go where the audience is

As a child in London, George Benjamin exhibited extraordinary musical gifts. As Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker:

Whereas other inventive children might ask to be allowed to make up a story before bedtime, [Benjamin] begged to be permitted to invent a song in his head before going to sleep. He worked his way through a Golden Book of myths, setting the stories to music that he composed in real time. “I would take an hour and make up some opera that was never to be written down, or heard, by anyone else,” he recalled.

How adorable. Benjamin went on to become a composer, naturally enough, but there was a small problem:

Benjamin’s passions were not especially consonant with the times. He was born in 1960, and when he was entering adulthood narrative had fallen out of fashion amid the European avant-garde, not only in music but also in fiction and in painting. Stories set to music, which Benjamin had generated so guilelessly as a child, were derided as facile, hidebound, and decadently nostalgic. What was the point of writing an opera, an art form beloved by the Nazis? Where did you go after that?

Nowhere. The answer is nowhere. Might as well write him off. Let’s close up the bridge. Let’s get out of here. Close it up. Lights out.

Right? I mean, if you enjoy composing musical narratives in the second half of the 20th century, you’re just…out of luck. It simply isn’t done. Tear up your composer card and get a job at the old mill. Hum on your water breaks. Nothing atonal, of course.

With Benjamin’s maturation and intellectual awakening, a crippling self-consciousness set in. The operas in his head were silenced. Instead, he wrote mostly for smaller ensembles or soloists, slowly and with great effort—that is, when he wasn’t blocked.

I read this bit and found myself nodding along, at first. After all, the plays and videos and stories I wrote as a young man were always inconsonant (?) with the times, where my teachers and then professors were concerned anyway.

Here’s the thing, though: I graduated from school and entered the real world. In the real world, you don’t have to please your professors or the European avant-garde or any avant-garde. You just need an audience who likes your stuff. I mean, hadn’t this dude ever heard of a musical? Britain has produced its share. Andrew Lloyd Weber didn’t spend decades writing music he didn’t want to write “slowly and with great effort” before deciding, the hell with it, let’s put Biblical figures in diapers.

Go where it’s warm. If the snobs don’t want your “musical narratives,” roll up your sleeves and adapt La Bohème for the AIDS epidemic, or turn a doorstopper on American history into a series of show-stopping rap numbers. You’ll have an audience. You’ll have money. If you feel guilty about taking money from audiences, take your audience out for milk and cookies.

(Don’t stick your nose up at me about musicals, buddy. They can avant the garde like nobody’s show business. Do I need to remind you of Seussical the Musical, the Un Chien Andalou of Broadway?)

Look, I’m glad Benjamin has had an artistic reawakening—I wonder if he used The Artist’s Way?—and that he’s happily composing operas again.

“I waited a long time to do it,” he told me. “And I would like, before I depart this mortal coil, to have written lots of operas. If I had started when I was twenty, or thirty, I would have written more. It’s something I wanted to do since I was a child, and something which I eventually accepted I would never do, and then gave up.” Having begun as a wunderkind, he has become a late bloomer. “When starting a new piece, every decision is as difficult as it always was, and I can’t see that changing,” he went on. “It remains a very strange occupation. But to have my pieces played to this degree—of course, it’s what I dreamed of as a child. Yes.”

My point is, we’re all vulnerable to the “making other people’s music” trap. As writers, we set ourselves on a certain genre or a certain milieu—”the European avant-garde”—and put all our eggs, all our self-worth, in that basket. Education plays a major role here—we want an A+ from teacher. Benjamin studied with the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen, “known for his radiantly complex harmonies.” That’s going to put an inflection on anyone’s sensibilities.

To survive as a professional creator of any kind, you have to reexamine your upbringing. You may think your milieu is somehow better or more elevated than the ones most people currently appreciate, but frankly most of us just go with what our teachers or parents told us were “best.” Have you really given the other stuff a try? The stuff people pay money for, not because they’re “sheeple,” but because the work brings them pleasure and enjoyment? You might prefer an 1898 audience, but 2018 audiences have the advantage of, you know, being not dead.

