stay sharp

My friend Josh Bernoff, author of Writing Without Bullshit, is conducting a survey of people who have published, or are working on, nonfiction books. Since he’s asking about publishing plans, expectations, goals, and outcomes and plans to share the results with all participants, I’d fill it out.

(On a related note, consider conducting research for your own work-in-progress. Even a small, informal study conducted via SurveyMonkey can offer insights. It doesn’t hurt that publishers like to see data, too. If you could ask your ideal readers anything, what would it be?)

[Apollo] is the god of music and poetry, so everyone who writes or recites poetry, for example, thereby sacrifices to him; he only accepts rams and rubbish of that sort from boors and the bourgeois, who have nothing better to offer him.Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist

Every “for your review” email to a client with the requisite Microsoft Word attachment, every Maven Game essay sent to you, every Sunday morning spent wrangling my own writing projects—another sacrifice to the golden god.

(Phoebus, buddy: Is a ram still acceptable on my off-days? Because sometimes it just isn’t happening.)

Recently, I returned to the Flatiron Building, home for many years to St. Martin’s Press and the rest of Macmillan, one of the Big Five publishers. With Macmillan relocating to the Financial District, we alums were invited back to reminisce about old times.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist sneaking into my old office during the party. It looked so small—guess I’m all grown up now. (No, it was always small.) To be clear, no one actually gave me an office. This being St. Martin’s Press, it was empty and I took it. I employed a similar strategy with my editorial acquisitions—and it showed.

Being back in the old building and seeing all those familiar faces raised an uncomfortable question: What have I been doing in the decade and more since I left that fine publishing establishment? Have I truly grown as a professional? Or am I still relying on the same old bag of tricks? More important, where am I going to be a decade from now? How do you actually get better at this stuff?

Benjamin Franklin was also preoccupied with personal development. An ambitious young printer of twenty-one, he assembled a dozen or so fellow Philadelphia tradesmen to debate politics and philosophy, as well as share business tips, in what became known as the Leather Apron Club. (So Franklin, right?) He called it the Junto, but with the negative connotations attached to juntas, I think Leather Apron Club wins.

Franklin describes it in his Autobiography:

[We] met on Friday evenings. The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.

This seems like the very distillation of a good conference or meet-up. And, no offense to members of Napoleon Hill-inspired mastermind groups, but this sounds way better than a Napoleon Hill-inspired mastermind group. I’d love to put together a club like this, but oriented around a more contemporary and unisex style choice for potential members: Warby Parker glasses, maybe, or Herschel Supply Co. bags.

Ideally, this would be an actual, in-person group, of course, not a Slack channel or Discord server. That doesn’t seem feasible, though. Everyone talks a good game about wanting to escape from social media and get back to real-life interactions, but nobody actually goes to in-person events anymore. Right? I mean, I haven’t been invited to any…

Franklin prepared a list of thoughtful questions to spur discussion at each meeting, from  “What new story have you lately heard agreeable for telling in conversation?” to “Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?”

These make good blog or podcast prompts, too. The Wikipedia page has the complete list.

If you haven’t read this essay about the Dark Forest Theory of the Internet—derived from the excellent Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu—do so. In his novel, Liu makes a good point: The universe may be absent of any signs of intelligent life because it’s empty. In a hostile universe—think a dark forest—keeping hidden might just be a necessary survival technique. Yancey Strickler, co-founder of Kickstarter, makes the point that the days of free-wheeling public sharing may be over for similar reasons. It’s just too unpleasant, even dangerous, to live in public on the internet anymore.

In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.

Hence, a Leather Apron Club, a venue where you could enjoy a really good talk without having it turn into a viral sensation and then a TED talk and then watch it blow up in the speaker’s face because they misquoted some research.

But what form would a Leather Apron Club take in 2019? Right now, I’m leaning toward a flash mob, just for old times’ sake, but I’m open to suggestions. Shoot me an email.

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