miracle year

Not long after Isaac Newton earned his bachelor’s degree from Cambridge University, the entire school closed down due to the plague. (Sound familiar?) Young Newton must have been frustrated to find himself back home in gloomy Woolsthorpe, stuck in the house with nothing to do after experiencing the excitement and discovery of university life. He spent more than a year mostly in his room and, with nothing better to do than play with prisms and apples, worked out optics, gravity, and calculus. To this day, we refer to 1666 as Newton’s Annus Mirabilis, or “Miracle Year.”

In light of the situation, I find this anecdote inspirational.

How are things on your end? You all hunkered down? Got enough TP? It’s weird how, unlike nearly anything else I’ve ever written about, this situation affects every reader of this newsletter equally. Thankfully, we’re fine in terms of food and supplies, but it’s probably time to get my 10-year-old son started on his homeschooling curriculum: 28 Days Later, Night of the Comet, and Omega Man. He’s already seen The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome, but as New Yorkers we’re not going to be driving through this apocalypse. (My daughter is a little young for movies like this, but if things do go Full Zombie, I pity any manner of undead foolish enough to shamble into her path.)

One week into lockdown and I’m getting serious cabin fever despite a family walk in Prospect Park every day (maintaining a six-foot cone of hygiene at all times). Yes, I’ve been writing more steadily without calls or meetings to disrupt my productivity, but at the cost of my sanity. (Note to self: Add The Shining to the kids’ curriculum. They’re going to need it.) Technically, this shouldn’t be a huge shift for us—we both work from home anyway, and I’m hardly a social butterfly. But I still feel isolated. I guess it’s important to have the option of doing something or meeting someone, even if I don’t exercise it much.

I don’t know how long this lockdown is going to go on. Whenever it does end, it will certainly have been too long. That said, it’s already been a time of extraordinary closeness in our family and I will cherish that aspect of this long after it’s all over. I hope you can find a bright spot, too.

Whether our lockdown lasts one month or one year, the time will pass however you choose to spend it. Spend it wisely. Invest it in the search for miracles. If you can’t find time to write during quarantine, you might as well pack up your pencils. But even if you are in a bunker-for-one, you can still get support. Find an accountability partner and check in over Zoom. Use Focusmate to help soften the isolation and keep you on task. Most of us aren’t blessed with Newton’s legendary concentration and penchant for solitude. 

Then, when you’re done working, actually stop working. Give yourself a break. Take a bubble bath—we should all be taking daily bubble baths during the lockdown. Stop exhorting yourself to do more and accept what your mind and body are willing to give. Pandemics are stressful. Working as hard as I am, if I didn’t treat myself to the little pleasures—good coffee, Curb Your Enthusiasm, sleep stories read by Matthew McConaughey—I’d go Full Jack Torrance.

through a glass, darkly

I’m going to give you a break. You don’t need to read another word about The Situation this morning. (Not That Situation, This Situation.) Instead, I’ll dive directly into the usual meshuggaas as though everything is normal. 

Just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in!

—Michael Corleone, The Godfather: Part III

I got some nice responses to last week’s essay. Let’s see. Here’s one:

“Fantastic. Your writing is so good.”

—Mom

There were other responses, too. But really, isn’t this one all you really need as a writer? If Mom’s happy, who cares what anyone else thinks? I wasn’t even aware she knew how to use italics. It raises questions. Did she click on the Gmail formatting menu? Is it possible she knows the keyboard shortcut?

Long story short, a handful of you actually seem to care whether the Maven Game shows up in your inbox every week. It feels good to know. This might explain why Larry David and Quentin Tarantino always threaten to stop making stuff. It’s marketing 101: create artificial scarcity. 

(By the way, has anyone actually taken “Marketing 101”? If so, what’s it like to read every single marketing book ever? According to them, everything you were taught in that class was the exact opposite of the truth.)

Apropos of recommitting to the newsletter, I wanted to talk about how we judge and value our own work. Based on my years of experience digging through the slush pile, many writers have a rose-colored-glasses problem—if you can call that a problem. If you like your stuff when it’s no good, you might be puzzled when no one else does, but hey, you’re still amazing, aren’t you? Besides, thanks to the internet, there’s an audience out there for nearly anyone, as long as you’re willing to keep putting your stuff out there until you’ve gathered them from the far corners of the Earth. And what undiscovered genius would hesitate to share their brilliant work until that happens? Thus, these people often find that audience.

