Is All Learning Necessarily Memory Work?

Nicole Dieker wrote this last night and has already come up with all kinds of ideas for the next installment. (A few of those ideas came from L, gotta give credit where credit is due.)

L and I have recently started watching (or, in his case, rewatching) Silicon Valley on HBO — which means that every episode begins with the HBO logo and that WAAAAAAAHHHHHHH sound.

(You know that sound.)

(I know you know that sound.)

Anyway, I used to go WAAAAAAHHHHHHH along with the HBO logo, except I was never quite on pitch; I was guessing, essentially, at what the WAAAAAHHHHHHHH should sound like.

And then one day I decided to pay attention to the pitch and memorize it.

Now I know what it is.

(It’s a C, if you want to know too.)

The funny thing is that L was the first person who showed me that I could listen to a pitch and memorize it — back when we first knew each other, twenty years ago, we were in this production of Into the Woods and I was playing Little Red Ridinghood and I had to pull a pitch out of essentially nowhere in order to sing “And perhaps a sticky bun… or four…”

I asked L, who was subbing for the rehearsal pianist, if he could help me find my starting pitch. He played the ridiculous pianissimo tremolo completely unhelpful chord cluster that came right before I had to sing, then the single note that was meant to be mine — and I realized, in that moment, that I didn’t have to bother with picking it out of the chord cluster.

I could just memorize it.

Or, you know, learn it.

(It was a D flat, by the way.)

And now I’m trying to figure out whether those two actions are always, necessarily, the same thing.


The thing that I can’t figure out is why I can memorize some pages of music the first day I look at them and other pages take, like, a week.

If learning = memory, and if memory = going from guessing to knowing, why can’t I get to know one measure of music as quickly as I know another? It’s all the same stuff, just notes on a page, extremely limited options within a system that relies heavily on patterns.

Either certain combinations of notes are “more difficult” to memorize, perhaps because they don’t follow the established patterns for some reason, or my ability to memorize things varies based on — I don’t know, sleep? Motivation/willpower? The number of other problems I have to solve that day?

While we’re on the subject of problem-solving: the blog post where I coined the phrase “going from guessing to knowing” was about problem-solving, not memorization. Does that mean all problem-solving is necessarily memory work? No, it can’t be, plenty of people solve problems on whiteboards and stuff, they don’t memorize all of the numbers they put up there (and they certainly don’t keep all of the individual datums in their heads while they’re doing the solving), but they might have to memorize the process of solving the problem before they can do the work of putting all those numbers on the whiteboard.

(When I read this to L, he’s going to tell me that he loves me for using the word “datums.”)

Okay.

Where was I?

It could be that learning has to come before memorization, and the reason that I can’t memorize a page of Ravel or Bach or whatever is because I haven’t learned it yet. I’m still in the “where do fingers go” stage (especially with the Bach, that six-voice fugue has a lot of tricky finger work).

But when you read books like Peak and Moonwalking with Einstein, you read about these people who have rock-solid anchors in place that allow them to memorize music or strings of numbers or city grids very, very quickly.

So it could be that I haven’t got my anchor system on lock.

You might remember — and if you don’t, I have an 18-minute video explaining it — that the four steps to memorizing something are:

  1. CHUNKING (picking a section to memorize)
  2. ANCHORING (using anchors to help you get from guessing to knowing)
  3. CONFIRMING (proving that you can reproduce whatever it is you just memorized)
  4. OVERLOADING (adding something [like a previously memorized section of music] to see if what you just memorized made it into long-term memory or if you lose track of it as soon as you give your brain something else to do)

Which means that if I am failing at memorizing a particular section of music, I’m either failing at the CHUNKING section (picking too much to memorize at once, maybe I need to go two measures at a time instead of four) or the ANCHORING section (very, very likely, especially since I recently started to try to anchor without writing my anchors on the music).

Either way, I need to pay better attention to what I’m doing.

Well. That problem seems solved, or at least hypothetically solved, which is to say I think I know what I need to do next. I’ll have to test my hypothesis in tomorrow’s practice session.


But back to my original question.

Is all learning necessarily memory work?

Can you learn something without memorizing it?

Can you know something without committing it to memory?

Why is it that the last question seems like an obvious NO (you can’t know something that isn’t already in your memory somewhere) but the first two questions seem like an I’M NOT SURE YET?

Maybe because I’m getting confused by the idea that you can learn a process (e.g. how to make cinnamon rolls) without having to memorize every detail that goes into that process (how much flour, how many degrees to preheat the oven, everything else Betty Crocker included in her recipe).

But the process itself — the knowing of how to do (or, in this case, how to dough) — is memorized.

I’ll stop there for now.

