the deep end

I’m enjoying Lawrence Block’s memoir, A Writer Prepares, which came highly recommended by author and editor Ed Park. (If Ed says read the book, I read the book.) 

Block is an enormously prolific crime writer, having published an astonishing quantity of books over his six-decade career. He’s written books both under his own name as well as under beaucoup noms de plume—so many books, in fact, that his bibliography is described by one reviewer as “monumental.” Not Block’s body of work, mind you, but his bibliography, the actual, published book that lists all of Block’s books—that’s what’s monumental. (According to Block, his would-be bibliographer still missed a few plume noms along the way.)

Block got his start working at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency back in the 1950s. At the time, SMLA supplemented the money it made from client commissions by offering paid editorial services to novice writers. Nowadays, it’s a commonplace that you don’t pay your literary agent—they operate strictly on commission. Otherwise, as you might imagine, the incentives get pretty screwy. As an agent, do you sell that perfectly good manuscript when it’s ready? Or charge the author one last time for editorial help and then take that juicy 15% on the sale? Back when Block worked there, SMLA built a business model on this conflict of interest.

Aspiring writers may not have done well by paying for Scott Meredith’s professional evaluation—actually young Lawrence Block’s evaluation, since he’s the one who read the submissions and wrote the responses. But Block certainly benefited from reading “all those dreary stories” himself. Evaluating hundreds of slush-pile submissions and deconstructing them taught Block how to write stories that sold, and he often wrote his own stories in spare moments at the office. Through their many, many errors, those novices taught Block what wouldn’t work and gave him a glimpse of what might: 

It’s not uncommon in writing classes to study great works of fiction, to take them apart and see how they’re made, even to transcribe them verbatim as a way of absorbing the essence of a master’s style. I’m not disposed to label all of that as valueless, but I’m convinced you can learn far more, and far more easily, from bad work than from good. The very best writing is seamless; you can see that it’s good, but you can’t tell why, or what the author did to make it work so well. It’s easier by far to see what’s wrong with bad writing, and how it got that way.

The job was a perfect storyteller’s crucible: plenty of work for Block to tear apart and plenty of time to make work of his own using what he’d learned. To understand what makes writing—any writing—tick, you have to take it apart at the seams which, as Block points out, is much harder to do when the writing appears seamless. Instead, you take apart a lousy effort, see how it fits together, and reassemble it better than before.

As a teenager, Benjamin Franklin outlined the articles in a London periodical and then reconstructed them from those outlines. Comparing his versions with the originals taught him where he’d fallen short in expressing the same ideas using his own words. Once he’d mastered that, Franklin upped the challenge by randomizing his outlines and then arranging them in a way that made sense. This taught him how to build his arguments. Finally, to improve his facility with words, Franklin translated articles into verse and back. As Franklin writes in his Autobiography, the rigorous training regimen paid off: 

By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method of the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.

When it comes to rapid improvement as a writer, there is no substitute for active immersion in the kind of work you want to make. Rejecting book proposals and editing manuscripts all those years built my nonfiction muscle memory. Now it comes naturally. When I try my hand at fiction, however, the difference is palpable. It often feels like brushing my teeth left-handed, awkward and unfamiliar. It isn’t enough that I read lots of fiction. My fiction-writing muscles are weak. Which is frustrating, and makes me want to quit.

The guaranteed way to keep going at something is to not quit. Simple, right? In an interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Helen Hunt recalls an incident from the set of As Good As It Gets that took place between Jack Nicholson and the film’s director, James Brooks:

They got in some headlock over something that might seem small but meant the world to both of them. It may have been whether you say noodle pudding or noodle salad. I’m not kidding. It meant something. I think one was a deeply kugel Jewish memory and the other was a memory of WASPs and picnics. I mean, I think it was in that zone. And I was just there watching them. And Jack got really frustrated. We were in the makeup trailer. And he said something like “fuck it” or “who cares?” And then there was a beat, and he said: “The only art I have left is not to say that.”

