Good morning, people of the earth, birds, bees, polar bears, and any other terrestrial or non-terrestrial life-forms that might be intercepting this transmission from our dimension or others. After all, who really knows who (or what) is listening these days?
I’m Sasha Goldstein, and I welcome you to this sixth instalment of The Night Letters. Shorter, smaller, and with 99% less fat, but no less entertaining.
2022 has been a year of many stops and starts. The last letter took me nine months to publish, and this (apparently now annual) letter began in Squamish, was edited in Bridgetown, Barbados, re-written in the hip, mildly perspirant Roma district of Mexico City, and is being delivered to your mailbox in its final form from Squamish. How’s that for itinerant news?
The weather here is damp, wet, white mist… the kind that collects in your hair and beads up on your jacket, but never soaks through — the kind that, were it a little colder and higher, would turn into swirling rivulets of snow. It wasn’t quite a white Christmas but it almost could have been.
Around this time last year, when the last letter was published, the weather was pretty much the same, and I announced my intention to change the composition of these letters:
This newsletter will continue, but the format will change a little. Instead of long-ish expositions, I’ll be sharing interesting ideas and anecdotes in shorthand, and occasionally shorter essays. The same basic themes and thoughtfulness will persist, but in “lite” version. These will (theoretically) take me less time to produce and will take you less time to consume — but more importantly, they will allow me to be consistent, keep doing the work, and continue publishing.
My interest in such brevity was/is driven mostly by the desire to become the type of writer that gets more reps in at the expense of perfect reps, every time; the type who doesn’t get stymied by the complexities of 3000 word expositions or thwarted by the vicissitudes of life beyond the keyboard. While my goal in this project is to produce something valuable and entertaining, I view it very much as practice writing — that is, a means toward becoming a better writer. In sharing the practice with you, I get to create accountability, a forcing function for consistency.
In Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland describe an experiment conducted by a Ceramics teacher that beautifully illustrates publish over perfect:
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Come grading time a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
This volume-biased approach is beneficial precisely because it forces feedback loops, which not only begets skill development through experimentation and “learning from mistakes”, but also encourages learning through accumulation and collection of data — that is, real criticism, praise, and feedback from readers like you.
Of course, sheer quantity isn’t always enough, and there are times when perfection pays off. Kobe Bryant of NBA world-fame reportedly spent the summer after breaking his ring finger working to sink 100,000 perfect jump shots. The following season Kobe’s team won their first NBA world championship.
All this really boils down to is intentional practice, but even for Kobe, it’s likely that the simple act of shooting 100,000 times would have born better results than stopping at 100 (or 1000) sunk shots. This is because each shot elucidates the answer to a simple question: “what do I get when I do it like this?” In other words, you learn as much from the missed shots as you do from the sunk ones.
So to put it in mathematical terms:
Quality < Quantity < Quantity AND Quality
To have quantity and quality, you have to start with quantity. Getting in more reps allows you to create more feedback loops that let you refine and improve, which in turn elevates skill and helps move towards “perfect”.
But how do you define perfect? There are bright lines that define a perfect jump shot (namely, “did the ball go into the net”) or a perfectly written line of code (did the line execute as expected/pass performance tests) — but in creative fields, “perfect” is much more nebulous. In fact, beyond a handful of objective technical measures, there is little basis upon which any kind of art can be said to be “perfect”, because “perfect” is a subjective determination. This is also true of anything involving “style” (another tricky-to-pin-down term).
Complicating matters further, the more educated you are (either as a practitioner or as a consumer of a craft), the higher your bar becomes for “perfect”…. or even for “acceptable”. John Steinbeck, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Grapes of Wrath (and one of my personal favourites, Travels with Charley) apparently wrote in his journal while working on “Grapes”: “I am assailed by my own ignorance and inability … Sometimes, I seem to do a little good piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity.”
While I am, at least in my own estimation, still at the dawn of my journey as a practicing writer, I have been an avid consumer of writing since I was a ween. I enjoy long-form journalism and creative non-fiction, and so naturally, my tendency is to indulge wandering thematic lines, languorous tangents, extensive word counts, and complex thought experiments.
This tendency, however, begets work products that are sufficiently complicated and difficult to complete that I can’t meet my own quality bar for “acceptable” (never mind “perfect”) without an amount of time and energy that exceeds what I have available to me, and has led to long “delays” between letters, ultimately, making it difficult to maintain a consistent practice.
Perhaps most importantly, I need to acknowledge that while I would love nothing more than to spend enormous swathes of my days reading, writing, and editing for these letters, I am not at this moment of my life a full-time writer, and both the future of these letters and my Future itself — as inextricably linked as they are — depend on my ability to learn to balance this avocation with other creative and entrepreneurial endeavours.
We are all making resolutions for the time beyond The Ball Drop, and so, rather than make a new one, I would like to renew a resolve that has waned these last twelve months: less time, more consistent, more publish.
Most of all, I resolve to continue to simplify, and to continue to figure this thing out loudly.
Thus, we have Night Letter number six, which ends, on a gloriously high and mostly unfettered note, on its 1,246th word.
Until next time,
P.S. Keep your eyes out for a short update on the state of Saji and The Workbench next week, which has (despite appearances) not yet fallen into the void of forgotten projects.