tuck yourself in to write your cozy masterpiece

Roald Dahl was not a nice person. In fact, he was a real BFG. (The F does not stand for “friendly.”)

The legendary Bob Gottlieb was Dahl’s American editor at one point. When Dahl threw a fuss about pencils—we’ll get to Dahl and his pencils in a minute—Gottlieb reached his breaking point:

You have behaved to us in a way I can honestly say is unmatched in my experience for overbearingness and utter lack of civility. Lately you’ve began addressing others here—who are less well placed to answer you back—with the same degree of abusiveness. For a while I put your behavior down to the physical pain you were in and so managed to excuse it. Now I’ve come to believe that you’re just enjoying a prolonged tantrum and are bullying us.

I’ve worked with the occasional Difficult Author. One lost his temper and yelled at me over the phone. The next day, I received a styrofoam cooler filled with dry ice. Nestled inside, six pints of Ben and Jerry’s—his flavor. I’ve never enjoyed an amends so arrogant yet so delicious. 

Dahl was a giant something, but it wasn’t a peach. That said, he could write; if we can learn from him, peachy. Like Larry David, I have no problem whistling Wagner.

So what can Dahl teach us?

When I went out on my own a few years ago, I got a standing desk. Because health! But my productivity ground to a halt. Crossfit-crazy VCs might be able to fire off a day’s worth of Slack messages from a wobble board, but as a writer I was getting nowhere. Eventually, anxiety about deadlines was doing far more damage to my cardiovascular health than prolonged sitting ever could.

Then I saw this video of Roald Dahl in his writing hut:

I’ve taken a great deal of trouble with the actual chair I sit in, and the place I put my feet, which is tied to the legs of the chair, so I don’t shove it away when I press my feet against it. Also, I get into a sleeping bag, and that’s right up to my chest.

Clearly, Dahl has given his writing environment a good deal of thought. This is the kind of lifehacking I can get behind. Dahl made himself cozy as hell before going to work. He also prepped his tools with care. 

I always use six pencils. And they always have to be sharpened before I start.

Writing is hard. It calls on absolutely everything you’ve got—or it should, but you don’t have everything to give if you’re simultaneously fiddling with a new app or hunting down a lost file. You want to get comfortable. You want everything in its place. If you’re lucky enough to get into a groove, you don’t want to disturb it under any circumstances.

Dahl continues: 

Finally, you get settled. You get into a sort of nest. You get really comfortable. And then you’re away.

Today, I write comfortable. The only upgrade I could imagine to the luxurious ensconscement I currently enjoy would be one of those shiatsu chairs they have at airports. (Come to think of it, that would be spectacular.) Are you comfortable when you write? If not, are you creating work in the quantity and of the quality you’d prefer?

Why do we take this masochistic attitude? Work is work. It’s already hard.

Next time you’re facing a blank document, take a cue from Dahl. Get comfy. Toss another cushion on there. Climb into a sleeping bag. Ensconce! No amount of comfort and familiarity is too much when it comes to doing your best work.

I’m reminded of David Lynch’s tantrum about time constraints on Twin Peaks: The Return

Somebody arbitrarily says you gotta do it in two days. That fucking really pisses me off. It really does. We’re always up against the fucking—I’m not working like this again. Ever. This is absolutely horrible. We never get any extra shots. We never get any time to experiment. We never get to go dreamy or anything…I could have spent a week in the Fireman’s, I love that place, and dream up all kinds of stuff. It’s sick, this kind of fucking way to do it. You don’t get a chance to sink into anything. It’s not a way to work.

To write, you need to be able to “go dreamy,” to “sink into” it. You’re not going to do that while balancing on one leg.

Once Dahl was settled in his nest, he too would go dreamy:

The pencil doesn’t very often touch the paper. It’s looking and musing and correcting and then, then you do a little writing. In the end, you get something done, but your concentration is fairly intense. You’re lost.

When you’re really writing, you go someplace else. Where? Maybe the Firemans’s. It’s dreamy there.

adios, zeitgeist—or should I say auf wiedersehen

The funny thing is, you don’t know when you’re at your best. You can wake up with a hangover and then go to work with three hours of sleep, and do great work. Or you could be rested up for a week and come down here and do lousy work.

This is Dale Chihuly, Seattle’s beloved glassblower, in Michael Apted’s 1997 documentary Inspirations. Chihuly goes on:

There’s no correlation much to how you feel and what happens. That’s the advantage of working as much as you can. Because you never know when it’s going to be just right.

This is true of your work day. This is also true of your body of work.

What distinguishes the viral flares who draw envy and resentment from the steady, sober pros who show up at the page or the easel or the camera to make their work, day after day? Now and then, that work might converge with public taste—as David Lynch’s did with Twin Peaks: The Return. A flurry of attention and an award. Then tastes diverge again; our collective attention wanders. What does the artist do? What else—pull out a fresh sheet of paper, sharpen a pencil.

