Thoughts From My Office

Just a few short thoughts for you today, since the Where I Got Published list is very, very long…

In 2019, I reviewed The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga — and two years later people are still discovering and reading my review (it remains the most popular book review I’ve ever done).

On Monday, I’m going to review the sequel, The Courage to Be Happy (very excited about this, I have a lot to say). I re-read The Courage to Be Disliked as prep, and re-discovered a lot of insights that seem very applicable to our current political-social situation (go read the sections on “feelings of inferiority,” go go go) as well as one insight that seemed particularly directed towards me:

I withdrew from places that are preoccupied with winning and losing. When one is trying to be oneself, competition will inevitably get in the way.

I had already figured out, by the time I read that, that I didn’t need to preoccupy myself with either fantasies or strategies related to winning international piano competitions two years from now. I may still enter something like that in the future, just to see what it’s like and meet other amateur pianists, but I’m not thinking about winning and fame and public recognition.

Because — and I shouldn’t have to tell you that somebody else said this for it to be true, but still — I played for Marian Call last night (over Zoom) and she said “Wow. You’ve gotten to an entirely different level since the last time I heard you.”

And I said, just like I did last Friday when I played for L, “I know. I know. I know.”

And my knowing that, without needing anyone else to tell me I’m doing well because I already know, the only thing that matters is sharing what I’m learning with other people, is what’s really important.

More on Monday. ❤️

Where did I get published this week?

Bankrate

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The Write Life

Filing Your Taxes, Freelance Writers? Ask Your Accountant These Questions

This is my ninth year of full-time freelance writing, which I’d like to say makes me an expert at freelance taxes. However, the truth is that I learn something new every year.

Thoughts From My Office

When I reviewed Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner yesterday, I hinted that I would spend part of today’s post expanding on Newport’s idea that “work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus.”

Newport, in this case, is specifically writing about dividing your work periods into “focused bursts” — and while I am all about batch scheduling, I’m more interested in applying the equation to what I’m currently doing at the piano.

Specifically: how long can I maintain direct focus on what I’m actually playing?

This is harder than it sounds. It is so, so easy to start daydreaming, especially when you’re playing something you know fairly well — and especially-especially when you’re playing something you don’t know all that well.

Earlier this week, I tweeted “Daydreaming is your brain resisting uncertainty,” and although I know there are other reasons why we daydream (boredom, for example, though it could be argued that boredom in and of itself is an uncertain state), I have noticed that my brain is much more likely to seek out distractions if I’m about to tackle something I’m not quite sure about.

I want to share two videos with you, and then we’ll move on to Where I Got Published:

That’s me playing the first movement of Mozart K332, which I don’t believe you’ve ever heard me play before (I write “I don’t believe” like I don’t know full well I hadn’t shared it with you before this).

I wanted to test how long I could focus just on the piece without thinking about anything else — like what I was going to eat for lunch, or what work I had to do that afternoon, or even whether I thought I was playing the piece particularly well. (Evaluating what you’re doing while you’re doing it is also a distraction. Takes you out of the moment.)

I lasted for 1 minute and 15 seconds.

Which means I’ve spent the entire week working on building my focus muscle. (Progressive overload, but for the brain.)

What I found out was the more I focused on what I was playing, the more it felt like play.

This also increases the speed at which you can learn a piece and/or fix errors, but that’s almost a side benefit.

Anyway. I want to share one more video with you, and this is the good-ol’ second movement again, only this time I’m actually playing.

It’s so beautiful. I am so focused. I’m experiencing the piece as an experience.

And then.

See, about a week ago L and I were playing the piano for each other, and we discovered that I had misread or mislearned one of the notes. (The D four measures from the end — basically I had been playing it as a C for months.)

I relearned it, or thought I had, and then when I get to the very end of the piece, after over four minutes of literally being in the moment, my brain said “hey, wait, I’m pulling up two different options for what comes next and I don’t know which one is right.”

And then the whole thing falls apart.

(And then you can see me try to play the ending through a few more times, and then you can see me decide to stop working.)

(I did start working again, as soon as I turned the video off.)

Anyway, here is the video of what I just narrated in case you’d like to see it for yourself — and if you’d rather keep scrolling, next up is Where I Got Published This Week. ❤️

Bankrate

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Thoughts From My Office

Let’s start with this week’s work-showing. I really wanted to get the second movement of Mozart K332 performance-ready, as it were — and I almost thought it was, but as soon as I put it under the pressure of “making a recording,” I realized there were still some uncertainties in the recapitulation.

This is still astoundingly more specific than it was last week, specifically because I am using some new practice-and-problem-solving techniques that I will write about next week.