Plus, read any account of an actual theater-watching experience from the old days. People talked through the entire show and often threw rotten fruit. Sometimes they rioted.

Yes, go after your genre—assuming you genuinely enjoy it yourself, which is a big assumption—but if there isn’t an audience for the kind of stuff you’re making, remember: There is stuff with an audience. This is why I start every book proposal with a competitive analysis. Too many would-be authors don’t enjoy the kind of book they think they want to write. They have no idea what people want to read in that category and yet they want to spend a year writing in it. It’s a little hard to write something you would never want to read yourself.

Creators: If you don’t read or watch or listen to the kind of thing you’re making, why are you making it?

p.s. One more thing this week: I helped out with a book and I’m really proud of the end result. If you need clients for your business to succeed, I highly recommend The Snowball System by Mo Bunnell.

Yes, I’m biased because I was involved, but I have to say that I use Mo’s techniques in my own business all the time. I really wouldn’t be “too busy to write this newsletter” every week if it weren’t for what I’ve learned from Mo. His approach to winning new business is practical, utterly non-scuzzy, even fun.

I have no financial stake in the success of the book, by the way. I just think (based on experience) that it’s the best book out there on getting clients and doing more business with your existing ones.

p.p.s. It only took three years to work an Airplane 2 reference into a Maven Game. Check another one off the old bucket list.

on getting back to work

The singular secret to finishing your book is putting your butt in a chair and writing…Nothing else matters.

—Mark Teppo, Finish Your Novel!

I know that, Mark. Come on. I’m a professional. What fundamental fact of writing life could be more obvious? To have written, one must write. Must! And so I will, write that is, as soon as I’ve freshened my coffee. This one’s warm. Drinking warm coffee would be barbaric, Mark. I’m sure you’d agree. Then, as I enjoy my piping hot caffeinated beverage, I’ll kick into gear with a quick Reddit break. To clear my head. Then I will write. A veritable storm of words will buffet the page. A textual tempest.

Hm. Now that I’m writing—a comment on Reddit, to keep clearing that head—I’m noticing that this keyboard feels a bit weird. Sticky? No. Mushy? Let’s call it indistinct. Can’t have that—I’m a professional. So, new plan: finish coffee, finish Reddit break, shop for a new laptop, then write. Come to think of it, I should probably make a list so I don’t go off-track. First item: settle on a new list-making app.

Why are you looking at me like that, Mark?

And scene.

It’s time to get back to work, guys. Break’s over. Put your phone on “do not disturb” and put it on the other side of the room. (I moved my charging cable over there—it helps.) Turn on Focus in “hardcore mode.” Buckle down. Buckle up. Buckle in.

Like you, I’m finding it difficult. Whatever fragile momentum I’d built up has evaporated.

We spent the week before Labor Day up in Cape Cod. It was my first time “on the Cod,” as the locals probably say. Great beaches, though I’m not much for beaches. On vacation, my preference is to skim the shelves of local bookstores. Among other charming indies, I discovered Main Street Books in Orleans, Mass., where I finally picked up Robert Gottlieb’s memoir of his legendary career in publishing, Avid Reader.

I’d been curious about Gottlieb ever since reading about his scissors-and-glue editorial work on Catch-22 (originally Catch-18, until he changed it) in Michael Korda’s Another Life: A Memoir of Other People. Korda and Gottlieb were colleagues at Simon & Schuster. Reading both books offers a rare dual perspective. S&S in the 60s reminds me of St. Martin’s Press during my own tenure a decade ago. Freewheeling, unstructured, full of possibility.

At S&S, this lack of constraints was due more to a power vacuum than culture, but regardless, the editors were unusually free to pursue their interests and make things happen with relative abandon. Gottlieb didn’t have much support, but he had boundless energy and enthusiasm and participated in every aspect of the book publishing process from conception through marketing and sales. There were no silos.

I wish I’d known how rare an environment like that would be after leaving St. Martin’s, not only in book publishing but across the creative landscape. What better place to learn your trade than one where you’re free to try—and fail—at any part of it?