This would be one of Nicholson’s last great roles, winning him his third and final Academy Award. After a lifetime at the pinnacle of his profession, the guy still remembered the only thing that mattered. In Hunt’s view, Nicholson still saw himself as a journeyman actor. Being a professional meant, “I’m not going to say, fuck it. I’m not going to take my ball and go home. I’m going to stay in.”

I guess I’ll stay in.

p.s. My friend Arman Assadi recently interviewed me about writing and creativity for his podcast, Flow. We had a great conversation and the podcast itself is well worth listening to in general.

p.p.s. Hearty recommendation for a tool that just works. Inbox When Ready is a free Chrome plugin that does one thing and does it well: hiding your inbox until you’re ready to process new emails. Typically, I can’t block Gmail entirely because it’s often hiding correspondence related to a project. With this plugin, I can search for emails during the writing process without getting derailed by urgent incoming messages. If this makes sense to you, too, go get it.

stop less, start less

If starting work is hard, why not start less? That’s the advice Nasir Kharma, a grad student in London, offers: He studies in four-hour blocks without a break

I’m not sure what to think. Don’t we need frequent breaks to maintain optimal focus? Aren’t we more likely to procrastinate before chaining ourselves to a desk for a long stretch? In light of the video, however, I’m no longer so certain about these accepted productivity truths. That, by itself, is pretty cool—it’s rare to encounter a persuasive argument that even threatens to change my approach. Kharma’s tip runs contrary to the conventional wisdom in both productivity (25-minute Pomodoros) and health (sitting is the new smoking). I’m clutching my pearls here. 

As controversial as it may seem (to people who read too many books on productivity), Kharma is advocating for doing what pretty much every successful and/or famous creator has always done. In fact, if you’re going by anecdotal evidence alone, there’s no arguing for any other way. Great writers, painters, musicians, and inventors sit (or stand, or lie down) in one place without interruption for vast stretches of time. Period. The latest addition to my “working methods” library, Joe Fig’s excellent Inside the Painter’s Studio, only confirms this impression.

Starting has always been the weakest link in my chain. Once I’m underway with a piece of writing, I can stay with it for a decent stretch. Getting going, however, is always tough. If anything, starting has only gotten trickier over the years as my life has gotten bigger and more complicated. Without a doubt, the starts are where my work runs off the rails. It’s my kryptonite. 

If this is the case, why wouldn’t I keep the number of starts to an absolute minimum? Install a coffee maker in my office and just hunker down? From this perspective, the Pomodoro Technique is lunacy. If starting is the hard part, why inject eight or more starts into each day? Every time I step away from the page, there’s a good chance I won’t find my way back to it again. The actual reasons I end up working on something else are myriad, but they amount to the same thing: a blank page. Editing, correspondence, and admin are important, but new words come first. Each interruption slashes the odds of hitting my mark. It strikes me that all the advice about sensible breaks and reasonable intervals is flat-out wrong. What do you do when the “right” advice doesn’t work?

The main problem is I’m slightly compulsive. In a 2014 blog post at Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander, a Bay Area psychiatrist, wrote about an incident that resonated with me:

This one obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hairdryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she’d drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn’t really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.

This compulsion interfered with the patient’s life to the point that she considered quitting her job and going on disability. Psychiatrists and psychologists alike had tried and failed to help her. Then, one of Alexander’s colleagues made a seemingly innocent suggestion: bring the hairdryer to work. Every time she started worrying she’d left the hairdryer on, she’d look at the passenger seat and see it resting there. It worked. At that point, all hell broke loose among the other psychiatrists at the hospital. Apparently, this is just not how one deals with OCD. What do you do when the “wrong” advice works?

I don’t have full-blown OCD, but every time I sit down to write, I experience the overwhelming sense that I’ve forgotten something important. So I get stuck, staring into space, racking my brain. Eventually, I’ll wander around the apartment hoping something sparks my memory. I’m like Neville Longbottom and his Remembrall: “I can’t remember what I’ve forgotten.” (A magical device that says you’ve forgotten something—but won’t say what—feels like an inside joke for writers.)