No, the other problem is much harder: Nothing you do is any good. You’re not getting any better. This whole thing is a waste of time. Don’t even bother suggesting I share any of it. Etc. They’re wearing glasses of a different color, one that evokes a smell nothing like roses.

It doesn’t always feel like this, for most of us, but there are days. It’s easy to get into a funk for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with the writing itself. During revision, I’ll arrive at a particular paragraph that stops me dead in my tracks. “Who the hell wrote this and why hasn’t he been fired yet? Oh, right…” Some days, nothing works about how I’m working. Then time passes, I look back at the same piece of work, and it’s fine. Nothing special, maybe, but perfectly adequate to the task. Maybe it was indigestion the first time. Who knows?

Fix individual mistakes, of course. But when everything isn’t working, doubt your impartiality before you doubt all your material. Storytime: In The Theatre, the tech rehearsal is an opportunity to run through all the lighting and sound cues using the finished sets and final blocking so that everyone knows what to expect and you can make last-minute adjustments before the dress rehearsal. The director and stage manager sit at a table in the center of the house while the crew, lighting designer, costume designer, and any other creative collaborators hurry around fixing problems. 

During tech for one college play I directed, nothing was going right. It all felt muted, dull, pallid: the sets, the costumes, the action itself. (I’d written the play, too, so I had myself to blame twice.) The show was inert, lifeless, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. After all, I’d liked it before lunch. Now, it all rang false and nothing I did seemed to help.

Over the intercom, I asked the stage manager, designers, and crew their opinions. Had they noticed anything different about tonight’s run-through? Why’d the play suck all of a sudden? According to them, everything was fine. But I knew they were wrong. They simply didn’t have my taste, my talent, my well-honed aesthetic discrimination. Clearly, I’d clued into something subtle but crucial about the production that they didn’t have the capacity to detect.

On the verge of despair, I put my head in my hands, only to encounter a pair of sunglasses with my fingers. I’d never taken them off after returning from lunch. Removing them, the set burst into Technicolor and the actors’ faces came to life.

When your brain offers up an opinion about your work, don’t trust it. Put it aside. Come back later. Sample it at different times of day, in different moods. Better to forge ahead and lay more track than puzzle over what seems dead on the page but is only obscured by the tint of your glasses.

(Honestly, every time I think I’ve shared the last embarrassing story from my youth in this newsletter, another one bubbles right up. I’ll never want for material.) 

the audience trap

Somehow, I’ve brought you another newsletter. To be 100-percent transparent: It was a particularly close call this time around. I’ve thought about quitting the Maven Game nearly every week since I started writing it in 2015. With the pressure I’m currently under, I’ve gone from thinking about quitting to full-on contemplating it. And we all know how serious that is.

How do you keep going? (That’s not rhetorical. I’m really asking.)

In the last week alone, Jason Kottke has blogged about everything from architecture to linguistics to politics to military strategy (and that’s just scratching the surface). He started his blog in 1998 and went full-time fifteen years ago. Here’s his post celebrating that anniversary, here’s his post announcing his intention to go full-time in 2005, and here’s his very first post, written almost twenty-two years ago. 

(Isn’t it beautiful how the Web makes it so easy for me to show you this?)

Kottke is a true rarity in 2020. Blogging the way he does it is a lost art form. I started a blog in 2003, several years after Kottke but before blogs went mainstream. It was delightful, at first. If you wrote about something, no matter how obscure, your fellow weirdos would find it. You’d get all these interesting comments from people who were one of five in the world who felt the same way about X, Y, or Z. There was an amazing signal-to-noise ratio. SEO didn’t come into it—blogging just worked. Then things got more crowded, then life got busy, then I quit. I went through something similar with my podcast. The delightful parts got less delightful, the aggravations multiplied, and I packed up my microphone. 