How can you tell the difference between a one-hit wonder and a lasting creative talent? It’s in the moment you stop envying their success. All of a sudden, you can feel the weight of their dedication. They’re in it for the work. And I’m not talking about the retirement gig on the Vegas Strip. I’m talking about regularly facing down the tiger: the blank page. As far as you’re concerned, the artist is welcome to that burden. Deep down, we just want to get famous the one time, make Mom happy, stop worrying about it so much. We don’t think too much about what lies beyond.

You get up early in the morning and you work all day. That’s the only secret.

—Philip Glass, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts

Glass worked as a NYC cab driver until he was older than I am now. Then he could finally support himself with his music. Forty years later, he’s still going.

It’s no coincidence that Apted’s documentary also features David Bowie, another artist who never stopped pressing forward even as his audience wandered in and out of the stadium. In an interview in another documentary—I can’t seem to dig it up right now—Bowie muses on the public, saying, essentially, “Either people absolutely love what I’ve done or they have absolutely no interest in it.”

Nevertheless, he persisted. #hetoo

If you’re a regular reader of the Maven Game, you’ll notice I pay particular attention to these workers, the craftspeople who keep working with no apparent regard for the shifting moods of the “audience,” the so-called zeitgeist.

Laurie Anderson has her eyes fixed forward. My family sat mesmerized listening to the audio component of “Chalkroom,” her wild VR installation at Mass MOCA. I didn’t know what to make of it. Isn’t that wonderful? I know what to make of everything! And Anderson’s been doing this for decades. Outside any comfort zone.

Babies have to learn object permanence, the concept that things continue to exist even if they’re hidden for a moment. Mommy hides her face—where’d she go? I’ve learned artist permanence. Anderson keeps working even when our attention wanders…then, peek-a-boo.

This is the only kind of work that matters. You’ll never really know why something “succeeded,” even when it’s your own work. It used to be: you made stuff to please your tribe, then your patron. Then they invented “the public.”

[Jürgen] Habermas observed that, starting around the middle of the seventeenth century, the concept of “the public” (or le public in French, or Publikum in German) took on a new prominence in the languages of Western Europe. Before this point, people alluded to “the world” or “mankind” when talking about a general audience or crowd. But the idea of a public implied that there was a body of opinion and taste that possessed its own force and influence in society, potentially rivaling that of the monarchies and clergy. For the first time, people began talking explicitly about the court of “public opinion”; they began to seek “publicity” for their work or ideas, a word that originates with the French publicité. Habermas argued that the political and intellectual revolutions of the eighteenth century had been facilitated by the creation of this new public sphere, largely housed in semipublic gathering places like taverns and pubs.

This is Steven Johnson in his most recent book, Wonderland. (Johnson is a worker.) It had never really occurred to me before reading this passage that there hasn’t always been a “public.” Part of me wonders whether, one day soon, that public will cease to be—at least as we understand it today. The mainstream. Consensus. Real and fake news. The zeitgeist.

At dinner with someone the other night, I asked what they’d thought of Donald Glover’s astonishing “This Is America” video. Blank expression.

“Do you know Donald Glover?”

“Yeah.” 

“Not the guy from Lethal Weapon.” 

“Oh.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking of art in terms of what I call works and taps. A work is a unified something you take in your hand and hold up to the light and try to appreciate on its own merits. You think in terms of the creator’s intention. You think about how it makes you feel. You consider it.

A tap has a spigot. You turn the spigot and consume what comes out to achieve a desired effect. Then you turn it off again and move on with your day. Hulu provides lots of useful taps. I use Hulu’s Good Doctor tap to feel sad and uplifted on demand. Then I forget all about that episode of The Good Doctor. I used Apple Music’s “Pure Focus” tap to write this essay. No idea what I’ve been listening to for the last couple of hours. 

Donald Glover, though it’s still relatively early in his career, is making works. Over the last week, I’ve stopped envying his success. He can have it.

A book can be a tap. Sometimes, an essay sent to a mailing list can be a work—one can aim for that, anyway.

Make works. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott offers the reason:

Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

The public isn’t real. Only the work is real. Fresh sheet, sharp pencil.

capturing creative genius like a Dyson Sphere

First, a couple of apéritifs to whet your appetite:

Todd Henry invited me on the Accidental Creative podcast for a chat about getting to the best idea. I was Todd’s editor on his first book and it remains a fondly remembered collaboration (as well as a solid backlist title). If you “write and otherwise make cool stuff”—the Maven Game’s target demo—you should read it. If you lead other creative types, get Todd’s latest, too.

The Thanos to my Marvel Universe, Matthew Butterick, takes on the space-between-sentences controversy. A new study—done on behalf of the APA—suggests that using two spaces after a period aids legibility. Considering the APA is the one significant player on the (wrong) side of this debate, get out your salt grains. (Interesting that duplicitous comes from the Latin duplex, for double. Never trust a double-spacer.) 

