the third shaker

In At Home, Bill Bryson examines many aspects of domestic life we usually take for granted:

[P]laying idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to those two. Why not pepper and cardamom, say, or salt and cinnamon?

Prior to reading these words a few years ago, it had never occurred to me to question why salt and pepper shakers sit on nearly every table. Even on a plane or a train, your meal is served with tiny little shakers—or at least packets of salt and pepper. Why?

Salt, as Bryson notes, is essential for human life, and we each prefer varying amounts on our food. Fine, give us a dedicated shaker—but why pair it with black pepper, the dried-and-ground-up fruit of a flowering vine native to India? We keep plenty of once-exotic dried herbs and spices in the pantry: cumin, paprika, oregano, garlic. Yet it’s black pepper out on the table with the salt, as though the two condiments were of equal value. Who decided that, and how did this specific pairing become ubiquitous in Western culture?

Stranger still, Bryson reveals that there used to be three shakers at the dining table as recently as the 19th century. Historians have no idea what went inside the third shaker. Maybe powdered mustard? Whatever it was, it got demoted. (You thought the third wheel had it rough.)

For all of our schools and books and cuneiform tablets, mankind has a short memory. We’re good with fixed-date occurrences—wars, inventions, births—but when it comes to gradual but sweeping cultural change, we turn a blind eye.

“Turn a blind eye”—an idiom that must date from a time when people walking around with a non-working eye or two was normal. (According to the OED, at least as early as 1698. Sounds right.) Blind eyes are vanishingly rare today, yet we keep on using the phrase.

Call this boiled-frog change. (Speaking of which, we no longer believe a frog will allow itself to be boiled if you raise the temperature slowly enough.) Boiled-frog change is hard to spot unless you compare and contrast two widely separated points in history: “Hey, we all went from three shakers to two at some point in that century.”

It’s for this reason I like to read out-of-print books—not classics but books that have long fallen out of public awareness. It’s the closest thing to time travel. All the miscellaneous and seemingly unimportant details of daily life in a banal novel or travel guide from the 1920s offer a specific, fascinating glimpse of that moment in history.

Christopher Columbus’s son Hernando Colón, an avid book collector, had his entire 15,000-volume collection summarized. Only a quarter of the books remain, but the summaries provide an extraordinary glimpse into the kinds of everyday books (literate) people read 500 years ago. (Yes, they’re writing a book on the subject.)

What I find most intriguing about older books is how articulate everyone seemed to be only a few decades ago. Not just the scholars and academics but authors across genres and of disparate backgrounds. To my eye, the bar for written expression has gone way, way down. But it’s boiled-frog change. I can’t pinpoint any one year or even decade and say: that’s where writing went south. Clearly, though, the average book saw a precipitous drop in terms of pure compositional skill in the 20th century, from the sophistication of the syntax to the, um, bigness of the vocabulary.

Our sentences don’t sing like they once did. Why? My theory is memorization. Read about the upbringing of nearly any writer of previous generations and the one common educational element you’ll find is rote memorization and recall, i.e. that they were forced to memorize and recite vast quantities of material. I see this pattern in so many biographies. Almost without fail, people born in the first half of the 20th century and earlier remember being forced to memorize poems and monologues during childhood and recite them before the class. While these recollections are often tinged with resentment, inevitably the memorizers give credit to this experience for refining their prosodic capacity (if not their capacity to think properly in general).

Educational theory turned away from memorization and I suspect this was an enormous mistake. Good things clearly happen when you memorize and recite great writing. It gets in your head. It rewires you. In fact, I believe there is no pedagogical substitute. There’s an entire category of learning that we’ve missed out on.

This line of thinking leads me to wonder: if I were going to memorize a few things—just to sharpen up the old quill—where would I begin? A stretch of epic poetry? A monologue from Shakespeare? (In middle school, we learned the prologue from Henry V: “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention…” Good stuff.)