People say newsletters are the new blogs, at least in the sense that you can (theoretically) build a stable audience of real people unmediated by any algorithm, but I’m skeptical. We mix up newsletters and e-mail marketing. E-mail marketing is here to stay because it’s effective at selling stuff: courses, software, consulting. Newsletters suffer from the same fundamental flaw as blogging, podcasting, and, well, newspapers and magazines: a shaky, ad-driven business model. Despite a large readership, Jason Kottke’s ad revenue dropped out from under him quite suddenly a year or two ago. Luckily, he was able to rapidly switch to a subscription model and enough of his loyal readers signed on to keep the operation running. For now, anyway. 

Most of us aren’t in a position to charge a subscription fee. Frankly, unless you have an extraordinary, and extraordinarily loyal, audience like Jason Kottke does who will follow him wherever his interests lead, I don’t see how you could sustain this kind of personal writing with subscriptions even as subscriptions sustain the business of writing it. Can you imagine if I tried charging you for the Maven Game? Even at a dollar a month, I’d feel obliged to actually say something useful. To cut the crap. No more flights of fancy, bizarre references, or pointless digressions. It would be nothing but “a weird trick that works for me when I have writer’s block” or “the one thing you need to know about finishing your book.” It wouldn’t, in other words, be the Maven Game anymore.

After last week’s essay, one reader wrote:

Interesting newsletter.

Clearly, a fan. He continued:

At first, I thought, “man, I hate Dune; this isn’t going to be any good”. Then came “oh no, not politics” thought. Mild panic at “When was the last time you listened to smooth jazz?”, and then got even worse when I got annoyed at another glaring error (not your fault, I admit) in the Slotkin story. (Nothing became contaminated in the event; lots of things got irradiated.) And don’t get me started on St. Peter’s choice of instruments, which would just be another reason why I wouldn’t want anything to do with the proposed Biblical heaven if it should happen to exist.

Now tell me what you really thought about it:

And even when you finally reach something relatable to me (the well-grounded, solid-ground anecdote), you just have to insert the Spielberg bit and destroy any hope of serious thought.

Believe it or not, the email ended with a morsel of positivity. I moved on with my day. But imagine if this response had come, not from a reader, but a subscriber. Someone whose satisfaction with my work tied directly to my livelihood. You can bet it would have influenced my approach to this week’s installment. Maybe not by a lot, maybe not with any conscious intent on my part, but I’d have toned it down a bit with the me. Over time, responses like this one (yes, I get them now and then) would polish the rough edges around here until I sounded like everything else you read online. Except you wouldn’t be reading anymore, would you?

Speaking of shaky business models, my first attempt at a career was in The Theatre. I worked for a subscription-based theater company based here in New York City. We always had two audiences to keep in mind: the regular people and the subscribers, or “patrons,” as we called them. The regular people were regular people: theater lovers of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The patrons were all grouchy, old, white, and rich. My job, above all, was to placate the patrons: when they got the wrong seat, when an usher was rude, when the coffee wasn’t hot enough in the patron’s lounge. (It was never hot. I know because I’m the one who carried the urns from a catering service several blocks away an hour before showtime.) Doing that job, I learned to appease the irritable and reassure the entitled—”OK, Boomer” hadn’t been invented yet—and I still rely on that skill-set in my day-to-day work.

This was a top-tier, well-funded nonprofit theater company with multiple stages, big budgets, actors you recognized from television. It was thriving. But the shows sucked. Pure CBS. The plays they chose pandered to their subscribers because the whole operation was built on that base. Mounting something risky and fresh could alienate the patrons, and then what? Even if they could weather the loss of the steady revenue, they’d end up scraping by in between hits just like every other theater in town. And that’s uncomfortable. Rather than stomach the risk, they went for the safe bet, over and over and over.

As a result, the literary department had to turn down all kinds of great opportunities that went meteoric elsewhere: Avenue Q, Urinetown, on and on. Each hit that got away carved another divot in the hearts of the very smart, talented, and passionate young people working at that theater. But that was the business model. Once you get hooked on an audience, there’s no escaping them. 

I quit blogging before most people even knew what blogging was. Same for podcasting. I’ve been way ahead of the curve in terms of adopting and then abandoning new media. I’ll stick with this newsletter a little bit longer, with its non-existent business model and complete lack of personal utility. Not because I see gold at the end of this rainbow but because I kind of like the colors.

the relaxation response

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

“The Litany Against Fear,” Frank Herbert, Dune

This is a good week to return to the subject of fear. Sure, things look grim. The apocalypse is nigh and they’re all out of face masks at CVS. Remember back in the day, last month or so, when we were optimistic enough to worry about Trump 2024, let alone a climate catastrophe decades away? Good times.

