ow, my think-loaf

The mental part is the hardest part, and I think that’s what separates the good players from the great players.

—Michael Jordan

No, I haven’t been watching The Last Dance on Netflix. I just wanted to say, you know, that, in pretty much those words. Being an intellectual coward, I decided you’d be more likely to listen to me if they came from someone famous. So I Googled the words I wanted to say and found that Michael Jordan completely agrees with me. Serendipity!

This thing about the mental part applies to writers as much as it does to athletes. Writing skills aren’t all that important beyond a certain minimum—a bar plenty of famous and wealthy writers don’t meet, trust me. But to sit and write, hour after hour, day after day, through everything life can throw at you takes astonishing mental fortitude. I write professionally and I still feel like I’m holding on by my fingernails, that if my mindset slips by an inch, I’ll lose an entire day of productivity. And that’s in an ordinary time.

A pandemic delivers a punishing allostatic load: “the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to fluctuating or heightened neural or neuroendocrine response which results from repeated or prolonged chronic stress.” That weight on your chest and that ache behind your eyes and that mist clouding your thoughts = allostatic load. A big chunk of your think-loaf is just plain occupied by all this. It’s busy worrying. As a result, you’re operating at reduced capacity. You have less bandwidth to devote to everything else, and above all writing requires bandwidth, elbow room in your head.

If I’m honest with myself, I’ve been operating at reduced capacity since November 2016. The moment I saw those Electoral College results turn red at the Times website I could feel a fog descending. Putting together a coherent thought suddenly became more difficult. Now, however, my allostatic load has grown Mountain-sized. For a writer, this is a serious obstacle.

On the bright side, when all this is over, our average IQ as a nation will bounce back at least ten points. Sort of like when everyone swapped beer for coffee and began the Enlightenment.  It’ll be a global Flowers for Algernon—culminating in the moment we realize that climate change is still a thing and our brains stop working again for good.

Early on in all this, I’d assumed that we’d see a great flowering of creativity from our great artists. Not the manufactured pop stars and big action movie stars, but from the folks who clearly love to make stuff whether or not there’s a big budget attached. They’re all trapped at home with nothing to do, right? Sure, the second SNL from home was decent, and it’s been interesting to watch Jimmy Fallon cobble together The Tonight Show everyday with his daughters running around in the background, but generally speaking, bubkis. The highlight for me has been David Lynch doing his daily weather reports again. Not much of a highlight.

Take a look at this 2014 article in The Atlantic (which, contributing to the allostatic load of journalists everywhere, just laid off a fifth of its staff). It’s about how creative brains work. Or don’t:

When the psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison looked at 47 famous writers and artists in Great Britain, she found that more than 38 percent had been treated for a mood disorder; the highest rates occurred among playwrights, and the second-highest among poets.

As a one-time would-be playwright, it comes as no surprise they’d come in at number one. You really would have to be crazy. But the whole article is worth a read. Creativity and mental illness are connected in ways we don’t understand yet. It’s no surprise that mental trauma like the kind we’re all experiencing now should have a profound, mostly negative effect on our creativity. Doesn’t mean we’re broken. It’s a natural response. Damage is damage. 

As the first weeks of lockdown blurred together, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Russian Doll, the excellent Netflix series (written by a playwright!) featuring Natasha Lyonne as a woman trapped in a repeating loop of time that gradually decayed: objects and then people gradually disappearing with each repetition of her day. 

As the weeks have dragged into months, I’ve tried to reframe the situation as something closer to Groundhog Day, one of my favorite movies and a source of spiritual inspiration for all religions. Sheltering in place should be an opportunity to better myself, to cultivate stronger family bonds, to sharpen my skill-set, and, of course, to finally get that beach body.

Let’s call these aspirational goals. Most days, I feel like Natasha Lyonne, but every now and then, I get a flash of Bill Murray.

