cutting out your work

The expression “to have your work cut out for you” originally meant “preparing what you need to accomplish a task smoothly and efficiently,” just as a tailor’s assistant cut out the necessary pieces of cloth for the boss to get right to work.

By the time the idiom appeared in A Christmas Carol in 1843, it meant “having as much on your plate as you can possibly manage—and then some.” That industrious assistant of yours has assembled a staggering pile of cloth and you’re like, “I’ve got to make suits out of all this? FML.”

(Mom, don’t Google that: FML stands for “Friends, Make Lemonade.” You know, in case you get thirsty while you’re making all those suits.)

This shift in meaning makes sense in retrospect. Remember that Bob Cratchit wasn’t a tailor. He was a miserable, underpaid clerk, swept along in a new wave of knowledge work that rose up in the 19th century, crashed into the 20th, and left us all floating among the flotsam and jetsam in the 21st. The “suit” became a ledger became a PowerPoint presentation. In stark contrast to the pre-Industrial tailor, no one knows how long anything takes to do or even when to call it done.

I’ve got my work cut out for me in the Dickensian sense. But I’m doing my best to cultivate the idiom’s former meaning. But it isn’t easy to cut out your creative work when you have no idea how long things take. As a book editor, I really struggled in that department. Editing other people’s work was so unpredictable. On every manuscript, I faced anything from “tough but manageable” to “crushing grind.” Editing some manuscripts represented a mind-numbing process requiring hour upon hour (upon hour) of focused effort simply to massage the words into readable shape, let alone the ideas into coherent arguments. In theory, I should only have acquired as many books as I could reasonably edit but, having no idea how to estimate that, I erred on the side of far too many and let adrenaline and excuses carry me through.

Whenever I met with another editor, I’d pester them for advice: Where did they find the time and energy to edit after the meetings, phone calls, emails, and proposals to be reviewed? If the other editor had a partner or kids or both, how did they navigate those demands on their time? When it came to the editing itself, how long did a manuscript usually take to “finish,” whatever that meant? Was I behind because I was slow? Perfectionistic? Or simply overwhelmed with too many books at once? (Yes.)

Some editors made multiple, laborious passes through each manuscript. Others just did a quick sweep, sprinkling a handful of comments here and there. (David Lynch whispering in an actor’s ear: “More wind.”) Most were like me, inventing and reinventing their approach depending on the quantity and urgency of their various production deadlines. Acquiring books, meeting with agents, and promoting your list in-house is overwhelming enough, particularly without the teams of assistants and interns that editors of yesteryear could call upon for help. For book editors, the editing itself seemed to be a murky and dispiriting morass, all those finish lines retreating into the distance like the bar code on a back cover.

Then I met an editor who didn’t have an ounce of agita about any of it.

“I do my editing on Saturdays,” he told me. “I get up at eight, grab an apple, and spend four hours editing. Four hours gets me through ninety pages of manuscript.” Somehow, the guy triaged his edits to maintain a steady pace, regardless of the state of the manuscript. By adhering to this schedule and keeping a close eye on his future pipeline to avoid a crunch, he never fell behind. As for the books, well, they got what they got. There’s only so much time in the day.

That conversation was a wake-up call for me. Maybe creative work didn’t need all the drama. Since then, I’ve gotten a little better at managing my pipeline and pacing my work. There are only so many good hours in a day. There is an appropriate amount of time and effort to invest in any project and, with experience, I improve at budgeting my efforts accordingly. Instead of grabbing a needle and diving into a pile of cloth, I’m learning, slowly, to cut out my work.

bring the candles

Maybe it’s the turn of the season—and what a winter this one promises to be—but I’ve been thinking about the meaning and importance of my work. What-am-I-doing-here questions.

Lately, I’ve been dipping into A Mathematician’s Apology by G.H. Hardy. Hardy turned to writing late in life, long after he was able to make meaningful contributions to mathematics. This passage caught my eye:

Good work is not done by “humble” men. It is one of the first duties of a professor, for example, in any subject, to exaggerate a little both the importance of his subject and his own importance in it. A man who is always asking “Is what I do worth while?” and “Am I the right person to do it?” will always be ineffective himself and a discouragement to others.

