The 10-Fold Path to Blogging

A man holding a laptop computer. The Stone Mind.

There are all manner of blog posts on the web written by people who’d have you believe that blogging is easy. And maybe that’s true for some, but thus far I haven’t found it to be the case. Writing, on any regular basis, something that entertains or enlightens more than just oneself is in fact a constant travail for all but the rarest among us. That said, there are a few basic approaches I’ve developed in my three or four years of weekly publishing that you, too, might find to be useful and conducive to greater and easier productivity.

1. The middle way

When starting a blog, a lot of people think they need to post every day. This is totally doable if you are independently wealthy and have beaucoup free time… or perhaps also if you choose to be an aggregator, re-sharing content that has already been created by others. On the other hand, perhaps you want to blog but don’t want to commit too much time, so you settle on a monthly posting schedule. Unfortunately, posting less than once a week will make it hard to keep your blog top of mind for readers. For me, posting weekly was the best balance between time constraints and the requirements of the modern media landscape. Depending on your particular content, pick a schedule that’s not too aggressive and not too lax—the Middle Way, if you will.

2. Become a collector

To come up with interesting, fun, or funny ideas regularly, you must always be ready to catch a passing spark and jar it for later. I use an app called Evernote for this. It has a version for the computer and for mobile devices, and it keeps everything synced nicely in the “the cloud” so I can access it pretty much anywhere. Evernote also has a nice web clipper plug-in for the Chrome browser, which allows me to easily save articles and images to a research folder. For most blog posts, I read or reference multiple web-based sources, so being a collector is key to having raw material at hand when it’s time to write.

3. Keep it real

I have this friend named Brendan. He writes blog that I link to quite a lot. I can’t remember how it happened, but one day he and I ended up at the Whole Foods near my house. “Not a lot of people know it,” he said, “but most Whole Foods locations have good coffee, a good breakfast buffet, and free WiFi; they’re great places to work when you’re living and working on the road.” Our conversation that day, the first time we met IRL I believe, help set me on the path to the blog I write now. The point? Real stories help make your ideas concrete and help readers connect.

4. Rhythm and ritual

Everyone does it differently, but it’s important to find a timing and approach to writing that jives with your life. I work a desk job, so I tend to collect ideas and inspiration throughout the week, then I spend a half day every weekend writing, and usually wrap up the writing and editing on Monday night so I can publish on Tuesday morning. I also have a ritual, which involves sitting at my dining room table with my laptop, a glass of whiskey, and some headphones for those occasions when my wife is watching something on Netflix. I’m not religious about this approach, however, and have written a few posts entirely on my iPhone while at the crag. As with all things, stay flexible.

5. Simplify, simplify

It can be tempting to write long blog posts that encompass many complex ideas. But when it comes to leaving a strong impression, it’s better to pick one concept and focus on it. Cut away anything that doesn’t fit. That said, save the pieces that end up on the cutting room floor, as they well may become seeds for future posts (see point no. 2).

6. Write stuff you’d want to read

This is a standard writer’s credo, but it’s too good not to touch on. There’s a difference between writing about things that interest you as an individual and writing the type of stuff you’d want to read if someone else had written it. In the former, your internal goals, problems, and worries are the focus; in the latter, there’s some idea that someone who isn’t you and doesn’t share your particular perspective can relate to. An example: you care about writing a cool blog and being popular. Potential readers, however, don’t care much about you. They care about how they can write a cool blog. Figure out how to make the two overlap in you’ll be in good shape.

7. When you’re stuck

…and you will be, you can trying mixing up your pattern. If you typically write at home, go to a coffee shop (did you know Whole Foods has good coffee and free WiFi?!), meditate first to clear your head, or try writing with pen and paper instead of your computer. I wrote this post with a pen. It was nice to cut out the digital distractions… but my right hand did cramp up a bit from lack of practice.

8. Write fearlessly

It’s tempting to self-edit as you write. Don’t. It stanches the free flow of ideas on the page. Instead, roll with whatever comes to you. Get it all down. Let yourself get caught up in the act of writing.

