The blinking cursor

Sometimes, you do everything right, and it still doesn’t work.

You get 7.5 hours of sleep.

You eat a high protein breakfast.

You drink your large cup of coffee.

And you sit at the desk, turn on the classical music channel on the stereo, fire up Microsoft Word, and you begin to write.

Well, that’s not quite true. You have prepared to begin to write. But there is the blank page. The blinking cursor.

But the problem is that not only is the page blank, so is your mind.

Well, maybe that’s not quite true. Your mind is never quite blank. As your therapist is fond of saying, it’s not that you have a deficiency of attention as much as you have a surplus of it. Your brain is overflowing with ideas, with stories, with plans, with things you want to try and to test out and it is all just swirling in there. How do you pick just one of them to focus on for the next two hours to write an 800-word essay?

Some days it’s easy. You have an idea or a story that has been in your mind for days or, sometimes, weeks. You can’t shake it. You just turn it over and over, looking at it this way and that way, so that when you do sit down in front of the blinking cursor, it really writes itself. You are just the medium, and you understand, briefly, why the authors of scripture thought they were inspired by God. It’s as if you are just the hands that type it, while the ideas come from elsewhere. Those are the best days.

Other days you agreed to write a particular thing – an article for a newspaper, or a review of a friend’s book, or something. And because this is for someone else, there is a deadline. You try to put it off, hoping clarity will come, hoping that it will rise through the swirl of ideas in your brain to the surface. Sometimes it does, but not on these days. No, on these days it is the day before it is due and you simply must write something, and so you apply ass to chair and you begin typing, and sometimes what you write is amazing, and sometimes it’s serviceable and sometimes legible is all you can hope for. But regardless, you did the thing, and after all, fed is best.

And then there are the days like this one.

The cursor blinks. Your ass is in the chair.

And nothing swirls up. Nothing stands out.

But the cursor blinks.

Tales From The Vault

My life changed forever in late 2003 when I set up an account on Blogger and decided to share my thoughts in public. Writing in the public sphere – literally thinking out loud in front of the entire world – changed how I think. It turned my private musings into a conversation with the world.

I’ve now been writing publicly for more than 20 years. It’s so strange when I come across people who knew me before those days, who only knew the Hugh that was informed by people he had met in real life and the one-sided conversations he had with people who wrote on paper. It’s like they knew a beta version of me.

I have written publicly in many places – Facebook, Blogger, Tumblr, Twitter, and MySpace to name the main ones, as well as the sites I have owned, and the many sermons I have written that do not exist anywhere online, but that are still public conversations because I performed them live.

As I have closed sites and accounts, some of that stuff was orphaned. Whenever possible, I have archived it, so it still exists in a file on my hard drive, but not in public. It’s as if they are safe in a vault.

As I come across things I have written elsewhere, I’m going to open the vault and post them here – both to archive them publicly, but also to be able to enter into a conversation with them, to link to them in the future, and to be able to recognize the ways I have grown as a writer and a thinker.

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Thank you for reading. This website is free and ad-free because of the support of my members. Or, if you want to say thanks for this post, you can just buy me a cup of coffee.


It begins with the best of intentions. You see something – say, a hand-turned wooden bowl, and think how amazing it would be to be able to do that. Or maybe you want to make a coffee table for your living room, a toy truck for your kid, or a ukulele.

Anytime you start a new endeavor, there is a period when you are acquiring the tools – the saws, the chisels, the workbench. This can be a rabbit hole.

As an aside, it’s best to just buy the tools you need for the specific project you want to make, and then buy the tools you don’t have for the next project, and so on. Partly because good tools are expensive, but also because when you just start, you don’t know what you don’t know.

It’s been almost 20 years and I still haven’t used that 3/8-inch mortise chisel.

But the other rabbit hole is infrastructure. The almost irresistible urge to work on projects to make your shop better, rather than to work on the projects you wanted to build in the first place.

You want to make bowls from firewood, so you need a lathe and turning tools and, depending on your skill, a faceplate or a chuck. But then you will be tempted to build a stand for the lathe, and a place to hang your face shield, and a spotlight mount so you can see better, and then a rack to hold the firewood as it dries, and a case for your turning tools, and before you know it you have a year’s worth of projects behind you, but you still haven’t turned a single bowl yet.