But the ending is still… well, you can hear the moment at which it becomes uncertain. This wasn’t a nerves-related fluke, either; I played this piece for Marian Call over Zoom last night (I feel like I ought to restate that as “I played this piece for Alaskan singer-songwriter Marian Call, whose music you should immediately listen to and/or buy”), and the uncertainties appeared again, right in the same place, even though they didn’t show up when I was just playing the piece for myself.

Some of this may also have to do with the whole “I’m getting to the end of the piece, I’ve played it so well, I really really really don’t want to mess up” thing, because of course when you think “I don’t want to mess up” that leads you to think about “messing up” instead of “doing anything else but messing up” and OF COURSE YOU DO.

Anyway.

More on all of this next week.

Before I share where I got published this week, I should let you know that I finally caught up on Beth Jusino’s Market While You Write class (I should probably restate that as “I caught up on the marketing class taught by award-winning writer, editor, and book publishing consultant Beth Jusino, who is based in Seattle”) and Beth suggested that I start collecting your emails for a mailing list.

I have done mailing lists in the past; right now I kind of count this blog as a “mailing list,” since you can subscribe to it by email, but Beth suggested (directly, to me) that not everyone will want to subscribe to a daily blog post but some people might like to subscribe to a weekly blog roundup or a monthly announcement post.

Which is, in general, the opposite of what I want (I tend to delete announcement emails on sight, because if I’m already following the person through their blog or social media feed I already know what the announcement is going to be).

THAT SAID.

I am but one data point, and you can provide many — so let me know if you want me to create a separate mailing list that isn’t just “subscribe to my blog via email.”

(Bonus data points if you let me know what you’d like that mailing list to include and how often you’d like to receive emails.)

Let’s take a look at where I got published this week!

Bankrate

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Card locks: What they are and how they work

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How to use a credit card to cover health expenses

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Credit Cards Dot Com

Earn $500+ in credits in your first year, and offset the Amex Gold card’s annual fee

The American Express Gold Card has added new perks – and it’s more valuable than ever.

Haven Life

Does a term life insurance premium increase as you age?

Understand the difference between level term and annually renewable life insurance so you can make the right coverage decision for you and your family.

Thoughts From My Office

I am very very excited about the slate of guest posts I have coming your way over the next month — I told you a while ago that I wanted to run one guest post per week, and someone must have spread the word on Twitter, because I got a pile of pitches.

It’ll be good to have a few other perspectives on this-here blog, right? Especially since I tend to have a particular sort of perspective…

AND ON THAT TOPIC

I JUST GOT MY VERY OWN CAL NEWPORT’S TIME BLOCK PLANNER

I want to review it soooon soooon soooon, but I haven’t even had time to open it yet, and today is going to be a little too busy to steal a few extra minutes for workday reading.

(must time-block when to read time-block planner)

(wow that’s meta)

(I originally typed that as “wow that’s meat”)

Before we move on to WHERE I GOT PUBLISHED THIS WEEK, I want to share a song with you. Listen all the way to the end, because Fred Rogers identifies the very problem I was discussing yesterday: there are times when we really do have to hurry up, and learning how to handle those deadline-centered moments is just as important as learning how to take our time with the rest of them.

Here comes a very very very lot of articles that got published last week….

Bankrate

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Thoughts From My Office

I love the new blog layout. I had never been completely happy with the way the blog looked in the old layout — the quotes were too big, the font wasn’t the best, etc. etc. etc. — and I also wanted to switch to a theme that put the blog front-and-center instead of below-the-fold.

The current theme is Scrawl, if you’re curious. It was created by Automattic, which means it is going to integrate really, really well with WordPress. (Some of those third-party themes don’t, always.)

Of course, as soon as I got Scrawl set up, I got the big promo note from WordPress that they’d just launched Twenty Twenty-One, the new theme that is supposed to do EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER WANTED A WEBSITE TO DO, though really I just want a website to be a blog that I can write in (and that guest writers can also write in, pitch me) and a portfolio that I can share with others.

The big thing for me, in-regards-to website design, is to eliminate the number of choices that the reader has to make. This is one of the reasons why I pulled Disqus comments and went back to the standard WordPress comments. The Disqus interface came with too many choices — should you leave a comment? Should you like someone else’s comment? Should you click on one of the articles Disqus is recommending?

Right now, the comment section gives you one choice: COMMENT, or DON’T COMMENT.

I even like the fact that all of the important stuff about me (my email address, the classes I’m teaching, my freelance portfolio) is hidden in a sidebar that you have to ACTIVELY MAKE THE CHOICE TO FIND.