To cope with my compulsion, I created a “preflight checklist“ for the start of every writing session. It begins “Have I left anything on the stove?” and runs all the way through “Start music.” Like the hairdryer, it works for my brain. Once I’ve run through my checklist, that nagging feeling lifts. I’m better able to start.

It sounds like heresy, but maybe I should get worse at stopping next.

when you’d rather do anything else

This newsletter serves as a weekly reminder of just how much I hate sitting down to write. It’s a useful exercise in personal development. Think G. Gordon Liddy holding his hand over a candle: “Suffering. That was the key.” Given my druthers, I’d do anything else instead: Shop for groceries. Organize bookshelves. Clean hair out of the vacuum. That’s why I can’t give myself druthers anymore. I will choose nearly any piece of drudgery over starting out on an original piece of work. Then, I’ll complain about how little time I have. This is something that happens.

Growing up, my assumption was that everybody hates the starting and loves the finishing. The real reason I wrote so much in middle school was that the building was surrounded by concentric circles of bullies, thugs, and muggers. Spending lunch in the writing lab was a survival tactic. The fact is, however, some people actually enjoy sitting down to work. They pursue their craft absent the threat of violence. This Japanese figure sculptor, for example, spends all day sculpting figures at the office and then goes home to sculpt more figures as a hobby.

Having met a number of people like this since middle school, I’ve come to accept that, like UFOs, they exist. But I find them—the eager creators, not the UFOs—perplexing and inscrutable, like ultramarathon runners. Dean Karnazes, for instance, got existential at his 30th birthday party and opted to leave the party and run 30 miles. Which he did, drunk, despite having stopped running back in high school. Some people are just built differently. (Come to think of it, I could have turned to running to escape the bullies at lunch. But the writing lab had A/C.)  

After college, I moved from New York City to Seattle to get my theatrical career off the ground. (The decision made just as much sense back then.) My behind-the-scenes gig at a regional theater felt just enough like career progress. Then, a musician friend visited me from New York.

“What should we do first?” I asked. “Space Needle? Sit & Spin? Dick’s Drive-In?”

“No,” he said. “You can always do that stuff. Let’s make something instead.” It wasn’t completely out of left field. I claimed to be an aspiring playwright and filmmaker. I had a computer, a video camera, lights, a synthesizer, and various other creative implements in my one-room efficiency apartment. It certainly looked a bit like a creative space that got used. But come on. Seriously? My friend didn’t actually expect us to spend an entire evening in that cramped little apartment making some sort of thing, did he? 

Ugh. He did.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather run thirty miles?” I should have asked. Instead, I buckled to peer pressure. Over the next few hours, we collaborated on a short musical combining song and recitative. Then, we performed it for the camera using robot action figures as puppets before editing it all together into a sort of low-tech, high-art techno-opera. Think Tristan und Isolde meets Transformers in fifteen minutes.  

This process became fun about halfway through, as often happens with creative projects. Mostly, though, I just marveled at the fact that this guy was choosing to do this over all the many enjoyable things a young person can get up to when they’re finally out of college and out on their own. The fact that he was choosing to do this over all of life’s other options seemed absurd, unreal, fantastical. I always fall for peer pressure but this was self-directed. Impressed as I was, if he’d lost interest at any point and opted for a bar, I’d have chucked all those MPEGs and MP3s into the shiny little Mac trashcan in a heartbeat. But he didn’t, and we finished, and it came out pretty well. Our friends enjoyed it, anyway. This was long before YouTube, so making friends laugh was the bar.

I was forcefully reminded of this little episode watching Bo Burnham’s new comedy special on Netflix. If you don’t know him, Burnham is a writer and performer who came up as a teenager on YouTube before proving his mainstream bona fides by directing the acclaimed film Eighth Grade. Though he surely had options, Burnham spent his lockdown alone in a room MacGyvering a special together: writing, performing, lighting, directing, editing, producing. My nightmare. While I didn’t love every minute of Inside, it’s often brilliant, and above all Burnham has my respect for completing a true feat of solitary, deliberate creative output.

