I’m done with setting goals. Instead, I’m organizing my life and work using a system of domains, tensions, and experiments.

  • Domains are broad areas of sustained interest or focus: the Big Themes, the Great Work, the Things That Matter.
  • Tensions are pinch points within those domains: dissatisfactions, gaps, or opportunities to generate change.
  • Experiments are time-limited, clearly-defined attempts to relieve a tension: interventions designed to close a gap between where I am and where I want to be.


At first, when defining domains, I pressured myself to have no more than three. Thanks to this arbitrary limit, I wasted a lot of time coming up with broad domains that ended up being too vague to be useful. It took time, but I finally got over myself enough to ask, “What domains are actually at work in your life?

In the end, there are nine:

  • Loving Clyde
  • Maintaining Health
  • Opening to Spirit
  • Growing as a Writer
  • Sustaining Relationships
  • Embracing Community
  • Cultivating Career
  • Sharing What Works
  • Shipping Creative Work

Giving myself permission to express all of these individually got me past the urge to lump “Loving Clyde,” “Sustaining Relationships,” and “Embracing Community” into a broad and less useful category (“Relating to Others”).

We all operate in different domains. What would your domains be? To find them, think about the people, relationships, processes, and work that really matter to you. Avoid the trap of trying to pick domains you think will sound impressive. Rather than be aspirational, start with the areas where you’re already investing attention, time, and energy.


Next, for each domain, I asked myself, “What, if anything, isn’t working or needs to change?” Some of tensions I identified that I’m comfortable sharing in a public forum are:

  • I’m not happy with my weight. After attaining a healthy weight, I’ve put on the “COVID 19.” As I write this, I weigh 215; I’d like to weigh 195. (Domain: Maintaining Health)
  • I miss my daily meditation practice. After months of daily practice, my meditation habit has become ragged and haphazard. I want to reclaim that routine. (Domains: Maintaining Health, Opening to Spirit)
  • Still. No. Novel. It’s time to commit to one. (Domain: Growing as a Writer)
  • I miss the energy of community. The combination of COVID-isolation and moving from a big city to a small town has me feeling cut off from many of the energies that used to inspire me. (Domain: Embracing Community)
  • I used to share more. I’ve been learning a lot about new tools and new ways of working, but I haven’t been diligent about “learning out loud” and making this information accessible to others. (Domain: Sharing What Works)

So: lots of tensions. What to do about them? (And what will you do about yours?)


Rather than set traditional goals to address these tensions (like “Lose twenty pounds in six months” or “Write a novel by December 31”), I’ve come up with experiments — focused, shorter-term actions with start dates, end dates, a clearly-defined action to take, and a clearly-articulated statement of what I hope to learn along the way. Here are a few I’m willing to share:

  • For the next six weeks, without trying to change my diet in any way, I’m going to log everything I eat in the Weight Watchers app and calculate the points. I want to learn whether or not the simple act of logging consumption will trigger greater mindfulness and help me regulate my weight without the need for artificial dietary constraints. Data points include days I complied with the plan and, of course, my weight.
  • Two weeks ago, I started producing a video series called “60 Seconds to Roam,” designed to introduce total beginners to Roam Research, a thought processor with the ability to link ideas together and resurface them in unexpected contexts. I want to see how the obligation to crank out two or three episodes per week impacts my knowledge of Roam, of desktop video production, and how to use YouTube and Twitter to connect with people who will value this kind of information. I’ll be logging the number of episodes I produce, the number of people who seem to value the series, and, of course, the things I learn along the way.
  • I knew from teaching online classes that well-run online meetings — while no substitute for face-to-face interaction — can create a sense of intimacy and community. As an experiment, I joined the Roam Book Club: a global organization whose members read a book, take notes in a shared Roam Research graph, and meet once a week to talk about the book. When the six-week obligation to the Book Club ends, I’ll reflect on the extent to which my participation gave me an experience of community.

When these experiments conclude, I’ll ask myself: What did I notice? What did I learn? To what extent did the experiment relieve the tension? Informed by this, I’ll decide whether to continue or amend the experiment … or abandon it and try something else.

What experiments could you undertake to address the tensions in your life?

Why This System?

I created this system because I’m sick of traditional (and, often, annual) goal-setting.

At work, I’m always frustrated by the annual cycle of goal-setting. Especially after a year like 2020, I think most of us understand the futility (and hubris) of pretending we know on January 1st what will matter come December 31st.

I also confess that I find most formulas for defining personal goals off-putting. I have friends who routinely set goals like “Be making a six-figure salary by November” or “Be a vice-president by the end of the year” or “Have 5,000 Twitter followers by July 31.”

Honestly? These kind of goals make me wince. Even when paired with detailed courses of action, they fail to take into account the complexity of the world we live in — and the fact that humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future. Besides: let’s say you get that title or those 5,000 Twitter followers by some arbitrary deadline. How will this change your life? What will you have learned?

I’ve also observed that people who don’t reach their arbitrary goals feel defeated. Binary goals — “I’ll do this, or I won’t!” — force us to approach experience in terms of success or failure. I think an approach that favors learning and response is more practical, more flexible, and easier to live with.

Where did This System Come From?

While I say I created this system, it is, like most things, a remix. My thinking was influenced by:

Tiago Forte. For a while, I tried to wedge my life into Tiago’s P.A.R.A. paradigm, which classifies everything as Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives. (My domains, were, in fact, inspired by his “areas.”) But in the end, I felt P.A.R.A. was more a system for organizing information than a structure I could use for transformation and growth.

Aaron Dignan. The book Brave New Work and the working relationship I’ve had with consultants from The Ready attuned me to the power of noticing tensions and conceiving experiments — what Dignan calls “radical changes attempted on a non-radical scale.” I’ve witnessed first-hand the power of focusing on shorter timeframes and redefining direction based on real-time information … so it seemed natural to adapt these principles for personal use.

Roam Research, Tracy Winchell, and Beau Haan. I had struggled for ages to align my life with the concepts of values, missions, goals, and objectives. Every structure I came up with felt forced or inauthentic.

