One Continuous Mistake, by Gail Sher

One Continuous Mistake by Gail Sher is an amazing book. It’s about the process of writing books, but it’s so universal that it lends itself to be read as if it were a book about any creative process – or, in fact, a book about life.

As a programmer with an interest for Extreme Programming, I find it rewarding to read it as a book about the process of developing software. I sometimes have the feeling that there’s something elusive about programming, which never can be expressed in words. Programming isn’t about typing code. Typing code is dwarfed by the design process, and no matter how much you talk about drawing diagrams, finding classes and their interactions, and so on, there’s still a big “something” that evades explanation.

This “something” is about how the design emerges in the minds of the programmer, drawing from past experience. In Gail Sher’s words: “Good writing happens cyclically, inside then outside, inside then outside. When it finally ‘pings,’ we simply bow.” Her book approaches this fuzzy internal process from different angles, again and again, giving clues about what it is. “Ping” is one such clue, suggesting the moment when an idea suddenly comes together.

As someone interested in Zen, this book gives an excellent example of what Zen is about. Zen is a process or methodology of life. Zen is about continuous practice. I think the best way to approach Zen is to read lots of these extremely short stories, such as Zen Antics by Thomas Cleary. Zen is impossible to explain as a theory. It must be explained through numerous examples. But to be fully “understood” it must be practiced. Anyway, the process described in One Continuous Mistake is an excellent “implementation” of Zen.

As a weblogger, this book suggests a process for weblogging which I think is essential for a weblog to be interesting. I’ve been at this topic several times – see herehereherehere – and here. The book is very thought-provoking for the weblogger.

The book makes you want to write. It’s “Four Noble Truths” for writers are: (1) Writers write; (2) Writing is a process; (3) You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process; (4) If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is not to write. The recipe for the person who wants to become a writer is to begin right away, by having daily “writing periods”, for example by writing a Haiku each day.

The entire book is centered around these daily writing periods, saying that the focus is on attendance (you fail by not attending), describing the process of writing as a slow step-by-step one, where you continuously review and revise what you write, learning from mistakes as well as from successes, and waiting for it to “ping”.

I’d recommend this book to any programmer, blogger, Zen fan, wannabe writer or human being. I also want to thank Ron Jeffries for reviewing it, making me want to read it.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on July 7, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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