If people want to know more about me, they’re going to figure out — I mean, I should ask you whether you can figure it out, just to make sure that the usability aspect is in fact as usable as I think it is. If you wanted my email address, would you know where to look for it?

And the people who don’t want those things, or who don’t yet know that they want those things, have only one choice to make when they visit Nicole Dieker Dot Com: READ, or DON’T READ.

(crossing my fingers that everybody picks READ)

On the subject of reading, here’s where I got published this week. I really like the Valentine’s Day article, btw — lots of good insights about love and love languages and whether it’s worth it to put on fancy clothes and have a date in your dining room. ❤️

Credit Cards Dot Com

Best startup business credit cards

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Haven Life

How to make Valentine’s Day work during COVID

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Thoughts From My Office

Happy Friday! Here are a bunch of quick thoughts before I get to work on a big freelance assignment:

First, I wanted to show you what my piano practice looks like, keeping in mind that putting a camera in front of anything changes it slightly. This is Mozart K332 mmt 2 Adagio, the same piece I played for you last week, but WORKING ON BEING EVEN MORE SPECIFIC:

In this video you can hear me trying to identify the problem with the ornament, but I still haven’t figured out the central issue. (This is where some musicians make the choice to “just play it over and over and hope it gets better.”)

In this video you can hear how much cleaner the ornament is after I identified, isolated, and addressed the primary issue (I needed to lead towards the penultimate note, which was getting blurred because I wasn’t giving it enough time or emphasis).

Next up is that trill, which is still a bit smudgy towards the end.

SECOND THOUGHT

Have you read Roy Scranton’s newest essay? It’s called I’ve Said Goodbye to ‘Normal.’ You Should, Too. The piece will cost you a NYT click if you don’t already have a subscription, but it’s worth it.

(It also made me think that The Biographies of Ordinary People was now a book that described the past instead of the present. Their world — the world we all lived in prior to 2016 — will never come back quite as it was.)

(Which could also be a good thing, depending on where we go from here.)

THIRD THOUGHT

I don’t know what to do about the comments yet

I am reading them

I am not responding to them

I feel bad

Feeling bad is a sign that something needs to change

Do I remove the ability to comment?

Do I set the expectation that the comment section is for you to respond to the ideas presented in each post (and for you to have conversations with each other) but that I will rarely comment back?

Do I build in time in my schedule to reply to comments?

WHAT ARE YOU HOPING TO GET OUT OF THE COMMENT SECTION

I GUESS THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO LET ME KNOW

(I mean, there are probably many ways to let me know, you could email or Tweet or direct message me, but the joke is that you’ll have to leave a comment)

(I am sure we all got that joke)

(let’s move on)

Here’s where I got published this week!

Bankrate

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Haven Life

How to watch the big game during COVID

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Thoughts From My Office

I am SO EXCITED to finally have the first installment in the discipline and specificity series up, even though that first installment is really just “hey, I’m going to be writing about discipline and specificity for a while, hope you’re cool with that.”

I do mean “for a while,” btw. I keep hinting at my pages and pages of handwritten notes, each line of which could become its own post. I’m envisioning this as a series of short insights, with as many per week as I can fit around my freelance workload.

But first.

(Whenever L says “but first,” I always respond with “butts first.”)

(Did I need to share that with you?)

If I’m going to write about specificity and discipline and creativity and practice and art and life and love and money and everything else, I feel like I ought to show my work.

Which means it’s time to show you what I’ve been doing at the piano lately.

I’d tell you that I’m playing better than I ever have in my life, but you have no context in which to evaluate that comparison. I will tell you — or I hope to tell you, as part of this discipline and specificity series — how I got to this point. How my practicing changed, and how this new approach helped me improve both my technique and my musicality (what you might call “emotional expressiveness”).

But I also want you to listen for the parts that aren’t quite specific yet. The technical and/or musical problems I haven’t quite solved. In one case, I haven’t yet figured out the key to solving the technical issue — I’ve tried a handful of things that have worked on similar technical issues, but they haven’t provided the solid, replicable improvement I’ve been hoping for.

The solution to the problem of this particular ornament (yes, it’s an ornament, with Mozart it’s nearly always an ornament) is different from the solution to the other ornament problem that I was able to isolate and fix this week (very proud of myself for that one), but I don’t know what this new solution is yet. I have to keep breaking down the problem (is it a finger-weight issue, is it a finger-curve issue, is it a striking issue, is it a not-thinking-ahead issue, is it a split-focus issue) until I find the key to solving it.