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

—Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

Learn your trade, writers. Your whole trade: that’s the ambition. Not just word-slinging. Matthew Butterick, the Gus Fring to my Walter White, just published a revised and expanded edition of his indispensable Practical Typography. Writer: read it. I count typography a foundational skill of the trade along with grammar, punctuation, style, touch-typing…honestly, I’d scrape the parchment for the Maven Game myself if my wife weren’t a vegetarian.

In Gottlieb’s day, a (male) author could scribble away in indecipherable, grammatically questionable longhand all day and count on an array of helpers—beginning, all too often, with his wife—to type, correct, re-type, edit, re-type, design, typeset, proofread, etc. Today, each and every one of us is a publishing house. Learn your trade. I’m not saying I’ve mastered any of it, of course. You just keep working at it until you die, quill in hand. My next area of inquiry is graphic design. I plan to lay out Book Into Battle in InDesign as soon as it’s ready for print.

It isn’t yet, because writing a book is hard. Working on multiple book projects at once: very hard. I’d be lost without the Pomodoro Technique. Francesco Cirillo, who invented the technique decades ago, once published a free guide to the technique but took it offline. Now you can buy it. And I have! Before I’ve read it, the best Pomodoro-related investment I can recommend is the new version 3 of Vitamin-R for Mac. It’s Pomodoro for pros, with unparalleled power and flexibility.

Speaking of which, my timer’s up and my butt needs to move on to the next project. Once I’ve freshened up this coffee.

on enjoying the aftertaste

We’re off on vacation for a week, so just a brief insight for you this afternoon. Then you can go back to your high-end haircuts and green tea matcha lattes. (No week is complete without the New York Times Sunday Routine.)

A week into my freshman year of college, I made the impulse decision to forego a career in chemistry and major in theater instead. (Kids: this is the kind of thing that happens in college. Watch out.)

What I didn’t realize was that the full name of the major was “theater and dance.” What I couldn’t have realized was that, when they said “dance,” they actually meant “movement.” Like this. “Students, I want you to pulse in and pulse out…” That sort of thing. Frying pan to the fire, in other words.

Dave was not happy. I’ve grown to love that stuff, but it had to be chiseled into me. Boy, did they have to chisel.

At the end of one semester, our not-dance professor tasked us with putting together a ten-minute final piece from scratch. Ten minutes? That wasn’t going to be nearly enough for me. I had things to say! I had resentments to unfurl! How else would everyone know that I was not interested in all this pulsing? So my friend and I put together a twenty-minute parody of everything that frustrated me about the major. It had a soundtrack, but instead of the expected Brian Eno and Philip Glass it featured the likes of Queen and the Beach Boys. All the stops were pulled, I tell you.

At my end-of-semester review, I walked in to get my beatdown, and it came. Not for the reasons I expected, though. My professor didn’t say a thing about my bad attitude, the (not all that clever) parody, or even the fact that we messed up most of our music cues: “Look, that bit where you were surfing was some of the best physicality you’ve displayed all year. [Ed. note: Yes, she actually complimented the surfing part.] But don’t you see that, by the time you were finished, no one could even remember the other pieces?”

This was not intended as a compliment. Her point was that, by putting on an overly long, ridiculous extravaganza of jokes and posturing right after a series of short, thoughtful movement pieces, I’d flushed everyone’s lingering aesthetic impressions down the toilet. If a tree falls in the forest and you follow it up with a fart joke, did the tree even make a sound?

This lesson stuck with me. It made me extraordinarily conscious of the aesthetic “aftertaste,” that layering of impressions and sensations that stay with you after experiencing a work of art. I still remember the solo walk I took after watching Memento for the first time. That movie shunted me into a different headspace altogether. I’m grateful to this day that I had the opportunity to walk home along the Hudson River afterward and really bask in it. Grateful that a little message didn’t pop up over the end credits telling me that my queued episode of Real Housewives of Potomac would start playing in ten seconds.