  • Using Roam Research attuned to me better ways to think about and visualize connections between ideas and concepts at work in my life. (It also drew my attention to the fact that Brave New Work was the most highlighted, quoted, and referenced book I’ve read in the past two years!)
  • Tracy Winchell’s focus on Roaman Journals (journaling in Roam Research) informed my own daily journaling practice … which gave rise to several daily entries focused on what I need to see pattern and direction in my life … which helped me articulate the domain/tension/experiment solution.
  • Beau Haan’s work has helped me shift from thinking about connections and linkages between pages in Roam Research to focusing on connections and linkages between blocks (or paragraphs). Seeking connections on a more fine-grained level helped me think about the most effective ways to represent my domains, tensions, and experiments in Roam.

In addition to being a remix, this system is also experiment. Within the domains of Cultivating Career, Shipping Creative Work, and Growing as a Writer, I saw connected tensions around never quite achieving (or achieving very slowly) the work I position as being very important to me. I plan to use this system for the next eight weeks and see what I notice and learn along the way.

Making This Idea Your Own

  • Spend some time thinking about the domains in your own life. What matters? What do you come back to again and again? Where do you spend your time and energy?
  • What tensions exist within these domains? Where are the gaps? What have you wanted to achieve … but never quite achieved? What “stings” when you think about it? Where would a change be beneficial or pleasurable?
  • What experiment could you conduct over six to eight weeks as a way to address a tension in your life? What would you have to do? What would you hope to learn? When the experiment is over, what conditions would lead you to continue, amend, or abandon the experiment and try something else?
  • How does this approach differ from the goal-setting you do now? How might these differences help you achieve more of the things you want to achieve?

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

If you’re interested in Roam Research, there are some incredible video series out there to help get started with the world’s most powerful thought processor. From Beginner to Superuser: A Complete Roam Research Tutorial Course was immensely helpful to me, as were the videos on note-taking from Shu Omi.

With so much good content out there, I hesitated to muddy the water with more. But I began to see a pattern: many Roam Research intros were lengthy, and some assumed too much knowledge on the part of the beginner. What might happen if someone took Roam, boiled it down to its most essential concepts, and produced a series for absolute beginners with episodes that were never more than a minute long?

With this in mind, I’ve created a series called “60 Seconds to Roam.” Right up front: this is definitely an enterprise that embodies the “Progress Over Perfection” mantra! But after watching this project linger on my to-do list for a couple of months, I decided that just doing it — even imperfectly — was better than never doing it at all.

Future episodes will cover other key concepts, including the graph, search, block references, block embeds, adding images, using filters, creating templates, and more. I’ve started posting new episodes weekly, and welcome your critiques and feedback. Whether you find them helpful or horrible, please drop me a note and let me know what you think.

Photo by Veri Ivanova on Unsplash

Most of our meetings used to be “work pageants.”

First: the parade of PowerPoint slides. Then: the endless report-outs and updates, which spawned conversations, which plummeted down rabbit holes. We debated and deliberated. Rather than make decisions, we sought one more data point, one more best practice, one more stakeholder to query. 

Supporting these pageants became a job in itself: circulating agendas, creating slide decks, and distributing reports. Officers called pre-meeting meetings, where they received briefings about upcoming meetings. Officers who missed meetings called post-meeting meetings, where they received briefings about meetings they missed. 

We were very busy being busy. 

We spent hours of our lives this way. 

Now — not always, but more often than not — we meet for the purpose of getting work done. 

We use steering meeting structures — a quick check-in question, rapid updates (“What’s changed? What’s next?”) on projects, and a needs-based agenda for resolving needs and unblocking work. As a result, our meetings have gone from passive pageants to productive powerhouses. 

We build kanban-stye meeting boards in Asana, where cards represent anything from a simple need to an entire project. At the start of each meeting, we sit in silence for a minute or two while everyone updates the board.

Because no one ever reads pre-meeting materials, we shift work-related reading to the meeting itself. At the appointed time, someone starts a timer, and we read or watch or listen in silence, right there together. 

We bring the power of this quiet, shared focus to bear in meeting after meeting: in our brainstorms, in our reviews of past projects, in our planning sessions. The session goes silent, but the air crackles with creative intent. 

When we are talking, our discussion is structured … and live-scribed in Microsoft Teams or Slack. No circulating minutes for us; instead, because we work collaboratively and transparently, everybody who needs a briefing can go see our progress (in Asana, in Slack) for themselves. 

In the past, our meetings looked like bad stock photos of corporate meetings: a room packed with grinning professionals, gesturing at each other, pointing at projected charts, and passing each other printed reports.

Now, we limit updates to 60 seconds or so per project. We bring our needs and get them met. We reserve quiet time for planning, reading, and studying. We talk about things that matter. 

We are not as entertaining to watch, perhaps, as the models in those stock photos … but we get more real work done.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Starting meetings with check-in questions is one of the most powerful tools for changing how we relate to each other. So why are check-in questions also the first new way of working that many managers want to cancel?

The check-in process is deceptively simple.You ask a question. Meeting attendees answer it, round-robin style. But *why* do we do this?

A check-in question is a ritual — a friendly, repeatable action that says, “Hey, we’re getting started.” 

A check-in question democratizes our meeting space: “This is a place where everyone can speak and be heard.”

A check-in question sets expectations: “We expect everyone to speak up and take part.” 

A check-in question humanizes the moment. “We care about what’s on each other’s minds.”

A check-in question focuses attention. “Let’s model the power of everyone thinking about the same thing at the same time.”

Inevitably, though, someone will say, “This takes too much time! We should be working, not chatting! Enough with the check-in questions!”

People who want to cancel the check-in question forget: our work goes more smoothly when people feel present, acknowledged, and connected.

If time becomes an issue, we can ask questions prompting one-word answers (or, on Zoom, have people answer the question simultaneously in the chat).

But: do check-in. Once we feel more connected to each other, we’ll feel more connected to the work … and get more done.

Inspired by Dickie Bush’s atomic essay concept, I’ve committed to writing thirty short essays in thirty days. Cheer me on!

Photo by Mikel Parera on Unsplash

At work, a set of “meeting moves” is changing how we meet:

  • Appointing moderators and scribes. One person steers; the other notes what we did and what agreements we made.
  • Starting meetings with a check-in question. These can be simple (“What’s on your mind?”) or fun (“What are you drinking?”) or profound (“Why does this project matter to you?”). Everyone listens; everyone answers.
  • Limiting status updates to one minute each. We expect most folks to pull status updates from the tools we use to “work out loud” — like Asana and Microsoft Teams.
  • Building an “agenda on the fly.” No compiling or circulating agendas in advance. Anyone can raise a need and have it addressed on the spot.
  • Closing with check-out questions. A favorite: “What did you notice about this meeting?” We notice things to celebrate … and things to change.