Memorize something. I strongly suspect it feeds the brain. Better yet, bore your friends by reciting it. Standing up. Make it a toast at dinner so you can hold a goblet aloft. Yes, even if you’re at a restaurant. Wear a turtleneck and a tweed jacket for the occasion. I sure will. And if you have any suggestions for my first assignment, chime in. My knowledge of poetry begins and ends with Homer and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. What are your recommendations? Something substantial, even McKellan-esque, would be ideal, though nothing too obvious like “Kubla Khan” or “Ozymandias” or anything from Dead Poets Society. I’m not standing on any chairs.

If you’re intrigued by the concept of boiled-frog cultural change, definitely read Sam Arbesman’s The Half-Life of Facts, one of my favorites from my publishing days. And if you haven’t yet discovered Maldon salt, it’s time for an upgrade.

time to make the donuts

Repetition is the only form of permanence that Nature can achieve.

George Santayana

It’s two in the afternoon on a Thursday as I sit down to write this thing.

(Fancying myself a bit of a Montaigne, I call these “essays” but I accept that anything longer than a paragraph on the Internet is a “thing,” as in, “I read this thing the other day where the guy said he fancied himself a bit of a Montaigne, yada yada, I unsubscribed.”)

Anyway, yeah, mid-week afternoon. Talk about resistance. Talk about brain fog. Talk about—what was I talking about again?

Recently, I’ve shifted my writing session from Saturday to Sunday morning. I wasn’t happy about it. For some time now, I’ve enjoyed imagining all eleven of you sitting down to read this on Saturday afternoons. Each week, you’d scroll past all the important work emails of the previous week (and the vastly more popular newsletters already in your inbox) to enjoy the Maven Game on the spacious screen of your 12.9″ iPad Pro in all its digital glory—or maybe you’d print it out, where it belongs, on sumptuous vellum. Leaning back, you’d take a delicate sip of French press Sumatra from a porcelain demitasse while preparing to engage with the weekly musings of a fiery wit (of penetrating intelligence, to boot). Your hair: a bit of gray at the temples. Your glasses: the silver wire-rimmed kind only models portraying entrepreneurs in stock photography wear. Your cardigan: cardiganesque. (This look works for you regardless of your gender or body composition.)

After reading a paragraph or two, you’d let out a rueful chuckle, as if to say “Moldawer, you got me again, you ingenious rascal—touché!” Then, growing pensive, you’d gaze out through the sweeping floor-to-ceiling windows of your mountain cabin to take in the majestic vista unfurling in both directions as your thoughts turned to your latest work-in-progress. “Could this wily provocateur be right yet again? Could this really be the answer?” Fired up with inspiration, you’d dash to your trusty Olivetti. “At last, to complete my masterpiece!”

That was Saturday. Now it’s Sunday. No more relaxed contemplation for you. No mountain vistas unfurling—or whatever vistas do—and, since you spilled coffee on your cardigan yesterday, you’re wearing a navy-blue Champion sweatshirt with the neck-tag sticking out. Those wire-rimmed glasses are askew and your hair has gone completely stress-white. You look (and feel) like Steve Martin on salvia. It being Sunday, you’re at the zoo, or the natural history museum, scrolling on your phone neurotically as all five kids—wacked out on the coffee ice cream you unwisely let them order at lunch—mutter incoherently to each other about the antics of their favorite Twitch streamers.

Now, cue the Maven Game. Subject line: abstruse. First several paragraphs: meandering and often obscure. You’ll read it on the commute or something, you decide. With a swipe, my carefully wrought “thing” wafts to the bottom of your Gmail inbox like a cold fart, settling beneath the third welcome email from a new app you don’t even remember signing up for three weeks ago.

(The fart is cold because hot air rises. The Maven Game: Scientific Accuracy in Every Metaphor.)