More on this next week. ❤️

I Tried Walking Off My Writer’s Block — And This Is What Happened

Natalli Amato is a freelance writer, a former assistant to the editor of Rolling Stone, and the author of two poetry collections: On a Windless Night and Burning Barrel (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press). Currently, she is working on her first novel.

It was late last August when I heard a voice inside my head. It was a stranger’s, but she introduced herself: the main character of the novel I would now be writing. She was a compulsive sharer. The Oasis b-side playing in the background? That was her favorite song. The purple smock I put on in the morning? She thought I was aging myself. The line of communication seemed like it would never close. I wrote a chapter. Then I wrote another. And another. And another. I followed the old saying: strike while the iron is hot. I pulled up Microsoft Excel and wrote a chapter-by-chapter outline. Once-blank journals were now teeming with details. Summer bled into fall which faded into winter and I surprised myself with my progress: I finished act one of my novel, and somehow I’d sidestepped the minefield that is writer’s block. My beloved outline was there to carry me through act two. Until it wasn’t. 

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingways gives us this advice on how to make progress in our writing: “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.” I made a point to shape my writing life around this idea. Not only does it create an inherent sense of safety when you show up the next time to fulfill the old “butt-in-chair” adage, but it also gives a writer permission to write in quick spurts and still feel productive. Writing this way gave me permission to quit while I was ahead.

Soon, I was no longer ahead. My main character’s voice was still clear and I still knew where I wanted her to end up. But it was turning out that she had a different way of getting there  than I had planned for — which, given her rebellious teenage existence, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn. Like all impatient teenagers before her, she wasn’t giving me directions. She was tapping her foot and sighing as I wrote, saying not that, not that, not that, not THAT! 

Here was the writer’s block that I couldn’t face down. This was not fatigue. I could not bargain a chapter out of my brain by offering myself a ThredUp online shopping spree afterwards. I put my butt in my chair every day because I wanted to. (Really.) What I didn’t want to do was put my face in front of my blank screen and admit that I just didn’t know how to move the story forward. 

This resistance to the unknown drove me away from my story. First it was for a day or two. Then it was a full week. Did it turn into two? I hesitate to admit that it did. Until this point, the things that had kept me away from writing this novel were the 8-hour work day that would jump into 10, or an evening bottle of wine with my partner. Things that prevented a night’s worth of writing but didn’t prevent me from doubling up the next day. 

It was in this state of limbo that I applied for a stay at the Rockvale Writers’ Colony a few months out in advance. Let the novel rest until then, I told myself. It’s okay. You don’t have to write a single new scene until you get there. 

If that self-talk was honestly in line with my desires, it wouldn’t have necessarily been bad advice. But it was rooted in fear. And besides, my main character couldn’t just disappear for three months and meet me in Nashville when I planned to become magically unblocked. Stubborn, silent, and tired — she was still very much present. 

That’s when I tried something different. Forget butt in chair. We would go for a walk. 

When I say we, I mean myself and my notebook and the fictional girl who now occupied a great deal of my brain. We walked without an agenda. We walked in silence. Then with headphones in. Maybe I would write nothing for the day, but I wouldn’t fill my would-be writing time with errands or Twitter or brunch. I honored my would-be-writing time with a walk. For most of these early walks, I heard nothing but the mourning doves who recently took up a residence in our neighborhood trees or the sounds of my own breath. Then, over time, that changed. 

One day, I heard the song that my character was playing on her iPod as she walked to her friend’s house while trying not to cry (and crying anyway). 

This fact climbed into my mind through the window I’d left open. What has been said to her that triggered these tears? I did not know. What I did know was that I now had a glimpse — just a glimpse — into a scene, and that it felt organic for the first time in weeks.

Here is something I need to admit about myself: I am lazy and I like to do things the easy way. Once I had this one good experience, I wanted another. I changed my routine to allow for more. After that first fruitful walk, I went home and wrote a scene — a scene that made sense, a scene that I was happy with. That alone left me more invigorated to put my butt in chair the next day. Instead, I put feet in shoes. I went for my walk, and like the day before, I walked until I found something, and wrote afterwards. 

Find something I did: a line of dialogue from a minor character that — once I sat down to actually write it into my draft- went on to set the tone for a small yet crucial scene. This time, I learned something important. Not every walk would yield a here’s-the-scene-I’ve-been-missing realization. But if I walked long enough with a clear mind committed to staying in the present, to simply walk and breathe and be, I would glean something useful. Following this routine, I walked my way into, through, and out of, act two of my novel. 

You can, too. 