These meeting moves are not about efficiency; they’re tools for shaping culture.

  • Appointing moderators and scribes says, “What we do and how we do it matters.”
  • Check-in questions say, “Everyone can speak.”
  • Eliminating status updates says, “We use shared tools and trust adults to keep up.”
  • Building an agenda on the fly says, “Anyone can tell us what’s needed.”
  • Check-out questions say, “We notice. We learn. We improve.”

Set out to change culture, and you get insipid vision statements everyone will forget. Change the way people interact and culture takes care of itself.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Tracy Winchell is helping so many people discover the healing, centering power of keeping a journal! Her classes and tips can help anyone get started logging — and learning from — their lives.

She was kind enough to feature the journaling work I’ve been doing in Roam Research in the latest episode of her series on “Roaman Journaling.” What a fun conversation! If you’d like to know more about Tracy’s work, please visit her quick start guide and consider following her on Twitter.

Our conversation covers the value of a journaling habit … and the surprising insights that can come from keeping a dream journal. Have a look!

Author’s Note: This post is about a process I used to create a short story: “Bloom.” If you prefer, you can always read the story first.

Years ago, a professor of mine told me his secret for writing fiction. While writing, he would keep the t.v. on with the volume down. When he couldn’t think of what to write next, he would glance up, see an image on the television, and integrate that image into his story. 

While not a fan of that particular method, I have used random input (at the time, Tarot cards) to brainstorm characters, story details, and plot points. (I’ve even created a popular character generator tool based on this process.) 

An extension called Roam42 gives Roam Research users the ability to pull random blocks of text from their collection of notes. Given the wide-ranging content in my own Roam Research graph (book notes, passages from my own fiction and non-fiction books, dreams, journal entries), I decided to see what kind of story I could generate using random blocks as writing prompts. 

Getting Started

I started from scratch, with no story in mind at all.

Before writing, I set up a classical five-point storyform:

  • The everyday world
  • Inciting incident
  • Rising complication
  • Climax
  • Resolution

I also set up some guidelines:

  • I set a maximum story length of 2500 words — something people could easily read in one sitting. Since I was working with a five-point storyform, that meant each section would have about 500 words. 
  • I’d be inspired, but never constrained by, Roam’s random input. 
  • To avoid being derailed by my inner editor, I committed to write the story straight through, curtailing urges to polish and refine while writing the first draft. 

I then created a Roam42 SmartBlock that would insert this storyform as an outline and populate each plot point with a block chosen at random from my Roam Research database. The code looks like this:

Finally, I created a new blank page in Roam, invoked the Roam42 trigger, and got the following result:

  • Normal World: “Think of the automatic responses you have to sweet taste, putrefying odor, proper body temperature, pain, physical touch, snakes, flowers, an aggressive tone, play, courtship, sex, crying infants, sleep, novelty, altruism, or control over your own actions. These stimuli are considered primary reinforcers, meaning that they are prewired, not learned.”
  • Inciting Incident: “Read Later apps”
  • Rising Action: “Source: [Progressive Summarization: A Practical Technique for Designing Discoverable Notes]”
  • Climax: “They need to do the work and be led through the work.”
  • Resolution: “——————–“

So I knew my story would involve an every day world where characters were guided or influenced by sensory stimuli. An incident involving apps that store information and surface it later would start a conflict that would be complicated by the progressive summarization process. That action would reach its climax because of an obligation for someone to “be led through the work.” 

At first, the random block selected for the resolution threw me. That block — a line of dashes — is a divider line I use sometimes the taking notes to separate blocks with a common themes. In this context, that line struck me as blank and vaguely threatening, so I decided my story would end abruptly, on a dark note. 

Writing The Story

Because I feared embedding the outcome of my experiment here might bury it, I published the short story — “Bloom” — as a separate post. I invite you to pause and read it now. Most people can read “Bloom” in less than ten minutes. 

Spoiler Warning: The next section discusses the writing process and necessarily contains spoilers that could diminish your enjoyment of the story itself. I also think you’ll appreciate the info about my process more after you’ve read “Bloom.”

The Tools

I wrote “Bloom” in Roam Research, creating a header for each beat in my outline and indenting the related blocks beneath those headers. I liked being able to collapse sections that pleased me, leaving open only the section I was currently working on.

I used Roam’s built-in word count command in two ways. I created a story-wide word counter at the top of the outline (that is, a word counter that tallied all words in every block in the story) and a section-specific word counter at each of five section headers (that would only count the words in the blocks organized under that header). 

The Process

What follows probably tells more than most people want to know about the creation of a 2500-word story … but I wanted to give you a glimpse into what might be, for many, uncharted territory: the creative process that goes on in the mind of a fiction writer … and how that process can be aided by random input (and Roam Research).

The Everyday World: Setting and Character

Despite many interruptions, I wrote the first draft in about two hours. 

Roam’s first prompt — a passage from Impossible to Ignore, Carmen Simon’s masterwork on creating memorable content — had me thinking about the kind of sensory information that makes an experience memorable. Right away, I knew I’d be writing about some technology that delivered sensory stimuli — and that this would be central to the story’s everyday world. 

Re-reading the prompt, I locked in on the words “flowers” and “snakes.” In a flash, I knew the tech would somehow be able to render snakes into flowers. That gave me a setting: a florist’s shop … but I wanted something more exotic, so I dredged up a travel memory of Thailand’s Bak Klang Talat market. 

I decided my main character would work there. Having been to the market several times, I recalled the shopkeepers I’d seen in the stalls outside, and came up with the character of a slender young woman in a stained Tiger Beer tee-shirt. I didn’t know her name until I typed it … and while Saqueena is not particularly a Thai name, I liked the sound of it. 

To ramp up tension, I decided to make Saqueena late for work, and, originally, thought she’d be in such a rush, she would forget to take her glasses and earbuds with her. But that seemed odd in a society where people depended as highly on augmented reality as we do our phones … so I decided she would take her gear along … but that it would go dead, and that I could make her lack of access to her technology as a plot point in the story. 