This is not just a thing that happens in the workshop. It happens with my writing, too. I want to write, which means I need a computer and a word processor. But then I can tinker with my routine, and of course, I need a good chair to sit in, and a quiet place, so I need an office. In the office, I need to hang up the right art to inspire me, and find a good playlist, and then do I have good enough speakers to make the music sound right?

It’s often hard to know where the balance is, especially for people with brains like mine. I want to do a good job, and I only have so much time, and oh yes, I’m a chaos muppet with ADHD, so things that make it easier for me to focus (like a good chair and art and music) are things worth spending time on. But eventually, you have to write. It’s easy to slip into hyperfocus as you research the “best” text editor to write on, so you have minimal distractions, and three hours later you have written nothing but downloaded 3 free trials of writing software and looked at pictures of meerkats for the last 20 minutes after following an errant link.

All of that to say that right now, I’m spending a lot of time on infrastructure to support my writing. Outfitting the office. Installing speakers and trying out playlists. Building routines. Trying out schedules. Designing workflows.

And then there is the infrastructure to promote and publish my writing. Social media. Email service providers. Website design and hosting and email templates. WordPress updates and figuring out block editing (a WordPress feature from hell) and so on. It’s fun, and it’s necessary. But none of it is writing. It’s easy to work at this gig all day and still not have written an original thought down.


In my day job as a community organizer, we have a practice of writing a reflection each week to our supervisor. In it, we are encouraged to reflect on the week we had, and our plans for the upcoming week. To talk about what we are working on, what we are learning, and how we are thinking about our work.

It sounds sorta hokey, and I initially resisted it, but it works, in that it forces me to reflect and think strategically about what I’m doing. It moves me from inside the work to some point outside, to where I’m an observer of the ‘me’ that is doing the work.

My writing is a part-time job, funded by my Members who want me to put my work out in the world, and want it to be done so free of charge to everyone. That’s why there are no ads on my newsletter or on this website, no paywalls, nothing like that. Just me, writing, and anyone in the world with an internet connection or email can read it.

And so, as I was writing my morning pages this morning, I found myself wondering: If I think of my writing as a part-time job, what would it be like to write reflections on it? And would anyone find that interesting?

This made me remember that about this time last year, I said that I wanted to start showing my work – I wanted to do more of this work in public, so people could have a model for how to start their own blog, how to write their own newsletter, how to make their own cool thing.

So I’m going to start writing weekly notes every Friday. Some weeks will be more involved that others. Some weeks may be a little nerdy, as I explain the hours I spent looking for the right plug-in for a website, and other weeks may be introspective as I talk about the philosophy behind what I’m trying to do. And some weeks I may be so busy you just get bullet points. And because I try to be kind to myself, I don’t commit to doing this every week, but most weeks – just like I walk most days.

I’m writing.

I’m writing.

At least, I think I am. I’ve applied my ass to the chair, I’m hitting the keys.

Yep. I’m writing. It’s been a while, and I was uncertain of the symptoms.

I’ve been sick – really sick and then low-grade sick – since Valentine’s Day. After two years and 11 months of dodging it, COVID caught up with our household. Fortunately, we both had relatively mild cases by COVID standards.

But sickness never comes at a convenient time, and so I was in the midst of moving my desk from the front room, where I posted up “temporarily” during the 20200 lockdowns, to a dedicated office I built for myself in a former storeroom in our carport. Right now I am functionally in both places, and thriving in neither. But yesterday I drew a line in the sand and said that today was the day I sat down in the chaos and started writing again.

And here it is, 6:30 AM, and I’m sitting at my desk, surrounded by various bits of debris, discarded cardboard boxes, and office implements that I am unsure where they will belong. I have soft, classical music playing on the small cheap stereo I rescued from the thrift store, and the window is open, and I hear the birds waking up outside. My chickens are playing in their coop, not 20 feet away, and they are fussing at each other as the sun comes up.

And I’m writing.

I have a timer on my desk, just under the monitor of my computer, that shows how much longer I have left to go on this session – right now it’s 24 minutes, the remaining time in red, and as I type the red diminishes with the passage of time. This is sort of an ADHD hack, a way of making something that is invisible to my brain, like time, visible, and thus real.

