Writing Habits of a Cyborg: an Interview with Gareth Branwyn

“Don’t be afraid to just get your thoughts out there. Unvarnished. Don’t fear the blank page. You can edit what comes out into something usable.”

Gareth Branwyn tells people he’s a cyborg, and he’s not kidding: decades of medical procedures have made him part man, part machine. But that’s not terribly unique. Lots of people have mechanical implants, surgical constructions and other body hacks which have become commonplace. What makes Branwyn unique is his intense curiosity and ability to reveal the fascinating details that unfold at the intersection of technology and humanity. Lots of people have an artificial hip, but Branwyn can give you some details: “I now sport a Duroloc® 100 acetabular titanium cup with sintered titanium beads for in-bone growth adhesion. I have a bleeding-edge Marathon® polyethylene liner with irradiated cross-linked polymers for tighter bonding and longer wear rates. My Prodigy® brand stem has a 28mm cobalt-chrome head and a cobalt-chrome femoral component with sintered cobalt-chrome beading for bone in-growth fixation.”
And then, more importantly, he can also tell you what it’s like to be the person sporting all that metal.
With an established career as a writer and editor for publications like Mondo 2000, Wired, bOING bOING (print) and MAKE magazines, Branwyn recently self-published a collection of his writings, Borg Like Me. We interviewed Branwyn about what habits have served him as a writer and publisher. He gave us an interesting look at his routines and gave us some great advice.

What’s your own daily routine like? What habits do you cultivate and what benefits do you find in them?

I wish I could say that I have a lot of disciplined routines, but I don’t. I’m rather undisciplined, except that I’m able to eventually knuckle under and get the work done. My only religious routine is that I recite a “prayer” to my muses each morning. I talk about this in my book, Borg Like Me. I got the practice from Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art, where he suggests saying a prayer, an invocation, every morning to whatever powers inspire you. So, I picked something from William Blake, an invocation of sorts to his muses, his “Daughters of Beulah” (who live in our dreams, imagination, and Eros). Not sure that it does anything more than focus my intent and gives voice to the kind of inspiration I hope to be open to as I work, but it’s fun if nothing else.
I also work in intervals (with a software­-based egg timer), where I won’t look at Facebook, answer messages, email, etc. for, say an hour (or two), until the timer goes off. I’d be WAY too distracted without this.

In the time since you launched your kickstarter campaign, you’ve seemed to make steady incremental progress on bringing the book to market. What sort of daily habits would you recommend to a writer who’s trying to complete a book? Was there anything beyond “write every day” that helped you make progress?

In the Appendices of my book, I have a lengthy piece called “Gareth’s Tips on Sucks-­Less Writing.” One of those tips is “Writers Write!” It may sound painfully obvious, but it’s key. You have to do the work, put one word in front of the other. One of the other tips I have in there (taken from Anne Lamott’s highly­ recommended Bird By Bird) is to not be afraid of what she calls “Shitty First Drafts.” Don’t be afraid to just get your thoughts out there. Unvarnished. Don’t fear the blank page. You can edit what comes out into something usable. The best writing advice I ever got was to really cultivate two work heads, the writer’s head and the editor’s head. When writing, shut the editor off. Turn him/her on only after you have your shitty first draft.
Writing a book is not easy, it takes a lot of self ­discipline, and it’s something of a heroic quest, with many perils along the way, monsters to slay. But it is completely worth it if you have the tenacity and the courage to go on the quest. You are a different person when you finish from the person who started, tempered.

Are there any habits you’re trying to develop now? What motivated you to work on them?

I’m always trying to organize myself more. I adopt systems for awhile, but few things ever stick. I’d like, for instance, to get up every morning at the same time, but that rarely happens. Whatever my weird non­system system is, it’s worked for me so far. My current habit is to try and answer all of my mail first thing in the morning and do an hour or so of promoting my book. And then to work in 1 to 2 hour stints, in “silent running” mode (no calls, messages, socmedia).

Who or what inspires you? Who’s habits would you like to know more about and why?

My desire to express myself, to get my ideas across, are what drive me. I’ve been told that I have a unique ability to humanize technology for those who tend to be intimidated by it and I’d like to think I also help deep geeks who are perhaps squeamish about the more emotional sides of life to be more open to them. I’ve gotten positive feedback for my book from both people who were intimidated by the more tech­-oriented pieces (that they were surprised to enjoy and understand them as much as they did) and from people who said they were initially put off by the more personal essays in the book, but ended up really enjoying those. This is extremely gratifying to hear. One of the people who’s really inspired many aspects of my life is the cultural anthropologist and co­father of cybernetics, Gregory Bateson. He talked about balancing your work, your life, with rigor and imagination. I think, too often, people cultivate one at the expense of the other. I’ve always tried to exercise both of these muscles.
In terms of new habits, I’m seriously thinking about starting to do what Arianna Huffington calls “digital detox.” Maybe only go onto Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ every other day. It’s staggering to think how much productivity gets lost to social media frittering.
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