To ramp up tension even more, I decided Shaqueena had both a pattern of being late … and a boss who would be a bit of a fascist. On the spur of the moment, I named him Radalph — again, not really a Thai name, but one that did have an embodied symbolic link to Adolph Hitler.

The Inciting Incident

Roam’s random selection for the second point on my outline told me that the inciting incident — the “hook” that disrupts Shaqueena’s world and launches the real story — would be related to “Read It Later” apps. 

Watching people check Instapaper didn’t seem especially threatening or surprising. But I realized that, if people had tech capable of changing the way they saw the world, the same tech was likely capable of producing recordings people could review or share. In a flash, I knew my characters would witness a crime … and that their stories about what happened would differ dramatically based on whatever reality they had chosen to author for themselves.

I needed a crime, then, so that the police could poll people for their accounts of the event … and a process for weaving these accounts into a cohesive whole.

The Rising Complication

This prompt is drawn from my notes on an article by Tiago Forte. I’ve long been a fan of progressive summarization. In addition, I know from working with Roam Research (and from reading How to Take Smart Notes) the power of restating key ideas in one’s own words. 

Since I see these processes as powerful strategies, it was difficult, at first, to think of ways they might make Saqueena’s situation worse. But it occurred to me that, in a dystopian setting, paraphrasing source material — particularly eyewitness testimony — as a way of deriving “truth” could be a very frustrating source of trouble for Saqueena.

What if Saqueena witnessed the unvarnished truth about a crime … while everyone around her saw augmented versions, tuned to suit their own tastes? In the world of the story, what would carry more weight: one person’s perspective, or some averaged-together version of events synthesized from many people’s different points of view?

The Climax

My Roam-randomized story outline indicated the crisis at the end of the story would be related to a phrase lifted from, of all things, a journal entry written while I was preparing for a staff meeting. 

“They need to do the work and be led through the work” sounded to me like an assertion made by someone who would be in control. So I came up with a police officer who, when confronted with the absurdity of averaging eye witness testimony together, would respond by insisting on doing things by the book. 

In the end, this exact line appears almost verbatim in the mouth of Officer Saetang. After revision, his declaration is no such much the climax as it heralds the events that lead up to the climax. (This is why it’s healthy, you see, to let your outline guide, but never dictate, your story points.) But one he makes this pronouncement, Saqueena’s fate is sealed. 


Ah, that line of dashes. So empty. So final. 

I decided this meant the story would end abruptly … and in despair. In my mind, that meant Saqueena would likely come to an unpleasant end … and so I knew that, despite being an innocent observer, she would ultimately be charged with and executed for the crime at the heart of the story. 


Writing the first draft took me about two hours. When I re-read the piece, I was struck by the emergence of a powerful theme: the nature of truth. In a world where everyone has their own subjective experience of the truth, how does one arrive at what’s really, objectively true? 

Given that America’s current crisis is rooted in the fact that millions of people have adopted conspiracy theories and fringe news services as their source of truth … well, this struck me as a particularly timely theme. 

Major Revisions

After discovering the story’s theme, I spent an additional hour reworking the story’s flow, enhancing the story’s emotional impact, and reinforcing the theme itself. 

The first line of the story (“The assault in Bangkok’s flower market happened just five minutes after Saqueena arrived.”) was actually the last line I wrote. Originally, the story opened with Saqueena getting ready for work. Other than her vague dissatisfaction with her appearance, there wasn’t much tension there. The current first line, which sets the location, names the main character, and foreshadows the assault in the flower market, is much stronger … but I couldn’t have written it without having written the rest of the story first. 

When I re-read the first draft, Saqueena’s fate struck me as harsh, but not particularly tragic. I knew I could increase the impact of her death by making her more sympathetic, so I went with a trick screenwriting guru Blake Snyder calls “Save the Cat!” 

In Alien, Ripley, the protagonist, saves a cat — a simple act of kindness that endears her to the audience. Blake Snyder makes this one of fifteen “beats” — significant story moments — he recommends including in any screenplay. I adapted the concept here, giving Saqueena an elderly neighbor to check on. 

An earlier version of Mrs. Huang was merely an invalid. But with an eye toward reinforcing the story’s theme, I saw I could use her to set up the story’s central tension early on by having her be immersed in the world she perceived through glasses and earbuds. Without the information that comes later in the story, it’s difficult for the reader to decide if Mrs. Huang suffers from dementia or tech addiction.

And this, in turn, gave me a means of reinforcing the theme throughout the story by placing every character under the thrall of a subjective experience tailored to their whims. The witnesses already did this, but following revision, we see the pedestrians in the market and both police officers retreat into their own little worlds in ways that both isolate and insulate them from reality. 

Once I knew the nature of the assault itself, I could attribute it to someone or something. I came up with the Church of Reality, imagined they would oppose the technology giving rise to all these subjective points of view, and then decided to foreshadow their violence by adding some graffiti to the interior of the subway car. 

As part of a final polish pass, I did a little research to give the story additional texture and depth. Originally, Saqueena rode Bangkok’s SkyTrain monorail to the market. But after I revisited the market via Google Maps, I saw the walk from the closest SkyTrain platform was too long, so I shifted Saqueena to the subway, which has a station a short distance away. I got the name of that station and the street Saqueena walks on directly from the Google Maps. I also googled the names of flowers for sale in the market and, drawing on photos I’ve taken in Bangkok over the years, came up with quick descriptive strokes (the look of the holographic blondes in the body conditioning ad, the pot-bellied man’s outfit, the saffron robes of the man on the subway train, the police officer’s athletic build) I could assign to minor characters. 

The last thing I did was give the piece a title. I like one-word titles, and I like to use that title to draw attention to a central symbol in the story. In this case, I felt drawn to flowers: beautiful, fragile, fleeting natural objects that characters lost in subjective fantasies might fail to see or appreciate. I went with “Bloom,” in part because of the floral connection but also because I liked what the word implied about the way unexpected outcomes unfold slowly over time. 

What I Like

I really enjoyed creating this story … unpacking the writing process for you … and reading the story itself. I like that I felt free to go with the flow: to be inspired, but not constrained by, the information Roam generated at random. 