For Hardy, only mathematics was truly worthwhile. With that option unavailable, all he was good for was writing. And it didn’t suffice.

Maybe I shouldn’t ponder my lot too closely. My wife and I finally started watching 63 Up, the latest installment in the British documentary tracking the lives of a group of individuals at seven-year intervals since they were seven. This one’s been an interesting preview of life two decades ahead. Like Hardy when he wrote his Apology, the participants’ work is now largely behind them, whether it was science, law, or cab-driving. They’re all edging toward retirement and, unlike Hardy, who was profoundly bitter over his lost creativity, they’re not all that unhappy about the prospect of putting the work of their lives down. Creators, the writers and mathematicians of the world, seem more likely than most to carry regrets later on, over the work they didn’t do or the work they can do no longer.

An episode of the Reply All podcast resolved a mystery for me. For years, I’ve wondered about Perfect Crime, the longest-running play in New York City history. Positive reviews plaster the door to the rundown building where the small theater is located. I’ve always wanted to give the show a shot. From the description, I’d assumed it would be a fun crime farce like Accomplice. As we learn in the podcast, however, this is anything but the case. Apparently, the play is terrible, both confusing (audience members receive an FAQ afterward) and dull. In fact, the podcast’s hosts only investigated the play because they couldn’t reconcile its abysmal Yelp reviews with its extraordinary longevity.

The solution to that mystery, unlike the one in the play itself, turns out to be pretty interesting. The play’s lead, who holds the Guinness record for most performances in a single role, has carried Perfect Crime on her shoulders for three decades, not only starring in the show but doing nearly everything else: cleaning the theater, taking tickets, promoting the show. Whatever it takes to keep Perfect Crime going despite abysmal ticket sales and unhappy audience members.

What struck me about the Reply All interview with Russell is that she seems to be constitutionally incapable of introspection, let alone depression. A year or two into starting the play, her then-boyfriend ended their relationship—eight shows a week makes a normal life impossible. Since then, it seems like she’s been mostly alone, monastically devoted not only to performing but also producing the play. This willingness to do it all is the only reason Perfect Crime is still around—pandemic aside.

You might wonder why Russell perseveres, why she didn’t eventually leave the role to tackle something new, oh, I don’t know, twenty-nine years ago. Well, she doesn’t. Wonder, that is. She’s working and she likes working. Her father, a lawyer, instilled a truly adamantine work ethic in her. Should she do a new play just because most people hate the one she’s in? “Why?” she responds to the host’s question, as though the thought had never occurred to her. You’re always going to have haters. To paraphrase Russell: Even if it’s successful, some people might not like the next play I choose, too. Besides, what am I going to do? Ask all the people who hated Perfect Crime what play I should do instead?

She might be covering up her true feelings, but Russell strikes me as a happy and satisfied person. Maybe that’s her problem. Yes, writers and other creators tend to be plagued by self-doubts, and Russell’s attitude stands in stark contrast to the default. But what happens then? When, for whatever quirk of brain chemistry, we can’t run aground? What happens when we don’t question our work and our place in the universe every time the days grow shorter, as I happen to be doing now?

It’s one thing to practice the law or drive a cab for forty years like the plucky Brits in the Up series. But to write the same old crap day after day, year after year, without ever questioning its worth? Our writerly doubts and gloomy thoughts are gifts. They let us know when it’s time to cut our losses and try something new. We can’t let our doubts paralyze us but, like physical pain, they serve a crucial purpose when we heed them in the right measure.

Despite my own doubts, and the state of the world in general, I will persevere for now. This isn’t our first apocalypse. On May 19, 1780, the daytime skies over New England went dark. No one is sure why it happened—it might have been smoke from nearby forest fires combined with a thick fog—but one way or the other, the residents had to grapple with the possibility that the end of the world had arrived, something they’d been anticipating with religious fervor.

In Connecticut, the Governor’s council took one look at the sky and decided to call it quits. Go home and wait for the angelic hosts to roll in. “Close it up. Lights out.” One of them, however, wasn’t having it:

I am against adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.

The skies are dark. So are our prospects. Let’s get back to work anyway. Bring the candles.

bookworker

It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools.