9. Edit ruthlessly

You’ve written your heart out, got everything down… now’s the time to start slashing! Read what you’ve written with the eye of an outsider (see point no. 6), a person who gives no shits about you or your precious blog. Does it still pass muster? If not, cut. How many ideas are you trying to get across? More than one? It’s probably time to do some cutting. A writing professor of mine used to refer to the long, background-heavy intro paragraphs that most of us write before ever getting to any damn point as “the on-ramp.” Feel free to strap some dynamite to your on-ramp’s pylons and blow the thing into smithereens.

10. Don’t get attached

My dad is an artist and he once told me about his days as a student in New York. His teacher asked the class to produce a self-portrait. They worked on it over the course of days, striving to capture something essential with brush and paint. After these new students had poured their artistic souls into their work, what do you suppose the teacher did? He told them to crumple up their cherished paintings and throw them in the trash. The lesson was clear: don’t get too attached. We need to focus on what we’re working on now. In fact, the concept of letting go of our attachments is perfect fodder for another post, but this one doesn’t require any more on the topic—this post is done.

The Path of Most Resistance

A climber bouldering in Little Cottonwood Canyon

The hardest thing I ever climbed took me probably 50 tries to finish. It was a boulder problem in the woods of New York, and from start to finish it couldn’t have been more than 15 feet long. Each hold was so small and each move so strenuous that I would frequently spend a whole afternoon just trying to puzzle out one little section.

The irony wasn’t lost on me when, after finishing this climb at the very outer limit of my skill level, I turned and walked down to ground level via the boulder’s sloping backside.

I could have easily walked up this backside in sneakers and ended up in the same spot I got to through weeks of concerted effort directed at the overhanging face. A non-climber might see this and think I had wasted my time, and from a practical standpoint, he’d be right.

But really, the thing that makes any climb worth the time has got to be the challenge. The challenge itself, often viewed as an obstacle, is the source of something deeper. It’s the tool we use to dig into ourselves and find that beating, luminous core.

Things that don’t challenge us often bore us. Art that’s merely pretty is decoration; art that challenges can transform. A job that challenges us is engaging; while one that requires little thought or special effort is monotonous.

Luckily, as with that boulder problem I tangled with, we can find challenges almost anywhere, even where easier paths already exist. The challenge isn’t necessarily inherent to a thing or an act, but is something we create for ourselves.

In the book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about an assembly line worker who sets challenges for himself that allow deep engagement in his very repetitive job. In the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, we follow master chef Jiro Ono, who has dedicated his every breath to the perfection, tiny step by tiny step, of the art of sushi making. Both used the challenge of continuous improvement to generate a deeper sense of significance in what could also be seen as workaday employment.

We climbers are sometimes criticized for our obsession with quantifiable improvement, also known as number chasing—indeed, I think a grasping mindset can easily become detrimental to balance and happiness—but most of us are just looking for a well-matched challenge. It’s that feeling of total focus that takes us out of ourselves and while teaching us about ourselves… that fully engages us with the act of living.

As climbers, we choose the hard way not because we’re masochists, but because the path of most resistance is often the fastest route to our true objectives.

Arrive With Every Step

Hikers walking along a trail in Wild Iris, Wyoming. The Stone Mind.
Hikers walking to the crag at Wild Iris, Wyoming.

My wife hadn’t been in the mountains much before she moved to Colorado from Philadelphia eight years ago. So the first time she came out with me and my climbing buddies on the long, steep approach to Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park, she got frustrated. “Why are you guys hiking so fast?” She asked. “The boulders will still be there if we slow down, I bet.”

At the time, I attributed her comments to the suffering of a sea-level dweller struggling at altitude, but looking back, I see it differently. What were we hurrying for, after all? I still find myself doing it: hustling to the crag like it was some sort of a race, with competitors hot on my tail. But now I try to slow down and make more of the process.