I’ve always loved stories of the bad old days of New York City, when the lawlessness and chaos in the streets made it possible for young artists to secure huge lofts in Soho and make groundbreaking work. Despite the crime and rats and roaches, people got a lot of stuff made. Maybe it was the drugs. More likely, however, it was the fact that they could be with each other. Even for solitary writers, creativity is something we do together, in the way we discuss our ideas and inspire each other and give each other a first audience. In the absence of proximity, we’re going to have to find new ways to bring out the best in each other.

uncommonplace mind

Just keep swimming.

—Dory, Finding Nemo

I prefer to send the Maven Game bright and early at the start of the weekend. In fact, waking up on a Saturday without a newsletter queued up feels excruciating. But this time, Sunday afternoon will have to do. We’re all going to have to relax our standards a bit to get through this thing. (Can you tell I was clenching my teeth while typing those words?)

In dire need of a little mental space, I spent some time doing an audit: clearing out processes, apps, notifications, RSS feeds, newsletter subscriptions, etc., that have been weighing me down. It feels necessary sometimes. Like a mental enema. When the pressure’s on, I start to notice all the stuff that’s sapping my energy, death by a thousand cuts. Eventually, I have to clear the negatives out, all at once. Some things can be useful or interesting and still leave me feeling a little bit crappier. As the Canadians have been saying since they adopted the metric system in 1970, clearing out a hundred centicraps amounts to one full crap. So I guess I do give a crap.

Anyway, the fact that you’re reading this now means that you have yet to flush me out of your own brain, and for that I’m grateful.

One person I would never cull from my inputs is Jane Friedman, my go-to publishing expert. Jane recently posted a comprehensive guide to finding, hiring, and working with an editor. Just as therapists have therapists of their own, Jane and I are both pros and we both work with outside editors on our own writing. It’s really a thing. Jane has yet again delivered the definitive answer to a common publishing question. Share (anonymously) with those acquaintances of yours who need an editor themselves. 

Aside from the audit, what else is keeping me on the beam? The coffee shop. 

For a while there, we had a little game we’d play with the kids: “The Day Coronavirus Ends.” We’d fantasize about all the fun things we’d do on that special day. The Met. Dim sum. Coney Island. Etc. (Not recommended. It gets depressing fast.) What the game led me to realize is that the part of regular life I miss most is the coffee shop. I can make perfectly good coffee at home; it’s the atmosphere I crave. The ambient people

This 1958 article in Audio Magazine, which sadly ceased publication in 2000, is about high-fidelity listening cafés in Tokyo. Japan still has them today, and a handful opened in NYC—we’ll see which ones remain when this is all over—but there are wonderful details about the heyday of the phenomenon:

The largest coffee shops, seating hundreds of patrons, feature the highest kind of fidelity—live musicians. In one plush, five-story edifice the musicians play quite unconcernedly while riding an elevator stage from floor to floor. Since this moving stage can only be on one floor at a time, a high fidelity amplification system relays the musician’s performance to other floors during the interim. 

I’m a writer. I like sitting, drinking coffee, and, when absolutely necessary, typing. But doing that for hours a day in an empty room grates on my nerves. Somehow, doing the exact same thing in a public space now and then soothes the soul. 

So, I pipe coffee shop sounds into my headphones. It’s something. Maybe I’ll buy a bag of ground coffee and leave it open next to my laptop. Or make myself wait ten minutes before I can use the bathroom. But on “the day coronavirus ends,” I’m taking out a small business loan and opening a five-story café in midtown Manhattan with an elevator orchestra so help me god.

For now, I suppose I can look at my current situation as an extended stay at an artist’s colony. I’ve always wanted to try one. Just read this essay by Alexander Chee about his experience and tell me it doesn’t sound idyllic. And yet, here I am in a very colony-esque situation and it doesn’t feel idyllic at all. It feels exhausting. Context is everything.

One more thing. Signs of Life is a newsletter by political scientist Justin Murphy “covering new forms of intellectual life outside of academia.” I heartily approve of this notion. Spiritually, it’s very much in tune with the Maven Game’s aspirations. Academia as an institution feels increasingly irrelevant (one of countless reasons). But thinking and investigating and writing about what interests you remains a noble endeavor.