I like the fact that story only exists because:

  • Carmen Simon wrote the book Impossible to Ignore
  • Tiago Forte wrote “The Digital Productivity Pyramid” and “Progressive Summarization: A Practical Technique for Designing Discoverable Notes”
  • I wrote a journal entry about the best way to get train colleagues to use a progressive strategy method to plan their year
  • I started using lines of dashes to section off related blocks of notes.
  • Roam Research pulled these random elements together in the context of my storyform
  • These random elements and coincidences came together in a meaningful way. 

I’m particularly proud of how the larger theme of the story emerged organically as part of the writing process. I didn’t set out to write a story “about” truth or the hazards of living in a post-truth society. But I’m delighted that theme emerged … and that, once it emerged, I could see ways to go back into the text and reinforce it. 

What I Learned

I’ve missed writing short fiction. While maintaining the corporate and non-fiction work that pays the bills, I’m going to integrate writing more short fiction into my plans for the coming weeks. 

I miss being in the company of writers. In college, outside of the mandatory workshops associated with my graduate degree work, I was part of a small, self-organized fiction writing group: four people at about the same point in their careers as writers united by common affection, goals, and a desire to grow. I miss sharing projects like these with a group like that.

I’m interested in learning more about ways Roam can work as a tool for fiction writers. Cleverly employed, references and unlinked references could become the underpinning for telling non-linear stories, with elements that create a mood or send a message without having to be read in order. 

What’s Next

I’m going to write more stories and explore Roam as a tool for creative writers. 

But what about you? If you’re inspired to write stories using this process, please consider sharing them with the world and letting me know. I’d love to see them. And, of course, if you liked this peek at my process or if you enjoyed reading “Bloom,” would you be so kind as to drop me a quick line at mark@markmcelroy.com … or to share the work with others in your network? Thanks!

Author’s Note: I wrote this short story using a process I developed for use within a tool called Roam Research. For a peek into that process and what I learned from it, see the related post.

The assault in Bangkok’s flower market happened just five minutes after Saqueena arrived.

Earlier that morning, she’d showered, mashed her rebellious hair into a less offensive shape, pulled on her not-too-wrinkled Tiger beer t-shirt, and then checked on old Mrs. Huang next door. 

The woman slumped in her worn recliner, her glasses on and her earbuds cranked up so loud Saqueena could hear tinny voices coming from them. Saqueena checked to be sure Mrs. Huang had eaten (the empty rice bowl and an open bag of pineapple chunks on the chairside table suggested she had) before wiping the old woman’s cheeks and hands with a damp cloth.

“I prefer the red polish,” Mrs. Huang said. “And etch each nail with those little flowers.”

Saqueena leaned in and raised her voice. “You have everything you need?”

Mrs. Huang cackled. “Such a gossip!”

Satisfied, Saqueena dashed back across the hall, snatched her own glasses and earbuds off the charging mat, and dashed out the door. Two MRT stops from her gritty little apartment, she slapped her glasses on, shoved an earbud in each ear, and tapped her left temple. 

What she could see of the crowded, grimy train car interior brightened. The overhead lights shifted from blue-white to a honey-gold. The faces of the passengers around her softened. The loopy scrawls of Reality Church graffiti (“The Truth shall set U free!”) faded from view as her lenses re-rendered the train car’s interior walls with a virtual layer of polished aluminum. The roar of the subway car gave way to the sound of chants being sung in a cavernous temple.

The stationary clock in the upper left of her field of vision confirmed her worst fears: at this rate, she’d get to the market fifteen minutes late. Again. This time, Radalph — the wiry manager with the permanent frown — would do worse than dock her pay. 

Her gear sensed her tensions, noted the time of day, and pulled a related journal entry. A media window opened in the air in front of her: her boss, Radalph, frowning, giving her a taste of the misery he could inflict by using his higher permissions against her. Like a wizard casting an incantation, he swiped at sliders in the air that only he could see. Immediately, her lenses re-rendered flower market’s bouquets into coils of hissing snakes, and her ear buds replaced every sound with the squalling of terrified infants. 

She had taken it three minutes before breaking down in tears. Radalph shut it all off, then knelt beside her, drawing near enough for her to smell the onions on his breath. “Be late again, and I’ll make that your life for the next three weeks.” 

Her eyes watered. Her throat tightened. She waved the window away. And that’s when she noticed the blinking battery icon in the upper right corner of her field of vision: five minutes of juice left. She must have misaligned her gear on the charging mat again.

“Shit.” She hissed the word loud enough for the passenger next to her to overhear it. Through her lenses, he appeared to be a smiling elderly monk, complete with saffron robes and a shaved head; she had no idea what he’d look like without augmentation.

He nodded at her, beaming. “Sawadee krup.”

On the one hand, his earpieces had probably equalized her profanity into a greeting; on the other, he might be cursing her, and her own gear was rendering this as a friendly hello. 

She decided to err on the side of caution and respond politely. “Sawadee ka.” 

The man wrinkled his brow, muttered under his breath, and turned his back to her. Regardless of what she’d actually said, his version of their interaction must have been annoying.

At Sanam Chai, she disembarked and took the escalators up to street level. Two exquisite American women — blonde hair, luminous eyes, porcelain skin — flanked her as she traversed the station, chattering about a body conditioning regimen that had changed their lives forever. Whoever had programmed the ads had done a bad job; the women’s lips didn’t sync with the Thai language soundtrack. 

Saqueena wanted to dismiss them, but that would mean the sponsor wouldn’t pay for her MTS ride. So she endured their scripted conversation (“My boyfriend couldn’t keep his hands off me!”) until she exited the station and stepped out into the slick, brutal heat of Bangkok at noon. 

Her gear couldn’t do anything about the weather, but her lenses replaced the smoggy sky and trash-lined street with cotton-candy clouds and a bamboo forest. She followed a bejeweled butterfly to Soi Tha Klang, where the animated insect turned right and guided her directly to her stall in the Pak Klang Talat market. 

She had time to pull on her smock — frayed and stained, but her lenses rendered it in lovely red velvet —  just before Radalph tapped her on the shoulder. 

“Late again, I see.” 

“I had to check on a neighbor.”

Radalph tilted his head to one side. “Know what I hear when you talk? Fingernails on a chalkboard.” He swiped around in the air, batting at controls. “I’m going to punish you now for being late, give you something that will keep you focused while you work. Sirens and strobe lights.”

And then, three things happened at once. 

