TITLE: "Always Stop When You Know What Is Going To Happen Next" AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: August 12, 2011 8:45 PM DESC: ----- BODY: A few weeks ago, I ran across an article that quoted from published interviews with nine creative people. Over the last couple of days, I have been reading the original interviews that most interested me. Three in particular jogged my mind about creativity, art, and the making of things -- all of which are a part of how I view craft as a programmer and teacher. Who would have thought that an interview with author Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Review's "The Art of Fiction No. 21" would make me think about computer programming and test-driven development? But it did. When asked about his writing schedule, Hemingway described a morning habit that I myself enjoy:
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.
I love this paragraph. While discussing mundane details of how he starts his writing day, Hemingway seamlessly shifts into a simile comparing writing -- and stopping -- to making love. Writers and other artists can say such things and simply be viewed for what they are: artists. I dare say many computer programmers feel exactly the same about writing programs. Many times I have experienced the strange coincident feelings of emptiness and fullness after a long day or night coding, and the longing to begin again tomorrow. Yet I knew, as Hemingway did, that the breaks were a necessary part of the discipline one needed to write well and consistently over the long haul. (Think sustainable pace, my friends.) Yet, if one of us programmers were to say what Hemingway said above, to compare the feeling we have when we stop programming to the the feeling we have after making love to a person we love, most people would have to fight back a smirk and suppress an urge to joke about nerds never having sex and not being able to get girls (or guys). The impolite among them would say it out loud. If you are careful in choosing your friends and perhaps a bit lucky, you will surround yourself with friends who react to you saying this with a sympathetic nod, because they know that you, too, are a writer, and something of an artist. On a more practical note, the writing habit Hemingway describes resembles a habit many of us programmers have. In the world of TDD, you will often hear people say, "Stop at the end of the day with a failing test." My friend, poet and programmer Richard Gabriel, has spoken of ending the day in the middle of a line of code. Both ideas echo Hemingway's advice, because they leave us in the same great position the next morning: ready to start the day by doing something obvious, something concrete. But why is that so important?
But are there times when the inspiration isn't there at all? Naturally. But if you stopped when you knew what would happen next, you can go on. As long as you can start, you are all right. The juice will come.
Writing is hard. Starting is hard. But if you are a writer, you must write, you must start. Likewise a programmer. As many people will tell you, inspiration is a fickle and overrated gift. Hemingway speaks elsewhere in the interview of days filled with inspiration, but they are rare. The writer writes regardless of inspiration. In writing, one often creates the very inspiration he seeks. As long as you can start, you are all right. Later in the piece, Hemingway has something to interesting to say about a different sort of starting: starting a career. When asked if financial security can be a detriment to good writing, he says:
If it came early enough and you loved life as much as you loved your work it would take much character to resist the temptations. Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure only death can stop it. Financial security then is a great help as it keeps you from worrying. Worry destroys the ability to write. [Worry] attacks your subconscious and destroys your reserves.
This made me think of young CS grads in start-up companies, working to get by on a minimal budget while fulfilling a passion to make something. Being poor may not be as good for our souls as some would have us think, but it does inoculate us from temptations available to us only if we have resources. Once programming is your habit -- "your major vice and greatest pleasure" -- then you are on the path for a productive life as a programmer. If financial success comes too early, or if you are born with resources, you can still become a programmer, but you may have too battle the attraction of things that will get in the way of the work necessary to develop your craft. This is one of the motives behind the grueling 6-year trial to which we subject new profs to in our universities: to instill habits of work and thought before they receive the temptation-heavy mantle of tenure. Unlike Hemingway's prescription, though, at most research schools the tenure-track phase usually includes an unhealthy dose of uncertainty and worry. But then again, maybe being a poor, struggling young writer or artist does, too. That's one reason I like Hemingway's answer so much. He does not romanticize being poor. He acknowledges that, once one has the habit of writing, financial security can be a great benefit, because it relieves the writer of the stress that can kill her productivity. Despite enjoying these insightful passages so much, I cannot say that this a great interview. Hemingway is too often unwilling to talk about elements of the the craft of writing, and he expends too many words telling interviewer George Plimpton -- an intelligent man and accomplished journalist himself -- that his questions are cliche, worn, or stupid. Still, I was driven to read through to the end, and I enjoyed it. -----