Writers, fiction or nonfiction, are all “public intellectuals,” a term I greatly prefer to “thought leader.” You don’t have to win any followers as the former. You just have to study and think and write about your area of interest, whether that’s positive psychology or the fictional town where you plan to set your mystery. As long as you’ve got steam coming out of your ears at the end of the day, consider it a job well done.

I’ve shared this quote from A. G. Sertillanges’s wonderful The Intellectual Life before, but it bears repeating at this difficult time:

Learn to look; compare what is before you with your familiar or secret ideas. Do not see in a town merely houses, but human life and history. Let a gallery or a museum show you something more than a collection of objects, let it show you schools of art and of life, conceptions of destiny and of nature, successive or varied tendencies of technique, of inspiration, of feeling. Let a workshop speak to you not only of iron and wood, but of man’s estate, of work, of ancient and modern social economy, of class relationships. Let travel tell you of mankind; let scenery remind you of the great laws of the world; let the stars speak to you of measureless duration; let the pebbles on your path be to you the residue of the formation of the earth; let the sight of a family make you think of past generations; and let the least contact with your fellows throw light on the highest conception of man. If you cannot look thus, you will become, or be, a man of only commonplace mind. A thinker is like a filter, in which truths as they pass through leave their best substance behind.

Isn’t that invigorating? The intellectual life is beautiful because it’s portable and resilient. You can pursue it anywhere, no matter your situation or the world’s, even if you’re confined to a room or, worse, to a bed. Maybe people read what you write or maybe they one day will. For now, it doesn’t matter, as long as you leave your best substance behind.

oubliette

Leonard, the main character in Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, can’t form new memories. For a few minutes, he’s right there with you. Then his brain hits the reset button and everything just floats away. It’s a real condition: anterograde amnesia. (Stories about people with this existentially disturbing condition here and here.) 

I’ve got a pretty good working memory. In high school, I’d cram for tests right before walking into class, quickly skimming the chapter and gobbling up all the names, places, and dates. As long as I stayed engaged, I could keep juggling those loose puzzle pieces until I’d slotted each one into its proper place in the exam. But after handing it in, I’d have to mentally relax. Whoosh! “Au revoir, history of the French Revolution!”

As far as our writing is concerned, we’re all like Leonard. If you have an idea in the shower, that’s your one shot: write it down. Otherwise, you’re going to end up toweling your hair with the nagging sensation that you’ve forgotten something. That is officially the worst feeling—even worse than being trapped inside for a global pandemic of unknown duration! To quote one of my favorite subreddits, “Thanks, I hate it.”

If I’m on a roll drafting a particular chapter, I have to see it through right then. If a solution has popped into my head on how to untangle a thorny section during revision, making a note won’t suffice. I need to work it out, get it done, resolve it. 

Good ideas feel so vibrant and alive and obvious when you’re having them, it seems absurd that you could ever not think whatever it is you’re thinking at that moment. The sky is blue, one plus one is two, and this anecdote clearly needs to be retold in the present tense. Lo and behold, when you sit down with the same piece of text the following day, you find you have no idea what you’re even looking at, let alone which tense you’d wanted to use. The threads have unraveled. What you’re reading might as well have been written by someone else. When I discover myself back to square one this way, rarely does that previous revelation ever return no matter how long I wait.

Oh, and now that I work on many projects simultaneously, this plus a million.

To survive, Leonard relies on a rigorous system of note-taking. He leaves Post-it notes everywhere to remind himself of what he needs to do next. He gets the most important reminders tattooed. I’m sticking with one tattoo, but otherwise I’m on board with Leonard. I leave myself crystal-clear instructions for how to proceed on every creative project the moment I decide to set the work aside. I’ve got to move fast, too—I can actually feel my brain preparing to flush its working memory cache. Whoosh! “Au revoir, everything I’d planned to do with this book proposal’s unfinished outline!”