When my authors struggle to find their authentic voice, I suggest they start by designing an intended reader—a specific, fully realized person to whom they can imagine writing an email. Cabin Cardigan is mine. And this archetype doesn’t want to get the Maven Game on Sundays.

Another thing. I’d built up a swole Saturday morning writing muscle over the last few months of consistent output. Simply sitting down to work, same day/time/place, I’d developed a good, strong writing habit. I hadn’t even realized how strong until I transitioned to a Sunday start at a different location (my favorite café is closed on Sundays). Different day, different place—I felt like I’d forgotten how to go off on a decent tangent!

I’ve since remembered.

I can’t write on Saturday mornings anymore, that’s true. But I can get one week ahead, as I’m doing now. This way, you can enjoy a (finely aged) Maven Game before you descend from your mountain retreat, and I can work on next week’s thing on Sunday.

Don’t underestimate the importance of routine. DTP: stick to the same Day-Time-Place when you write. Hell or high water. Do it five times. Ten. It may not feel like it’s making any difference, but try breaking your DTP once you’ve established it and you’ll see how powerful that momentum has gotten in a relatively short time.

If you’re struggling, try Focusmate. I discovered it last week through this writer’s experience. It’s a free accountability tool (premium on the way) that pairs you with another user for a 50-minute head-down working session. You each sit there and work with your cameras and mics on. Astonishingly, the virtual presence of a stranger, in my experience over a bunch of sessions, is a legit performance-enhancing drug.

Anything it takes, people.

If you do give Focusmate a try, see if you can line up a session with me. We’ll enjoy spending an hour ignoring each other.

One more thing. Years ago, Matthew Butterick, Red Baron to my Snoopy (and creator of Equity, the typeface), wrote a remarkable essay about Medium entitled “The Billionaire’s Typewriter.” Butterick has updated it again and his latest thoughts are well worth a read. If you haven’t read the original, start at the top. Otherwise, jump straight to the update.

(Unlike me, Butterick always writes essays, not things.)

take your best advice and give it away

The other day, I mentioned a problem to an acquaintance. For the purposes of this story, let’s call my acquaintance Sesquipedalian, “characterized by long words; long-winded.” Pleasingly euphonic, incontrovertibly gender-fluid, and entirely appropriate for the Maven Game.

“I can relate,” said Sesquipedalian. “Have you heard of the such-and-such technique?”

Indeed, I had not. According to Sesq, the such-and-such technique was quick, easy, and surprisingly effective for my problem. There were YouTube videos to get me started. And, of course, there was a best-selling book: The Such-and-Such Technique: An X-Step Method for Easy, Breezy Solving of This Problem You’ve Been Having.

Naturally, I now own The Such-and-Such Technique.

I did not make this example up just to make my point. It actually happened, and it actually happened “the other day,” which, since today is Sunday, refers to this past Monday. (That’s how it works. Look it up.) Still, it happens to offer an object lesson in how these books sell: not by luring readers in with a mystery but by tying the best ideas up with a bow and giving them away.

Think about your own experience. Whether it was the colleague who told you about Getting Things Done, the fellow parent who told you about The Happiest Baby on the Block, or the former slob who told you about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the sequence of events is usually the same:

  1. You mention a problem.
  2. The other person shares a simple, memorable technique to address that problem.
  3. You learn that any necessary details about the technique can be absorbed from a short, free YouTube video, but that it happens to originate in a book (that has probably sold millions of copies).
  4. You give the technique a try and get results.
  5. You buy the book.
  6. Before you’ve even read the book, you start recommending the same technique to others with the same problem.

This cycle repeats itself with every new bestseller, and yet the vast majority of experts subscribe to a series of fallacies in direct opposition:

  • I need to bury my advice deep in my book so that nobody can steal it by browsing the Kindle sample or skimming at Barnes and Noble.
  • I need to build up to the techniques in my book with pages and pages of sales copy about how awesome the techniques will be…once the reader gets to them.
  • I need to weave the advice throughout the text in bits and pieces so that it can’t easily be extracted by all those book-summary vultures—no bullet-points!
  • I need everyone to sign an NDA before reading my proposal so nobody steals my amazing techniques.
  • And on and on.