I don’t know what will come to you when you walk. Maybe the air temperature on your skin will place you momentarily in your character’s body. Or you’ll pass a couple running and think my character would hate those people, followed by something more specific (and true): my character would glare at those people because she wants to be in a relationship like that. Maybe you walk around the block a dozen times and nothing presents itself for you to use, except for the pride in knowing that you honored your time and opened your mind. If that’s the case, be ready to put your feet in shoes the next day. And the next.

Because the more you make it a habit to be in the world — not as a planner or an analyzer or even a writer but as an open window — the more you will find inspiration coming in to meet you on the tails of the breeze. 

How to Become a Magician

Nicole Dieker isn’t a magician yet — but she’s working on it.

Start by asking yourself what you ought to wear.

No, seriously — you need to be comfortable, but you also need to look like you, displaying the kind of appearance that you value, and if you’re the kind of person who values displaying that same sort of appearance every day it helps if you can buy the same outfit seven times over.

(In either the same or different colors.)

Eliminating the “what to put on your body” decision, whether you go the full-on uniform route or the “everything in my closet is something I like” route, gives you that much more mental space to devote to the pursuit of excellence.

Plus, it makes getting dressed feel like a decision you are making to support your art.

I’m not saying that every decision should be made in support of your art, or in support of whatever excellence you are currently attempting to pursue (in work, in life, in a relationship), but — well, as soon as I used the word CURATION in yesterday’s post I knew it was the right one.

You are curating the experiences you want, in order to have more of them.

And in order to give your mind as much space as possible to think about what you really want to think about.

So.

Clothes that don’t suit get in the way.

Not enough sleep gets in the way.

Not enough exercise, rest, food, touch, time spent outdoors — whatever it is you need to be your best self, to feel comfortable in the world instead of at odds with it, you need to make sure you have it, as often as you need it, or the lack will keep you from doing your best work.

Too much also gets in the way. Too many clothes in the closet; too much food in the belly; too much time spent dilly-dallying.

It really does start with balance; the foot on the high wire, the plate on the stick, the card placed carefully at the top of the castle.

Knowing instead of guessing.

Acting instead of reacting.

Choosing instead of letting the system choose for you.

Can you pursue magic, excellence, artistic merit, etc. etc. etc. without simultaneously pursuing agency, balance, specificity, and discipline in your own life?

Of course you can.

Can you create magic — can you become a magician — without also curating a life that supports the work and the person you are trying to create?

I don’t know. Mastery and self-mastery seem to go hand-in-hand, and to not pursue both feels like a slight.


That’s all very well and good, Nicole, but what are YOU currently doing in your attempt to become a magician?

Boy howdy.

Right now I have three big things I’m working on:

Making sure that the balanced life is prioritized. Sleep, exercise, outdoors time, rest, etc. etc. etc. are just the beginning. One of my goals right now is to figure out how to indulge in something I particularly like — a cup of coffee, a square of chocolate, a finger of bourbon — while still remaining in control of the experience. To take the pleasure without getting wired or overstuffed or tipsy.

If magic is the ability to manipulate the elements around you, then I want very much to be able to manipulate these kinds of elements — because the only other reasonable route is the abstainer route, and to say no to something that has been crafted with excellence in its own right (these are very high-quality bourbons) because you are afraid you won’t be able to stop before you slip out of equilibrium (which will then in turn make it more difficult to complete tomorrow’s work) feels decidedly un-magical.

Mastering my meta-emotions. L doesn’t know this yet (though he will as soon as I read this to him), but I just bought a tiny ceramic marshmallow to put on my desk. We’ve been talking about how to be mellow, and at first I resisted the concept because I thought that mellow meant losing my edge, but I finally got it this past week, when I realized just how much my meta-emotions were getting in the way of my doing my best work.

Remember: emotions are responses to situations, but meta-emotions are responses to emotions. In my case I’d have an emotional reaction to something which would prompt a physical reaction (speaking more harshly than I wanted to, eating more candy than I wanted to, spending more time doomscrolling than I wanted to) and then I’d agonize and dwell over why I acted that way and how I could have made a better choice, and all of that agony would keep me from doing literally anything else.

Being mellow, in my case, starts with letting those meta-emotions go. Eventually it’ll transition into mastering the reactions themselves (magicians choose action over reaction), but I’m still in the “people make mistakes” stage.

And you can be mellow while maintaining your edge — that is, you can let everything you can’t control swirl around you as you walk calmly towards the excellence you are pursuing.

Which brings me to:

Increasing my ability to focus/learn/memorize. On Thursday I’m going to start digging into the “is all learning necessarily memory work” question, because I’m in no way sure about the answer yet. All I know is that a good half of my piano practice time is still wasted, because I get stuck doing the whole “maybe if I repeat it again, it’ll get better on its own” thing — or, in some cases, the “let’s play this whole thing on autopilot while I think about another open loop in my life that hasn’t been resolved” thing.