If you experience a masterpiece of film and immediately switch over to some loud pop garbage on Netflix, you’re essentially killing off all those beautiful little neurological buds forming in your brain. Twenty years ago, you’d have the walk home from the concert hall, theater, or cineplex to let those impressions settle in. Today, we watch and listen to our masterpieces and our loud pop garbage on the same devices, one right after the other. If you’ve never deliberately created the space to digest a work of art before, it’s possible you’ve never really fully appreciated that piece. You may not even realize what you’ve been missing.

I learned a lot in college, but this lesson stands above the others. When I read or watch or hear something special, or even experience a truly special conversation, I do my best to give it space and let it linger in my mind. I get quiet and let the work and all its associations filter through me. I let the work breathe.

Then, and only then, do I switch over to some loud pop garbage.

the light that burns twice as bright

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the one thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

I’m about halfway through re-reading this. I’d forgotten how British it is. I’d remembered it dimly as straightforward Arthurian legend—Disney adapted The Sword in the Stone from the first part of it—but it’s actually more anachronism than chronism. Funny, fierce, odd, tragic.

Three-quarters of the quirky contemporary references must have gone completely over my head when I first read it at eleven or twelve. At the time, I just blasted through paragraphs of stuff I didn’t understand to get to the action. My son does the same thing now when he reads. It’s amazing how easily kids are able to extract story from all the messy and confusing bits surrounding it. Today, I’m getting maybe half of White’s embellishments on Le Morte D’Arthur—I’m not caught up on 1950s English cricketers or politicians, for example.

Anyway, I share the quote because I find it reassuring. I just turned forty and it’s coloring my thinking. While my ability to work with words relies on a set of practiced skills I consciously employ, the larger part of what I do each day feels subconcious, cognitive, instinctive. The Muse. The thing that’s either there or it ain’t and there’s nothing I can do but show up and hope.

Nowadays my Muse is vocal and reliable. A steady writing habit helps. Over time, of course, the old engine will sputter and grind to a halt. I may not outlast that part of me altogether, but I have to accept that my powers of invention will fade with my overall cognitive capacity. As Merlyn points out above, however, even as my natural spark ebbs away over the decades, I should, barring unforeseen medical conditions, continue to be able to learn even after my talent goes. It helps, knowing that. It’s always been more about the reading than the writing for me.

How long will I still be able to work at a level I can accept? It puts me in mind of the proverbial judo sensei whose muscles have atrophied with age but whose mastery of technique allows her to throw people half as old and twice as large. You get more efficient with experience. I can only hope that the effort I invest in technique offsets the loss—gradual, but already apparent—of short-term memory and other concrete cognitive strengths.

Every time I have to spend an extra moment searching for a unique way to convey something, I can’t help but, you know, um…

We recently watched Come Inside My Mind, the new HBO documentary about the life and career of Robin Williams. Truthfully, I never enjoyed Williams’s standup. Watching him in that context made me nervous, like watching a high-wire act in a second-rate carnival where you aren’t completely sure things won’t end in tragedy. Clearly, he felt compelled to stay on the edge, wandering away on wild riffs and then, with amazing frequency—but not always—landing. He always felt the need to test his spark, to make sure the fire was still burning. Though Williams trained at Julliard and possessed technique in spades, he didn’t want to rely on it.

One moment from the documentary sticks with me: In 2001, a subdued Williams appears on Inside the Actors Studio. This is well into Williams’s later period, the decline that began in 1998 with movies like Patch Adams and What Dreams May Come, right after his last clear artistic triumph in Good Will Hunting.

On stage, host James Lipton essentially challenges him, wondering out loud whether he’s still able to work his improvisatory magic at will. Visibly gathering himself, Williams lurches into an extended riff in the grand old style. It’s forced, but still remarkably sharp. You can see the pleasure in his face when he sticks the landing and the audience applauds.

That the magic hours are limited, that one’s talent burns for only so long in life: this is what makes all vital artistic output so precious. All the more reason to get your butt in the chair and prepare to gather what arrives regularly. What comes today won’t wait until tomorrow.