First, her glasses and earbuds went dead. Above her, the overlaid image of wrought-iron latticework flickered and vanished, replaced by the pockmarked concrete ceiling of the market. The glowing digital signage directing shoppers to vegetables and succulents evaporated, replaced by stained, handwritten signs. The soft music in her ears dissolved into the clatter of wooden packing crates being broken down for the day. The only thing she could see that persisted were the flowers: jasmine, chrysanthemum, orchids, delphinium, still brilliant despite drab surroundings. 

At the same time, three Reality Church terrorists came roaring into the market on motorcycles, spraying bullets. They careened past her stall, screaming slogans (“The truth will set you free!”) and pointing their blunt little assault rifles directly at her. Saqueena dove for the filthy floor, covering her head with her hands. She heard a burst of sharp reports: ba-ba-ba-ba-bang! Shards of wood and flower petals pelted her skin, along with something warm and wet.

And finally, just as she drew a breath to scream, Radalph, limp and heavy as a burlap sack of tulip bulbs, collapsed on top of her. 

The police officer in charge picked his way through the wreckage of the flower market, making his way to Saqueena and a small knot of survivors. Not far away, other officers carried stretchers laden with shrouded bodies toward a cluster of ambulances. Pedestrians sidestepped them, laughing and chatting, their lenses glittering in the afternoon light. 

Saqueena wished her glasses and earbuds were working, so she could overlay all this with cartoon animals and birdsong. 

The officer — a youngish Thai man with an earnest face and a physique like a Muay Thai boxer — addressed Saqueena’s group. “I am Officer Saetang. I am here to collect your versions of what happened.” 

A moon-faced woman on Saqueena’s right stepped forward. “I was using an overlay from my cousin’s wedding! I was remembering the ceremony and enjoying the flowers when three tigers came through and began attacking guests!”

A pot-bellied man in a crop top, stained shorts, and flip flops shook his head. “I was overlaying an episode of Lonely Seaside Hearts. That wispy-looking girl — you know, the one that’s also on that show about the manicurist? — she was about to confront her mother about the arranged marriage, and suddenly there were these … I don’t know … seals? Sea lions? Anyway, big water creatures with leathery skin and long tusks. Walruses! That’s it. These walruses came crashing through the ceiling.”

A German tourist with a cruise ship ID card strung around his neck rolled his eyes. “My tour group was buying herbs for a cooking class. We were following the teacher around the market, while watching an overlay of the chef describing today’s recipe, when someone dashed through the demo overturning a dozen boiling pots of soup!”

The officer held up his gloved hands. “I don’t have all day. Don’t tell me about it. Just transmit your saved entries to me.” 

The moon-faced woman flinched. “I’m not sure I saved it.”

“In times of trauma, your gear autosaves everything into a read it later file.” The officer tapped his glasses. “Now I’m in receive mode. Just blink your codes and swipe the last hour of your journals to me. We will average out the stories at the station and come to a verdict.”

The little group donned their glasses and earbuds, swiped around in the air, and then began wandering off — dismissed, perhaps, by a version of Officer Saetang that only they could see. Actual Saetang turned to Saqueena and peered at her over his reflective lenses. “I don’t seem to have your record.” He frowned. “Or your identity, for that matter.”

“My battery ran out on my gear,” Saqueena said. “But I saw what happened. It was Reality Church terrorists. They had guns.” She looked down at the floor, where a red-black stain remained on the dirty concrete. “They shot Radalph.”

“You have a record of this?”

“No,” Saqueena said. “My gear wasn’t working. I just … I just saw what was actually happening.”

Officer Saetang pursed his lips. “You are legally obligated to wear your gear.  Advertisers pay a lot of money. And it keeps us all safe.”

“I know!” Saqueena said. “But my gear wasn’t on the pad just right, and it didn’t charge.” 

“I don’t care,” the officer said, tapping and gesturing in the air. “Now we have to go to the station and take a manual statement.”

“I just gave you my statement! I saw the whole thing!”

“Let me tell you how this works,” the officer said. “We must do what we call a progressive summarization. Everyone sees things differently, so every one has a different version of the truth. The police take these versions and experience each one, exactly as it was experienced by those who made the recording. Then we summarize these experiences, logging them and making connections to other cases, looking for parallels and common themes. This enables us to synthesize something new: a restatement of the facts in our own words.” He gestured at the ruined flower market. “The synthetic truth.”

Saqueena brushed at her bare temples, trying in vain to insulate herself from this unpleasantness with an overlay. Even one of the sponsored ones would do. “What I’m telling you is what really happened. I saw it with my own eyes.”

The officer fished around in his pockets, produced a zip-tie, and gestured for Saqueena to put her hands behind her back. “And because you weren’t wearing your gear, all we have is your word for that. So now, whoever you are, you must come to the station and further complicate my day.”

Because of heavy street traffic, the drive to the station took more than an hour. Saqueena sat in the back of the police cruiser, frowning at the stench and the grime. Each time the cruiser hit a pothole (which was frequently, given the state of Bangkok’s inner-city streets) empty energy drink cans rattled around Saqueena’s feet.

Up front, while the cop car dutifully wound its way past accidents and stalled vehicles, Officer Saetang giggled and chatted with someone Saqueena couldn’t see. “You’re not the first to tell me I’m a beautiful woman,” Saetang said, gesturing as though he were making a toast. “But it still pleases me.” 

Inside the station, uniformed officers sat in a series of sterile stalls. Most were gesturing and pawing at the air; another, a squatty woman who crouched near the entrance, seemed to be a sort of receptionist. Saetang murmured something to this female officer, who rolled her eyes when she saw Saqueena’s lack of gear. “This will take forever,” the female officer said.

“Even so, we must do the work” He gestured at the other officer and then at Saqueena. “You must lead her through the work.” 

The female officer shrugged, motioned for Saqueena to follow. She led the way to a cramped, windowless office with room for little more than a steel table and an unpadded metal chair. “In here. If the decor doesn’t suit you, you can overlay anything you please.” The officer glanced at Saqueena’s bare temples and empty ears. “Or in your case, you’ll just have to make do.” 

Saqueena sat down. “I gave Officer Seatang my statement.”

The female officer pawed at the air. “I am Officer Saelim. You are working with me now. I am in receipt of the accounts of the incident at the market, and have also seen how other officers have rephrased those accounts in their own words.”

“Three men, on motorcycles, shooting up the market. They were Church of Reality protesters.”