I’m also wondering how much of the ability to focus at the piano comes from doing prep/percolation work prior to sitting down at the piano. Basically, I started asking myself why I found it easier to focus on my freelance writing than on my piano practice, and the obvious answer was “because I do a ton of mental prep work before I ever sit down to write.”

So I think I need to start doing that kind of mental prep work before I play, too.

Which might mean setting aside time to break down my piano work into unique assignments (like freelance gigs), understanding the specs of each assignment (what needs to be accomplished before I can turn in the draft, what questions the piece needs to answer, how many keywords need to be included, how many subheds, etc. etc. etc.), and letting all of that churn in my brain until I can sit down at the piano ready to tackle the job.

More on all of this as we continue this journey towards mastery and self-mastery and magicianry, I am sure.

And now you can tell me whether you liked the first half of this blog post or the second half best. ❤️

Focusing My Goals

First, a bit of work-showing. Here are the first four movements of Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts, and let’s see if any of you can identify the four seconds in which I temporarily switched from “focus” to “feelings” mode:

I was able to do nearly all of my morning piano practice in a focused state, which makes such an incredible difference to the output.

I need to write more about this.

I need to write more about everything.

I need to write more about Maggie Stiefvater’s Mister Impossible, which may be the best book on creativity I’ve read since Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.

Here’s a really quick overview of everything I did (or didn’t do) on last week’s to-do list:

  • Finish memorizing the first page of the Bach RICERCAR A 6 (almost done, just two measures left)
  • Memorize three more pages of Ravel’s LA VALSE (nope, I went back and did a bunch of polish work on the first half of La Valse instead)
  • Memorize the Stravinsky LARGHETTO MOVEMENT (done)
  • Work transitions between sections in MOZART K332 MMT 3 (done, at least for the exposition)
  • Work the two memory lapses I had when I performed MOZART K332 MMT 2 for my parents (done, mmt 2 is performance-ready)
  • Work the one memory lapse I had when I performed MOZART K332 MMT 1 for my parents (done, mmt 1 is performance-ready)

Here’s what I want to do this week:

  • AS MUCH FOCUSED PRACTICE AS POSSIBLE

That is it.

I mean, if I memorized another 16 measures of the Ricercar or another few pages of La Valse or worked the transitions between the development and recapitulation sections of Mozart K332 mmt 3, that would all be great.

BUT what I really need to do — what L and I are both currently doing, in our own practice sessions — is REVAMP or REFINE or REFOCUS (oh hey, it’s that word again) the way I approach learning and mastering music.

Which really means focusing the rest of me, so that for two hours a day I can work towards creating art/magic/excellence at the piano.

Which really means focusing everything in my life to help me be the best person I can be, so that nothing I haven’t CHOSEN or CULTIVATED or CURATED (an interesting word to use here) is allowed to get in the way of the magic.

I said, the other day, “You know the magic we’re trying to create is us, right? The art we’re trying to create is us, each of us individually and you and me together?”

More on this tomorrow. ❤️

Thoughts From My Office

So many thoughts…

First, if you haven’t yet read the three substantive posts that got published on the blog this week, you SHOULD (you don’t need to read my weekly to-do list unless you really want to):

How I Get My Freelance Work Done — very informative, takes you through all the steps including research and mental percolation

What Happens When You Fail at Your Creative Goals? — this week’s guest post (by Sydney Allen), takes you through all of the steps required to understand and accept a creative failure

On Piano Competitions, Part Two — this is, as usual, less about the piano than it is about life

If you’ve been paying attention to the header photo, you might notice that my copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Mister Impossible arrived this week. I pre-ordered it and got it on release day, and in the Before Times (that’s before boyfriend, not before coronavirus) I would have read the entire thing in an evening.

Now I no longer have time for that, especially because L and I are going ALL IN on training ourselves like future piano magicians, so I’m reading a chapter or two at a time — and that might be the better way of going about it. There is SO MUCH IN THIS BOOK about creativity, creative failure, how to live a creative life, how to be ambitious without letting it destroy everything else in your life, etc. etc. etc.

I should probably write more about the “how one trains oneself to be a magician” thing later (please remember that we are substituting the word “magic” for “excellence” or “so good you cannot be ignored” or “outstanding piano amateur” or what have you) but what I really want to write about is what I keep asking L:

AM I CHOOSING THE RIGHT PURSUIT?

Like, would I be better off training to be a chess grandmaster (probably not) or a cozy mystery writer (probably not) or a literary fiction author (maybe) or putting those extra hours into completing even more freelance gigs?