While not as incendiary as the Oxford comma heresy—let alone the IMHO apostasy—the use of two spaces after a period still gets my hemoglobins hopping. I habitually run a find-and-replace to strip out doubles at the beginning of every developmental edit. (Try it. More satisfying than popping bubble wrap.) 

Anyway, thoughtful and well-reasoned as always from Butterick—arch-nemeses tend to be mirror images of each other, after all—so well worth a read. (On a related note, you’ll notice that I’ve re-designed the site using Butterick’s Equity typeface, proving you can put lipstick on a pig.) 

On to further provocation:

Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson—inventor of the Dyson Sphere, not the Dyson Airblade—recently published a collection of letters. (I invite the secondary Dyson to publish his own correspondence as soon as his hand dryer, like the Sphere, inspires a pretty good episode of Star Trek.)

A selection from Dyson’s book offers insight into his relationship with bongo drummer, best-selling author, and personal style icon Richard Feynman. (Feynman also did some work in physics, I believe. I guess that’s how they knew each other? No time to check Wikipedia.)

Anyway, in a 1947 letter to a friend, Dyson writes:

Feynman is a man for whom I am developing a considerable admiration; he is the brightest of the young theoreticians here and is the first example I have met of that rare species, the native American scientist…He is always sizzling with new ideas, most of which are more spectacular than helpful and hardly any of which get very far before some newer inspiration eclipses them. His most valuable contribution to physics is as a sustainer of morale; when he bursts into the room with his latest brain wave and proceeds to expound it with lavish sound effects and waving about of the arms, life at least is not dull.

This goes back to my disparagement of unchecked creativity a few essays back. (I’d ask whether are any of you are still offended about that, but being “creatives” I imagine you’re all three lily pads ahead by now.)

Dyson went on to help reconcile one of Feynman’s theories with that of another physicist, publishing an important paper in the process. He knew this career-making publication was no earth-shaking accomplishment—he was the one physicist lucky enough to spend time with the other two. Dyson felt conflicted:

The trouble with [Feynman] is that he never will publish what he does; I sometimes feel guilty for having cut in front of him with his own ideas. However, he is now at last writing up two big papers, which will display his genius to the world; and it is possible that I have helped to make him do this by making him conscious of being cut in on, which if it be true is a valuable service on my part.

Dyson’s finding the humor in it, but it’s an important point. Endlessly creative, boundlessly energetic people like Feynman are their own worst enemies, and ripe for exploitation. Think Tesla. Sometimes, however—if the stars align—these individuals find the right collaborators, at least ones less rapacious than Thomas Edison. Then we all benefit from the creative productivity that results. And of course Dyson worked and talked with Feynman endlessly. His support went far beyond “cutting in front of him.”

Just as valuable as the volcanic genius is the other genius who can get him to sit down and finish something—by hook or by crook.

My job is coaxing creative people to produce their best work, so I pay close attention when I see it done well. More than 15 years after that last note, Dyson wrote:

We are all excited because my three friends Tomonaga, Schwinger, and Feynman won the Nobel Prize. You may remember that it was just after their great work in 1947 that I started my career by carrying further what they had begun…To some extent I can take credit for this, since Schwinger originally had all the limelight and Tomonaga and Feynman were struggling in obscurity. It was my big paper “The Radiation Theories of Tomonaga, Schwinger and Feynman” that first did justice to all three of them.

With the future of the Nobel Prize in Literature in doubt, I may not be able to provide the exact same assistance to writers, but Dyson provides some useful clues in getting great work out of others. In a way, a creative genius like Feynman is a star. A good collaborator like Dyson finds a way to harness all of the valuable energy that would otherwise scatter outward in the vastness of space. Wait a second

tone, pacing, and the occasional magic axe

Trinitarily, my father, my son, and I went to see Avengers: Infinity War yesterday. Did I enjoy it?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

There was awe. I’ll give it that: awe at the film’s scale, its craftsmanship, at what so many people had collaborated to create. The post-credits scene—with its geektastic reveal—followed about ninety minutes of names. Staggering, if you think about it. My grandparents’ lives spanned the transition from Model T to Apollo 11. I’ve lived through both the 1970s Captain America and Captain America: Civil War—in a way, the greater leap of human imagination. Even Neil Armstrong would have given Kevin Feige credit for piloting the Marvel Cinematic Universe through Phase 3.

The supreme creative credit of this Wagnerian epic—yes, Wagnerian, all the way down to dwarves forging magic weapons—belongs to the writing team. May they rest in peace, I’m assuming. Can you imagine being handed eighteen films, each carrying their own weight of lore and complications and fan expectations from decades of comic book canon, and being told to write a script that gives every major character—and more than a handful of minor ones—their moment to shine? (Except Hawkeye, of course.) Absolutely boggling.

And yet.

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