These are the sort of things I need to do if I’m going to be writing.

The office isn’t complete yet. It’s a narrow room, a former storeroom at the back of our carport that I began turning into dedicated office space over the winter. It’s a bit under six feet wide and 17 feet long, with six feet of the eastern wall devoted to windows that look over our back yard. It’s honestly one of the better views in our house, yet another sign that when this house was built it was built from a plan in a catalog and was divorced from the actual site. There is much I love about this house, but it’s lack of views and vistas is not one of them.

It is not a house built for writing.

As I said, it’s a narrow room, this new office of mine, and it has 10 foot tall ceilings, which emphasizes the narrowness all the more. A friend last night said it looked like a shipping container. The door to the room is in the middle of the long wall without windows, and my desk is to the right as you walk in the door. Immediately in front of you is a waist-high counter with cabinets underneath, where I have hidden my printer on a pullout shelf.

If you turn left as you enter, you face a blank wall and a space 5 and a half feet wide by 5 feet deep, which will eventually hold a bookcase along one wall and a chair for reading, because reading is an essential thing if you intend to be writing.

And I’m writing. In the debris, in an unfinished room, amidst the chaos, but I’m writing.

Writing for people

I have watched the conversations around AI and writing unfold over the last few weeks. The writing community seems to be freaking out.

Well, that’s not wholly true. Hacks are freaking out. People who phone it in are freaking out. People who don’t know, or care to learn, how to write in a way that connects with and centers people are freaking out. As they should be.

People who have staked their livelihoods and given their creative energies to writing listicles that exist only for the reason of generating page views, writing press releases for events and products that exist only to separate money from the gullible, and who write for search engines and other machines should not be surprised when a machine can replace them.

A bot can duplicate syntax and vocabulary, but it cannot think of a person they love and write with them in mind. A bot cannot write from its own experience of love and loss.  A bot cannot feel anger and want to share it; a bot cannot want anything, really.

It may be that an infinite number of monkeys, typing on an infinite number of typewriters, will eventually produce a text that is an exact copy of Hamlet. But none of those monkeys will understand revenge or love or betrayal. And critically, none of those monkeys will understand what they wrote, will be moved by the writing, or will look forward to sharing it with their reader.

Somewhere along the line, we lost our way.

I feel like writing is magic. It’s the old magic, the original sorcery. Because I can not know what I think, sit down and hit the keys, and suddenly, ideas come up.

Like today, I was unsure what to write about, and all I had was a line that kept turning over in my head. So I sat down to write, stream of consciousness. What follows is what I came up with.

Normally, I wouldn’t stop there, but I wanted to illustrate my point about magic. This is what I think of as a pre-draft. It seems like this idea wants to be several things – maybe a launching point about generosity vs. capitalism. Or about the generosity of the creative act. Or a lament for the early days of the internet. Or a bitch session about my own dissatisfaction with my schedule and routine.

Or maybe it wants to be all of those in a long, wandering essay that I tie up in the last paragraph. But in any event, I got nearly a thousand words of starting points off an 8-word sentence.

See? Magic.

# # #

“Somewhere along the line, we lost our way.”

That line played itself over and over in my head while I was on my walk today. Was it from a poem I read once? From a song buried deep in the lizard part of my brain? Or was it just a truth I felt deep in my bones that I knew in the way one knows one is tired, the way you know that you have missed a turn, the way one knows they have, indeed, lost their way?

It’s like that sometimes. Sometimes I have an idea, a theme if you will, and I want to explore that, and so I work out a narrative around it because I don’t understand things I can’t tell stories about.

Other times I have a story I want to tell, and it works the other way – I tell a story, and a theme presents itself. Sometimes I can tell the same story twice in a row, and a different theme shows up each time. It’s as if I’m not in control at all.

And then other times, it’s like today – I just get a line, and I have to figure out what to do with it.

“Where does this fit?” I ask myself.

What do I do with it? Is it the opening line in a novel? A short story? The apologia by a character for missing their son’s school play? Or is it just a thing I notice about the world around me?

