friends but I got such positive affirmation, I experimented with it, in part right here. Robert J. Sawyer thought enough of the concept that he made me a political pundit in his latest novel, Quantum Night. At the very least, I’ll be able to say: I’m not a public intellectual but I played one in a book.

So now, it has come time to choose: what will I focus on for the next 10 years, perhaps the last decade of my active engagement with the world? That’s an answer I’ll have to focus on before I can tell you. Or myself.

And that’s ten minutes.

Write Off (and On)

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I’ve been writing since I was about 15. Not every day of course, not even every year. Still, it is the one artistic thing I’ve ever been good at. I actually failed art in school. Can you imagine that? Who fails art? Me. I was a little better with music but only because musical notation is a lot like math. I can read music; I just can’t play it.

I tried. Saxophone of all things, because it would be foolish to take up an instrument where it was easy to fail. No one blames you when you fail to master the saxophone. Though it’s not like the bagpipes where they actually thank you when you give them up. A few years ago I bought another saxophone thinking I might do better at 50 than I did at fifteen. Not so much – but it is nice to look at.

Sax

On tour with Silver Donald Cameron

But writing was something I could do – well, not really well for the first fifteen years I was doing it. I’m not big on keeping memorabilia but I do happen to have a play I wrote when I was in Grade 11. To call it crap is an insult to sewage. I also have a notebook with my first short story and pages of really bad poetry. Of the three forms – poetry, play and short story – the prose was the best. Not good mind you but better than the other two.

Yet, strangely it was the theatre that got me writing in a serious way back in the late 80s. I wrote a number of plays – about 20 – and some of them even got professionally produced. I would have liked to be a successful playwright – theatre parties are such fun – but I suspect that my motivation was focused on the wrong things.

Instead, for better or worse, I settled on prose fiction and most notably on science fiction. I have written some fantasy, a mystery or two and even some literary fiction – and published some of what I wrote – but if I’ve learned anything about writing over the years, it is that it is better – for me, at least – to pick one thing and try to do it well.

You might think by now I would have developed my work habits to the point where writing was something I did every day or at least every week. Not so. I have over the last thirty years or so gone long stretches where I didn’t write at all. I think my biggest gap was when I first moved to Ottawa in 2002; I didn’t write a word of fiction for over 18 months.

In recent years, I’ve spent so much time editing and publishing other people’s work that I barely have time to write at all. Saturday was an exception. I invited my writing group over to have a day-long write-off. We all get together and write (and chat and snack). It can be productive but for me, not always. The last few, I snuck off and did some publishing work instead.

Fortunately I had brainstormed a story a couple of weeks ago – come up with most of it in 20 minutes in a coffee shop while waiting for a meeting. Brainstorming is a technique I teach but have failed to use myself recently. Duh. So I actually wrote – over 2000 words. It felt pretty good. Think I’ll do it again over Easter. Because I can.

And that’s ten minutes.

No End in Sight

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I talk a lot these days about retiring. What I’m really talking about is moving from one occupation to another. Frankly I’m tired of working in a regular job – getting up every day to someone else’s schedule and trundling off to an office where my activities are constrained by those around me and the systems in place to manage the work.

I’ve never been keen on systems. I didn’t mind school but found plenty of ways to circumvent or at least ameliorate the rules. It was not a case of rebelling – I was a radical but not much of a revolutionary – but of co-opting them to my own interests. Being smart and working hard can buy you a lot of freedom. It helped that the high school I went to had 2000 students and my university only 1300. You could choose to be invisible if you liked – or you could stand out in ways that seemed to buy into the system while secretly subverting it.

Good times.

Real life was never so easy. Governments and corporations have had a lot of practice shackling their employees, locking us into the iron cage of bureaucracy. Small businesses – unless you happen to be the owner – are nothing but arbitrary fiefdoms where employees are treated like family – in the worst sense of the word – and expected to work like slaves.

Work – the curse of the drinking class.

But, having been smart enough and lucky enough to work in a place that offers a defined benefit pension plan (indexed to inflation) means that soon I will celebrate, not freedom 55 but freedom 61 or 62 (the timing remains uncertain). I will have an income free from any obligation.