We’re in a tight spot. It’s heavy stuff. I’m feeling the emotional weight of our collective circumstances and I’m not even on social media. Facebook and Twitter must be particularly toxic dumpster fires right now. It can feel like too much to bear. But…can I ask you one question?

When was the last time you listened to smooth jazz?

Scoff all you like. That’s just your adrenaline talking. Fear makes us close-minded. Don’t be a hater and have an open mind. Believe it or not, a little smooth jazz will settle those jangled nerves down right away. In fact, that’s exactly what smooth jazz is for. Look, if you are infected—spoiler alert: we’re probably all infected by now—think of this album as the lime in your coronavirus. Take a listen, preferably in a candlelit bubble bath.

That’s better, isn’t it? And this is important to writers because it’s useless trying to write scared. Don’t even bother. I sat down to write this newsletter in a mild panic, not only because of climate change, pandemics, and the election, but also because of a mountain of work looming ahead. Guess how far I got? It’s absolutely paralyzing to be in fear. I wasn’t able to get any words down until I turned to my good friend Grover Washington, Jr., and his magnificent soprano sax. And here we are: words. My best words? Maybe not, but any words always beats none words.

At the New Yorker, read the story of how the Canadian physicist Louis Slotin accidentally irradiated himself with the exposed plutonium core of a nuclear bomb. Slotin’s screwdriver slipped while demonstrating a technique known as “tickling the dragon’s tail,” and the plutonium briefly went critical, emitting a burst a millionth the intensity of the Hiroshima bomb. (That’s still a lot.)

After a blue flash and a wave of heat, Slotin knew he was in trouble, but not how much:

Slotin made a sketch of where everyone had been standing when the slip occurred. He then tried to use a radiation detector on various items that were near the core—a bristle brush, an empty Coca-Cola bottle, a hammer, a measuring tape. But it proved difficult to get an accurate reading, because the detector itself had been heavily contaminated. Slotin instructed one of his colleagues to lay radioactivity-detecting film badges around the area, which required the scientist to go dangerously close to the still overheated core. The errand resulted in no useful data, and was mentioned in a later report as evidence that, after an exposure of this magnitude, human beings “are in no condition for rational behavior.”

This is what it’s like trying to write when you’re scared. You just get busy making things worse. The stress hormone cascade is handy when pulling a car off a trapped child or outrunning a cheetah, but for higher brain function, you’ve got to shut all that down. Otherwise, you’re going to rush back into the radioactive room to confirm to yourself just how radioactive it really is. Turn off the emergency klaxons, dim the flashing red lights, and get yourself back to equilibrium. Then, and only then, return to the keyboard.

Maybe smooth jazz isn’t an ideal trigger for the relaxation response. Apparently, and I find this very hard to believe, some people find this genre other than perfectly enchanting. A rare few even fail to appreciate the dulcet tones of the soprano saxophone, the instrument St. Peter himself jams on outside the Pearly Gates, just so you know you’ve arrived. That’s OK. Find your own road to repose. The routine I follow when I sit down to write in the morning has become its own relaxation trigger. (That’s why it’s so hard for me to settle down and get in the zone when that routine is disrupted.) With time and repetition, I’ve taught my brain a cue for de-escalation.

According to the Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, we suffer because we keep scrambling for solid ground. Sure, we might have problems now, but once we solve them, we believe, we’ll be safe and settled. But that’s just an illusion. In fact, it’s the illusion. When this particular epidemiological threat blows over, there’ll be another problem, and another, and another one after that—a really ugly one, in fact. In the Buddhist view, we don’t suffer because of our problems, we suffer because we believe that security lies just beyond them. We’re like Elsa reaching for the Grail. There is no solid ground. There never was. There never will be.

Once I hit this deadline, I’ll start hurtling toward the next one. Once I finish this book, I’ll have to face another first page. Chödrön tells us to make friends with groundlessness. It feels good to surrender to impermanence and change, to accept your very limited locus of control which, for a writer, amounts to the next sentence, and the next, and the next. You’re tickling the dragon’s tail. You might as well enjoy it.