Because it does seem as if, somewhere along the line, we have lost our way. I think Merlin Mann was onto the same sort of thing when he said that it seems like we have lost the recipe for America. But it isn’t just politically – it is pervasive. We all seem to be lost, wandering in the wilderness. A bit dazed, a little confused, somewhat weary, but cautiously hopeful that, around the bend, just over the hill, it will all be back to right again.

At least, that’s how it’s been for me. I was talking to an elementary school principal the other day, and she told me that the last “normal” school year was the one that started in the fall of 2018. Of course, I knew that, but hearing it in that context was staggering.

But I think we lost our way a long time before that.

I was thinking about Instagram this morning. It was once a cool way to show your friends a picture you had taken.

“Here, look at this cat I saw lying in the sunlight. Here is a cool sign I saw in a shop window. Check out the way the light refracts in this pool of water in the parking lot.”

It was generosity. Sharing. It was hopeful.

“Here is a thing I made. It’s for you.”

That was before it was bought by Facebook. Before the rise of the influencers, and back before Facebook sought to extract every possible click and pageview, sought to own every second of your attention. And way before Stories and Reels and who knows what all.

Back then, it was just generosity.

But we seem to have lost our way.

It shouldn’t surprise me. The same thing happened to us bloggers.

Around the turn of the century, blogging took effort. You had to find a host. And you needed a CMS, or you had to know how to write HTML, or you needed an HTML publisher. There was friction.

So those of us who did it did it because we had things we wanted to share.

Here are my thoughts about this thing I’m excited about. Here is a cool thing I found. Check out this article – I think the author is a moron.

There was no real way to monetize in those days. Some people were trying banner ads but losing their asses at it. The blogs were acts of love.

But in 2003, Google developed Adsense, where anyone with a website could put a bit of code on their site and get paid when people clicked their ads. Now, the goalpost changed. It wasn’t about love anymore – it was now about getting clicks. Attention. Views.

It was a short jump from there to corporations developing walled gardens where we still wrote for love, but they made money from the advertisers. I’m looking at you, Social Media.

It seems we have lost our way.

Or maybe it was my anger at how the comments on a cooking forum I belong to have suddenly turned political, with commentators managing to find grist for political jabs in posts about fruitcakes and cranberries. I sometimes think that even Gandhi would despair for humanity if he had spent time in the comment section of Facebook.

It’s also probably that I personally feel adrift as well. I have not had a full weekend at home since August sometime. My life feels chaotic, adrift, and unmoored. This time last year, I was writing an 800-word post every day on my blog. These days I count it a success if I get a post a week up, all the while recognizing it would be easier to not. Since starting the new job, my schedule has been off, and my routine has not yet settled. This frustrates me.

I don’t know what the line means, in other words. I just know that I know it, deep down, in my bones.

“Somewhere along the line, we lost our way.”

The Whole Story

Some years back, my wife and I were in the grocery store. It was our regular grocery store, and we were just going down the aisle, discussing groceries and putting things in the cart. The store was busy, but not unduly so.

A woman I had never seen before came up to us.

‘Hi, Hugh. Hi, Renee!”

I had no idea who this person was. I looked at Renee. She obviously had no idea who she was, either. Our confusion must have been evident.

“Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Maria. I go to [large church I had spoken at the year before], and I follow you on Facebook and read your blog and newsletters.”

I’m always a little uncertain about what to do next. I thanked her for reading my stuff.

“It sounds like you had fun at the beach. And what a cute beach house! And I hope Felix [our cat] is doing OK after that scare at the vet last week!”

She was harmless. But it felt just a tad creepy. It was the first time I had really experienced what I have come to call the “knowledge differential.”

In the first lines of Walden, Thoreau said, talking about his writing in the first person: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”

Like Thoreau, I only know myself well, and even that knowledge evades me at times. I write from my own experience and only feel qualified to tell my own story. The advantage to this is relative expertise on the subject matter, but a disadvantage is that our relationship – mine and yours – is asymmetrical.

You know a lot about me. You don’t know everything because I have boundaries, but my life is well documented. Frequent readers know my cats, hobbies, favorite candy bar, anxieties, hopes, and goals. There are probably 75 of you I know some amount of stuff about. For another couple of thousand of you, I know (or at least have) your email address. And that’s about it.

This asymmetrical quality sometimes makes having friends really difficult. But not as difficult as making friends.

