staying power

I was delighted to see that Marc Maron finally interviewed Jerry Seinfeld for his podcast. Like the other exemplars I regularly feature—Philip Glass, David Lynch, David Bowie, etc.—Seinfeld is a consummate producer. Disciplined, rigorous, relentless, I think he’d do what he does regardless of the money or acclaim. Rich as Croesus, he still schleps around the country doing stand-up, working different rooms in nowhere towns just to put together an hour of comedy. Whether you like his work or not (Maron doesn’t), Seinfeld’s work ethic is famous enough to inspire its own mythology. It inspires me, too. Listening to the episode, I was surprised to learn that Jerry’s own inspiration came from George Burns. 

When Seinfeld was just starting out, he observed talented comics struggling to stay in the game after their initial success. They’d kill in their first appearance on The Tonight Show and then underdeliver a subsequent appearance and lose the opportunity to return. In his view, they failed to accept that new material is hard. Doesn’t matter if you’re famous. Doesn’t matter if you’re rich. Like Janet Jackson, the audience wants to know: What have you done for me lately? You have to put in the work in to create new work—and new work is always more work than you think.

Experts who become authors do this too. Typically, the first book represents years, even decades, of professional training, career experience, study, thought, and experiment. In their eagerness to impress the reader, they pack their book with their most original and compelling insights. They put all their cards on the table.

If book one succeeds, they’re rewarded with an even bigger deal for the follow-up. But now they have to develop and execute a new book that somehow matches the accomplishment of the first one in a fraction of the time. Worse, what time they do have is eaten up by the fruits of their success: speaking opportunities, networking, and sheer, simple luxury.

Who can blame successful authors for enjoying themselves? A bare handful of books really take off. If lightning strikes for you, are you really going to turn your back on fame? Go back into a quiet room and spend another year grinding away in solitude? Of course not. Yet that new deadline approaches. So something gets hacked together of the appropriate word length. Maybe it’s not all that original. Maybe it’s not even particularly interesting. But it sort of kind of feels like the first book, and for your devoted fans, that’ll have to do. But of course it won’t compare and of course it will underperform. By the time book three underdelivers more severely and even your devoted fans start complaining on Amazon, your editor isn’t taking your calls anymore. (I always took my authors’ calls, but I was in the minority.)

It’s all perfectly understandable when that happens. But that doesn’t stop authors from being totally surprised when it does. Regardless, I’m always most fascinated by creators of any kind who keep making work not through failure but through success.

At a time when his peers were spending the bulk of their free time “bullshitting with other comics,” Jerry realized he needed a better system if he was going to stick around for the long haul. That’s when a friend gave him a copy of Burns’s 1976 memoir, Living It Up. When it comes to staying power, nobody has a leg up on Burns, who was cranking out Oh, God! movies well into his eighties. For Seinfeld, the book was a revelation. In it, Burns talks about his start in vaudeville and his struggles to succeed in show business. Like Seinfeld, Burns realized he needed to approach his creative work like a job. So he came up with a system:

Seinfeld: He sat and worked every day for at least two hours.

Maron: On jokes. 

S: On jokes. Which I had never heard of, or done.

M: And you didn’t know anybody who was doing that.

S: Didn’t know anybody that did that.

M: But everybody had a notebook, no?

S: Yeah, they had notebooks. But nobody sat down and said, “I want to do something on dogs.”

Jerry realized that it wasn’t enough to write down funny ideas. He needed to systematically work out his new material, day after day. He had to produce new work methodically, with no ego attached, if he was going to generate enough to keep his act fresh. Like any other comic, he’d start with an idea, but, unlike his peers, he didn’t stop there. In his mind, if you had an idea worth using in front of an audience, it was worth the effort of sustained development:

Let’s really explore this on a piece of paper. And then explore it on stage. Let’s do both. Everybody was just kind of doing it on stage. And I think, to this day, most people do. They just catch hold of an idea, they take it on stage, and that works for a lot of people…It wasn’t enough for me.

