• Robison Wells

Mental Filament

My 3D printer stopped working last week in the middle of a print. The way this printer works is that it has a spool of filament that melts through an extruder, and the extruder draws a shape on a plate. With each pass, it lays down 0.2 millimeters of filament, and as it draws, layer upon layer, it builds up into a 3D object. This process takes many, many hours.

After about three hours, my printer screen read that it was 11% done, and the extruder was about 3/4 inches above the plate, but I noticed there was no object underneath it. It was still drawing, still moving around the plate as though it was creating an object, but nothing was coming out. The filament spool had run dry. It was working along mindlessly, assuming that it was building layer upon layer, and it was accomplishing nothing.

It's got me thinking about energy reserves. Obviously, we all know that we can't live if we're not taking in food and water to replenish our nutritional needs. But we can't work, produce, or create if we're not feeding our brains, either. If we're not getting a steady flow of mental filament, then we can draw all we want, for hours and hours, and nothing will come out. Nothing worthwhile, anyway.

Stephen King once said about being a writer: "Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." I can't tell you how many writers conferences I've been to where I talk to an aspiring writer who says that they're writing something like science fiction, but can't name any books written in that genre that have come out in the last five years. They think that they can write it because they read Dune (which came out sixty years ago) or Neuromancer (which came out 40 years ago) or Ender's Game (30 years) or Starship Troopers (80 years) or Brave New World (90 years)! When what they really should be reading is Mary Robinette Kowal (2 years ago) and N.K. Jemison (3 years ago) and Arkady Martine (1 year ago): the people who are currently writing modern stuff that is in touch with a modern audience. (Sidenote: this is not to say there's anything wrong with classics. But if you're trying to get published you need to know what is coming out NOW.) (I once hired an intern and it came down to two candidates and the deciding factor was that when asked what their favorite YA books were, one of the candidates said "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the other candidate listed fifteen books that had come out in the last year. She got the job.)

Not filling up your mental printer with mental filament will result in you creating a mental nothingness. Like that empty 3D printer you will be continuing to draw and draw, mindlessly assuming that you're building something, but ultimately accomplishing nothing. You're going through the motions of creation, believing that what you're doing is good and will produce results, but it's a sham. It's what Stephen Covey called "Sharpening the Saw": you can saw and saw and saw all you want with a dull blade and get nowhere, or you can stop, rest, take time to sharpen your saw, and then cut with far more efficiency and speed than you ever could before.

So where do we look to fill up our mental reserves with mental filament? For work, I'm taking a series of online courses which will help me succeed more on the job, but there's more than that. I also listen to podcasts religiously. I read science news. For my hobby terrain--this YouTube channel--I have both a curated list of fellow wargame YouTubers I watch as well as a Twitter channel exclusively following wargamers. It's a way of filling up those mental reserves.

But if I can give some slightly different advice, which echoes Stephen King's, you need to practice. In that same memoir, King wrote: "If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.” It's the mixture of the two of them that makes a writer successful, and I believe it's a mixture of the two principles (feed the brain; exercise the brain) that makes a good salesperson or account manager or SEO specialist. Feed the brain, exercise the brain.

My 3D printer is up and running again, building the strange things that I make with my 3D printer. All it took was a new spool of filament, taking a breath, and starting over.

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