* * *

I was in a strange town on the East Coast for a few days, and I had mentioned in my newsletter that I would be in this town and was happy to grab coffee on a given day if anyone was game. This is how I ended up across the table from Steve.

We have an hour or so, and I recognize him from his Facebook profile picture when he shows up at the coffee shop. I ask him a question or two – the sort of small talk you do when getting to know someone – and then, in response to something he says, I begin to tell him that I can relate because of this thing that happened to me.

He interrupted me.

“Yeah, I know that story. I read about that when it happened.”

He then asked me a bunch of questions about that thing, including some that were boundary crossing. The next 45 minutes felt like an interview. When we left to go our separate ways, he took a selfie with me that went on his Instagram, and then he told me that he was my biggest fan.

Maybe it’s my age, but I always hear that line in Kathy Bate’s voice.

* * *

It’s weird, this asymmetrical relationship we have, you and me. When I run into people I have not seen in ages, they tell me about things that happen in their life, and then they comment on my life – they mention the trip I just went on, my depression struggles, and my cats. I hesitate to mention things I have written about because I don’t want to repeat myself if they already know, and I don’t want to assume they read my stuff (how annoying is THAT guy? “As I said in chapter 9 of my latest book, …”).

And so, when I meet people for the first time, I find myself reluctant to bring up my writing. Like I want to have a person in my life who is not a consumer of my words, who only know the IRL version of me and not the curated version, who only knows what they observe and can gleen. Friends who never worry if I am going to write about them. Friends who get excited when I tell them about the big thing that happened to me and who don’t already know how the story ends.

I’m not complaining. I signed up for this gig. I enjoy writing, and I write confessionally and openly. I enjoy it. It’s changed my life. Hell, it’s saved my life.

But it’s important for you to know that the Hugh you know from here is curated. I mean, it must be, by definition. So you don’t know if we would be best friends if we met. Maybe I chew with my mouth open, and that would annoy the hell out of you. (I don’t, but it’s an example – just go with it).

And I guarantee that you don’t know the whole story.

The Hughniverse

Let me tell you the backstory behind this post.

A few months back, I was holding office hours for people on the membership team. I mentioned the wide-ranging projects I am working on that they are supporting, and I jokingly called it my empire. He laughed and said I was creating a Hughniverse.

I am a sucker for puns on my name.

Then, a few weeks ago a close friend made something pretty amazing, and I mentioned it in The Hughsletter. Later, when I was talking to her, I mentioned I had shared it in my newsletter, and she said she hadn’t seen it. It turns out she hadn’t seen it because she didn’t even know I have a second newsletter called The Hughsletter (again, I love puns on my name).

I am the worst promoter of my work, but even I recognize that of the literally billions of people on the planet who did not read anything I wrote last year, the most common reason they didn’t wasn’t that they don’t like my style, or they disagree with me politically or any other logical reason, but because they simply do not know I exist.

So, here is an up-to-date list of the projects I am currently working on. At least this way, I can say that I told you.

The Membership Team

The more than 120 folks who pay contribute between $5 and $25 a month to keep the bills paid around here. Literally, everything springs from this – they pay the hosting and the internet domains and the subscriptions for the software and, not incidentally, for my time when I am writing jibber jabber on the internet instead of doing something else.

They also serve as an advisory board of sorts – they know about projects before anyone else, and I seek their input on directions I am considering. They get the satisfaction of knowing that because of their support, I get to keep making cool stuff.

Food is Love

This is the narrative cookbook I am writing in partnership with the membership team. They are getting a chapter a week delivered to their inbox as I write this, and then I take their input and feedback and will edit it down and publish a physical book this winter.

We are a ⅓ of the way through this project. So far, members have gotten the stories (and recipes) behind such things as fancy rice, Salisbury steak, pulled pork, and Aunt Louise’s chicken soup. And this winter, when I do get the physical book made, they will all get free copies.

Membership has its privileges. If you aren’t a member, you can buy it when it comes out.

My Blog

I continue to post on my blog two to three days a week at Humidity and Hope. My most read post over the last 30 days or so was my story of our ragtag rescue cat Pepe.

Links to the new posts are posted in several places: My Facebook page, Twitter, and Tumblr. I also publish a full RSS feed if that is your jam (it is mine!). If you don’t know what RSS is, here you go.