The more breadcrumbs and clues, the better. Assume you’ll remember nothing. Nothing! I’ve made the most progress as a professional writer simply by accepting that tomorrow’s Dave will be this random dude who stumbled onto my laptop and happened to guess my password. It’s a bit like when employees of large corporations are fired and then forced to train their replacements. I have to leave instructions for the next guy or he’s going to have no clue what to do next.

When it comes to crafting these reminders, set the bar low. However blank and confused you think you’ll be in 24 hours, let alone a week or a month from now, you’ll be even blanker. Make the effort to spell things out to someone totally unfamiliar with your work, i.e you. Trust me: when you do return to it, you will feel a special gratitude to your former self for that foresight. It’s never too much detail. The more friction you remove for future self, the more likely you’ll be to pick up where you left off without losing much steam, let alone all of it. I always tell myself exactly what to do, step by step, along with any necessary files and links. Whatever it takes to make it easy to slip back into the flow.

I recently stumbled on Conventional Comments. The idea here is to establish a universal set of conventions for commenting on someone else’s work. Again, everything you review is someone else’s work, even if that someone is yesterday’s you. The suggestions are smart: for example, always prepend a label like “question” or “nitpick” to help quickly identify the nature of the comment. Having written, read, and acted on thousands and thousands of comments in my career as a writer and editor, I can imagine how much time and effort a simple system like this might have saved me. Of course, the trouble with any system of conventions is getting other people to use it. But at the very least I can make things easier for myself and my clients.

That’s all for this week. I’m keeping up with my professional workload but, as you’ve seen, I’m a bit stuck on personal projects like the Maven Game. (More like totally frozen and dead inside.) Julian Simpson offers sage advice for writers on how to cope with all that.p.s. Since the pandemic started, many have asked me: Are publishers still buying? Are agents still shopping proposals? Are books still selling? Guys, read the Hot Sheet.

instant omniscience

We finally got some groceries delivered yesterday. It’d been a long stretch—tough to get a Whole Foods or Instacart slot in Brooklyn these days. (Yes, of course, there are far worse problems to have.) Can I just say that I will never take apples for granted again? Peeling them seems absurdly wasteful. Applesauce, impossibly decadent. Reader: If you have apples, red, shining, glorious apples—and I hope you do—savor every crisp and succulent bite. Eat the damn cores if you want to! As the old saying goes, when the world gives you lemons, make apple juice. 

(Just kidding about eating apple cores, though. As G.I. Joe taught me at the age of 7, apple seeds contain cyanide and can be used to poison giant slime monsters. Knowing is half the battle!)

Recently, I switched back to Pocket from Instapaper for my longform reading and transferred all my archived articles over. (If you’re a regular reader of the Maven Game, you’ll know I switch apps regularly. What can I say? It makes me feel alive.) As a result, I’ve found myself re-reading old articles I haven’t looked at in years.

This is one of the great perks of long-form reading apps: the archives. Gather round for a story, kiddies. Back in the days of vinyl records and rotary phones, people would keep old magazines lying around. Mostly in the bathroom. But also on coffee tables, which were also somehow a thing, and which probably should have been called “old magazine trays.” You’d just pick one up at random, kick back on the Barcalounger, and flip through it at your leisure during what people called “free time.” (This was before social media and Netflix.) 

My grandparents kept dozens of issues of National Geographic on the shelf next to their 22-volume Encyclopedia Judaica, yellow spines vivid next to blue. That just isn’t practical anymore—in the home, the doctor’s office, the barber shop, nowhere do you find a stack of old magazines anymore. In my home, all that remain are a bunch of ancient Fantasy & Science Fiction issues sprinkled with memorable stories I encountered during childhood and five or six original, pre-blog bOING bOING zines Mark Frauenfelder gifted me years ago. 

What can you do? At this point, it’s an internal struggle just to keep the books—I could replace my shelves with an actual desk. I like writing on the bed, but with months of quarantine ahead of me, I’m increasingly tempted to get a state-of-the-art VR rig with four headsets. That way, the whole family can go to a virtual movie theater together.