I keep thinking about that guy who mixed my album in Los Angeles (remember, I tried doing the professional musician thing a decade ago), who said “You’re a good vocalist, it’s obvious you’ve put in the work and have the skills, but I don’t think you’ll ever be great. You have the potential to be a great writer, though.”

PLEASE NOTE THAT HE DID NOT SAY I WOULD NEVER BE A GREAT PIANIST

OR AT LEAST AN OUTSTANDING AMATEUR

BUT I DO WONDER SOMETIMES IF THE MOST OUTSTANDING THING THAT COMES OUT OF THIS PIANO WORK WILL BE…

A BOOK

(even though I know that the real “most outstanding thing” is the discipline and self-mastery L and I are developing along the way)

(and the relationship)

On that note (pun always intended): here’s where I got published this week!

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Don’t Write Alone | Catapult

Job Opportunities for Writers: May 21, 2021

We post roundups of writing and literary jobs once a week. Here’s our list for May 21, 2021.

Upcoming Submission Opportunities: May 21, 2021

We post submission roundups once a week. Here’s our list of literary magazines and freelance opportunities for May 21, 2021.

On Piano Competitions, Part Two

Nicole Dieker is still going to learn the Ricercar a 6, even though she is no longer required to produce a Bach fugue by next year.

So… we’re probably not going to Paris in 2022.

L and I mistook each other; I said “let’s do this” and he said “let’s do this” and I said “let’s learn French” and he said “it should be our lingua franca,” and I said “let’s take a week extra and tour Europe” and he said “let’s take a month extra and find somewhere to live while we work remotely. Greece? Romania? The south of France?”

And then I said “let’s send in our applications” and he said “wait — neither of us are actually ready to play this piano competition.”

“We have ten months,” I said. “And we don’t have to win. We just have to do well enough to not disgrace ourselves.”

“I’m not sure I want to do that,” L said.

So we talked, as we often do, about what we really wanted.

I wanted to go somewhere. (Preferably somewhere romantic, or at least romance-language-based.) I wanted to meet other people who were doing what we were doing. Serious amateurs. Magicians-in-training. People who wanted to pursue excellence and live an extraordinary life.

I also wanted a very good excuse to pursue excellence at a slightly higher level than I had previously been pursuing it. I wanted to ask myself, every day, if whatever action I was about to take was something that a person training for the International Competition for Outstanding Piano Amateurs would do.

I had spent enough days, by that point, asking myself that question to understand that it could be life-changing.

And I didn’t want to have to change my life back.

L, though I don’t want to speak for him (and will run all of this by him before I publish it), wants actual excellence. We can pursue excellence at home, for as long as it takes; we should have it, in our hands, before we have the audacity to enter any competitions with the words “outstanding piano amateurs” in the title.

Because neither of us are quite yet outstanding. We’re just standing.


“But I don’t want to have to change my life back,” I kept saying.

“Well,” L said back, “why do you have to?”

“Because if you’re not working towards something,” I said, “then what are you working towards?”

“Excellence,” L said. “The ability to play something not just as well as you can play it, but as well as you know it can be played. Real magic.”

“I guess I could ask myself is this something that a person who is training to be a magician would do,” I said.

“It’s probably a better question,” L said.

“But you still need a reason to do it,” I argued. “Otherwise, why bother training?”

“Isn’t making magic it’s own reason?”

“Not if you’re just doing it by yourself,” I said. “You need other people. You need to meet other magicians, and you need to find your audience. You need a way to share what you’re doing, and to learn how to do it better.”


The solution worked itself out, as these things often do, in practice.

When my parents visited this past weekend (YES, WE’RE ALL VACCINATED, JUST ASSUME ANYONE WHO APPEARS IN ANY OF MY BLOG POSTS HAS BEEN VACCINATED), I shared what I had been working on — and I immediately understood that I was in no way ready to take any of what I had been working on to Paris.

I told L afterwards that if he hadn’t said we weren’t ready, I would have said it after that performance. He said “I know.”

But I also said — and I said it in front of my parents, which made it extra-important — that I wanted to do more performances. I wanted to play for them every time they visited. I wanted to set up that recital that L and I had talked about doing together, once we were ready to do it. I wanted to play for Mom’s piano students, and I wanted Mom and Dad to help us set up a gig in Mount Vernon, and maybe we could play in Iowa City after that, and we all agreed that it could all happen.

“You need a hundred performances,” L said, “before you’ll be ready to even think about something like Paris.”

“I’m just thinking about making magic,” I said. “And what kind of choices I can make, every day, to support the work I need to do to get there.”


There’s one more bit. We’ll call it a coda, because you kind of have to.