And I publish the entirety of the text of most blog posts on my Facebook profile page as a public post. I want everyone to have the opportunity to read my stuff, despite the fact that it probably costs me subscribers by not forcing Facebook readers to click through.

The Hughsletter

This is the accidental newsletter. Back in August of last year, when I began blogging regularly again, I set it up so people could get an email whenever I wrote a post. So far, so good. But then I began publishing multiple times a week, and people freaked out a little and asked if they could just get one email a week from me with links to everything I wrote that week.

So, I did. Then I would think of other things I had seen or liked that didn’t really merit their own blog post but that I thought would appeal to people who like my blogging style, so I added those links. Or I would mention a follow-up to a previous post I knew they had read. Before long, it was its own thing.

This is my most personal publishing venture. It’s the smallest audience, so it feels like talking to people I know rather than the internet at large. You can sign up or peruse the archives here.

Life is So Beautiful

Every Monday morning, I wake up, make coffee, and then sit down and write an email to several thousand folks in at least five different countries. I write a blog-length reflection on where I see beauty in the world right then, and then I share links to five things I had seen that week that struck me as beautiful. Because the world is beautiful, but sometimes it’s hard to notice it.

And I’ve been doing it for seven years. It’s my biggest project, in terms of readers, and my longest-running one. You can sign up or peruse the archives here.


That’s a lot. There is talk of other things in the works. I’m working on an idea for the next book I will serially write like I am this one. There is talk of a podcast. I want to set up a live streaming cam on my birdfeeder and pond. I will get to it eventually. Or not. But I am having a blast, regardless.

Thanks for reading my stuff. It means more than you know.

Most Days

Creative people love to hear about the routines of other creative people. They hear that Hemingway often wrote at a standing desk, so they buy a standing desk. Or that Austin Kleon uses a Pilot G2 Gel Pen, and so they buy a Pilot G2 Gel Pen. Walter Mosley says that you should write two hours a day, Sunday through Saturday, 52 weeks a year, for the rest of your life. Julia Cameron says that the secret is three handwritten pages a day. Stephen King writes in the morning and reads in the afternoon.

I belong to a book club made up of creative people, and we read and discuss books about creativity. Quickly you see that they all have some sort of recipe or prescription. They also don’t seem to recognize that there is a degree of privilege in even the best of them.

Take Walter Mosley and his two hours a day of writing. When we had infants living with us, I didn’t sleep for more than 3 hours at a time. I didn’t shower every day, let alone write every day. My writing output was zero. But Mr. Mosley would say I was just not serious about your work. In his book This Year You Write Your Novel, he mentions time constraints, and his advice is basically that you have to figure out how to do it. “Let the lawn get shaggy and the paint peel from the walls,” he says.

That it is easier to neglect walls and lawns than children’s feeding schedules goes unmentioned. Also, we creative people tend to be a thin-skinned lot, and once you realize the impossibility of the average working person being able to take Mosley’s advice, it is easy to be filled with despair. It is a recipe for failure if success is defined as following Mosley’s prescription.

Yesterday, I wrote 1200 words. Thus far today, I have written over 300 words and will most likely write another thousand more before I am done. I don’t write every day, but I do write most days. Because I am OK with writing most days, I have written more than 200,000 words in the last 12 months. If I were only a success if I wrote every day, I would have 200,000 words and be a failure.

Yesterday I walked 2.5 miles. Today I walked 2.5 miles. But Saturday, I didn’t. But it doesn’t matter, because most days, I do. That has been enough, over the last year, for me to lower my blood pressure, lose weight I needed to lose, and feel more connected to my neighborhood.

I think 24 hours as the default unit of time is a mistake – I try to take a more seasonal approach these days. It doesn’t matter what you do every day. It matters what you do most of the time.

Over this season, did I write most days? Did I meditate or pray most days? Did I walk most days? Did I eat in ways that respect my body most days? Was I kind to other people most days? Was I a good partner most days? Was I the sort of person I wanted to be most days?

When I focus on doing the thing, say, 70% of the time rather than doing it perfectly 100% of the time, I get a lot more done, and I feel like I do better work. And honestly, I feel better about myself.

Most days.