This, by the way, is a separate issue from that of discipline and specificity. Discipline is committing to do the work to solve the problem. Specificity is what you get after the problem is solved: an ornament that comes out the same way every time, with none of the notes fudged or blurred. The problem itself, and finding both its core issue and its solution — well, that’s a whole other thing.

I also ought to show you my composition work, but that’s not as easy as uploading a video. I mean, I could take a video of me performing my latest piano composition, but I’d much rather give you the sheet music and let you try to play it. We’ll all learn much more about the piece that way.

Sooooooo… here’s a PDF that you can download.

(It’s a draft, btw. I know that some of the articulation marks are a little too close to their notes. I still have to run the magic Finale scrubber that puts everything in the right place.)

There is one more thing that I need to tell you before we get to WHERE I GOT PUBLISHED THIS WEEK, and it’s that I’M TEACHING A CLASS ON HOW TO START A WRITING PRACTICE. I’ve taught this class at Hugo House a few times before, but this time I’m teaching at HappyWriter, a new community where writers can get together to discuss the art and craft of writing and publishing.

You’ll need to sign up with HappyWriter to take the class, but if you’re curious about how I manage to, like, write novels and blog posts and piano music in addition to all of my freelance writing, it’s because of my writing practice sessions.

Which are an awful lot like my piano practice sessions, in terms of discipline and specificity and problem-solving and the intense-but-highly-rewarding work that slowly-but-surely improves both technical precision and emotional expressiveness.

MORE ON THAT LATER.

A

LOT

MORE.

HERE’S WHERE I GOT PUBLISHED THIS WEEK:

Bankrate

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Thoughts From My Office

Yep, this is going to be a thing.

I wanted to write a longer post this week, but I’m still putting it together in my head (and on paper, and in the conversations L and I have over dinner). It has to do with discipline and specificity and creativity and work and life and love and rest and balance, which probably explains why I haven’t written it yet.

In some ideal world, I’d like to write a longer essay every week, plus these short thoughts every Friday, plus one guest post — but I’m not even sure that’s my ideal world, because if it were, I’d be prioritizing that instead of writing music or putting an extra half hour towards the piano every day, which is what I’ve been doing all of this week.

All of that practice has extremely extremely shaped what I want to write about discipline and creativity (and specificity and work and life and love and rest and balance, and probably earning money in there somewhere too), so it all fits together — the work and the music and the freelancing and the life and everything I’m thinking about right now.

(Also, don’t think that I’m not thinking about our current political situation. L and I devote probably half of our evening dinner conversations to politics, and I can feel all of that current-event-stress taking its bite out of my rest and balance. I have slept, like, terribly all week long.)

Anyway, I have something like FIVE PAGES OF HANDWRITTEN NOTES that I need to shape into a post, which means that I want to shape it into a post but I also feel the time pressure of having to shape it into something coherent by, like, Monday, and at the same time I’m thinking “Take your time with this, my love, it could be your magnum opus.”

Not that calling something your magnum opus reduces ANY of the pressure involved. But I’ve been teasing myself about that, when I talk to L in the evenings. “I think this could be my magnum opus.”

I mean, I think it’s important, and I think it’s somewhere between half and 75-percent baked right now.

So… we’ll see where it goes.

SINCE APPARENTLY SOME OF YOU ARE ANALYZING THE CHESSBOARD IN THE PHOTO AT THE TOP OF THE POST (which you might not be able to see if you get these posts through email or RSS, you’ll have to visit Nicole Dieker Dot Com in person), I should let you know that this is still the same game that you saw last week. We are moving very, very slowly and taking a lot of time to think about and discuss what techniques we’re applying, why we’re making each particular move, why we think that move is the best move, whether either of us sees a potential better move (even for each other), etc. etc. etc.

AND YET.

Last night, we worked through what might happen if L (playing black) pushes the pawn on G5, and it seems like every reasonable scenario (that is, both of us making the best moves available to us) ends in checkmate. Which led to me saying “Am I going to have to resign this game before a single piece has been taken?”

Ah, well.

Let’s take a look at where I got published this week!

Bankrate

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Haven Life

How to deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder during COVID season (I don’t know about you, but I appreciate every minute of extra daylight we’re getting these days.)

Thoughts From My Office

This is a new thing! It includes where I got published this week, but it also includes A BUNCH OF OTHER STUFF, LET’S GO…

Where I got published

Bankrate

The 800 credit score: What it means, why it helps and how to get one

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What is purchase APR?

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Haven Life

What everyone should know about no-exam life insurance policies

It’s possible to buy affordable, quality term life insurance coverage online and without a medical exam. Understand your options to get the right life insurance plan for you.