It’s as if I was suddenly a member of the gentry in a Jane Austin novel!

But as they say a man with an income is soon in need of, well not a wife – I have one of those – but an occupation. Something useful – at least to them – to fill the hours until happy hour. Without it, happy hour may start to come at 10 in the morning.

But what to do? Fortunately I’ve been planning for these days for a very long time and have plenty that will fill my hours with interesting tasks while still leaving me free to pursue my real hobbies of traveling and sampling all the various foods and drinks the world has to offer.

I have my publishing company and my writing. I don’t see giving up the latter – ever – and as for the former, well, that depends upon other people, those who choose to buy or not buy the books I publish. But for now it continues to beckon me. After all, writing and publishing have their own benefits and not merely in terms of being engaged in a creative process but in being engaged with creative people.

That’s what keeps your mind young even as the rest of you ages into decrepitude. Even after my body stops moving my mind can journey to far shores.

I’ve seen the alternative and it isn’t pretty. Wasting away in body AND mind. No, I’d rather go out like Robertson Davies, starting a short story on the morning of my death at age 90.

But that’s ten minutes.

Routine

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Routine can be a good thing. It can help you keep your day productive and your life on an even keel. Some people can barely function without a level of routine; taken to extremes it can become obsessive compulsive. Others abhor the quotidian; they seek constant stimulation in the novel. Any kind of routine seems to them like a prison – the most routine place in the world outside a monastery.

Society, of course, relies on routines. We all go to work at more or less the same time, take our lunch at noon and carry on the rest of our day in a more or less predictable way. Even the cowboys of capitalism – stock traders – live their lives according to opening and closing bells.

It’s easy to see how all this comes about. We divide the year in weeks and weeks into days and each day has its own characteristic. Blue Mondays and Thank God It’s Friday. The cycles of the year become institutionalized into the cycles of life – each season having its own rituals and regular activities.

It’s hard to imagine a life without any routines. One would have to eat one’s meals at different times every day. Since the purpose of breakfast is to break our fast after sleep – without routine, you would have to rise at a different time each day – sometimes at 5 a.m., sometimes at noon. Who could sustain such an irregular life?

Yet one could imagine it. Sleeping only when sleepy and rising when awake. Freed from the routine of sunrise and sunset – say aboard a deep space vessel – would the clock cease to mean anything? For some, it might, but, for others – those drawn to military roles for example – they might live their lives even more by bells and signals. Imagine the conflicts between anarchists and martinets in a crew on a five year mission. Yet – that conflict of strict routine and those who flout it has never, as far as I can tell, been much explored in science fiction. Crews rise together, eat together and work in shifts – continuing the cycles that were set for them by the diurnal character of their evolution.

All this is to say that, while I generally embrace routines – getting up at roughly the same time every day and eating much the same breakfast before sitting down, each day, to write these ten  minute essays, occasionally my mind rebels at the necessity of obeying self-imposed schedules. Every once in a while I demand a change in the routines of life.

Every once in a while I need a vacation from my life.

So, I hope you enjoyed this last little ramble because tomorrow I’m going to Cozumel and I’ll rise when I wish and sleep when I must and swim at a different time every day and walk on the beach – sometimes going left and sometimes right as whim takes me. And I’ll even try new foods and drink different drinks and talk to strangers.

Then I’ll come back and see if life has changed. Think of it as rehearsal for the next phase when I’ll answer to no one’s schedule but my own. Well, and Liz’s, of course.

And that’s ten minutes.

Insomnia

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Of all the things I’ve lost over the years, the one I miss most is the ability to sleep through the night. For most of my life, I fell asleep within seconds or at most minutes of my head hitting the pillow and remained asleep for eight solid hours or more, unless I was yanked untimely from my dreams by the bleating of an alarm clock. Blessed with a huge bladder (TMI, I know), I seldom even had to get up in the night to pee.

Oh, to return to those days. While my bladder remains huge, I seldom sleep solidly through the night. I wake up because I’ve gotten sore from lying in one position, because I need a drink of water, because my snoring wakes me or my wife up, because of no reason at all. On a very good night, I’ll awake once or twice. On a bad one, my eyes flop open every 45 minutes. Sometimes I can go back to sleep fairly quickly; others I lie awake for an hour or more, thinking circular thoughts about something that is troubling me.