Saelim raked her fingers through the air; if she heard Saqueena, she didn’t respond. “I have now averaged these rephrased accounts, noting common features among them, and, as a result, have a more holistic perspective on the truth than any one eyewitness can supply.”

“I saw the attack with my own eyes!”

Saelim swiped and tapped at controls that only she could see. “But your story conflicts with the facts. A wedding was being held at Pak Klang Talat: an arranged marriage between a German tourist and a famous chef. An unkempt woman, dressed in a sweatshirt with the Tiger beer logo on it, arrived late to work, and, as part of an altercation with her boss, doused the poor man with a pot of boiling soup. When police arrived, the man found the man limp and dead on the ground, collapsed on top of his killer like a beached walrus.”

Saqueena’s eyes bulged. “It! Was! Terrorists!”

“So you say.” Officer Saelim closed the door, sealing the two of them in the claustrophobic little office. “But protestors and terrorists do not appear in any other stories, and you are wearing clothing that matches the paraphrased description of the killer.”

Saqueena began trembling. “I killed no one!”

“I’m sorry, but the version of events I’ve recounted here is favored over all other variants. Confidence is very high that the official story, while perhaps not literal, is dynamically equivalent to the truth. And while your testimony has been noted, audiences don’t rank its reliability highly, it’s politically unpopular, and it has won over no commercial sponsors.” Saelim unfastened a pouch on her belt and produced a tiny forced-air needle gun the size of cigarette pack. “Of course, your objection has been noted for the record.” 

Saelim squeezed the sides of the little metal box. 

A sharp puff of air, like the world’s tiniest sneeze. A whine, like a mosquito. A sigh, as Saqueena slumped forward. A thud, as her head hit the tabletop.

Officer Saelim left the room, sealed it, thumbed the sanitation switch. Her lenses rendered the flames behind the viewing glass into a radiant sunset, and her earbuds converted the roar of the furnace into pounding surf. 

She left work two hours later, a smile on her face, recalling a beach day she’d spent in Hua Hin. As she moved through the foul and crowded streets, the city’s sights and sounds rippled and shifted, conforming to the stories she told herself about the world. 

“Bloom,” a short fiction piece by Mark McElroy, is (c) Copyright 2021 by Mark McElroy. All rights are reserved. Please use with permission only.

What should be the Christian response to the insurrection at the Capitol?

I believe it’s this: to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). The same scripture warns that, when we disconnect from the truth, we will be “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.”

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Jesus offers an alternative: “The truth will set you free.”

This is the truth: following a fair and democratic election, Joe Biden is president of the United States. Other claims — that the election was rigged, that votes were fraudulent, that Donald Trump won by a landslide — may be appealing for various reasons, but they are not true.

This is the truth: these false claims are just the latest in a long series of lies told by a man who has lied to us, over and over again, before and during his time in office. These lies began as self-serving fantasies (“Obama is from Kenya! The crowd at my inauguration was the largest in history!”). Now, his lies have evolved into an attack on our nation’s most sacred principles.

This is the truth: even as his lies grew larger and more dangerous, Donald Trump slowly positioned himself as your one and only source of truth. He cast the press as the enemies of the state. With a single tweet, he turned once-trusted advisors into traitors. And when his favorite network dared offer the mildest criticism, he cast them aside for networks content to report whatever he said as fact.

This is the truth: some of us have been watching in horror and great sadness as those we love — our friends, our families — have followed this leader deep into a web of conspiracies and lies. We’ve watched as people we love have bought into an increasingly crazy series of delusions:

  • that a child-molestation ring was being run out of the basement of a pizza joint
  • that a global pandemic pandemic is a political ploy
  • that the miracle of vaccination is an attempt to alter human DNA with nanotechnology
  • that wearing a mask to protect others is a sign of weakness
  • that everything is controlled by a mysterious Deep State
  • that the Pope has been arrested as the leader of a worldwide network of cannibals who devour the blood of innocent children
  • that Trump will (any minute now!) sign an “Insurrection Act” and declare martial law
  • that all television and the internet (any minute now!) will be shut down in a nationwide blackout
  • that Trump will (any minute now!) use the Emergency Broadcast Network to direct a nationwide uprising
  • that the world is under siege by a secret cabal of shape-shifting lizard people.

This is the truth: we are weary of seeing good people tricked into accepting these bizarre beliefs as realities. We are sick, deep in our souls, that you spend more time listening to shadowy figures whisper vague prophecies of doom over the internet than you do breaking bread with us. We are stunned when people we love and respect continue to support a manifestly fascist and racist leader: to vote for him, to support “the party, but not him,” to point to “his good achievements” — or worse, to shrug, turn a blind eye, or talk about anything else as a way to “keep the peace,” while ignoring the fact that failing to confront a lie is just as shameful as telling one.

This is the truth: our hearts are broken. They are broken for you, because we see the agony and fear and anger that has stolen your joy. They are broken for us, because we love you and miss you. We see that every step you take down this path takes you farther and farther away from reality … and, therefore, farther and farther away from us. We feel abandoned and cast aside. We cannot understand how someone who used to be so happy, so present, so connected, and so kind has become someone so bitter, so angry, so distracted, so untethered, so lost.

This is the truth: we know it will be almost impossible for you to back out of this. It is always hard to say, “I was wrong.” It is harder to admit we’ve been duped. It is soul-shattering to realize you’ve given precious hours of your life to a false cause. It is devastating to realize you’ve become an extremist, a mouthpiece, a pawn. It is painful and embarrassing to admit that a part of you knew, all along, that you were saying and doing things that, way down deep in your heart, you knew were anything but true.

This is the truth: even though this will be the hardest thing you have ever done, you must make a change. For your own good, you must turn off the fringe news networks, delete your accounts on social media echo chambers, and stop listening to extremist radio shows and podcasts that profit off your misery and confusion. You must stop giving time and attention to slick-talking gurus who hint at secret knowledge and whisper about what must shortly come to pass. You must turn a deaf ear to calls for violence. You must stop being friends with people who stoke your worst fears and trouble your spirit.

This is the truth: once you muster the courage and strength to set these things aside, we are still here for you. We still love you. We want you back. We cannot wait to embrace you! We want to be your friends again, to be your family again, to sit with you at the table and share a meal, to laugh and joke and talk like we used to, to work with you, to be friends despite our minor differences in belief and opinion because those differences are what make us wacky, and unique and charming and complicated and human.