Your 2021 financial resolutions

Expert recommendations for making this your best year ever (at least financially)

What got published here

Mapping the Creative Self: On Mind Maps, Play, and Broccoli (guest post by Tara K. Shepersky)

“If I’ve learned anything useful about my own creativity, it’s that it doesn’t like to be scheduled or timed or optimized.”

What I’m thinking about

IS THIS WHAT ANYBODY WANTS? Does the world need another weekly thought roundup? Am I putting the subheds in the right order? Should this be a free Substack? Do we all have to do Substacks now? Is there any way to connect with people online that doesn’t require gaming an algorithm? Can a person just have a blog and not have to do the social media thing?

(BTW, go click all of those links, they all lead to fascinating essays)

(BTW2, I just signed up for Beth Jusino’s online Hugo House class on practical and realistic ways for writers to gather a community)

I want to write a longer blog post about how you can’t solve a problem until you know how to solve the problem. I used to call this “finding the key.” There’s a particular creative problem I can’t solve right now, for example, because I don’t know how to tackle it. I know what kind of result I want, but I don’t know what kind of actions will lead me towards that result.

It’s kind of like what I’ve been doing with my chess study — I knew that I needed to get better at “attacking” (I end up losing tempo and playing defense, nearly always) but I didn’t know how to “attack.” What does that even mean? Once I figured out that I needed to be studying specific middlegame tactics (like outpost squares), the whole concept of “attacking” began to clarify itself. I found the key that helped me tackle the problem, and my game got a lot better.

Anyway. Do you want a longer post on that idea, or did I just tell you everything that needs to be told?

What I’m practicing

At the piano: still mostly Mozart (K332, all movements), with a return to the Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Op. posth. 72, No. 1. Apparently it was Chopin’s first nocturne, and I didn’t know that until just now; I did know that Chopin didn’t think it was good enough to publish, or at least I believe I read that somewhere, and it only became part of the Chopin nocturne collection after his death.

I started digging back into the nocturne because L had been saying all year that he wanted me to play it for him on the first day it snowed, and I delivered. Then I decided that I could do so much more with the piece now that I’d spent nearly six months studying Mozart; I’ve learned a lot about ornaments and finger weight and phrasing and so on, and I wanted to use my improved technique to renew and re-specify the Chopin, for lack of a better phrase.

Of course whenever you try to add something new to a piece you’ve already learned, the whole thing falls apart — which means that if L asked me to play the Chopin for him tonight, it would be significantly worse (more missed notes, less overall cohesion) than it had been a week ago.

But it’s going to be significantly better, if I can keep putting the time into it.

Last night, L and Marian Call and I were talking (over videochat) about how to communicate emotion through music. I argued — probably because I remembered another musician arguing the same thing — that you can’t really communicate emotion, all you can do is create a series of tensions and releases and let the audience put their own emotional lens on the piece.

(This is, of course, different with vocal music, and with piano or instrumental music that comes with a very emotionally evocative title — the Pathétique, for example. But we were talking about piano music called “K332” or “Nocturne.” What kind of emotional responsibility do you have there?)

Today, as I was digging through the Chopin, I realized that the articulations written into the score provide the foundation for the tension/release system. I know this sounds like Piano Study 101 or whatever, but hear me out — when you play what is written on the page, even if it’s some editor’s interpretation of the music because it was composed before they invented the crescendo mark or whatever, the emotion follows.

Which means that if you’re playing the Chopin Nocturne in E minor, Op. posth. 72, No. 1, you have to acknowledge that the notes in the left hand are divided into two groups of three per measure, and each group of three is meant to be played as a connected unit. A discrete phrase. Beginning-middle end, beginning-middle-end.

That helps you decide where to put the emphasis and how to weight your fingers, which — especially when combined with the dynamics written into the score, and the various rubato markings — helps create the system of tension and release that inspires both a pianist and an audience to feel… well, as far as I can tell, whatever they’re tense about that day.

And whatever they want to release.

During my daily “creative practice” sessions: I’m composing piano music at the moment, since I’m kind of between novel ideas (and whether I’m obligated to use my daily creative practice to write a novel is another question), and right now all I can think about is How can my articulations help a pianist create emotion through specificity?

What I’m reading

I already gave you three links to really interesting essays, but I suppose I really should put those kinds of things at the end of the weekly roundup:

Is Substack the Media Future We Want? (by Anna Wiener)

Why your Instagram Engagement Kinda Sucks Right Now (by Rachel Reichenbach)

Newsletters; or, an enormous rant about writing on the web that doesn’t really go anywhere and that’s okay with me (by Robin Rendel)

L and I also decided to re-read 1984 (by George Orwell) this week. Boy howdy.