L and I finally made it out on our first date — and then, the next night, on our second one. (We went back to the same restaurant because we liked it so much the first time. We’re going again this evening.)

It was on that second night that I told him that I had thought, for a minute, that I wasn’t used to making my dreams smaller. I was used to publishing my own novels, recording my own albums, not letting anything get in the way of what I had set my mind to do.

But, once I thought about it for more than a minute, I realized that I hadn’t made anything smaller at all. This idea of playing for my parents and playing for our friends and setting up a recital in town and then another one in the next town over — it wasn’t a smaller way of going after what I wanted.

In many ways, it was a bigger one. A hundred performances, each of them teaching me something new about music and magic and mastery, is both more challenging and more interesting than dashing off to Paris for a weekend with the goal of playing just well enough to not look like you don’t belong.

So we’re not going to Paris in 2022.

I mean, not to play any amateur piano competitions.

We could, as L reminded me, still go just for fun. ❤️

What Happens When You Fail at Your Creative Goals?

Sydney Allen is a journalist from Indianapolis, Indiana who currently lives in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She works as a journalism teacher, writer, and editor and is passionate about all things communication. When she’s not working, you’ll find her attempting to surf, diving down YouTube rabbit holes, and zipping around on her motorbike.

As a burgeoning freelance writer and editor, my inbox is full of newsletters and stories about other writers and editors who’ve reached the level of success I’m working towards.

“Here’s how I published 100 stories in one month.”

“Top 10 tips for being a top-notch freelancer.”

“Meet the top 30 under 30 female journalists.”

When I’m feeling confident, these emails buoy, inspire, and motivate me. They help me find my creative flow, push me to work harder on my current projects, and give me a list of action items that I can apply to my own career.

But when I’m feeling low… let’s just say they have the opposite effect. 


What happens when you fail to act like a top-notch freelancer? When you miss your deadlines, turn in half-baked work, and fall short of your creative goals?

I’m interested in writing about self-compassion when you fail in creative spaces. And I’m going to start by talking about my own failures — as embarrassing and shameful as I may find them.

Last year I was contracted for a freelance writing opportunity for a magazine I greatly admire. The magazine asked for around 2,000-words — lengthy, but not entirely out of my wheelhouse — about sexual education in Indonesia, where I live. 

The truth was, I wasn’t the best person to write that piece. I wasn’t excited about the topic and didn’t have the background or inspiration to really make it shine. But I was so determined to get my work out there and driven to succeed, that I figured I could overcome those barriers. 

The following months were filled with a vicious cycle of procrastination and writer’s block. 

First, I had some health problems that kept me in bed for a couple of weeks. Of course I couldn’t complete the piece then; I told myself I’d do it when I recovered. Then Christmas came. I had to quarantine to travel, and after that, I postponed the piece in favor of family time. The whole month of December passed. Then I had to return to Indonesia and deal with a frustrating assortment of travel restrictions and COVID tests. I told myself I couldn’t possibly write under those stressful conditions. 

By then, it was February, and I was facing the terrifying reality that I was overdue, uninspired, and unmotivated to complete the piece. I was dodging texts from my editor and feeling a near-constant low-level panic. 

My paltry notes were sitting in an open Word document on my desktop. My To-Do List had an all-caps reminder to WRITE YOUR ARTICLE, which I conveniently looked past when I marked off my daily tasks. Whenever I considered starting the piece, I was ambushed by intense feelings of self-anger and guilt. I started getting stomach pains. When I tried to write, I’d feel my eyes prick and my stomach cramp and would immediately search for something else to do to distract myself. 

In the end, I didn’t complete it. Despite the guilt, dread, anxiety, and self-loathing I simply could not do it. 

I ended up passing the opportunity on to a friend and connecting her with my editor. I simultaneously felt intense sensations of failure and relief. I could breathe easily for the first time in months. It was such an obvious solution — I couldn’t do it, so I made way for someone who could. But it was also one of the hardest professional choices I’ve ever had to make. 


Letting go of this assignment taught me a valuable lesson about self-compassion: that sometimes it’s healthy to fail. While I’ve heard this line over and over throughout my life, it failed to truly sink in until I was faced to confront my failure head on and acknowledge that I had gotten in over my head. 

After I gave up this piece, I found myself in a much better headspace, able to focus on a multitude of other projects and creative ideas. I was able to complete other assignments that actually excited me — topics that I was passionate or curious about, which didn’t feel fraught or impossible to overcome. 

As a writer, I typically only see the finished products that my friends and colleagues produce. I don’t see them struggle. I don’t see them throw away drafts. I don’t see which pitches get rejected. No matter how successful someone is, they will have experienced failures, but those challenges are often invisible — and rarely make it into inspirational blog posts and top-ten lists. 