It’s a shame because old magazines are much more interesting than new ones. Journalism, like cheese, usually gets better with age. As the passage of time seasons our perspective, any given issue of a magazine goes from relevant to trivial back around to fascinating: “Is that what people really thought? Is that what life was really like?” And some articles are, like dahlias and hibiscus, perennial. These appear in essay collections, but only a fraction: The 20th century, Century of the Magazine, is a journalistic kunstkammer, a trove brimming with forgotten short masterpieces. 

Spurred by the demand generated by tools like Instapaper and Pocket, some excellent pieces have been rediscovered and given new life thanks to longform journalism aggregators like Longreads. But if plumbing the journalistic archives to research my latest ghostwriting project has taught me anything, it’s that we’re still only scratching the surface. There’s so much good stuff! The Internet is a time machine, truly. If you’re looking for something useful and fun to do during quarantine, what could be more delightful and socially beneficial than sifting through back issues of a favorite periodical and sharing the best of what you find?

One piece that surfaced in my Pocket account is Calvin Trillin’s essay about his time at Time. In it, Trillin recalls the golden era of “group journalism” in the 1960s:

Starting as strictly a rewrite operation, Time eventually had reporters and stringers around the world. They sent “files” to an operation called Time Edit, in New York, where writers, drawing on those files and the material that researchers had dug out of the library and whatever could be lifted from the Times, composed tight narratives that were conveniently compartmentalized into sections like Sport and Medicine and Religion and Show Business. 

I’ve written previously about the necessity of wearing multiple hats as a writer. My workflow for the current book involves (1) assembling facts as a series of chronologically organized to-do items in Google Tasks (the “files”) then (2) opening the Google Doc and incorporating each one into the text, checking them off as I go.

As a “floater” at Time Edit, Trillin would sub in on a section when its editor was on vacation or out sick. Sport, Medicine, Religion, Show Business: He had to make it work. Sounds an awful lot like what I do:

When I settled into the desk chair of, say, the Education writer, someone who presumably pored through the education quarterlies and lunched with school reformers and kept abreast of the latest disagreements about how best to teach reading, I could feel myself imbued with the authoritative tone favored in those days at Time; I called that “instant omniscience.” I had become adept at using one of the tools employed to assert Time’s authority—what I thought of as the corrective “in fact,” as in “Democrats maintain that the measure would increase unemployment. In fact…” There were no bylines in Time then, so the readers had no way of knowing whether the Art section’s critique of the new Coventry Cathedral had been written by someone steeped in the history of church architecture or by a floater who’d moved in after a short stint in Medicine that had left him with no words in the magazine for two weeks and a more detailed knowledge of loop colostomy procedures than he’d ever hoped to have.

Clearly, Calvin enjoyed “instant omniscience” and I have to admit I do, too. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve had to rapidly acquire broad, if shallow, expertise on the subjects of franchising, chocolate, biopharmaceuticals, and antitrust law, among too many others. Working as an in-house editor provided a similar, though vicarious thrill, but as the writer, it’s all on my shoulders. At times, I feel a little bit like Neo in The Matrix: I know kung fu.” 

The beauty of the Web—did I mention I now have extensive and fairly in-depth knowledge of the history of the World Wide Web?—is that this charming intellectual pursuit is open to any one of us. Go blog whatever interests you! In fact, with so many unemployed and stuck in quarantine, old-school “blogging about whatever” is making a comeback. Maybe it’s time you fired up a new WordPress site, took a bite out of a crisp, red apple, and shared a little instant omniscience of your own?

p.s. By the way, I was just featured in What’s in My Bag, a newsletter run by the fine folks behind Cool Tools, where I was also featured a little while back. Naturally, I haven’t actually used my bag in a few weeks, but what better escapist fantasy during a pandemic than reading about the things people would carry if they were able to go anywhere?

p.p.s. Marg K. writes: “I really look forward to reading your weekly essay and weirdly I’ve always wondered how it is that people respond and comment. It never occurred to me to simply hit the reply button. Silly me!” Not silly at all, Marg. In fact, I suspect some other readers might find the tip helpful, not only for my newsletter but for all of them. Go ahead, try it now!