You may recall that in March 2020, at the very start of the pandemic in the U.S., I wrote an essay exhorting you to spend this valuable time inside doing exactly what Bo Burnham did: completing an ambitious piece of work you could never pursue with sustained attention amidst the hustle and bustle of pre-pandemic life. Most of us, including me, did not end up doing that. In fact, I realized how absurd, pointless, and even offensive the suggestion had been about a day after sending it out. (That often happens in the case of the Maven Game.) But through vast effort and concentration, Bo Burnham actually turned this time and solitude into a legitimate work of art: raw, honest, affecting, and, for all its impromptu messiness, beautifully executed. All of this was done while clearly enduring a mental health struggle. In my case, anxiety and depression make it even harder to work, but Burnham pushed through.

Part of me hopes I’ll become an avid creator one day. That the eagerness to create, not consume, is a muscle one can train and develop. But after that night in Seattle, even after many other rewarding creative experiences in my life, I’ve never become anything like my friend. I never, ever want to do, only to have done. At this stage, I’ll probably never change. Which means I simply can’t be trusted with my druthers.

p.s. An astute reader points out that, contrary to my last essay, the month is also based on a natural cycle. Great catch. I do hold fast to my assertion that the week is an unnatural division and far less useful for building creative habits than the day.

the daily

Wilf Davies has been a farmer in Wales all his life. Even as his friends left to find work in big cities, he stuck around the Teifi valley, growing food and tending sheep. Today, he’s 72 and still at it. “This valley is cut in the shape of my heart,” he says in an as-told-to essay at The Guardian

In the last Maven Game, I discussed the importance of ritual in building and maintaining a writing habit, even to the point of “self-mesmerism.” Through consistency and repetition, you hypnotize yourself into a state of relaxed flow. You want a ritual? Get a load of Davies:

I have a routine, just like nature. That extends to what I eat. I’ve had the same supper for 10 years, even on Christmas Day: two pieces of fish, one big onion, an egg, baked beans and a few biscuits at the end. For lunch I have a pear, an orange and four sandwiches with paste. But I allow myself a bit more variety; I’ll sometimes have soup if it’s cold.

It goes on like this. Davies is a guy who believes in the extraordinary power of ritual—whether or not he would ever use that word to describe his approach. His supper isn’t complete without a big onion, simple as that. “I’m not interested in other food…I’ve already found the food I love.” All of Davies’s words reverberate with contentment, even joy. “I feel like I’m on top of the world,” he says. Yet there’s no question that farming is a difficult profession, both physically and emotionally. A farmer has to cope with endless uncertainty and grinding labor. Davies’s ironclad habits gird him, mentally and spiritually, against the ceaseless demands of his work. They make him tough:

Whether it’s Easter Day or Christmas Day, being a farmer means every day is the same. The animals still need to be fed. Feeding the sheep and seeing how happy they are makes me happy, too. They never ask for anything different for supper.

This is a guy who’s had several strokes and cares for a bedridden sister on top of everything else. Through his cherished routines, he is able to find beauty in the mundane—though, to Davies, nothing about his familiar valley is mundane—and meaningful purpose in every little task.

There’s something profound about a daily versus even a weekly cadence. The soul thrills to an unbroken chain. It’s a sacrifice—of time, sleep, energy, fun—to commit to doing something every single day of your life. The payoff, as you can see with Davies’s story, may be worth it anyway. The mind and body respond differently to a daily commitment. It works its way deep into your bones: “I have a routine, just like nature.” Humans evolved to the rhythm of the day and the year—the week and the month are recent developments that have nothing to do with nature. There may be something worthwhile about tuning into these primal tempos, if you can. As you look to deepen your writing practice, consider tapping along to a daily cadence.

p.s. I’ve really been enjoying Paolo fromTOKYO’s “Day in the Life” series of YouTube videos. Butcher, student, firefighter, chef: A daily routine brings each person obvious contentment no matter what their vocation. Find a formula and stick to it.