Issue 053
April, 7, 2021

New WIRED Essay: Code & Therapy

The healing power of code

Roden Readers —

Howdy, Craig here with one of these rare interstitial Rodens.

Just wanted to alert you to a new essay of mine published by WIRED yesterday: “The Healing Power of JavaScript”.

I figured I could also offer up some background info on it for those curious about how an essay like this ends up where it ends up.

I started writing the essay three years ago (!!) during a bit of a funk. It was originally intended as a “Roden essay” — those essays I sometimes include at the bottom of these newsletters. (Notably: “Fast Software” was originally a Roden piece; and, dang, slapped onto the bottom of an already giant Roden at that.) A banality I’ve come to recognize in myself over the years is that I thrive on deadlines. In fact, I can only produce creatively with a deadline in sight. I don’t think this is rare. But it’s something with which folks working independently need to contend. I’ve found my habit of writing is best stoked by recurring deadlines, and so these newsletters have given my days and weeks and months and years a structured momentum.

Just look at Ridgeline — 114 issues and some 120k+ words in two years! Not that they’re all great, but the point is good work happens when work itself happens, and the best way, I’ve found, to foment work is to embrace the strictures of deadlines.

Back to the “Code” essay — the draft I wrote three years ago was fine, but I felt like it had more legs — more potential life — than “just” a Roden essay. So I held it back. I have a collection of these “held back” essays. The idea being that working with a great editor can elevate a piece to a more refined level with greater clarity and sensitivity than I could muster on my own.

Actually, I quoted part of the first draft three years ago in Roden under the heading: “Servers as therapy?". (I had completely forgotten about that until this moment.) Even then, I was confused about what to do with it: “I have a draft of an essay on server-work-as-therapy, but don’t know what to do with it.”

It was originally called, on my laptop, “Code is Therapy.” When you publish with a US publication, one of the odd concessions is that the writer (usually) doesn’t get to title the piece. Editors do. I actually (gently) pushed back against including “JavaScript” in the title, simply because I knew dorks and dingdongs would get all fussy about it. But from the perspective of an editor, I get how it makes sense — most readers will “know” of JavaScript as a “programming language” (again, here the dorks will quibble) — so it’s a sensible hook. (Note: I include this not as a complaint, but behind the scenes info for folks aspiring to publish.)

I would poke the essay every few months. But it wasn’t until last year when the pandemic began — and I reached for code — that I recognized the pattern: code healed, code protected! So I did a major rewrite around Covid-19 and my search “programming” escape from the pandemic (I mean, that search thing I talk about is more like “code cobbling” than “real” programming).

And then I sat on it again. It was a bit too wonky — way too deep in the weeds — but I felt like there was a “truth” in the essay that I hadn’t seen clearly articulated before. That was enough to make me want to work with an editor, get it in front of a bigger audience than just this newsletter provides. (i.e., I saw value in the piece and wanted to make sure the value was appropriately amplified.)

Finally, at the start of this year (last year was crushed by book and printing work) I made a pact with myself to get some work published by third parties. So I started to submit a few essays to publications. I actually submitted this “Code” piece to my beloved Sewanee Review because I thought — dang, how fun would it be for a lit mag like Sewanee to run a non-fiction piece like this? And thought, too, it would have been a blast to work with one of their editors in banging it into literary shape. Also, I feel like this piece would have been uniquely and valuably outside the scope of what the Sewanee audience was normally exposed to. Anyway, in my mind it was a playful and value-laden, if odd, fit. Not so in their mind. Form rejected. Mercifully, quite swiftly.

I then went back to places where I’ve previously published. The idea of forming a “relationship” with a publication / editor as a freelancer didn’t make any sense to me a decade ago. Boneheaded, right? Anyway, now it makes sense in the same way working with people you enjoy and trust makes sense in any industry or any endeavor. I sent the piece over to Vera Titunik at WIRED and got an affirmative pretty quickly. We worked together on my big Nakasendō piece a couple years ago and I really enjoyed the process.

