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Finding a focus

by Tom Johnson on Apr 29, 2021 •
categories: technical-writing

I've been trying to think of a good focus for upcoming presentations and my blog lately, but I'm unsure about topics. I've focused on many topics in the past: trends, API documentation, docs-as-code tools, and before this, other areas such as blogging, podcasting, quick reference guides, value arguments, visuals, user-centered docs, and more. Ideally, I'd like to turn over a new leaf with some engaging topic that I've never explored before, but I'm not sure what that would be.

I know the tech comm field is vast, with many possible topics. I fear that lately I’ve slumped into a bit of writer’s block on this blog, and my motivation to write has fallen. A recent NY Times article suggests that this feeling of blah is really “languishing” — see There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. The author explains,

It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.

Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.

Many people have taken up new hobbies during the pandemic. I never made sourdough bread, never learned to play an instrument or studied a new language. About the only thing I’ve done is replace my pickup basketball games with walking, especially hiking with my wife.

I find myself looking for that activity that will rejuvenate me, fill me with wonder and excitement about something. Ideally, that thing would be somewhat professionally related, something that ignites my curiosity in interesting ways.

In many ways I’m counting down the days until I’m fully vaccinated. I received the first dose (Pfizer) on April 15 — the first day that anyone over 16 became eligible in Washington State. We all drove up to La Conner, about 1.5 hrs north, to get an appointment. I’m scheduled to get the second dose on May 7, about 3 weeks later (closer appointments are now much more available). Then 2 weeks after that, I’ll be fully vaccinated.

At that time, I plan to do two things: first, I want to start playing pickup basketball. I plan to look for nearby parks and start ramping up slowly. The worst thing one can do is go full throttle and get injured the first day back. I plan to start out playing 3x3 half court style games, then work up to 5x5 over the course of a few weeks.

Part of my slow ramp is due to a recurring calf strain injury I’ve been trying to overcome. It’s something that has plagued me for the past several years, and I thought I’d finally moved past it when the pandemic hit. But when I decided to suddenly start trail running (or trail walk/jogging), it returned again. As I get older, healing is slower and more problematic because I’m dealing with years of scar tissue from previous injuries. This time, though, I decided to take an alternative route with Active Release Therapy and lots of low-impact exercise, including backwards-uphill-walking, to fix it. I’ve also been shooting around at least twice a week for an hour while my kid attends soccer practice. It seems to be working. Anyway, no one cares about my nagging basketball injuries.

Once I’m fully vaccinated, I also plan to go back to work. Technically, I don’t need to return to work until September, but I think a change of pace would be good. It’s strange to join a company but still never know what the on-campus life is like, especially a company like Google that is known for having a vibrant campus.

I also need to buy a second car to commute in to work. I have researched ad nauseam about a dozen different routes into work, and I’ve also experimented with a few of them on pseudo bike commutes. But only one seems safe and efficient. The route involves me driving up to Bellevue, parking my car at a park-n-ride, and then biking across the water on the 520 trail and then hooking onto the Burke Gilman trail to reach work. Many other routes are possible, but I’m really not inclined to ride on some of the shoulders on the roads in Washington. The shoulders are about three feet in width, which is okay, but in the rain or dark (or both), they seem treacherous. Many roads wind up and down around hills, and cars speed along them.

I’ve also been trying to slim down a bit so that I’m more competitive on the bball court. Prior to the pandemic, I had an excellent routine that involved biking to work each morning (about 40 minutes each way). Without that daily commute, and without any pickup basketball, I became more sedentary. About two months ago, I decided to get serious about becoming more active and implemented a routine of about 2 hrs of low impact exercise a day — either walking, hiking, biking, shooting baskets, or kicking around a soccer ball at a park with one of my kids. This increased exercise did make me feel much better, and I hope to continue the routine. Granted, it reduces my free time a bit. But I’m trying to make this exercise time align more with my escape downtime. Exercise does make one feel good.

In general, I feel like most of my days are the same, with little variation from day to day. I miss the stimulation of new experiences, new people, new events, and so on. This returns me to the original purpose for writing here — to find that new topic or idea that stimulates my curiosity again. I’ve been letting myself wander here to find a focus.

Some people aspire to write fiction. I don’t feel like I have a novel inside of me, nor do I have much desire to write fiction. That said, I like listening to fiction — I recently finished listening to Triptych by Karin Slaughter, and I’m now listening to A Gambling Man by David Baldacci. And I like watching TV shows and movies. My tastes are mainstream ordinary here.

In college I aspired to write essays, which I still sometimes hope to write. I wrote a lot of creative essays that were fun. I like exploring ideas, trying things out. As such, I thought Montaigne should be the perfect example of the sort of essayist I aspire to be. I started listening to a collection of his essays the other week, and I made it about 3-4 hours in before growing bored. Unfortunately, many of Montaigne’s essays are dated to his time. I should try finding more modern essayists, but I can never seem to find the right subject area and author. Personal essayists tend to be memoirists, which bore me. I like personal experiences, don’t get me wrong. But only when the point is something beyond the personal experience — when the personal perspective is looking out, not looking in — like Ted Conover’s books, which are more like personal ethnography. At the same time, if one looks in and gets philosophical, I like that too.

A while ago, I started writing an essay about biking in the rain. I was only writing the essay in my head so far, not yet on screen. I actually created an entire video of me riding in the rain as a way to test out rain gear here. I might return to that topic. Admittedly, it’s more of an informational focus, as I have yet to discover the right combination of clothing that will keep me dry while biking in a rainstorm and sweating. But my approach would take this topic into something deeper than just information about fabrics and strategies. The way I see it, sometimes riding in the rain can convert a familiar environment into something completely new. You see everything differently in the rain. Ponds suddenly rise up, ducks migrate, the pitter-patter changes acoustics, canals became swollen and turbulent, my glasses fog up, and more.

Part of me likes the idea of finding something interesting in what seems to be nothing. This has been a personal philosophy of mine that I’ve had since my teenage years at least. I like to find something unnoticeable and unremarkable, and see it in a light that I’ve never seen it in before. There’s a challenge in that. The more mundane, the more interesting the result.

Another thing I’ve always been fascinated by is story. Raw narrative. There’s an art to it, for sure, and especially in nonfiction, you have to craft the conflict around something more idea-based than plot-based. I love a good story (especially one based around conflicting ideas), and I’m always fascinated by the challenge of constructing one around a series of data points.

Although I want to do more creative essay writing, when the work week gets into full swing, I slip back into tech comm mode where topics within technical writing become interesting again. Then I become convinced that nearly any topic, even technical writing, can be an interesting space, especially if you’re thinking critically about it. Almost all lines of critical inquiry, once you get deeper under the surface, sort of lead down the same philosophic road. In other words, whether writing about biking in the rain or content models for documentation, once you start asking questions and thinking hard about it, you cross into a space where your mental wheels start turning and things become interesting.

Coming back to my original question: what topic should I focus on? I have wandered about here, trying to find a focus. Honestly, I’m not sure. I want to maintain my sense of inquisitiveness about the world around me. In the end, I think it’s not so much the topic but the mindset. Not the question itself, but the act of asking a question. Not what is said, but how it is framed and approached. If I stick with that sense of curiosity, the topic shouldn’t much matter.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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