cottage industry

The offices at the gleaming Random House Tower on Broadway and West 56th Street stand empty. In 2020, book publishing has returned to being the cottage industry it once was. Outside of the printing operation, everyone involved in the process of making books—authors, agents, editors, production, marketing and publicity, designers, etc.—are working from home. Probably wearing their pajamas. You might be one of them.

“But I don’t wear pajamas while I work,” you’re thinking. Sure, but let’s be honest, you just wear your nice “Zoom shirt” and sweatpants. That’s pajamas. Have the dignity to call it what it is.

It’s a good thing. I like the level playing field, the enforced humility. Creativity thrives when you can’t hide behind the fancy conference room and the swarm of assistants and interns. The ultimate power play is to remain still while others scurry.

Did you know that Jim Carrey paints? I love that he paints. He has his own reasons for doing it, sure, but maybe one is, it’s an arena where he can just be a guy with a brush. Sure, there are those who will buy a Jim Carrey painting for the novelty, or because they’re enormous fans of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Ultimately, though, it’s an opportunity for Carrey to engage with creative problems without the weight of his enormous career pressing down on him. He can paint something and people can like it and buy it or not like it and not buy it. Art stripped clean of the bullshit.

At first, Carrey tackled serious roles to break free of the success of movies like The Mask. But once you pull off The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you’ve got your dramatic credentials sorted, too. Now what?

So Carrey paints, and when he paints he can let go of his ego and just grapple with the work. And it’s the work that gets judged, not him. At least in his own mind.

Alan Zweibel, one of the original writers on SNL, told a story on Marc Maron’s podcast. While working on the brilliant It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Zweibel would stop at a restaurant in Brentwood for a bite on the way to the studio. It was a hang-out for older comedy writers he admired, folks who’d been on top in the days of Jack Benny and Burns and Allen.

“My god, this is Mount Rushmore here,” Zweibel thought. He considered approaching his idols, but their conversation deterred him. “What I heard was bitterness. These were guys who had trouble getting work now, they were older, and they were putting down the younger comics, the younger sensibility, the younger shows, and I didn’t want to then introduce myself and soak in all their wisdom because I didn’t hear it.”

Zweibel came away from it with a powerful lesson: don’t be like that. Don’t let your work get tied up in the response it gets. As creators, we evolve. Our work comes into and out of sync with the world around us. That’s OK. Maybe you get lucky and you come into perfect alignment—riches and success follow. If you keep making work, it will come out of alignment again. Just wait. Are you going to keep working or not?

“It stayed with me,” Zweibel said. “And the idols that I had and still have were guys like Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks and Norman Lear. My friend Buck Henry died in December, he was 89 and still writing a book. So it was people who: OK, this is who I am right now, let me be true to that. I think an audience can detect fraudulence from a mile away.” Of course, Reiner passed away not long after this episode was recorded, but that guy was apparently a selfless mensch for most of his near-century of life. He didn’t measure his life by the box office returns or Nielsen ratings in one decade versus another. He worked, and he loved the work.

In 1966, a physicist named Koichi Mano wrote a letter to one of his former teachers, the legendary Richard Feynman, congratulating Feynman on his Nobel Prize. In his letter, Mano wrote that he was working on “a humble and down-to-earth type of problem.” Noting the self-deprecating tone, Feynman wrote back:

Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile.

The entire letter is beautiful and well worth reading in full. Feynman’s point is clear: Making the contribution you can make is the source of joy. It isn’t about the Nobels. In fact, going after the cash and prizes is a surefire way to fail, and it makes you miserable along the way.

Feynman’s humility wasn’t feigned. Sure, he knew he was smarter and more talented than most, even most physicists, but that didn’t make him a better person, too good to do what he could. Later in life, long after he stopped making major contributions to physics, he remained an involved mentor. At one point he offered to advise a student on his start-up. That student recalled discovering the now-elderly Feynman flipping through the manual of the high-tech phone system in the new office and trying to get it working. Feynman wanted to help out. Since there were no pressing matters related to quantum thermodynamics, he did what he could: he got the phones working.

Very early on in writing this newsletter, when I was still interested in the glamorous trappings and seedy machinations of the book publishing industry—pre-Zoom shirts—an editor friend wrote to predict that I’d end up the Bob Lefsetz of books. (Lefsetz is a critic who writes a gossipy and opinionated newsletter for music industry insiders.) My Lefsetz phase didn’t last. If anything, my ambition is to be the Bob Ross of books. I have so little interest in the size of the audience. I’ve seen too many good books fail. I’m interested in persistence and courage. Output. Doing what you can.

As Reiner once said about writing comedy: “You have to imagine yourself as not somebody very special, but somebody very ordinary. If you imagine yourself as somebody really normal and if it makes you laugh, it’s going to make everybody laugh. If you think of yourself as something very special, you’ll end up a pedant and a bore. If you start thinking about what’s funny, you won’t be funny, actually. It’s like walking. How do you walk? If you start thinking about it, you’ll trip.”

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