Clearly, that discipline paid off for Seinfeld. He was one of the only comics to appear regularly on both Late Night with David Letterman and The Tonight Show. When it came time to write scripts for Seinfeld, the blank page held no terror for him. He’d trained himself well, not only to work but to work things out.

If you’re brimming with good ideas, I’m happy for you. But a good idea isn’t enough. Go further. Explore it on a piece of paper. Work it out. Explore its ramifications. Be systematic. Develop that idea to its fullest. Two hours. More. Then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. That idea will lead to others. Your ideas will start to connect. As days become weeks and weeks become months, you’ll develop a cohesive body of work from what had been a scattering of insights. And when that work culminates in a book of profound value to readers, you’ll already be driving forward toward the next one.

easy like saturday morning

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

Do you ever go through one of those intensely busy, even grueling, periods of life, the kind of period that might easily be summed up in an upbeat montage? Except it’s your life, not an 80s movie, so you actually have to do all the work instead of chopping together the best parts to the brisk beat of a New Wave pop hit?

Whether you’re a boxer training for a big match, a misfit making the best of detention, or an oil rig worker learning to be an astronaut to drill a hole in an asteroid to save the Earth (as opposed to an astronaut learning how to operate a drill, which might have been easier), nothing beats a good montage when it comes to showing the work while skipping the boring parts.

Writing has its pleasures. Like finishing! Most of the rest is hard and boring. And right now, it’s not just the writing I have to get through. We’re in the process of moving (NYC → NJ) and between that, buying our first car, and tackling all my client projects, I can’t help but hope for an off-screen song to speed me through a montage. My kingdom for a shortcut. 

I’ve tried playing ”Maniac” from Flashdance, “You Make My Dreams (Come True),” by Hall and Oates, even “Danger Zone” from Top Gun, yet the passage of time remains stubbornly fixed to its course.

The problem isn’t the absence of shortcuts. The problem is that we seek them anyway.

I first learned about yak-shaving more than a decade ago on Seth Godin’s blog:

Yak Shaving is the last step of a series of steps that occurs when you find something you need to do. 

“I want to wax the car today.”

“Oops, the hose is still broken from the winter. I’ll need to buy a new one at Home Depot.”

“But Home Depot is on the other side of the Tappan Zee bridge and getting there without my EZPass is miserable because of the tolls.”

“But, wait! I could borrow my neighbor’s EZPass…”

In other words, yak-shaving is finding yourself doing the thing before the thing before the thing, some odd, fiddly task with no obvious connection to the important and time-sensitive mission of the day. Sometimes that recursive journey is necessary, but more often yak-shaving is a form of procrastination. The idea of beginning in less-than-ideal circumstances just plain frightens us. 

The way to avoid finding yourself elbow-deep in yak hair is, of course, to compromise. To do what you can with the tools you’ve got. Understanding that hasn’t kept me from shaving a hell of a lot of yaks in my time, however.

You know what has helped, though? Multiplying my workload by an order of magnitude while simultaneously carving away huge chunks of time for family and household obligations. Pushed to my limit, the only way through has been to get really, really efficient with my writing. Line-‘em-up, knock-‘em-down efficient. At this point, I can’t even pretend I have time to borrow my neighbor’s EZ Pass. I wax the car with an old shirt and move on with my life. It’s my only option. Day after day, session after session, I sit and write, and if it comes out ugly, I rewrite. Alfréd Rényi defined a mathematician as “a device for turning coffee into theorems.” I’ve become a device for turning Ice Breakers into book proposals. 

Stop searching for shortcuts. It’s the difference between putting down a layer of fresh asphalt in a paver at a glacial pace and driving down the old highway as it is, in your usual car, potholes be damned. To make progress, stop trying to make things easier for yourself and settle in for a bumpy ride. Bumpy rides are the only kind of ride worth taking. If it’s easy, anybody can do it—where’s the value in that? If you don’t want to shave a yak, put down the razor and pick up the pencil.

p.s. My pal Mo Bunnell (The Snowball System) recently launched an excellent new podcast. His latest episode features none other than James Clear (Atomic Habits). Their conversation is well worth a listen (or a watch) for any expert looking to build an audience. Check it out.

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.