So began the Google Docs hammer-knocking process that is editorial back and forth. Truly, I love Google Docs for this. It’s the best tool I’ve found that allows multiple voices to make multiple suggestions, to carry on conversations in the margins, and move a piece forward with minimal “tool friction.” Google Docs is far from universally perfect, but for this stage of editing a piece of this size, I find it’s a nearly perfect tool.

Lots of cuts. One of the biggest changes was the intro to the piece which originally read as:

Code is therapy, extenuates the sadness or heaviness of life. For me, at least. Perhaps for you, too? Programming, the making of something out of code, the configuration of servers, an app, the defining of and then construction of and then debugging of a machine made of numbers and words. This work makes me feel grounded and sane.

Code soothes because it can represent clear controls in moments when the world seems out of control. Code is little puzzles to be solved. Not just inert jigsaws on living room tables, but puzzles that breathe with the uncanny lifeforce of code. Puzzles that make things happen, that get things done, that automate tedium or allow for the publishing of words across the world.

… before jumping into an overly expository remembrance of the first few weeks of the pandemic. As Vera rightfully pointed out: The blow-by-blow beginning of the pandemic had been rehashed to death.

So we went from this clumsy clunker of an early draft paragraph, dumb time joke (a lot of drafting is loosening up exercises that never make it out of the draft) and weird sub-story of me walking around Japan (which, insanely, had more graphs later):

Eleven months ago — which now feel like forty-six years ago — as the COVID-19 worries were beginning to spread in earnest on a global level, and as I found myself walking through Japan (where I live), I noticed a familiar sense of unease rising from within. COVID-19 was real and getting more real by the day. Financial markets were collapsing, and there was an ever-widening quarantine of US cities.

To this svelte nugget (so much editing is kitchen sink removal):

A LITTLE OVER a year ago, as the Covid-19 lockdowns were beginning to fan out across the globe, most folks grasped for toilet paper and canned food. The thing I reached for: a search function.

That’s a good start. Pandemic, OK, but huh — weird, “search function” ??? Tell me more.

The argument for cutting those other two intro graphs (“Code is therapy, extenuates the …” and “Code soothes because …"; part of the second one makes an appearance later in the final piece) was to not “give away” too much at the start. That these insights would be more valuable as the reader pulled them out / they were revealed in the body of the essay itself.

My impulse for these kinds of lyrical intros is to give away everything up front. Here it is: the heart of the thing. An exercise I find useful. One that in doing so makes the rest of the essay work for its place in the world. But, as is the case of working with good editors, the gentle suggestions was: if the essay has been crafted to work for its place, then the splaying of the heart up front is perhaps not so necessary. And, in fact, maybe even gets in the way?

I like the final form better — it feels truer to the velocity of the piece. But I’ll always mourn a lyrical intro.

This “never hold your cards close to your chest” (i.e., put the heart right up front) mode of thinking about writing took hold in Alex Chee’s Tin House workshop I attended some five years ago. We spent a week pulling our novels apart, and one of the many, many takeaways was to never, ever, hold back something you think is “great” to be deployed at the “perfect” moment. Always write your best scene. Don’t “save” anything.

Related: A few years ago I was hiking with a couple friends for a few days, and one said something I think about constantly. We were taking a break, and trying to figure out what to eat. This friend, an engineer, said with a recursive glint: “Always eat your best thing. That way you’re always eating the best thing you’ve brought.” YES. Duh.

Phew, this went a bit longer than expected. As for other essays sitting in the “where to put ‘em?” bucket — I’ve got one finished about my walk in November, where I was trying to divine the results of the election by the looks on the faces of Japanese farmers I was passing by (I was offline during the walk). And I have another about the insanity of an Amtrak train ride I took last year from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Slow, expensive, full of characters and mega bizarre “train culture.” We’ll see if these ever make it out of the bucket.

For now, please check out “The Healing Power of JavaScript”.

And thanks for all the kind words on “Pizza Toast & Coffee”.

More soon,