Anonymous

My tools are terrible. Nothing works the way I want it to work. And if it does work, it takes too long to work. Maybe I should just learn to program so I can make tools that work for me—then I’ll be able to get some work done…

This actually happened to Keith Blount. Trying to write a novel, he grew so frustrated with the limitations of traditional word processing software that he taught himself to code. Next month, hundreds of thousands of people around the world are going to attempt a novel in thirty days, and a good portion will use Blount’s software, Scrivener, to do it.

Blount never did write that novel.

I could easily procrastinate myself into a lucrative new career—the temptation is there every day—but today is not the day I crack. But what if Scrivener doesn’t cut it for me? And neither does Ulysses? Or [insert your preferred writing software here]?

Maybe it’s not the tools. Maybe I’m just exhausted and the slightest bit burned out. (“Maybe”—ha!)

We just watched Filmworker, the wonderful new documentary about Leon Vitali on Netflix. Vitali was a working British actor when he won a significant role in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. So taken with the genius on display during the shoot, and so completely drawn to the craft of filmmaking itself, Vitali abandoned his acting career completely to enter Kubrick’s service. He did this in an almost feudal sense, serving as the director’s full-time filmmaking assistant for the rest of Kubrick’s life. For little money and no credit, Vitali slaved away nearly every waking hour for three decades, playing a crucial supporting role in the making of each subsequent film (as well in the continued promotion and distribution of all Kubrick’s works).

Kubrick, naturally, saw the value in this arrangement.

“Leon is fascinated, and he’s curious, and he’s there,” the filmmaker Jacob Rosenberg explains at one point in the documentary. “Someone who’s a Shakespearean-trained actor. Someone that you can explain three-point lighting to, and they get it. Then you find someone that you can tell them about baths in labs, and they remember. And you’ve struck gold. And that person is so enamored with you and they don’t want to leave your existence.” Kubrick wasn’t always kind to Vitali, but he wasn’t kind to himself, either. The two of them bonded over their shared commitment to the work over their own well-being.

It doesn’t seem as though Kubrick left anything significant to Vitali in his will, nor did he leave him in charge of his estate. The guy had to turn to his own kids for financial support at one point after Kubrick’s death. But his loyalty to Kubrick, or at least Kubrick’s films, is steadfast. Even today, so ignored by the critical establishment that he wasn’t invited to the star-studded opening of the recent Kubrick exhibition, Vitali devotes himself to ensuring Kubrick’s artistic legacy is secure.

To most viewers, I assume, Filmworker must appear to belong in the same row as Netflix’s ever-popular cult documentaries: Wild, Wild Country, My Scientology Movie, etc. Even if you don’t see Vitali as a brainwashed acolyte, his story reads as a passion play. Everything had been going Vitali’s way as an actor. If not for Kubrick, he might have had a truly significant career as a creative artist beholden to no one. Instead, he voluntarily traded in the spotlight for a chance to operate a spotlight. For love of Kubrick, he took on nearly every thankless filmmaking task you can imagine, from running lines with actors day and night to color-correcting VHS releases for foreign markets. Whatever the great director needed, at whatever hour Kubrick needed it, Vitali was there to provide, all in service of the greater vision.

Kubrick was a perfectionist who wanted control of every aspect of the making of all his films. That is, strictly speaking, impossible. Not without another you, anyway. So, over the years, Vitali became Kubrick, an expert at every part of the filmmaking process from conception through distribution. As Kubrick’s extra eyes and hands, he became a movie-making machine fueled by tea and cigarettes, a device as indispensable to Kubrick’s process as his lenses and storyboards. And, as becomes clear during the documentary, Vitali loved every minute of it.

Unlike my wife, an artist who understandably found the whole story abhorrent, I related to Vitali closely. His decision to sacrifice personal artistic expression in pursuit of the craft in its purest form struck me as admirable, an entirely rational exchange. It’s not dissimilar from what I do as a ghostwriter, just with multiple Kubricks to serve. People often tell me it’s weird to work on books without credit, to devote my creative energy to executing for others. But I’ve always been more interested in the how than the what, in building things right over building the right thing.

In The Craft of Writing, William Sloane writes that “the real rewards of writing are serious and bitter as well as sweet, like love, and they are private, not public. They range all the way from the satisfactions of good craftsmen to the inward and painful glory of a Sir Bors or a Sir Lancelot. They are not a matter of a lead review in the book section of the New York Times.”

I’ll close with something profound from Vitali himself:

When somebody came in to Stanley, and they would, and they’d say, I’d give my right arm to work with you, he’d kind of smile. Because I actually think, you know, he thought, “Well, why are you low-balling me? What, just a right arm? How about the left one, and the legs? And the body and the heart, and everything?” If you said to him, “I commit myself,” you just better make sure you mean it. Otherwise, why would you bother? ‘Cause you’ll betray yourself anyway, in the end, if you’re not going to give everything you’ve got to what it is you’re doing, because he did.

baking wisdom

In 2007, Marc Andreessen wrote a blog post explaining his unusual approach to getting things done. He offered advice ranging from “don’t keep a schedule” so you can “work on whatever is most important or most interesting, at any time”—sounds nice!—to the aptly named “strategic incompetence.” As Andreessen put it, “The best way to to make sure that you are never asked to do something again is to royally screw it up the first time you are asked to do it.”

This is also an excellent productivity hack for getting fired. But hey, Andreessen was writing from an unusual position. He was already wealthy from the sale of the company he co-founded, Netscape, to AOL. He’d even been on the cover of Time! As an enormously successful and highly respected tech entrepreneur, Andreessen was free to amp his productivity by checking email only twice a day and refusing “to commit to meetings, appointments, or activities at any set time in any future day.” You know who else gets to do stuff like that? Warren Buffett. That guy loves his empty calendar. Somehow, people are really happy to see him no matter when he arrives. “Hey, it’s Warren Buffett!” Again: Sounds nice.

The problem is, Andreessen and many others in the maven arena offer these strategies without much in the way of caveat, even the obligatory YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) that many ordinary mortals append to their suggestions on Quora and Reddit.

More than a decade later, an interviewer asked Andreessen about that influential 2007 post. Over the years, many would-be tech moguls had tried and failed to practice what he preached. Along the way, however, Andreessen’s own situation substantially changed. Two years after writing it, he co-founded a venture capital firm. Today, the guy has a large and successful company to run. It’s no longer feasible to forego a schedule and work on “whatever is most important or most interesting, at any time.” Suddenly, the usual rules applied to him, too. “The typical day for me right now is quite literally following the calendar very closely,” he explains. “I’m trying to have as ‘programmed’ a day as I possibly can.”

Having been in the advice business for almost two decades now, I’m extraordinarily sensitive to this brand of hypocrisy. We’re all entirely too eager to start offering others our advice the moment we taste success. Even if we’re not, the people who want what we have are all too eager to hear it. So we present our epiphanies and, let’s be honest, experiments as wisdom as opposed to what they really are: one person’s hypotheses based on a handful of anecdotal results. (As you know, I’m as guilty of this as anybody.) One thing I feel I’ve been around long enough to state is: Wisdom takes time to bake. You need to earn it.

(This also applies to the paraphrase. Basing your advice on someone else’s old-and-therefore-unimpeachable wisdom is an all-too-common tactic in book publishing. But successfully plucking what is still relevant and valuable from the natterings of the ancients requires hefty life experience, too. Something isn’t true just because you found it on a scroll. History being history, chances are they mostly burned the good stuff at Alexandria.)

We also rarely take the time to qualify our advice properly. Assuming our readers are very much like ourselves, we fail to frame our findings within our specific, personal contexts. Whatever our points of privilege—and each of us enjoys a certain set of advantages—the reader’s mileage will always vary. When I develop a book with an author, I do everything I can to extract underlying concepts from their concrete practices. That way, readers can take those building blocks, the whys and wherefores, and adapt whatever’s valuable in them to their unique situations. A calendar may be a necessity, but maybe you could block out some unstructured time on the weekend to take a stab at whatever is “most important or most interesting.”

Making advice adaptable isn’t always easy. Some consultants spend their whole careers working with CEOs; they don’t have a clue about the rest of the company, where all the readers are lurking.