On occasion, I’ve composed one of these little essays at 4 in the morning and then repeated it over and over in my head so that when I finally stagger up it is no effort at all to transcribe it. Then there are the times when I’ve thought of something brilliant to say only to have it slip away in the time between 4 and the dawn.

I’ve developed a few tricks to get me through. Breathing helps, especially if a press my face into the crook of my arm so the sound is loud in my ears. I’m sure the gradual buildup of carbon dioxide under the sheets helps bring a return of unconsciousness as well. My wife uses visualizations but these have never worked for me – they get more and more complex and pretty soon develop exciting plots which either promotes wakefulness or guarantees nightmares that, you guessed it, wake me up.

Whenever my mind is whirling with some task that needs doing, usually related to my day job or to the publishing work, I have developed a simple process. I ask myself if I’m going to get up and do what needs to be done. I stick my nose above the covers and notice how cold it is and I snuggle against my pillow and notice how cozy it is and decide that perhaps I don’t need to do that task right now after all. But about one time in ten, I actually get up, put on a warm robe and head for my computer to work for a few minutes or an hour or as long as it takes.

I then spend the rest of the day longing for bed while resisting the urge to nap – which would only guarantee another restless night.

Recently, I read a study that suggested that the idea of sleeping through the night is a relatively new one, brought on by the schedules of the industrial age and the demands of the ever ticking clock. Three hundred years ago, people went to bed when it got dark, but often got up in the night to do some early morning chore by the light of the moon or write letters or read by candle light. Sleep came when it was required. And maybe that’s something I can look forward to when I am freed of other people’s schedules and can finally just… zzzz.

And that’s ten minutes.

I Love Work

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I love work. I must – I never seem to turn down the opportunity to do more of it.

Then there are the days when I want to get a big bag and sweep everything off my desk and pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s not as if the publishing business will fail if I don’t take care of all the details, right? And who needs detailed notes of future stories when we have NaNoWriMo?

As for the daily grind, why should I keep the household accounts up to date? As long as there is money in the bank, it must be okay, right?  Housework is also overrated. Personally I think that dust bunnies make great pets. You don’t have to do anything and they just keep on growing and growing. As for the drifts of detritus that eventually gather in the corners of your apartment – well it is a bit reminiscent of autumn leaves and sand dunes, isn’t it? Who needs to go outside when you live in a virtual wilderness?

Of course, that isn’t really ‘work’ work. Real work involves productivity – not merely moving dirt from one place to another. It involves cooking good meals for example – which inevitably leads to more housework. Those bathrooms don’t clean themselves, you know.

No – I get it – you think of work as the stuff you get paid for. Which pretty much eliminates writing and publishing. Oh, money flows through my hands alright but you wouldn’t want to calculate the hourly rate.

So there is the day job where I produce endless amounts of advice that no-one pays attention to and write countless speeches that no one listens to. It would be a full rich life if it weren’t so empty and soul-destroying.

Seriously though, we all have to work, right? Put our nose to the grindstone, our shoulders to the wheel, with our asses in gear. Which reminds me – it’s time for another visit to the physiotherapist. All those contortions are hard on an aging body.

People always say to me: what do you think you’ll do when you retire? As if the whole point of quitting your job is so you can start a new career. Nobody accepts the truth. When I retire, I will do nothing. I will simply sit in my chair and stare at the wall.

You know what they say – first of all, do no harm. You can hardly harm anyone if you do nothing. And it will be good practice for when they put me in ‘The Home.’

They also say do what you love. I suppose, but really, after 60, your libido isn’t up to doing that all day. And drinking is hardly a fit occupation for an old man. But I’d be willing to give it a go.

The real trouble with retirement is that it is just so damn expensive. Wine, women and song get pricier with every passing day – especially if it comes from America, what with the exchange rate and all. And who can afford to travel – the medical insurance alone could bankrupt you.

Oh, well, might as well keep working.

And that’s ten minutes.