Are you writing a textbook to train up the next generation of experts, or are you trying to change the world? This is how ideas spread. Yes, of course you can cover your subject in exhaustive depth and detail in your book, but first you’ve got to give your readers what they want: a solution, something to put into practice now.

It’s scary to hand out the prescription before all the context and caveats, but time and again we see that, yes, people are willing to buy the book, the course, the training, the consulting, but only after they’ve gotten results.

You don’t hear about successful books because they’ve sold so many copies. They’ve sold so many copies because you’ve heard about them, because they lend themselves to being shared.

If your work-in-progress doesn’t contain a handful of simple, memorable, and effective techniques that can be described in a sentence or two, back to square one. Whether it’s Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, Tim Ferriss’s Slow Carb Diet, or simply eating that frog as suggested by Brian Tracy in Eat That Frog!, the life-changing magic should be in plain view, if not in the title itself. Take your best advice and give it away.

when the work isn’t working

We get so attached to the work: the big idea, the outline, the draft. As long as it’s flowing, we are terrific, brilliant, inspired. Everything’s coming up Milhouse.

Then, things take a turn. As the easy and effortless surge of inspiration slows to an ooze, even a trickle, we teeter. Emotionally enmeshed with the work, our self-worth gets shaky. As our mood sours, so darkens our rose-colored view of the work—it’s a dun-ward spiral.

Ironically, this is the very moment in the process when we need to be self-possessed, impassive, even nonchalant. Fixing a writing problem is cognitive surgery—you don’t want to operate on yourself. Yet we try. Is it any wonder why so many authors turn to various forms of over-the-counter “anesthetic”?

That’s easy, says the voice in our heads, just don’t let the work not work and you’ll be fine. That’s what good writers do. No. There will always be a time when the work isn’t working. It’s not a bug in the system; it’s an essential phase in the process. You get to the thing you were supposed to make only by going through the ten thousand (or so) things you weren’t.

They say the difference between shame and guilt is “I’m bad” versus “I did a bad thing.” To heal from shame, you transmute it into guilt by establishing a healthy separation between you and your actions. To make good work, work a parallel transformation.

In Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega does a bad thing. (Well, he does a few bad things, but I mean the thing in the car.) Sure, it’s a graphic scene, but let’s be honest, we’ve all had writing projects go south as abruptly, and with just as much blood on the upholstery.

Speckled with the results of Vincent’s error in judgement, Jules Winnfield could easily have thrown up his hands and quit. Instead, he stayed cool and called Marsellus Wallace. And Marsellus Wallace called in The Wolf.

What follows is a gem of a scene (though not safe for work because, d’uh, Pulp Fiction.) But it’s also a powerful creative metaphor, and looking at it now I think it’s no accident that Quentin Tarantino himself is in the foreground at the start—The Wolf is an obvious stand-in for the director, his creative avatar.

When things get tangled up in your writing and you’ve got your brains splattered all over the windows, call in The Wolf. Step away from the work, get yourself a cup of coffee, and then examine the situation dispassionately. Resist the urge to coddle yourself. That only feeds into the shame trap. You’ve got nothing to apologize for. You just have a mess to clean up.

If I’m curt with you it’s because time is a factor. I think fast, I talk fast, and I need you guys to act fast if you want to get out of this.

Let The Wolf handle it. Figure out what’s salvageable and salvage it, quickly. Then look at the rest with a stranger’s eyes. It may be a bit much to “murder your darlings” as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once suggested, but you can definitely put them on probation. I grab any questionable material and toss it in an outtakes folder before going back to work. Knowing it’s still there helps because I can always pull it back if I end up needing it.

I never do.