This is the truth: we will not judge you. We will not ask “Why?” We will not say “I told you so.” We will hug you. We will pray with you. We will laugh with you. We may cry a little, too, but it will be because we are so happy — so happy! — to have you back here, with us, here, in a world where facts make a difference, where science is respected, where people focus more on what unites them than on what divides them, where friends can just chat, where families can talk about things that really matter … where we can get back to loving each other again.

This is the truth: our hearts are full. We are waiting. We are reaching out for you. Our arms are open, and you are just one step away. Just tell us: “I’m done. I’m back. It’s over,” and we will drop everything just to welcome you home.

This is the truth.

Please, please — for you, for me, for the nation, for all of us — let this truth set you free.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

This week, a tweet from @Jeanvaljean689 gave me an idea to try in the journal I’ve been keeping in Roam Research since June 2020:

In case you don’t use Roam, here’s a quick explanation of what Jeanvaljean689 was suggesting: in Roam Research, the first time you surround any word or phrase with [[double square brackets]], Roam creates a page with that word or phrase as its title. Visit that page, and you’ll see a list of links back to every other page (and the paragraph, or block, within that page) where you bracketed that phrase … and to every other page (and the blocks within that page) where you’ve used that phrase without linking to it. 

One morning, as I was writing in my Roaman Journal about my goals and values, Jeanvaljean689’s tweet came to mind. His “semantic gold mines” struck me as an opportunity to engage in some intensely personal divination — but using my own words instead of the I Ching or Tarot cards. So I typed [[I want]] and followed the resulting link. In less than a second, Roam combed through my daily journal entries since June 27th, 2020, and presented me with a list of 130 unlinked references containing that phrase.

Because these unlinked references were presented as full blocks — entire paragraphs of text, instead of a highlighted word or two — I was quickly able to see how the phrase had been used in multiple contexts. As I read through these blocks, patterns and themes emerged — and one unexpected result devastated me.

What I’ve Told Roam I Want

Here are the top three desires I mention most, in order of frequency:


What I Learned. Eleven percent of all uses of [[I want]] were aspirations to exercise, meditate, and eat healthier more often. 

The sobering truth: seeing this forced me to confront how my actions over the past few months (neglecting my daily twenty-minute walk, choosing not to prioritize my daily meditative practice, and eating indiscriminately) are completely out of sync with my desires.

In a dream I had prior to my big weight loss in 2017, an angelic figure once asked me, “Why are you living like someone who wants to die?” Today, Roam Research essentially asked me the same thing. 

What I’m Doing about It. Starting today, I’m rebooting my daily weigh in and recommitting to my food logging, meditation, and exercise goals. On December 14th, I’ll start the beginner’s level fitness classes in Apple Fitness+.


What I Learned. Roam is one of those tools with far more functionality than anyone will ever fully utilize. That said: I like what I know, and I want to know more. I want to be more of a power user and glean more benefits from my investment in Roam’s development.

What I’m Doing about It. With this goal in mind, I signed up for Cortex Futura’s Galaxy Brain course, and I’m studying on the side to boost my understanding of the new SmartBlocks feature. 


Nine percent of my [[I want]] aspirations have to do with reducing distraction and enhancing a sense of connection to and engagement with my life. I like waking up with a list of things to achieve. I love embracing a sense of adventure in my work. I want to come closer to being my best possible self … and lately, I realize, I’ve neglected this goal.

Two closely-related aspirations — reclaiming my identity as an author and spending more time reading great books — occurred almost as often. 

What I’m Doing about It. I’m recommitting to modest daily reading and writing goals in place, plus restoring weekly publication goals. I’m going to stick to these commitments, even through the hectic, disruptive blitz of the holidays. (If you’re willing to help keep me accountable to these commitments, please feel free to tweet at me and ask, “How’s it going?”) 

The Unlinked Reference that Broke My Heart

Near the bottom of the list of unlinked references came the block that hit me hardest of all: a journal entry written during the last week of my mother’s life. 

To understand what comes next, you need a little context. For the first seven years Clyde and I were together, my family refused to speak to us. Mother was especially fierce and even spiteful in her rejection, saying and doing things that have proven very hard to forgive. 

Over time, Clyde’s gentleness and our commitment to being as loving and present as we could be turned the tide. Eventually, I would joke that Mother liked Clyde more than she ever liked me. (“Mark talks a good game,” Mother would say, “but Clyde can actually do useful things.”) As mother’s illness progressed, Clyde played a special role in her care … and was sometimes the only one who could persuade her to do things that needed to be done. 

And this was useful, because Mother complicated her own death, rejecting the drugs and treatments that could have eased the way. Her last days were, in large part, a fog of agony, dementia, and paranoia. Much of the time, she was hostile and hateful toward all of us, even as we struggled to meet her needs.

Moments of lucidity were extremely rare. But my Roaman journal took me back to one such moment: when Mother called Clyde into her room and announced she had something to say. Here’s the block where the [[I want]] phrase occurred:

Mom called Clyde to her bedside. Her brow was furrowed; she kept her eyes closed. But when she knew he was there, she said, “I love you. You didn’t have to do all the things you’ve done for me. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. [[I want]]ed to do better, to be better, but there was something in the way … and now I can’t even remember what it was. But I love you just like a son.”

On her deathbed, my mother’s motivations for rejecting us faded from memory, but the regrets from not doing what she ought to have done remained.

What I Want

I want a balanced life. I want to be adept at using the tools I choose. I want to engage with my husband, my family, my friends, my work, and my art … and make things that make a difference.

And because of this exercise, I can see that all the excuses I might cite for not seeking balance, not learning, and not engaging fully with my work and life will eventually fade. If I have the luxury of a death bed, I don’t want to spend a minute regretting that I didn’t become the person I wanted to be.

I’m grateful for Roam Research for being a thoughtful, surprising collaborative partner, and to people like @CortexFutura (Lukas Kawerau) who are dedicated to helping others discover productive uses for this remarkable tool. I’m grateful for @Jeanvaljean689 for the catalyst that spawned these insights. I’m grateful for @tracyplaces for urging me to write this, and for the work she does to raise awareness of the power of Roaman Journals

What might you discover, I wonder, if you had your own “magic mirror” that could tell you, based on your own words, what you really want?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash