most of what you read is crazy and probably fake

Turns out, what was formerly known as Moldawer’s Law—”experts struggle the most in their own area of expertise”—is even older than I’d thought. Hundreds and hundreds of years older. From Ram Dass:

I was only allowed to read the books of realized beings. And that’s a very subtle and interesting point. See, when you read a book written by a guy who’s writing about realization, what you’re really getting from him is all the reasons he isn’t a realized being. I mean, some of the great Westerners that are writing beautiful, insightful books about Eastern method, all they’re really doing at the vibrational level is they’re taking people on their own trip as to why they’re not a realized being themselves…The rule of the game is you read only books by people who made it.

The former Harvard professor is referring to his spiritual tutelage under Neem Karoli Baba in the 1960s, but it applies to every type of “thought leadership” and the question of what we choose to put into our delicate, impressionable heads. Read only books by people who’ve “made it.” If you can figure out who they are. I certainly don’t know.

Speaking of “thought leadership”: Beyond being dated and tired, the term is entirely too lofty, too aspirational, even a little bit extra. My clients consult, speak, write books, and teach courses in order to share their expertise with the people who need it. Good, honest labor. Sure, sometimes they have “thoughts” or even a Big Idea—TED talk: “What if a stitch in time doesn’t save nine?”—but don’t we all? Have ideas, I mean? Where does “leadership” come into it? Do they lead the thoughts? Do the thoughts lead other thoughts? It’s turtles all the way down. No, they’re not thought leaders. They are instruction workers. Instruction workers who need to form a union. TED doesn’t even pay its speakers! Instruction workers are going to get steamrolled by Big Thought if they don’t organize.

I picture people opening these emails—the ones that actually do open these emails—thinking “What’s Dave on about this time?” It’s true. I’ve always been an “on about” type of guy. I suppose it could be worse. I could be up to something, into something else, or at it again. But no, I’m usually on about something.

Today, I’m on about the fact that Most of What You Read on the Internet is Written by Insane People. Sure, I’ve long suspected this, but it’s nice to have it articulated so bluntly. It goes beyond the 1% rule that only a tiny fraction of any Internet community adds content while the rest silently lurks. There’s something different about the type of people who regularly contribute and get noticed. It takes a certain kind of crazy.

The problem is that the rest of us continuously reframe our idea of normal based on the beliefs and experiences we read about. (And watch, live, 24/7, thanks to the precipitous rise of Twitch streaming.) The 1% wields an inordinate influence on what the rest of us think normal looks like.

This effect is especially pronounced with teens. Right at their most impressionable, they’re on Reddit going down a rabbit-hole about government conspiracies or libertarian economic policy with a guy who, had he sat next to them on a public bus, they’d quickly switch seats. To paraphrase the New Yorker, on the internet, nobody knows you’re wearing Crocs with socks and you smell like potatoes.

It gets even weirder with Twitch streamers. Yes, you can see what they look like, but their madness is equally disguised, in this case by photogenic faces. Youth is a stubborn thing. It’s only once you hit your mid-twenties or so that your inner darkness start to be reflected in your appearance and, overnight, you’re a melted candle. (I stubbornly resisted linking to anyone there. You know what I’m talking about.)

Ice Poseidon and other streamers are just a new wave in an old phenomenon. It’s just as true of journalism and books. Most of what you read is written by insane people. Writing is hard! The more they write, the crazier they must be. And, because of all the noise online, the more they write, the more likely they are to break out, the more they get read, the faster the merry-go-round goes round.

Think I’m wrong? Ask yourself: Are things crazier this year than they were last year? What about 2018 versus 2017? I rest my case.

Here’s the worst part: Not only is everything online crazy, it’s also mostly fake. YouTube predicts a moment when more than half of all their traffic will be spam bots, at which point their algorithms—trained by the majority—will label the bot behavior authentic and human behavior fraudulent. Can you imagine if this “Inversion” takes us out before the Singularity? Skynet is going to be incredibly disappointed if he has no reason to build killer robots.

Alright, enough for today. Time to pack up the helmet, lunch pail, and Baron Fig Archer pencil. Nothing to be ashamed of in a good, honest day’s instruction work.

DIY writing retreat

In South Korea, people now pay to be locked up. The daily grind there is so stressful, prison has become a viable alternative: no deadlines, no performance evaluations, no commute. This could be the next big South Korean import since The Good Doctor… 

It’s been a while since the last Maven Game. Short version: a realization struck me after I wrote that essay about Forged in Fire. Who was I to scoff at the hapless smith trying to forge two blades at once and failing at both? I’ve got six blades going. Seven! So I decided to take a hiatus and focus on my larger projects.

Yeah, I needed the break, but, ultimately, too many things annoy me about the writing life—I actually need this outlet or I might go crazy. Plus, it didn’t hurt that fellow newsletterers like Margo nudged me to get back in the traces. When I told Margo the reason for my silence, she wrote:

Tell your readers they are not crazy for also trying to do all the things. There is a lovely lesson here on keeping your head down and focusing on the work. As wonderful as email newsletters are there are some weeks where it feels like that’s the only writing that got done, which can be a problem (especially if you care about your work). 

There’s an expression that goes, “Polish here, shine there.” The idea being, there are helpful things you do that may not actually give you that tingling sensation in the moment: “That tingle means it’s working.” In fact, the stuff that makes dandruff shampoo tingle is not the active ingredient. Manufacturers know that we look for that tingle. Whenever we put effort in, we want results or reassurance. Unfortunately, the highest uses of our time don’t deliver immediate results. Nor do they tingle.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never experienced a runner’s high. I’ve never left a workout feeling a relaxed glow or concomitant surge of well-being. Exercise of any kind leaves me cranky and filled with resentment at the world. This doesn’t mean it isn’t good for me, only that I have to look harder to see that it’s helping. Polish here, shine there. Over the course of a week or a month, I can see how regular exercise lifts my mood and elevates my spirits. In the moment, however, just rage. RAGE!

Same with writing the Maven Game. No tingle, plenty of frustration, but the long-term benefits to my psyche and skill-set are more than worth the investment of time and effort. I just have to remind myself of that from time to time.

This is why it’s helpful to keep a journal or otherwise document your work. You start to see some patterns. What works for you, long-term? What behaviors once did, but got lost in the shuffle?

Here’s a vote in favor of a sabbatical, however short: In college, I had too much time to write, if anything. Once I got a day job as a writer, my own creative output ground to a halt. I decided I needed a writing retreat. Not having the ambition to chase down a prestigious spot at Yaddo or Bread Loaf, I adopted a DIY approach. Taking out a paper map—this is a while back—I looked for someplace unpopular (read: cheap) and close to the city. Next thing I knew, I was driving to a motel in New London, Connecticut, to spend a few days writing fiction.

The room was small and boring and so was New London—perfect. Over a few days, I completed four or five stories, never having really completed any before. I’d started many stories by that point, but I’d only ever finished plays. The next week, I fired the results off to various literary journals I’d dug up at the library and got one published at the Missouri Review. Literary fiction bucket list item, checked. In the end, I enjoyed all the benefits of a true writing retreat without any need for a prisoner jumpsuit.

So, back to the weekly cadence. Let’s see if we can make it all the way through 2019 without another service outage. 

One last thing: We took the kids to see Santa at Macy’s for the first time. Afterward, my son said, “You should ask Santa for something for yourself. Like a stapler. Or an autobiography of David Lynch.” How did he know I was nearly finished with Lynch’s Room to Dream? He explained his reasoning: I like “books about weird people” and “weird people named David like David Bowie.” Too true. 

go where the audience is

As a child in London, George Benjamin exhibited extraordinary musical gifts. As Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker:

Whereas other inventive children might ask to be allowed to make up a story before bedtime, [Benjamin] begged to be permitted to invent a song in his head before going to sleep. He worked his way through a Golden Book of myths, setting the stories to music that he composed in real time. “I would take an hour and make up some opera that was never to be written down, or heard, by anyone else,” he recalled.

How adorable. Benjamin went on to become a composer, naturally enough, but there was a small problem:

Benjamin’s passions were not especially consonant with the times. He was born in 1960, and when he was entering adulthood narrative had fallen out of fashion amid the European avant-garde, not only in music but also in fiction and in painting. Stories set to music, which Benjamin had generated so guilelessly as a child, were derided as facile, hidebound, and decadently nostalgic. What was the point of writing an opera, an art form beloved by the Nazis? Where did you go after that?

Nowhere. The answer is nowhere. Might as well write him off. Let’s close up the bridge. Let’s get out of here. Close it up. Lights out.

Right? I mean, if you enjoy composing musical narratives in the second half of the 20th century, you’re just…out of luck. It simply isn’t done. Tear up your composer card and get a job at the old mill. Hum on your water breaks. Nothing atonal, of course.

With Benjamin’s maturation and intellectual awakening, a crippling self-consciousness set in. The operas in his head were silenced. Instead, he wrote mostly for smaller ensembles or soloists, slowly and with great effort—that is, when he wasn’t blocked.

I read this bit and found myself nodding along, at first. After all, the plays and videos and stories I wrote as a young man were always inconsonant (?) with the times, where my teachers and then professors were concerned anyway.

Here’s the thing, though: I graduated from school and entered the real world. In the real world, you don’t have to please your professors or the European avant-garde or any avant-garde. You just need an audience who likes your stuff. I mean, hadn’t this dude ever heard of a musical? Britain has produced its share. Andrew Lloyd Weber didn’t spend decades writing music he didn’t want to write “slowly and with great effort” before deciding, the hell with it, let’s put Biblical figures in diapers.

Go where it’s warm. If the snobs don’t want your “musical narratives,” roll up your sleeves and adapt La Bohème for the AIDS epidemic, or turn a doorstopper on American history into a series of show-stopping rap numbers. You’ll have an audience. You’ll have money. If you feel guilty about taking money from audiences, take your audience out for milk and cookies.

(Don’t stick your nose up at me about musicals, buddy. They can avant the garde like nobody’s show business. Do I need to remind you of Seussical the Musical, the Un Chien Andalou of Broadway?)

Look, I’m glad Benjamin has had an artistic reawakening—I wonder if he used The Artist’s Way?—and that he’s happily composing operas again.

“I waited a long time to do it,” he told me. “And I would like, before I depart this mortal coil, to have written lots of operas. If I had started when I was twenty, or thirty, I would have written more. It’s something I wanted to do since I was a child, and something which I eventually accepted I would never do, and then gave up.” Having begun as a wunderkind, he has become a late bloomer. “When starting a new piece, every decision is as difficult as it always was, and I can’t see that changing,” he went on. “It remains a very strange occupation. But to have my pieces played to this degree—of course, it’s what I dreamed of as a child. Yes.”

My point is, we’re all vulnerable to the “making other people’s music” trap. As writers, we set ourselves on a certain genre or a certain milieu—”the European avant-garde”—and put all our eggs, all our self-worth, in that basket. Education plays a major role here—we want an A+ from teacher. Benjamin studied with the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen, “known for his radiantly complex harmonies.” That’s going to put an inflection on anyone’s sensibilities.

To survive as a professional creator of any kind, you have to reexamine your upbringing. You may think your milieu is somehow better or more elevated than the ones most people currently appreciate, but frankly most of us just go with what our teachers or parents told us were “best.” Have you really given the other stuff a try? The stuff people pay money for, not because they’re “sheeple,” but because the work brings them pleasure and enjoyment? You might prefer an 1898 audience, but 2018 audiences have the advantage of, you know, being not dead.

Plus, read any account of an actual theater-watching experience from the old days. People talked through the entire show and often threw rotten fruit. Sometimes they rioted.

Yes, go after your genre—assuming you genuinely enjoy it yourself, which is a big assumption—but if there isn’t an audience for the kind of stuff you’re making, remember: There is stuff with an audience. This is why I start every book proposal with a competitive analysis. Too many would-be authors don’t enjoy the kind of book they think they want to write. They have no idea what people want to read in that category and yet they want to spend a year writing in it. It’s a little hard to write something you would never want to read yourself.

Creators: If you don’t read or watch or listen to the kind of thing you’re making, why are you making it?

p.s. One more thing this week: I helped out with a book and I’m really proud of the end result. If you need clients for your business to succeed, I highly recommend The Snowball System by Mo Bunnell.

Yes, I’m biased because I was involved, but I have to say that I use Mo’s techniques in my own business all the time. I really wouldn’t be “too busy to write this newsletter” every week if it weren’t for what I’ve learned from Mo. His approach to winning new business is practical, utterly non-scuzzy, even fun.

I have no financial stake in the success of the book, by the way. I just think (based on experience) that it’s the best book out there on getting clients and doing more business with your existing ones.

p.p.s. It only took three years to work an Airplane 2 reference into a Maven Game. Check another one off the old bucket list.

on getting back to work

The singular secret to finishing your book is putting your butt in a chair and writing…Nothing else matters.

—Mark Teppo, Finish Your Novel!

I know that, Mark. Come on. I’m a professional. What fundamental fact of writing life could be more obvious? To have written, one must write. Must! And so I will, write that is, as soon as I’ve freshened my coffee. This one’s warm. Drinking warm coffee would be barbaric, Mark. I’m sure you’d agree. Then, as I enjoy my piping hot caffeinated beverage, I’ll kick into gear with a quick Reddit break. To clear my head. Then I will write. A veritable storm of words will buffet the page. A textual tempest.

Hm. Now that I’m writing—a comment on Reddit, to keep clearing that head—I’m noticing that this keyboard feels a bit weird. Sticky? No. Mushy? Let’s call it indistinct. Can’t have that—I’m a professional. So, new plan: finish coffee, finish Reddit break, shop for a new laptop, then write. Come to think of it, I should probably make a list so I don’t go off-track. First item: settle on a new list-making app.

Why are you looking at me like that, Mark?

And scene.

It’s time to get back to work, guys. Break’s over. Put your phone on “do not disturb” and put it on the other side of the room. (I moved my charging cable over there—it helps.) Turn on Focus in “hardcore mode.” Buckle down. Buckle up. Buckle in.

Like you, I’m finding it difficult. Whatever fragile momentum I’d built up has evaporated.

We spent the week before Labor Day up in Cape Cod. It was my first time “on the Cod,” as the locals probably say. Great beaches, though I’m not much for beaches. On vacation, my preference is to skim the shelves of local bookstores. Among other charming indies, I discovered Main Street Books in Orleans, Mass., where I finally picked up Robert Gottlieb’s memoir of his legendary career in publishing, Avid Reader.

I’d been curious about Gottlieb ever since reading about his scissors-and-glue editorial work on Catch-22 (originally Catch-18, until he changed it) in Michael Korda’s Another Life: A Memoir of Other People. Korda and Gottlieb were colleagues at Simon & Schuster. Reading both books offers a rare dual perspective. S&S in the 60s reminds me of St. Martin’s Press during my own tenure a decade ago. Freewheeling, unstructured, full of possibility.

At S&S, this lack of constraints was due more to a power vacuum than culture, but regardless, the editors were unusually free to pursue their interests and make things happen with relative abandon. Gottlieb didn’t have much support, but he had boundless energy and enthusiasm and participated in every aspect of the book publishing process from conception through marketing and sales. There were no silos.

I wish I’d known how rare an environment like that would be after leaving St. Martin’s, not only in book publishing but across the creative landscape. What better place to learn your trade than one where you’re free to try—and fail—at any part of it?

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

—Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

Learn your trade, writers. Your whole trade: that’s the ambition. Not just word-slinging. Matthew Butterick, the Gus Fring to my Walter White, just published a revised and expanded edition of his indispensable Practical Typography. Writer: read it. I count typography a foundational skill of the trade along with grammar, punctuation, style, touch-typing…honestly, I’d scrape the parchment for the Maven Game myself if my wife weren’t a vegetarian.

In Gottlieb’s day, a (male) author could scribble away in indecipherable, grammatically questionable longhand all day and count on an array of helpers—beginning, all too often, with his wife—to type, correct, re-type, edit, re-type, design, typeset, proofread, etc. Today, each and every one of us is a publishing house. Learn your trade. I’m not saying I’ve mastered any of it, of course. You just keep working at it until you die, quill in hand. My next area of inquiry is graphic design. I plan to lay out Book Into Battle in InDesign as soon as it’s ready for print.

It isn’t yet, because writing a book is hard. Working on multiple book projects at once: very hard. I’d be lost without the Pomodoro Technique. Francesco Cirillo, who invented the technique decades ago, once published a free guide to the technique but took it offline. Now you can buy it. And I have! Before I’ve read it, the best Pomodoro-related investment I can recommend is the new version 3 of Vitamin-R for Mac. It’s Pomodoro for pros, with unparalleled power and flexibility.

Speaking of which, my timer’s up and my butt needs to move on to the next project. Once I’ve freshened up this coffee.