I know I personally would have appreciated some feedback about failure when I was waffling with my writing. At the time, I thought not completing an assignment was the worst thing in the world. Afterward, it became quite clear the worst thing was actually being stuck in a limbo, unable to complete the piece and unable to move on.

Choosing to fail — choosing to welcome failure, learn from it, and use it to improve the next time around — was the best action I could have taken.


I want to make more space for compassionate, honest conversations about the downsides of working in a creative field. Failures should not be a shameful secret, but rather experiences writers and creators can collectively learn from and use to support each other. 

With that in mind, I’d like to open a discussion about creative failure. Where have you fallen short of your creative goals? What have those experiences taught you?

In my case, I thought that not completing a single assignment signaled some type of long-term personal failure. If I couldn’t do this job, I must not be a real writer, a real journalist. But I see that that’s not true. Just because I struggled, and failed on this particular assignment, doesn’t mean my identity or competency are permanently devalued. It’s simply a sign that I should be more intentional about the work I choose. That I need to work on protecting my time and creative energy.

Let’s continue this conversation in the comments — because the more we know about the struggles involved in creative work, the better we can work together to overcome them.

How I Get My Freelance Work Done

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelancer since 2012 — but since she didn’t start freelancing until fall 2012, she’ll have to wait until 2023 to say that she’s been freelancing for “over a decade.”

Okay.

I promised you a post on “how I get my freelance work done,” by which I mean “how I get all my freelance work done,” by which I mean “how I research, prep, and draft five 1,500-word freelance assignments per week.”

It doesn’t always work out to five 1,500-word assignments per week, of course. Some weeks I only get three 1,500-word assignments. Some weeks I get a few 1,000-word assignments. This week I need to complete two 1,500-word assignments and three 1,000-word assignments — and I will, and now I have to figure out how to tell you how I do it.

The easiest answer is time-blocking. “If you want to be a six-figure freelancer,” I might say, “it would behoove you to know exactly how long it takes to write 1,500 words, and then to block out exactly that much time on a calendar or calendrical spreadsheet.”

“If there’s additional work involved, like interviewing or researching,” I might add, “you should block off that time too. Plus the time it will take to source your interviewees and email back and forth until you can agree on when to meet.”

And then I would say “and you should probably add a bit of buffer time too, just in case something takes longer than you expected.”

But you could probably come up with that kind of answer on your own. You have to set aside time for the things you want to do, and that includes freelancing.

The real question — the one that is more difficult to answer — is how I actually do the writing.


I cannot explain this to you except by taking you, step by step, through an example.

This morning, CreditCards.com published an article I wrote titled “Which Delta SkyMiles card is best for you?” This is a 2,300-word post that breaks down the pros and cons of all seven American Express Delta credit cards (four personal cards and three business cards), providing an analysis of what each card offers, who might benefit from each card, and how to decide which Delta SkyMiles card is right for you.

I loved writing this piece. It was probably one of the more interesting assignments I’ve completed this month, because it included a number of variables — independent research, math (I calculated how many points per dollar each sign-up bonus provided, for example), chart-making, ranking, and so on.

It also took a little more time to put together than — to give you another example — my recent Bankrate post “Is the Capital One VentureOne Card worth it?” That 1,200-word post took a little over an hour to draft, because I was already very familiar with the Capital One VentureOne card (it’s an entry-level, no-annual-fee travel credit card that offers 1.25 miles per dollar on every purchase) and didn’t need to do much in the way of additional research.

But even with the Capital One VentureOne piece, I still needed to do what you might call prep. That is, I needed to read the assignment brief, think about what a reader might want to know about the Capital One VentureOne credit card, ask myself what questions someone might have about the card and how I could best answer them, and so on.

It is very difficult for me to do this kind of work in a single day. It’s also difficult for me to time-block it. My prep-work for the Capital One VentureOne article took place while I was drinking my coffee, while I was taking a walk, probably while I was sleeping, and — if I want to be absolutely honest about it — while I’m doing “mindless” stuff like scrolling Twitter.

(This is possibly one good reason for scrolling Twitter. But only one.)

Of course, since I had “write Cap1Vent1 article” already time-blocked onto my calendar, my mind knew, somehow, to get all of that prep done before I had to sit down and write the piece.

This doesn’t always happen, by the way. Occasionally, I’ll wake up and think “I’m supposed to write about X today, but I still haven’t figured out how to tackle the post,” so I take a look at my schedule and see if there’s anything I can swap. Is there a piece scheduled for later in the week that I’ve already figured out how to approach? Is there something that I could figure out fairly quickly? Or do I need to put in my earbuds, crank up a few of my favorite Legend of Zelda remixes, and figure out how the assignment is supposed to come together as I write it?