I’ve been listening to a Zen monk named Thich Nhat Hanh on Spotify. His soft, accented voice and halting cadence are mesmerizing. In one of his lectures he talks about hiking up a mountain—Mount Wǔtái, a Buddhist sacred site in northern China:

There was a tourist guide to lead us and she was holding a little flag. … But we did not follow her—but we did not follow her way—so we made a strange group who climbed very, very slowly. And after having made 10 steps like that we sit down and enjoy looking around. And then we stood up and continue for another 10 steps. We had plenty of time—nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just enjoy. The means become the end. We want to arrive with every step.

His words reminded me of that early hike with my wife. She wanted to look around, take in the mountains and the plants and the little alpine critters skittering and fluttering around us. Up in Rocky Mountain National park, things are always changing: clouds rush in and soften the daylight, storms boom lighting down around the high lakes, winds stir fallen leaves, huge snowflakes fill the air like sudden moths…

But me? I just wanted to be sure to get to my project 15 minutes faster. I guess I thought it could mean the difference between sending and not sending.

“Mindfulness” always struck me as a word tainted with the scent of new-age cheese. It conjured images of dreadlocked kids in Boulder sipping yerba mate from dried gourds and wishing namaste to all the passers by. But again, I’ve come to see things differently.

At root, mindfulness isn’t about ideology but about discovering for ourselves: what are we thinking and feeling, what are our motivations, what are the effects of our actions? To act mindfully is simply to act with deeper awareness and honesty. Rushing towards goals is rarely an act of mindfulness but is instead a result of our desires or fears.

It’s a little much for me to walk quite so slowly as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, but I do remind myself to be more mindful on my hikes: to bring intention to every step, to be aware of the breath in my nose, to let my skin tell me little stories about the direction of the wind, humidity, the energy of the sun… .

Even when climbing a route, I think most of us could do better to direct focus away from the burning in our forearms, the distance to the next clip, or visions of success or failure. Instead, return focus to the moment, breathe and inhabit the heartbeat. Feel what it is to hang from a sheer wall of rock, which muscles can be relaxed and which should remain tight, and so on.

In short, really experience the climb rather that rush to finish it. The climb itself becomes a joy. The means become the end. With each move, you arrive at the destination.

What’s in Your Pack?

Hikers walking on antelope island. Photo: Stacie Wickham
Photo: Stacie Wickham

When preparing for a journey, we must carefully decide what to bring. To pack too much slows us down. Likewise it’s a problem to pack too little and not have what we need. To carry only what is needed is the middle way of packing.

This challenge is at the heart of fast-and-light alpinism (see: Mark Twight). The right balance must be struck to meet one’s goal with style. The climber must excise the extraneous to find that place where skill and challenge, tool and task are perfectly matched; where she would likely not succeed with any less or more than what she’s brought.

It is the same with our minds. The thoughts we cling to are as items in a pack. We should ask ourselves if they’re useful, how do they contribute to our lives: Do they increase happiness and peace? Compassion and understanding? Or are they useless weight, cluttering our mental space?

Among the heaviest thoughts are desires and fears, guilt and regret. Most of us carry far too many of them all the time, everywhere we go.

My grandfather used to say “The things you own end up owning you,” which I always took as a caution against consumerism. It is, but in a more abstract sense, it’s also a warning against attachment of all kinds.

When we carry too much stuff, we’re unable to move freely, instinctively. We’re bound, anchored. In the mountains, this can be fatal. When such clutter concerns our mental state we become distracted and lose ourselves.

A nice exercise is to ask yourself every day, Can I carry less? When packing for a trip, it can help to choose a smaller bag. A smaller bag asks Do you really need that? of every item you plan to bring. (Imagine yourself as a small bag.)

And what about goals? Those carry weight, too. Can you leave even your goals behind and move with total freedom? It is a tricky business…

As far as I know, there is no instruction manual for such things. Just the act of asking Do I need this? more frequently and of everything we value can lead to some important insights. You can start right now.