Story behind the Book Choice
I have to start with a confession: I had two major deadlines today and I simply did not manage to read a new book on the side. So, the good news is that I happily met the deadlines. The bad news is that I have to break my promise of discussing a new book every Sunday. I could have cheated by discussing a book I already read but I decided not to do this. Instead, I decided in favor of The Nothing Book. In case you have not heard about it, it exists. You can see it below. I must have bought it (actually two or three of them) some years ago in the U.S. Since then, I just started taking some notes but except for two or three pages, the book is still empty.
How can a book be “empty”?
Well, it is a blank notebook and that, of course, immediately caught my eye when I first saw it in the store. Since I always travel back from the U.S. (from most places) with too much luggage, I had to resist the impulse of buying more than three or so. I think, this was still in the emerging era of the internet when I was not sure whether I would be able to order this from Germany as well. As I just found out, you can get in on Amazon. I mean, who wonders, right? You can get everything on Amazon. But that is not my topic today…
So, when I decided to use The Nothing Book today for my book discussion, I first thought I would take pictures of the blank pages. But that would be a bit too weird, even for a weirdo like myself. What I did instead was write down three things that really occupied my mind today as I finalized my grant proposal and another application for a major project. This is what I want to briefly discuss today. Since I am supposed to fill the pages of The Nothing Book to “make something of it,” why not start with my learnings from today? Well, actually, the learnings have come to add up over two or three years by now but the realization that I have learned quite a lot just hit me today. The very fact that I was able to send my stuff before midnight is amazing. I mean, usually, in the past, whenever there was a deadline, I started too late and I did not let go of the stuff till the very last minute. Not so today and I think, no, I hope, that my learnings can also help you (whoever you are).
In case you wonder what the hieroglyphs are — this is my handwriting. And what these three short words are supposed to tell you is really simple to grasp but very hard to do: What I mean by focusing on the “highlights” (e.g., of your project proposal or a statement of purpose) really is that you only use the most outstanding facts among the 1,000 other facts that you could also share. This is not easy but worth it. And, I am sorry, it will take so much practice until this comes naturally, I can hardly describe it. Especially for people whose brains are wired in a way that everything is connected to everything else, this is the hardest challenge. But at some point, you get it. It is a mixture of always getting feedback from very clear thinkers and paying attention to how people in more technical fields do this.
Just think of commercials, right? There are two or three words in a slogan and if it is a good one, these words stick. It does not take more but it is an immensely difficult art to get there. Fortunately, in most cases, you can add a few more words in (grant) applications but the principle remains the same. You have to focus on the key messages in order to convince your readers. Everything else will just overshadow this core and you run the risk of not getting anything across. I know it sounds really harsh but I have come to the conviction now that it is true. This focus on “highlights” only goes along with another principle, if you want to call it like this, which is still a bit different.
2. Letting go
I know I am starting to sound quite militant but this is not exactly the same as what I am saying above, it is an addition. Yes, focusing on highlights is great but even if you do that, you still end up having some words or even sentences in your text that are superfluous. Again, these, even if they might reflect your passion or some stylistic intention, also run the risk of concealing what really counts; they are distracting the reader from just seeing what is really important. Hence, these parts are irrelevant. If you do not believe me, run this short experiment: Just go through my text here or any of my other blog entries. Usually, I do not correct them rigorously as I would in an important proposal or application. If you do that, i.e., take out every single word that does not really add up any meaning, and you compare the two versions, you will notice the difference. The “cleaned” one is more powerful.
This is the toughest one, actually. Oh my goodness, it has taken me up to this point in my life to really see a point in this. What I mean is this: Whenever you write something important, there are usually conventions as far as the structure or the content are concerned. Most people in the world like that because they feel safe if they just stick to the rules. For creative people like me and many others who love doing stuff against the grain, this is like an attack at my identity. I have always taken pride in doing stuff differently which also meant that I never stuck to conventions in written documents.
Now, I have come to see this a bit differently, even if I never made really bad experiences with my old way of doing these things. Still, today, I did follow some conventions and I did so because I finally saw the point of it: If your space is so limited and you follow what I am saying above, every diversion from conventions costs you space that you desperately need. Hence, with all the fooling around, you really run the risk of not getting to what you are supposed to get at in your writing. Plus, and this is human, we all have a limited attention span and if things are not found in the place where they should be found in a letter or some concept, you are forcing your audience to search for stuff and that can already make you lose your readers.
Again, I know that this is a tough one but everything I am writing here today really is the result of years of learning (at least, I think so) and the fact that I was able to finish fairly rapidly and still used some creative space to give it a personal flavor tells me that I am getting better at this. I cannot really explain what exactly has come together now to speed up the process but I am simply happy about the result, even though the documents look more conventional than they used to in the past. And I am also very happy that I managed so well because another night of work would probably not add anything to the result. Instead, I have to accept that you cannot have it all. I had to prioritize and thus was not able to read today. But this allowed me to “make something” of The Nothing Book. Who said that reading books always means reading books with letters in them?
And now, I am going to watch Creed before falling asleep.
Did I ever tell you how much I love boxing (movies)? Maybe this is because boxing has so much in common with writing. Maybe it is because boxers are great at “making something” out of nothing. At least, Rocky was… and Creed is too.
1) Do you ever change the way you do things without being forced to? What is an example?
2) If you were given a “Nothing Book” — how would you fill it?
3) “Creed” translates into conviction/credo — what is the most important credo in your life?