That last one is my least favorite way to freelance, btw. Not only does it take more time, but it is way more mentally draining than letting an assignment percolate in the back of your mind until it pings “I’m ready now! Write me!”

But back to the Delta SkyMiles assignment. I knew that one would take a lot more work, first because it had many more variables (math! charts! twice-as-long word count!) and second because I was much less familiar with the suite of Delta cards that I needed to evaluate and rank.

So… well, I started by looking up all of the American Express Delta cards and learning about them. I studied the official American Express website, as well as the CreditCards.com review/analysis page on each card. I read the Terms and Conditions/Schumer Box stuff, because I believe in primary sources. I even read some competitor site reviews, to get a sense of what other people were saying about these cards.

Then, because I only had a week to complete this assignment, I started working on the easiest parts — the charts, the summaries of each card’s points and perks — while I let my brain work on the dual problems of “what is each card’s unique advantage/what does it do better than all the other cards” and “how can I help a reader choose the best Delta SkyMiles card for their individual needs?”

Those two problems took three days to completely solve, at which point I was able to finish writing the parts of the assignment that required original analysis, check my work, and turn in the draft.

That draft took me about four hours to write, btw — and that doesn’t count the time it took to prep and problem-solve the piece, though a lot of that prep was able to run in the background while I was writing the parts of the draft I had already solved.


Do you know why I’m publishing this blog post in the late afternoon instead of around lunchtime, like I usually do?

Because it took me this long to solve the problem of “how to explain to you how I complete my freelance work.”

I tried to write it this morning, but I still didn’t know how to approach it — so I focused on a different assignment, took a break, took a walk, and came back with an outline.

That’s how I work, after all — and, thanks to nearly ten years of practice, that’s how the work gets done. ❤️

Tos and Dos

Let’s start with last week’s list, and what got done (or, as we used to say on Sunday mornings, “left undone”):

  • “To keep learning/memorizing La Valse” yes, good, very on progress
  • “To work the four movements of Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts without memorizing any new ones” yes, the Allegro movement got the most work, Allegretto and Vivo both need a little more attention
  • “To work evenness in Mozart K332 mmt 3” YES, THIS WENT VERY VERY WELL, very glad I set the specific goal to “work evenness,” this week I may work something else like “transitioning from one section to another”
  • “To write about piano competitions” YES
  • “To write about chess study” NO

The truth is, I haven’t done enough chess study (even with Chess.com) to have anything substantive to say about it. I am still figuring out which lessons and techniques are leading me towards actual progress, and which are giving me the illusion of progress.

It’s also worth noting that I have to bring the right mental state to my chess study sessions — if I’m tired, for example, or if my brain is still trying to solve a different problem (e.g. one related to piano or freelancing), it’s much more tempting to give up and click “show hint” instead of, you know, thinking.

Piano doesn’t have a “show hint” option.

Neither does freelancing, really. That’s what I want to write about this week — HOW I GET ALL MY FREELANCE WORK DONE. This isn’t just a matter of scheduling, although that’s part of it. It’s really about loading up problems into your brain, letting ’em churn until they become draft-shaped, and then knowing exactly how much time it will take to get that initial draft out of your brain and onto the page.

So let’s do that for Tuesday, and a piano post for Thursday, and then next Tuesday I can write about WHEN YOU’RE LEARNING vs. WHEN YOU’RE TRICKING YOURSELF INTO THINKING YOU’RE LEARNING w.r.t. chess, piano, freelancing, life, etc. etc. etc.

WHAT ELSE am I going to get done this week?

  • Finish memorizing the first page of SECRET BACH FUGUE (the one that someone really should try to guess, come on)
  • Memorize three more pages of LA VALSE
  • Memorize the Stravinsky LARGHETTO MOVEMENT
  • Work transitions between sections in MOZART K332 MMT 3
  • Work the two memory lapses I had when I performed MOZART K332 MMT 2 for my parents this weekend (more on this on Thursday)
  • Work the one memory lapse I had when I performed MOZART K332 MMT 1 for my parents this weekend

Interesting that all of this seems to be memory work, this week. Even “work transitions between sections,” since the trouble is that I’m having trouble loading the next section into my memory.

L and I have been talking about whether all learning is memory work, when it comes down to it — but that can’t be true, because you also need the “ability to act (instead of react) and use what you know to solve problems/make positive choices/make spontaneous connections/etc.” thing.

MORE ON THIS LATER, I AM SURE.

In fact, I’ll go ahead and schedule that post for Thursday, May 27 — to give myself the chance to really churn it over before I start writing anything down.

Happy Monday! ❤️